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Understanding Synths for a classical musician


Active Member
I'm a professional clarinetist, advanced pianist and play a handful of others like violin and guitar, my background is in orchestral (classical). I'd like to learn to play and write for synths but am not sure how to proceed. Of course I've heard plenty of it over the years, and when I was younger in the 70's/80's messed with early computer synth stuff for fun. Anyhow whereas most media composers who seem to come from a synth or pop background, I don't at all. Thoughts on working with them? Not interested in spending money, I use Logic so have the built ins.

By the way I absolutely do not get the guys who moon on about analog synths. My day job is in electrical and software engineering, I could design and build my own analog synth from scratch, buying vintage synths or going analog domain is mixing apples and oranges as far as I'm concerned - hence the mention of sticking with free digital synths.

Also - ideas more for understanding the instrument, not the technicalities, I know all about technicalities of how the sounds are created using filters, oscillators, etc. For example, when I hear a synth I hear either something from a Sci Fi soundtrack or a pop song. Seems there has to be more to it than that. With synths is it really about fiddling the settings until you get a sound you like, whereas for an acoustic instrument it's more about the music/notes?

Living Fossil

Senior Member
If you want to get a better "understanding" for synthies, maybe it's worth that you replace the term "synth" in your questions with "organ" and start to answer them again with a focus on the last 5 centuries.
Bach, as an organist was known for putting extreme effort into the registrations he used when playing.
Still, he wrote extremely complicated music for the instrument.
Then again, you will find compositions from the late 19th or early 20th century where the organ is an addition to a large orchestra and plays quite primitive textures.

With synths, it's completely the same. You shouldn't generalize. It's not simply the ocarina of a stupid guy.

However, when working with synths, as with all other instruments, there is a huge microcosm in it.
Biggest difference is that depending on which synth you talk about it's not one instrument, but rather a universe full of instruments.
You will need years and years until you get a feeling for the nuances.
BTW, that's also the reason why some people do care about analog synths.


Active Member
I'm very familiar with the organ repertoire and music history - especially of Bach - not sure what you're driving at, but personally I have a hard time equating the organ with the modern synth. Seems like equating the violin and the cello because they're both string instruments, whereas any violinist or cellist would give you an earful about that idea (and any organist). I started to play the violin to really get to understand it and will get to the cello. For the modern synth I'm asking for some practicalities, whenever I try to work with the instrument I come away as confused as I started. This is unlike the violin, or organ, or cello where there's a long history of pedagogy to get me started*

Guess I'm not making myself clear - here's some questions
  • Good examples of synth usage in a media composition?
  • Any good books/websites/etc?
  • Good examples of a synthesizer used with traditional instruments (something I'm really confused about)
  • Good starting points - analog synth, plug in .. ? Logic has a variety, I've messed around but not getting anywhere.
  • Media composers seem to rely heavily on the instrument - why? Is there something about it that lends itself to a movie or whatnot?
  • The Spitfire Creative Cribs shows a lot of synths in these studios, why? Why not more acoustic instruments?
* I think I tweaked you with my potshot at analog synths. Apologies, but that's the hard nosed engineer in me which just sees an old circuit.

Living Fossil

Senior Member
@danbo : Those are lots of questions. You could easily fill a one year seminar with answering these... ;)

To get a starting point you could take a look at Howard's tutorials for u-He's Zebra (youtube).

For examples for the use with traditional instruments blockbuster scores from Remote Control could serve as a great starting point. The problem is that sometimes it's not that easy to spot the synthie elements.
There is also a version of Steve Reich's desert music that uses synthies.
However, it's about 25 years when i studied that score so i'm not remembering too many details. IIRC synties doubled mainly some strings.

If it's about classic "analog" synths, Wendy Carlos' soundtrack for Clockwork Orange is a classic.
An old classic, but still a great one.
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Now in LA: let's get coffee!
What's the difference between an "old circuit" and a wooden box with taut entrails? Or a wooden tube with holes in it? Or a wooden hoop with taut skin?

Pleasing, useful, and satisfying sounds can come from anywhere, no matter how simple or old.


Active Member
Guess I'm not making myself clear - here's some questions

Good examples of synth usage in a media composition?

A Clockwork Orange was already mentioned. Planet of the Apes. Blade Runner. Run Lola Run. Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Any good books/websites/etc?
I like http://scoringsessions.com
Technology moves so fast that any book published will be out of date before it hits the shelves.
Except: Books that teach the fundamentals of synthesis. Those are techniques that are the foundation of coaxing sounds out of your equipment. Try http://www.synthesizer-cookbook.com and https://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/synth-secrets-all-63-parts-sound-on-sound

Good examples of a synthesizer used with traditional instruments (something I'm really confused about)

Check out Phillip Glass. Also: https://daily.bandcamp.com/2017/07/06/electronic-classical-music/

Good starting points - analog synth, plug in .. ? Logic has a variety, I've messed around but not getting anywhere.

Stick with Logic and keep trying. Forget Alchemy. Start with ES-E, ES-M, ES-P. Skip EFM-1, ES1, and ES-2 for now. Read the manual that comes with Logic. There's a separate manual for instruments, and there's a whole chapter called Synthesizer Basics Overview. If you can't wrap your head around these, then don't waste your money buying anything else.

Media composers seem to rely heavily on the instrument - why? Is there something about it that lends itself to a movie or whatnot?

Electronic instruments just add timbre and color to a composition, just like each traditional classical instrument brings its unique color to the orchestral palette.

The Spitfire Creative Cribs shows a lot of synths in these studios, why? Why not more acoustic instruments?

Hardware synths need to be close to the mixer, audio cables can only go so far. Also most hardware synths have controls that need to be tweeked. If they were in another room, it would be frustrating to program a sound. Traditional orchestral instruments care kept in a case, somewhere protective, and are brought out and recorded when necessary. My Flute, Oboe, English Horn, and WX7 are in their cases tucked away. My hardware synths? Right out in the open. Many of the cribs composers do have their grand piano out in the open, I have noticed.

And yes, I just fiddle with my synth parameters until I find something I like. Thats how many people do it. Some people program just for the sake of sound creation and noise. They never record *gasp*
If you know the basics of programming, you envision the sound you want, and you have an idea of what you want to create. Sine wave? Saw wave? Then its tweek city, narrowing down the parameters until you get the sound you want. As with any instrument it's about the destination. With my Oboe, I make my reeds, and depending on how I carve the wood, I can create different timbres for my instrument. With my flute, I can direct the air and how it enters my instrument by manipulating the size of my mouth cavity, and where I direct the air stream across the mouthpiece. With Electronic instruments, you are doing much of the same things, but you're working with electricity(for analog gear) or 0's and 1's for digital gear.


Senior Member
Probably you are thinking classical lines and harmonies. A lot of synth based music works better if you think different.
Use one bass note for a longer passage. Drones are very effective and go deeper than orchestral instruments. You can build everything on top that works with a pedal note.
Same with ostinatos. Synth arpeggios work well even for longer passages... as an invisible time keeper like a hi hat in pop/rock/jazz or as a harmonic filler. Instead of or as addition to dynamic you can use sound color changes like filter sweeps or adding release time on short notes etc.
Pads are a big synth domain too. Fine for everything harmonic that doesn't have too fast chord changes.
And then textures. Tonal or atonal it's a great way get immediate depth. It's like the sky above the horizon in pictures. You can make things seem closer when there is a far layer behind.

Mark Schmieder

Senior Member
The modern synth is very much an outgrowth of the organ; even the terminology is similar. Both were designed to "replace" regular instruments, for convenience and often for budgetary reasons, but also grew into their own thing. The Theremin is an early synth. So is the Vocoder, which was developed around the time of WW I for military purposes, to encode and decode speech so that the enemy couldn't decipher what was being said. Form follows function, after all.

The reason it's called a synthesizer is because the original goal was to synthesize existing sounds. The blips and bleeps that became popular, were somewhat of a shock, and sometimes an embarrassment, to the originators. Then, as now, even when a Moog mono-synth comes out, people want to hear how the piano patch sounds. :)

Additive synthesis was always a bit more adventurous than subtractive synthesis from the get-go though. Some consider the Hammond Organ's tone wheels to be a form of additive synthesis, and some even put FM synthesis in that category. As with the ongoing sample rate arguments, you will find equally violent arguments by apparently equally qualified experts.

From a more practical side of things, it can help to initially think of synthesizer sounds categorized similarly to the Sachs-Hornbostel system that is used for orchestral as well as world instruments.


Then, when looking at it from the subtractive synthesis side, your ears are already good enough that you will recognize a square wave as a facsimile of a clarinet, and a saw wave as a similar building block for a trumpet, with the sine wave being best exemplified by the Theremin but also by many other instruments. If you are into synthesizers as colours and variations on the familiar palette, you can very quickly put together some patches that serve similar functions and speed along your synthesized orchestration thusly.

To me, where it starts to get really interesting, is at the more percussive end of things, and for that I often move over to additive and FM synthesis. But for any sound category, to get the most out of it, you will want a non-static tail, and one that you can control. Many ways to go about this, via breath, expression, ribbon, aftertouch, etc. At that point, the sound may be "new" or "somewhat similar but different" to the classic sounds of physical instruments, but now you are able to manipulate them in similar fashion for expression and phrasing. It gets a bit more complicated once you set up modulation matrices to control multiple parameters simultaneously, with infinite flexibility in signal flow.

Fortunately, there are a lot of good patches available for most synths, to get you going, but much of the fun is in creating something or making it your own sound. That was what motivated most of tghe early pioneers, before patch memory became a thing.
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New Member
As with the many excellent posts which precede this one, I will attempt to entice you to the joys of synthesis in music. You pose a provocative question. I hope my response begins to measure up to it.

First off, what’s in a name? The original term “synthesis” did not (AFAIK) imply imitation of existing instruments, but rather the creation (i.e. synthesis) of sound in circuits. That is, it’s about the verb “to synthesize” more than the adjective “synthetic.” Please feel to read more about Thaddeus Cahill, Harold Bode, Bob Moog and others who held a belief that an electrical circuit could grow up to have a spiritual, sonic voice. To synthesize is to engage in a primal act of creation. In that spirit, your DAW is the descendant of the first synthesizers. It creates sound from ones and zeros … almost from scratch.

So what is unique about a synthesizer? The synthesizer is the first instrument in human history where the generation of sound can be divorced from the physical act of playing. That is to say it’s the first instrument in human history which invokes laws of science which go beyond Newton’s laws of motion and the laws of statics. This is important because physics is tactile and the resulting bridge to human emotion is explicit. Musicians who synthesize sounds have to work a little differently to create a human context. It’s probably worth pointing out that synthesizers are a baby instrument, and their voice will grow stronger and more human, over time, just as our portable phones have become more of an expression of the human spirit than the first ENIAC computer. Modern phones have been estimated to be between 100,000 times and 3 million times more powerful than the ENIAC. That type of power when tamed, can result in nuanced human expression. Even so for the synthesis of sound. As long as the human spirit yearns to sing, it will use all the tools available.

That’s not to say that current synthesizer music is inhuman. We all understand the emotion of this music:

As with any infant, there are different ways of growing up. Here is an example of what I consider a dead end despite it being a beautiful integration of tactile control with the synthesized (created) sound.

Ditto for this example (Bach’s brilliance aside), because it tries to fit a vast new instrument into existing structures. I understand why these wonderful musicians did that ... and yet I think there must be more to this instrument.

This example begins to hint at new types of expression …

... and the journey is only beginning. The most “finished” synthesizer examples are still the soundtracks, as you point out. I’ll close with an excerpt from the Social Network where (as you requested) the synthesizer partners with a traditional instrument (piano) to express a duality and a discomfort.

I hope this provides an enticement to explore the synthesizer, knowing that we are dealing with an insanely powerful yet infant instrument. Thank you for posing the question. Jerry
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New Member
I'm a professional clarinetist, advanced pianist and play a handful of others like violin and guitar, my background is in orchestral (classical). I'd like to learn to play and write for synths but am not sure how to proceed.
As if my above response wasn't long enough ... as a fellow classically trained pianist, I thought you would appreciate a couple of clips by wind instrumentalists playing synthesizers. The first is by the luminous Michael Brecker, shortly before he passed away. (RIP) He is just playing a few improvised lines on a digital instrument:

The second clip is harder to introduce. It's Pedro Eustache, a flautist on a number of Hans Zimmer's soundtracks. He is talking about three instruments he brought for an improvised jam with Eric Persing (the founder of Spectrasonics and creator of Omnisphere). The first is a duduk, the second an analog modular setup, and the third a modified acoustic flute. There are no single-reeds at this gig unfortunately! (well, not exactly :sneaky: )His explanation begins at 32.30 and is well worth watching because it illustrates his journey as a musician and synthesist. Perhaps it will help catalyze the thoughts you have been having about "how to proceed."

All the best,



New Member
I always thought that the OST to the series Utopia was a rather good demonstration of synths and creative sampling. Not sure if this was with traditional instrumentation or sample libraries but sounded good to me.



Active Member
  • The Spitfire Creative Cribs shows a lot of synths in these studios, why? Why not more acoustic instruments?
Which ones have you watched? I'd start by listening to the music from those composers, they're probably using those synths (I'd hope!)... I think the question should more or less be "how do I achieve this sound I like" rather than "do I need to use/understand synths because a lot of composer videos show them in their fancy studio". Not every composer needs to be a synth expert, it's more or less something that either you feel your music needs, or not.

When it comes to the nuts and bolts, which is often a lot more than just shaping a couple oscillators and a filter (subtractive synthesis is just one type of synthesis), it's useful to have some sort of target in mind as far as the sound you are after... if you don't know what sound you want, then synthesis/sound design might be a bit of a hazy goal.... and if you can't hear it adding something to your track, then maybe the track doesn't need synths!

Ran Zhou

I was not able to appreciate the fun about synth until I saw this, and several other YouTube videos about music in the last century. As one who likes, hears, and practices 'classic' music forms, this is quite new but interesting to me. I think this work by Steve Reich really helps me understand from a different view on how prototype-synth would work for a 18 century composer if he wanted that sound.
There's so many types of synthesis methods out there. But I think you're right, with synthesis it's more about sculpting the sound. Not to say that synthesized instruments can't be played expressively via creative modulations from velocity, aftertouch, etc...

Anyway, you might want to check out Syntorial. Pretty cool and effective hands-on way of learning subtractive synthesis, think it might be the route you're looking for. Available on iPad and desktop if i recall correctly.


New Member
On the question of how to start exploring synthesis, I would say ... grab the parts you like and cheerfully ignore the rest. Synthesis is a vast field. I have been studying it intensely for more than two decades and there is always something new to learn. To avoid being sucked into the Charybdis of endless study ... grab only the ideas you want to use for an orchestration or project.

Many of the sonic benefits of synthesis are already available in presets, in orchestral libraries and in effects plugins. An example would be routing a bassoon sample through a square wave-modulated gain plugin. It's going to sound synthetic because the control system (the square modulation of volume) is square ... which is not an organic shape. Conversely, you could make a narrow pulse wave sound vaguely like a bassoon, if you control it with a breath controller. (i.e. an organic control system).

The three major synthesis control systems are LFO's, envelopes and sequencers/arpeggiators. Four domains you can modulate (control) with these control systems are pitch, volume, timbre and time. Using these control systems will make your sound more synthetic. I observe that orchestral libraries are beginning to offer a lot of these control systems within the libraries. So the synthetic sound may not be something to search out ... it's coming to your neighborhood. The universe of synthesis is huge ... but I dare say a composer can obtain a lot of the common flavors without turning it into a Phd project.

That said ... having a small modular synth to muck around with, will help you think of DAWs (and music, and acoustics) in fresh ways. Hoping this helps ...
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