Synthesizers are, perhaps, the most powerful musical instruments available in the world today. Indeed, they can recreate virtually any other sound and create new sounds that wouldn't exist otherwise. Although most of us know what a synthesizer is, few know why they are called that way. So, why do we call synthesizers that way?
Why are synthesizers called synthesizers? The term synthesizer is derived from “sound synthesis,” or the creation of sound utilizing electricity only (no acoustic source). Thus, a synth is an electrophone instrument capable of generating and modifying electrical audio signals, which are then converted into sound waves.
In this article, we'll discuss the naming of synthesizers in more detail, revealing some important information about sound synthesis and synthesizers.
Sound synthesis effectively produces sound through electronic means rather than acoustic means. The introduction of early synthesizers in the late 1950s and 60s marked notable steps in audio and music technology development. A variety of pre and post synthesizer inventions have also left their mark on the history of such technology.
Moreover, sound synthesis can have a plethora of sources giving way to new sounds in revolutionary means. In this sense, technology is moving faster than ever, and with the retro revival, sounds from different decades coexist. Furthermore, it is common to see digital, analog, and virtual technology working together in the studio and on stage.
Related article: Are Synthesizers Considered Musical Instruments?
Let's take a look at some of the synthesizer types available today:
Sound Synthesis Types
Sound Synthesis is responsible for the synthesizer revolution. Just like synthesizers did, sound synthesis also changed and evolved through the years. Let's look at some of the most common types found today.
Subtractive synthesis: oscillators create complex waveforms shaped by filters that either boost or remove frequencies. The results are rich, thick, warm sounds.
Additive synthesis: combining many sine waves (single-frequency waves) to create a composite sound.
Frequency modulation synthesis: also known as FM, it is the quintessential “eighties sound”. In this scheme, complex waveforms are used to shape other complex waveforms. It is possible to imitate, for example, an acoustic piano.
Wavetable synthesis: in this technology, the synthesizer moves between the digital representations of several waveforms.
Sample-based synthesis: the sound is a pre-recorded sample instead of an oscillator creating the sound to be modified with filters.
Vector synthesis: the first commercial unit to introduce this technology was the Prophet VS. In this scheme, the users utilize different sound sources, crossfading them with controllers, which are usually joystick-shaped devices.
Granular synthesis: as the name indicates, an audio sample is reduced to grains and recombined to be played back. Every small piece can be as small as one-hundredth of a second.
Physical modelling synthesis: the sound generates from a mathematical model of a physical sound.
All the synth types mentioned above utilize electricity to produce their audio outputs.
To learn more about synthesizers and electricity, check out my article Can Synthesizers Be Played Without Electricity?
Sound Synthesis History
Sound synthesis wasn't always a common thing for musicians. Furthermore, it wasn't a musician who discovered it.
The discovery of sound synthesis, like many scientific discoveries, was by accident. The year was 1899, and William Du Bois Duddell got a call from the town hall to fix a problem. The city wanted to reduce the buzz generated by the voltaic-arc lamps that were left on at night.
When experimenting with a solution, William found he could modify the audible frequencies emitted by the lamps changing the voltage he applied to the electrodes. The first instrument created with this technology was the “Singing Arc,” in which electric voltage modification moved 1-volt per octave.
Some of the first instruments that shared the same principles as the synthesizer were:
- Trautonium (1930)
- Ondes Martenot (1928)
- Theremin (1928)
After these instruments acquired some momentum (there were entire Theremin and Trautonium orchestras), the first synthesizer saw the light. It was in 1957 when the creation of Harry Olson and Herbert Belar, while working for RCA, first got that name. The apparatus could read a punched paper and produce sounds. It required a whopping 750 vacuum tubes.
Moog: The Revolution
Almost a decade later, by the mid-1960s, Robert Moog (of Moog fame) came up with his design. His innovation (still holding strong to this date) was the notion of modular synthesis. In other words, a synthesizer made of modules that could be interconnected to change the sound created by an oscillator. Components such as noise generators, filters, envelopes, and sequencers are still standard for any synthesizer.
To learn more about modular synthesizers, check out my article Are Modular Synthesis & Synth Design Difficult To Learn?
By the 1970s, the MiniMoog (the portable version of the original model) revolutionized music entirely. This was because it was the first synthesizer to come out of the lab and be available to the public.
Moog is featured in top brand articles at My New Microphone. Check out these articles here!
The Digital Revolution
The first successful commercial digital synthesizer was the Yamaha DX7, released in 1983. It was the creation of Stanford engineer John Chowning and remains one of the best-selling synthesizers in history.
Moving away from warm and fuzzy sounds from the 70s, the DX7 (and all the digital synths that followed) heavily influenced the music of its time. You can spot those perfectly clear, glassy sounds coupled with chorus-infused, heavily compressed clean guitar tones in many hits from that era. It was the standard for much of the popular music at the time and also influenced some big rock acts like Genesis, The Cure, and more.
Yamaha is featured in top brand articles at My New Microphone. Check out these articles here!
Software Synths & The Virtual Future
The software revolution wasn't only a phenomenon in the musical instrument industry. As computers became available at a larger scale and much more moderate prices, home studios proliferation went sky-high. This trend, which continues to this day, made it necessary for software to find a way to replicate classic, traditional sounds in reduced spaces.
Thus, instead of having a collection of old synths, you could have a virtual collection occupying zero space and sounding somewhat similar. This way, in 1997, ReBirth and Propellerhead, among others, began the software-synth revolution. For example, released in the year 2000, Propellerhead's Reason became the go-to virtual instrument collection for producers.
The Retro Revival
Parallel to what was going on in the early 2000s in the digital and software areas, analog, and vintage synthesizers began to get more recognition. Although it might be a mere coincidence, at the same time, bands like The Strokes, The White Stripes, and The Arctic Monkeys were leading a new wave of retro rock.
Software synths couldn't provide the organic touch analog synths are capable of.
The Rise Of Eurorack Modular
Eurorack was originally developed by Doepfer Musikelektronik in 1996 and has gained steady popularity, becoming the dominant hardware modular synthesizer format in 2018.
This modular synth format allows users to create their own synthesizers will a wide variety of modules from a large number of manufacturers. With so many awesome designs being implemented, the sky truly is the limit with Eurorack modular.
• Top 11 Best Eurorack Module Synth Brands In The World
• Top 11 Best Eurorack Drum/Percussion Modules On The Market
• Top 11 Best Eurorack Sequencer Modules On The Market
• Top 11 Best Eurorack Envelope Generator Modules
• Top 11 Best Eurorack Oscillator Modules On The Market
• Top 11 Best Eurorack Effects Modules On The Market
• Top 11 Best Eurorack Cases On The Market
As humankind continues the never-ending path of music, new technologies and instruments will coexist with older sounds. This interesting juxtaposition is becoming richer as synthesizers get more complex and are capable of producing a growing number of sounds.
It's been a long way to this amazing moment we are at today; what the future brings can only be in our imagination. One thing is certain, though, synthetic sounds of some kind will very likely fuel tomorrow's music.
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.
Choosing the perfect virtual instruments for your projects and compositions can be difficult. For this reason, I've created My New Microphone's Comprehensive Virtual Instrument Buyer's Guide. Check it out for help picking your next favourite virtual instrument.
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.