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Beginners Synth Guide - Everything You Need To Make A Noise

Published: Fri June 07, 2013  News Feed

Beginners Synth Guide - Everything You Need To Make A Noise

By Hugh McKenna

We're as excited as anyone about the return of analogue, understandable given the raft of great new hardware synths coming out from Korg, Novation, Arturia. While many of us are old hands looking to add that special analogue character to our existing setup we're sure many of you are looking at synthesis for the first time and wondering just what's possible. This guide is here to help, offering advice on what you need, how to set it up and a few little advanced pointers on where you might want to go next. Not focused purely on the best analogue synths we also go over digital and computer based setups as these often represent the most flexible and affordable solution.

If you fancy a shortcut to analogue synth heaven the complete Korg analogue bundle might do it for you. Complete analogue synth setup for about the price of a standard mono synth.
Korg Analogue Studio Setup

Check out our other articles for more synth goodness

The Best Synths Today - Analogue, Digital & VST

Synth Rock Gear Guide

So whether you need to find out what analogue an VCF is or the right cables for your new synth check out our beginners guide to synth.

Getting started with synthesis

If you need a hand with your synth fundamentals check out this excellent guide from the Bob Moog Foundation.

If you're just starting out with synths then there's a number of options available. If you've got a computing device (and if you don't how are you reading this?) then there's a number of very affordable options available to you.

  1. You can't get cheaper than a free synth. Reason creator Propellerhead software has made it's original Rebirth software available to download without charge (also available for iPad). A superb emulation of the 303 bass synth, 808 & 909 drum machines. Rebirth is an ideal introduction to some of the core concepts of synthesis and analogue sequencing, as the functionality of the original hardware is replicated perfectly.
  2. Once you've got your head around that it might be to expand your setup with a little hardware control. There's nothing like getting hands on and developing muscle memory for your favourite synth parameters. Pick a MIDI controller with our guide, maybe one with some bundled software to expand your setup. There's no need to abandon Rebirth just yet as it will work in combination with most major DAWs using the Rewire interface.
  3. So you've practiced with your MIDI setup and your hard drive is slowly filling up with songs. Where to go next? Well you might think about improving your computer setup with a pro DAW (digital audio workstation), more virtual instruments, MIDI controllers or venturing into the world of hardware synths. We've got more on all that below.

Here's our selection of the best MIDI controllers for synth novices. Hands on parameter control is important, the number of keys less so and if you don't already have a host DAW or many plugins then you might want to check the bundled software.

Best MIDI Synth Controllers
Novation Launchkey 25 With Free Synth
Novation Launchkey 25
Arturia Minilab With Some Of The Best Synths
Arturia Minilab
Samson Carbon Komplete With Free Synths
Samson Carbon 49
£99 £89 £69
A good MIDI controller for beginners with tons of potential for live tweaking. Setup the knobs to change parameters on the included V-Station & Bass Station virtual synths. Once you've recorded a few good parts you can make whole arrangements using the launchpad buttons to trigger loops and samples (the Launchkey comes with plenty of those too) in Ableton Live Lite or hooked up to an iPad using the free apps. There's no need to worry about setup, Launchkey works with the included software out the box. There's no shortage of synth control with 16 knobs, 8 pads and 25 keys. Just as well because the Minilab comes with 5000+ synth sounds built in. If all that wasn't enough the controls are pre-configured to work with the Minilab software, just open, install and play. If you're less interested in lots of control and need quality keyboard action with a bit of two handed playing the Carbon series is perfect. Comes with Komplete Elements from Native Instruments, which includes the heavyweight Reaktor synth engine for a serious range of cutting edge sounds.
You'll need a way to listen to your electronic music creations properly. We'd recommend getting a proper audio interface and a pair of studio headphones.
The dinky Focusrite iTrack is ideal if you just need a compact audio interface and is compatible with iPad. Senneheiser headphones are an industry standard and here's a very affordable pair.
Focusrite iTrack Compact Audio InterfaceSennheiser 201 Ideal First Headphones

Great VST Synths & Digital Synth Setups

For the more advance synth fanatic, plenty of handy tips in the free version of How To Make A Noise synth guide.

Once you've got to grips with the basics of how to get a good sound out of your synths you might start looking enviously at large hardware setups. While you can certainly achieve a great deal with mouse and keyboard but most music benefits from hands on control, without a computer screen getting in the way. We can't all afford (or find space for) Deadmau5's obscene analogue studio setup but by keeping things digital you can get a wide range of quality sounds.

Deadmau5 - Simply The Best Analogue Synth Setup

Virtual Synthesiser Setup
The big brother of Rebirth, originally conceived as a self contained digital synth studio. Reason has come a long way since then and now with MIDI Out in version 7 you can use the step sequencers and modulation virtual devices to control your real world instruments.
Ableton Suite 9
Ableton 9 Suite

The suite version of Ableton 9 comes stuffed with virtual instruments. Including Analog for classic analogue sounds, Operator for the spirit of the 80's FM synths and Tension for cutting edge physical modeling synthesis. As a full functioning DAW Ableton naturally also allows you to send MIDI and audio in or out of your interface (see below).
MIDI Control Nektar Panorama P1 Best Reason Controller
Nektar P1 Panorama

Gives you unprecedented control over Reason. More than a simple MIDI controller the P1 effectively turns Reason into a piece of hardware. Record on the transport, set levels on the faders, tweak synths on the knobs and automate mutes on the buttons. See it in action here.
Novation Launchpad S For Sequencing
Novation Launchpad S

Built from the ground up for use with Ableton. You can get control of the session view, faders and effects directly from the Launchpad. Things get really exciting when you start looking at the User modes, which allow you to configure the Launchpad as an old school step sequencer. Load up Analog in Ableton and some vintage drum sounds in Rebirth and you've got a complete vintage synth studio on your laptop and compact Launchpad.
Hardware Moog Minitaur Vintage Analogue Synth Tone
Moog Minitaur Analogue Bass Synth

Nothing delivers rib shattering bass like a Moog, the Minitaur works with MIDI. So load up RPG-8 or Matrix in Reason and connect it to the Minitaur for a programmable arpeggiator or step sequencer on your 100% analogue Minitaur!
Novation Mininova
Novation Mininova

A hardware digital synth that is a perfect match for Ableton. While it doesn't have complete control from the front panel of the synth there is a deep editor you can load as a plugin within Ableton. Plus you can use the Mininova to play VST synths. Combine laptop, Launchpad and Mininova and you've got the equivalent of a modular synth with step sequencer that will fit in you backpack.
Essential Items
Propellerhead Balance & Reason 7

If you're in need of an audio interface then we can recommend the Balance & Reason 7 bundle. For only £10 more than Reason on it's own you get a 8 in, 2 out interface. Enough to connect hardware synths, microphones and guitars for recording. It doesn't come with MIDI connections however, so you will need a separate MIDI Interface to handle DIN MIDI connections.

Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 Interface
Keep things compact with the Scarlett 2i4. Enough ins and outs to handle an extra hardware synth plus it will take guitar and microphone inputs.
Speakers KRK VXT 4
Once you've got your software, interface and synths sorted then it can only remain to make sure you hear everything properly. With great balance and deep low end that belies their size the KRK VXT 4 are the among the best studio monitors for your synth studio.

There's a number of ways you can turn your Launchpad into a classic step sequencer but here's Novation explaining how it's possible with Max For Live (comes with Ableton Live Sutie).

The Best Analogue Synth Setup

For the true synth devotee, check out Sound On Sound's synthesis bible.

Now we get to the big one a complete analogue synth setup. Embrace the future by celebrating the past, there's an awful lot to be said for keeping things analogue and moving away from the mouse and keyboard. Keeping all the controls to hand and not presenting too many options at once means your synth studio becomes more like a true instrument and less of a techy spreadsheet. Seeing is believing so checkout this all analogue setup delivering some great sounds and getting tweaked on the fly.

The only question that remains is how you get such a setup for yourself. Exactly what approach you take will depend on how you plan on using it.

Live Analogue Synth Setup
KingKorg Analogue Modelling Synth
KingKorg Performance Synth

Ok so why have we started out with a digital, analogue modeling synth? Because it's awesome naturally, also because it has CV outputs to be used as part of an analogue setup. Plus the KingKorg filters are incredibly close to the real thing, just check out the comparison below. It's light, has a massive range of sounds and works nicely as part of an analogue setup. Don't lug racks of gear to the gig, use the KingKorg and take a few select analogue modules for those big, fat sounds.
Syncs up nicely with the KingKorg via CV. Use it on stage for that real analogue sound plus tweaking and improvisation on stage. Plus it gives a bit of stage presence, remember Zia McCabe from the Dandy Warhols? Course you do.
Korg Monotron
Korg Monotron

As compact as the KingKorg and MS-20 Mini are you still might not want to lug too much gear to the gig. The Monotron is all analogue fun for beer money. Just stick a delay pedal after it and you're in for hours of fun.

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