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What Synthesis Type Are You?

Our musical workflows say a lot about who we are as creators. Some seek control over every conceivable parameter in pursuit of their vision, while others choose to bridle chaos and see where it takes them. The same concept applies when synthesising sound. Read on as we break down the main types of synthesis for the patch tweakers, the thrill seekers, and everyone in between.

moog grandmother synth

Subtractive Synthesis

Subtractive synthesis takes a harmonically rich waveform and subtracts frequencies with a filter. The resultant tone is then amplified to different volumes over time by an amplifier. This simple idea is great at creating tones with strong fundamental frequencies for playing melodies and chords. Things get interesting when using multiple oscillators, different filter types, and a variety of modulation sources. This is by far the most common type of synthesiser, making up ~80% of synths on the market.

The Moog Grandmother is a future classic that is the perfect gateway into subtractive synthesis, the Moog sound, and the modular ecosystem.

Buchla Easel command synth

West Coast Synthesis

West Coast synthesis starts with a simple waveform and runs it through a 'waveshaper' to add increasingly complex harmonics. It utilises a special type of filter/amplifier called a low pass gate that tapers off high frequencies as the signal gets quieter. It also typically forgoes keyboards in favour of expressive pads and sequencers. These techniques combined are perfect for creating experimental natural, plucked, and percussive sounds. Sequencing and modulating the voltages that comprise a patch quickly creates controlled chaos.

Don Buchla invented West Coast synthesis, and the Easel Command Module is the best way to experience it.

Korg opsix synth

FM Synthesis

FM synthesis begins with a pure sine wave (the carrier) and modulates it with another, inaudible sine wave (the modulator). This modulation adds harmonics dependant on the frequency of each of these 'operators' hence the name 'frequency modulation'. By using various chains of carriers and modulators, FM synthesis can achieve a wide variety of complex sounds. It is particularly excellent at glassy leads, booming kick/bass, and metallic percussion. The difficulty with FM is finding the juicy sounds amongst the madness, making it better for pre-patching rather than tweaking on-the-fly.

Six-operator 'Altered' FM that expands upon the frequency modulation formula, the KORG opsix is a compact powerhouse.

Waldorf M synth

Wavetable Synthesis

Wavetable synthesis uses 'single-cycle' waveforms arranged and (typically) played sequentially. This form of synthesis has an inherent sense of movement as its fundamental timbre is constantly changing. Many modern wavetable synths also 'morph' between waveforms in a table, making for smooth modulation from one timbre to the next. Loading your own waveforms/tables makes wavetable synthesis incredibly versatile, but it's especially useful for evolving pads and textures that would be difficult to create any other way.

A modern take on classic wavetable synthesis, the Waldorf M combines digital versatility and analogue warmth in desktop form.

Waldorf M synth

Granular Synthesis

Granular synthesis breaks a sample down into tiny 'grains' which can then be smeared like tiny drops of paint across your sonic canvas. By changing the size, density, and source location of the grains used, a near-infinite amount of textures can be created from a single recording. This type of synthesis is incredible at creating vivid pads and sound effects even before applying filters, delay, and reverb. A good granular synthesiser should be in the kit bag of any sound designer or film composer.

FM, granular, 8-bit and a whole lot more, the Sonicware ELZ_1 is both stunningly powerful and highly portable.

Waldorf M synth

Physical Modelling

Physical modelling synthesis recreates real world instruments by simulating their component parts. This usually involves combining virtual 'exciters' (bowing, blowing, and striking) with virtual 'resonators' (strings, tubes, membranes, and plates) to create sounds that closely resemble traditional instruments. Control over such detailed parameters allows for extensive tweaking for nailing particular sounds or creating new timbres entirely. Physical modelling synths are at their best when creating instruments that bear an uncanny yet indefinable resemblance to real world percussion.

Based on the Mutable Instruments Plaits, the Behringer Brains has just about every synthesis base covered, including physical modelling.

Arturia Pigments screen shot

Additive Synthesis

Additive synthesis adds sine waves together to create specific timbres. It is based on the idea (known as Fourier theory) that all sounds are a collection of multiple harmonic and inharmonic overtones. These 'partials' all have different frequencies and amplitudes that change over time in unique ways to create the sounds we hear in the world around us. While there are few examples of additive synths on the market today, you can recreate additive synthesis in your sampler or DAW by modulating and mixing sine waves.

A state-of-the-art software instrument, Arturia's Pigments 3 gives you power over every shade of synthesis, including a Harmonic Oscillator additive engine.

Korg wavestate synth

Vector Synthesis

Vector synthesis places two or more waveforms at the corners of a two-dimensional plane and then crossfades between them using a joystick or other modulation source. Whilst a neat idea, it has largely been overshadowed by the power, flexibility, and morphing of wavetable synthesis. Despite this, it has found its way onto many hardware and software synths as a way of mixing oscillators, modulation sources, and amplifier outputs. Vector synthesis is, at the very least, an intuitive and tactile control method for other sound sources.

Combining wave sequencing with a vector joystick for tactile manipulation, the KORG WaveState is an inspiring new take on hybrid synthesis.

Behringer Xenyx mixer

Feedback Synthesis

Feedback synthesis takes the output of a circuit and patches it back into the input. This creates a 'feedback loop', which progressively amplifies the input audio until it's a completely different sound. 'No input mixing' uses the sends, returns, and channels of a mixer to turn the inherent noise of its analogue circuit into a recognisable tone. By careful tweaking of gain, EQ, and effects in the signal chain, no input mixing can be an incredible feat of avant garde creation. Just remember: any feedback loop is only ever one knob twist from a screaming, grinding apocalypse.

With 4 balanced, high-headroom stereo inputs, the Behringer Xenyx 1002B is perfect for a no input mixing setup with outboard effects.

iZotope RX screen shot

Spectral Synthesis

Spectral synthesis is a method of isolating harmonic and noise content on the frequency spectrum. These elements can then be removed or resynthesised to correct low-quality, incomplete, or erroneous audio samples. Spectral synthesis is one of the most powerful tools available to engineers and producers looking to restore or remaster works recorded on outdated or inferior hardware, or for mix surgeons who need the ultimate sonic grafting kit for patching over unforeseen additions or omissions.

The industry standard audio repair tool, iZotope RX 8 software uses spectral analysis to isolate, eliminate, and generate frequencies in your audio files.

Elektron Digitakt sampler

Sampling as Synthesis

While not technically synthesis, modern sampling increasingly applies elements such as filters, amplifiers, and modulation to recorded sounds. Short samples can be looped to create longer tones, long samples can be cut to size with envelopes, and even non-musical material can be sliced & sequenced until it becomes an instrument unto itself. This form is great for taking real world recordings that would be hard to synthesise, and processing them into otherworldly sounds that are both immediately familiar and eerily hard to define.

A stripped back drum machine and sampler, the Elektron Digitakt gives you the power to mutate and propagate your audio samples into fresh sounds.

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