What is a Synthesizer and How does it Work?
The invention of the synthesizer revolutionized the world of sound recreation. A performer who wanted to recreate a particular sound on stage used to rely on old-fashioned recordings. Today, thousands of sounds, notes and frequencies can be generated in real time on stage at the touch of a button. A synthesizer is an electronic instrument that can produce various sounds. Its name comes from what it does: it “synthesizes” sound. It works by generating and combining different frequencies. It can produce thousands of different sounds and sound combinations.
Performers who want to add the sound of a car horn to a performance need not use an audio tape of a car horn. Instead, the sound can be generated with the push of a button. The synthesizer can even produce multiple sounds simultaneously, like a horn honk and a bird call, for example.
The earliest known synthesizer was invented by Elisha Gray in the late 1800’s. Gray is more well-known for some of his other inventions, most notably the telegraph and a telephone prototype. Gray was a pioneer in electronics and ahead of his time in many respects. His early device, though somewhat rudimentary by modern standards, paved the way for today’s models.
The next inventor to improve upon the synthesizer was Robert Moog. Moog was a brilliant scientist who received a Ph.D. in engineering physics. He spent his career working with and developing electronic music systems, instruments and devices. Moog is considered by many to be the father of the modern synthesizer.
Moog’s device was the first ever to use a piano keyboard as a controller. Previous prototypes used buttons, dials and levers. This is why they have become largely associated with pianos and electronic keyboards today. However, they can actually be controlled through other means. Guitar synthesizers are an example of this.
Early synthesizers were large and unwieldy, not very suitable for transporting. Moog’s design, plus evolving technology, led the way for smaller and more portable units. These smaller devices are much more practical for performing, especially when traveling is involved.
Today’s synthesizers are highly sophisticated devices. They employ computer technology and are comprised of computer chips and motherboards. The units are compact and relatively self-contained (like today’s computers) and can be transported easily.
The keyboard synthesizer is still popular with musicians, particularly those who perform regularly on stage. Today musicians can also use software synthesizers, also referred to as softsynth. This type uses computer software for digital audio generation. Softsynth is often used for studio recording. Another less common device is the saxophone-style synthesizer.
Modern electronic keyboards usually have synthesizer components, if only in limited form. Mass-marketed electronic keyboard synthesizers are usually rudimentary compared to professional models, which have greater synthesizing capabilities. However, even these rudimentary keyboards demonstrate just how far technology has evolved over the decades. Many features available on the cheapest keyboard synthesizers are more advanced than the best of yesteryear’s technology.
Technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace. Designs are likely to get better and more efficient. Synthesizer sounds will improve in quality. The range of possibilities for sound production and reproduction make the science and engineering a worthwhile investment.