Synthesis of Sound
Published a year ago
Growth market primer
Our ears (external sound sensors) perform intricate tasks of interpreting the myriad of blended sounds from all around us. The ear sensor with its complex sets of horns, channels, feelers, drums and mallets act as physical modulators required for us to decipher individual sounds, filter out background noise, tune various frequencies and identify pitch.
Electronic sound/music synthesizers (Synths) function similar to the human ear in that their electric filters and modulators break down and re-combine basic tones into familiar sounds.
When it all Works
Slight variations in ear mechanics (between all people) result in slight variations of the way we interpret sounds. Similar to synthesizers, variations in component types and circuit design give each model its distinctive sound. The common goal of both ears and synthesizers is to seek and hold harmonizations for further processing.
Tuning combinations of tones can result in pleasing timbres and harmonizations. Untuned combinations usually results in noise. In the case of electric synthesisers resulting noise can be re-introduced (feedback loop) and modulated to find new levels of harmony in an unfamiliar background.
Sound/color basics
Basic audio waves (sine, square, saw) are used to create (synthesize) tones into complex sounds by altering frequency, pitch, level and oscillation (modulation). Multiple waves can be layered together to create new tones and harmonizations. This is similar to mixing primary color pigments where the subties from each mix is remixed to achieve tone variations and enhanced depth. When a proper mix is made a third element arises. Which is often the goal of sound artists, paint artists and instrument makers.

Sine Wave

Natural rhythm, sound of waves on an ocean beach. Sound of breathing

Square Wave

Successive intervals of quick on, quick off sounds. Similar to woodpecker hammering on tree or sound of jackhammer.

Saw Wave

Combining various sound types into unique waves can synthesize sounds heard in nature and our environment or create strange and eerie sounds from places unknown.

Example of combining different waves into a harmonic effect.

Electronic synthesizers
Electronic music became popular in the 70's. Makers such as Moog and ARP produced portable equipment in which music artists could easily adapt to live performances. A new era in music began.
Traditionally there has been two classes of synthesize known as analog and digital. Analog synths use basic transistor oscillators and analog filters to produce sounds, Where as digital synths use firmware to produce pulse controlled modulations (PCM) and digital stepped filters to modify sounds. There is also a hybrid type synth that uses a combination of PCM oscillators with both digital and analog filters.

Contemporary synthesiser makers continue to offer variations of analog and hybrid instruments with the addition of sophisticated on the fly sampling and FM multi octave/oscillator driven sounds. With every new generation of synthesizer technology the ability to replicate organic instruments and make new unheard of sounds is expanding. These new ways to play and generate sounds attracts new interest in synthesizer use and modular synth building.
Synthesizer styles
Modular behemoths
Modular synthesisers consist of sound modules bolted to a frame and are connected via patch cables. Modular synth enthusiasts often keep their systems "pure" in using mostly analog equipment if not all.
The modular synth component market offers almost endless opportunity with increasing interest in synthesizer music combined with 3D printing, microcontrollers and pre packaged modules. There's a new breed of instrument makers and they love knobs, blinking lights and phat tones.

Classic live instruments
This being the classic piano keyboard with tons of buttons and lights mounted close to the performers hands. Unlike modular synths, most of the core sounds are pre programmed from the maker. Models can serve multiple functions including making natural sounds, synthesizer spacial sounds, chords, rhythms and beats. Used for live performance and studio work these full function instruments make up the musicians core. And like guitars they provide a different feel and sound in which keyboard musicians have several instruments for both live and studio work.
New model announcements at trade show events are closely watched and scrutinized by both makers and users. Synth makers use these events to demonstrate the latest in sound engineering and new features. Upon a new release its quick to tell if the maker has achieved new interesting sounds without loosing the base sound and control feel of previous models. In addition new ways of controlling synth sounds with pads and organic inputs are vetted.
For studios, either full board mixer and or combination of other rhythm systems and Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) will be part of the setup, These full stack synth enthusiast will stop and nothing to achieve the ultimate system.

Black box hybrids
Affectionately know as garage band. Studios usually consist of a table full of effects pedals, rhythm boxes, MIDI keyboards, sequences and other interesting sounds gadgets.
Often accompanied with a laptop to run the digital audio workstation(DAW). These system are a great spur of the moment creation tool and can be easily packed up for live shows. These are places where most of the used equipment goes for trades and comeback appearances.

Hackers barebones
Hardware makers have access to increasing choices of bare bones circuits boards with discrete audio effects chips and components. This is where the indy hardware makers and gofundme projects operate. It's a wild and crazy place full of wires and half built cases. Occasionally some hero makes something out of this world. Inspiring others to forge ahead. With close ties to Iot and wearable tech community this is the new frontier.

Virtual virtuoso
As with synthetic sounds, the world to build them is also synthetic. This includes using 3D virtual reality editors and virtual logic/sound components to design panel layouts, buttons, knob, slider styles and types of sounds.
Virtual synthesizer artists can combines controls, filters and sound types into a unique instrument that can be played in the virtual world with real world sounds. Further, the instrument can transformed into a physical device with 3D prints.

As with many industries the orthodox approach to design, manufacturing and building is being turned on its head. Not everything will be affected right away. But its never too late to start thinking about how products flow from concept to consumer in the digital age 2.0.

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Mike Hogan
Automation Developer - Designer