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Associated with the electronic music movement, a synthesizer is an electronic instrument, sometimes accessed through a keyboard, that creates and combines waveforms used stored acoustic instrumental samples, called wavetable synthesis, or electronically, using FM synthesis.
Nowadays, a distinction is sometimes drawn between early developments in electronic instruments that, while they bore the name synthesizer, did not produce sound in real time and synthesizers that do work in real time. The term composition machines has been proposed to cover early products such as the RCA Electronic Music Synthesizer® and the Siemens Synthesizer®, both produced in the 1950's.
After precursors in the late 1940's designed by Harald Bode and Hugh Le Caine, among others, sound-generating devices with remote operation by means of voltage control were developed. Commercial synthesizers appeared in 1964, which saw the introduction of Donald Buchla’s synthesizer called “Buchla®,” which he worked on with composer Morton Subotnick, Robert A. Moog’s modular synthesizer on which he collaborated with composer Herbert Deutsch, and Paolo Ketoff’s Synket. Buchla has chosen not to use the term synthesizer for his instruments.
Digital synthesis, which allowed programming of patches in the synthesizer’s software, rather than sound creation through filters or circuitry, entered the scene in 1971. Polyphonic synthesizers were introduced in the mid-1970's. And by the 1980's, offerings included additional timbres on storage media.
The Musical Instrument Digital Interface standard, abbreviated as MIDI, was introduced in 1983, and created a better replacement for voltage control. In that same year, Yamaha incorporated MIDI to create a digital synthesizer that included it, the DX7. Following the development of microcomputers in the mid-1980s that could link to MIDI synthesizers, the possibilities for timbre programming substantially increased.
Once digital recording of external sounds, called “sampling,” was both available and affordable, by the mid 1980s, it became the main generator of timbres for all electronic instruments. Timbre choices expanded to include non-musical sounds, as well as world instruments, animals, and other noises are available.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is a synthesizer and how does it work?
A synthesizer is an electronic musical instrument that generates audio signals which can be converted to sound. It works by manipulating various properties of sound waves, such as frequency, amplitude, and waveform, to produce different tones and textures. Synthesizers can mimic traditional instruments, create unique sounds, or blend multiple waveforms together, offering a vast array of sonic possibilities for musicians and producers.
What are the different types of synthesizers available?
There are several types of synthesizers, including analog, digital, modular, and software synthesizers. Analog synthesizers use analog circuits and voltage to generate sounds, while digital synthesizers use digital signal processing (DSP) to create and manipulate sounds. Modular synthesizers consist of separate, interchangeable components, allowing for extensive customization. Software synthesizers are programs that emulate hardware synthesizers on a computer or mobile device.
Can synthesizers replicate the sounds of real instruments?
Yes, synthesizers can replicate the sounds of real instruments, a capability often referred to as "synthesis." Through various synthesis methods like subtractive, additive, FM (frequency modulation), and physical modeling, synthesizers can emulate the timbre and expression of acoustic instruments. However, the complexity and uniqueness of some instruments' sounds might not be perfectly duplicated, leading to a synthesized version that is reminiscent but not identical to the original sound.
How have synthesizers impacted the music industry?
Synthesizers have had a profound impact on the music industry, revolutionizing genres like pop, rock, electronic, and hip-hop. They have enabled artists to explore new sonic territories and create innovative sounds that were previously impossible. Synthesizers have also democratized music production, allowing individuals to produce complex arrangements without the need for a full orchestra or band. Their influence is evident in the vast number of hit songs and iconic soundtracks that feature synthesized sounds.
What should I consider when choosing a synthesizer?
When choosing a synthesizer, consider factors such as the type of synthesis it offers (analog, digital, modular, etc.), the range of sounds it can produce, the interface and ease of use, the availability of presets, the quality of the keyboard (if applicable), connectivity options for other equipment, and your budget. It's also important to think about whether you want a portable unit or a studio-centric model. Your choice should align with your musical needs and the specific characteristics you're looking for in a synthesizer.