What is a Synthesizer?
A synthesizer, or synth, is an electronic instrument. It usually has a key layout like that of a piano, although the exact layouts of the keys vary depending on the model. Each key produces a different tone and many synths can have multiple programs which means that the keys can produce a variety of different tones. The sounds created by a synth can vary widely, as they can imitate real instruments, create drum noises, ocean noises or even generic electronica noises. Synths can be controlled with several types of electronic and compatible instruments, such as the electronic drum set.
Without getting too deep into the scientific jargon of the physics of sound, synthesizers can adjust tones electronically to mimic the sounds of other instruments. When played at the same note, different instruments don’t sound the same because they have a different timbre. Basically, the sound may be the same note but the sound wave is actually a different shape. Thus, synthesizers can use electronic signals to manipulate the tone enough to mimic the timbre of several different instruments. Synthesizers are also unique because they can be used to create completely new sounds. Thus, it is an incredibly versatile instrument.
From an electrical standpoint, synths create sounds from nothing or from scratch. Most instruments have a physical action that creates the sound, a synth uses electricity to create sound from nothing. This is rather unique in the music world. Early synths could only emulate electronic noises and thus had limited use in music and other applications. With increasingly better technology, however, synthesizers are used now for a more varied range of applications. For instance, synths are used in a wide variety of musical genres, to help create movie sound effects and so much more.
How Synthesizers are Used in Music
Synthesizers are used in music in a plethora of ways. Obviously, this has changed over time as the technology and capability of synths has grown exponentially. Now, synths do not necessarily sound electronic, although they can if desired. Experienced users can create synth loops and tracks that sound like acoustic instruments, so much so that only a trained ear would be able to tell the difference between the two. For a subtle effect, synths can be used to boost the backing tracks in a song. For instance, consider a standard bass line. Sometimes, these can be hard to hear in a song. With a synthesizer, that bass line can be matched with a second tone, making it appear more in the song.
Rhythms can also be created with a synth pad. This is obviously very different from the sustained notes discussed above but they can blend in with the song all the same. Modern synthesizers do not always sound like the obnoxious and repetitive electric drum loops of the 1980s, but they can. Using more natural sounding notes, synths can create rhythms and loops that sound organically acoustic. Sustained notes can also have added rhythms, which creates a unique effect. For a creative and talented synth user, there are endless possibilities.
Many types of synths can interface with a computer, instead of just playing the tones. This is also unique, as many instruments do not have this level of functionality. Computer interfacing adds a secondary dimension to synth music, as it allows the user to edit and mix their synth blends into a new product. Computers also provide the ability to layer synthesizer tracks on top of one another. Theoretically and in practice, entire songs with a full range of instruments can be created with only a synth.
Brief History of the Synthesizer
The first electronic instrument was invented before 1900, although it was far from a synth. True synthesizers were not possible until the 1930s and 1940s. A side effect of innovation for World War II, several electronic components were invented. Additionally, several components that already existed were able to be made smaller and more transportable. Among these were electronic oscillators, audio filters and envelope controllers. The earliest true synthesizer, by definition, was invented in 1937 in Germany. It had only four tones that could be played. Following this, in 1939, the Hammond Novachord was released. This was the first electronic piano and it had twelve notes with vibrato.
Electronic pianos and electronic organs continued to be released into the 1960s. It was during this era that the synthesizer began an instrument that would be used in modern music in a mainstream fashion. Initial synthesizers were massive and usually had to be built into a room as a permanent installation. This made them expensive and generally unattainable to musicians and other sound enthusiasts. The Moog Modular Synthesizer was the first notable exception to this and was released in 1963. This began shaping the music scene as several famous groups began adding electronic sounds to their songs. The Moog and Minimoog, while incredibly popular in the early scene, were only able to play a single note at a time.
It was not until the 1970s that synthesizers began being able to play chords and multiple notes at the same time. The first synthesizer with this capability was the Yamaha GX-1, which was released in 1973. Other Yamaha models, Roland Models, and Moog Models followed suit. In 1974, Yamaha released the first digital synthesizer after years of work on the product. Following this, digital synthesizers were more common in worldwide markets and more affordable. This meant that they became significantly more popular in the music industry and were being used by a wide variety of musicians and genres.
Now, synthesizers are used across genres and due to technological developments, sometimes impossible to differentiate from acoustic instruments. They have also found a place in movie production, as synthesizers have been used on countless soundtracks and scores. They work well for sound effect creation as well.
Types of Synthesizers
In songs that utilize a synthesizer, there are usually three main roles that the synth will fall into. Firstly, the synth lead. In some modern songs, there is an electronic hook or melody that ties together the other backing tracks of the song. This is considered the synth lead and has been present in mainstream music since the 1980s. A synth pad role generally provides sustained notes that blend with a song’s main melody. Basically, the synth pad provides a drawn-out accompaniment to the lead melody of a song. Finally, the synth bass. This is a self-explanatory role as the synth bass essentially replaces the role of a traditional bass within a song.
There are tons of iconic examples of synth parts in popular music. In 1982, Rush released the song ‘Subdivisions.’ This was one of the first songs to not only use a synthesizer as a main instrument, but also feature a synth solo. Rush is a band that is characterized primarily by nearly out of control drumming, but in this song, the drumming seems restrained. This is to give the synthesizer its full glory. Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ is another example of the usage of the above synth parts in modern music. Released in 1980, the song’s synthetic keyboard echoed the songs main melody without overtaking it. This created the famously haunted and endearing melody.
‘Jump’ by Van Halen is a fantastic example of a synth lead hook. This catchy song, released in 1983, makes use of the synth part for the song’s iconic melody. This song, while insanely popular worldwide, represented a shift in musical ideas for the band, as it did not feature the famous Van Halen guitar parts in the same way. Finally, The Doors released ‘Light My Fire’ in 1967. This song defined the bluesy synth part for music and paved the way for other groups to released similar pieces. The Doors rarely played with a bassist because their pianist was so good that he could play both the keyboard part as well as the piano part, simultaneously. In ‘Light My Fire,’ the fantastic synth lines and solos are done on an electric and synthetic organ, one of the first of its time.
The EMS VCS3 was released in 1969 and was one of the first ‘famous’ synths. It originally cost 330GBP, 480GBP with the keyboard included. For synth machines in the late 1960s and early 1970s, this was a cheap and easy to use machine. Thus, it was one of the first affordable models that could be used for music. At first, however, this wasn’t the case. Before the EMS VCS3 became mainstream, very few people knew how to use it. Given this, many considered it an overly complex electronic sound machine. Instructions on how to use the device became more widespread as the popularity of electronic music grew. This synth had a strange and eerie sound and was notably featured on White Noise’s ‘Love Without Sound’ (1969) and Hawkwind’s ‘Silver Machine’ (1972). The song ‘Silver Machine’ got its name from the EMS VCS3.
Moog Minimoog is perhaps the single most famous synthesizer. Prototypes of this synth were released in 1969 and the official first release was in 1972. The original price was $1495USD. This was another one of the first synthesizers that was practical enough for musicians and affordable. Prior Moog models were way too large to move from stage to stage, whereas the Minimoog was significantly more portable. Original Minimoog units could only play a single note at a time but they were incredibly popular, nonetheless. They had an iconic electronic sound that is likely what most people imagine in their head when they hear the term ‘synth.’ The Minimoog was famously featured on Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’ in 1974 and Devo’s ‘Mongoloid’ in 1977.
The Yamaha CS-80 was an expensive addition into the synth market at $6900USD in 1976. It was the first synthesizer that could play full chords, however, making it worth the cost for many. These units weighed 220lbs (100kg) which, in addition to the price tag, made them unaffordable to many smaller musicians and audio enthusiasts. Yamaha CS-80 units were a regular installation at bigger studios. Sounds from these synths were some of the first used in major blockbuster and televisions releases. For instance, the entire Blade Runner soundtrack is made from mostly pre-set options on the CS-80. This is also the primary instrument used for the score of most of the original Doctor Who episodes. Musically, it is featured on the iconic song ‘Africa’ by Toto, released in 1982.
Later, the Yamaha DX7 was even more successful than its predecessor. It was quite ugly, but it cost only $2000USD in 1983 when it was released. It was also a great deal lighter. While this synthesizer model has not remained popular over time, it was the producer of most of the iconic electronic sounds of the 1980s. These models were FM instead of analogue, meaning that they depreciated in value significantly faster than earlier synthesizer models. They also failed to gain the aftermarket following that other releases have. The DX7 had a glassy and colder tone than many other synthesizers and had a harsher sound too. Still, it was featured on A-ha’s ‘Take on Me’ in 1984 and Kenny Loggins’ ‘Danger Zone’ in 1986.