Synthesizers can be awesome, powerful instruments in the right hands. On the contrary, they can be a stale ornament to any studio if they are not understood fully. Thus, we created this blog post to help you better understand what synthesizer patches are, where they come from, and what you need them for.
What is a synthesizer patch? “Synthesizer patch” is a term from Moog modular synths, where patch cables were required to connect modules to achieve sounds. Today, “synth patch” refers to a combination of oscillators, filters, envelopes, and effects pre-programmed to the synth memory to recall and produce specific sound(s).
In this article, we'll discuss the historical meaning of the term “synthesizer patch” and what the term means today.
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Modular synthesis was introduced in the mid-1960s and has been a popular design ever since.
With modular synthesis, we can patch signals (audio or control) from one module to another using patch cables. These cables carry electricity between the various modules to produce the audio output of the synth.
Although we can't see patching cables within “non-modular” synths, there is a sequence of filters, envelopes, and such working under the hood in any synthesizer, interconnected by cables. The difference is that these hardwired devices (modules) within the signal chain aren't patchable, meaning we can't easily unplug and re-plug them.
Related article: Are Hardware Synthesizers Worth The Cost?
As time goes by and the music becomes more demanding for new sounds, modular synthesis continues to grow. This is to say that you can add as many modules after an oscillator as you need. Thus, you can modify the original signal and transform it into anything you want.
Eurorack has become the industry-leading format for modular synthesis, though 5U/MU “Moog Unit” is also popular.
Once all the modules are patched and a modular synth is producing a sound, we can consider that specific setup (with all patching connections and settings) a “synth patch.”
Let's take a look at old synth patches and new synth patches.
Patching Modular Synths
As you might know, audio signals mimic sound waves as electricity. These electrical audio signals can travel through cables.
In the realm of modular synths, these cables are in charge of taking the audio (and other control voltages) from one module to the next and finally to the output. They can be thought of as the bridges that connect the individual modules.
One of the advantages of old-school patching for modular synths is that you can create completely unique sounds (unique “patches”). This is because just like the settings on each module modify the original sound source (ideally an oscillator), the order in which you patch each module generates a different result.
Finally, when they've achieved a sound they like, most users take snapshots of the “patch” to remember all controls and the order.
If you have never seen it in action, take a look at this video in which this technique is explained and demonstrated.
To learn more about patch cables and patching synths, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• How Do Patch Cables Carry Audio? (Guitar, Bass, Synth, Etc.)
• Are Modular Synthesis & Synth Design Difficult To Learn?
• Can You Play A Synthesizer Or Keyboard Through A Guitar Amp?
New Definition Of Synth Patches
That snapshot we spoke about above is the exact definition of a modern patch. In other words, to talk about a patch is to talk about a snapshot of a preset sound stored in your synthesizer.
For analog synthesizers, this is what the synth sounds like out of the box. Hence, companies often work diligently in crafting and polishing each preset as they are the presentation card for whoever tries it.
These patches can sometimes be altered and saved, and others can be erased and done again from scratch. Likewise, most of these analog synths have knobs, faders, and buttons to modify the sound on the fly while playing.
The word “patch” expands to include many more options when it comes to software and digital synths. This is because, on these platforms, it is possible to download and share patches made by famous artists and regular end-users.
Furthermore, many brands moderate forums in which users can exchange patches. This way, you can digitally upload the patch to your digital or software synth, and it will play the exact same sound time and again tirelessly. Moreover, the patch you are enjoying could have been created anywhere in the world, from a multimillion-dollar studio to a small bedroom setup.
Related article: Why Are Synthesizers Called Synthesizers?
Examples Of Iconic Synth Patches
Some patches can take us instantly to a song or a melody. This is not because they sound similar but because they are the exact same sounds. Let's take a look at some iconic patches in the history of music.
Sequential Circuits Prophet P5 “Sync”
Before this model was released in 1977, patches were a rare occurrence in the world of synthesizers. Thanks to this patching and its polyphonic capability (having 5 voices), the Prophet was a sales hit. Speaking of which, this hit song by The Cars is heavily influenced by this preset.
Though the original has been discontinued, there is a modern version of the Sequential Prophet-5 available today.
Yamaha DX7 “E. Piano 1”
Though it is one of the best-selling synths of all time, the combination of small letters and a tiny display made the DX7 a very difficult synth to program. Thus, most enthusiasts played it with the presets that became just as famous as the synth itself. Such is the case of this Whitney Houston song, to which the glassy, sterile sound of the DX7 is vital.
Yamaha TX81Z “LateBass”
Not so appreciated back in the time of its release, this synth found its way through the mainstream in the spine of Italo disco hits. The combination of the thick, low-end that could keep an entire dancefloor pumping and the round edges in the sound made it epic; a great example is Madonna's Vogue.
What Is The Art Of Sound Design?
The art of sound design is about the talent of combining settings to create a great sound many people can use. If we were to make a comparison, it could be similar to photography filters. Instead of moving settings to achieve a certain effect, you can use the preset and dial them automatically.
Pre-programmed patches in synthesizers and the ever-growing libraries available online full of thoughtful, usable, great-sounding patches (also known as presets) were designed by humans. Those humans are artists, dedicating their talent to dialling in all variables to create epic sounds.
Related article: Are Modular Synthesis & Synth Design Difficult To Learn?
Patches can be thought of as shortcuts to achieving a particular sound. A synth patch/preset isn't always 100% accurate to what we hear in our heads. Thus, we tweak it to perfection. That is very different from starting from scratch to create a sound, which used to be the case back in the days of modular synths.
Creating patches of your own, learning how to tweak the ones that came with the synth, or using them as-is can transform your music. Indeed, investigating new sounds can be vital to reaching a new musical plateau for your ideas.
So, experiment, tweak, save, and share with the community that amazing new sound that can inspire the music of the next generation.
When buying a synthesizer, it can be challenging to choose the most ideal option within your budget. For this reason, I've created My New Microphone's Comprehensive Synthesizer Buyer's Guide. Check it out for help choosing the best synth for your applications.
Building your Eurorack system can be overwhelming. For this reason, I've created My New Microphone's Comprehensive Eurorack Buyer's Guide. Check it out for help in determining your next Eurorack purchases.