How To Play Synthesizer For Beginners

(Last Updated On: February 27, 2021)
A beginner is learning how to play synthesizer keyboard.

Music is often created using the synthesizer because of the vast difference it makes in the sound it generates. It is like you are tapping the same notes, but you hear something more than what you played. You are able to play with the notes, so the possibilities are endless when creating music. A synthesizer also referred to as an electronic sound synthesizer, is basically an electronic musical instrument or a machine that produces sounds that are electronically modified, often using a digital computer.

How Does Synthesizer Work?

The synthesizer can generate waveforms and then changes its timbre, intensity, frequency, and duration. It essentially gives you the chance to manipulate the sounds according to your preference far beyond what you can do when you are just using regular musical instruments in terms of versatility and range. A synth can copy any sound or the sound generated using conventional instruments such as the piano or violin and turn it into something new.

It makes use of the following methods to generate sound: additive synthesis, which is a method used to combine many waveforms together (commonly the sine waves) to create the timbre or tone color and quality; subtractive synthesis is a technique used in reducing the sine waves with a filter to alter the timbre of the audio; and the frequency modulation (FM) synthesis is used to modify the wave frequency with another frequency that would result to a complex form, which can be used to modulate another one, and so on.

How To Play Synthesizer

Synthesizer Terms Beginners Must Learn

Creating or playing music using the electronic sound synthesizer might sound easy because it would somehow do the work for you; however, it is not that simple, especially if you are just a beginner. There are terms from the basic to the complex that you need to know and have a better understanding of so that you can use the synth without being limited by your lack of knowledge of what it can exactly do for you.

Waveform: Shape or pattern of the signal’s wave and the most common among the different types of waveforms are the sine, square, sawtooth, and triangle. The sine or sinusoid is the simplest waveform characterized by a smooth continuous wave that produces the pure tone; it has no harmonics and only has a single basic frequency that establishes the pitch of the sound. You can use this in creating other waveforms by adding a series of sinusoid waves at the right amplitude, phase, and frequency.

A square wave is a waveform having right-angled and evenly spaced periods generating an edgy or buzzy tone with the addition of odd harmonics. The sawtooth or saw wave is a jagged waveform having both even and odd harmonics that produce a jagged sound or one that has a harsh or rough quality to it. A triangle wave has the fundamental frequency plus a series of harmonics. It is similar to the square wave, but it tapers off, and its sound is not as smooth but not as buzzy either. Complex waveforms include an inverted saw, inverted triangle, ramp, exponential decay, and more. There are peaks and valleys in a wave called oscillation.

Frequency: The number of times per second that the cycle of a sound wave repeats; the speed of vibration. The SI unit of frequency is hertz or Hz that is equal to a cycle per second. It is what you hear as the pitch of the sound. The faster the frequency of the sound is, the higher the pitch. A lower frequency would mean the sound has a lower pitch. If the frequency of the tone is doubled, then the sound would be one octave higher.

Partial Tones: Consist of several different frequencies.

Amplitude: It is the size of vibration that determines the loudness of the sound. The larger amplitude has a louder sound, while the smaller amplitude would mean the sound is softer.

Timbre: The way it sounds – the color, character, and texture of the sound. It is what makes one sound unique from another or how you differentiate the sound of a piano from a guitar when playing the same note.

Intensity: The sound buildup or progression; the volume or loudness of the sound.

Duration: It is the length of time, how long or how short, a sound, note, tone, or pitch is sounded.

Phase: It is where a waveform is in its cycle at any given time.

Resonance: The emphasis or prolonging of sound in a particular frequency; the vibration of sound at a specific frequency after the source is removed.

Cut-off Frequency: It is the set frequency in which the filter is applied to determine the frequencies allowed or blocked.

Harmonics: It is mostly multiple fundamental frequencies.

Modulation: Creates effects. It is all about changing or modulating the audio signal.

Monophonic vs. Polyphonic: Monophonic music has a single melodic line with no harmony or counterpoint. Polyphonic music has many melodies playing in conjunction with another or occurring at the same time; it is also called contrapuntal or counterpoint music.

MIDI: It stands for Musical Instrument Interface Data, which is the technical standard or standard protocol for a digital interface connecting a variety of electronic musical instruments, synthesizers, computers, and other related sound devices that play, edits, and records music. The digital instrument data are transmitted simultaneously through the MIDI connection. When a key is played on a synthesizer, it transfers the data detailing how the note is played, such as its pitch, velocity, duration, etc. If several keys are played at once, all the information is simultaneously transferred.

Arpeggiator: Playing a group of notes or chords in sequence, usually in ascending and descending fashion.

Sequencer: It is similar to the arpeggiator in that the notes can be played in order or sequence, but it differs in that you have the option of adding effects, rests, etc., on the note.

Pulse width: The length of Time the waveform goes from its highest point or peak to its lowest point. When you adjust or alter the pulse width, it affects how long the waveform stays up or down low. There is no effect on the frequency.

The Basic Components of a Synthesizer

There is a variety of synthesizers available, but they mostly have the same basic components that you have to familiarize yourself with so that you do not get lost or be intimidated by the wide arrays of controls or knobs in front of you. The components alter or shape the sounds.

Oscillator: This is the source of the sound. It is an electronic circuit that generates repeated or periodic electronic signals such as the sine wave or sawtooth wave. The raw or unfiltered sound signal is manipulated or modified by changing the wave form.

Voltage Controlled Oscillator (VCO): It is the electronic oscillator that controls the frequency of oscillation or periodic vibration by the voltage input. It is used for frequency modulation (FM) and phase modulation (PM).

Low-Frequency Oscillator (LFO): The oscillator that generates waveforms or signals at a very low frequency or below audio range, such as zero to 20 Hz. When it is added to the control input of the voltage-controlled oscillator, it produces the vibrato effect or a variation in pitch. When it is added to the control signal of the voltage-controlled amplifier, it generates a tremolo or a variation in volume.

Mixer: Combines sound sources or signals from the different sections of the synthesizer.

Filter or Voltage Controlled Filter (VCF): It shapes the raw audio signal by blocking some frequencies and letting others passed through. This is crucial in subtractive synthesis. There are different filters you can use depending on what frequencies you want to block or allow you to get the desired effect. However, keep in mind that the filter does not completely or totally enable or block the frequencies. A low pass filter (LPF) allows frequencies below the selected cutoff frequency to pass while blocking the rest above or the high end of the signal; it is useful for removing harmonics. The band pass filter (BPF) only lets the narrow band of frequencies around the cutoff to pass through as it blocks those above and below it; this enables you to highlight a particular frequency. A high pass filter (HPF) lets the frequencies above the cutoff to pass through and blocks those below it or the low end of the signal; it can allow only the harmonics to get through. The notch filter blocks a narrow band around the cutoff frequency and enables the rest to pass; it is the opposite of the bass band filter.

Amplifier: Determines how much signal will pass through; it basically controls the volume.

Voltage Controlled Amplifier (VCA): It makes use of voltage to regulate the amount of signal that is allowed to go through the output.

Envelope Generators: Modulates the amplifier and has four sections, namely Attack Time, which is the Time it takes for the sound signal to go from zero to its peak, and it starts once you first press the key; Decay Time, which is the Time it takes for the sound signal to decrease or go from peak to sustain level; Sustain Level is the sound maintained with the key pressed on after the Attack Time and Decay Time; and Release Time is the Time it takes for the sound to go from the sustain level to zero or when the sound fades to silence after the pressure on the key is released. Simply put, the ADSR is for controlling the duration of the audio signal as it goes through the stages from the Time the key is pressed until it is released. Some of the recently released synths have six- or eight-stage envelopes in which the sound is chopped up or divided into more segments that you can control.

There really is so much to know and learn before you can master a synthesizer. However, the rewards would certainly be worth it as the electronic sound synth has the capability to offer limitless possibilities in creating music. With the different types and brands of synthesizers available, it is best to check each one and determine which would better suit your needs. Once you get your hands on that synthesizer, you can start learning how each part works and how it can give you the desired effect or result. The more you practice, the more you would discover new ways to create sounds.

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