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What is a Synthesizer?

The synthesizer is an electronic musical instrument composed of modules鈥擮scillators, Filters, Envelope Generators, Modulation sources, etc.鈥攖hat perform the same functions as the individual components of a traditional instrument. Let鈥檚 use the violin as an example. When bowed or plucked, the string oscillates back and forth, creating a pitched sound [Oscillator]. The resonance of the wood, the density of the lacquer, and the shape and size of the body give this sound its tone [Filter]. The motion and pressure of the bow across the string determine the changes in timbre and articulation over time [Envelope Generators]. Slight gestures of the fingers holding the strings on the fingerboard introduce vibrato [Modulation]. The fact is, the synthesizer is back and better than ever.

Why You Should Buy a Synthesizer

Introduced in the 1960s, the synthesizer was originally created as a soloing instrument; an add-on instrument for the performing piano and organ player. Then as now, the monophonic design proved ideal. As one hand plays the keyboard, the other hand is available to tweak the knobs and sliders in real-time during performance; the addition of modulation wheels, joysticks, bend levers, and second-touch key-sensing (what we now call aftertouch) endow the synthesizer incredible dexterity compared to other keyboard instruments. Arpeggiators, step-sequencers, and onboard effects allow today鈥檚 synthesizers to be more self-contained and to expand on the capabilities of their revered ancestors. The modern synth is ripe for taking a soaring solo to a new dimension, or for adding a polyphonic signature sound to the mix. In addition, the micro-instruments like the Korg Minilogue and the Moog Subsequent 25 that have appeared as a subset of the category have allowed electronic musicians and DJs to integrate new hardware into their onstage setups in studios and dance clubs.

Choosing Your Next Synthesizer

There are plenty of synthesizers out there鈥攕o how does one choose wisely? Begin by asking yourself a few questions and answering them honestly. This can help you determine what your needs are, what features you yearn for, and how you will be using the synthesizer. Armed with that information, you can take a critical look at all of the models available and make an educated choice.

How will you use your new Synthesizer?: The answer is probably a million different ways鈥攅very way you can think of! But consider a few choices right off the bat.

Live or Studio? On stage, you will want an instrument that is easy to operate as you go from sound to sound, and as you tweak and edit the settings in performance. Keyboard synthesizers are a great option for live performers. In addition to choosing a synthesizer light in weight and easily transportable, make sure you will be comfortable taking this instrument to show after show. Battery power is available on a few models if that type of mobility is important to you. Rackmount synthesizers are perfect for studio use, featuring extras available for interfacing with other gear鈥攃lock out/in jacks, MIDI, USB-MIDI, CV/Gate, etc. If you鈥檙e still on the fence, there are some great desktop synthesizers that can offer the best of both worlds.

Will this be your only synth? If this is your first synth, or will be the only synthesizer in your setup, you may want to look for an onboard sequencer or programmable arpeggiator that will allow you to get a rhythmic pattern going that you can play along to. Maybe you are not a keyboard player at all, and just want to own a synthesizer for composing or introducing new sounds to your live performance. If you are adding this synthesizer to your existing rig, give some thought to what types of sounds and abilities are lacking in your current rig, and think about how each model would both fit in and augment your setup. Think about how much you need this synthesizer to do, in order to bring your performance up to the next level.

What kind of sounds will you be using? Again, this may seem a bit obvious. The type of music you play鈥攖he style, the genre鈥攃an have a great effect on your instrument choice. You may be looking to just add some punchy synth bass sounds and a few leads to your cover band. Here, choosing a synth with a large number of great presets may be important. Maybe you will be relying on your new synthesizer for great pads, strings, horns, and other rich sonic backing. If you plan to create original atmospheres and stylized sounds for your compositions, look for an instrument with more controllers and deeper programmability鈥攏ot to mention more modulation sources, destinations, and types.

Is computer integration a big part of how you work? For some musicians, the computer is the heart of their studio. For many live performers, the computer can change programs, organize patches, and run sequence files with clockwork precision. Others may use the computer to tweak the sounds in their synthesizers; some may not use the computer at all. The point is, nearly all synthesizers provide some level of computer support and interaction鈥攕aving programs, graphic editing, etc. Software synthesizers obviously rely on the computer to power their programs and to run the DAW program that will play host to the plug-in versions of these soft-synths. There are also other emulation instruments that benefit from a higher level of computer interaction. For example, certain Arturia hybrid synthesizers and Roland 鈥減lug-out鈥 products enhance the capabilities of the instrument through computer interaction. Knowing how the computer will integrate with your new synthesizer and your current gear can help to guide your decision-making process.

Sam Ash Music has a wide selection of synthesizers to choose from. If you have any questions, or need help making a decision, we've got a team of real musicians standing by. Just give us a call at 1-800-472-6274, or chat with us online, and one of our experts would be happy to help.