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About Synthesizers
Early Analog Synths
by: Michael Palmierię2007

In the 1960's early synthesizers were in university music laboratories. One consisted of so much hardware, that it filled an entire wall of a small room. At that time, amplifiers, tone generators and filter modules were separate pieces of equipment, each having many dials, arranged next to and connected to each other using patch cables. Patch cables looked like short guitar cables. One would patch an amplifier to a module that generated a signal - a sound. Different waveforms, e.g. a square wave, a sine wave, a triangular wave and a saw-tooth wave, were selected to generate these signals. The waveforms were controlled in innumerable ways. Multiple waveforms could be combined, further changing the quality and timbre of the signal. The signal would be patched to a filter, which would either add or subtract overtones from the sound.

One actually created an electronic sound and then edited it, in order to use it, possibly for only a few seconds, in a piece. A separate keyboard controller was used to play the newly created sound as pitches. The music was recorded to reel-to-reel tape, which was often cut and pasted, using a razor blade and scotch tape, in order to make the musical work of art.

Today we call sounds on a synthesizer "patches," because of their origins as modules being patched together using patch cords.

The word "analog", when used in conjunction with "synthesizer", implies a synthesizer with which one can create the sound electronically as explained above.

In the late 1960's and early '70's, all-in-one analog synthesizer keyboards became available for home and professional use. These incorporate the amplifier, the wave signal tone generators, the filter and many dials, which are used to vary the signal's parameters.

Digital Technology

With the innovation of digital recording to computer disk, keyboard technology evolved further. Digitally recorded sounds are looped, loaded into a small computer disk inside an electronic keyboard and mapped to the keys of the keyboard. When a player plays a key on a digital keyboard, which is set up to play a violin patch, a digitally recorded looped sample of a live violin player is triggered.

This type of electronic keyboard has been in use for some time. Although it should rightfully be called a "sample playback" machine, it is now called a "synthesizer". So, the definition of a synthesizer has changed since it inception.

Midi is a numeric language that can be used to communicate between multiple keyboards. When connected using midi wires, one keyboard, functioning as the master controller, can play the patches of other connected midi keyboard synthesizers. Musicians have other keyboards, in order to utilize more and different patches.

Manufacturers realized that machines could be made, having the electronic innards of any synthesizer, minus the keyboard itself. When incorporating these "modules" into a midi set-up, the master controller, can also access the patches of any rack mountable midi connected module.

Lately there has been a resurgence of interest in analog synthesizer technology. The keyboard industry has responded by producing more and more analog-type digital synthesizers and their modules.

Sample Libraries

Within the last few years, digitally recorded sample libraries of sounds are now available. The samples, which are software, are installed in a computer like any other piece of software. The samples use a graphic player, which is viewed on the computer monitor, to choose the patches. Via midi, the master keyboard controller plays these patches, which stream from the hard disk.

The major hardware factors necessary to accomplish this efficiently are a fast computer and sufficient computer hard disk space, in order to store the samples. Since faster and faster computers are being made, sample library companies are putting out mega gigabyte libraries. Depending upon size, these large libraries can require multiple external hard disks on which to store the samples.

Soft Synths

A software synthesizer can be either a newly created instrument or a software emulation of an existing hardware synthesizer. The software synth's samples are installed to a computer hard disk, using the same technology as described above for sample libraries.

A graphically displayed synthesizer is viewed on the computer monitor. Clicking and dragging the mouse operates the knobs and switches, appearing on the synthesizer's monitor display.

Most synthesizers, regardless whether they are analog or sample playback hardware or soft synths, can edit samples, in order to change the sound of a patch and create and save a new one.


No attempt has been made here to describe the technological know-how necessary to effectively utilize synthesizers, or affect their parameters.

Throughout the past 40 to 50 years the synthesizer has evolved from a complicated mass of hardware modules creating sound, to a digital storage bank of data.

Licensed to Bitchin' Entertainment by Michael Palmieri. To receive permission to publish this article please contact Theresa Yarbrough
No unauthorized publishing is allowed.