What Kind of Synthesizer are You?

Keyboards have had an impact on popular music, making various real-world and other-worldly sounds available at a musician's fingertips. From monophonic analog synthesizers to digital romplers, find out which type of synth would best fit where your muse takes you.

Tina Banks
Created by Tina Banks
On Mar 29, 2017

Monophonic Analog

Monophonic Analog

Monophonic analog synthesizers are well-known for their use in lead synth melodies, groovy basslines, and even creating drum tracks. While they cannot produce chords by playing multiple notes on a keyboard, it shines with its ability to express notes using glide and portamento, and low frequency oscillators to modulate the sound to create vibrato effects. As an artist, you might find yourself wanting to use a synthesizer to express yourself and to make a bold statement, either showing off your technical skills as a soloist; or being able to produce gritty basslines to make the studio as well as speakers rumble. Technical virtuosity is more of your trade, and a monophonic analog synthesizer is a good match for people who want to show off their skills as a soloist as well as crafting catchy basslines. Well-known monophonic synthesizers include the Mini Moog Model D, ARP Pro Soloist, and in recent years the Mini Moog Voyager, Sub Phatty, Little Phatty, Sub 37, DSI Mopho, and the DSI Pro 2. These instruments shaped the sound of 70s rock music and electronic music, as well as today’s analog synthesizer revival.

Polyphonic Analog

Polyphonic Analog

Polyphonic Analog synthesizers are versatile machines allowing the musician to be able to craft both melody and harmony portions in a piece of music. From going as far back as the 1930s with the Hammond Novachord to making harmonies possible on string synths in the mid-70s such as the ARP Solina String Synth, being able to play chords using the keyboard could literally put an orchestra at your fingertips. Complex filter-sweep sounds could be created using Dave Smith’s SCI Prophet 5 (and Prophet 10). Even greater polyphony could be achieved with Tom Oberheim’s 8-voice than most early polyphonic synthesizers. Plus iconic warmth of the Yamaha CS-80 and Polymoog. The polyphonic analog synthesizer defined the sound of the early to mid-80s with drenching and lush PWM pads and snappy synth brass lines. Classics such as the Roland Juno-106, Jupiter-8, and Prophet 5 defined the sound of 80s synth pop and rock music. Bold and bright brass sounds could be created by cutting sawtooth waveforms from the Oberheim OB-X and OB-Xa. And later with the analog revival in the early 2000s, the Alesis Andromeda A6 was one of the pioneering polysynths in tandem with the Nord Lead (virtual analog), that helped to bring back the 80s synth pop sound and complex sound structures using subtractive synthesis. Today we have the Sequential Prophet 6, OB-6, and the Behringer Deep Mind 12. An ideal choice for artists that are seeking to create complex pads/harmonic structures, soundscapes, as well as using it for a groovy lead synth.

Modular

Modular

Modular synthesizers take the traditional monophonic analog model and expands it to individual segments that a musician can customize to their liking. Each section of the synth is divided into modules that could be mounted in a cabinet or on the wall, and the sounds could be changed either with knobs or using patch cords. From classic modular monsters such as the Moog System 55 (famously used by Keith Emerson), Buchla’s 200 series, quasi-modular systems such as the ARP 2600, to today’s modular synths such as Doepfer, Waldorf’s Eurorack setup, and Erica Synths, the possibilities to build sounds are boundless. It’s an ideal instrument for artists seeking to stretch boundaries of sound design and to make connections between various segments in a system. Let alone it totally engages in a synthesist’s dream to be like a mad scientist in their music lab. (Cue Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein”).

Additive Digital

Additive Digital

Rather than taking away harmonics of a sound, additive digital synths sought to start off with the most basic waveform, the sine wave, and layer them together in more complex sounds. Following in the tradition of additive synthesis like the cogs in the Telharmonium or tonewheels in an organ, the technology was brought into a computer form. Starting off with the Alles Machine by Bell Labs, the technology was infused into one of the first commercially available additive digital synths, the New England Digital Synclavier (which also had sampling capabilities). The Synclavier was expensive and available to elite musicians, and the sound quality aimed to replicate musical instrument sounds as accurately as possible. Most additive digital synths are complex to program and requires a lot of work to maintain them. Though they are ideal for musicians that enjoy challenges, and want to indulge in 80s synth landscapes.

FM Synthesizer

FM Synthesizer

Another branch off of the additive digital, but taking things up a notch with creating sound. Rather than just adding partials, the process ups the anty even more to programming synthesizers much like doing calculus or particle physics problems. Much to the chagrin of fans of the analog synth sounds, the bell-tone quality of FM synthesizers of the 80s became a ubiquitous part of the musical landscape. The most notorious of them all was the Yamaha DX7 which had massive use in the 80s. It was an affordable option for musicians to get professional quality sounds and as realistic of a sound as possible (at the time). Though they weren’t known for being the most stable of synths and would frequently break down from overprogramming (Brian Eno had 7 of them and one of them was completely unfixable). FM Synthesizers are the underdogs within the synth community but are currently becoming more fashionable with reboots such as the Korg Volka Keys FM and the Yamaha Reface DX. If you are looking to recapture the essence of the 80s, get your leg warmers on and grab a DX7 and jam like it’s 1985.

Sampler

Sampler

Samplers can take audio recordings and allow the musician to create accurate representations of a sound without having to replicate it either digitally or using analog subtractive synthesis. With its origins with the Fairlight CMI and the NED Synclavier II, audio snapshots could be recorded into the instrument and played back using the keyboard. The Fairlight CMI allowed the musician to create their own songs within the instrument itself. Later, E-mu Systems took a stronghold in the 80s with their Emulator samplers, especially with the Emulator II. In the 90s, Kurzweil took a stronghold with the K2000, making the use of large floppy disc storage obsolete with standard diskettes. Today’s samplers can allow one to store the samples directly onto the keyboard’s memory and transfer samples via USB or recording it into the instrument. It’s an instrument designed for those who want to have the real sounds of other instruments available, as well as creating sonic collages.

Digital ROMpler

Digital ROMpler

To make things simpler to program and be closer to subtractive synthesis principles, digital ROMpler synths became more popular in the late 80s through the 90s and today. Originating in the 80s, PCM Wavetable Synthesis was brought into the world with the PPG Wave. Later, becoming an arch rival to the DX7, the Roland D50 made its mark with Linear Arithmetic Synthesis, which manipulated the time of each sample used within a preset. PCM samples were used within the Korg M1 which defined the sound of the 90s. With the advent of the Prophet VS and the Korg Wavestation, hings got even more complex with vector synthesis which allowed the evolution of the sound’s envelope, filter, LFO and oscillator settings to be changed by manipulating a joystick. Any sound imaginable could be created from an array of presets to really customizing it with vector, transwave, and linear arithmetic synthesis. Even analog sounds could be modeled, and some digital ROMplers such as the Roland JD-800 modeled the analog style faders from its predecessors such as the Juno-106. The Ensoniq VFX and SD-1 were also a part of the digital ROMpler landscape. The complexity of sounds increased throughout the years with the boon of workstation synths such as the Korg Trinity and the Triton, which were able to recreate sounds with more accurate samples, and the boon still continues with recent models such as the Korg OASYS and Korg Kronos. It’s an ideal synth for multifunctional sounds, pianos, bass, guitar, choirs, and ambient pad sounds. For a musician that wants a multipurpose synth with just about everything available to create music.

Virtual Analog

Virtual Analog

Virtual Analog synthesizers seek to replicate the analog synthesis techniques used in vintage synthesizers, yet using it within a digital sample-based technology. The basic waveforms are produced by the digital synthesizer and are put together to create complex sounds. Those that are nostalgic for the analog sound but like to explore other ambient boundaries would find VA synths to be ideal. Well-known VA synths are the Clavia Nord Lead series, as well as the Waldorf Blofeld, Roland Gaia, Access Virus, and many others.