Synthesizers, Part 1

       Synthesizers are exactly what their moniker describes. Most synthesize sounds from electronic waves (sine, saw-tooth, pulse and triangle) generated by oscillators and use various methods such as additive, subtractive, FM, physical modeling synthesis, phase distortion, or scanned synthesis. The earliest synths widely used by musicians were analogue based and used control voltage instead of midi. Robert Moog is widely known as the “Father of the Synthesizer” and the first use of a synthesizer on a commercial album release was on the “The Monkee’s” fourth album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., and was also the first #1 album to feature a synthesizer.

       Additive synthesis is a technique that strives to recreate a musical timbre, which is what determines the character of an instrument. The timbre of a guitar note, for instance, is comprised of the note struck and many other harmonic notes (multiples of the original frequency) related to it. The harmonic notes are of a lower volume than the struck note and while they are not as easily heard, they contribute to the overall sound of the instrument. Additive synthesis attempts to duplicate the instrument’s sound by adding harmonics to the original note with oscillators tuned to multiples of the original note. White noise may be added to the note as well to emulate distortion.

       Subtractive synthesis involves taking a tone generated by a sawtooth generator, for instance, and subtracting  the higher frequencies approximates a bowed instrument. By combining wave generators, one can approximate just about any sound. The Minimoog is a good example of this type of synthesizer.

       Frequency Modulation, which most people are familiar with in regards to the radio in their cars, is also used to synthesize sounds and involves one oscillator having it’s frequency modulated by another oscillator tuned to a harmonic of the first oscillator. If the second oscillator is tuned to frequencies other than harmonic, bell-like and dissonant sounds can be produced. Yamaha practically cornered the market on this technology with their DX7 synthesizer since they owned the patent on the technology although Casio implemented a phase modulation technique in their  CZ series that closely approximated the FM synth sound.

  Next month, we’ll cover physical modeling, phase distortion and scanned synthesis.

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