MIDI Studio Sound Generators: Synthesizer - dummies

By Jeff Strong

Synthesizers are one of the primary sound generators available for your MIDI home recording studio. Your home recording studio synthesizer, like the one shown in the following illustration, consists of not only sounds but also a keyboard on which you can play these sounds.

Synthesizers come in a variety of sizes and configurations. For example, some keyboards come with 61 keys (5 octaves) while others provide as many as 88 keys — the size of an acoustic piano keyboard.


If you’re in the market for a synthesizer, you need to consider the following things:

  • Polyphony: This is the number of keys that sound at one time. Most decent modern synthesizers have at least 16 notes of polyphony, although ones with 32 notes are not uncommon.

    Each manufacturer treats polyphony differently, and the general MIDI (GM) standards allow some variations on the effective use of this parameter. For instance, a synth patch may use more than one sound to create the sound that you hear. The synth patch that you love so much may, in fact, consist of four different sounds layered on top of one another.

    In this case, you just reduced your polyphony to one-fourth with that one patch. If your synthesizer has 16-note polyphony, it’s now down to 4-note polyphony because each of those 4 notes has four “sounds” associated with it. If you use this patch, you can play only 4 notes (a simple chord) at a time, not the 16 that you thought you had to work with.

    Your best bet is to buy a synthesizer (or sound module) with the highest polyphony you can afford, especially if you want to layer one sound on top of another or do multitimbral parts with your synth.

  • Multitimbrality: Most decent keyboards allow you to play more than one sound patch at a time. This is called multitimbrality, which basically allows you to have your keyboard divided into several groups of sounds. For example, a multitimbral synth can divide a song’s chords, melody, bass part, and drum-set sounds into different groups of sounds and then play all those groups at once.

    If you do any sequencing, a multitimbral synth is a must-have. Otherwise you would need a separate synthesizer for each type of sound that you want to play. Fortunately, with the GM standards, compatible synthesizers made in the last ten years have the ability to play 16 sounds at once.

  • Keyboard feel: Some keyboards have weighted keys and feel like real pianos, while other keyboards have a somewhat spongy action. If you’re a trained piano player, a spongy keyboard may feel uncomfortable to you. On the other hand, if you have no training in piano and don’t need weighted keys, you don’t have to pay the extra money for that feature.

  • Sound quality: This is a subjective thing. Choose the synthesizer that has the sounds that you think you’ll use. This may seem kind of obvious, but buy the synthesizer whose sounds you like even if this means waiting and saving some more money before you can buy.

    If you buy a synth that was a good deal but you don’t love the sounds, you are wasting your money because you’ll just end up buying the more expensive one later anyway.

  • Built-in sequencer: Many keyboards contain a built-in sequencer, which allows you to program and play back your performance. These are usually called keyboard workstations or MIDI workstations because they contain everything you need to create a song.

    If you’re considering buying one of these complete workstations, take a good, hard look at the sequencer and the user interface to make sure that you like the way it works. Each manufacturer treats the process of sequencing a little differently; you can probably find a sequencer that fits your style of working.