Designing a beginner synthesizer pt.1

This series is being reworked and will be re-released in the distant future

I remember about five years ago when I took my first steps into the world of sound design and mixing technology. Looking up things such as what the hell MIDI was and that it didn’t actually send audio, understanding how EQ manipulated the sound, what the difference between an effect and a filter was – and so forth.

By now, these things are all, or mostly all obvious to me. And to many people around me. But that is me. When I meet someone that may or may not be interested in music the dissonance between what is commonly known and what I know, quickly becomes apparent.

So I started to think about my former self. My 2013 self. And the struggles that I had – and do still have in some regards. Is it possible to solve my former selfs problems? And how would you do that?

To get to where I am today, I’ve first of all had some (basic) formal education in sound mixing. Most people around me are more or less music nerds and/or creators of various sorts. I’ve done tons of reading on forums and wiki pages, watched dozens of videos and reviews – as well as bought a fair amount of synthesizers and audio-thingys to try them out myself.

For a sheer hobby, I am quite invested.

 

A possible solution

So to bridge this gap in knowledge, I’ve started to entertain the idea of what I call “a beginner synthesizer” or maybe “a pedagogical synthesizer”, something you can use and learn as you go, without having to learn the ins and outs of basically the entire production chain to get something meaningful going. Maybe taking some inspiration from insane 90s devices like the Yamaha QY70, while designing it in a way that is actually easy and not just packed with features for the sake of being packed with features.

The Yamaha QY70 was a small music making machine, set up in a way so you could do entire songs on it, but with great compromises in usability as well as usefulness.

Getting to know the user

To begin with. This is first and foremost a design challenge to myself, and I do by no means strive for perfection. And as such no actual user research is conducted, but the features is chosen based on estimates from my own experiences, as well as anecdotal experiences from my surroundings.

With that out of the way, a reasonable beginning of a project like this would be to look at who the user actually is. Who the 2013 me actually is. Definitely not a trained audio engineer or even an ”enthusiast”, rather a hobbyist, or an amateur. Possibly a music enthusiast, who got little to no real musical training, or possibly someone who has musical training but has no interest in the technology itself. Someone that simply wants to make their own sounds, without getting into the details just yet.

This user is probably a music lover and possibly audio aware, which makes sound fidelity of importance; something that can be quite lackluster in budget synthesizers. MIDI over DIN might or might not be important, a built in sound card and MIDI over USB is probably more important. Overall, it should be easy to use, so easy that it would be usable in a school, or a similar learning environment. And a major component to achieve this, do to my experience lie in the terminology used and the number of parameters available to the user, where less complexity could be achieved by simply lowering the amount of parameters as well as bringing the names of these closer to our day-by-day natural language. And then putting this together in a way so that you don’t lose any actual functionality nor the connection to the actual terminology, because after all it is a product that should be able to be used as a means to learn synthesis, not only the synthesizer itself.

Key points:
  • Having an interface with less projected complexity.
  • Naturalistic and relatable naming of parameters.
  • Visuospatial and audible difference as response to manipulation of parameters.
  • Built-in keyboard.
  • Built-in effects unit.
  • MIDI over USB and possibly over DIN to increase value for more advanced users.
  • Built-in audio interface with audio over USB.

 

Starting out the design

There’s many synthesizers out there that you could base a design like this on, and as a basis to this project I’ve chosen to use one of the easier synthesizers that I own, as my main inspiration. Which is the Korg Monologue. The Monologue is a very hands-on synth and quite beginner-friendly already as it is, but I still believe that there’s a gap to fill between knowing nothing (or close to nothing) about sound design, and knowing something. In either case, the Monologue can look and sound like this:


A side note is that if you’re interested in the capabilities of a synthesizer, a great way to start is to look if Burg has a demo of it.

The first idea was to create a massive synthesizer, with both an ”easy section” and a ”normal section”, with the easy section being knobs named up by more ”naturalistic terminology” which then corresponds to the parameters in the normal section. Where, for example, the parameter ”spaciousness” would correspond to echo and reverb, manipulating these together in a sensible way that results in a good sounding combination. This while the knobs in the normal section would be of the ”infinity” sort, with light rings illustrating how the manipulation done in the easy section affect the associated parameters in the normal section.


Infinity knobs with light indicators similar to this illustration, but possibly more detailed. The marker on the knob is of illustrative purposes only.

The visual response in correspondence to manipulation of parameters in the easy section, being the driving pedagogical factor to the equation. Hearing the audio change quite radically, as well as seeing which parameters are being affected, demonstrating the power behind the specific parameters.

This because to the untrained ear, manipulation of say, decay could sound similar to the effect achieved by resonance, texture or a filter – depending on what you’re currently doing. However it will not sound the same when continuing from manipulation of any given of these to further manipulation of other parameters.

So instead, bundling these with parameters that they do work well with to achieve an array of various sounds, to then be able to tweak in further detail by doing so in the normal section, could be an attractive option for advanced users and beginners alike. Especially with the option to save presets.

The problem with keeping everything physical is cost. It will be pricy to manufacture such an advanced unit. Possibly to the extent that the 2013 me wouldn’t be able to afford it. Which would sort of kill the purpose of the entire concept. And such from a pure fluke when telling this idea to my friend Daniel, he suggested a software solution. Not because I asked for a solution, but that was how he intuitively visualized it when I was describing the idea.

And so I began sketching on it.

In the next part we’ll get into the hurdles I found along the way during this project, what the interface looks like and so forth. Follow my Facebook page to get the latest updates on this project!

Feature photo by Anton Ponomarev

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