Chicago Synth Exchange | Synth 101

A Musician’s Guide to the Fundamentals of Sound Synthesis with Electronic Musical Instruments  

Walk in the doors of Chicago Music Exchange, go downstairs, and, beneath the Lincoln Avenue showroom’s decked-out guitar walls on the first floor above, you’ll find a room full of musical gadgets that have proven so worthy of their own room that we devoted a whole corner of our ground floor to synthesizers, which CME affectionately dubbed Chicago Synth Exchange.*

Most, though not all of these musical gadgets, have a keyboard attached, making them appear piano-like. But, while some of these gadgets are engineered to create sounds akin to a piano, most—indeed, virtually all—are capable of making so many more sounds than a piano ever could that they’ve long been classed into a musical instrument category all their own, long before CME became unofficially known among a growing clientele of collectors and professional musicians as “The World’s Greatest Guitar Shop."

*The Synth Exchange’s product category offering includes, but is not limited to, “electric pianos” and “keyboards,” alike, as well as all varieties of electronic synthesizers, eurorack modules, midi controllers and drum machines (some of which, it’s worth noting, in no way evoke, or even remotely resemble, a piano—neither in appearance nor sound nor functionality). 

The Making of an Electronic “Sound Event” 

Chicago Music Exchange may have started as a shop geared primarily to a guitar-playing clientele, but we’ve also long been a destination for the whole band, first with The BASSment, then with Chicago Drum Exchange, next door, and, now, especially with the latest addition with Chicago Synth Exchange

In addition to crossovers between not only the different types of instruments individual artists employ to make music, there’s also a lot of crossover between electronic musical instruments—whether with an electric guitar (w/ amp or interface), or using an analog synthesizer (w/ amplifier or interface)—not only in how definitive they’ve become in shaping the sounds of popular music, over the decades; but, also, in how they electronically generate a “sound event”** to create the audio we hear, using oscillating electric currents.  

**In the words of legendary electronic music and West Coast Synth pioneer, George Buchla.

Guitar vs. Synth Sound Events

With either instrument, the musician fundamentally must generate a series of “sound events” in order to make what we (hopefully) call “music”—whether melodically, harmonically, or even ambiently. 

For many, if not most guitarists, the tactile nature of playing guitar seems to intuitively make sense when it comes to the idea of creating “sound event.” I.e., they must physically, simultaneously, fret a note and pluck a string, which vibrates over the pickups and oscillates the transducer’s magnetic field, generating an electronic current. 

The tone of that frequency can then be shaped further, based on sonic characteristics imparted from the guitar’s physical attributes and electronic components, as well as the guitarist’s own stylistic dynamics—not to mention any other modulation or effects within the guitar signal chain; or, just as importantly, the amp from which the audio eventually emanates!

That said, even guitar players who aren’t at all shy around a black-and-white keyboard may not understand the first thing about how analog components generate an electronic “sound event” in an analog synth beyond pressing down on a key—i.e., a “sound event generator”—let alone, how to shape the volume, tone, and modulation parameters of that “electronic sound event” to shape it into it an audible set of sounds that further inspire their musical creativity.  

Synth 101: Class in Session

So, to get down to the very basics: How do you create a “sound event” with an electronic analog synthesizer? Of course, at least, for any synthesizer with a keyboard, the obvious answer is to power it up, plug it into an amp, and press down a key. 

But, without a piano key physically causing a hammer to strike a set of strings, which resound and resonate inside the wood of the piano itself—or, in the case of a Fender Rhodes, a hammer striking metal tines next to a magnetic pickup to generate an electric current, much like a guitar—how does the physical application of a synth player’s touch electronically generate a sound? 

Well, we, at Chicago Synth Exchange, are here to help! In addition, to our ongoing Synth 101 series of in-store seminars hosted by our resident Synth expert, Roland Chira, which covers everything from the basics of sound synthesis to the virtually endless variety of sounds and functionalities available from synth products in the store—along with an audio demonstration, so you can hear each of the sounds you can create, yourself—we’re devoting a section of CME’s Soundboard Blog to provide an additional online resource and reference for all musicians, on the fundamentals of sound synthesis!

Lesson 1: The Basics

Electric Oscillation, Sans String Vibration

The foundational element of any synthesizer’s sound generation is a type of analog electronic circuit known as an oscillator—or, in technical terms, a voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO). 

Without getting too far into the nitty-gritty, the most important thing to know is that—rather than relying on the physical vibrations of a metal string (or tine, in the case of a Fender Rhodes) near a magnetic pickup, causing oscillations in the transducer’s magnetic field—VCOs generate a sound by converting a DC signal from an electronic power supply into an AC signal, using the energy of the alternating current. 

To trigger the event, a synth player uses an input voltage controller of some sort—for example, one resembling a piano keyboard—which sends that specific corresponding voltage to the oscillator, generating a particular pitch. Like a piano, lower notes on the synthesizer keyboard correspond to lower frequencies, and higher notes to higher frequencies, respectively. Each key produces a sound, based on the oscillating current’s repeating, or cyclic, waveforms—a type of sine wave—at the corresponding frequency (measured in Hz). 

Surfs Up! Riding Synth Waveforms

Oscillators (aka VCOs) generate a variety of different waveforms; but, the most important thing to know is that it’s the shape of the waveform that imparts tonal characteristics to the “sound event” and forms the foundational sound, with its particular sonic characteristics based on the waveform, before any additional parameters are adjusted. 

The key thing to remember from this edition of Synth 101 is—when synthesizing a particular sound—if you feel like you aren’t getting the basic character you’re after, the first knob you should reach for is the waveform knob. It could take your sound in a whole different direction!

Types Of Waveforms:

SAW WAVE

  • Characterized by: Brightness in the high end
  • Reminiscent of: Stringed instruments
  • Adds: Upper-range energy and excitement 
  • Ideal for: More aggressive sounds 

SQUARE WAVE

  • Characterized by: Big, full sound; rounder sounding than saw wave
  • Reminiscent of: Reed- or horn-based instruments
  • Adds: Harmonic complexity for further shaping
  • Ideal for: Vocal characteristics and throaty to nasal tones

TRIANGLE WAVE

  • Characterized by: Not as lively or full sounding as a square or saw wave
  • Reminiscent of: Dull-sounding timbre
  • Adds: Pure tones; harmonic simplicity
  • Ideal for: Smooth and pleasant sounds that aren’t as harsh.

Add-On Option: Noise*

*Many, though notably, not all, synths come with a noise source

- The sound of static can be used on its own for ambiance or textures, imparting a secondary color to the sound.
- Combining noise with another waveform can add energy and sonic excitement
- Great for creating ambient sounds

Come into the Synth Exchange, today, to ask our resident synth expert, Roland Chira, how some different synth oscillators and waveforms sound!

SHOP KEYS & SYNTHESIZERS

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