Behringer RS-9: the Eurorack drum sequencer module nears completion

Image Credit: Behringer

The Behringer RS-9 Eurorack module finds its roots in the Behringer RD-9 sequencing engine. Now, Behringer presents a look at the Eurorack drum sequencer module and gives us an update.

Behringer first floated the idea of the RS-9 Eurorack module in November 2020. After speculation as to whether it would become a thing, it seems that now it is. Behringer says they need time to complete the module and test it, but they have suggested a target price of $149, repots Gear News.


Behringer RS-9 drum sequencer

The RS-9 drum sequencer doesn’t contain any of the RD-9 drum voices as it’s a drum sequencer and not a drum machine. Therefore, Behringer has made a module for you to plug drum and percussion modules into.

Comparing the new photos with rendered images tells us that they’ve made a few changes. But it seems that Behringer wants to keep both the buttons and functions as they are found in the RD-9. As a result, they need more space and so they’ve moved the branding to the top of the interface. Additionally, Behringer has added a manual Trigger button.

A total of 10 trigger outputs, in addition to accompanying Accent outputs, Sync In/Out, MIDI In/Out on chunky 5-pin DIN and USB sit on the hardware. Furthermore, you'll find one CV input and a Reset input. And according to Behringer, the buttons are for triggering channels manually - not just sequencing!
Image Credit: Behringer

A total of 10 trigger outputs, in addition to accompanying Accent outputs, Sync In/Out, MIDI In/Out on chunky 5-pin DIN and USB sit on the hardware. Furthermore, you’ll find one CV input and a Reset input. And according to Behringer, the buttons are for triggering channels manually too – not just sequencing! So, I’m thinking you could use it as a drum machine; providing you have drum modules hooked up to it for a sound source.

There are many similarities between the original Behringer RS-9 rendered image and the new model. For example, the branding is now at the top due to the need for space at the bottom.
Image Credit: Behringer

Because Behringer are inviting feedback on the Facebook post, many people have given their thoughts. For example, some people have suggested that the buttons found on the RD-9 console can often be slightly stiff. So they’re hoping the RS-9 buttons will be a bit lighter.

Don’t forget to check out the Behringer Facebook post! for yourself.

Roland JUNO-X: 3 powerful synth engines in one

Image Credit: Roland

Roland has introduced the JUNO-X, a polyphonic synthesizer that “reimagines the vintage JUNO experience” with an expanded pallette of sound design possibilities.

The classic Roland synthesizer makes a big, welcome, return with JUNO-X.


Roland JUNO-X

The Roland JUNO-X is a modern polyphonic synthesizer in 80s clothing.
Image Credit: Roland

The Roland JUNO-X features both JUNO-60 and JUNO-106 sound engines. Additionally, it also features a brand new JUNO-X sound engine with a Super Saw waveform; velocity sensitivity; a pitch envelope, and much more. The synthesizer has a 61-note keyboard with channel aftertouch – all sitting neatly in an interface that’s inspired by the original 1980s models. Also, built-in stereo speakers allow for easy monitoring, and Bluetooth support allows for audio streaming from mobile devices.

The build of the Roland JUNO-X resembles its older siblings. But Roland certainly haven't over done it with new, unnecessary features. Three powerful synth engines call for hours of fun.
Image Credit: Roland

Furthermore, we can layer a total of four tones together. We can blend them with a variety of modern effects, including two chorus modes from the previous JUNO synths. However, JUNO-X features a third chorus mode with more “fatness and swirl” as described by Roland. Moreover, we can combine all of them together and create a total of seven chorus effects!

Image Credit: Roland

Passionate Roland fans can rejoice. JUNO-X includes models from the JUNO-60, JUNO-106, PCM-based XV-5080, RD series acoustic pianos, in addition to an expressive Vocoder! Additionally, JUNO-X supports software expansions from Roland Cloud which gives us the ability to load optional titles such as the JUPITER-8, JD-800, SH-101, Vocal Designer, and more!

Roland Cloud subscribers can browse, audition, and load Model Expansion titles and other Pro membership content directly to the JUNO-X via Wi-Fi. And Roland state they’re making ten free Sound Packs available with a JUNO-X purchase too!


Connectivity

Finally, the JUNO-X features both balanced and unbalanced audio outputs with XLRs and quarter-inch jacks. A stereo audio input via a mini-jack, and MIDI In and Out. In addition, we can connect a microphone with the XLR/TRS combo which allows us to input vocals and use vocal performance or use the onboard Vocoder. And a headphone quarter-inch jack output is available too. Finally, a USB Type-A socket allows us to back up our data, with a Type-B socket for audio and MIDI communication with a computer!

The JUNO-X features both balanced and unbalanced audio outputs with XLRs and quarter-inch jacks. A stereo audio input via a mini-jack, and MIDI In and Out. In addition, we can connect a microphone with the XLR/TRS combo which allows us to input vocals and use vocal performance or use the onboard Vocoder. And a headphone quarter-inch jack output is available too
Image Credit: Roland

Availability

The Roland JUNO-X polyphonic synthesizer will be available in the U.S. in May for $1999.99 while UK pricing is still to be announced. Find out more about the JUNO-X synth on the Roland site.

Understanding the types of audio and digital cables

Image Credit: Music Repo

The music business is the business of cables. Asa result, there is a variety of different types of audio cable. By understanding what purpose each serves, you’ll know when to use each audio cable and why.

Whether in a music studio or a live sound scenario, signal flow is the Achilles heel of sound. You could have a huge stack of PA speakers and amplifiers ready to deliver thousands of watts of power to your audience. But if you don’t have an understanding of signal flow and what types of audio cables do what, you’ll disappoint your audience.

But different types of audio cables serve another purpose too, not just delivering quantities of signal to an output. The quality of the signal is also important too!


The difference between balanced and unbalanced audio cables

As musicians and music producers, we use two different types of cables. We call these “balanced” and “unbalanced” cables. Whether a cable is balanced or unbalanced depends entirely on how many signal wires are inside the cable which affects the fidelity of the audio signal you’re transmitting.


What are unbalanced audio cables?

Unbalanced cables such as TS or RCA cables feature two wires (a signal wire and a ground wire) inside the cable. And these wires connect to individual conductors in the connectors at both ends of the cable. Furthermore, both wires end at the connectors and have their own contact points.

An example of an unbalanced TS (tip-sleeve) cable is guitar cables. You’ll find these unbalanced cables on stage and in studios as we use them to connect our guitars to our amplifiers.

Inside the cable, you’ll find the signal wire in the centre of the cable while the ground wire surrounds it. The ground wire does carry part of the signal as a reference point but serves to shield the main signal wire from outside interference. Examples of interference sources include hum from lights and transformers.

The single signal wire is very susceptible to picking up noise and interference that we mentioned above. In fact, the signal wire acts as an antenna! Because they are very good at picking up interference, unbalanced cables work best with a maximum length of 4-6 meters/15-20 feet. This is even more relevant when you’re working in noisy environments!


What are balanced audio cables?

In contrast, a balanced cable like a TRS or XLR cable actually has three conductors in its connectors. Each conductor connects to one of three wires in the cable. These three wires include two signals wires rather than one, in addition to a ground wire. Again, the ground wire surrounds the signal wires and acts as a shield.

These two signal wires both carry a copy of the signal. The two copies both have their polarity (direction of electrical current) reversed. And if you sum two identical signals that have reversed polarity, the signals cancel out and give you silence. If your gear has balanced inputs, it will flip the inverted signal back into its original orientation with dedicated circuitry. And because both copies of the signal will pick up the same noise as they travel along the cable, flipping the polarity of the two signals reproduces the original signal and cancels out the noise. This is because the process flips the polarity of the noise and cancels it out.

As a result, you’ll find that balanced cables can be much longer than unbalanced cables.


What are XLR cables?

The most popular example of balanced cables is XLR (External Line Return) cables. They snap/lock into place inside your connector(s) and they’re very hard, if not impossible, to accidentally pull out of place.

XLR cables are the most common type of audio cables found in studios and on stage. They're balanced audio cables that we use to transmit signal from microphones and also to studio monitors and PA systems.
Image Credit: Wikipedia

We most commonly use XLR cables for both live speakers and studio monitors, as well as microphone connections. The rotation can vary, but gear inputs usually have a female head and the cables have a male head.

XLR cables can feature 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7 pins and corresponding wires. However, traditional (and the most common) XLR cables feature 3 pins. Two pins are conductors (one negative and one positive) in addition to a ground pin.


What are TRS cables?

Another example of balanced cables is TRS (Tip Ring Sleeve) cables. TRS cables have three wires inside them, and the two signal conductors cancel out the noise. The tip & ring components are the two signal conductors, while the sleeve is the ground.

We can use TRS cables to transmit audio signal to studio monitors. additionally, we can use them to transmit signal from outboard gear to our audio interface.
Image Credit: Amazon

We use TRS cables for studio monitor inputs, and line inputs such as outboard preamps to audio interfaces too. The difference between TS and TRS cables is that TRS cables have two stripes on them, while TS cables only have one.


What are TS cables?

TS (Tip Sleeve) cables are unbalanced connections. We use them mostly for instrument connections like guitars, bass, and even synthesizers.

TS cables are unbalanced audio cables that we use to connect our guitar to amplifiers.
Image Credit: China Audio Cables

What are RCA cables?

Unbalanced RCA cables have one cable per channel (one left and one right). Moreover, you’ll find more RCA connections on consumer products rather than professional studio equipment. However, that doesn’t mean you’ll never use them.

RCA cables are unbalanced cables that give have one cable per left/right channel. You'll find them on consumer products more than professional studio/live sound gear.
Image Credit: Orbita Digital

If you’re a DJ, chances are you’ve had to work with these. DJs commonly use them to connect turntables to live rigs!


Different types of digital audio cables

In addition to audio cables, you’ll also find digital cables in a professional studio setup.


What are MIDI cables?

Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) cables transfer digital information rather than sound. We call these digital bits of information event messages. Information we send through MIDI cables represents commands we make on our hardware. For example, you can play a note with a particular velocity and speed and your MIDI cable will transmit all of that data. MIDI cables also transmit information like panning, MIDI Aftertouch, tempo, and other event messages too.

MIDI cables transmit digital information that represents commands we make on our hardware. Information like MIDI Aftertouch, tempo, and other event messages too.
Image Credit: Cablematic

We can use them to connect synths, keyboards, sequencers, drum machines, audio interfaces and other electronic music devices to each other. As a result, MIDI cables allow computers and electronic instruments to communicate with each other.  


MIDI to USB cables

If you’re looking into getting a MIDI controller, you’ll get a USB cable rather than a MIDI cable. Like MIDI cables, USB cables don’t transmit any sound – only digital information.

You can use MIDI to USB cables to seamlessly connect your MIDI controller to your computer setup.
Image Credit: Walmart

Because so many people use USB inputs, they’re cheaper and more accessible. As a result, you can seamlessly connect your MIDI controller to your computer setup in no time. In fact, you’ll find USB cables on modern drum machines and audio interfaces, in addition to MIDI controllers.


Which are better – balanced or unbalanced cables?

The answer to this question is entirely subjective. You may have a balanced cable, but that does not mean the connection between your hardware is a balanced one.

Both your input and output devices must also be balanced for the connection to be balanced. Even one unbalanced point in the connection will create an unbalanced signal flow.


How do I know if my equipment is balanced?

It’s often noted on some mixers, synths, microphones and other hardware units whether the outputs and inputs are balanced. However, if your input and output are XLR connections then the connection is balanced.

A quick way to spot unbalanced gear:

If it has an RCA output/input then it’s an unbalanced connection.

Guitars and bass connections always have unbalanced connections.

Whether mono or stereo, a 1/4 inch input/output is usually an unbalanced connection. However, this isn’t always the case. Google the equipment or read the manual if you’re not sure!

New Samsung smart guitar with light-up fretboard will help you learn guitar fast

Image Credit: Samsung

Samsung hopes its new ZamStar instrument and app will help you learn guitar songs in no time.

When you first teach yourself the guitar it can be hard to know where to start, and motivating yourself to keep playing is trickier still. Samsung aims to make learning guitar easier with its new smart guitar, featuring helpful LED lights on the fretboard.

Samsung has named the guitar ZamString. The idea is to make the learning process more engaging for beginners, and, Samsung says, bring a fun new element to veteran players too. The instrument will be bundled with a ZamStar app that lets you record and play along with other users.

Image Credit: Samsung

The smart guitar features at the CES 2022 tech exhibition. Visual learners will appreciate the LED lights on the fretboard that show the player where to place fingers, making chords and patterns of scales clearer.

Learning guitar is really rewarding, but it does take time and effort, and it’s easy to get disheartened and abandon ship. Anything that makes the process a little easier will help new students who are trying to contort their fingers into unnatural-feeling shapes and get their heads around an alien-looking fretboard.

More details such as public release date and price aren’t yet available. ZamStar is on show at the C-Lab consumer technology exhibit in Las Vegas.


What makes the smart guitar so special?

The concept of a smart guitar isn’t a new one – existing guitars with light-up fretboards include Edge Tech Labs’ Fret Zealot. But the linked app and the involvement of Samsung, better known for innovative electronics, could set this smart guitar above previous inventions.

Image Credit: Samsung

Lockdowns during the pandemic saw an increase in people picking up the guitar, but how many of those new players have stuck with their new hobby? Even with the added light show on the ZamString, players would still have to contend with everything else that makes learning a new instrument tricky. That’s why the ZamStar app is interesting.

The app sounds similar to BandLab, the music making app that encourages users to share their tracks to its inbuilt social media platform. BandLab is hugely popular – if a similar social element is integrated into the ZamStar app, Samsung could be on to something.

AeroBand PocketDrum lets you play drums without the drum kit

Image Credit: AeroBand

PocketDrum are Bluetooth drumsticks that pair with your phone to remove the big, bulky, expensive and noisy aspect of playing the drums.

Learning to play the drums is a big commitment for any aspiring musicians. But what if you could fit the entire drumkit into your pocket for under $70? AeroBand’s PocketDrum hopes to provide you with the full drumming experience in an ultra-portable, light form factor.

Originally launched on Indiegogo, PocketDrum are now available to purchase directly from AeroBand. The drumsticks pair to the AeroBand app on your phone or tablet via Bluetooth 4.0. The app features three modes for beginners learning the basics and pros honing their craft: tutorial, game and freeplay mode. Alternatively pair the sticks to GarageBand to play, record and share your projects with the world. The drumsticks have a 6ms latency, respond to velocity and provide the player with realistic haptic perception. A single charge will give you around 10 hours of drumming.


AeroBand’s PocketDrum are available in Pure White, Night Club (black) with synchronized LEDs and Too Real (wood). They are currently on sale, with the drumsticks alone starting at just $69.99, usually $99.99, while the sticks with 2 foot sensors start at $119, usually $159.

Different types of synthesizer and how they work

Image credit: Avi Naim

Ever wondered what all the different synthesizers are and what types of synth sounds they all make? You’ve come to the right place.

If you’re getting into the world of synthesizers and the infinite possibilities of making music with devices that can create their own sounds, then you might be wondering what separates all of the synthesizer types – or even what types there are!

If you’re looking to dive deeper into the world of synths and answer questions like, “how do they even work?!” then look no further than our introduction to synthesizers.

Digital vs. Analogue Synthesizers: Which is better?

To start with the basics, all synths will come under one of two categories: digital or analogue. Analogue synthesizers use circuity and modulators to generate sounds whilst digital synthesizers will create their sounds, well… digitally.

Digital synthesizers use a computer to create their sounds in essence. Analogue synthesizers will often use a voltage controlled oscillator.

As is usual with arguments in the music world, there are synth-heads who will fight the superiority of analogue synths to the death. There is something to be said for hardware for sure and an authentically produced audio signal may provide that “warmer” feel that musicians often look for.

However, we’re living in the 2020s… The potential in digital music production is astonishingly vast and the things that you can do with digital synthesizers would blow the mind of most music makers pre-dating the millennium. As always, personal preference really decides which is best and if you have your own opinion on that then that’s great!

What are the different types of synthesizers?

No two synthesizers are completely alike and there are plenty of different methods that allow them to create audio through analogue and digital means. Strap in, as we’re about to cover the different forms of synthesis.

Subtractive synthesis: This uses complex waveforms which are generated by oscillators and shaped by filters which either boost or remove frequencies to tweak a final sound signal.

Additive synthesis: Additive uses a large number of waveforms and combines them into a cohesive sound. These are usually made up of sine waves.

Frequency modulation synthesis: Often acronymized into FM, this method modulates waveforms with the frequency of others. These waveforms can then be used to modulate other waveforms and so on the cycle goes.

Phase distortion synthesis: This is essentially a brand specific form of sound synthesis. Used by Casio for their CZ synthesizers, it works much the same as FM synthesis.

Wavetable synthesis: These synthesizers modulate between digital representations of different waves to change their shape and timbre.

Sample-based synthesis: These use sampled recordings of sounds rather than generating their own. These can often be manipulated through the use of filters, envelopes, and LFOs.

Vector synthesis: This uses crossfading between different sound sources and was pioneers by the Prophet VS.

Granular synthesis: This splits audio samples into “grains” which are played back in a recombined state. It often splits its samples to between one hundredth and one tenth of a second in length.

Physical modelling synthesis: Taking a physical source of sound and making a mathematical model for it.

Synth terms explained: A glossary of terms in music production

Image credit: Anton Shuvalov

Oscillators and LFOs, waveforms and filters, attack, delay, sustain, and so on. What does it all mean? Our handy guide will explain what all of the most common terms on digital synthesizers and analog synthesizers are.

There’s a lot of unique jargon and terminology involved in using synths. Whether you’re playing with an old piece of electronic hardware or you’re creating synthesized sounds in your digital music software, knowing what it all means is vital to getting the best results in creating your own sounds.

For a more in-depth guide looking at what a synthesizer even is, how the hell they work to create such unique and seemingly infinite sounds, what the different kinds are, and everything else you need for a 101 introduction into the world of synthesizers then head to our guide here.


ADSR: Attack, delay, sustain, and release. What are they? We’ll get to each of them individually below.

Amplitude: The volume of a tone of waveform, represented by the height of a waveform on an oscilloscope (click here in case you don’t know what that is too).

Analog: An analog circuit is an electronic system that uses a continuously variable signal. The term “analogue” describes the proportional relationship between a signal and a voltage or current that represents the signal.

Arpeggiator: Arpeggios are chords that are played in sequence, like strumming out each string on a guitar in sequence rather than one quick flourish. An arpeggiator simulates this movement of notes for you, sequencing a pattern of notes that make up a chord.

Attack: This is how long it takes for the sound to go from nothing to it’s peak. The longer the attack the more the sound will appear to glide in rather than start immediately.

Attenuator: A method of reducing the amplitude of an audio signal, essentially reducing its volume.

Band: A range of frequencies in an EQ.

Band Pass Filter: A filter that allows for only the band of frequencies surrounding the cutoff to pass through and prevents the frequencies outside of that band.

Bandwidth: This is the width of a band or the number of frequencies that are boosted or cut around a selected frequency.

Bank: No this isn’t a coin slot in your synth. This is where a group of patches are stored in MIDI instruments.

Bass: The bandwidth of low frequencies, usually accepted to be between 20Hz to 400 Hz.

Chorus: An effect which plays multiple copies of a signal, slightly out of time to create a new tone. Think about the difference between a solo singer and a choir of singers all singing the same note. This can also be called an Ensemble.

Clock: This creates a consistent timing that you can connect throughout the synths and other devices in your setup to keep them in sync.

Cutoff: This is controls the cutting off of frequencies, pretty simple huh? Acting as a filter this controls how much certain EQ frequencies are removed.

Controlled Voltage: Often presented as just CV. This can control any parameters in an analog synth. This is used to adjust the oscillators, filters, and envelopes.

Decay: This measures how long the tone will take to fall out after the sound has been triggered.

Delay: A copy of the signal which plays back after the original sound and varies in the time between repeating and how many times it will play back. It comes in many different forms, find out more here.

Digital: In synthesizers, this refers to a module that uses digital processors and uses the direct digital synthesis architecture. It uses a numerically-controlled oscillator. Erm, it’s basically a computer controlled sound.

Distortion: An effect which boosts the amplitude, often to a point of peaking that provides a crunching, crushing tone to the sound.

Dynamic: The range in volume of an audio signal.

Envelope: A filter that determines the tones of your synth sound. A standard envelope filter will use the ADSR setup to control the sound.

Equalisation: Usually referred to simply as EQ. This is used to control the frequencies in a sound.

Eurorack: A modular synthesizer format which has grown to become incredibly popular. They use compact, 3.5mm mono jacks and cables for patching signals. To find out more, head here.

Filter: Filters are what defines the shape of your synth sound by taking out specific harmonics.

Frequencies: This is the number of times a second that a sound wave will repeat its cycle. When this is increased it will provide a higher pitch to the human ear.

Gain: Another way of referring to the level of a signal.

Gate: These signals can turn notes on and off, change the stages of an envelope, or control when a sequence is started and stopped. This can also be used to refer to a dynamic effect that cuts off a sound below a certain level.

Harmonics: Overtone frequencies that are found at intervals equal to the fundamental frequency.

Low Frequency Oscillator: Usually referred to as an LFO, this is an oscillator moving so slowly it is below the audible range for the human ear. It is used to alter the movement of a sound by modulating the audible frequencies from its own range.

Low Pass Filter: A filter that lets frequencies below the cutoff to pass, eliminating high frequencies.

MIDI: Stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. Without getting into the technical complications of it, it is a system that allows control over digital synthesizers with a keyboard. You can find out more with our Introduction to MIDI here.

Modulation: This describes the changes in a signal. You can modulate most elements of an audio signal to define its output and how it travels.

Module: The units that make up modular synthesizers. These come in many forms… so many forms. You can find out more about what these modules can be and how they work here.

Noise: No we haven’t just added an obvious term here. In reference to synths, noise often refers to generators which add electrical noise to your signals. First found in analog synths, digital synths will sometimes simulate the effect but can’t replicate it authentically.

Octave: The intervals between a frequencies half or doubles, providing the same note but a different pitch.

Oscillator: These generate waveforms. Defining the shape of these waveforms has a huge impact on the sound you produce from a synthesizer.

Panning: The position of a signal on a stereo output in terms of left and right.

Patch: A pre-programmed sound that has been made up from oscillators/samples and customised then saved into a synthesizer. The name comes from the days of old when manually patching cables together created the desired sound.

Pitch: The frequency of a soundwave. The higher the frequency the higher the pitch of the sound will be to the ear.

Polyphony: The number of voices that a synth can play at a time. A monophonic synth can play only one voice, a paraphonic and duophonic synth both play 2 voices but work differently, and a polyphonic synth simply refers to multiple voiced synthesizers.

Portamento: This sweeps the pitch up or down between two notes when they’re played one after the other.

Pulse Width: This is the time a waveform will take to go from its highest point to its lowest point. The width refers to the visual length on the waveform of the signal.

Quantisation: This lines a signal up the closest increment in a specified range. Most commonly used when referring to rhythm and aligning notes up in time with a rhythmic grid.

Release: This defines the time taken for a sound to reach it’s lowest point in whatever the envelope is defining.

Resonance: Using feedback, this boosts the frequencies around the cutoff. This can emphasise harmonics and can generate a sine-wave if it is raised enough to boost the feedback.

Sample: A recorded sound bite which can be replayed and manipulated.

Sequencer: The arrangement of musical patterns which can be repeated to build up looping beats and melodies.

Sine Wave: The most straightforward waveform and the one you’re most likely to think of when you imagine an oscilloscope.

Square Wave: A waveform with very abrupt changes to its peak and trough, creating a shape with near right-angles.

Sustain: This describes how the sound will vary and sets the peak. For example, it will be the volume of the note when the attack reaches its destination.

Tempo: The speed at which music should be played defined by the number of beats in a minute.

Threshold: The level an effect must pass before it is activated.

Timbre: The character of a sound that isn’t related to its pitch or intensity. Can also be referred to as the tone clur or tone quality.

Treble: The bandwidth of high end frequencies. Commonly accepted as between 5.2kHz and 20kHz.

Tremolo: A modulation effect that impacts the volume.

Triangle Wave: Waveforms with a linear rise and fall giving it a triangular shape.

Trigger: The method uses to activate a module or synthesizer’s sound.

Velocity: Normally equating to the loudness of a note, this represents the dynamic attack of a trigger.

Vibrato: Effecting the pitch of a tone, this creates a funny warbling sound from a signal.

Voice: The sound created by an oscillator or a group of oscillators together.

Waveform: The visual display of a soundwave.

Patch your way through the apocalypse with a game of modular synth logic puzzles

Image Credit: Reckoner Industries

The Signal State is a game that combines logic-testing puzzles with synthesizer knowledge.

If you love modular synthesizers, The Signal State by Reckoner Industries is the game for you. The player must solve more than 40 puzzles in order to repair machines and rebuild a farm vital to producing food in a future where agriculture is failing.

Each puzzle in The Signal State has an interface built around modular synthesizers. That’s right, it’s time to make use of your modular synth patching knowledge – or equally, if you’ve always been intrigued but never dived into their complex world, the game is an absorbing way to start learning about synths.

In order to save the world in the single-player game set in a post-apocalyptic future you’ll be tested on your logic skills by dragging and dropping cables, programming samplers, output, and signal delays, just like in electronic music production.

Image Credit: Reckoner Industries

The cables are customisable, and there’s alternative designs by Papernoise. Reckoner Industries’ plan is to further update the game to release in sandbox mode, and also let players design their own puzzles.

The Signal State is on Steam and costs £15.49. It’s had a fair few positive reviews already. You can download a demo to have a go first – the game runs on PC and Mac.

What is a synth and how does a synthesizer work?

What are these mysterious musi making devices that seem capable of making any sound and how do they even work? Analogue, digital, and everything in-between; we’re here to clear it up.

To some synthesizers are the holy grail of all things musical and represent an unlimited potential of aural soundscapes. To others they are the funny noise makers they find in their DAWs and can make it sound different by turning all the knobs with unknown terms like oscillator and LFO above the dials.

Whatever your knowledge, synth’s are great and in this article we’ll be exploring the most common questions about synthesizers with a glossary of terms at the end to help creators, enthusiasts, and outsiders alike to understand what these oft-confusing but impressive creations are and can do.


Synthesizer definition: What does synthesizer mean?

Synthesizer is named for pretty self-explanatory reasons: It’s a machine or software that is capable of synthesizing sounds using hardware, without the need for human input like plucking strings, blowing through pipes, or pressing down on keys – although often synthesizers utilise keyboards to make their audio signals playable by human hands.

A Synthesizer means an electronic musical instrument that creates its own audio signal to produce sounds.


What does a synthesizer do?

Synthesizer can be split into two primary categories: Analogue and digital. Whichever the type of synthesizer, it is doing essentially the same thing: producing audio signals. The variety of function and potential depends on what exactly the synth is offering in what it can do and how it can be used.

A synthesizer can do many things with its digital sound creation. It can be played like any other instrument, often using a keyboard that will either come built into it or – as is common these days with software synths – MIDI keyboards which can be plugged in and used to control a synth.

Some synthesizers work as sequencers allowing users to program in patterns that the instrument will then play itself on loop. There are some hardcore sequencer synths out there that essentially provide the ability to create and produce an entire song that is playing itself on it’s own with poly loops.

Many synthesizers recreate the percussive elements of drum kits. These are usually lumped into their own category as drum machines and they can offer sampled hits rather than synthesis. Drum machines will often be used with a built-in sequencer function, like the famous Roland TR series which birthed the iconic 808.

Then there is the wacky world of modular synths. You may have seen images of rack synthesizers, modules with a sea of knobs lying underneath the shade of a web of coloured cables spreading out in an OCD nightmare tangle. Lets… not get into them right now, you can explore what the hell is going on there somewhere else if you want to know.

A modular eurorack synth
Image credit: Adi Goldstein

What is a synth keyboard?

A synth keyboard is probably what you’ve already wondered to yourself: a synthesizer module with a keyboard built into it making it completely playable using a recognisable method of music performance. These synths are popular because they allow for easy creation and allow people to play sounds back, making for quick feedback on how they’re editing the sound.

This is the most common type of synthesizer for casual enthusiasts and those who are just interesting in playing synthesized sounds without getting too technical into what they’re doing. That’s not to say that some of the most powerful and customisable synths don’t feature a keyboard too – some seriously big dogs do!


How a synthesizer works

No two synthesizers are completely alike and there are plenty of different methods that allow them to create audio through analogue and digital means. Strap in, as we’re about to cover the different forms of synthesis.

Subtractive synthesis: This uses complex waveforms which are generated by oscillators and shaped by filters which either boost or remove frequencies to tweak a final sound signal.

Additive synthesis: Additive uses a large number of waveforms and combines them into a cohesive sound. These are usually made up of sine waves.

Frequency modulation synthesis: Often acronymized into FM, this method modulates waveforms with the frequency of others. These waveforms can then be used to modulate other waveforms and so on the cycle goes.

Phase distortion synthesis: This is essentially a brand specific form of sound synthesis. Used by Casio for their CZ synthesizers, it works much the same as FM synthesis.

Wavetable synthesis: These synthesizers modulate between digital representations of different waves to change their shape and timbre.

Sample-based synthesis: These use sampled recordings of sounds rather than generating their own. These can often be manipulated through the use of filters, envelopes, and LFOs.

Vector synthesis: This uses crossfading between different sound sources and was pioneers by the Prophet VS.

Granular synthesis: This splits audio samples into “grains” which are played back in a recombined state. It often splits its samples to between one hundredth and one tenth of a second in length.

Physical modelling synthesis: Taking a physical source of sound and making a mathematical model for it.


Synthesizer glossary: Glossary of synthesizer terms

ADSR: Attack, delay, sustain, and release. What are they? We’ll get to each of them individually below.

Amplitude: The volume of a tone of waveform, represented by the height of a waveform on an oscilloscope (click here in case you don’t know what that is too).

Analog: An analog circuit is an electronic system that uses a continuously variable signal. The term “analogue” describes the proportional relationship between a signal and a voltage or current that represents the signal.

Arpeggiator: Arpeggios are chords that are played in sequence, like strumming out each string on a guitar in sequence rather than one quick flourish. An arpeggiator simulates this movement of notes for you, sequencing a pattern of notes that make up a chord.

Attack: This is how long it takes for the sound to go from nothing to it’s peak. The longer the attack the more the sound will appear to glide in rather than start immediately.

Attenuator: A method of reducing the amplitude of an audio signal, essentially reducing its volume.

Band: A range of frequencies in an EQ.

Band Pass Filter: A filter that allows for only the band of frequencies surrounding the cutoff to pass through and prevents the frequencies outside of that band.

Bandwidth: This is the width of a band or the number of frequencies that are boosted or cut around a selected frequency.

Bank: No this isn’t a coin slot in your synth. This is where a group of patches are stored in MIDI instruments.

Bass: The bandwidth of low frequencies, usually accepted to be between 20Hz to 400 Hz.

Chorus: An effect which plays multiple copies of a signal, slightly out of time to create a new tone. Think about the difference between a solo singer and a choir of singers all singing the same note. This can also be called an Ensemble.

Clock: This creates a consistent timing that you can connect throughout the synths and other devices in your setup to keep them in sync.

Cutoff: This is controls the cutting off of frequencies, pretty simple huh? Acting as a filter this controls how much certain EQ frequencies are removed.

Controlled Voltage: Often presented as just CV. This can control any parameters in an analog synth. This is used to adjust the oscillators, filters, and envelopes.

Decay: This measures how long the tone will take to fall out after the sound has been triggered.

Delay: A copy of the signal which plays back after the original sound and varies in the time between repeating and how many times it will play back. It comes in many different forms, find out more here.

Digital: In synthesizers, this refers to a module that uses digital processors and uses the direct digital synthesis architecture. It uses a numerically-controlled oscillator. Erm, it’s basically a computer controlled sound.

Distortion: An effect which boosts the amplitude, often to a point of peaking that provides a crunching, crushing tone to the sound.

Dynamic: The range in volume of an audio signal.

Envelope: A filter that determines the tones of your synth sound. A standard envelope filter will use the ADSR setup to control the sound.

Equalisation: Usually referred to simply as EQ. This is used to control the frequencies in a sound.

Eurorack: A modular synthesizer format which has grown to become incredibly popular. They use compact, 3.5mm mono jacks and cables for patching signals. To find out more, head here.

Filter: Filters are what defines the shape of your synth sound by taking out specific harmonics.

Frequencies: This is the number of times a second that a sound wave will repeat its cycle. When this is increased it will provide a higher pitch to the human ear.

Gain: Another way of referring to the level of a signal.

Gate: These signals can turn notes on and off, change the stages of an envelope, or control when a sequence is started and stopped. This can also be used to refer to a dynamic effect that cuts off a sound below a certain level.

Harmonics: Overtone frequencies that are found at intervals equal to the fundamental frequency.

Low Frequency Oscillator: Usually referred to as an LFO, this is an oscillator moving so slowly it is below the audible range for the human ear. It is used to alter the movement of a sound by modulating the audible frequencies from its own range.

Low Pass Filter: A filter that lets frequencies below the cutoff to pass, eliminating high frequencies.

MIDI: Stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. Without getting into the technical complications of it, it is a system that allows control over digital synthesizers with a keyboard. You can find out more with our Introduction to MIDI here.

Modulation: This describes the changes in a signal. You can modulate most elements of an audio signal to define its output and how it travels.

Module: The units that make up modular synthesisers. These come in many forms… so many forms. You can find out more about what these modules can be and how they work here.

Noise: No we haven’t just added an obvious term here. In reference to synths, noise often refers to generators which add electrical noise to your signals. First found in analog synths, digital synths will sometimes simulate the effect but can’t replicate it authentically.

Octave: The intervals between a frequencies half or doubles, providing the same note but a different pitch.

Oscillator: These generate waveforms. Defining the shape of these waveforms has a huge impact on the sound you produce from a synthesiser.

Panning: The position of a signal on a stereo output in terms of left and right.

Patch: A pre-programmed sound that has been made up from oscillators/samples and customised then saved into a synthesizer. The name comes from the days of old when manually patching cables together created the desired sound.

Pitch: The frequency of a soundwave. The higher the frequency the higher the pitch of the sound will be to the ear.

Polyphony: The number of voices that a synth can play at a time. A monophonic synth can play only one voice, a paraphonic and duophonic synth both play 2 voices but work differently, and a polyphonic synth simply refers to multiple voiced synthesizers.

Portamento: This sweeps the pitch up or down between two notes when they’re played one after the other.

Pulse Width: This is the time a waveform will take to go from its highest point to its lowest point. The width refers to the visual length on the waveform of the signal.

Quantisation: This lines a signal up the closest increment in a specified range. Most commonly used when referring to rhythm and aligning notes up in time with a rhythmic grid.

Release: This defines the time taken for a sound to reach it’s lowest point in whatever the envelope is defining.

Resonance: Using feedback, this boosts the frequencies around the cutoff. This can emphasise harmonics and can generate a sine-wave if it is raised enough to boost the feedback.

Sample: A recorded sound bite which can be replayed and manipulated.

Sequencer: The arrangement of musical patterns which can be repeated to build up looping beats and melodies.

Sine Wave: The most straightforward waveform and the one you’re most likely to think of when you imagine an oscilloscope.

Square Wave: A waveform with very abrupt changes to its peak and trough, creating a shape with near right-angles.

Sustain: This describes how the sound will vary and sets the peak. For example, it will be the volume of the note when the attack reaches its destination.

Tempo: The speed at which music should be played defined by the number of beats in a minute.

Threshold: The level an effect must pass before it is activated.

Timbre: The character of a sound that isn’t related to its pitch or intensity. Can also be referred to as the tone clur or tone quality.

Treble: The bandwidth of high end frequencies. Commonly accepted as between 5.2kHz and 20kHz.

Tremolo: A modulation effect that impacts the volume.

Triangle Wave: Waveforms with a linear rise and fall giving it a triangular shape.

Trigger: The method uses to activate a module or synthesizer’s sound.

Velocity: Normally equating to the loudness of a note, this represents the dynamic attack of a trigger.

Vibrato: Effecting the pitch of a tone, this creates a funny warbling sound from a signal.

Voice: The sound created by an oscillator or a group of oscillators together.

Waveform: The visual display of a soundwave.

Check out this fun limited edition David Bowie Stylophone

Image Credit: Dubreq

You can make the “Space Oddity” sound wherever you are with the nifty new Dubreq Stylophone inspired by Bowie. Easy to play, cool to show off.

David Bowie fans won’t be able to resist this. In honour of the late legend, Dubreq have made a limited edition pocket stylophone, with a look inspired by Bowie.

David Bowie had a long association with the stylophone, the portable pocket analogue synthesizer he used on “Space Oddity.” The limited edition version looks pretty cool – no Changes to a standard stylophone, but this particular pocket synth has an exclusive white design and silver front featuring the Bowie logo.

The stylophone features include a three-way octave switch for bass and classic synth sounds, and a wobbly vibrato switch, plus a tuning switch on the back. The instrument is conveniently battery powered and only 12cm wide, and you can play using the attached stylus through the built-in speakers or use the headphone socket.

Image Credit: Dubreq

John Simpson, Managing Director of Dubreq, said: “There’s a big resurgence in interest in the mini synthesizer from young musicians. This limited edition Stylophone is a great way to commemorate David’s affection for the instrument and to inspire the next generation of musicians to create even more great music with the Stylophone.”

Priced at $40, it also comes with a booklet featuring archive photos for Bowie fans. Check out the Bowie Stylophone here.