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Oberheim OB12 synthesizer front panel

A synthesizer (or synthesiser) is an electronic instrument that is capable of producing a variety of sounds by generating and combining signals of different frequencies. Synthesizers create electrical signals, rather than direct acoustic sounds, which are then played through a loudspeaker or set of headphones.

Synthesizers are typically (but not exclusively) controlled with a piano-style keyboard, leading to the instruments also sometimes being referred to simply as "keyboards". Synthesizers can produce a wide range of sounds, which can either imitate other instruments (such as flutes and guitars) or generate unusual new timbres.

The first electric synthesizer was invented in 1876 by Elisha Gray, who is best known for his development of a telephone prototype.[1][2] Robert Moog created a revolutionary synthesizer which was used by Wendy Carlos's Switched-On Bach (1968) a popular recording which introduced many musicians to the sound of synthesizers. In the 1970s, the development of miniaturized solid-state components allowed synthesizers to become self-contained, portable instruments, which made them easier to use in concerts. By the early 1980s, companies such as Yamaha began selling compact, modestly priced synthesizers such as the DX7, and MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) was developed, which made it easier to integrate and synchronize synthesizers with other electronic instruments. In the 1990s, complex synthesizers no longer required specialist hardware and began to appear as software for the PC, often as hardware emulators with on-screen knobs and panels.



Synthesizers generate sounds through various analog and digital techniques. Early synthesizers were analog hardware based, but almost all modern synthesizers use a combination of DSP software and hardware, or are strictly software based (see softsynth). These digital synthesizers often emulate analog hardware components. A common feature is that the sound is very controllable by the operator, with many parameters which may include:

  • waveform generators (oscillators) - add harmonic frequency components to the sound, modifying the timbre or colour of the sound
  • ADSR envelopes - modify the amplitude (volume) envelope of the produced note
  • LFO - an oscillator with adjustable frequency that can be used to modulate many parameters of the sound. As an example, when applied to volume can create a warbling or tremolo effect, and vibrato when applied to the pitch.
  • Filters - shape the sound generated by the oscillators

Because the sound is so controllable, synthesizers are capable of emulating other instruments with varying degrees of accuracy.

Control interface

Modern synthesizers typically look like piano keyboards with many additional knob and button controls. These are integrated controllers, where the sound synthesis electronics are integrated into the same package as the controller. This has not always been the norm: many early synthesizers were modular, and most modern synthesizers may be controlled by MIDI.

Another common form of synthesizer is as a virtual instrument, and in this case the controller is necessarily separate. Some commercial programs offer quite lavish and complex models of classic synthesizers -- everything from the Yamaha DX7 to the original Moog modular.

Like conventional instruments, synthesizers are controlled in other various ways.

Fingerboard synthesizers

A fingerboard synth uses a ribbon controller or other fingerboard-like user interface used to control parameters of the sound processing. A ribbon controller is similar to a touchpad. However, most ribbon controllers only register linear motion. Although it could be used to operate any sound parameter, a ribbon controller is most commonly associated with pitch control or pitch bending.

Older fingerboards used resistors with a long wire pressed to the resistive plate. Modern ribbon controllers do not contain moving parts. Instead, a finger pressed down and moved along it creates an electrical contact at some point along a pair of thin, flexible longitudinal strips whose electric potential varies from one end to the other. Different fingerboards instruments were developed like the Ondes Martenot, Hellertion, Heliophon, Trautonium, Electro-Theremin, Fingerboard-Theremin and the The Persephone.

A ribbon controller is used as an additional controller in the Yamaha CS-80 and CS-60, the Korg Prophecy, the Kurzweil synthesizers, Moog synthesizers and many others. Ribbon controllers can serve as a main MIDI controller instead of keyboard (Continuum).

Impact on music and culture

File:Roland Jupiter-8 Synth, 1983 (2039658601).jpg
Both the Roland Jupiter-4 and Jupiter-8 synthesizers were used by New Wave band Duran Duran during the early 1980s.
The synthesizer has had a large impact on modern music over the past forty years.[3] The first significant influence of the instrument came during the 1970s and 1980s. Wendy Carlos's Switched-On Bach (1968), recorded using Moog synthesizers, influenced numerous musicians of that era. Switched-On Bach is one of the most popular classical music recordings ever made, and the first to go Platinum.[4] During the late 1960s, hundreds of other popular recordings used Moog synthesizers. The Moog synthesizer spawned a subculture of record producers who made novelty "Moog" recordings, using synthesizers to create new sounds to draw attention and sales. Musicians such as Richard Wright of Pink Floyd used the Moog and other synthesizers extensively.

The synthesizer's notable influence during the late 1970s and 1980s led to mainstream popularity among renowned music artists. The first major artists to fully use the synthesizer included Wendy Carlos,[4] Jean Michel Jarre, Pete Townshend, Arthur Brown, Giorgio Moroder, Vangelis, Tangerine Dream, Kitaro, Stevie Wonder, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Kraftwerk, Ultravox, Frank Zappa and Yellow Magic Orchestra. English musician Gary Numan was influenced by Kraftwerk, Ultravox and David Bowie. Numan's 1979 hit Are 'Friends' Electric? used synthesizers heavily.[5] Numan continued to use synthesizers throughout most of his career, including the 1980 hit Cars.[6]

The influence of synthesizers on the Synthpop movement in the United Kingdom during the 1980s was evident from its usage by Nick Rhodes, keyboardist of Duran Duran, who used Roland Jupiter-4 and Jupiter-8 synthesizers.[7] The emergence of Synthpop, a subgenre of New Wave, can be largely credited to the synthesizer. It lasted from the late 1970s to the mid 1980s. The influences of synthesizer technology and Germanic ambience of Kraftwerk and of David Bowie during his Berlin period (1976-77) were both crucial in the development of the synthpop genre.[8] By 1981, many artists had adopted the synthpop sound and experienced chart success, such as Depeche Mode, Visage, Japan, OMD, and Ultravox.[8] Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet were classed as leaders of the genre in 1981. Many other acts followed, including Soft Cell, Culture Club, Eurythmics and Blancmange, by which time synthesizers were one of the most important instruments within the music industry.[8]

The synthesizer introduced many recognizable sounds in the 1980s. OMD's Enola Gay (1980) used a distinctive electronic percussion and synthesized melody. Soft Cell used a synthesized melody in their 1981 hit Tainted Love.[9] Other chart hits include Depeche Mode's Just Can't Get Enough (1981),[9] and The Human League's Don't You Want Me.[10] The sounds varied between artists and songs, but all were distinctively produced using synthesizers.[11]

Types of synthesis

Additive synthesis

Additive synthesis builds sounds by adding harmonically related waveforms. An early analog example of an additive synthesizer is the Hammond organ. Additive synthesis is also the principle of Wavetable synthesis, which is used to implement real-time synthesis with minimum hardware,[12] commonly used in low-end MIDI instruments such as educational keyboards, and low-end sound cards.

Subtractive synthesis

Subtractive synthesis is based on filtering harmonically rich waveforms. Due to its simplicity, it is the basis of early synthesizers such as the Moog synthesizer.

FM synthesis

Waveforms are frequency modulated with a carrier frequency. An example is the Yamaha DX7.

Phase distortion synthesis

This synthesis technique is used by the Casio CZ synthesizers.

Granular synthesis

This type of synthesis is based on manipulating very small sample slices.

Physical modeling

Physical modeling synthesis is the synthesis of sound by using a set of equations and algorithms to simulate a real instrument, or some other physical source of sound. When an initial set of parameters is run through the physical simulation, the simulated sound is generated. Although physical modeling was not a new concept in acoustics and synthesis, it wasn't until the development of the Karplus-Strong algorithm and the increase in DSP power in the late 1980s that commercial implementations became feasible.

Other sound shaping

Other sound processing effects such as filters, low-frequency oscillation, and ring modulators.



The first electric synthesizer was invented in 1876 by Elisha Gray [1], who is best known for his development of a telephone prototype. The "Musical Telegraph" was a chance by-product of his telephone technology. Gray accidentally discovered that he could control sound from a self vibrating electromagnetic circuit and in doing so invented a basic single note oscillator. The Musical Telegraph used steel reeds whose oscillations were created and transmitted, over a telephone line, by electromagnets. Gray also built a simple loudspeaker device in later models consisting of a vibrating diaphragm in a magnetic field to make the oscillator audible.

Other early synthesizers used technology derived from electronic analog computers, laboratory test equipment, and early electronic musical instruments. Ivor Darreg created his microtonal 'Electronic Keyboard Oboe' in 1937. Another early synthesizer was the ANS synthesizer, constructed by the Russian scientist Evgeny Murzin from 1937 to 1958. Only two models were built, and the only surviving example is currently stored at the Lomonosov University in Moscow[13]. It has been used in many Russian movies - like Solaris (1972 film) - to produce unusual, "cosmic" sounds.

RCA produced experimental devices to synthesize voice and music in the 1950s. The Mark II Music Synthesizer, housed at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York City in 1958, was only capable of producing music once it had been completely programmed.[2] The vacuum tube system had to be manually patched to create each type of sound. It used a paper tape sequencer punched with holes to control pitch sources and filters, similar to a mechanical player piano, but capable of generating a wide variety of sounds. In 1959, Daphne Oram at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop produced a novel synthesizer using her "Oramics" technique, driven by drawings on a 35 mm film strip; it was used for a number of years at the BBC.[14] Hugh Le Caine, John Hanert, Raymond Scott, composer Percy Grainger (with Burnett Cross), and others built a variety of automated electronic-music controllers during the late 1940s and 1950s.

Although synthesizers had many examples in the early 20th century, other electrical instruments such as electric guitar and Theremin had much less complex designs than synthesizers. Those instruments were taken up by musicians during the 1930s and 1940s, while it wasn't until decades later that synthesizers could be profitably manufactured.

By the 1960s, synthesizers were developed which could be played in real time, but were usually confined to studios due to their size. These synthesizers were usually configured using a modular design, with standalone signal sources and processors being connected with patch cords or by other means, and all controlled by a common controlling device.

Many early analog synthesizers were monophonic, producing only one tone at a time. Popular monophonic synthesizers include the Moog Minimoog, and Roland SH-101. A few, such as the Moog Sonic Six, ARP Odyssey and EML 101, were capable of producing two different pitches at a time when two keys were pressed. Polyphony (multiple simultaneous tones, which enables chords) was only obtainable with electronic organ designs at first. Popular electronic keyboards combining organ circuits with synthesizer processing included the ARP Omni and Moog's Polymoog and Opus 3. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, DIY (Do it yourself) designs were published in hobby electronics magazines (notably the Formant modular synth, a DIY clone of the Moog system, published by Elektor) and kits were supplied by companies such as Paia in the US, and Maplin Electronics in the UK.


Buchla Music Easel

Most early synthesizers were experimental modular designs. Don Buchla, Hugh Le Caine, Raymond Scott and Paul Ketoff were among the first to build such instruments, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Buchla later produced a commercial modular synthesizer, the Buchla Music Easel.[15] Robert Moog, who had been a student of Peter Mauzey and one of the RCA Mark II engineers, created a revolutionary synthesizer that could be used by musicians. Moog designed the circuits used in his synthesizer while he was at Columbia-Princeton. The Moog synthesizer was first displayed at the Audio Engineering Society convention in 1964.[16] Like the RCA Mark II, it required more experience to set up new sounds, but it was smaller and more intuitive than what had come before. Less like a machine and more like a musical instrument, the Moog synthesizer was at first a curiosity, but by 1968 had caused a sensation.

Moog also established standards for control interfacing, with a logarithmic 1-volt-per-octave pitch control and a separate pulse triggering signal. This standardization allowed synthesizers from different manufacturers to operate simultaneously. Pitch control is usually performed either with an organ-style keyboard or a music sequencer, which produces a series of control voltages over a fixed time period and allows some automation of music production. Other early commercial synthesizer manufacturers included ARP, who also started with modular synthesizers before producing all-in-one instruments, and British firm EMS.

Micky Dolenz of The Monkees bought the third Moog synthesizer in existence. They were the first band to release an album featuring music from a Moog with Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. in 1967.[17] It also became the first album featuring a synthesizer to hit #1 on the charts. During the late 1960s, hundreds of other popular recordings used Moog synthesizer sounds. The Moog synthesizer even spawned a subculture of record producers who made novelty "Moog" recordings, depending on the odd new sounds made by their synthesizers (which were not always Moog units) to draw attention and sales.


[[File:|thumb|The Minimoog was one of the most popular synthesizers ever built]] In 1970, Moog designed an innovative synthesizer with a built-in keyboard and without modular design - the analog circuits were retained, but made interconnectable with switches in a simplified arrangement called "normalization". Though less flexible than a modular design, normalization made the instrument more portable and easier to use. This first pre-patched synthesizer, the Minimoog, became highly popular, with over 12,000 units sold.[18] The Minimoog also influenced the design of nearly all subsequent synthesizers, with integrated keyboard, pitch wheel and modulation wheel, and a VCO->VCF->VCA signal flow.

In the 1970s miniaturized solid-state components allowed synthesizers to become self-contained, portable instruments, which soon began to be used in live performances. Electronic synthesizers had quickly become a standard part of the popular-music repertoire. The first movie to make use of synthesized music was the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service in 1969. After the release of the film, a large number of movies were made with synthesized music. A few of them, such as 1982's John Carpenter's "The Thing", used only synthesized music in their scores.[19]


By 1976, the first true music synthesizers to offer polyphony had begun to appear, most notably in the form of the Yamaha GX1, CS-50, CS-60 and Yamaha CS-80 and the Oberheim Four-Voice. These early instruments were very complex, heavy, and costly. Another feature that began to appear was the recording of knob settings in a digital memory, allowing the changing of sounds quickly. When microprocessors first appeared on the scene in the early 1970s, they were expensive and difficult to apply.

The first practical polyphonic synth, and the first to use a microprocessor as a controller, was the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 introduced in late 1977.[20] For the first time, musicians had a practical polyphonic synthesizer that allowed all knob settings to be saved in computer memory and recalled by pushing a button. The Prophet-5 was also physically compact and lightweight, unlike its predecessors. This basic design paradigm became a standard among synthesizer manufacturers, slowly pushing out the more complex and recondite modular design. One of the first real-time polyphonic digital music synthesizers was the Coupland Digital Music Synthesizer. It was much more portable than a piano but never reached commercial production.

A Fairlight CMI keyboard, featuring signatures from 43 celebrity musicians, composers and producers.

The Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument) was the first polyphonic digital sampling synthesizer.[21] It was designed in 1978 by the founders of Fairlight, Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie, and based on a dual microprocessor computer designed by Tony Furse in Sydney, Australia. The Fairlight CMI gave musicians the ability to modify volume, attack, decay, and special effects like vibrato. Waveforms could also be modified on a computer monitor using a light pen.[22] It rose to prominence in the early 1980s and competed in the market with the Synclavier from New England Digital. The first buyers of the new system were Herbie Hancock, Peter Gabriel, Richard James Burgess, Todd Rundgren, Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, producer Rhett Lawrence, Stevie Wonder and Ned "EBN" Liben of Ebn Ozn, who acted as Fairlight's New York expert liaison to the American musician community.[23]

The Kurzweil K250, first produced in 1983, was also a successful polyphonic digital music synthesizer.[24] It was noted for its ability to reproduce several instruments synchronously; the Kurzweil K250 also had a velocity-sensitive keyboard. It was priced at US$ 10,000.[25]

Most new synthesizers since the mid to late 1980s have been digital. Japanese manufacturers Yamaha and Casio both influenced digital synthesizers during the 1980s and 1990s. John Chowning, a professor at Stanford University, exclusively licensed his FM synthesis patent to Yamaha in 1975.[26] Yamaha subsequently released their first FM synthesizers, the GS-1 and GS-2, which were costly and heavy. The GS series followed, which used a pair of smaller, preset versions—the CE20 and CE25 Combo Ensembles. These models were targeted primarily at the home organ market and featured four-octave keyboards.[27] Yamaha's third generation of digital synthesizers was a commercial success; it consisted of the DX7 and DX9 (1983). Both models were compact, reasonably priced, and dependent on custom digital integrated circuits to produce FM tonalities. The DX7 was the first mass market all-digital synthesizer.[28] It became indispensable to many music artists of the 1980s, and demand soon exceeded supply.[29] The DX7 sold over 200,000 units within three years.[30]

After the introduction of the DX series, Bo Tomlyn, original DX7 project manager Mike Malizola, and Chuck Monte founded Key Clique, Inc, which sold thousands of ROM cartridges with new FM/DX7 sounds to DX7 owners. This led to the demise of the heavy, electro-mechanical Rhodes piano during the 1980s, until its comeback in the 1990s. Yamaha later licensed its FM technology to other manufacturers. When the Stanford patent expired, many personal computers already contained an audio input-output system with a built-in 4-operator FM digital synthesizer.

Following the success of Yamaha's licensing of Stanford's FM synthesis patent, Yamaha signed a contract with Stanford University in 1989 to develop jointly digital waveguide synthesis. As such, most patents related to the technology are owned by Stanford or Yamaha. The first commercial physical modeling synthesizer was Yamaha's VL-1 in 1994.[31] Analog synthesizers have also revived in popularity since the 1980s. In recent years, the two trends have sometimes been combined as analog modeling synthesizers, or digital synthesizers that model analog synthesis using digital signal processing techniques. New analog instruments now also accompany the large number from the digital world.

MIDI control

Synthesizers became easier to integrate and synchronize with other electronic instruments and controllers with the introduction of Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) in 1983.[32] First proposed in 1981 by engineer Dave Smith of Sequential Circuits, the MIDI standard was developed by a consortium now known as the MIDI Manufacturers Association.[33] MIDI is an opto-isolated serial interface and communication protocol.[33] It provides for the transmission from one device or instrument to another of real-time performance data. This data includes note events, commands for the selection of instrument presets (i.e. sounds, or programs or patches, previously stored in the instrument's memory), the control of performance-related parameters such as volume, effects levels and the like, as well as synchronization, transport control and other types of data. MIDI interfaces are now almost ubiquitous on music equipment and are commonly available on personal computers (PCs).[33]

The General MIDI (GM) software standard was devised in 1991 to serve as a consistent way of describing a set of over 200 tones (including percussion) available to a PC for playback of musical scores.[34] For the first time, a given MIDI preset would consistently produce an instrumental sound on any GM-conforming device. The Standard MIDI File (SMF) format (extension .mid) combined MIDI events with delta times - a form of time-stamping - and became a popular standard for exchange of music scores between computers. In the case of SMF playback using integrated synthesizers (as in computers and cell phones), the hardware component of the MIDI interface design is often unneeded.

Open Sound Control (OSC) is a proposed replacement for MIDI, and is designed for online networking. In contrast with MIDI, OSC allows thousands of synthesizers or computers to share music performance data over the Internet in realtime.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Electronic Musical Instrument 1870 - 1990, 2005,, retrieved on 2007-04-09 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Chadabe, Joel (February 2000), The Electronic Century Part I: Beginnings, Electronic Musician, pp. 74–89 
  3. Eisengrein, Doug (September 1, 2005), Renewed Vision, Remix Magazine,, retrieved on 2008-04-16 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Catchlove, Lucinda (April 1, 2002), Wendy Carlos (electronic musician), Remix Magazine 
  5. George-Warren, Holly (2001), The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Fireside, pp. 707–734, ISBN 0743201205 
  6. Robbins, Ira A (1991), The Trouser Press Record Guide, Maxwell Macmillan International, p. 473, ISBN 0020363613 
  7. Black, Johnny (Jan/Feb 2003), The Greatest Songs Ever! Hungry Like the Wolf, Blender Magazine,, retrieved on 2008-04-16 
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Borthwick, Stuart (2004), Popular Music Genres: An Introduction, Edinburgh University Press, p. 120, ISBN 0748617450,,M1 
  9. 9.0 9.1 Borthwick (2004), Giorgio Moroder'sFlashdance... What a Feelingfor irene Cara in 1983 C129
  10. Borthwick (2004), 130
  11. Borthwick (2004), 128
  12. Vail, Mark (2000), Vintage Synthesizers: Groundbreaking Instruments and Pioneering Designers of Electronic Music Synthesizers, Backbeat Books, pp. 68–342, ISBN 0879306033, 
  13. Vail, Mark (November 1, 2002), Eugeniy Murzin's ANS — Additive Russian synthesizer, Keyboard Magazine, p. 120 
  14. Manning, Peter (2004), Electronic and Computer Music, Oxford University Press US, pp. 129–132, ISBN 0195144848, 
  15. Vail, Mark (October 1, 2003), Buchla Music Easel — Portable performance synthesizer, Keyboard Magazine, p. 108 
  16. Glinsky, Albert (2000), Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage, University of Illinois Press, p. 293, ISBN 0252025822 
  17. Lefcowitz, Eric (1989), The Monkees Tale, Last Gasp, p. 48, ISBN 0867193786 
  18. 1970 Robert Moog Moog Music Minimoog Synthesizer, Mix Magazine, September 1, 2006,, retrieved on 2008-04-10 
  19. Inglis, Ian (2003), Popular Music and Film, Wallflower Press, p. 134, ISBN 190336471X 
  20. Wells, Peter (2004), A Beginner's Guide to Digital Video, AVA Books (UK), p. 10, ISBN 2884790373 
  21. Holloway, David (July 1, 2006), Fairlight's Peter Vogel, Keyboard Magazine, p. 104 
  22. Scott, David (May 1984), Music computer - you draw sounds you want to hear, Popular Science, p. 154 
  23. 1979 Fairlight CMI, Mix Magazine, September 1, 2006,, retrieved on 2008-05-30 
  24. Battino, David; Kelli Richards, Stewart Copeland (2005), The Art of Digital Music, Backbeat Books, p. 58, ISBN 0879308303,,M1 
  25. Porter, M (July 1984), The Impact of the Kurzweil 250, Computers & Electronics, pp. 42–43 
  26. Petzold, Charles (November 29, 1988), Riding the wave of sound synthesis: the origins of FM synthesis, PC Magazine, p. 232 
  27. Yamaha GS1 & DX1, Sound On Sound, 06-2001,, retrieved on 2008-04-10 
  28. Le Heron, Richard B.; Harrington, James W. (2005), New Economic Spaces: New Economic Geographies, Ashgate Publishing, p. 41, ISBN 0754644502 
  29. Three Yamaha products that reshaped the industry mark 20th anniversary, Music Trades, February 2004, pp. 70–74, 
  30. Colbeck, Julian (June 1997), Keyfax The Omnibus Edition, Hal Leonard Corporation, p. 208, ISBN 0918371082 
  31. Aikin, Jim (2003), Software Synthesizers: The Definitive Guide to Virtual Musical Instruments, Backbeat Books, p. 4, ISBN 0879307528 
  32. The Complete MIDI 1.0 Detailed Specification, MIDI Manufacturers Association Inc.,, retrieved on 2008-04-10 
  33. 33.0 33.1 33.2 Rothtein, Joseph (1995), MIDI: A Comprehensive Introduction, A-R Editions, p. 1-11, ISBN 0895793091,,M1, retrieved on 2008-05-30 
  34. Webster, Peter Richard; Williams, David Brian (2005), Experiencing Music Technology: Software, Data, and Hardware, Thomson Schirmer, p. 221, ISBN 0534176720 


  • Shapiro, Peter (2000). Modulations: A History of Electronic Music: Throbbing Words on Sound, ISBN 1-891024-06-X.

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

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Alternative forms


  • (UK) IPA: /ˈsɪn.θəˌsaɪ.zə(ɹ)/, SAMPA: /"sIn.T@%saI.z@(r)/
  • (US) IPA: /ˈsɪn.θəˌsaɪ.zɚ/, SAMPA: /"sIn.T@%saI.z@`/




synthesizer (plural synthesizers)

  1. (music) An electronic instrument that creates its sounds with electronics and has a keyboard.
  2. (music) An electronic instrument module that creates its sounds with electronics and does not have any keyboard.
  3. (electronics) An electronic circuit that generates an electronic signal oscillation with accurate timing from a reference oscillator.
  4. (electronics) An electronic device that generates electronic signal patterns to test an electronic circuit.


Simple English

A musical synthesizer is an instrument that uses electricity to make musical sounds. Very often synthesizers have a keyboard like that of a piano. When playing a piano keyboard, sounds are made by hitting soft hammers against strings pulled very tight. When playing a synthesizer keyboard, sounds are made by turning electrical oscillators on and off. Since "synthesizer" is such a big word, the word is usually shortened to "synth".

How synthesizers work

An oscillator is something that "vibrates", or repeats the same pattern. The pendulum of a clock, for example, is a very slow oscillator. A piano string "oscillates" when struck by a hammer.

Electric oscillators might be made using transistors. They turn electricity into electrical patterns, or signals, that repeat over and over. When different keys are pressed , different notes are heard. This is done by making the signal from the oscillator repeat at different rates.

The signal can be boosted in strength and sent straight to a loudspeaker. But the sound of a simple signal can be boring after a while. Sounds can be made more interesting in many ways!

For example
  • Signals are often shaped by changing how fast they get loud and then soft again. This method, called "ADSR", helps synthesizers to sound more like older instruments — pianos, trumpets, flutes, and so on.
  • The signals from several different oscillators may be combined. This helps to make a richer sound.
  • The signal can then be sent to one or more filters. Filters are used to take away parts of the signal. For example, they might make the signal sound "brighter" or "duller", "soft" or "harsh".
  • Many synthesizers use special oscillators called "LFOs". For example, an LFO might control how loud and soft the signal is, or control the pitch of the signal. An LFO might even control the actions of the filters.

By combining many of these methods, synths can now sound very much like older instruments. For one example, special synths called "drum synths" are used just to make the sounds a drummer might make. Synths can also make many new sounds never heard before.

In the early 2000s, computers got fast enough so "software synths" could be made. These are computer programs designed to look and work like a synth. They tend to be less expensive, so more can be used. Most of these programs can be downloaded for free, however this may be illegal, which means that the police officers may arrest the player and send that person to jail.

There are special tools available to play synths. For example, a thing called a "wind controller" lets players of wind instruments use their special skills. But there is still a need for more ways to control synths to make them more expressive.

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