From throbbing bass lines to sinuous hip-hop leads, from effervescent dance atmospherics to grinding industrial riffs, grinding industrial riffs, analog synth sounds play a huge role across various musical genres.
While the knobs, sliders, patch chords, and circuits of analog synths may present a foreign landscape to musicians who have never touched a vintage Minimoog or ARP, with a little determination, anyone can pull intriguing musical textures out of these instruments and enhance their own music-making.
In this post, we’ll offer tips from renowned New York composer, producer, and keyboardist Enrico de Trizio to help you learn the ropes and get creative with analog synthesizers.
Keep it simple when you’re starting to build synth sounds
The dials, switches, lights, and diagrams of an analog synthesizer can look more like a 1970s spaceship than a musical instrument — but even if it all resembles Voyager at first glance, don’t get overwhelmed. Instead, adopt a divide-and-conquer strategy to come up to speed with your analog instrument.
“Break it down and experiment with one knob at the time,” de Trizio says. “If that one knob doesn’t make any change to the sound and you cannot figure out why — which will happen a lot at the beginning — move to the next one, and then maybe go back after you’ve played with a couple of other knobs to see if it changes then.”
Once you’ve gotten a sense of what happens when you tweak this knob or that, try experimenting with two knobs at the same time to see how they interact with each other, de Trizio advises. With an approach like this, in a reasonably short time, you can end up with a solid understanding of the instrument’s core sound-making capabilities — and interesting ideas of where to take your synthesis experiments next.
Focus on the key building blocks of synthesized sound
When you first step up to an analog synthesizer, de Trizio recommends locating three key elements — oscillator, filter, and amplifier envelope. Different analog synths are laid out in different ways, but major components like these are usually clearly marked, front and center.
Your synth’s oscillator section creates the foundational, basic sound waves that you hear when you play your instrument. “It usually has many selectable waveforms, which will affect the harmonic content of the sound,” explains de Trizio. In other words, selecting a triangle wave will give you a distinctly different sonic flavor than a square wave or sawtooth wave.
Once the initial sound is created by the oscillator(s), de Trizio continues, “the filter sculpts the harmonic content of the oscillators by cutting or boosting certain frequency ranges, and the amplifier envelope determines how the level of the sound is affected in time.” The envelope section for a vintage Minimoog analog synth, for example, lets you control how quickly or slowly a note crescendos to full volume after you hit a key, how quickly a note fades to silence after you release the key, and other parameters. (Learn more about how envelopes work in analog synths at Wikipedia’s “synthesizer” entry.)
de Trizio recommends playing with your synth’s oscillator, filter, and envelope functions in various combinations and levels. “You’ll start to get a sense of how different waveforms sound and how the filters and envelope affect the sound. Subtle movements of a knob or a fader can result in noticeable differences.”
Understand polyphonic synths
“Analog synths — and synthesizers in general, divide into two big categories,” says de Trizio. “Monophonic synthesizers, or monosynths for short, are capable of playing one note at the time; and polyphonic synthesizers, or polysynths, can simultaneously play multiple notes, which are usually called voices.
“A four-voice polysynth like the new Korg Minilogue or the DSI Mopho x4 can play four notes at the time, while the Prophet-5, can play five notes. The Prophet-6 — you guessed it — can play six notes at the time.”
More polyphony doesn’t necessarily mean a better or more useful instrument, as there are unique and amazing sounds and effects you can pull out of analog instruments that play one note or a dozen at a time. “Consider that many of the instruments in a symphony orchestra play monophonically,” de Trizio adds, “even when they are capable of playing polyphonically.”
Understand the polyphonic or monophonic capabilities your synth offers and look at those capabilities not as limitations, but as sources of inspiration and ideas.
Learn about preset synth sounds
Some synthesizers create their sounds completely with analog circuitry but are still controlled through a digital user interface. Why does this matter?
“Digital control has two main advantages,” explains de Trizio. “You can store and recall patches and MIDI settings.”
With patches, de Trizio says, it’s very useful to not have to recreate every sound you need from scratch by getting your knobs and buttons aligned exactly like you had them last time. “Especially in a live setting or in a scoring context, where you might have to come back and make revisions to your music, it’s helpful to be able to store and recall your favorite patches on the fly.”
That said, de Trizio advises against relying too much on an instrument’s internal memory. “[Storing patches] affects not only your learning curve, but also the occasional discovery that happens when you make and tweak patches. Chances are you will get to know your instrument way better if you cannot save patches.”
Embrace the noise
When you play analog instruments, especially vintage ones, you can sometimes end up with extraneous noise thrown into the sounds you concoct. Is this bad? Not according to di Trizio.
“Don’t be afraid of noisy signals. Analog synths, especially the old ones, usually have gentle hums and hisses coming out of the instrument, which is something you might have experienced listening to electric guitar pickups or amplifiers.”
For de Trizio, this is never an issue. “It actually helps you avoid what I call the Prius effect,” he says. “If you have ever driven a Toyota Prius, you might guess what I’m talking about — at the traffic light, you forget that it’s on because it doesn’t make any noise when not in motion.
“Even if there’s a quiet moment in a track, I still like to feel that there’s a presence of an instrument that eventually will play,” he continues. “It’s the difference between an empty room and the same room with twenty people waiting in silence.”
As any synth lover will tell you, one of the wonders of these instruments is sitting down, spinning knobs, pressing buttons, and seeing what sorts of crazy and unexpected synth sounds emerge from your instrument.
“There will be always time to learn the science and the physics behind what is happening in the machine and why, but the joy of making a sound out of a bunch of electrons giggling around, and then making music with that sound, is an incomparable reward for me,” says de Trizio.
“That is what makes me continue experimenting and wanting to learn about new machines and new ways of making sounds and music. Usually the ‘new thing’ will come out of a happy accident, not of theory and science — that comes after.”
Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download through iTunes, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.
The Amplifier ADSR Envelope: How to manipulate analog synth parameters
MIDI FAQ for beginners
Using virtual instruments: Eight home recording tips to make your tracks sing
Virtual synths and musical instruments on your mobile device
Virtual synths and the art of imperfection
Six tips for adding Hammond organ to your music