Buying your first Synth – Basics

So this one has come up so much in the last year. Im not sure whether to file it under revival or something else, but its fantastic to see so many people turning back to hardware, or discovering it for the first time. Either way, its a big win in my eyes. Anything which leads a composer/musician back into a process where they are directly manipulating any instrument, this is still progress from where we are now.

I don’t mind a nice GUI on a tooth removing hybrid library, i honestly do enjoy vst soft based modular synths, meat and taters libraries, and i see the total instant value of them and how easy and fluid working “in the box” really is. For the sake of a personal history reflection, i really don’t hark back with a deep longing to fire up 20 synths, play with a 100 cables, booting a session from footnotes and ZIP disks just to write or edit a small part that day.

Progress is a good thing, but for a wee while, we did just stay on target (gold 5 style), and think Mac or Pc and our chosen daw.

So with the advent of pad controllers like maschine, Push and groove box, a totally new generation and beleaguered older one, are turning to the magic of hands on hardware, not least hardware synths which as always, have come back in vogue but perhaps with a proper intention to stick around this time. The integration is much better, it all makes more sense now to sit a Moog alongside Logic or PT than a few years ago when it still felt a little like “this way” or “thatta’ way” and not much middle ground.

We have a bevvy of synths that come with USB midi, editors acting in realtime,plenty of panel controls. knobs and sliders and a spec that kinda makes sense now.

Even the grandfather of synthesis, the modular system, has made the biggest revival of them all, now sporting dozens upon dozens of euro-rack companies and startups all tinkering in the basement, releasing new modules each week. Who would have thunk it?!? Modular the lust of many a composer and EDM producer. But it happened, and im so glad it did.

Now swiftly bypassing the pointless analog vs digital debate, just for your info if you are in your twenties, this is a preoccupation which absorbed a huge amount of time for some people, the remnants of which still clog the forums trying to religiously convert you to analog and wash your mouth out.

For the most part, i think you can spare yourself that utterly futile argument.

If you are totally new to synthesis and the closest you have come is firing up Omnisphere, then this is mainly aimed at you. Omnisphere is a fantastic place to start by all means. It does come with the most comprehensive modulation source routing any hardware synth would be envious of, copious DSP effects, the ability to import audio in Omni 2, and so many features it would take all day to delve into.

But soft based vst synths aren’t by any means a bad place to start.

For your first hardware synth you need to look at things standing back a bit and evaluate the basics before you lunge to buy a 1000 dollar synth because Junkie XL or Dead Mau5 has one.I cant fault you, i followed my synth using idols all the way to debt and more than my share of face palming and long repayments, so understand your budget because the “value” side of things is very misleading. Ask any Access Virus owner like myself who bought one brand new and that’s your answer…..

With an understanding of budget, what is it you think you need?? Are you interested in one of a million mono synths?? These are perhaps the cheapest means to get a foot on the ladder, do you hanker for a poly with or without onboard effects?? added arp and sequencer?

All the things you would want, they all reflect on the added price, then factor in “coolability” with some of the big names, or niche builder with a cool reputation, you can be buying into costs you could do without for your first foray.

What i would always suggest, is looking into synths that cost a few hundred dollars/pounds/euros, whatever. You don’t have to go big or go home on this one. Something very cheap like the Novation synths, the bass station II which has not long had a revision, has seen it price come right down in the process. Its a full analog signal synth, USB buss powered if need be, beautifully made, lots of features, but a short keyboard, no effects etc blah blah.

If you just want to literally ‘learn’ synthesis hands on, then something like that will be the best tool you could imagine. Simple, yet cunningly powerful. It will walk you through what the basic wave forms sound like, their distinctive character and how they interact with filters and LFO’s.

A basic synth will just help focus your mind into the process. The chain that is fairly typical for a hard routed synth IE: one that is rigidly mapped out unlike a modular in which you create the path of the signal taking your oscillator and feeding this into ……….< whatever the hell pleases you that day. In a regular routed synth, you will see all the familiar parts of the build

The oscillator, in which produces your sound, your chosen waveform. You may have 1 or more, its nice to have 2 on the go for sure some have a 3rd or a low sub oscillator, and some have a noise generating oscillator also.

Then you have your attack, decay,sustain and release to shape the sound alongside your ADSR for your filter and envelopes. Ok so lets cut short an actual full on lesson, but i would suggest something that is a monosyth and has it all laid out on the panel easy to see.

The Moog Little phatty, now discontinued but readily available, is what i would describe as the easiest damn synth to grab the basics on. The stage 2 model has half decent CV connections and not badly implemented USB midi too.
As mentioned previously, a lot of the novation synths are extremely good value for money and handy to learn on.

Dont be afraid of older tech at all, but obviously be very wary of the price as second hand prices are nothing short of sheer lunacy, but their are gems to be found, so use as many sites as need be to research and figure out whats useful, whats a bargain. When i say “older”, you can easily find any number of forgotten gems made during the 90’s when some would say it heralded the most questionable range of “techno” plastic and very digital synths for a generation.

Their were also some amazing synths during this time, but typically most are menu driven and not very hands on at all. It was one of the reasons that synths took a decline into the 2000’s. in that we did away with very useful controls and thought a small LCD menu and wrapping our fingers in tight knots was a better way to do it. Hence why with the progress of in the box computing, we got outright sick of synths and clicked mouses and keys instead. Its kinda like progress just consuming itself but thankfully, hands on synths have made that strong return so you dont have to have a PHD in finger/menu acrobatics now to enjoy the process.

On the side of synth power alone, you have to factor in what you really need or could do without.You will always pay more for synths with big flashy onboard DSP, so ask do you really need it? Their was a time when man would wander into a music shop, and a synth drowning in every reverb you could imagine, reigned victor among a swathe of much better synths, not coked up in 8 bit garbage.

You already have a huge ocean of plugins and effects, so if you don’t need that side of things, if you’re buying a synth for studio work, its a big factor you can side step.

Now poly synths will always tend to cost more, none more so than full analog signal path polys.It supposedly costs lots more to make them, so typically expect to pay a percentage per added polyphony, im not joking either. This is where virtual analogs come in play and give you a huge amount of feature set from the get go, but minus the mahoosive cost of pure analog.

Dave Smith instruments are for me, a great example of where analogs laden with all the bells and whistles, come with the hefty price tag i mentioned earlier. Their bloody brilliant, sound incredible, very unique among anyone’s synth pallet, but you will pay the premium to have one.

Lots of companies made “virtual analog” synths going back a lot further than you probably realise.The Nord lead being a good example. Made in 1995, its mission like all VA’s. was to mimic analog oscillators, the signal path behaviour and give this random feeling analogs give you. Subtle detunings,none of the harsh crisp defined “stepping” in a digital synth, but all of this essentially written and at its heart still digital framework.

The Virus TI being a brilliant example of an old VA concept still sought after today, not only for its ability to mimic lots of classic synth models with its huge bank of waveforms, filter types, DSP power, but its also very well supported and relatively easy to integrate into a modern daw setup.

On that issue on integration id also suggest thinking ideally about USB. Purely for now because its so damn easy. Its plug and play in most cases and i find that a majority of the modern USB synths just make a typical work day much easier. All of your knobs and sliders sending realtime info without any extra mapping that you do when you link up a VST to your chosen controller keyboard.

Im not anti 5 pin MIDI as such, but for the most part, in the line of work i do and the demands, i just find that messing with MIDI routings, thrus,old school paramters, kenton interfaces, patching, is a huge pain in the arse and one of the things i dont cherish with modern gear. It steers me away from the over priced gems of yesteryear which are all due a good service, dont always work, their midi timings can be very debatable and they take up way too much room if you have just a small space to play in.

If you can whittle down a few areas like you initial budget, expectations and goals, you can make this first time buy easier than you think. During your research, you will find that everyone is heavily opinionated on what sounds best, and what you should spend your money on. To the degree, your almost handing over money to strangers, so spend as much time as you need making sure whatever you buy suits you, and not the guy 5000 miles away writing totally different music in his bedroom putting the world to rights.

Ill make some lists of things to check out, that way you have some idea of features and how they might migrate into your work flow.

Korg Micro korg – Despite diminutive stature and mini keys, tons of power, very distinctive and widely loved tone and decent range of features, very bargain price.

Novation ultra nova – Again, small but very well specced. Virtual analog, poly, usb buss powered and easy to integrate, lots of hands on action.

Moog Sub Phatty – short board but full size keys, doesnt take up lots of room but hugely powerful mono synth,daw librarian editor, full analog signal path, silly amount of hands on features, USB,authentic Moog sound.You can buy these around half the cost of its big brother the sub 37, which btw is def one to take a good look at too.

Nord Lead 4 – Admittedly pricey, but an extremely powerful virtual analog poly with lots of effects, distinctive creamy Nord sound, not something id compare to any vst synth i know of and a good alternative to the Virus TI.

Novation BASS Station II – Dont be mislead with the name, just think ‘extremely cheap yet powerful full analog synth thats very easy to program integrate, and wont make you broke’. I totally swear by this for a first time synth.

I wont make an exhaustive list here as its going to be more of a distraction than assistance but just focus on your needs. That you want to learn, have something unique in your setup that isnt just point and click, something that will bring the fun and creativity back into a jaded work flow, that wont cripple your finances or need too much time to get the basics from.

Their are a ton of online guides to give you synthesis basics and if you spend just a little time watching some walk throughs, especially if you did buy a synth and want to learn on the fly, vid tuts are great for fast tracking and bringing you up to speed. We all approach this our own way, their is no right or wrong way to discover synthesis or how you adapt and learn. Some will instantly take to it and have music infused with home grown sounds during that day, others will want to tinker and study more, thats fine, its all part of the fun of it.

I had left behind hardware synths for a good few years. They were all i knew and i adored my time learning their quirks and choosing what colours to pick that day, but my own return was because i just woke up to he banality of clicking a mouse all day.
When i did buy synths again, i wasnt in any rush to lay them down in my music, in fact it was a good year at least until i did ,and it became more and more a natural daily usage turning to what had a certain flavour. Dont feel under any pressure, any expectation from your self or others.

It is a journey worth taking, you will have a lot of fun, take your time, research and then pull the trigger

How to use external synths in your daw video tutorial – Logic.

How to setup external hard ware in Cubase

The fundamentals of Synthesizer programming Part 1

Nord Lead 4 Virtual Analog Synth review

Moog Sub 37 Hands on review

Novation Bass Station 2 Hands on review

Arturia MiniBrute Hands on review

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Long Term Survival

For this entry, i wanted to broach the subject of sustaining your sanity, creativity, health, and keeping focus on objectifying goals and not just fraying at the edges. It can happen, and without some grasp on a long term plan, however basic, means you can start to lose the plot a little and heres why.

Any career path which sees you being a force of creativity, whatever branch of artistry that may be, you’re constantly drawing on a ‘well’. Its very much like a real well and for the sake of a throw down analogy, lets just say it will behave as such on many real world levels.

It will run dry, it can become unstable and collapse, you need to appreciate your climate and water table and understand what you can draw from it, and when you need to allow it to gather etc.

I cannot say with any grand authority as a fulltime composer and allround sound twiddler/messer, that my tentative 4-5 years give me the resounding voice of all reason on such matters, but having gone through quite a bit in the last 25+ years working within music in some form, and as said, these last 4-5 as a fulltime composer, i can def add something into the pot. Things that happened to me, around me and the forces of nature life throws up that one simply cant sweep under the carpet of wishful ignorance.

So lets begin.

Variety

Nothing allows your creative juice factory to remain ,well, juicy, quite like having options and variety. Its something tapped directly into human nature that despite appreciating routine , having a plan and lots of focus, but actual stimulating change is what allows long term survival.In fact it not only allows you to function over many years and dozens of projects, it outright facilitates this. It nearly ties in with the need to adapt anyway.

As a composer, you always need to constantly tweak and adapt to market trends, the new twists and turns in the way stylised genre is just evolving around you. Like when dubstep just arrived from nowhere, from the outskirts directly into all things main stream. Or when jingly ukulele folk pop announced it self a few years back, and like an overstayed relative, just doesn’t know when to go the fuck home.

Try as best you can to make your work day varied. If the music is all the same, then make other small changes around you, like when and where you go to take a break etc.

If all you ever do is super strict, and the music is just one flavour,ill break it to you gently, going from weekender bedroom hobbyist to full time is going to be a stark shock to your system and you may not have the legs for it past a few months if suddenly the opportunities aren’t their for writing nose bleed trailer cues or sports rock jingles. You will need to diversify and not just for our long term sanity, for the means of having other streams to tap into over a very long period.

Health

As blogged about last year in my entry, fat, sick and composing, you will be quite surprised at how dramatic a long term career doing this thing you love, can alter a lot about your physical and mental make up. For me personally, the effects were physically dramatic in that i felt very sick most of the time, was gaining tons of weight, and felt less driven and focused. Losing valuable elements such as focus and motivation, are big concerns.

Mentally, you cannot simply expect to head off on such a big career and not take into account of this part of ‘you’. Its not only the nuts and bolts which make you the person you are, but the person you are for others around you too. You’re family and friends, loved ones. You need to understand that finding your own release and break time, is as critical as anything else.

It really isn’t like having christmas every day. People on your facebook feed who bore you to tears every 5 mins with another “love my job” post, aren’t telling you about the unpaid periods that year, the huge time and financial investment that went into their work, the failed marriages, the endless candle burning exercises whilst trying to meet all deadlines. Yes, it is without doubt a very unique and brilliant job indeed, but dont buy into someones foot notes, and then think, “this is the job for me, that guys always shouting about how awesome his job is, life etc”.

It can be, has the potential to be, but its not for the summer hols. Its not like a 2 week holiday in the Med. Its not going to clock out and become something else if you have a hard week.Someone elses edited life footnotes are just exactly that, take with a pinch of salt.

So take care of your well being in all ways because you are you’re own fuel cell. If any of that runs dry, its hard to kick start for a while, trust me.

Friendships, relationships and contacts.

When you do it right, all three can become more or less the same thing. I mean their are distinctions, i dont want to have a pint with my bank manager but i dont want to piss him off ether.

Its not quite like the saying, “its not what you know, its who you know”< but its not that far off either. You’re not looking to grease your way up the pole and stitch up everyone around you, mercilessly sleeping your way to the top, selling your grandma for a new gig. But yeah it still happens in abandon. Their are still a lot of people around you who will always be looking for an angle, and this clearly, isn’t a way to forge a long term friendship that will sit alongside you during your career.

You just need to realise this is a long term investment of your passion and creative juices. Its healthy and indeed sensible to help out people alongside you.As much as the next person can be seen as a potential competitor, their also your greatest allies too. When you are working on any project, for whatever team, despite the demands, the questionable way your spoken to, you need to keep calm and learn these people.

Everyone has their own language within their spoken language. Be respectful and patient with each and every person. When you are awesome to work with, easy to talk to and you know how to do your job, you are someone who is then instantly recommendable to others.

In the exact same way you wish your facebook and Linked in accounts to function, you have to actually do this in REAL LIFE. Not just hope some form of seven degrees of social networking separation will one day see you sat in front of Chris Nolan chatting about the free form score you’re allowed to write with a budget the size of a manor house.

Be a nice guy to be around. Short version, dont be a dick.

Recharge and Reboot.

It sounds simple doesn’t it, when you are in fulltime employment and feel like life and work are getting the upper hand, you book a 2 week break and fill your time with excess, booze and lazy sun filled days to recharge. Or you might disappear on a sole Scandinavian tour, camera in hand and a glass of red every evening etc, but as you will soon discover, being a sole trader or in charge of your own small company, taking a break and finding time and money for this, are a lot harder.

Their really isn’t a fool proof guide on how to do this and in my honest opinion you wont find one. The reality is, a fulltime job composing means you have to be creative not just writing, but you have to be crafty at carving out time to reboot. And even if you are telling yourself you are tougher, harder than others, try and tell yourself this after a year or so. Its not practical to believe you can function at 100% if you never allow yourself to gather.

But yes, you need some smarts on how to plan this. Your losing money when you’re not making money. Simple as that, but as several dear friends and relatives said to me, and all of them are now sadly passed away, you only get one shot at all of this. To say that old saying has a myriad of parallels for your career and life, is a huge understatement. Despite what you see as immediate cost to you, the payment will be far greater if say, in 18 months onwards, you cannot bring yourself to write a damn note of music and the other half has packed her bags because music is all you care about.

Long term survival is so many life skills you already have under your belt. You’re not reinventing the wheel that turns inside you, but you are reengaging with these life mechanisms, the understanding. Its exciting doing this for a living, that much i can say with not a cynical pause for comment! but doing anything long term quickly becomes a “Desert island” moment if you dont adapt.