the desktop synthboy

by m.c.death

What to look for when buying a synthesizer

  1. what features are important?
  2. programmability
  3. buying a synth for emulative reasons vs. innovative reasons
  4. budgetary issues
  5. buying new or used?
  6. compatibility with other synths and users
  7. where to look for synths
  8. how many synths do you need in your studio?

The Desktop Synthboy v1.0 (back in H&V #7) featured a general overview of a computer-based MIDI studio. Maybe one or two of you have been influenced by the previous article to start thinking about procuring a synth for your project or for other deviations. This article is intended for those curious ninnie musicians. We will discuss a few key issues and nuances of procuring a new synthesizer.

Acquiring a synthesizer is no trivial matter. With prices ranging from $50 (used) to $8,000 or greater, the purchase of a synthesizer must be pontificated and mulled over with care -- such financial decisions are as heavy as purchasing a car or a computer (some new high-end synths cost even more than a new Geo Metro!). Unless you are a member of the Rockefeller family, procuring a synth can be a major factor in your financial (and otherwise) life. Selecting and scoring a synth requires more critical discrimination than choosing between a Big Mac and a Whopper.

What features are important?

There are many important aspects of a synthesizer, and the most crucial is the sound of the synth. Unfortunately for the sake of simplification, sound is a very subjective quality -- a synth that sounds pretty gosh-darn orgasmic to one synthgeek will sound like utter bovine defecation to another. Add to this lack of standardization the influence of external factors: cultural (in Detroit, for example, it might be highly unfashionable to buy Japanese-manufactured synths...), genre-based ("that synth is great because it has them radical TR-808 and TB-303 sounds..."), or superficial (which synth company doesn't program showroom presets that cater to the lowest-common-denominator audience?). The most important issue is, "Does the synthesizer sound good to YOU?" You're the one who's going to be spending countless hours cuddled up with this electronic household appliance day after day, and it makes more sense to procure a synth because you like its sounds, not because the salesperson was attractive or kissed your ass enough.

An integral element of an electro-industrial band is its sounds and textures, and unless you want to sound like a fourth-rate Nitzer Ebb wannabe using exclusively factory preset sounds ("Analog Sequence," "Industrial Bass," "Fat Analog Pad," ad nauseum), it helps to be discriminating as far as synth sounds are concerned. If you prefer buying synths for such purposes, you may want to skip the next two sections (go straight to part 4, "Budgetary Issues"). For those of you who are not awe-struck by those factory presets and are even more discerning, the following sections are for you....


The synthesizer's sound is determined by many factors. The key element is its sound synthesis engine (the oscillator). Different synths use various sound-generation algorithms or techniques. The most prevalent one these days is the digital "Sample-Playback" synthesis method, where sound information is digitally stored on the synthesizer's ROM (or sometimes RAM) chip. This has become the predominant method for sound creation, and probably the most clichéd. What it boils down to is, the synthesizer plays samples of instrument from its memory. Compare that with analog synthesizers. Instead of digital microchips, analog circuitry is used as a sound source. The advantage of analog synthesis is the warmer, richer sound that the algorithm provides, but the drawbacks are its unstable filters and its recent status as a clichéd flavour-of-the-month synthesis method. A big tone-generation method from the '80s championed by Yamaha (and still sometimes used today) is the digital FM (Frequency Modulation) synthesis technique, where wave forms are altered according to their correlative frequency levels and algorithms. Real geeky shit, but if done right, FM synthesis can sound interesting. Not many recent synths rely on this method, however. It's less user-intuitive than analog synth tweaking, but some artists have produced amazing timbres and applications with this synthesis method (many early computer sound cards still use FM technology). One of the latest synthesis technology is the digital "Physical Modeling," in which complex mathematical models are used to emulate traditional acoustic and electroacoustic instruments in a realistic way.

Other synthesis techniques do exist, but the four mentioned above are the prevalent ones. Some high-end synths have the ability to combine different synthesis techniques, thus adding to the freshness of a timbre. A prime example is the ever-beloved Kurzweil K2000 synthesizer, which is employed by a certain Trent Reznor (along with the other programming geniuses such as Chris Randall of Sister Machine Gun).

As far as sample-playback synths are concerned some of them have numerous wave samples in their memory, while others have a limited number of waveforms with which to work. Although abundant number of waves is preferable, quality of the waves are more important than the quantity of the waveforms, although quality is a subjective matter.

Once the sound is created through its oscillators, the sound waves are then filtered out (or attenuated) by frequency and amplitude filters. These mechanisms help shape the waveforms and add sonic character to them. Some low-end synths will be devoid of filters -- unless you are happy with the preset, unadulterated sounds of the oscillators, the lack of filters sucks in terms of functionality. Most filters are of the "low-pass" type, in which higher frequencies are truncated, thus varying the timbre according to the amount of filter used. Some synths, however, have multi-mode filters, in which one can select between a low-pass and a high-end (or sometimes even bandpass) filter mode. These multi-mode filters are more versatile for shaping original and creative sounds. One important aspect of the filter (in my opinion) is its Resonance parameter -- most synths will have this feature, others may not. Resonance is essential for creating an electronic feel to the sound. Some synth manufacturers may downplay the lack of a resonant filter, but for electro-industrialists, the filter is a powerful tool that adds a dimension to the sonic spectrum. High-end synths also allow the user to manipulate filter settings in real-time, through either MIDI controllers or by other controllers (dials, knobs, etc.). This is the basis for lots of acid-type sweep sounds and other kewl sonic manipulation.

Many synthesizers on the market allow the user to combine multiple sounds (oscillator/filters outputs, generally called "tones") in to one single "patch." Unless it's a low-end synthesizer in which only one of those tones can comprise a patch, one can get complex sounds by combining anywhere between two to eight tones into a single patch. This combining of tones can make for really fat, varied, and original sounds, and this approach to sonic creation just rules.

In most (but not all) synths, each of these tones uses up a "voice" in the synthesizer's memory. Synthesizers generally have a maximum number of these "voices" that they can play simultaneously, so one is better off with a synthesizer that has greater maximum polyphony. In general, most synthesizers these days boast anywhere from 24- to 128-voice polyphony, but when using four tones to create one "patch," the number of simultaneous notes that one can play drops down to the six- to 32-voice range. If one tries to exceed the maximum polyphony, the excess notes will either not sound, or the synthesizer will try to "rob" an already-played note in order to compensate. But who's going to play 32 notes simultaneously on a synthesizer? A good question....

Most modern synthesizers are multi-timbral, or have the capability of playing multiple sound patches at once. They are usually spread over many MIDI channels, but for example, one can program and sequence a single synthesizer to play piano, lead, bass synth, synth pad, guitar, and drum parts simultaneously, provided that the synthesizer has enough polyphonic and multi-timbral capabilities. Of course, if one uses patches that take up many voices or tones, complex arrangements would be impractical or impossible (this is why many synthesists who have heavy layered sounds employ multiple synths, this author being no exception).

Better synthesizers usually have flexible sound manipulation capabilities. One can subtly or drastically alter the characteristic of the waveform by the use of modulation sources, such as Low Frequency Oscillators (LFOs), pitch bends, and even built-in effects processors that add sonic characteristics such as reverb, delay, chorus, distortion, and flanging. Sonic manipulation is used extensively in The Downward Spiral -- upon closer listening (no pun intended), there are elements of noise, weird pulsations in the sound waves, and other interesting sound quirks that make the Nine Inch Nails experience interesting.

Other goodies that go along with advanced synthesizers include built-in sequencers (which, in most cases, pale in comparision to computer software sequencers) that may come in handy for live applications; controller sliders and pads, which allow the user to create real-time sonic manipulations (very cool); multiple audio outputs (very useful for tailoring audio output and for facilitating advanced signal processing); and direct interfacing to a personal computer (many entry-level synthesizers geared towards the multi-media market employ this useful feature).

So now that your head is swimming with all these terms and concepts, here's another factor in synth-purchasing that should require less braincell straining....

Buying a synth for emulative reasons vs. innovative reasons

So you want to buy a synthesizer. And you already know exactly what your dream synth can and cannot do. So exactly what are you going to do with it when you buy it? Are you going to create a sonic masterpiece? Are you willing to spend hours and hours of time programming original sounds? Do you just want to use sounds that are emulative? Or maybe you want to do both.

Either way, one should consider what kinds of sounds that the prospective synth is best at creating. For those fat Moog bass synth sounds found on Pretty Hate Machine, either an analog synthesizer or a physical modelling synth would fit the bill well. However, if one seeks to emulate weird, surreal piano and horn sounds (think The Downward Spiral), sample-playback synths are better suited for those. For creating a huge wash of electronic atmospheric drones, synthesizers with advanced modulation capabilities, regardless of synthesis method, would best suit the purpose. The type of sound sought after by the prospective synthgeek definitely can influence the synth procurement process.

For example, my studio has seven synths (in addition to two percussion modules). Two of them are analog synthesizers, and the other five are digital synths. I usually use one of the analog synths for the bass sounds (because, in the work that I do, I like the sound of those fat, analog synths for the most part), and use the digital synthesizers for bell, piano, winds, strings, unmusical noise, and percussive parts. This is because all synthesizers have their strong and weak parts -- it would be a mistake for me to use one of my analog synths to emulate an orchestral hit or a saxophone (unless I want to create something even cheesier than "Purest Feeling"). The digital synths are better for emulating acoustic instruments anyway, and each of my devices are, to an extent, specialized for exploiting the strengths of individual units.

Budgetary issues

Obviously, this is going to be a big concern for any synthgeek. How much are you willing to spend for a synthesizer that will best suit your needs? One should not overlook cost as a factor for synth procurement. Spendier synths do not necessarily mean better sound quality and/or power. A budget-buy synth that is easy to use, has a good learning curve, etc., is definitely going to make you more productive than a spendier synthesizer that has a steeper learning curve. What good is spending lots of money on a synth if you can't learn how to exploit and use all of its capabilities? On a related note, I have heard excellent-sounding works done on a "cheaper" synthesizer, as well as extremely bland-sounding synth music that was created using high-end synth gear. In general, expensive synths have more features and cool effects, but there is generally a steeper learning curve associated with them.

Buying new or used?

So why should you pay more for a new synthesizer when you can get them used? Fortunately for us synthgeeks, there are always people who are selling used gear, so buying used synths is a viable alternative to spending lots of your hard-earned income on synthgear. Several things to keep an eye out for: 1) make sure that all the buttons, knobs, and features work on the synth you are considering buying. There is nothing worse than thinking that you got a great bargain on a synth, then discovering that the buttons do not work like they are supposed to. 2) Unless you are a natural-born synth programmer, get the manual for the synth. Not only will reading a manual save some time and frustration, but you may find interesting tricks and features (designed and accidental) that you might use to your advantage; 3) make sure that you are not being sold a piece of gear that has useless altered presets and sounds. Previous owners usually have custom sounds that may be inappropriate for your tastes, and it would help if you acquire an instrument that is fairly close to its factory configuration. Fortunately, many of the popular synths have original factory setting data available by keystroke combinations or through MIDI system-exclusive data available on sound cards or downloadable from the Internet. In the worst-case scenario, you can find kindred souls who still have the factory settings on Internet Usenet groups, such as and

Of course, there is more...

Compatibility with other synths, devices, and users

Let's say you are in a project with other synthgeeks. This raises some interesting issues regarding the choice of synth for procurement. Suppose you and your collaborator want to share sound data and files between synths. In this scenario, you would want to score a synth that you can transfer files with. Most synths have system-exclusive (sysex) capabilities for transmitting files to and from other devices (other synthesizers and computers equipped with MIDI sysex handling capabilities). Some devices can read data files that are formatted for other synths and/or samplers. Some synths can even read standard computer (.AIFF and .WAV) files! This flexibility is desired in situations where you need to interchange data in a variety of formats. In addition, many modern synths have the ability to play back MIDI files, which are becoming increasingly popular with computers (and the Internet, even). Henceforth, it is conceivable that your choice of synth can be influenced by its compatibility and interchangeability with other users.

Where to look for synths

There are traditional and non-traditional sources for locating that elusive first synth. Obviously, the musical instruments store* is the first place you're going to look. These shops are great places to look for new and sometimes second-hand synthesizers. You may expect to shell out a reasonable amount of bucks for that shiny new synth, but you can often get good deals. Music shops usually allow you to test-drive gear, and in most (but not all) cases, the salespeople are knowledgeable about synths (although there are still some high-sales slimebags out there who only see $$$ signs when you walk into their store). Mail-order catalogs are great places to look for bargains. I do mail-order shopping all the time. However, the drawbacks include the inability to test out a synth, having to wait two weeks or so for that UPS shipment to arrive, and having to play package-notice tag with UPS or the post office (that's what I get for having a day job that keeps me out of my house a lot).

Other nontraditional sources for synths include the tried-and-true classified ads (but remember, you get gear "as is") which can be both cool and sucky. It's cool if you know that the gear has been well taken care of, and if the price is a steal. It really sucks when the seller tries to pry top dollars from you for a piece-of-shit synth. Of course, there are clueless idiots out there who have no sense of fair market value for used synths. Rather than dealing with those buffoons, it's best to look for deals elsewhere. The Internet, bulletin boards, and on-line services are also good resources for buying gear. However, be careful about whom you deal with. When considering an Internet transaction, try to obtain Net references. There are too many scam artists out there thriving off unsuspecting Internet victims who do not take the proper precautions. But on the other side of the coin, there are many honest people on the Net. I have bought three synthesizers this way from three different individuals, all of whom dealt with the transactions in a fair and professional manner. Incidentally, those folks are responsible for two of the most powerful synths in my studio.

No matter what avenues you may seek to procure that synth, it always helps to know the going rate ("street value") of synthesizers. This way, when dealing with sellers, you have a rough idea of whether you're getting screwed or not. It gives you better leverage if you know the right price for a particular piece of gear, and sellers may be willing to negotiate a price that is advantageous to you. In other words, it is prudent to do some research on the prices of synths, as well as their features.

How many synths do you need in your studio?

Once you get over the hurdle of obtaining your first synthesizer, you might find it very useful, and sometimes even necessary, to score additional synths for your studio. But how much is enough, and when is having multiple synths not enough? The answer is subjective, as there are so many factors that you must consider.

If you're playing in a full-fledged band with live instruments (guitars, drums, basses, kazoos, etc.), the role of a synthesizer may not be much in the overall context of the group sound. In that case, having one synth in your arsenal will help you get by most of the time. However, if you're doing a one-person all-synth project, à la Howard Jones, it is conceivable that having one synth will not do the trick. Of course, other factors need to be considered as well -- if you are doing major multi-tracking and have a multi-timbral synth at your fingertips, having additional synths may not be of paramount importance, but if your synth is an older, unitimbral synth or a monophonic synth, and you want to create heavy synth textures, having additional synths (or a multitrack recorder) will help. If you're doing Orbital-esque heavy synth music with rich, multifaceted textures, having multiple synths is a must.

Of course, some of us synth-heads just can't get enough, and are consequently headed towards having synthesizer musea in our living rooms. A very successful underground industrial band that I highly admire have about 31 synths in their arsenal. Some struggling artists who haven't even released an album yet (*coughcough*) feel that it's important to accumulate at least seven synths in their arsenal in order to get anything done. Ah, it's a matter of taste, eh?

m.c.death ( is secretly lusting after his eighth synth, which he is contemplating scoring sometime in 1997. The Synthboy is currently involved in three "bands" -- spooge, attenuated euphoria, and death con one (with fellow riot nrrrds/a.m.ninnies Jason Haas and Chris Wiberg). Oh yeah, m.c.d. has been working on his attenuated euphoria debut album since 1991.

*Assistant editor's note: For a great place to scope out musical instruments in the Dallas/Fort Worth
and Houston areas, check out


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