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Even Beginners Can Make Great Music With a Synthesizer

Aug 25, 2008
Synthesizers are electronic, keyboard-based instruments that produce artificial, or synthesized, sounds. Many frequently mistake synthesizers for simply portable, electronic pianos, but the differences are extremely vast. While synthesizers can definitely produce a piano sound, their main purpose, usually, is to create sounds not specifically found on any other instrument.

The process of creating these sounds is sometimes very difficult; while some synthesizers come with pre-created sounds, or patches, many come with a clean slate. The synthesizers produce sounds by a series of dials and knobs dedicated to a variety of aspects: oscillation, modulation, sustain, delay and attack, just to name a few. Some synthesizers even create sounds based on a patch bay.

Remember old telephone operators that patched calls through based on cords and inputs? Some synthesizers use the same principle (and are generally used by those with an extremely advanced knowledge of their workings). And what's more, many older synthesizers don't offer the option of saving the sounds created; instead, the user has to keep detailed records of dial and knob placement, being careful to catch every nuance. To recreate a sound on these synthesizers is to keep very meticulous notes.

Synthesizers made their break into popular music during the 1970s and 80s when numerous progressive rock bands began using them to create cosmic, unfamiliar sounds. However, devices from different manufacturers were generally not compatible with each other and could not be interconnected, so eventually a digital standard for musical instruments called "midi" was born. Midi is an acronym for musical instrument digital interface.

Midi allowed synthesizers made by different companies to communicate with each other, which was a huge breakthrough and was responsible for the explosion of synthesizer use. One of the first synthesizers was a "Moog". I remember meeting Bob Moog back in the 70's at NAMN - a trade show in Anaheim across the street from Disneyland. More than any other person, Moog had created the first useable and affordable synthesizer. Soon companies such as Roland and Yamaha with deeper pockets came out with more affordable models. I think I bought my first synth in about 1980 - a Roland that I used for probably 10 years before moving on to something more current.

The use of synthesizers quickly developed into an entirely new genre of music, electronic music, headed by such veterans as Kraftwerk (who, by the way, are still massively popular). They eventually found their way into almost every branch of 1980s popular music -- which is probably why they fell so far out of favor. Synthesizers in the mainstream music industry quickly became associated with 1980s bubblegum pop, the very thing that new rock and punk bands were railing against. And even while an electronic music scene thrived (and even revolutionized), synthesizers became known as the outdated kiss of death for popular, mass-audience intended music.

The late 90s, however, saw a resurgence in the use of synthesizers among underground rock and punk bands (ironically enough) and have quickly become re-embraced by the popular music industry.
About the Author
Duane Shinn is the author of the popular online newsletter on piano chords, available free at "Exciting Piano Chords & Chord Progressions!"
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