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Learning Synths (ableton.com)
969 points by navidhg 24 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 172 comments

The best resource I've ever seen for learning synthesis is Syntorial: https://www.syntorial.com/

It teaches you step by step all the aspects of a synth engine: oscillators, wave shapes, amplitude, filters, modulation, unison, FM… But most of all it trains your ear, which allows you to replicate the sound in your head and build it from scratch.

Syntorial is a charm, definitely the best resource to develop your ear. There are possibly waay extensive resources like books, but as the nature of the medium it's good for getting information, but for practice and developing the ear, Syntorial is #1.

It's a different thing but I've had some fun with https://tonedear.com/ training my imperfect pitch.

I'm trying to learn guitar in my 30s and I'm really struggling with the ear training parts. Can you point other resources like this one?

The most useful tool I've found is Perfect Ear for Android and iOS. It's not as full-featured as GNU Solfege, but it covers all the important stuff and it's far easier to dip into when you have a spare moment.


If you're a late beginner/early intermediate player and trying to move past the chord shapes and scale patterns rut, I strongly recommend William Leavitt's A Modern Method for Guitar. It's hard - really damned hard - but it's logical, the difficulty curve is fairly linear once you get past the shock of traditional notation, it inculcates good habits from the outset and it provides you with a very broad base of technique that is applicable to all styles of guitar.


> The most useful tool I've found is Perfect Ear for Android and iOS. It's not as full-featured as GNU Solfege, but it covers all the important stuff and it's far easier to dip into when you have a spare moment.

Oh man, I missed this app when I switched from Android to iOS. So glad it's finally on iOS!

You should check out GNU Solfege.


I will, thank you.

One technique I use is to noodle in some scale, then whatever note I land on try to play that note's chord by ear. You'll hit a lot of wrong chords at first but over time your ear will get better.

also the app ChordProg on android has great exercises

I'll also vouch for syntorial. Completed the demo years ago and I still use those techniques every day.

+1 to Syntorial. I'd couple it with Serum where it's easy to implement ideas from Syntorial and build on top.

That looks really great, but a little pricey. Any recs for someone who isn’t sure if they want to invest the cash into learning synthesis?

Just fyi, Syntorial is currently on sale at VST Buzz for half price (~$65USD): https://vstbuzz.com/deals/50-off-syntorial-by-audible-genius...

Thanks for the link! Considering that I was about to buy Syntorial at full price, I'd like to donate $30 to a charity on your behalf. Reply here or email me with the name of the charity that you'd like the money to go to.

Hey! I'm not knowledgeable enough to endorse a specific national charity, so I'd suggest that you buy some local artist's merch or donate to your local/regional human or animal shelter!

Okay! I donated $30 to the SF SPCA. Thanks again for the tip! https://www.evernote.com/l/ABLjCal10i5CnYiRvlMhlxj_vGjFWojD2...

That’s a fantastic choice! Glad I could help you save a few (dozen) bucks.

Thanks! I was thinking if Syntorial was worth purchasing after doing the free lessons. At half price, I say it is worth it!

Check out VCV rack. It just hit 1.0. https://vcvrack.com/

VCV rack is free. Also look for the demo Nord Modular software, which has a few modules disabled and is limited to one voice but still insanely powerful. Synth Secrets is probably the best written tutorial on synthesis you'll find anywhere.


They have a reasonable trial on their site. I'd recommend taking it for a spin.

This is a good place to start. The demo uses Logic's ES2 as a platform. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvRbdIw9KaQ

I learned through YouTube tutorials. Find a popular free virtual synth, I'd recommend Synth1. (Popular because you want lots of content available) and try to understand the very basics of the pieces of it.

Once you've got that down, most popular synthesizers use a very similar "subtractive" architecture, so once you understand the basics of your chosen one, it's simple to follow tutorials using other synthesizers. From there I'd recommend finding a youtuber you like learning from even if they don't use the same synth as you.

I really enjoyed Creating Sounds for Electronic Music https://www.coursera.org/learn/music-synthesizer

... It's only $129.

that's a lot of money for most people


What is easy for you is a months salary for someone else. Keep in mind that HN is read all over the globe and that if $129 is 'pocket change' for you that you are the exception, not the rule, and a lucky one at that.

You and I live in different worlds.

Apparently, if the dishwasher at a fast casual restaurant can afford this yet you cannot.

He's not saying he can't afford it. He's saying it's a lot of money. I'd imagine when you make minimum wage, it's a lot of money even if you can afford it.

I make typical FANG SWE income and I still consider it to be a lot..

Is empathy too much to ask for?

Truly, ignorance is bliss.

If you have an interest in synths, you owe it to yourself to read Synth Secrets by Gordon Reid. Published in 63 parts in Sound on Sound magazine, it remains the definitive tutorial on synth programming.


These are pretty technical articles, but absolutely amazing in terms of content. I remember reading them nearly 20 years ago when I first got into using synths.

I can second (or third) this thought: these articles taught me a whole lot a long time ago.

yep the sos series the best I know of.

It deserves it own dedicated website, it is never easy for me to find.

Question: All of "learn synths" tutorials I've managed to dig up are really "sound creation" tutorials.

I have not found a good tutorial or paid online class on how to _play_ synths. Is taking a traditional piano course the best way to do so? Observationally, the play style seems quite different, even if some basics are the same. Most practically, I see synths typically played with right hand, left hand is on the modulator or knobs.

Basically, I'm finding it hard to find resources on how to play and make the most out of your synth (as opposed to piano), once you have dialed in the sound you want...

Literally practice :) Each sound you choose on a workstation or synth tends to bring out a playing style that reflects your own musical listening habits and learnings.

When I play a string patch in my band it tends to have slight flourishes to what are otherwise stabby block chords. When I play piano, it's kept light, jazzy and loungy, when I play synths I heavily use the pitch bend wheel and use the sustain pedal heavily (very old example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZBdjJiMkko)

Ultimately you just have to listen to examples of what you like and try your best to replicate what they're doing in those songs. This will improve your technique and skills to the point you can use a blend of your learnings to create your own style and feel :) Good luck!

Good question. Definitely learn the rudiments of piano playing, up to playing block chords (triads) with either hand.

Beyond that, I think they diverge too much. A lot of piano technique is getting both hands working together to play rhythm and melody - but generally synths are doing one thing at a time, and cooperating with other instruments.

A lot of classic synth lines are monophonic, aka "one-finger" lines, although to play them fluidly with one finger would be pretty hard. So pianistic skills would be wasted in this context.

When polysynths got common in the mid 80s, pianistic fingering of chords (but not necessarily rhythms) was used. I mean, to play the melancholy chords of "Drive" by the Cars, you need some of the skills of a pianist, but not rhythmic ones. You do need two hands.

(Of course the DX7 was played very much as a piano at times)

I do think you need the music theory though, such as awareness of chords and functional harmony.

Consider learning some of the classic synth basslines - they tend to have tutorials on youtube - like Material Girl or Tarzan Boy.

Learning piano is fairly valuable in terms of understanding/writing music, but not critical.

If you're interested in making music with synths, you could probably get away with a pad controller. You lose some keys, but you usually get a lot of control buttons. A 16 button pad controller can do a lot when configured with 4 banks of sounds, with root/3/5/7 of each. Most controllers have octave up/down buttons, so 4 pitches of a given sound is actually very versatile.

Nothing beats a teacher but there are some problematic things with piano teachers IME. (I've had 2 over the past 20 years)

- Piano is super super super biased towards classical music

- Huge emphasis on reading music and playing it back even if you're not understanding it

- Weakness on developing a sense of rhythm and playing by ear

- Weakness on learning to play with others

- The weakness on understanding leads to a difficulty in memorization AFAICT

All this stuff gets ironed out in piano lessons I'm sure but it seems to happen at a pretty late stage that isn't great for an adult beginner. It takes away some of the fun.

I have never taken classical guitar but in contrast to piano your typical guitar lessons are near 100% the other way around. Way more emphasis on using your ears, developing rhythm, playing with others, etc..

The only reason I mention this is a lot of synth music is pop music that has a lot more in common with guitar centric music.

The ridiculous thing is I haven't taken a piano lesson since 2015, I've been taking guitar. My sense of rhythm if I sit down at a keyboard/piano is way better now than when I was playing piano every day and taking classical style lessons. If I went back to some piano now I expect I would improve dramatically from where I was in short order.

FWIW (OP here), I've been playing guitar for years (not great, but fun enough:), have no knowledge of piano, and can have tons of fun with it just mixing up the basic chord progressions and playing around. I mean, compared to the guitar - the notes are in order! One after another, in a neat sequence! What a concept! :-) :-) :-)

So I think we're in agreement - I feel (rightly or wrongly) that I could take two years of classical piano lessons, and get no closer to what I want to do with a synth than I am today :-/. Whereas I feel just from playing the guitar, I can already do, say, 10-15% of what I want to do with a synth, and want to explore further in _that_ direction...

I agree with all of this, which I why I generally play more guitar than piano. I find it more expressive and I "feel" the music more.

That being said, I think a midi keyboard is the best interface for controlling software synths. Sadly, using guitar as a midi instrument doesn't really work that well and this is an area where the keyboard really shines. Would be curious to hear your thoughts though.

Took a piano 1 class at a nearby college last fall, and I agree with all of your points. I did walk away with a firm grasp on major and minor chords, which is something that escaped me in the 20+ years I'd played music.

Two real ways to go about it, it works about the same as learning guitar for a specific genre. Either find someone competent in that play-style to tutor you, or take a beginner-intermediate class in piano. Up to that point it will conceptually be similar. Once you feel like your basic technique is sound (rolls, fingering, rhythm), start learning songs you like. You'll pick up the specific techniques you need as you go.

Taking a class early on is important though. You'll ingrain bad technique if you're entirely self taught, and reteaching yourself later when you realize your technique is holding you back is absolutely miserable. Taken from experience.

Thanks! I share that experience - I've been mostly self-taught electric guitar, only to realize many years later that my unconventional (but seemingly natural) way of holding the pick is completely messing me up :O

I was there as well after years of learning guitar. It's never too late to relearn the pick holding. It takes some time, but it's worth it.

One hand on the keys and one hand on the knobs is a very specific way of "playing" a synthesizer. A lot of people don't really play the instrument live in this way.

I, personally, don't use keyboards to drive synths at all (even when the entire piece is written for synthesizer). I tend to work entirely in the box with step sequencers, and record directly into my DAW, where I go about rearranging things and mixing. So there's really no "playing" involved, and I've found it a lot more profitable to study composition and orchestration.

If you do end up going the 'learn piano' route check out 'pianobooster', it is the most patient teacher you'll ever have.

Awesome Sauce! I'm looking for Udemy courses for guided learning, but another way to practice is great - thx!

You're welcome, enjoy! Finding practice material it is best to look for midi files that are already split into two channels and tracks for left and right hand. Otherwise you have to split them yourself which can be quite a bit of work.

I have not found a good tutorial or paid online class on how to _play_ synths

Synths take many forms. If you want to play a synth with a keyboard, then learning piano would give you the concepts and techniques. Not all synths have a keyboard though...

It depends. What sort of music are you into? If you like funk and want to play weedly weedly bass sounds, you buy a Moog monosynth and you're set. If you want to play trance or dance styles then you figure out arpeggiators and sequencers and get to know the synth architecture so well that you can program it on the fly, because many styles of music are about taking a simple repeating motif and redoing it in different tonal colors. If you want to play synths as backing instruments in a rock or pop combo buy a workstation keyboard from Korg or Yamaha.

Tell me what you like to listen to and I'll recommend you something.


My first love is guitar, and I've been playing it (badly;) for decades. But I've just discovered synthesizers, got increasingly hyper excited, and it seems I can really really nerd out about them. Historically on the electronic side I've enjoyed Depeche Mode, some Daft Punk, and a mix & variety of other stuff; but I've just found synthwave, such as Kavinsky, and am somewhat in love:). I've been geeking out for a few weeks, love the deep warbles and hard tones of the bass monophonic analogues, piercing leads of some others, and the rich pads of some of the digital polyphonics.

To start with I bought a Roland Gaia; I know it doesn't get a lot of love, BUT... compared to UltraNovas and such, it has no menu diving - I have all these wonderful sliders and knobs to learn with and really understand what's going on. I've developed intuitive understanding of ADSR and other basic concepts like modulating LFO with it way better and faster than I imagine I would with a book - so if I outgrow it one day, it'll still have been a wortwhile purchase:).

Also played a bit with an old old USB Midi keyboard I had and Caustic software, and have access to Casio CTK-6250 regular electronic keyboard as needed.

Basically, I've discovered a fertile new ground and am looking to deep dive :).

But as I said - there's tons of reviews and suggestions on equipment out there; a fair amount of courses (good or bad) on how to create sound; but far less on how to learn to play synth in any kind of accelerated, non-traditional/classical way. As per my other post to fellow commenter - I find I can "play" piano/synth just from my guitar experience enough to have fun and run some chord progressions etc; and fear that first "two years" worth of classical piano would not substantially advance me in the direction I want to move. Perhaps I'm wrong... we'll see! :)

Yeah don't bother learning piano, you can just play chords with your right hand and modulate/bend with your left. So much of that synthpop sound depends on simple arpeggiators.

If you like hardware (and why wouldn't you, it's so much more fun than software) you might find a looping device really useful, you're probably familiar with the guitar pedal version. And you should definitely look into step sequencers, check out the Arturia beatstep for a low-cost and versatile one or the Korg Volca synths which are dirt cheap and super awesome.

Use a simple mixer (probably something cheap like a mackie or Tascam) from about the vintage of the music you like. Consider not doing full mixes and just recording your jams in stereo. If you get fussy over computer recording use tape instead, which is delightfully forgiving in a way that digital is not and will save you from gain control headaches and ugly dropouts if you record too hot. An old portastudio can be a ton of fun.

Learn about dub even if you don't like reggae music, dub producers know a lot of old school production techniques.

Regarding Depeche, people on Youtube have broken down exactly what each band member was playing during the 80s shows; you might find it interesting. The parts are simple. I don't say that to knock them at all, on the contrary it shows that pianistic excellence has little to do with great synthpop. Alan Wilder is a trained pianist and found little scope for his talents in those shows.

Of course the fast, repetitive bits were either on tape or sampled into the Emulator keyboards.

For learning to actually "play" any instrument, I'd recommend starting out learning some songs you like. The theory/effects/gear stuff develops in parallel. Songwriting will help too, even if it's something simple.

Depend on your taste in music, learning songs from classic synth era can be very useful too, whether it be prog-rock or anything else. I'd recommend songs by Camel, Allan Parsons Project etc.

Once your ears gets used to learning and playing whatever you hear off records, jam along to some classic Vangelis or something like that. Improvising is key to learning to play without sounding "stiff" if you will.

You might want to check out the roli seaboard, I have one and it's great for playing synths. A bit pricey but I enjoy it a lot. I got it because I was tired of making music through a UI and wanted to 'feel' it more like I do on the guitar.

I would also say any MIDI compatible keyboard is a good fit too, try to get something that has a pitch wheel though. The wheel will let you "bend" your sound and add some expressivity that just hitting the keys won't. I still think a midi keyboard is the best first interface for people that want to step into synth music.

The Seaboard block is a little cheaper, but it’s mini key size. Nice to have in a backpack, though.

I just wish Roli made an iOS config utility.

When you say “play synth” ...

Do you mean compose music with a sequencer or DAW like ableton?

Or, read and play sheet music using a keyboard to control the synthesizer itself?

The synthesizer and it’s means of control being separate make it a little different from traditional acoustic instruments.

But, no musician ever went wrong by learning to play piano and/or taking lessons.

Also, no musician ever went wrong by listening to the music they loved and trying to imitate it on their own.

Lastly, it helps to be around other people playing or making music.

Start with taking piano lessons for the basics and then learn to play some of the classics. Genesis, Toto, Saga, Herbie Hancock, you name it. There are plenty of tutorials on youtube.

What got me when I first started learning is to understand the difference between sound synthesis (which this link is basically for) and music composition. Maybe you're asking for something in between the basics of sound synthesis and full music composition. There's also all the different aspects of composition like drum arrangement, chord progression, melody creation, general music theory, etc.

I've collected some notes on what I've found so far [1] but be warned that I'm not a musician nor have I made anything that I would consider even remotely passable as music.

Here are some links that I found helpful:

* David Clements. He recreates many songs on his Studio Logic Sledge but it's applicable to other synths as well. Here's one where he recreates the opening to Stranger Things: https://youtu.be/HGufVBDfPvs

* InThread. A forum for Sonic Pi users. They have many coded examples of scores that can be used as a reference: https://in-thread.sonic-pi.net/

* Lines Forum. A forum of synth enthusiasts: https://llllllll.co/

* How Music Works. Goes from sound synthesis to composition/music theory: https://www.lightnote.co/

* Dylan Lane on melody writing. Don't let the Youtube personality or religiousity turn you off, she's knowledgeable and had many useful tips: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qlrLHhpp8-E&list=PL5PNXIkCYn...

* Signals Music Studio. More music theory oriented but I found it very helpful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPDVo-7Ua28&list=PLTR7Cy9Sv2...

* Open Music Theory http://openmusictheory.com/

* Some other algorithmic music generation links: http://maximecb.github.io/Turing-Tunes/ , http://maximecb.github.io/Melodique/ , http://www.playonlinedicegames.com/mozart

[1] https://github.com/abetusk/dev/blob/release/notes/MusicNotes...

Possibly unpopular opinion, but IMO to learn a synth it’s best to start with a simple physical subtractive monosynth.

Software synths are often built to model popular hardware instruments in both sound and interface. So learning the basic concepts on a “real” subtractive synth builds a foundation to learn more.

Plus a physical synth is far less distracting than a multitasking device. I find it much easier to create, experiment and learn when a screen is not involved.

Or go modular. Just be prepared to remortgage your house a year later. Seriously addictive

[1] https://imgur.com/a/chegsO5 (my setup)

Or go a step further and build them yourself. You get to keep the house, but you won't be able to make much use of it because every available space is taken up with a random assortment of wires, op-amps, resistors and capacitors.

DIY synth making will take up every bit of spare time you think you have left, and then some. Your hands will become a puzzle of soldering iron scars, and you'll slowly lose your hearing from accidental speaker pops. You have been warned.

> Or go a step further and build them yourself.

Absolutely! There's a group on FB called 'Eurorack DIY' if anyone's interested in this. Thonk [1] is also the store for you. Lots of DIY kits (before you inevitably embark on the path of building your own modules from scratch!)

[1] https://www.thonk.co.uk/

There's a guy on YouTube that got me into it which I highly recommend, called 'LOOK MUM NO COMPUTER'. He made a synth organ out of old Furbies toys. From that point I was sold.

Also, as much as I love the Thonk products, don't get put off by the price tags of some of their kits if you're intimidated! Some of my favourite synths have been made from penny parts I got from Alibaba, that totalled about £15 to make. They have a habit of sometimes spontaneously exploding, but that's all part of the fun.

> They have a habit of sometimes spontaneously exploding, but that's all part of the fun.

So you lose your house anyway ;)

Depends how big you make your capacitors :D

Holy cow that's me! I at least try to save some sanity by doing it with DSP, but constructing instruments from the circuit boards and controls still needs oodles of soldering.

I spent this morning redoing the wiring on two stomp stiches- I had wired them rotated at a 90 degree angle!()

() at least I didn't have to resolder the center terminal...

You can get a set of lego-like toy synth for like 160 bucks. I got one of those and I do recommend it for learning and fun, even as an adult.


Spending all of your free time soldering is not the same as making music.

Implying I care about making music? It's a different hobby all together. They merge to some extent, but I enjoy designing synths much more than I do making music on them.

I enjoy the act of building. A person interested in writing software doesn't have to care about using the software. A person interested in fixing and building kit cars doesn't have to care about driving them. A person working out can be doing it because they enjoy it, not because they care about any end goal. A person baking bread doesn't always have to eat it. A person painting a picture doesn't have to adorn it on the wall when they're done.

There's a lot more to hobbies then just what you get at the finish line. The process is often much more fun than the result at the end of it, or what you can do with that end product.

Which is why i have been purchasing my modular instead of building it.. so far.

Secondhand market is great for Eurorack

Or go virtual modular https://vcvrack.com/Rack.html and keep your house

Non-snarky question: how much music do you finish?

Every time I think about getting more into synths, I worry that I'll just end up endlessly noodling and never actually complete any songs. Years ago, I bought a copy of Reason and had tons of fun playing with it, but eventually I realized that after every session, I was rarely any closer to having a completed work I could share with others.

This question comes up a lot with synths and especially hardware and Eurorack gear.

For me not being focused on finishing anything is what got me back into playing music (and eventually performing live sets).

Previously there was so much pressure to produce end results I couldn't even get started and lost all joy in the process. At some point I got some hardware to just play with and never really looked up how to save anything (was a Drumbrute, Meeblip and I borrowed a Beatstep). Was making odd acid tracks and silly sketches on my kitchen table every night that I'd lose as soon as I turned it all off. It was oddly freeing, and really fun.

A year later I was playing out gigs ranging from 20 mins to 3 hours. And one could even argue that I've still not finished any songs despite hours of recordings and performance as it's mostly improvisational.

Now I'm happily back in the noodling around and having fun stage again and loving it (though about to switch gears again).

Anyway - just figured I'd weigh in as there's often a lot of pressure to finish or record things when just playing around or building weird synths is in and of itself a really really fun (if expensive) hobby and maybe someone needs to hear that. :)

(also perfectly fine if your focus is on complete songs, of course)

This is useful data, thanks.

I'm going through a sort of mini-midlife crisis right now and one of the things I'm thinking about is whether I can make music part of my life again. I used to be in a rock band and it was tons of fun, but I'm in my 40s with kids so the logistics of rehearsing with other people and playing shows at night make that unlikely.

Another path I'm considering is making electronic music. That's mostly what I listen to and I used to tinker with it before I started a band, so I have some experience with synthesizers, beats, etc. It's much more amenable to my life style now because I can do it after the kids go to bed. But also, back then, I had a lot of trouble getting anything done and often ended up feeling disappointed.

It's not enough for me to just noodle with a synth for a few hours. I want something I can share with other people, which implies to me that I need to be able to finish things. So I'm just trying to figure out strategies for that before I drop money on gear only to have it collect dust.

You don't need much money to get started with a MIDI controller and VSTs, assuming you have a good PC because most people do here on hn.

Even though the hardware people seem like the most outspoken on most forums, I enjoy doing everything in the box now and my hardware mostly just sits under its dust covers.

I have an Ableton Push2 and it's an amazing piece of kit, more like an instrument than a controller. The layout makes much more natural sense to me than a keyboard, I think because I used to play guitar.

I'm the same in that I would like to have something at the end that I can share with other people, but the finishing stuff part I haven't quite worked out.

So far that has required more discipline than I have been able to muster, but I do feel I'm making progress and my workflow is improving.

Yeah, I can definitely afford to sink some money into this. It's more that I'm wired to hate myself if I spend money on something and don't use it. There are few things I despise more than feeling like I'm a poseur.

> Even though the hardware people seem like the most outspoken on most forums,

Good point!

I don't like wasting money either.

Of course it's up to you, but if I were you I would just get a controller and just get started. It's never been easier, cheaper or better. If you want to save money you could just get something secondhand from ebay.

I am invested in and love Ableton but there are lots of good options out there.

Like I say, I don't think hardware is necessary these days. It is fun to have dedicated knobs for everything but if you get a good controller it's much more flexible overall.

I can put 10 instruments into a single instrument rack on a track in Ableton and immediately have 8 macro knobs to control whatever I want about all 10 instruments at once.

You can easily do crazy stuff like create mutant instruments that morph between completely different instruments or samples, and change effect settings according to how hard you play the notes, or what part of the bar you're in. The limit is really only your imagination!

Then if you want, you can just duplicate that whole complex track with a single keypress. It's crazy. You can't do that with hardware!

Getting it to sound musical is the hard part, and that's where hardware shines - because you're limited in options, you can usually just turn it on and get a good sound out if it immediately. But IMO that's not a real reason that hardware is better because of course you could limit yourself to that in software too.

You sound like you can afford it and have the desire. I would just buy something and get started. It's heaps of fun, as long as you don't put too much pressure on yourself!

> if I were you I would just get a controller and just get started.

This is basically my plan. Except that I'm deliberately putting it on hold until I'm done with the book I'm writing because I really don't have the time and definitely don't need the distraction.

> It's heaps of fun, as long as you don't put too much pressure on yourself!

But putting pressure on myself is like my #1 personality trait. :)

I'd defininitely agree with the GPs idea of just doing it for the fun of it, and if something finished pops out, great - otherwise it doesn't really matter, you still had fun.

One interesting aspect of the modular thing that hasn't been discussed yet is limitation. With an in-the-box setup with all the plugins it's easy to get lost in the endless choice of what could be done. Each song sounds different because there's no consistency of setup.

With a hardware setup you're usually limited to a small number of devices/modules - this can be very powerful in focussing the mind. Each time you come back to your setup it's the same, but you'll dig a bit deeper to get something else out of it. Eventually you master it and produce the best of what that thing can do.

A lot of great early electronic music came out of limitations. Voodoo Ray was originally going to be called Voodoo Rage, but the sampler had a limited amount of memory left, so he cut off 'Rage' to make it 'Ray'.

It can be argued that the amazing amount of music that comes out of the 'standard band' setup is also a product of limitations.

Yes, this has absolutely been my experience.

Joining a band was a revelation because all I had to do was make my bass part sound good and there were relatively limited ways to do that. On top of that, a bass or guitar just sounds pretty nice right "out of the box". With electronic music, I found it took quite a bit of effort to even get to a single sound that sounded rich and satisfying. It felt a lot more like having to be a luthier when all I wanted to do was play. (At the same time, I didn't want to just use presets either, because I didn't want sounds that were too familiar...)

I finish a lot. Although there are degrees of finished. There's having the song recorded where the track is basically complete. Then a version which is basically pollish (accents, fills, tweaks here and there, putting stems through various hardware to make it harmonically more interesting, etc). Then final mix down version. And then mastered.

I have several albums worth of the first stage, doing the pollishing is my weakest stage, the rest is easy.

The hardware actually makes it easier for me to finish tracks because I can usually jam out a whole track on the modular and do a lot of modulation manually or with CV that I would normally find tedious in-the-box. I will sometimes jam out for an hour or so and then find interesting sections to lay out. It's remarkably creative.

Modular is especially good for programmers I think, it's a very systematic way of thinking and it's quite easy to lose yourself in the process of what-if. As soon as something starts sounding repetetive it's trivial to patch in something that modulates it away. Creating self generating patches is especially rewarding, where the system is self modulating and creating controlled randomness.

The sound design aspect of it is fun for its own sake. So, I don't always fire it up just to make music. It will often lead onto me making a track, but it's just fun to see what happens.

For what it's worth I have a few bits (in various stages of completeness) on soundcloud [1]

[1] https://soundcloud.com/paullouth

Very interesting, thanks!

I'm listening to "Fusion" right now. The drum sounds are fantastic. Nice and tight and punchy. The swing on the hi hat adds a lot too. What are those coming out of?

I don't exactly remember. When I made it, I made four tracks in the same evening. Fusion, Fused, Refuse, and Infusion were all done when I'd just got my new SSL Fusion - and I was putting everything through it to test it out, so it's a bit of a blur what I did!

Among a lot of other kinds of music, I like ambient electronic music.

I go through periods where I just get an okay sound going, and then play with it for 5-10 minutes, and record the stereo bus.

So after a period of this, I usually get 10-12 recordings.

I mean, it's not great. It's not the same as learning a bluegrass tune on banjo and polishing it till I can play it super fast, but I like the results enough to share them with people. So, in this context all the noodling _is_ the completed work.

Here's the result of the last period: https://westtexasjohn.com/category/synth-diary/

I became productive with Reason probably around 5 years after I started noodling. Learning the sequencer inside and out was critical, and somehow the less obvious part of the system, as it breaks the physical metaphor - everything else is boxes connecting to other boxes, but the sequencer has no physical representation, no back-side where note lanes connect gate/CV to the synth, just magical software connections.

5 years after that I was releasing stuff that maybe, someone might want to listen to. Could have been a lot quicker with some training as opposed to just continually messing around with it.

I think in another few years I will have something that actually sounds good, sonically. Mastering is the hardest part so far.

Finishing in music is one of the hardest things to do. My approach is to try to write something small every day (I call these daily loops), and then flesh my favorite one of those out into a full song every 1-2 weeks. I find that without some sort of system like that I also go down the noodling rabbit whole and never put anything out.

A system is a great idea.

I have managed to figure out a system for getting writing finished, so an option I'm considering is trying to apply that to music and see how it goes. But I promised myself I wouldn't do that until the current (giant) writing process is done.

i was only thinking about this a few days ago. ive been using reason on and off since version 4 and i have never finished a song! it was the same when i played guitar. i was never really interested in making music for other people and i got a lot more enjoyment out of just noodling around

> it was the same when i played guitar.

I really noticed the difference when I started a band and played bass. With each of us having a single dedicated instrument and feedback from each other, it was a lot easier to make progress and get things done.

Behringer neutron is an affordable gateway drug.

For me it was the Make Noise 0-Coast [1], which has many of the West Coast sensibilities. The Neutron (which you'll see I've reskinned in my setup) is a great synth, but is still more of a 'standard' subtractive (East Coast) synth. Although it does have some interesting wave shapes and can produce lots of filthy tones.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5FW8QYt6bio

Heh; the rather nice gear in the racks below isn't helping costs either :) Nice setup!

Indeed! The rest of the studio (unseen) doesn't help either! Still, it makes me happy, can't put a price on that ... well, it seems you can, but I'm sure you get my point ;)

Love it! That's a great setup, bet it sounds amazing through those SSL racks too.

Sure does! And then the middle rack is my master buss chain: Chandler Curve Bender EQ [1] (the best EQ I've ever heard), Chandler Zener Limiter [2], and then the SSL Fusion [3] - which is a new box from SSL which does lots of lovely things.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUv9GtMlUwA

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6agTPMwbL8A

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6G0-Qvkr1UU

Pretty! I think the Behringer Neutron is a good, inexpensive place to start.

Absolutely. There is such a wide variety of cheap analog monosynths, it’s definitely the way to go.

For me, the knobs are the most important part. It’s an expressive medium after all, you need to feel the movement.

I don't know about that.

I've sold off an Elektron Analog Four, Elektron Analog Rytm, Elektron Octatrack and an Access Virus Ti 2 less than a year ago and started working exclusivley in the box and using two ableton push 2 as midi controllers and I honestly do not miss my hardware at all.

Sure I lose out on some of that analog warmth but I've come pretty close by emulating it with various VSTs.

My personal experience is kind of inbetween. Analogue monosynths are great as a learning because you are stuck with what you have, and can't easily switch to another VST or scroll between endless presets. Their limitations force you to actually learn how to create sounds, and over time you get an intuitive sense of how to tweak each knob and slider just right in order to get the sound you want.

However, VSTs are vastly more convenient and eliminate the annoyances of tuning, physically powering and plugging in a large amount of bulky machines, losing previous specific sounds, and they give you the ability to easily tweak and edit previous recordings. However, you lose the immediate sense of close control over each aspect of the sound.

Ideally, what I would like is a physical MIDI controller with an exact map of my favorite analogue VSTs in terms of knobs and controls. My current keyboard does have a few a customization options, but it's rather awkward to map it to the VST each time, and it's not precisely 1:1 as there's not enough knobs, and they're not laid out or labeled in an intuitive manner.

Also advantages of physical instruments are that you map a mental model to the instrument itself and IF the instrument is built properly and has a good workflow after a while you don't need to look at it, muscle memory translates intent to an action, becomes more intuitive and the flow is uninterrupted. The experience is immediate.

On the other hand, physical synths take a lot of space, break down, are hard to setup if connected together, some require batteries to keep the settings and patches alive and the battery could sometimes be a pain to reach to and change. I had a Yamaha SY-77, which was amazing by the way, the battery failed and the screen was dim. I gave up attempting to replace it myself, it required taking apart most of the screws and the operation itself was a couple of hours.

I started on VSTs but I think i learned a lot more by playing with physical synths and it was way more fun too. I kept them always on and whenever I had an itch to play I didn't have to open a project, click click, choose the instruments, sometimes being phased by so many options that the itch went away. Also sticking with a synth that didn't seem promising at first proved to be very rewarding after all, I'd discover interesting setups that I didn't think were possible. With VSTs I had dozens but can't say I felt like exploring in depth, I had no favorite VST, they all seemed to sound very similar.

VSTS have advantages though. You come back to an old project and want to modify something and bam, everything is setup the way it was when recorded. You make a mistake and you easily go and edit out the mistake without re-recording. All in all I'd say to look at VSTs when you are more production inclined. If you just want to be creative and play and learn at the same time without so many stops to make choices, physical synths are a good investment. Physical synths and a physical mixer!

The thing that I like about hardware isn't the sound but the UI, like the parent post points out.

The boxes you've sold off are good equipment, but they don't really have all the knobs that I'd want, even if they are powerful boxes.

Elektron have possibly to worst user interfaces of any hardware synths or drum machines that I've used. So much menu diving. I ended up selling my Elektron stuff and will never buy from them again. Most other hardware is much more intuitive and interactive.

I like my MachineDrum. Stuff only goes about 1 level deep. But this Analog Four mkII is driving me crazy because top level functions are not in the "right" places...

Machinedrum was one I sold :)

To be fair, Elektron boxes and Ableton w/ push 2 have a lot in common. The push provides a similar UI to the octatrack, but expanded and aligned with ableton. Instead of a single row step sequencer/keyboard the push has a grid. And the push has a bigger, but still menu driven screen.

Do you have a Push? I do. I have no idea about an octatrack but I wouldn't agree that the Push is menu driven at all.

There's a dedicated button for almost everything (except for browsing samples, which is something that it would be impossible to have dedicated buttons for).

The great thing about Push is that you sort of make your own UI. If you put an instrument rack on a track then you assign your own macro knobs for whatever you want. It's only if you need to access the devices within that that you need to start navigating around using the (dedicated) buttons.

What I mean is if the buttons/knobs have no (or generic) labels, and the menu on the screen defines the function of a button/knob, it's menu driven.

Without the on screen menu the function of the buttons/knobs across the top are not clear.

As opposed to having one button/knob per function.

I was speaking more to learning synths, learning how oscillators sound during detuning, feeling a filter sweep. Feeling out what each step of the subtractive process does with knobs, I would suggest, is a better way to learn.

Those are some pricey synths you’ve rocked, not really a learner’s set-up, especially the Elektron sequencer.

For me, the ms-20 and the feel of tweaking those knobs is what made the feel of really playing a synth come together. Jamming with a friend on drums.

These days, yeah, I actually do most my noodling using the IOS Korg Gadget with my analog keys as a controller/filter bank.

>using two ableton push 2 as midi controllers

As I understand it, it is not possible to separate them, ie both will be showing the same track/device.

Is it possible to have one in note mode while the other is in session mode?

How do you use them together?

Former board member of Bob Moog Foundation. Can confirm Bob himself obsessed with knobs for same reason.

Agreed. For example I never really noticed how expressive the feedback is on a moog until getting one. Once you get the mixer into a sweet spot, the teeniest knob change makes a huge difference in tone.

And so I tried the same thing with the "Monark" VST thinking "yeah analog still wins" and nope, Monark does the exact same thing. But I never discovered it until I actually had the knobs in front of me.

I've since gotten a BCR-2000 and tried mapping all my soft synths but none of them map completely and it's just... not the same somehow. It is better though.

I'd at least consider a cheap VA too. I personally would find starting with just a monosynth to limiting.

A while ago I recorded two songs (inter alia) that each used a Logic / Garageband synth. I can't perform these songs live without using my laptop. Currently my setup is with a Nord Piano 2 (which does not use Apple synthesisers and there does not appear to be a way to convert to Nord's file format).

Is it possible to go from first principles, starting with a sound that I have in mind (an Apple Logic default synth) and build a similar sounding (digital) synthesiser in some (hopefully open) format that can cross convert?

AFAIK the Nord Piano (as opposed to the Nord Stage and others) doesn't have a full synth engine - but rather plays samples.

You'd have to explore sampling the output of the Logic synth, and then converting and loading them into the sample engine on the Piano.


Cool, thanks. I've seen that sampler on my Nord installation disk but I assumed that there would be some level of loss of quality? Or can the output from the sample engine interpolate cleverly and recreate a faithful (or, at least, high quality) representation?

Honestly, I've never tried it myself. But the default piano sounds you hear on the Nord Piano are essentially multiple high quality samples, so I'd think that as long as you can sample your original synth sounds in sufficiently high quality, they should sound pretty good.

I'm not certain which synth you used, but you should definitely be able to get close with another synth

The two synths were called "solo star" and "hovering machine". They come standard with the default installation.

Not necessarily unpopular but kind of a hassle. If you need to go through all that trouble just to learn something you might end up not being interested in seems a tad much. Software is definitely the way to go for the vast majority.

yes, a Minimoog or something similar in character just teaches you the most about signal path and modifiers like ADSR and LFO's.

Caustic 3 has a great collection of all the basic synths: Modular, KS-synth, FM, Subtractive Sawtooth synth, Vocoder, Fourier, 8-bit, PCM.


And it is free for iOS, Android, Windows, Linux/WINE

If you like to create sound with software I can’t recommend the Web Audio API[1] enough. It is a really low level API modeled after subtractive analogue synths where you create several nodes and connect them together just like you would do with voltage controlled synths.

When using it to create multiplayer online theremin[2] for fun, I got really impressed with synthesizers and inspired to learn more about them. That is, the Web Audio API inspired me to learn physical synthesizers.

Regrettably physical analog synths is an expensive hobby, so the only physical synth set that I’ve gotten so far is a LittleBits toy synth kit[3] (kind of like legos of synths), which I also do recommend, as an adult I can have tons of fun with it and learn and experiment, even though it is meant for kids

1: https://developer.mozilla.org/en-US/docs/Web/API/Web_Audio_A...

2: http://theremins.club

3: https://littlebits.com/products/synth-kit

Just don't get into writing synths or effects if you want to make any money. Kind of like making games, it's flooded with people who do it for the love and willing to do it for salaries far less than other fields. The stereotypical musician has no money. There are currently over 3000 synths listed on KVR. It's tough to do something unique and stand out.

I've read tons of books on synthesizers, I've built my own in Max/MSP and Reaktor (this drum synth for Ableton Live I still maintain https://github.com/robenkleene/thwomp).

The best resource I've found for learning synthesis is Welsh's Synthesizer Cookbook (https://www.synthesizer-cookbook.com/). And it's not even close: A few years ago I went all in on ebooks, I got rid of everything. I recently went through a bunch of PDFs trying to find a replacement resource for this book (which isn't available as an ebook). Let's just say I gave up and now I own a physical copy of exactly one book.

Did you built that with some sort of IDE-ish interface?

Or do you hand-code Max? The .max files look a bit more like configuration files than code.

First time seeing the Max language:


Max is a visual programming language[1] (arguably the most popular/relevant one?). There are some good screenshots of what it looks like here https://cycling74.com/products/max/ It requires using the Max app, an IDE-like environment, to use. The `.maxpat` files are JSON but not meant to be edited by hand (although I do it all the time).

Reaktor is also a visual programming language. Both cost money, a lot actually, I think Max and Max for Live (which you need to run plugins in Ableton and is sold separately) are $600 or so total.

Visual programming languages are especially popular for synthesis, I'm assuming there's a reason for that, but honestly I've never tried doing this stuff in another language (most "native" VST-style plugins are written in C++), so I can't really compare it to that or give a real explanation for if it's better. But it is simply an environment that brings me joy to work in (despite its warts), so beyond doing a bit of work in Reaktor, I've never even looked into other ways of doing these things.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visual_programming_language

I think sound design is one of the few domains that really really benefits from visual programming languages. You really can't work effectively without 1. instant feedback and 2. the ability to quickly alter the signal path. I know there are live sound textual programming environments, but anything more complicated than changing individual values is going to break the creative flow if you have to create new files, modify imports, etc. Doing this by dragging around nodes and edges in a graph is intuitive enough to allow you to stay focused on the act of creation instead of the implementation details. This, and the fact that DSP is fundamentally a data flow problem, make visual programming environments the ideal UI for advanced sound design.

I feel that text is actually more effective, even though I agree there's much to commend about visual dataflow languages for music. But all the dragging around boxes and connections can become irksome, not to mention the energy spent aligning stuff and trying to prevent the (inevitable) dish of spaghetti that you get above a small level of complexity. Other general advantages of text: faster editing (leverage the features of the IDE, keyboard vs mouse, etc.), easier to organize and comment code, generally easier to debug, version control, and some languages are much more flexible and powerful than anything graphical. See Supercollider, and its clients using various general purpose languages, csound, Faust, and many others. Max and PD are great though, with a nicer learning curve, fantastic projects done with them and a thriving community of users. Each to his/her own...

Wow weird coincidence, I've just started getting into Ableton and production, a sort of lifelong goal of mine, and just last night finally started watching some videos on Wavetable.

I was completely blown away by the infinity x infinity possibilities. Totally overwhelming! This tutorial is great for helping me understand the concepts, very fortuitous.

Now if I could actually sit down and make a song instead of just tweaking knobs on controllers...

I'm in a similar place as you. Best advice I got was that you learn to make great tracks by making lots of crappy tracks. Don't sweat it, just keep going, keep improving. So ignore your ego and just make a damn song already.

This is so true! I was the exact same when I started with abelton.

Someone told me you have to make 100 crap songs before your first good one. Best way to get better is to just start trying to make stuff and stop comparing your work to what you listen to on spotify. You'll improve faster than you think.

Also wanting to get into this... would you mind describing your hardware setup? And any other software besides Ableton?

I started out with the Ableton 10 trial on a Thinkpad x1 carbon (newest generation and max'd to the gills on components) running windows 10. I am taking lessons on production at the local Guitar Center.

That was "good enough" to teach me the basics, which at first was just figuring out how the UX of Ableton works (the intro tutorial is good for that as well). The teacher teaches me stuff about sidechains and etc but that can be learned through youtube videos. Really I should spend more of my time with him bringing in my material and working with him to tweak it.

Anyway, because there's MIDI tools like "chord builders" (literally one called "jazz for dummies") and arpegiators, it's not exactly necessary to get a keyboard. I'd just plug one of those in, bang out a few chords, and hit ctrl+d (duplicate) a bunch of times, trying to learn more about the basics of songbuilding than really making custom tracks.

But that did get obnoxious not being able to tell which keys on my keyboard mapped to notes, so I got an entry level midi keyboard recommended on wirecutter, the Arturia MiniLab MKII https://smile.amazon.com/gp/product/B01MSNIVKE/ref=ppx_yo_dt...

It's been fun and simple, and I bet it'll be even more fun when I figure out how to map the knobs to stuff and learn more about synths.

As for version of Ableton, now I'm running a pirated version until a few months go by without any big purchases, at which time I'll pick up Live Suite.

ah, the thought process of every producer ever :)

This is very impressive. A ton of work went into it with all the interactivity and the explanation of what makes the sound sound like it does. Very impressive work and one of those things that really make me like the internet.

By the way, this thread is a goldmine of interesting links.

Over in /r/synthizers, muffwiggler and gearslutz land (there might be other forums where the pretty hardcore hang out) they usually recommend getting a knobby synth and Ableton/logic/bitwig/reaper etc on an apple that won't overheat. So micro/mini brute, DSI mopho w/keys, monologue ($200 used or so), bass station2, ms2000, the Odyssey and ms20 recreations, there's a bunch.

Recommendations for my 2 favorite books, Snoman's book is great bc it covers the whole chain of what a EDM needs, samplers, sequencers, drum machines, DAW...: https://old.reddit.com/r/synthesizers/comments/65o4r4/best_r...



Not the first time Ableton tutorial/informational content has been posted on here, and it's always a delight to see and use.

I am someone who loves music in all its forms (especially live music) but I have struggled to ever learn to play music. I don't have much natural rhythm, I have a bad ear, and I wasn't the best student when I took guitar lessons.

Recently I have gotten into synthesizers and electronic instruments in general and WOW. Suddenly music clicks for me. I think as an engineer there is something very appealing about deconstructing sounds. And thinking "this is a sine wave plus {x}" is easier on my mind than "this is an EMajor7 chord and here is the staff notation".

This is a world where you can spend a lot of money, but there's also really good cheap gear out there if you look for it. And you can learn something unique from almost any piece of gear.

While you can do it all in the computer these days (or almost all) I find that I need physical knobs and controls to unlock my creativity and make this something I look forward to after a long day of being on the computer coding.

While you can get along fine just playing around, if you are still at it after a couple of years learning music theory is very worth while. Its also something that someone with engineering skills should be able to pick up.

Check out audiokit https://audiokit.io And our free synth app SynthOne https://audiokitpro.com/synth/

looks cool, but that website is a bottomless pit of "learn more" buttons and pages of feature lists.

This is very impressive! I know the web audio APIs are not new, but this is a very slick user experience. The way the corners of the box move as you drag the controls around - Italian chef finger-kissing gesture

That drag-box UI does a great job of conveying the often-missed point that synthesizers can be very expressive instruments.

Not directly related, but do you know of recent achievements with a wow factor in the physical modelling synthesis field [1]? Just as some offline rendered 3d scenes are amazing, It'd be nice to have a pure virtual instrument with its string and resonance chamber model, inter-string effects, plucking mechanism, and so on.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physical_modelling_synthesis

Physical modelling peaked in 1993 with the Yamaha VL1 - which was an amazing synth that crashed right into the uncanny valley between sampling and real instruments.

PM is a complete nightmare to program - even harder than FM. Which was why the VL1 was a preset-only machine. The full programmimng system was never made public.

There are some modern remakes in the box, especially from TAS, but IMO they don't sound as impressive.

The appeal of analog isn't just the sound, it's the conceptual simplicity. Ditto for sampling. Almost anyone with an average-ish IQ can understand the basics.

There are plenty of alternative synthesis techniques, but they're not popular because most people find they're too much effort for too little reward.

PM, modal, spectral, and straight additive can all make some very wild sounds, but - ironically - they don't sound like most people's idea of a synthesizer, so they're used much less often, and usually only by people who are hardcore sound programming nerds.

> The appeal of analog isn't just the sound, it's the conceptual simplicity. Ditto for sampling. Almost anyone with an average-ish IQ can understand the basics.

But software can still the same, right? Albeit with a lot of distractions.

While I agree with you in the context of making synth sounds, I just wanted to note that physical modelling is amazing for real instruments if done right. For example, take MODO bass - none of the sample based solutions come close.

Finite difference time domain methods are the latest shizzle.



Check out Geoshred[1], developed as a collaboration between Jordan Rudess and researchers at Stanford University. Its using a physical model for the guitar as well as audio FX (which tend to be easier to get good sounding than acoustic instruments).

In the domain of pure research, Kurt Werner's work in physical models of 808 circuits is also pretty cool [2].

[1] http://www.moforte.com/

[2] https://ccrma.stanford.edu/~kwerner/

Reaktor 5 ships with Steam Pipe 1&2, which are two cool physical modelling synthesizers. They're great for wind, string and percussive instruments

Check out Kaivo (Vst), Prism (for Reaktor) and Chromaphone 2 (Vst). They are not the freshest of the fresh, but certainly interesting.

Sample Modeling's The Trumpet and Audio Modeling's Swam Saxophone have been invaluable additions to my rack.

I've used these too (well, Trombone and not Trumpet), and like them a lot. I've mostly played them live with a breath controller, and they're expressive in a very realistic way.

Thanks for all responses, a lot to explore!

only tangentially related, but ableton is a personal dream job . anyone have experiences working there?

This is fantastic. Incredibly helpful, and really really cool animations. Great metaphors and art style.

Love this - if you're reading the comments and on the fence, it's worth going through if for no other reason than to appreciate how well this is put together.

Works flawlessly on Firefox on Windows.

If you want to learn how to program synthesizers, I suggest reading some of the DSP code by Emilie Gillet (Mutable Instruments) https://github.com/pichenettes/eurorack

A not unrelated thread from 2017: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14299628

It's relevant also if you are interested in creating music and not specifically in synths because it very clearly explains many controls that you will find in popular music software.

This looks like a great addition to Ableton's own "Learning Music". Wonder if it's still written with Elm and Tone.js!

This is just good web design in general. Bravo.

Check out Lorentz if you have an iOS device.

It’s a virtual analog synth, similar to something like the Roland Juno 106.

I really liked the envelopes part. I had hard time grasping the idea back in the days.

Uh, interesting Easter egg in there, Europe's The Final Countdown...

Is there something like this but for programmers?

This is awesome! Thanks

This is delightful.

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