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.