A Keyboard Synthesizer lets you create extremely sophisticated sounds. Read more on popular analog synthesizers and playback synths here.
There comes a time when a keyboard player wants to move from using preset sounds to making their own sounds. If you feel that as well then it is time to move away from your arranger or digital piano, and have a look at synthesizer.
Most experienced users usually own multiple keyboards, which may include a combination of beginner synths, analog synths and/or workstations. If you are a beginner in synthesis technology then it will take some time for you to reach there.
Best Compact Synths
These are compact but high on features, suitable for the space conscious musicians.
Best Beginner Synthesizer / Entry Level Synths
These synths are inexpensive, but do not cut down on the core features. These are great to test the waters, can be your first synth.
Best Synthesizer Keyboards under $700
For the cost-conscious musicians, these synths offer premium sounds and professional effects.
Best Synth Keyboards under $1000
Professional synth keyboards, priced well within the reach of the working musician.
Best Music Workstation Keyboards
The best synths & workstation available for professionals.
Table of Contents
Synthesizer vs Arranger Keyboards
If you look at a keyboard synthesizer, it will look very much like an arranger keyboard! Most of them come with 61 keys and have a synth action… but that’s where most of the comparison ends.
Synthesizers are technically superior instruments, are more expensive and it gives you the capability to manipulate almost any of the parameters associated with the built-in sounds.
Unlike musical keyboards, they do not have built-in accompaniments and speakers; you will need external speakers to generate sounds.
A musical keyboard will also NOT let you tweak the built-in sounds…may be it will let you to a limited extent. Keyboard synthesizers on the other hand will let you do much more. You can create rich, amazing sounds to some extremely wacky ones.
The editing features on a synthesizer keyboard make it different from arrangers. Read more here.
Type of Synthesis
This is one aspect which you need to understand, before you decide what type of synthesizer to buy.
Basically, you get two types of keyboard synthesizers depending on the type of sounds generated – Analog Synths and sample Playback Synths.
Sample Playback Synths include more of the bread and butter type of sounds. If you are more into pop, jazz, orchestral or mainstream type of music then you will need authentic piano, string, brass sounds. And that is what a Sample Playback Synth provides.
Analog Synthesizers (also known as Virtual Analog synths or VA synths) are for those who only prefer doing dance, trance, techno type of music. It gives you a palette of sounds that suits these styles of music, something which sample playback synths cannot provide.
Read more on the sound generating elements in a synth keyboard here.
How Sound is Produced
The Oscillator is a common term that you will here, and it is the component that generates the sound. It generates a frequency and sets the pitch of the sound as well as the waveform of the sound.
Higher tones / pitches will have higher frequencies
Lower tones / bass tones will have lower frequencies
So do synthesizers have only one oscillatory? No! In fact the better ones will have more, so that they can generate several kinds of frequencies.
The frequency generated is then fed to the filter to give you better control over he sound.
What does a filter do?
It removes certain frequencies and harmonics and gives you better control over the sound that you are trying to synthesize.
The better synthesizers provide you with several kinds of filters so that you can apply the proper effects.
There’s an Amplifier too
Synthesizers use electricity to generate the frequencies, but then they are not powerful enough to be heard properly on their own. This is where an amplifier is required; it amplifies the signal so that it becomes powerful enough to be heard through the speakers.
So now you are aware of oscillators, filters and the amplifier.
You need another component that can control the output from these, and that is where the envelope generator comes into picture. It also decides when should the sound start or end.
When applied to the oscillator – it can change the pitch
When applied to the filters – it can change the brightness, timbre
When applied to the amplifier – it can change the volume.
It can also change the overall timbre of the sound.
So these are the common components of any synthesizer, and when you are tweaking the sounds, you are actually controlling these components.
This is how a Synthesizer produces sound.
How Does a Synth Keyboard Let You Create Your Own Sounds
A Synth Keyboard gives you a lot of control by letting you modify sound related parameters. Here’s how a synth keyboard let you create your own sounds.
Sound Generating Elements
A synthesizer includes sound generating elements which creates a basic set of audio waveforms.
Now, to create a different sound you should be able to modulate or change these waveforms. This is the reason synthesizers come with so many knobs, sliders and buttons.
These controls let you modulate the basic waveforms so that you can create sounds with totally different patterns. Using the knobs and sliders, you can change the waveforms pitch, frequency, amplitude and other parameters to create entirely new sounds.
The following are some of its features:
- It produces waveforms and lets you modulate (change) them to create new audio waveforms
- It doesn’t contain accompaniments nor do they have built-in speakers
- It contains loops, arpeggios and effects
- Extremely versatile
- Used to create sounds that can be used as sound effects in background scores
- Used mostly in studios
- Used by lot of keyboardists to play in a band because of their stunning sounds and effects.
How To Add Effects?
You will find this section in all the synths and this is what lets you alter the waveform to produce that different sound.
A particular sound or timbre sounds that way because of the waveform generated and you can change it by altering these four things:
Attack – This is the time taken for a sound to reach its maximum level after a key is pressed.
Decay – This is the rate at which the volume decreases from that maximum level.
Sustain – This is the level of the sound while the key remains pressed.
Release – this is the duration of the sound after the key is released.
Here are a couple of videos explaining the Fundamentals of Synthesizer Programming
Arpeggiator / Arpeggio Patterns
This is an awesome feature available on synths!
An arpeggiator lets you play a variety of phrases and arpeggio patterns using just one finger!
Some of the synths may provide you with two polyphonic arpeggiators, making it possible to create even more sophisticated patterns!
You may use the two arpeggiators to play two different instruments – for instance drums and bass, while you play your chords and melody. This feature gives you amazing power for your live performances.
Most of these synths provide you with numerous patterns to choose from. They even let you create your own original patterns, which you can then store in the internal memory for later use.
You can read more on the Arpeggio Function of a Keyboard Synth here.
Do You Need an Onboard Sequencer?
Almost all the beginner keyboards and digital pianos provide you with a built-in sequencer but that is quite basic. It does the basic job of recording the tracks but that’s it.
Lot of musicians over time switch to a computer based setup where they use a software sequencer program to do all the sequencing, editing and mixing stuff.
But that doesn’t mean that you don’t get keyboards which have better sequencing features. It’s just that you need to decide if you really want one.
But why would you need one with good sequencing abilities? There could be many reasons – if you are seriously into music programming and performing.
Why do you have to switch on the computer everytime you have some cool idea that you wish to expand upon. You can straightaway start creating using the synthesizer’s sequencer.
You do a lot of gigs? Then a synth with sequencer and an arpeggiator is a good combination to have. Ideally you need one on which the arpeggiators can sync to the MIDI clock coming from the sequencer. With the press of one button you can create sequence by switching on the arpeggiator and pressing a chord.
But then you can also accomplish all these using a software sequencer such as Sonar, Cubase or Logic. So if you don’t have a keyboard based one, you don’t have to fret!
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