Back in the day, musicians could skate by with just understanding the differences "between analog" and "digital" synthesis. This is because many years ago, most synthesizers were like your basic sandwich, only providing a few ingredients — an oscillator section, a filter section, and an envelope section.
On the digital front, you had some fancy samplers and Yamaha's first FM machines, but unless you were a sound design superstar or a nerd in a lab coat, you didn't need to know much more than "analog" and "digital."
Today, thanks to technology that's quicker and smarter than ever before, computers have incredible processing power. Plus, with Eurorack and its wild, woolly "anything goes" ethos taking over, sound synthesis has exploded into a cornucopia of options, from your basic vanilla to the wackier than a pack of weasels.
Sure, it can be a tad overwhelming, which is why we're gonna break down 10 types of synthesis you'll probably come across when you're shopping for synthesizers.
Keep in mind that this list isn't set in stone since new types of synthesis are always on the horizon. It's a thrilling era for music makers, full of endless possibilities and mind-blowing innovation, but for now, here's what we've got!
What Is Synthesis?
Before we get into the weeds exploring different synthesis types, let's start by answering the most fundamental question, what in the world is synthesis?
At its most basic definition, synthesis is the process of creating new sounds by manipulating and combining different audio sources.
It involves using software or electronic components to generate and alter waveforms. As you probably already know, synthesizers can produce a vast range of sounds, from classic analog synth leads to complex, evolving textures.
Of course, synthesis has long been a staple of electronic music production. Nowadays, its reach has extended into other genres, becoming a defining feature of countless chart-topping hits and movie soundtracks.
If synthesis were a kitchen, subtractive synthesis would be the trusty sous chef. It's the go-to technique for creating new sounds by carving away at the raw material until you get something that's perfectly cooked to your taste.
Starting with a rich and flavorful oscillator, you can remove specific harmonics with a filter and adjust the volume with an envelope to fine-tune your sound.
With subtractive synthesis, you can shape your sound into just about anything, from a roaring horn-like lead to a delicate violin-like pad. It's the ultimate sonic sculpting tool for musicians and sound designers alike.
The beauty of subtractive synthesis is that it can adapt to both analog and digital environments with ease. Traditionally associated with analog synthesizers, subtractive synthesis can also be digitally represented through the magic of analog modeling .
With the introduction of new software synthesizers over the years, digital subtractive synthesis has put a new spin on an old favorite.
Classic subtractive synthesizers like the Roland Jupiter-8 and the Moog Minimoog Model-D are the OGs of subtractive, but there's a whole host of modern synthesizers, like the Arturia Minibrute, that are carrying on the tradition with their own unique flavors.
The overwhelming thing is that with so many subtractive synthesizers out there, you have to overcome the kid in a candy store mentality.
It's worth noting that in some circles, people refer to subtractive synthesis as East Coast synthesis. In fact, this type of synthesis owes a lot to the Big Apple.
It was the brainchild of Bob Moog, a New Yorker through and through, who honed his focus on traditional harmonic musicality.
Meanwhile, over on the West Coast, Don Buchla, known for his trusty Buchla Easel, was cooking up something altogether more experimental.
If the East Coast is all about the classics, the West Coast is like a mad scientist's lab. Buchla's exploratory techniques led to some truly bizarre and unexpected sounds. Think Mozart vs. Frank Zappa.
Of course, there are those who say the East Coast/West Coast divide is just a myth, but if you're a true synthesis aficionado, it's a debate worth exploring.
Either way, whether you're an uptown or downtown kind of person, subtractive synthesis has something for everyone.
Popular Subtractive Synthesis Hardware Synths
Moog Minimoog Model D
The Moog Minimoog Model D might just be one of the most legendary analog subtractive synthesizers of all time. There's no doubt that it has left an indelible mark on music history.
The iconic fat, warm, and rich sound is almost instantly recognizable, as it has been used by countless artists across a wide range of genres, from rock to funk to hard-hitting EDM.
You get three gorgeous oscillators, a 24dB/octave low-pass filter, and a simple yet powerful modulation section, all housed in a sleek, sturdy and elegant chassis
Next to the Minimoog Model D, the Korg MS-20 is another classic analog subtractive synthesizer renowned for its distinctive sound and powerful features, including a dual oscillator design, a resonant filter, and a patch panel that allows for complex modulation and routing options.
When the Roland SH-101 hit the market in the early 1980s, it became popular for its compact size and unique sound.
The simple interface made it a popular choice for beginners and professionals alike, though it was more than powerful enough for experts to pull out complex sounds.
One of the main things people love about the SH-101 is the signature resonant filter, which can create anything from a subtle wah effect to squelchy, aggressive leads.
The SH-101 has been used by countless artists, from Flume to Aphex Twin to Thom Yorke, and is one of the most versatile pieces of hardware out there.
Popular Subtractive Synthesis Software Synths
Arturia Prophet-5 V
If you've read any of my articles before, you know that I'm a huge Arturia fan. The Arturia Prophet-5 V might be one of my favoite synths in the lineup, paying tribute to the legendary Prophet 5 analog synth, which has been an integral part of the synth world since the 1980s.
The Prophet 5 V has an incredible ability to reproduce the classic subtractive analog sound of the original Prophet 5 with modern digital features to enhance its versatility.
HY Plugins HY-Poly
The HY-Poly subtractive synth from HY Plugins flies under the radar a bit in terms of popularity, though it has an impressive sound engine, a sleek user interface, and wide range of features, making it more than capable of producing everything from warm, analog-style tones to cutting-edge digital sounds. The main thing I love about this synth is the variety of modulation options, making it easy to create complex, evolving textures and dynamic soundscapes.
AIR Music Technology TubeSynth
If a warm and rich analog-style sound is what you're after, the AIR Music Technology TubeSynth is an excellent choice. I highly recommend this software synth for beginners, as it comes with a range of versatile to get you started, from fat basses and gritty leads to lush pads and ethereal textures.
Additive synthesis is a technique that involves the combination of simple waveforms, typically sine waves, to create more complex harmonic structures.
It is a bit different from subtractive synthesis, which starts with a complex waveform and removes harmonics in that it builds upon a sound from its individual components.
The more sine waves or partials that you add together, the richer and more complex the resulting sound becomes.
One of the best examples of a classic additive synth is The Hammond Organ . The beauty of this legendary piece of hardware is that it allows the player to selectively add and remove harmonic content when they manipulate the underlying drawbars.
Of course, additive synthesis has evolved greatly since the introduction of the Hammond, with modern examples like the 24-harmonic oscillator found in the Plaits from Mutable Instruments. This hardware Macro-Oscillator boasts 16 different sound production algorithms, each with two simultaneous outputs for added versatility.
You then have software options, such as one of my absolute favorite VSTs — Native Instruments Razor, which is powered by the company's Reaktor player.
These instruments showcase the seemingly unlimited potential of additive synthesis when creating a wide range of waveforms and filter characteristics with nothing but sine waves as your bass.
Razor, in particular, demonstrates how producers can use additive synthesis to generate highly complex sounds while still retaining a great deal of precision and control.
Additive synthesis is an excellent choice if you're aiming for clear, precise, and well-defined sounds.
As the cherry on top of additive synthesis, we have resynthesis. This technique is used in additive synthesis to analyze a recorded sound and recreate it using harmonic partials.
The process starts off with a waveform, aiming to reproduce it with precision. One of the most popular hardware synths that was capable of this style of synthesis was The New England Digital Synclavier .
There was also the Hartmann Neuron synth, which was built to make use of a unique resynthesis neural network.
Although it's not as widely used as it once was, resynthesis remains an intriguing aspect of additive synthesis.
Popular Additive Synthesis Hardware Synths
The Kawai K5000 is a unique and powerful additive synthesizer that was released in the mid-90s. Though Kawai stopped producing their line of additive synthesis hardware due to low sales, the K5000's ability to create complex and evolving sounds by combining and manipulating thousands of individual waveforms was a big deal for those who purchased them. I was always a big fan of the large, easy-to-read LCD display, which made it a bit easier to navigate and program the synth compared to others.
One of the main competitors of the Kawai K5000 was theThe Kurzweil, which was also released in the early 1990s. One of the standout features of the K150 was its sample playback capability, which allowed for the use of pre-recorded sounds and loops in addition to the synth's internal sound generation. The synth also features a variety of synthesis engines, including FM and Beyond itsadditive synthesis engine, it also featured an FM synthesis engine, allowing users to combine and manipulate the different engines to create complex and evolving sounds.
Popular Additive Synthesis Software Synths
Arturia Synclavier V
The Arturia Synclavier V is a software emulation of the iconic Synclavier synthesizer, which was first introduced in the late 1970s. The original Synclavier V became popular for its combination of additive synthesis and sampling. The team at Arturia did an excellent job of emulating the original hardware, giving users a variety of wave shaping and modulation tools, including time-varying filters, amplitude and frequency envelopes, and LFOs.
AIR Music Technology Loom II
Loom II is another additive synthesis VST that pushes the limits of modern software yet is simple enough for beginners to get the hang of it. You’ll find over 750 patches to get you started, as well as a wide range of new modules and performance-enhancing bells and whistles compared to the first iteration of the synth. I love how nicely laid out the interface is as well, giving you a fun and colorful piece of software to play around with.
Image Line Harmor
While Harmor by Image Line is technically an additive synth, it is just as much a subtractive synthesizer, audio resynthesizer, and image synthesizer. You’ll find an onboard multipoint envelope editor with more than 40 parameters to toggle for near-endless possibilities. I love the semi-modular design as well, which gives you total flexibility to rearrange the processing units as your heart desires.
Sample-based synthesis rips sounds out of a sonic time capsule for modern, real-time use. It involves recording or sampling a sound and then transforming it into something completely new.
Nowadays, it's a ubiquitous form of synthesis. However, many decades ago, it was the new kid on the block — a very expensive one at that. The New England Digital Synclavier and the Fairlight CMI were some of the earliest examples of sample-based hardware synthesizers, and they were anything but cheap (the original price of the Fairlight CMI was around $26,000 in 1980, which equates to around $76,000 today).
These synths were truly the Rolls-Royces or Lamborghinis of the synth world - beautiful and luxurious but far out of reach for the general population.
Fortunately, with the rise of digital technology, sample-based synthesis has become more accessible and affordable.
The market eventually made its way into crafting affordable samplers like Akai's S series and MPCs, and the Ensoniq Mirage . Once a pricey, exclusive technique was now common and accessible for musicians and producers everywhere. Most old-school hip-hop heads can tell you about the different types of machines that cater to sample-based synthesis, each with its own unique qualities and capabilities.
You can find unique and affordable hardware samplers like the Korg Electric 2 Sampler and the Elektron Octatrack , which have democratized the technique in a way. Of course, if you're not ready to commit to a physical machine, fear not — samplers can also be found lurking within the depths of your favorite DAWs. Just import your sound and let the synthesis tools in programs like the EXS24 from Logic or the Sampler from Ableton Live and work your magic.
We also have access to ROMplers nowadays, which come pre-loaded with massive libraries of sounds that can be manipulated. To the extent which you can manipulate them, however, depends on the unit and what's included.
Think of it this way — you can add some extra spices or toppings, but the base ingredients are already set.
The Roland JP-8080 is a classic example of a hardware ROMpler. However, there are plenty of great software ROMplers out there now, such as Nexus, Kontakt, and SampleTank, which provide expansive libraries of sounds that can be used straight out of the box.
If you're looking for a quick and easy way to get some great sounds without taking a deep dive into complicated synthesis, a ROMpler might be the way to go.
Then, we have hybrid synthesizers, which are the Frankensteins of the synth world, combining the best of both digital and analog synthesis.
These unique units bring together digitally sampled waveforms and analog subtractive synthesis to create sounds that are both familiar and otherworldly.
One of the first to combine these synthesis types was the Korg DW-8000 . However, today's hybrid beasts, like the Minilogue XD , the MicroFreak , and the Novation Peak , take things to a whole new level.
80s Sample Synthesis
While we're here, it's worth noting that the 80s truly held down the fort for a unique style of sample synthesis, which many people referred to as "Sample & Synthesis ." When it emerged, it took the world by storm.
The Roland D-50 , which featured Linear Arithmetic synthesis, was at the forefront of this wave, combining a brief sample with a subtractive digital oscillator.
Other synthesizers like the Korg M1 , the Yamaha SY55 Advanced Wave Memory 2 , and the Ensoniq SQ-80 Cross Wave also utilized similar methods, giving them unique sonic qualities.
These machines provided a fresh take on sample-based synthesis, offering a completely hybrid approach.
Popular Sample Synthesis Hardware Synths
While you probably won’t get your hands on an original Fairlight CMI unless you have some serious dough to blow, it doesn’t negate the fact that this legendary synthesizer and sampler revolutionized the music industry in the 1980s. With its innovative digital sampling capabilities and powerful sound engine, the Fairlight CMI quickly became a staple in chart-topping tracks of the time.
When it first came out, producers felt like they were stepping into the future of music with the JP-8080 Analog Modeling Synthesizer Module. To this day, this retro-styled 6U rackmount ROMpler module packs a punch, using an advanced Analog Modeling sound engine with a 10-note polyphony and powerful External Audio Synthesis. Of course, you also get the unique built-in Voice Modulator for added versatility.
The Mirage, Ensoniq's first product, was a game-changer in the music industry asone of the earliest affordable sampler/sequencer workstations. Compared to the expensive Fairlight CMI of the time, the Mirage, at 0nly $1,700 was a major deal. While its 8-bit sampler and limited 128Kb RAM specs may seem outdated now, it still provides high-quality sound with its maximum sampling-rate of 32kHz.
Popular Sample Synthesis Software Synths
Arturia CMI V
If you're like most people and don't have as much to spend on am original CMI hardware synthesizer as you would spend on a car, you always have the option of the Arturia CMI V. Arturia did a beautiful job with this reincarnation of the first-ever commercially available digital sampling system. The great thing is that this updated version also includes brand new creative features that push the boundaries of what was possible back in the day, providing you with endless possibilities, from creating unique drum beats to chopping up vocal samples.
Full Bucket FB-7999
The FB-7999 soft synth is an emulation of the iconic Korg DW-6000/8000 from the 80s, delivering dual oscillators, a whopping 32 different waveforms, a powerful filter, poly/unison modes, and two envelopes. You also get a unique pseudo-stereo delay processor, which is great for adding more depth in your mixes. And here's the cherry on top: you can import and export patches from the original Korg DW synths using SysEx data support. How cool is that?
Korg M1 Software Synth
Back in 1988, the Korg M1 paved the way for the workstation category of synthesizers, selling like hotcakes, with over 100,000 units flying off the shelves. Now, the M1 software synthesizer brings this legendary instrument to life in a multi-timbral tone generator with eight parts. You get plenty of modern upgrades, as you'd expect, such as two Master effects, two Insert effects per part, and variable filter resonance.
While we're on the topic of sample synthesis, let's talk about granular synthesis. This unique synthesis style is a style of sampling synthesis that operates at a microscopic level, fragmenting single samples into small, musical grains, which can then be played back in different volumes, positions, orders, sizes, and more.
It might be one of the most popular and flexible synthesis types these days, as it allows for the creation of unique and intricate sounds as you manipulate the individual grains.
There are plenty of dedicated hardware granular synthesizers, such as GR-1 from Tasty Chips and the Waldorf Blofeld Desktop Synthesizer. However, if you're looking to have access to granular synthesis in software form, you can check out software synths like Sampler from Bitwig Studio 2 and the Waldorf Quantum .
Granular synthesis has become a go-to technique for sound designers in the entertainment industry.
If you want to produce novel sounds and textures, granular synthesis is truly one of the best synthesis types.
You've likely heard of Spectrasonics Omnisphere. This iconic VST incorporated granular synthesis early on.
Omnisphere can be very overwhelming, though. If you want to take a simpler approach, you might consider options like Alchemy from Logic Pro X , Quanta from Audio Damage , or Grain Sample Manipulator from Reason .
If you're looking to step into the realm of professional sound design for visual media, such as movies, television, or video games, you'll want to have experience with granular synthesis.
Popular Granular Synthesis Hardware Synths
Tasty Chips GR-1
If you're looking to create unique sounds that are full of texture and character, the GR-1 granular synthesizer might just be the tool you need. It's a seriously innovative piece of hardware that streamlines the process of crafting mesmerizing drones, ethereal soundscapes, and lush pads, all while providing a wealth of hands-on controls that make it easy to find the sweet spot for each parameter. No matter what your workflow looks like, the beauty of the GR-1 is that it was designed to adapt. Plus, you can't help but gawk at the stunning 7" full-color display.
Waldorf Blofeld Desktop Synthesizer
The Waldorf Blofeld Desktop Synthesizer is another solid granular synth with a sleek, modern design and powerful sound engine. This little monster boasts three oscillators per voice, each with a whopping 60 wavetables to choose from. That's a total of 180 wavetables. Yes, it's a serious sound sculpting machine. Top that off with the built-in arpeggiator and step sequencer, the dual filters, and the ability to save up to 1,000 patches, you'll have no shortage of sonic inspiration to unleash your creativity.
Bastl Instruments microGranny 2.5
If you're in the market for a tiny hardware synth that can fit in your pocket and still pack a punch, look no further than the Bastl Instruments microGranny 2.5! While it may be small, it's definitely mighty, delivering eight-bit audio processing for that classic lo-fi sound that will take you straight back to the glory days of the '80s. The battery-powered design even features an onboard microphone to capture your own samples or the ability to load in your favorite sounds via the microSD card slot. It's a truly unique and charming piece of equipment for those who like granular synthesis.
Popular Granular Synthesis Software Synths
Output Portal is not your average granular synthesizer. First of all, the interface is sleek and futuristic, giving it that spaceship operator aesthetic that many plugin manufacturers seem to like these days. However, it's truly about the granular synthesis engine, which is powerful and versatile, allowing you to create everything from shimmering textures to glitchy beats and beyond. My favorite thing about this synth, however, might be the "freezing" feature, which lets you capture a moment of your audio and transform it into something completely new.
MeldaProductions MGranularMB is a budget-friendly granular synthesizer plugin with an easy-to-use interface, multiple processing modes, and a variety of tweakable controls. Even with its entry-level price, the grain settings sound fantastic. With up to 10 grains per voice, you can create intricate and otherworldly sonic landscapes.
FM (Frequency Modulation) synthesis is a type of digital synthesis where one waveform modulates another. While we have an analog version of FM synthesis, which we refer to as "cross modulation" or "exponential FM synthesis," most people that are using FM synthesis are using it in its digital form.
The most recognized style of digital FM synthesis is linear FM synthesis, which was popularized by the Yamaha DX7 .
FM synthesis takes a unique approach compared to its popular causing, subtractive synthesis. Rather than taking a waveform that has numerous harmonics and carving away to get your sound, FM synthesis uses a pure sine wave as the starting point. If you want to seriously impress your synth-head friends, you can refer to this sine wave by its technical name — the carrier .
The carrier wave is then modulated by another inaudible sine wave, which is referred to as the modulator . The modulator generates harmonics inside the audible carrier wave.
You can generate more intricate sounds by blending multiple carriers and modulators. These blends are referred to as algorithms . If you look under the hood of the original Yamaha DX7, you can see that it primarily utilized sine waves. However, later models from Yamaha, such as the Yamaha TX81Z , incorporated more diverse waveforms.
It's worth noting that Yamaha is the gatekeeper for the FM synthesis patent. However, even so, other synth manufacturers have been able to develop their own variations.
For example, we have the Casio CZ-101 , which was introduced with Casio's unique phase distortion synths. This phase distortion synthesizer got its one-of-a-kind sound from using a waveform rich in harmonics to modulate another.
We also have Korg's version of FM, which is called variable phase modulation. This offshoot of FM synthesis also uses various waveforms. Korg implemented VPM in the Multi-Engine Oscillator, which you can find in the Prologue and the Minilogue XD .
Popular FM Synthesis Hardware Synths
The Yamaha DX7 is arguably one of the most popular FM synthesizers of all time, and it has been used in countless hit songs and productions since its release in 1983. The iconic sound of this FM synth is characterized by bright, bell-like tones and complex, evolving timbres that are difficult to achieve with other synthesizers. While the DX7's interface may seem daunting at first, once you get the hang of it, you can create a wide range of unique FM synthesis sounds and textures.
While the Casio CZ-101 is not actually an FM synthesizer but rather a Phase Distortion synthesizer, it shares some similarities with FM synthesis, though it uses a different method of generating sound that allows for unique and distinctive tones.
What's similar are the sharp, metallic tones that come out of the CZ-101. While you don't get the same level of sound design possibilities as the DX7, the CZ-101 is still a very powerful yet budget-friendly machine.
Popular FM Synthesis Software Synths
Native Instruments FM8
Native Instruments is a well-known and highly respected brand in the world of software electronics, and while the FM8 FM soft synth may be a bit pricey in the realm of VST FM synths, it’s an incredibly versatile and comprehensive plugin that surpasses its predecessors. You get an impressive 960 presets, each delivering crystal-clear and authentic FM sounds. Plus, the software comes equipped with a powerful matrix platform, robust envelopes, and a dedicated arpeggiator.
Bazille by U-He is undoubtedly one of the most powerful FM synthesizer VSTs on the market, offering unmatched versatility. The synth features two LFOs and four oscillators, each with its own configurable settings and parameters.
You’ll find semitone modulation and gate knobs on the oscillators, a dedicated 'Fractalize' section, multiple pink and white noise slots, four envelopes, a responsive sequencer, and a wide range of customizable filters such as gain, spread, and resonance.
Wavetable synthesis is another popular sound synthesis technique you've likely heard of. It originated in the late 1970s thanks to the legendary Wolfgang Palm. He developed the PPG Wave synthesizer , which became widely used in the 1980s by artists such as Depeche Mode, Jean-Michel Jarre, and Gary Numan. Many consider it to be one of the most influential synthesizers of its era.
Today, its popularity is resurging thanks to its versatility and capacity to produce evolving sounds.
The fundamental element of this method involves digital oscillators that use collections of single-cycle waveforms, otherwise known as wavetables. As the playback creeps and crawls horizontally across the waveforms, you get a uniquely expressive sonic transformation.
Envelopes similar to those used for controlling the volume level in subtractive synthesis can then be used to modulate this movement, providing you with near-endless sonic possibilities. The ability to generate evolving sounds has become a staple in house and experimental electronic music.
While the PPG Wave was the first hardware wavetable synthesizer that achieved success in this realm, it paved the way for modern software synths, such as Native Instruments Massive and Native Instruments Massive X , Serum from Xfer Records , Pigments from Arturia , and Wavetable from Ableton.
Popular Wavetable Synthesis Hardware Synths
The PPG Wave is a legendary wavetable synthesizer that was originally released in the early 1980s. One of the key features of the PPG Wave is its wavetable synthesis, which allows for the creation of complex and evolving sounds that are hard to achieve with traditional subtractive synthesis.
Under the hood, you’ll find a vast library of wavetables that can be combined and modulated endlessly, making it one of the most powerful tools for mind-blowing sound design and experimentation. Plus, it’s hard to pass on that rich, analog sound.
The Waldorf Iridium is another exceptional wavetable synthesizer that offers a wealth of powerful features and advanced capabilities. At its core, it is a refinement of their flagship Quantum synthesizer. One of the key features of the Iridium is its expansive sound engine, which boasts three wavetable oscillators, a noise generator, and two filters. You also get a range of modulation sources, including four envelopes, four LFOs, and a flexible modulation matrix that allows for complex routing of modulation sources to parameters. The interface is out of this world, and the sound engine is next level.
Popular Wavetable Synthesis Software Synths
Xfer Records Serum
When Xfer Records put out the first iteration of Serum in 2007, it changed the industry forever. To this day, producers love it for its intuitive interface and advanced wavetable synthesis capabilities. It's one of the most versatile tools for electronic music producers, as it can be used to create everything from classic analog sounds to futuristic digital textures.
Beyond the basic synthesis tools, you get a myriad of built-in effects, modulation parameters, and customizable wavetables, which provide endless sound design possibilities.
Arturia's Pigments is appropriately named, as it offers a completely blank slate for sound design. The synth allows users to combine up to four sound engines to create an immense range of sounds, with one of the engines containing over 160 individual wavetables! For those who may feel overwhelmed by the possibilities, Pigments also comes with over 1200 presets to provide inspiration and give you a jumping-off point.
Vector synthesis is a very unique form of synthesis in that it allows for more dynamic control of the sound's volume balance, as it doesn't rely on stacked waveforms,
Four waveforms are placed at the corners of a two-dimensional plane, and the user can manipulate a joystick to crossfade between them, allowing for much more nuanced adjustments and smoother transitions.
This approach differs from wavetable synthesis, offering one of my personal favorite ways to shape and modulate sounds. Some of the most popular examples of hardware synthesizers that use vector synthesis include the Yamaha SY22 and the Yamaha SY35 .
However, Yamaha wasn't the founder of vector synthesis. In fact, it was first introduced to the music industry through Sequential Circuits Prophet VS . Later on, Yamaha took control of the style with several of its synthesizers, along with Korg, which used it in its Wavestation.
If you want to get ahold of this unique style of synthesis in a modern machine, I recommend checking out the Korg Kronos .
Popular Vector Synthesis Hardware Synths
When the Yamaha SY22 came out in the late 1980s, it took the production world by storm. With vector synthesis technology, it allowed users to blend four separate sound sources to create complex and evolving sounds. To extend the creative element even further, the SY22 also boasted a range of high-quality digital effects, including reverb, chorus, and distortion.
Top all of that off with its user-friendly interface, high-end built-in sequencer and arpeggiator, and solid presets, and you have a vector synth that is definitely worth checking out.
The Korg Kronos is a modern vector workstation synth that offers an incredible range of features and capabilities. With nine sound engines and over 21 GB of onboard memory, the Kronos is capable of producing a vast array of sounds and styles, from acoustic and electric pianos to drums, synths, and more. It’s an excellent synth for advanced sound design, as it also has a range of high-quality effects, including reverb, chorus, and delay. Plus, with the large color touchscreen display, it’s super easy for beginners to navigate and control the synth's many functions.
Popular Vector Synthesis Software Synths
Rob Papen Vecto
Vecto by Rob Papen is one of my favorite vector synthesizer VSTs out there right now. It features four oscillators, each of which can be used to draw in vector paths and shape the sound in a variety of ways, and it also comes with a wide range of oscillator waves and high-quality sampled waveforms.
Even with its relatively low price tag, there are endless possibilities. I’m a big fan of the range of modulation options and preset vector paths, which you can use as jumping-off points before manipulating with the two onboard filters, 28 different filter types, and two effect processors.
Arturia Prophet-VS V
The Prophet-VS V is a classic vector synthesizer and was actually the pioneering synth for the technique. Arturia recreated it in excellent fashion, giving you access to the four unique oscillators, the infamous joystick for morphing between waveforms and adjusting the sound on the fly, and the range of modulation options, including an extensive set of envelopes and LFOs.
To perform spectral synthesis, a synthesizer must analyze a sound and transform it into frequency spectra (otherwise referred to as "bins") alongside a corresponding representation of that frequency spectra's noise content.
A spectrogram is used to display the pitch and frequency density, allowing for incredibly precise frequency shaping. If you use programs like the Iris 2 sampler synthesizer or iZotope's RX , you've been using spectral synthesis without even knowing it!
The Iris 2 sampler synthesizer, in particular, takes a unique approach to sound design, allowing users to selectively choose frequency bands they want to hear from traditional samples.
To do so, users must manipulate the frequency content of the audio file, which is visually represented on the spectrogram. Users can layer these filtered samples together and apply traditional synthesis techniques such as envelopes, modulation, and filters to craft nuanced and complex sounds.
Popular Spectral Synthesis Software Synths
iZotope Iris 2
iZotope Iris 2 is a popular spectral synthesizer that allows users to visualize and manipulate sound in a very unusual way. Beyond the incredible visual features, users can load and manipulate audio files as source material and use Iris 2's spectral analysis tools to break it down into individual spectral components. These components can then be manipulated and combined to create complex, evolving sounds. If you don’t feel like spending the money solely for these kinds of tools, it’s worth noting that Iris 2 also offers a range of traditional synthesis tools, including oscillators, filters, and modulation options.
Camel Audio Alchemy
Camel Audio Alchemy is similar to iZotope Iris 2 in terms of the vast array of sound-shaping tools and features it offers. You start off with an extensive library of samples and waveforms, which provides a comprehensive palette for sound design. As you probably expected, you can also import your own audio and analyze its spectral content for deep sonic manipulation. Beyond its spectral synthesis capabilities, the VST also includes a wide range of additional synthesis methods, including granular, additive, and virtual analog, making it extremely versatile in the grand scheme of things.
West Coast Synthesis
As I noted before, there has been a long-time rivalry between East Coast and West Coast synthesis. While Bob Moog was in New York tinkering away and paving the way for subtractive analog synthesis, Don Buchla was living in the hippie confines of San Francisco, refining what would later be known as West Coast synthesis.
Buchla's West Coast synthesis is very different from its west-coast rival, as it starts off with a simple waveform, such as a triangle wave, and employs waveshaping to add rich and complex harmonics instead of starting with a complex waveform and working backward.
A low-pass gate, which serves as both a voltage-controlled amplifier (VCA) and filter, is then used for more sound-shaping capabilities.
In the spirit of experimentation, West Coast synthesis often uses alternative interfaces, such as touch panels and sequencers, rather than traditional keyboard-style interfaces.
One of the most well-known West Coast synths is The Buchla Music Easel . If you look at the colorful interface, you can get a gist of the unique aesthetic of West Coast synthesis.
While getting your hands on the original hardware these days is pretty rare, there are plenty of software emulations, such as the Korg Volca Modular and the Arturia Buchla Easel V , which pack West Coast synthesis concepts into a compact, digital format.
Popular West Coast Synthesis Hardware Synths
Buchla Music Easel
The Buchla Music Easel is easily the most iconic, portable modular synthesizer that represents the quintessential West Coast synthesis style. Designed by synth pioneer Don Buchla in the 1970s, the Easel was the answer to East Coast Synthesis’ lack of freeform experimentation. It comes with two sections, including the Sound Source and the Control section.
The Sound Source features a complex oscillator, which generates a rich and evolving sound, and a dual envelope generator, which can be used to control both amplitude and frequency modulation. The Control section includes a pressure-sensitive touch keyboard, which allows for expressive playing, and a built-in sequencer for creating patterns and sequences.
It’s certainly a raw and untamed synth, with a focus on experimentation and exploration, if that’s what you’re into
Top West Coast Synthesis Software Synth
Arturia Buchla Easel V
If you can’t afford the real thing, why not get the next best thing? The Buchla Easel V is a software emulation of the legendary Buchla Music Easel, offering a faithful recreation of the original's west coast synthesis techniques. You get everything from the non-traditional control interface, which uses a variety of touch plates, sliders, and switches to manipulate the sound, to the wide variety of sound generators and processors, including oscillators, filters, envelopes, and more. And in Arturia fashion, you get a solid preset browser, making it easy to explore and create new sounds on the fly.
Physical modeling goes beyond basic subtractive synthesis and truly sits on its own in terms of sound synthesis types.
What's unique about this technique is that it delves into the physical processes involved in creating a recognizable sound using digital signal processing (DSP).
The sound is typically broken up into different elements, including the exciter, the resonance, and the physical properties.
The exciter, for example, could be the breath on a brass or woodwind instrument or the bow on a violin. The resonance could be the size of that particular instrument and how it produces sound, such as a violin vs. a viola.
Then, you have the physical material properties, such as whether the instrument is made out of wood or metal.
By replicating these physical properties, physical modeling can create incredibly realistic instrument sounds that respond dynamically to different playing styles.
It's important to note that various forms of physical modeling synthesis exist.
A fundamental version of physical modeling synthesis is the Karplus-Strong string synthesis , which involves looping a brief waveform through a delay line with a filter.
If you take a look at the Arturia MicroFreak , you can see this method in use.
You'll also find a type of physical modeling synthesis known as modal synthesis , which is found in the Elements VST from Mutable Instruments . Lastly, we have resonator synthesis, which is found in Quantum from Waldorf and Laplace from IceGear Instruments .
Both of these synthesizers use bandpass filters to recreate the resonant frequencies and properties of real-life instruments.
Top Physical Modeling Synthesis Hardware Synth
While Arturia is mostly known for its emulations of classic synthesizers, the company also has a line of quality hardware synthesizers offering unique synthesis types. The Arturia MicroFreak is the flagship physical modeling synth, offering a wide range of sounds in a compact package, perfect for musicians and producers on the go. The unique digital oscillator, which uses physical modeling to create a range of sounds, including classic analog-style waveforms and more complex sounds such as metallic and percussive tones, is what sets it apart from other synths.
Of course, you also get the handy poly-aftertouch flat keyboard, which allows for easy manipulation of the built-in modulation matrix and a wide range of built-in effects alongside the sequencer and arpeggiator.
I truly hope that all this talk of synthesis types hasn't scrambled your brain like a wavetable. Now, it's up to you to explore these many unique synthesis types. So go forth, explore, experiment, and never stop tweaking those knobs. May your waveforms be pure and your envelopes be snappy!