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If you are relatively new to synthesis, you might notice that many synthesizers have similar controls and designs, and assume that they all have the same characteristics. Do all synths sound the same? What actually determines the sound a synth makes? To understand this we need to look a little bit at how synthesizers work to establish the way different sounds can be generated.
The simple answer is no. Synths do not tend to sound the same, though they do have the capacity to generate similar sounds.
All synthesizers have their own set of filters, LFOs, wave generators, all of which have an impact on the sound. The synth sound possibilities are endless. Some synths end up sounding the same due to presets. These are pre-made patches which set the parameters of a synth to a certain sound. If multiple producers use the same preset you will start to hear synths that do sound the same.
How Synths Work
Before I start, if you are really interested in how synths work, I wrote an in-depth beginner’s guide article on the subject here. But if you just want a quick summary keep reading.
The principle of how synths work is generally the same for the majority of models of synthesizer.
However, this doesn’t mean that they all make the same sounds. Most have an array of waveforms that are generated as the base of the sound. Sine waves, Square and Sawtooth are common.
They all have different properties, but in theory are the same no matter what synth generates them However, many synths have thousands of variations of waveforms
On top of this, the next “steps” of how a synthesizer works can have a huge impact on the sound.
Once the initial sound wave is generated, it is fed through the filters, modulation and effects of a synthesizer, as well as taking on an “ADSR” envelope (attack, decay, sustain, release) to give character to the sound in terms of how quickly it starts, how long it goes on for and if it rings on after the keys are pressed.
Things that impact the sound include phase shifts, and the way modulators and LFOs function can vary from synthesizer to synthesizer, or even within different synths in one range. This all leads to some very different and unique sounds.
The way synths are manufactured may even mean there are some subtle differences between two supposedly identical synthesizers (extremely subtle, but it is possible).
The Steps of Synthesis
It usually helps to think of synthesis in steps. Things are happening in a certain order. This is why we call things “chains” in music and music production, one link leads into the next, metaphorically speaking.
Synthesis is an incredibly complex subject, and one that can take many years to fully understand and master. An incredibly simplified version of what is happening is that:
- The sound is generated as a waveform or multiple waveforms.
- Filters and oscillators are applied to alter that waveform, and give different pitch and tonality.
- Effects are added to give further interesting characteristics to the sound.
Every single point on the audio chain is an opportunity for the sound to take on a new and interesting sound or tone.
Whereas with a guitar or other instrument you only really control the audio that is generated once it is recorded or amplified, synths give you control over the whole thing. That’s why they call it “sound design”.
A really helpful analogy for synthesis, sometimes taught to young people learning about audio and music technology, is to compare it to cooking.
Think of a waveform (your sine wave, for example) as your ingredients, and all of the oscillators and filters as different cooking utensils and methods. There are so many different ways to prepare the same ingredients.
What Can Make a Synth Sound “Better”?
“Better” is a subjective term. However, there is no denying that certain synthesizers, both hardware and software, can be regarded as better than others.
The person generating the sounds is key to this, and your understanding of synthesis should be strong if you are going to get a better sound, but generally, more options provide you with more choices.
LFOs are low frequencies that can be applied to a synth sound to create rhythm or make the sound pulsate or sweep, giving more dynamics to the sound.
A filter is a way to cut something from the sound or reduce it drastically. For instance, a bass sound will often have a low-pass filter, letting only the bass frequencies play and cutting the high-end.
An envelope, such as the “ADSR” envelope, controls the evolution of the sound over time. They can be applied to the amplification of the sound but also to things like effects, an envelope can control a filter, too.
As every synth has its own unique combination of these modules, they tend to all take on their own sonic properties and signatures.
Is it Even Possible For Synths to Sound The Same?
The way synths are described above should show you the fact that there are virtually endless possibilities for synthesizer sounds.
So, can you get two synths that sound the same? Can you create synthesizer sounds that are identical on two different synths?
A lot of synthesizers come with presets, and these will be the same no matter what. They are pre-programmed sounds that have the modulation and filter parameters set. With most synths, you can also edit the characteristics of these presets.
This applies to both hardware synthesizers and software synths.
With many software synths, people can use patches. A patch is a sound that someone has made, ready to be used, and this is then saved and made available for download. A soft synth can load this up ready to use. If you are using a patch then the chances are you’re using the same sound as someone else.
Without presets, it can be really hard to replicate a sound. For instance, if you hear a sound on a song, you might be able to create an approximation, but it is unlikely to sound identical. Plus, it will require a strong knowledge of what your synthesizer can do.
In terms of synthesizers having the same characteristics, it is worth a quick word on synthesizer clones.
Some extremely popular synthesizers made in the 70’s and 80’s can be very expensive to purchase now.
They may be sought after for their tones and the muddier “analog” sound, but the price tag can be thousands of dollars. Some companies therefore specialize in creating clones, which have the same circuitry, similar parts, and in theory, do the same job.
Behringer is a brand that is absolutely prolific when it comes to creating copycat synths.
For instance, the Behringer TD-3 is a cut price version of the famous Roland TB-303.
The “303” is famed for its acid sounds and formed acid house among other genres. The synth has a real bite to it. The originals, issued in 1981, are collectors items worth thousands of dollars.
The Behringer TD-3, a copycat with an added arpeggiator and distortion, is available in some places for under $200.
Software vs Hardware Synths
If you feel like you have heard the same synth sound over and over again, it will be for one of a few different reasons:
- An incredibly popular software synth patch or patches.
- A synth such as the TB-303 with a really distinctive sound.
Software synths are more likely to sound the same because of people using the presets or even adding other peoples’ synth sounds from patches.
Hardware synths can share presets (more so in the modern era) but the number one reason for a “samey” tone on these is a distinctive signal chain, which gives the audio a similar treatment every time. Often, these simple synthesizers are among the most popular.
If you want to read more reasons about why so many people still desire vintage analog synths so much check out this article, where I compare analog and digital synths.
Summary – Do All Synths Sound The Same?
After hearing the same TB-303 or 808 bass, or an EDM sound you swear is the same on every track, it’s easy to assume that synths do roughly the same thing as one another.
The truth is, that while there are infinite possibilities, a lot of people opt for tried and tested sounds and presets in their production. Sound design can take a synthesizer in a variety of different directions, and the more oscillators and filters it has, the more opportunities there are for unusual and unique tones.
While many of the synthesizers, both software and hardware, may have similar starting points, where you take the synth sound is up to you.