How synthesizers work

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I dunno… an “electrician” with degrees in physics and EE? We call these people “electrical engineers”. Electricians wire up houses, and tend to not know much about electronics.

It makes me think that the author doesn’t know much at all about electronics.


Agreed that the most important part of the synthesizer is the security system.


How I dreamed of messing around with a Moog, as a nerdy teenager!

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Dunno. As a nerdy 30-something, I dreamt of messing with a New England Digital Synclavier II or a Fairlight CMI. I mean, my theory prof at Concordia in the early '70s also taught electro-acoustic music and had a neat little 2-oscillator analogue synth in a briefcase (complete with filters, LFO, pin-style patch board, joystick and capacitance keyboard), but meh…

When the digital audio workstations came out, they turned my crank (“Twin 6809s! Woohoo!”), and hooked me on computers (because that was really what they were). I ended up in the computer industry because I was a musician. :smile:


Chock full of inaccuracies. And no mention of Don Buchla?

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(I’d be remiss not to mention that while Moog mainstreamed the instrument, Don Buchla invented his modular synth at the same time on the West Coast, where the sound was more avant-garde. Silver Apples of the Moon, composed by Morton Subotnick on the Buchla, was the first electronic music sold by a record company.)

Otherwise, yeah. It’s debatable that either Emerson played the first synth solo or that Kraftwerk was the first electronic pop group. The first well-known exemplars, perhaps, but we had a band up here in 1970 called Syrinx that was doing precisely these things. It was an idea whose time had come, I think.


Artists increasingly relied on the preset sounds (also called “voices” or “patches” after the patch cables on modular synths) that came factory ready, which is why so many 80s pop songs sound the same — no one (except for Brian Eno, of course) bothered to program their own sounds from scratch.

It’s weird reading about a creative time in your life that you hold close to your heart written off like that. I’m getting used to it though, when the young folks think of 80’s music these days they think of the most banal top 40 pop, the whole explosion of new wave and post punk seems to be something you had to live through.


Do they mention that that wasn’t true up until the DX7 came out?

It is kind of mentioned in that context, but I think that ignores pretty much all the innovation that occurred with electronic music in the 80’s, which was really the golden decade for the synthesiser.

Shame such a lazy narrative. People were excited to be able to store and save patches, they were excited at the stability that FM offered over waiting hours for something to be temperature-stable enough to tune, they weren’t excited to deal with operators and one single slider to program them all versus one knob per function.


DX7 difficulty has been far exaggerated. Even in the 1980s there were software programs which made editing the voices easy. I think that it was more of a conceptual gap. There have always been many great introductory tutorials on synthesis - not unlike the article linked in the bb post - but often a lack of more involved info. So many people reach a certain plateau and stay there. How do you tweak the VCF on a DX7? It doesn’t have a VCF! Analog monosynths and polys got people used to a fixed synthesis architecture, and it has taken decades for the marketplace to start moving past it.

Yes, and no. I agree that it was an era with a lot of inspired music. But I think that the 80s-90s were a sort of dark age for actual advances and technique in synthesis itself. That’s not the whole story, because many new kinds of synthesis were devised, but no companies wanted to make them into actual products. They took a retro path from FM to sampling back to virtual analog using DSPs which were still hardly user-programmable, despite the cheaply available technology. Things had finally begun to improve in the late-90s to early-00s with the re-introduction of physical controls, such as knobs, and companies finally getting a bit more adventurous with architecture and programming options.

The late 1970s through 1980s were certainly a time of synths becoming prominent in popular music, so there is that.


The DX7 was a breakthrough but I never really got into the sounds, although I liked the sort of metallic sounds you could get out of it. I never fully grasped how to program them. I think the touch sensitive keyboard was a big leap forward though, and programming touch sensitivity for the presets was pretty fertile ground.

I had a Juno-60 for years, that was the best of both worlds for me.

Edit: Although obviously not a lot of scope for ground breaking innovation on a Juno-60!

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It really could have done with one though. I much prefer the software hybrids you find now days if I ever experiment with additive synthesis… which I don’t do a lot… probably because I’ve reached a certain plateau…

“Except Perhaps The Bassoon” is my new band name.


I thought, for an introductory article for people who don’t really know much about synths and their history, it wasn’t that terrible.

Personally, I never found FM synthesis that difficult, even back in the day. But I had a book that covered various synthesis methods in just the right amount of detail without getting terribly math-heavy; more importantly I also went through a couple of years of having a DX-100 as my only synth, so I explored it in some depth. (And admittedly the DX-100 was simpler than the DX-7 and a better learning tool.)

A lot of musicians stick with presets today, despite much better interfaces. It’s just that there are millions of available presets, sample sets, loop packs etc., compared to a few hundred in the 80s. Daft Punk’s “Derezzed” used a series of presets straight out of Image-Line Gross Beat, for instance.

You know, this thread has been playing on my mind!

I actually think I jumped in here with a strong opinion and no coherent argument, and I just had an emotional reaction to a perceived slight on 80’s music.

I think @popobawa4u is right, the 80’s was not a time of great innovation in synthesiser experimentation and technique, and there was a certain sameness to the sounds used. That is probably not due entirely to just using presets, its also the popularity of portable analog synths with a relatively limited range of sounds, and the popularity of a certain ‘synth’ sound.

But the point the author was making is probably fair enough.

The sort of innovation that makes the 80’s stand out for me is more the punk / post-punk DIY attitude, and the creativity in production and style that flowed from that energy. I think a lot of that music gets overlooked when people just look back at the cheesy top 40 music that came out of the 80’s.

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