I'm here today with my friend Loudon Stearns. He's an associate professor in contemporary writing and production at Berklee. We wanted to talk today about synthesizers. So synthesizes are included in our mid-range instruments lesson, but synthesizers are actually much more versatile than that. So I wanted to start by asking you, what makes synths so versatile? >> Well, they can make any sound possible, and they can imitate anything else. But honestly my favorite part about learning synthesis is we get kind of a language that we can use to describe all instruments. >> Right, so you could use the same terms that used to describe synth sounds to describe acoustic instrument sounds. >> Yeah, I mean usually if we're talking about just sound in general but instruments we just say, it's like a violin, or it's like a base, or it's like a trumpet. But that requires everyone to understand what a violin is and what a trumpet is. >> Right, so it's like what the characteristics are and then you can manipulate the characteristics. >> Absolutely, yeah. >> Okay, so what are the things that we can manipulate? >> So I think the main things that I consider right away are polyphony, which is kind of a complex thing, but it's how many notes you play at once. And so if we think about acoustic instruments, there are many of them that we play a lots of notes together all the time like a piano, we tend to play many notes at a time. I would call that a polyphonic instrument, but I think a violin the vast majority of the time it's playing a single note at a time. >> Or horns. Or horns, and then particularly like bass, I never want to have two notes in a bass. >> Please don't play cards, right? [LAUGH] And so that's the first thing I think about with the synthesizer is the idea do I want the synth to be able to play many notes or a single note at a time? And that's a classification for acoustic instruments and also for a synth. The next one I think a lot about is the envelope, which is how the sound evolves over time? So if we start at the beginning of the note, does it get louder and then get quieter? Does it get brighter and then dullar? How does that sound change over time? And that really is very different in acoustic instruments as well. We think about bowed string tends to swell in a little bit, you think about a snare drum that's really percussive. It hits really and then decades away. So that's your envelope. >> So envelope is really going to define the function of instruments in arrangements. >> Absolutely. >> So you wouldn't use a piano to play a pad. And you wouldn't use like a string, well strings could do a lot of different attacks. >> They can do a lot of things. But the interesting thing is we talk about a string articulation. That's largely changing the envelope like a pizzicato articulation, is just a pluck, it hits and it just goes away right away. >> It has no sustained. Yeah, it has no sustained. And actually that term sustained is a really key one, and often the most misunderstood when talking about envelopes. So I have a really basic sound here and I just want to show how envelope works a little bit. Usually, when we talk about sustained in common language, we're talking about duration. Like I play guitar note and say that has a lot of sustained. But in a synthesizers actually a level, it's saying how loud well this sounds stay while I'm holding down the note? And so we're talking about envelopes. We have attack time, decay time, sustained level, and release time. And that's the one that really confuses people, if I relate that to acoustic instruments, there's actually a really great connection to that, though. We have some instruments that are sustaining instruments and those instruments are adding energy to the instrument during the note. So if I think of a violin played with a bow, that's a sustaining articulation, I'm adding energy the whole time. But if I play it pizzicato pluck, it's a non-sustaining instrument that time because I'm not adding energy over the course of the note. >> Right, so you can control how much sustained there is, based on how you play. >> Right, exactly. And so the S is our sustained. So right here I have my amplitude, the envelope on the left here. And a lot of synthesizers will have many envelopes, but the main one of you to say that envelope you're talking about the amplitude envelope. This envelope is kind of always be there. So right now I have a square wave sound, which is really good at emulating things like clarinets. We can think of a square wave just goes up and down just like a reed opens and closes, right? So the shape is very similar. Now, let's the has a kind of a hollowness to it [SOUND]. Now I'm going to change this more we're thinking strings. So I'll go more to a sawtooth shape, and you if you think of a string player the bow pulls the string to the side and the string snaps back very quickly. They call it a slip and stick motion, and that creates a very kind of soft wave shape. So if you're starting with string sounds sawtooths work really well. I've also employed a filter, so it's not too bright, which is one of the really important things about working with synthesizers, kinds controlling the brightness [SOUND]. So we have that filter controlling the brightness, but right now we have a sustaining articulation because this S are sustained levels all the way up. You'll notice in this graphic that we have attack is described in milliseconds, decay in milliseconds, sustained in decibels, which is an amplitude measure, and release also in milliseconds. So it's a time thing. I'm going to reduce the release because you here as I play [SOUND] when I release the note it kind of trails off,that's my release time. And often one of the things that I'm reducing when I pull up a synth sound so that it doesn't kind of fill my whole mix and get in the way of everything else. >> So you don't want to hang around after you've taken your- >> Yeah, that's particularly important for real things that have complex harmonies, because then if you go to the next chord- >> All the stuff still sticking around making a mess, yeah. >> Yeah same thing with reverbs, which are off and on since sounds, because they want to make them sound great when you pull up the patch, but all that reverb just make the harmonies conflict and also conflict with other rooms that you have in your songs. So the sustained level is right here, and if I hold the key, the cord [SOUND] It's playing that out and it stays. If I reduce the sustained here we're going to get [SOUND] a very plucky sound, just kind of goes out. And if I hold my hand, it doesn't matter, it's going to go away. So that choice of sustained level hugely important. That's what I'm going to all the time trying to make a patch. That's almost right perfect for my song. Now if I wanted to make more of a bow articulation, I might increase sustained quite far but also increase attack time,and we'll see that's going to now swell in as I play. And then you get some more [SOUND]. There's no swell in maybe a more kind of lush kind of sound, and I might increase release time with that also, so it doesn't kind of cut off drastically [SOUND]. That's a nice kind of pad background, kind of feeling to it. So that and the filter are the other ones I'm looking at right away. So that same thing I'm using this knob on my controller here to control the filter frequency. And one thing I love about this synth is it puts the most important knobs really big, and filter frequency is what probably- >> Which synth is this? >> This is wavetable inside of Ableton. But a lot of synths do that, they'll take the things that are most important to make them really big. I love that, I feel that you can never overestimate the importance of cutoff frequency or low pass filter. >> [LAUGH] >> The most important knob on a synth. That's why I have it mapped to a knob here. And if I play [SOUND] it's controlling the brightness. >> So what exactly is going on for people who don't use synthesizers? When you pull up the frequency what's going on? >> Let's have a look at it. I'll actually bring up another graphic to show us a little more clearly. So I'm going to get a spectrum analyzer, which will let us really see what's happening. >> And that's analyzing the frequency spectrum. >> It is. So on this graphic, we're going to see frequency from low to high, left or right, an amplitude from bottom to top on the- >> That's volume. >> Right, volume up and down and frequency, bass, and treble left to right. So if I play a note we'll see it there, we see it's swell in and gets higher, but if I increase the filter cutoff [SOUND] we can kind of see that it added in- >> Great demonstration. >> It's nice to see, I love the graphics. And this is a spectrum analyzer. You can find one at most DAWs. I find it really helpful for when working with synths. A lot of times it's hard to understand what's going on, and the visual really really helps. >> Yeah. >> So a lot of times with synthesizers, the challenge of them is like we mentioned earlier, they can create any sound. And in almost every acoustic instrument once you play a note the high-end decays away very fast, and it becomes kind of a steady almost sine wave. Just has a couple of these lower harmonics. But synthesizers have the ability to just leave that going the whole time, which is one of the big dangers is that has way too much high-end for most things, right? And so you're using that filter to reduce that high-end can make the synthesizers work much, much better. >> In arrangements. >> Exactly. >> How do you use them? Do you do try to imitate acoustic instruments? And how are they at imitating acoustic instruments? >> I mean, they never sound like acoustic instruments. If you really want to have an acoustic instrument in your arrangement, but don't have access to the players, you're going to want to use a sampler instead of a synthesizer. >> Okay, so samplers are different than synthesizers. >> They are. Well, I mean mostly they're the same, except how they generate the sound. So if I'm talking about envelopes, I'm talking about filters and effects, all the same things we use in synthesizers are found in samplers. But how they generate the sound is different. So a synthesizers is creating these really basic waveforms, sawtooth that we used to emulate strings or square waves to emulate things like woodwinds a little better. But in samplers, we actually take recordings of real players and then put a different recording on every note, so they can be really effective at imitating a real instrument. >> Right, so they're actual audio recordings, but you can manipulate the envelopes. >> You can. You can make them shorter and longer, you have you have all the same controls they have a synthesizers, but they're going to sound more real because they are recordings of real players. >> In terms of using synthesizers in arrangements for songwriters. Are there any of the things that we consider? >> For me I almost always start with this reference to an acoustic instrument. This because maybe it's education, I have I have a background in making classical music because we've heard so many acoustic instruments, we kind of know their appropriate roles for things, right? I know what a guitar can do and how it fits in an arragement. I know what strings, like what we're talking about here. I know how legato strings function in an arrangement. And so I'll often use that as a starting point. If I might want something that's going to give us a harmonic context but not be in the foreground, I might be thinking strings. But then I'm thinking about the meaning of the song, and do I want this to have like a reference to some kind of traditional sound, or I want it to have a futuristic reference. And if I wanted to feel more contemporary, but still have that string like harmonic context, I would go to a synthesizer that had a string reference. Maybe the envelope swells in like strings. Maybe the filter kind of moves like them. Maybe the reverb I choose has a long decay like an orchestral Hall, but everyone's going to know it's a synthesizer because I'm starting with that basic waveform. So that's how I tend to think about, it is what do I know from traditional music and then how how futuristic do I want it to feel? >> Yeah or how unique? I mean, the interesting thing to me about synthesizers is how you can take that reference sound a stringy kind of sound, but make it sound different enough and unusual enough that is really identifiable. >> Yes, I think it was like how much do I want to put that in the foreground. As I start doing really synthetic things like if I start doing something like this, if I start really using the filter and interesting way even, just playing with it, right? [SOUND] If I start doing those kind of moves where I'm really changing. And interesting, I layered the name with the sampler there by accident, but that's a really common technique that I use, a really short attack of a sample instrument. That a decay or sustainable synth. But the more I start really manipulating parameters, it brings that element to the foreground. >> The synthy kind of futuristic sound. >> And I think that's really good at presenting right now, I guess like a youthfulness. And I think the synth sounds often a bit more aggression and a bit more likea a punk rock kind of attitude. Like I don't want to do it, my parents did. >> [LAUGH] >> Kind of feeling when I start doing all that. At least that's what I feel right now. >> So if a songwriter hasn't used synths a lot and they want to kind of try to come up with with synth, mid-range sounds or sounds that are going to identify their tracks. Do you recommend that they start from scratch or should they start from presets? >> I love using presets. I think there's this attitude with producers sometimes that we'd want to control things at like the atomic level. Like I want to have every little thing be my own, and that if I'm using a preset, it's like cheating somehow. But I like to think of it another way. I like to think about it, I'm collaborating with some of the best sound designers in the world. That's what using presets is. So the challenge though is no preset is perfect for your song, right? So I think the best bet is to really take the time, and I have trouble with this, but take the time to go through all the presets, one by one, and just throw out the ones that you know you'll never use. Because often there's just way too many options in a synth, and often the simpler sounds are really useful. But then I find the sound that that's pretty close to what I want. And then I just tweaked it to make it perfect. And the things we've covered so far are really the things that I find are most useful, controlling the polyphony, making sure that you can either play many notes or one, that's appropriate for your song. Controlling the envelope is really important. That's the one that often it's reducing release times. It's reducing sustained levels. It's changed the attack time slightly will go from preset to perfect. And then filter, controlling that amount of brightness, that the brightness control takes a sound from being in the background to be in the foreground. And I think if you're talking about mid-range elements and you have a vocal, often you want to push things into the back and manipulating the filter will do that. >> Great Point. >> Yeah. I mean, that's huge and then finally the effects. So the one thing I do notice in most synthesizer presets is the designer wants it to make it sound amazing. So they're going to have every effect, a huge amount of reverb, huge chorus. >> So to get picked [LAUGH]. >> So to get picked, but then when you put in your song it's just competing with the vocal. So often I'm turning off effects, reducing release times, lowering the filter, and setting the polyphony. And once I do that I've gone from preset to perfect. >> That's exactly what I do. When I'm looking for things to support a vocal, it's really different than looking for things to kind of come into the front and carry the melody. So I agree with that. Thank you so much for coming in. >> My pleasure. This is fun. >> Yeah, it was really fun. I learned a lot. >> [LAUGH] I'm glad to hear. I love working with synthesizers, and I think once you start doing it, you just can't stop. It really, really is fun, and the idea of really manipulating sound on this level, it becomes really exciting. And I think that for me, I love using synthesizers, but I also loved even more gaining a language of how to talk about even acoustic instruments. All these terms like release, and attack, and brightness, and filter control, and wave shape, once I started really using them, I started hearing acoustic instruments even differently. It kind of expanded the way I could remember and talk about instruments, and I was able to even talk to engineers about sound, and use these terms because we had a common language. So I think there's a value in learning this. >> I couldn't agree more. That's why you're here. >> [LAUGH] >> Thank you so much- >> My pleasure. >> For sharing your passion with us. >> My pleasure.