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  • Writer's pictureJoe Chris

Synths & Electronic Music Part I: Overview

Thus far, I have been posting almost exclusively on this blog about my Composer Tech book. I’d like to take a break, and introduce this new topic I’d like to start a series of posts exploring: Synthesis. A year ago I started my modular journey, and though I thought I had a great understanding of how synths work based off of my experience with soft-synths such as Omnisphere and Zebra, programming modular synths has since pushed me to a whole new understanding.

One of the hardest things for me on this journey was understanding and learning how and why things work. I couldn’t find an “all-in-one” resource that explains everything from oscillators to gates, triggers, clocks, boolean logic etc. as it relates to music via modular synthesis (though please feel free to send me any if you come across some!). So I want to use this platform as a means to be that for somebody else, all while learning and solidifying my knowledge as a score composer.

(Max/MSP, a visual programming language often used for musical purposes)

In this series of posts, we are going to look at the different types of synthesizers, how to program them, various types of musical programming languages (such as Pure Data), etc. and really explore as much as we can about this phenomenon we call “electronic music”. We will also be looking at sound design and other electro-acoustic or “acousmatic” techniques, ideas, and philosophies. Furthermore, this will be a lot more collaborative and “tutorial” based than my other current series of posts and will have excercises, demonstrations, and possibly graphics and diagrams to help you get the most out of each post.

Without further ado, lets begin!


Most people are familiar with a synthesizer, but are not 100% certain in how they work. Before we get in depth about how each specific part of a synth functions or how different methos of synthesis work, let’s take a broad look at the various types of synthesizers and the differences between them:

Fixed Architecture, Semi-modular, & Modular

For many people, especially non-musicians, a fixed archeture (or “non-modular”) synth is what they think of when they think of synthesizers. This is your “all-in-one” keyboard synth that may have a bunch of dials and sliders to adjust parameters, but no way to manipulate the order of the signal flow. The designer of the synth pre-wires the connection between parameters, and it is often hidden inside the instrument itself. Most Soft-synths (see below) are fixed architecture synths (think omnisphere)

Semi-Modular synths are synthesizers that are pre-wired with a certain signal path, but allows the user to manipulate it via patch cables. This approach gaurentees the user a complete sound as a starting point, but allows them the flexibility to branch off and manipulate the sounds in ways the original programmer may or may not have ever tested. Semi-modulars are also capable of being connected to (and thus expanded by) other semi-modular or modular synths, depending on the connection type and format. So if you want to get into modular synthesis, a semi-modular in the form factor you desire (see below) can be a great starting point.

Modular synths are synthesizers where the user must determine the entirity of the signlar path themselves. These are the type of synths when you see giant walls full of synths with a waterfall of cables coming out of them. “Modules” are independent units of a synthesizer (ex: an oscillator module, a filter module, & an amp module) that the user manually connects together via a patch cable. Modular synths can be incredibly complex or incredibly simple. The user can mix and match modules as they please. One can also use modules to manipulate audio across various formats (ex: between physical hardware and software inside your PC), create music that is generated on it’s own, or connect other auxiliary instruments to and process the signal from, such as a guitar or a tape player.

(U-he Zebra, a modular soft-synth)

All of the signal in modular & semi-modular synths are controlled by what is known as “Control Voltages”, or CV for short. CV is like the electronic “code” that manipulates and controls parameters for you, often described as a sort of “invisible-hand”. Understanding Control Voltage is key to understanding modular synthesis and we will look at this in much more depth in a future post.

Soft-Synths & Hardware-Synths

Software synths (aka “Soft-Synths”) are synths based entirely in code on your computer. These synthesizers are fully digital and more often than not, are controlled via MIDI data and continuous controllers, or CC’s for short (again, a future post). Though these synths are considerably less expensive than their hardware counterparts, they are not automatiacally “cheaper” in quality. Many soft-synths (such as Omnisphere, Zebra, & Serum) adorn a large portion of the music we consume today, be it on the radio, the big screen, or in a video game. They provide reliable, easily recallable settings that often sound quite great and can be manipulated into whatever you can think of.

Software is not automatically worse than hardware. Some software is even designed specifically to sound exactly like it’s hardware counterparts (Arturia’s V Collection). A huge downside of soft-synths, however, is its ability to be lost due to an OS update, and the potential CPU power it draws while active in your DAW.

Hardware synths are the physical synths in the room with you. These are often played via keyboard controllers built into the system. These can be quite large & expensive, but often the sound quality on these is really high and can be worth the price. The synths also tend to retain their value, so the second-hand/resale market is another point of interest here. A big draw to these synths is the ability to physically manipulate dials and sliders in a way that can be much more inducive to creativity than clicking and dragging a mouse around a screen. Hardware synths, especially analog hardware synths, often are described as “better” sounding, though it can be quite hard for the untrained ear (and even the trained ear) to tell in a blind side-by-side test.

Modular Synths Form Factors:

Hardware Modular synths come in two main form factors: Eurorack (3u) and Moog (5u).

Eurorack synths are the “new kid on the block”. They were invented in the 90s by Doepfer. Eurorack modules are 3u in height, and measured in width with what is known as HP, or Horizontal Pitch. The CV that flows through them is a +/- 12v DC current and are connected via a 1/8 patch cable. They are smaller, more affordable, and more portable than their Moog (5u) counterparts.

(A Eurorack system, integrated with guitar pedals & VCV rack)

Moog, or “5u”, synths were created by Bob Moog in the 1960’s. These were the first modular synths, and were often times from floor to ceiling in height. Modules here are almost twice as tall as eurorack modules, and can be much much wider as well. These modules run on 15v, and are patched via ¼ inch cables.


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