A Brief History of Synthesizers (Video)

+ This video is taken from Soundfly’s Advanced Synths & Patch Design For Producers course. To access the rest of this online course, plus hundreds more instructional videos and tutorials, subscribe here.

It’s important to learn about the history of synthesizers, and how the various types of synthesis that are possible help to achieve different practical and aesthetic results. When designing sounds for your productions, your beats, your songs and even your own imaginary video games, you can lean on your understanding of the foundations of synthesizers to help generate new and exciting paths forward.

That’s why we’ve started our new course, Advanced Synths & Patch Design for Producersoff with a lesson on historical foundations, including the above video, newly launched on our YouTube channel.

Now here’s a short introduction to the four common types of synthesis that we’ll be covering in the rest of the course: Subtractive, wavetable, FM, and sampling. There are others, like additive, granular, physical modeling, phase distortion, etc, and we may mention them here or there, but we thought these four would give you an excellent and in-depth journey.

Subtractive Synths

Modern subtractive synths have their roots in some of the most classic instruments and sounds in the history of recorded music. Robert Moog’s Minimoog synthesizer created the sort of template for the style, and synth makers from Arp and Oberheim to Yamaha and Sequential Circuits delivered some true classics. These are kind of like the Greek/Roman Gods in the history of synthesizers.


Subtractive synths produce “basic” waveforms — sine, triangle, square/pulse, and saw — and then carve away at the sound through filters, envelopes, and modulators to alter its timbre. When you hear folks say, “Oh man, I love that vintage analogue synth sound,” they’re probably thinking of a subtractive synth.

Since those “pantheon” synths I mentioned above are pretty unaffordable and tough to come across in the wild, modern companies like u-he, Arturia, and others have made some stunning software emulations of these classics. There are other bundled options available as well, like Live’s Analog, Logic’s Retro synth, or Cubase’s Retrologue 2.

Cubase’s Retrologue 2

To fully unpack subtractive synthesis, we’ll take a look at tracks by The Weeknd, Herbie Hancock, James Blake, and more — and we’ll hear from Marty Fowler (a.k.a. WNNR) in the studio.


PPG wave

Wavetable synthesis became a staple of the sound of the early 1980s with bands like Depeche Mode and Tangerine Dream using new sound sources to push their sound to the bleeding edge of what was technologically possible at the time.

Nowadays, the torch is largely carried by XferRecord’s Serum — one of the most popular synths in modern electronic music. Incredibly flexible for way more than just new wave sounds, modern wavetable patches growl and move around like they’re alive, and are frequently heard in styles like drum ‘n’ bass, dubstep, and even some pop applications.


These synths look an awful lot like subtractive synths and feature nearly identical layouts. The real difference is the way the sound is generated — by a dynamically evolving digital sample of a waveform.

These sampled waveforms are stored in scannable tables, allowing you to playback different portions of the file to create harmonically interesting changes. These synths definitely still sound “synthetic,” but the ability to playback tables of digital samples allows for more organic sound possibilities, and deep modulation capabilities lend these synths to some pretty incredible results.

To better understand wavetable synths, we’ll look at Depeche Mode, Marshmello, and more, we’ll create some growling Reese bass sounds, and see our instructor, John, break down a track of his that uses wavetable synthesis.

FM (Linear Frequency Modulation)


While those early analog and wavetable synths cost way more than the average enthusiast was likely to have on hand, Yamaha had purchased the license to a new kind of synthesis that was going to turn the industry on its head.

Instead of relying on wobbly, lovely, and expensive analog oscillators, the Yamaha DX7 relied on six operators to create a whole new palette of sounds. Each operator consists of a perfect digital sine wave oscillator, envelope, and amplifier. The arrangement of these operators, known as algorithms, and the way they modulate the frequency of one another is the key to creating and controlling the harmonic complexity.

So rather than starting with a harmonically rich sound, and removing content — subtractive — FM synths rely on the modulation and relationships between operators to vary harmonic complexity.

While the ’80s was dominated by the DX7, used by artists such as Tears for Fears, Michael Jackson, and Phil Collins just to barely name a few, Native Instrument’s FM8 has been a major player in modern productions.


To dissect FM synthesis, we’ll be looking at tracks from The Glitch Mob, the Interstellar soundtrack, Squarepusher, and more, and artist Kerry Leva will demonstrate how she uses FM in her tracks.


kurzweil synth

In 1984, Kurzweil Music Systems released the k250 — the first electronic device capable of faithfully reproducing the sound of a grand piano through sampling. With 96 instrument presets, it was revolutionary. Think about how many thousands of sounds come with your major bundled libraries today!

While these sorts of sampler instruments are the heart and soul of lots of acoustic instrument reproduction in modern times, they can do so much more!

Sampling has a long history in hip-hop. In the mid-to-late ’80s, EMU’s SP-12 opened up a whole new world of sampling possibilities. With the ability to store up to 12 seconds of sound, the SP-12 was utilized to record individual drums, and instrumental sections, often referred to as breaks. The SP-12 can be heard all over early hip-hop. Check out this clip of Pete Rock making a beat on his SP-1200.

Similar to the Emu SP-12 / 1200, AKAI’s MPC would become the tool of choice for J Dilla.

akai mpc

+ Read more on Flypaper: “What Are the Best Songs That Make Use of the Same Exact Sample?”

Perhaps more than any form of synthesis, sampling does not just take place in a plug-in linked to a keyboard. Modern DAWs are powerful sampling tools, with tons of features and abilities to mangle and manipulate sounds in unreal ways.

To explore what we mean, we’ll look at some modern methods at use by artists like Bonobo, Washed Out, and more, later on in the course.

Don’t stop here!

Continue learning with hundreds of lessons on songwriting, mixing, recording and production, composing, beat making, and more on Soundfly, with artist-led courses by Kimbra, JlinKiefer, RJD2, Ryan Lott, and of course, Com Truise: Mid-Fi Synthwave Slow-Motion Funk

Ryan Lott: Designing Sample-Based Instruments

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