Synthesizers come in many different shapes, types and sizes. Analog and digital, polyphonic and monophonic - not to mention design! Below you can read an overview of the factors you should look for when buying a new - or your first - synthesizer. We'll also answer questions like "How does a synthesizer work" "What is an oscillator" "Is analog or digital synth best" and many more! Well-known brands include: Roland, Korg, Moog, Sequential, Arturia and Nord.

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Which synthesizer should I choose?

Before you can decide which synthesizer is right for you, it's important to consider what you'll be using it for. Will it be used live, in the studio, for songwriting, teaching or something else entirely? Often the same instrument is used in multiple places, so it's important to keep your tongue firmly in your cheek when looking at features - so you find the synthesizer that meets your needs.


An important place to start is looking at how many notes you want to play at once. This is especially important with analog synthesizers, which can often only produce one note at a time - like a trumpet. This makes them ideal for solo instruments or for playing bass lines. Synth bass is prevalent in much of the music we hear on the radio and since bass is often monophonic (one note at a time), analog synths are great for this purpose. Of course, if you're working in the studio, you can record the synth multiple times to create chords, but this is a slightly more laborious process. Of course, it's also possible to get polyphonic analog synthesizers. These are often more expensive high-end instruments, as there must be a synthesizer for each voice built into the machine. However, in the last couple of years, there have been some cheaper versions of analog polyphonic synthesizers - check out Korg Minilogue for example.

If it's important to you to have great polyphony with many voices, a digital synthesizer is the obvious choice. Here the sound is generated by a chip instead of a circuit and therefore digital machines always have great polyphony. A classic is the Nord Lead models or a MicroKorg at the lower end of the price spectrum.

Which keys should I choose?

If you want to play the synth as a keyboard (as opposed to sending MIDI to it via a computer or midi keyboard), it's important to find a model that has keys that suit your playing style. If you want to play with 2 hands and play both bass and lead at the same time, you'll need a synth with more keys - large models often have 49 keys, which equates to 4 octaves. Smaller synths often have two or three octaves, which can be enough to play lead melodies and bass.

There is also a difference in which keys the instrument has. Most synthesizers have keys with so-called synth action, which means they are lightweight, return quickly to the starting point and are great for fast and rhythmic playing. Some models come with mini keys, which some musicians love and others don't like at all - so this is also important to be aware of!

Is analog or digital synthesizer best?

Ever since digital synthesizers became available in the early 1980s, musicians have been debating which is best. We're not going to give an answer here - because the truth is, there's probably no general answer. But analog and digital synthesizers each have some pros and cons that make them good for different things. So what we'll do here is try to describe the differences so you can choose what works best for you. It also doesn't help that the differences are becoming more and more blurred as digital machines get better and there are also hydride machines where the analog part is controlled digitally, for example.

What is an analog synthesizer?

The basic difference is that an analog synthesizer generates sound with an analog circuit - without going into much technical detail! For the first several years when synthesizers went from an invention to a rarity to an instrument for widespread use in music - especially in the disco music of the 70s - analog circuits were the only option. Signals were generated and modified in analog and if you wanted to do something new with your signal, you had to change the circuitry.


When digital synths hit the market, the possibilities for creating new sounds with one became greater. Digital sounds are represented by a series of numbers, each corresponding to a discrete signal level. When these numbers are converted to an analog signal, the sound that comes out of the speaker is created. Since digital systems can only store and process a limited amount of numbers, they cannot represent all possible signal levels. However, so many numbers can be used that it is impossible for the human ear to hear the difference between a digital signal and the analog signal it mimics.

Sounds in the digital world, on the other hand, can be programmed without having to change the circuitry. This allowed musicians to have a whole new range of sounds that were not previously possible.


Digital also has other advantages over analog: Digital synthesizers are often cheaper to produce and purchase, they always stay in tune where some - especially older - analog synthesizers need to be tuned to stay in tune - and sounds can be reproduced 100% identically time after time. An analog signal will always vary slightly and if the machine doesn't have digital control where you can save presets, it will also require recreating the exact same settings.

What is a digital synthesizer?

A digital synth is basically built in the same way as an analog one, where it is simply a digital chip that creates the sound via samples and measurements of how a given analog synth sounds. Sounds are usually also processed digitally - via digital emulations of filters, amps and effects - before finally being converted with a D/A converter to an analog signal, which the musician can of course still post-process with various effects. effects.

How does a synthesizer work?

Before we shape the sound, we need something to shape. Just like a trumpet or recorder needs air to create sound, a synthesizer also has a source. The "air" blown into a synth comes from a component called an oscillator: a small box that creates a tone.


Typically, an oscillator can create five different tones: sine, square, triangle, triangle, sawtooth and pulse. Each wave has its own characteristics and it's important to learn what each of these sounds like. One way to do this is to identify each of these shapes with an instrument you know. For example, a sine wave sounds a bit like a flute, while a sawtooth wave sounds like a trumpet.

Most of the time, the oscillator section has two or even three oscillators. This allows for doubling and tripling of the tone, creating an even more unique combination of shapes.


A good trick is to set your first oscillator as a sine wave, set your second oscillator fire semitones up from your first, and set your third oscillator three semitones up from your second. This way, the synth will create a major chord, which can then be sent through further processing.

Step 2: LFO

The LFO is a bit like a bass player - you might not notice the bass, but it makes everything groove. The LFO, or Low Frequency Oscillator, is exactly what it sounds like: an oscillator with a frequency so low you can't hear it. So why do you want it? If you know a bit about phase problems, it's kind of the same idea.


When two waves combine to make a sound, they can either amplify a sound or cancel it out. When you play an LFO with your other oscillators, it doesn't change the tone, but instead gives it movement. When the LFO wave hits your oscillator wave, it can amplify the sound or cancel it out completely.


As you increase the speed of the LFO, the number of times it interrupts the sound of the other oscillators increases, creating a vibrato or tremolo effect. A very fun tool to use, this is what gives your sound movement and a rhythmic pattern.

Step 3: The filter (or VCF)

The filter is probably the most audible of the controls on a synthesizer - and one of the most basic. Its function is to filter out unwanted sounds, usually in fire settings: lowpass, highpass, bandpass and 'notch'. The lowpass and highpass filters each have a controlled cutoff frequency: the lowpass allows lower frequencies to pass and therefore gives the effect of a deeper and darker sound, while the highpass filter allows higher frequencies to pass. The bandpass filter only allows frequencies around the cutoff to pass through, while the notch filter removes the frequencies around the cutoff.


Typically, a filter comes with a couple of extra knobs called resonance and envelope. The resonance amplifies the cutoff frequency, which creates a very cool harmonic effect, but proceed with caution - it can quickly get wild! The envelope of a filter is the shape of the cutoff curve, which has fire main parts: attack, decay, sustain and release. More on these below.

Step 4: The amplifier

The amplifier comes at the end of the synthesizer chain and makes sure we actually hear the sound. It takes the signal we've shaped and turns up the volume. Like a guitar amplifier is to a guitar, the amplifier on a synth is essential in shaping the sound. Like most amplifiers, there is usually a gain knob, which moves more power and can lead to distortion. However, the most important part of the amplifier is the envelope.


Just like in our filter section, the envelope is defined by attack, decay, sustain and release. These are the fire fundamental parts of any sound wave, and provide extensive control over how each note played sounds. Here's a quick overview of our ADSR envelope:


Attack: This is the initial sound you hear and is measured in units of time, referring to how quickly the sound starts. The attack length affects the sensitivity of a note. With a fast attack, the peak volume is reached instantly, resulting in a sharper sound. With a slow attack, there is more delay before the played note reaches its peak, giving a soft effect - a bit like a stringed instrument.


Decay: Decay refers to how long a sound goes from peak volume to sustain volume. This can be said to be the shape of its "fade out". A long decay will cause the note to hang after the key is released, while a short decay will cause the note to end very abruptly.


Sustain: The volume level that your decay will drop to. Measured in decibels, this is how loud you want the note to be after playing the original sound.


Release: How long your tone lasts. Also measured in time, here a tone can continue for milliseconds or a very long time.

Step 5: Effects in a synthesizer

Many synthesizers will include some built-in effects - think of it as a pedalboard - which is often the section with the most variables. It's also an area where vintage and modern synths are often very different. While you might find one or two effects on board a vintage synth, your options with a modern variant can be closer to limitless, with many effects built in, so the only limit is your imagination.


Keep in mind that this is a very basic description of some complex ideas and represents the very basics of synthesizers - there will be many machines that deviate a little or a lot from the above. Today's digital revolution has made it possible for musicians and engineers to completely change and rebuild these basic premises, although the fundamental concepts remain intact.


More tools, tricks and parameters mean more avenues for experimentation and ultimately more fun in music production. Once you understand the basics of how these versatile instruments work, you'll be able to find the sounds you want faster and, along the way, stumble upon sounds you didn't even know existed.

Can a digital synthesizer sound as good as an analog one?

Define good. A digital synthesizer can sound terrible or it can sound far more interesting than an analog, depending on the type of sound and character you're after. They both have strengths and weaknesses, and it simply doesn't make sense to compare them without talking about some specific sound characteristics. If you want sounds with real vintage character, naturally unstable tones or some uncontrollable oscillating parameters, analog instruments will have an advantage, while most acoustic instrument renderings will sound bad from an analog synth. Digital synths are also great for more harsh and big sounds that are often heard in modern music. In addition, many digital synths give you access to unconventional parameters, various control options including MIDI, and different subtractive synthesis methods such as FM synthesis, PM, PD, additive, wavetable, granular, etc. - not to mention modeled analog component designs (algorithms), which can be impossible or virtually impossible to build in the analog domain. So get that old digital synthesizer out of the attic in a hurry!

Virtual analog synthesizers

A virtual analog synth is a digital synth designed to emulate analog synthesizers as closely as possible. The individual character of a virtual analog will likely come from different elements of the sound it produces than those of real analog components, and if that's what you're looking for, they can easily sound bigger, fatter, harder, punchier than their analog counterparts. Built-in effects may be available as part of the sound design process in many of the virtual analog synths and can often be controlled in unconventional ways. While virtual analog synths will certainly have their own character, they will let you create sounds with a different character quite easily, as they typically offer a large number of editable parameters, non-traditional combinations of these and very flexible routing. Classic analog synthesizers have their individual character, which is great, but can be somewhat more limiting when trying to create sounds that aren't necessarily typical of a given model.


If you're using a VA (virtual analog) and going for a classic "imperfect" character of a true analog sound - an often highly desirable character - you'll have to mimic this imperfection by randomizing the value of several parameters - it just won't be the same as a circuit. While "analog" warmth can be described with an algorithm and added to a virtual analog sound, a monotonically consistent (sampled) analog character or a digitally pre-programmed change to that character just won't give you the same sonic quality and sense of dynamic, changing warmth and imperfection as an analog musical instrument. These exciting imperfections are due to minor unforeseen voltage changes, the cohesive effect of independent parameters on each other, differences in design and a degree of stability between oscillators, temperature changes, etc.

Ability to save patches

Another factor that is important for your choice is your synthesizer's ability to save your patches or settings. Of course, all digital synths can save patches, but most analog synths often offer this functionality to some degree. For most, it's a clear advantage to be able to save different sounds for quick recall.


In addition to the differences in sound characteristics and features of classic analog synthesizers and digital machines, the two types of instruments often feel completely different as a whole; the materials they're made of, their keyboards' operation and controls... and of course, we all have our individual preferences for numeric displays, hi-res LCD screens with lots of detail - or no displays at all.


The synthesizer is a crazy exciting instrument that can make a very wide range of sounds that can fit into virtually any genre. On this page you'll find a selection of both digital and analog machines. Good luck with your new synthesizer!


Read more about synthesizers on Wikipedia - click here