The Art and Magic of Synthesizers, I seek the Grail

The Art and Magic of Synthesizers, I seek the Grail

I have had a long time interest in synthesizers, have owned a couple, but am now interested in really digesting and incorporating them into composing and songwriting using the Virtual Instrument path. I guess I had a basic knowledge about signal path in a synth - just enough to get by with - so I want to know more and dig deeper. I’d like to really understand the inner workings. I have already dug in reading up a bit, but figured I’d put this out there if anybody has anything they want to chime in with or dialog about.

May the synth be with you.

1 Like

Goals for 2019?

I did find another thread, but it’s pretty old and long, so I started the new one. Here’s part of the old one:

This is kind of what I’m going for I think, a bit of the mechanics and also how to get particular sounds like horns or strings, organs, or really weird stuff too. Basically, how to know and use synths and employ them for sound design purposes.



Synthesisers are a deep black hole. I think you can spend a lifetime adjusting the controls of even a basic synth. Nowadays we have 4 oscillators, samplers, effects and modulations built into a sing synth. From time to time I open Alchemy in Logic Pro - which is a basic synth in comparison to others and I can happily sit there for hours just making minor adjustments to a sound. I tip my hat to those people who have rooms full of analogue vintage gear and create wonderful sounds with them.

1 Like


Yes! Ditto that. Just skimming through the presets is all I can manage on Omnisphere. It’s a great synth and can do so much more but time is precious and I’m too easily distracted by cute toys and clever ideas that don’t get any songs written. :grimacing:

1 Like


If you’re looking for extreme rabbit hole’ing… check out Softube Modular. I’ve always been kinda fascinated by modular synths and this not only scratched that itch, it pulverized it. They’re continually releasing new modules for it as well, which of course just makes that rabbit hole deeper :smiley:

1 Like


Yes, I know what you mean. And I hope that by de-mystifying them a little bit perhaps I can be more direct with dialing something in when the occasion calls for it.

I have been intrigued, too, by seeing lots of photos on the web of pro’s and hobbyists with those roomfuls of analog vintage gear. Back in the day, early days of MIDI that is, it kind of made sense to see stacks of synths routed together. They could do incredible things by chaining MIDI devices together, and were exploring that to the fullest. I guess that hasn’t changed a lot really, and the “hands on” aspect plus being able to take and post awesome photos of that room must be irresistible. I think I’ll be quite happy with software synths though. The amount of room those things take up, trying to keep the dust off on a regular basis, and the electric bill may be compelling aversions as well.



Yeah, I got IK’s Syntronik and spent a day or two flipping through the options. Great fun. Now the learning curve. :roll_eyes: I felt like I was missing out on a musical element, and hope to stay focused on making usable tracks for composing. :sweat:



I used to be a synth kid in the early 80’s - loved everything about them. But somewhere along the way became a rock head and synths were forgotten. When Apple bundled Alchemy into Logic Pro, my old love came right back. The synth is beautiful and really usable by mere mortals. My friend then gifted me a copy of UVI Synth workstations, and that love turned into terror! The thing is an animal, 9GB or presets, and controls I have no sane idea what to do with!

They updated it recently and are promoting their Falcon synth, with some sample sounds thrown in for demo purposes. One of the samples is called The Dark Knight, and it pressing a single key on my keyboard results in an entire Hans Zimmer soundtrack playing out of my monitors! For somebody who plays 6 strings connected to a few pedals, hearing an orchestra is both awe inspiring and terrifying!



Thanks! It looks like they have a 20-day free demo. I got IK"s Syntronik so I already have my hands full I think, but the synth bug opened up a wide curiosity so I will probably expand once I have that one down.



Yeah, seeing all the controls reminded me I don’t have a great grasp on how these things function. So many options! It’s like Raiders of the Lost Ark where there’s these gleaming treasures at the back of the cave, but 10,000 snakes guarding the entrance! :exploding_head: Playing guitar seems like a picnic compared to this.



Add me to the list. When I use synthesizers, I just have to go off of presets. I think the problem is that I have too many synths and have never sat down long enough with just one of them to learn how to use it correctly. I get the underlying principle that is common with pretty much all synths, but when I’m staring at 100 knobs and I don’t know exactly what each one of them does, it becomes impossible to do anything.

“oh, this knob adjusts the attack. Let me change that… Oh, nope, it’s not adjusting the attack because I have another switch flipped over here that turns that knob into a low pass filter.”

1 Like


It’s certainly frustrating … especially after watching video after video with somebody back in the 60’s or 70’s standing at an intimidating rack/wall of switches/knobs/jacks/patch-cables playing something, then they reach to this one particular knob and confidently tweak it - making this mind-blowing cool sound. Ahhhh! How do I figure out how to do THAT? :thinking:

1 Like


Your topic, @Stan_Halen, is spot on- the art and magic of synths. I suppose there are virtuoso pianists who became more broadly keyboardists who at each level of synth technology created incredible music and new, wild sounds, some pioneering but many following their work.

Some were engineers and scientists who developed the hardware and software played by the musicians, sometimes the songwriters, and the arrangers, but altogether they produced art, and the magic of this new instrumental platform, out of whatever they had at the time. In the beginning it was a church organ, then an electric piano and a moog, a single note lead soundwave with portamento. Then the mellotron, a veritable string section in a box. And then the polyphonic multitimbral synths appeared, each with different approaches to create cool sounds. And yes, they had a lot of dials and sliders. Many would be set ahead and just played, some would be fiddled with in the playing, and the result would be a more complex sound.

I began with a computer, an Amiga 1000, a cheap Yamaha synth and Deluxe Music. With it I could program sheet music I wrote (mouse-clicked notes on bars) and could play the keyboard’s sounds via midi and also the Amiga’s 8-bit generated music. Although it was lo-fi, I remember how exciting it was to play Smoke on the Water power chords on my computer keyboard. I was able to play at least 4 different instruments at once, and I think only 4 or 6 notes at the same time, but this was already doing what few synths at that time could.

Alas, I had a Tascam and a Radio Shack 4 channel mixer to record with, and hiss was a terribly disappointing problem. We were trying back then to be desktop studios, but it was not so great on a budget.

But that early methodology employed the rudiments of layering sounds, and I think that is the bedrock of synth technique to this day. No matter how amazing the synths are that you have, the range of sounds become infinite when you layer them.

My first Windows 98 PC for music used Creative Labs Sound Blaster which came with Cubasis, the light version of Cubase which used soundfonts. This left my Amiga behind in the dust. Even the Steinberg Orchestra and Quartet soundfonts that came with it were amazing for orchestra sounds, a guitar, bass and drums, and then there were many freeware soundfonts, not to mention purchasable ones. The light was limited to 16 tracks, but honestly to this day I rarely exceed that.

But the available sounds were getting pretty amazing already, and pads were the first layered sounds with beginnings, middles and ends that evolved, much the same as big name hardware synths. The selection was not extensive, but what you did to take it much further was by layering them. You make your own pad with three or four tracks, and thereby one could have those cool swells tails and evolutions. I quickly began to treat one “instrument” track as a combination of several tracks all mostly playing in lockstep. I just read Pat Talbot saying recently here that even with Omnisphere he often layers more than one trumpet or piano or whatever instrument to achieve the richer sound he is looking for, and I currently find myself layering on almost ever new song.

What I do is create 8 to 16 note bars and copy them as needed for the basic song idea, and then I duplicate on other tracks with other instruments, and then I listen to them altogether or in any sets of them. I often try panning them as well. Recently I have tried automation to create cross pans of sounds, and you can see how that’s going. What you end up with can be a very complex synth sound, and at minimum a richer sound. Now often you do want that pure unadorned preset synth sound, but now it’s optional.

So what I’m saying, Stan, you can nowadays with Reaper really go to town with any synths all combined together into new custom sounds. Sometimes they are totally unexpected, sometimes layering sweetly and many times not so much, but you usually won’t know until you tried.

I think I usually have it in my head to sound like something I like, like Floyd, and trying for a synth sound that is similar, and usually I end up with something that sounds completely different, but there are many cases where that thrives and goes its own way, Floyd having to wait for a time.

For me, not a pianist but a sequencer, I see three groups of synth-

1- Humanlike piano playing

2- Possibly Computer Played melody chords

3- Ambient

They overlap, of course, but the first is written as if to be played by a human on a piano or keyboard. The second is more like a lead, arpeggios and chords, conveying character of whatever you can imagine, but not always trying to sound like it’s being played. Baba O’Reilly is a quick example of what I mean. The third is tones and beeps and buzzes, sound effects, rhythmic and percussive sounds.

So there is one goal of synths to sound indistinguishable from real instrument counterparts, but the other is to sound unlike real instruments, and that is the most fun aspect of synths. You can sit down at a Steinway and be awed, but when you play a synth it is magical.

It is cool to tweak a single synth sound, and there are times you will do that, and either you learn how to save presets if you can or just write it down so you can know what you did. I still don’t know how to do pitch and modulation in midi, it probably is easy, in Reaper, but that just opens up a whole new can of synth worms!

1 Like

1 Like


That’s a great point. I don’t know how much the innovators were layering, but we certainly saw multiple keyboards on stage and being played together even in the early days. I was revisiting Emerson, Lake & Palmer last night, and marveling at how cool the synths sounded. It really took me back to a time when I was just a fledgling drummer, but my ears could so much appreciate that musical expression. Some of the things I really liked in 70’s Rock synths sounded quite monophonic in terms of just one note being modulated, but the sounds were amazing and otherworldly at times.

Ha, yes I can see that I started this thread 2 months ago … the synths are waiting! :musical_keyboard: