Synthesizers are an overwhelmingly common element of popular music in the digital age. They’re the backbone of genres like EDM, techno & house music, but their reach extends well past the Top 40 and into all kinds of crossover genres.
Even rock bands are using synths to fill out their sound and supplement certain elements of a song when they’re recording in the studio. The omnipresence of the synthesizer has taken the music industry by storm, and there are so many variants that sometimes it’s hard to keep up with them.
Do you know the big players in the game?
Additive synths are some of the most common synthesizers, in popular music today. At their core, additive synths use sound waves as building blocks stacked on top of each other to create a sound. Sub Destroyer is a basic additive synth, with just one waveform at a time available. For this reason, Sub Destroyer is the go-to choice when reinforcing other instruments in your mix.
Additive synths have their limitations – they can be harder to dial in a specific sound compared to some of the other synths on this list. They’re usually lacking in some of the more complex control parameters found on other synths.
But for beginners to synthesis, there’s no better choice than an additive synth to learn the basics on.
Subtractive synths are just as common in modern music as additive synths, and actually have a bit longer of a history than additive synths. Subtractive synths can be broken down into 3 main elements: oscillators, filters & amplifiers.
The oscillators generate a tone, the filters shape it, and then the amplifiers determine the gain on output. Some subtractive synths add an additional ADSR section to the end of the chain for even more control over the shape of the sound.
Subtractive synths get their name from the way the combination of oscillators and filters work to create sounds. Subtractive synths are much more flexible than additive synths, and are especially well equipped to replicate real instruments.
FM synths (short for frequency modulation) have become popular in electronic music communities for their less natural, digital sounds. FM synths share a lot of common traits with subtractive synths, with the exception of their oscillators.
The main oscillator(s) of an FM synth have a varying frequency, amplitude, or tone that makes them sound unnatural and complex when compared to simple subtractive synths.
FM Synths work exceptionally well when looking for a blatantly digital sound that couldn’t be mistaken for any other type of live instrument.
Sample-based synths get a bad rap in the electronic community for being “cop-outs”, but the title in undeserved.
While the creation of a realistic sounding synth using other methods in no small accomplishment, a sample-based synth gives musicians and engineers a starting point that’s more complex and tonally accurate than an oscillator or two can provide.
Sample-based synths are common in hip hop and other genres, where pitch-shifted samples play well with others. These samples can be anything from a vocal recording to a guitar riff to a sample of a synth stab (how meta is that!?!).
Chances are, if you’ve seen someone performing a medley/mashup on an MPC, you’ve seen first hand how sample-based synths work. You take samples, pitch them up and down, and trigger them as needed. It doesn’t get much easier than that.
Keeping Your Synths Consistent
If you’re working with multiple synths in a single song, it’s useful to bus them down to a single “Synth Aux” track, where they can be processed and mixed together. Start with each track as it’s own instrument, then glue it all together with something like BG-Keys.
Your end result will be a consistent and clear set of synths, regardless of if they’re sampled, modulated, additive, or subtractive.
Did We Miss Your Favorite Type of Synth?
This was meant to be a general overview of types of synths; if we did a deep dive, we’d be here all day. There are plenty of other types of synths worth learning about if you’re interested: wavetable, granular, phase distortion… The list goes on for a while.
Do you have questions about a specific type of synthesis? Come ask our community about it over in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum. The forum is filler with engineers & producers eager to share their knowledge and experience.