Where to learn about keyboard synthesis?
September 28, 2008 10:36 PM   Subscribe

What are some good resources (books, sites etc.) to learn synthesizer techniques?

Hey all. I'm really getting into keyboard synthesis, however, I'm having a hard time finding good resources to learn about the craft. Does anyone have recommendations for books or websites etc. on synthesis? I'm looking for explanations on creating common sounds - woodwinds, strings, tr-808 and 909 drum sounds - so I can start building some custom patches. Thanks for your advice!
posted by Me, The Snake to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This book has some good reviews (but is out of print so you will have to get a used copy):


Sorry about the cut and paste but I couldn't get the link to work.
posted by Asbestos McPinto at 11:32 PM on September 28, 2008

You could do worse than the Sound on Sound archives. I'd give you a decent link, but they seem to be down for maintenance.
posted by pompomtom at 11:35 PM on September 28, 2008

I read a lot of Keyboard magazine back when I was into this stuff. It covers relevant programming stuff on occasion, so see if your local library has back issues. Also reading the manuals for different synths can be quite instructive since they do go into a lot of this stuff in detail. Roland Corp. has put manuals for many old keyboards on their website. You might see if you can find a manual for Juno-106 series, which features analog-style synthesis, and is a good style of synth to get started on. More complicated systems use PCM samples of real instruments plus digital synthesis; see the Roland D-50.
posted by drmarcj at 5:35 AM on September 29, 2008

Seconding the Sound on Sound article archive. The section you want is Synth Secrets.
posted by alb at 5:53 AM on September 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

Okay, I'm going to suggest more of a ground-up approach. I recognize this is not exactly what you are asking for but I've sprinkled plenty of links in there that may be of help, so skip the explanation and just check out the links if you'd like. I'm assuming you are a relative beginner with synthesis; if not, my apologies. In fact, more of a description of your familiarity with these techniques would be helpful too.

I would start with a book like the Welsh's book for a general overview, or Roads Computer Music Tutorial if you are working mostly in the digital realm. You should get at least a basic understanding of the different synthesis techniques and the "types" of sounds they produce: the sort of partials that tend to be generated with different techniques and how processing intensive they are. Of course, I'm getting ahead of myself; are you interested in learning analog or digital techniques? There is certainly plenty of overlap, and there are many digital techniques that are basically attempts to model analog techniques--as well as digital synthesis techniques that are difficult or impossible with analog electronics. What types of synthesis will you be working with, first of all, if you know already?

Probably the first synthesis techniques you have learned about or will learn about are additive synthesis, frequency modulation (FM) synthesis, subtractive synthesis, wavetable synthesis, and granular synthesis (maybe, this last one has been introduced more recently and is a little more isolated to the academic realm). There are other synthesis techniques too, including some meant specifically to model very specific sounds like plucked string instruments, for example. FM tends to be good for bell-like and generally "metallic" sounds. Additive synthesis has a lot of possibilities, but takes more effort to construct...etc.

You'll want also to dive into the different strategies to creating envelopes and then how you can overlay different synth sounds with different envelopes to produce rich and unique sounds, and sounds approximating those you get in "real life..." this is when articles in the Sound on Sound archives might start getting really useful (not that they won't be useful before, but a good solid grounding first will be very helpful).

I think also, fundamentally, getting good at hearing how different sounds are structured in terms of their partial "footprint" will be something that you'll get better and better at. A piano key has a short attack and a relatively quick release (depending on how you hold it) versus a legato note played on a violin...start listening and trying to deconstruct those instruments and sounds that interest you, and find out more about the partials that different instruments' sounds are composed of. And move backwards too; if you start by saying (for example) "what will it sound like if I try a short attack, long decay, on a FM sound..." you'll start feeling more comfortable also identifying quickly what sounds you hear remind you of in terms of your synthesis experience. With a solid grasp of the basic techniques and what they do, I think you'll learn the most playing around with your synthesizer and exploring its different capabilities.
posted by dubitable at 7:09 AM on September 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yes, sound on sound synth secrets is a good place to start.

To add on to what dubitable, mentioned - the dynamics of sound - the amplitude envelope - is often more important than the timbre of the sound in creating a convincing replacement for most actual instruments.
posted by bigmusic at 9:16 AM on September 29, 2008

The Roland JP-8000's instruction manual gave me a great introduction and further understanding of substractive synthesis. Complete with 'use this for a whistle' 'this is the ADSR envelope for strings' examples.
posted by mnology at 11:45 PM on September 29, 2008

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