Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Proportion of Line and Mass Dealing With Basic “Synthesizer” Questions...Chapter II: Synthesizer…Schmynthezier…All Synthesizers are the Same! Uh…No.

So, you've defined your need for a musical synthesizer. Great! As stated earlier, you're now 90% of the way through the woods towards your purchase. Now, let's look at the final 10%. Let's take a look at the 3 components which will make up the last 10%, we'll look at a quick introduction as to what a synthesizer is, how you get the sound or sounds you want for your particular needs, and what prices you should expect to encounter.

A synthesizer is an electronic instrument that utilizes numerous sound generators to fashion intricate waveforms that can be altered, manipulated, and pooled into innumerable sonic variations through a variety of waveform synthesis techniques.

Today, most synthesizers are often controlled with a piano-style keyboard, leading such instruments to be referred to merely as "keyboards." Several other forms of controllers have been devised to resemble guitars, wind-instruments, violins, drum pads, fingerboards, music sequencers, and body movements.

For the sake of this exercise, we will assume that you wish to purchase a portable musical synthesizer (aka a "hardware synth") with a keyboard controller, a rack-mount synth, or a table-top synth, and we will not even look at "modular" synthesizers or "soft synths."

So, now that you have a rudimentary practical knowledge of what a synthesizer is, the next question you have to ask yourself is how do you get the sound or sounds you want for your particular musical needs? The answer to that question will be...?

Analog or digital, sir or madam?

That's right grasshopper, the next part of your purchase expedition will be to know that musical hardware synthesizers are placed into two major category types. There are analog synthesizers and digital synthesizers.

An analog synthesizer is a synthesizer that uses analog circuits and analog computer techniques to generate sounds electronically.

A digital synthesizer is a synthesizer that uses digital signal processing (DSP) techniques to make musical sounds.

Well, which one is better? You already know the answer...the one that fulfills your needs, silly!

Now, I'm sure that you're asking yourself, what's the difference? Well, the principal difference is the sound and how that sound is created! We'll have a more in depth discussion about that in a future chapter...

A good general rule will be (and yes...I know that there are exceptions to most of life's rules) if you want hardcore 60's era Wendy Carlos, 70's era Kraftwerk, or early 80's Depeche Mode timbres, you want analog. If you need a classical piano, or "real-instrument" emulations, you want digital. Again, that's the general rule. However, today there are a myriad of analog-modeling synths, that are in fact, digital synthesizers that act like analog synthesizers, but they're not, but ok...ok...I think you get it. At this point let's just keep to our general rule and not muddy the waters too much.

This now leads us to the ugly question of price. Keep in mind the "car" comparison from chapter I.

What determines price? It all depends, are you buying a brand new digital synth? Are you buying a used analog synth? What year was that particular synth produced? How rare is that particular synth? Did they manufacture only 15 units during the production run? Did they mass produce 800,000 units? So, price will vary on the model of the synth you are considering. Price will vary if you're buying a "used" synth from a private citizen online, or if you're going to your local "Synths R' Us" retailer to purchase a factory sealed box.

As an example, you may find a "classic" (the world "classic" will be used to denote a product that is "old.") ARP Odyssey at a local music store or from a private seller online. The price for this synth can range anywhere from $300-$800, depending on the condition. Now, this classic synth may be beat up, scratched, the keyboard may have a funky "stickiness" to it, have issues with its oscillator-sync capability, and most likely will not have the connectivity capabilities to your computer that you so desperately seek, so buyer beware. This is where you need to know your needs! If you're looking for an old-school "Southern Baptist Deep in the Heart of the South Gospel Organ," you ain't finding it within the ARP Odyssey! It's not that type of synth! It wasn't designed for that purpose! However, if you're looking for good analog basses, out of the ordinary leads, attention-grabbing effects, and sweeping sounds or noises, check it out, yo. It's like buying a "classic" 1972 Buick SportWagon and expecting it to perform like a 2010 Chevrolet's just not going to happen.

Now, if you want that "...Heart of the South Gospel Organ" timbre and "close enough is good enough" for you live music application, and you're looking in the "used" market, you can search the 'net and perhaps find the Korg X3, a fine digital synth for around $450. It won't give you cutting-edge sounds, but it makes up for that limitation in the wide range of "real instrument" emulations and timbre choices, such as, well..."Gospel Organ."

Of course, if you just have to go with a brand new factory sealed box, you can line yourself up with a Moog Voyager for your analog synth needs for about $3,000, or if you need that "killer" gospel organ sound you can go with a "digital" Hammond XK3 factory sealed box for about $2,200, at least for those units that are still currently available.

So at this point, let's figure your previous 90% (from chapter I) added to the last 10% of the process, so that you can get out there and purchase your synth.

1. I want to add a portable musical synthesizer (synth with a keyboard controller, rack-mount, or table top) to my mix.
2. I want to record, play live, use a computer, learn to be a programmer, etc...
3. My musical "genre" is country, hip-hop, electro, metal, etc...
4. To get the sound or sounds that I need...I will want to investigate either an analog or digital synthesizer.
5. I have "x" amount of $$$.

So, now that I've added up what needed to be added up...where do I go to purchase my synthesizer? That's going to be the next chapter's fun...

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