Tuesday 25 February 2014

The synthesizer is a strange animal - thoughts from synth player Simon Smith

Red Note Ensemble
Red Note Ensemble, with whom
Simon Smith will be playing
synth on 3 March

For a composer the synthesizer is a strange animal. One perfectly valid option is to treat it is an electronic keyboard or stage piano and write a more or less standard keyboard part for it. But at the other end of the spectrum one can treat the instrument instead quite abstractly as a programmable system which can produce sounds and modify them in arbitrary ways in real time.

There are two main parts to this. The first is sound synthesis, where timbres are created or modified. Any synthesizer will come with a large number of installed sounds; these can be modified at will, or new ones can be created either by layering different combinations of predefined sounds, or literally building them up from scratch using sine or saw waves and filters, or using sampled sounds. This is an art form in itself and I don't pretend to be anything more than a naive dabbler.

The second part is the 'performance controller' aspect. A synthesizer is a machine with a piano keyboard and all sorts of buttons, sliders, pedals and other optional extras, and these can all be programmed to send more or less any MIDI instruction. By default, pressing the middle C key will play the note middle C, but it doesn't have to be so: it could play any other pitch, or trigger or toggle an effect; in a sense the keyboard is just 88 programmable buttons in a certain physical arrangement. Similarly, moving a slider could cause a glissando, or change the volume, or the speed or depth of vibrato, and so on. The only limit is really in the imagination of the user. One particularly handy thing is being able to restrict the scope of what a controller affects: for example while on the piano the sustaining pedal affects the whole keyboard, on the synthesizer I can ask it to (say) only sustain notes in the lower half of the keyboard, and not the top half.

While the basic concepts are rather simple and elegant, all this flexibility does mean that things can rapidly become frighteningly complicated; but it is there, rather than in conventional keyboard virtuosity, that the challenge of synthesizer playing lies.

There are difficulties for the composer too, of course; unless he or she knows exactly what instrument is being used (and feels confident about insisting on it for future performances) it is best to notate as precisely as possibly the desired end result, and leave the practical realisation of it to the performer. Specifying sounds is trickier still - they are almost impossible to describe in words, and the only way to do it properly is to work in depth with the instrument and player in person, but a good compromise is to find (or make) a recording of similar sounds to use as a model.
SImon Smith
Simon is a musician and will be playing the synth
at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh on 3 March
Elsewhere on this blog:

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