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Are Synthesizers really Musical Instruments?

Are Synthesizers really Musical Instruments?
« on: October 08, 2020, 12:29:58 PM »
Seems like a silly question at first.  But if you think about it, it becomes a bit of a paradox.  Every other musical instrument  I can think of makes sound by itself vibrating or contorting the air around it in some fashion.  We can record that performance and then re-simulate the experience thru speakers or headphones.  With a synthesizer,  its initially the speaker or headphone making that sound, simply directed by a series of electric pulses. 

Of course I totally love the electronic medium.  I suppose I would defend the synth as we know it against nay-sayers (they are still out there) as certainly being an "instrument" though within its self, it may not contain "musical" quality.  It still is in effect acting as the pick, hammer, stick, or breath just like any other instrument depends upon.   So this reliance on switches and circuits triggered by keys to set speakers in motion instead of  using a reed or vibrating string is a big difference.

   In summary, I guess what I'm saying is that any synth is perhaps only half of an instrument until you include the speakers in the discussion and maybe the amp too.  Of course that can really color a sound good or bad.   

Unfortunately, the love of HI-Fi systems  seems to be on a rapid decline since the 90's. We're lucky if somebody listens to your music thru some decent earbuds.  TV sound (unless you have a surround sound system) is usually as just as poor as a computer speaker, and car systems are usually very filtered.  If you think about it, only a small part of the population is able to reproduce good sound as it was intended to be heard, and it seems the the interest in doing that is becoming less,  not more.

We in the synthesizer community are fortunate out due to the nature of the beast to be at the forefront of audio prowess.  It's really half our instrument after all.


   
DSI Equipment: Poly Evolver Keyboard, Evolver desktop, Prophet 8,  Pro-2, OB6, P-12
 

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chysn

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Re: Are Synthesizers really Musical Instruments?
« Reply #1 on: October 08, 2020, 01:53:11 PM »
I don't see the designation of "musical instrument" as a very high definitional bar to clear. I've got a roll of duct tape here that makes a pretty awesome sound when you pull the tape off. Usually you're just pulling tape off because you need tape. But you can certainly compose for solo duct tape roll, too.

Every other musical instrument  I can think of makes sound by itself vibrating or contorting the air around it in some fashion

Another such instrument is the theramin.
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AlanC

Re: Are Synthesizers really Musical Instruments?
« Reply #2 on: October 09, 2020, 03:42:52 AM »
Every other musical instrument  I can think of makes sound by itself vibrating or contorting the air around it in some fashion.

How about a Rhodes or Wurlitzer electric piano? Yes, the sound is produced by vibration but, without an amplifier, you don't really hear anything.

And if you have to rely on an amplifier does it really matter that the source is mechanical rather than electronic?

Re: Are Synthesizers really Musical Instruments?
« Reply #3 on: October 09, 2020, 12:52:18 PM »
Electric guitars/bass are instruments and they don't sound much without amplification and a little FX.

megamarkd

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Re: Are Synthesizers really Musical Instruments?
« Reply #4 on: October 13, 2020, 12:12:13 AM »
If you can create ordered sound at will with something, it is a musical instrument.  Doesn't matter if it was designated an instrument centuries ago and is made from wood and wire, or if it is a machine you need to punch code into, or if it requires the fires of hell to power its mechanisms.  Placing physical mandates onto what is deemed a music instrument is silly.

Re: Are Synthesizers really Musical Instruments?
« Reply #5 on: October 15, 2020, 11:16:34 AM »
If you can create ordered sound at will with something, it is a musical instrument.  Doesn't matter if it was designated an instrument centuries ago and is made from wood and wire, or if it is a machine you need to punch code into, or if it requires the fires of hell to power its mechanisms.  Placing physical mandates onto what is deemed a music instrument is silly.

Nobody had to defend that Synthesizers are instruments more than the early synth users.   And I ardently support that stance.  The intent of my post probably would have been worded better if I posed the question "are they a class of instrument on their own".    Everything else I can think of is making a vibration.  That's all I'm saying.    Even the guitars and Rhodes, although both on the fringe of audible on their own, are still vibrating. 

Are one of you computer guys able to help me with this?  How does a computer based synth (VST) make its sound?  Is it the computer chip circuit that acts as an oscillator or is it the software somehow acting as an oscillator?

I didn't think I would ever do this being a happy hardware owner, but  recently I picked up a software synth- Omnisphere, sold on the fact that I could control it as a dedicated controller with my Sequential and other synths.  But I also was sold on how the arpeggiator can be exported, and how powerful that arpeggiator really is.   So, after the fact,  I want to know how this thing generates its sound  ;)     
DSI Equipment: Poly Evolver Keyboard, Evolver desktop, Prophet 8,  Pro-2, OB6, P-12
 

https://Soundcloud.com/wavescape-1

AlanC

Re: Are Synthesizers really Musical Instruments?
« Reply #6 on: October 15, 2020, 01:25:10 PM »
Are one of you computer guys able to help me with this?  How does a computer based synth (VST) make its sound?  Is it the computer chip circuit that acts as an oscillator or is it the software somehow acting as an oscillator?

It's done in software. Basically, the software is calculating a series of numbers that correspond to the amplitude of the waveform, one for each sample at the audio sample rate, and is feeding them into the Digital to Analog Converter to produce the output signal.

Re: Are Synthesizers really Musical Instruments?
« Reply #7 on: October 15, 2020, 05:57:20 PM »
Thanks for the explanation AlanC.   

For what its worth, I'm comparing saw wave on OB6 to emulation on Omnisphere.  Osc 2 is dead on with saw wave.  There is only very minuscule variation with square wave.  see attachment.    I mention that I hear a slightly warmer sound on the emulation software, but considering the very close similarities of the waves here, I ask how much of that is because with the VST I'm processing thru my computer audio to my mixer adding a layer of amplifiers.  I've always thought that amplifiers can color sound and I've gone so far as to get rid of a certain synth because I did not like its amp sound.

   

DSI Equipment: Poly Evolver Keyboard, Evolver desktop, Prophet 8,  Pro-2, OB6, P-12
 

https://Soundcloud.com/wavescape-1

megamarkd

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Re: Are Synthesizers really Musical Instruments?
« Reply #8 on: October 16, 2020, 03:21:39 AM »
Oh I wasn't attacking you.  I have had to spend my time defending synths to guitarists in my family since I got my first.  Apparently my ability to play a 'classical instrument' (trombone) meant nothing when I started 'using' a push-button noise machine.

I'm going to ramble a bit about "what a instrument is" as it is a favourite ramble of mine and that is the basic gist of the topic.  I'll only address stuff you have mentioned.  So there is your warning, switch off now if you don't want to know the results!

With regards to an instrument needing a speaker to complete its sound creation, I don't think that should negate its status as an instrument.  All acoustic stringed instruments need an amplifier of some sort, albeit they use reverberation and sound-boards to achieve this.  A solid-body electric guitar is a perfect way to illustrate what would happen if a violin didn't have a hollow-body.  Without an empty shell under a skin, a timpani wouldn't boom the way it does.  If a ybrass instrument didn't have a bell at its end, it too would not be able to be heard much further than a few feet (try playing a tune on just a bugle mouthpiece; you can play everything you can on a complete bugle, but nobody will hear it without becoming covered in spit!)  Amplification is essential in all instruments whether they be acoustic, electric or electronic.

What I find rather irritating is the call "but you can hold a chord and the synth will play each note as if you were playing them".  You still need to know you are playing chords in the correct key and not just moving your fingers up and down the keyboard in a set chord configuration, randomly dropping them down (though that can be a lot of fun).  I understand you are not attacking this and you actually value a good arpeggiator.  But to tell the truth, when I was trombonist, I used to have a thing about playing music that was basically just bars of practice arpeggios, I deemed it was lazy composing!  I don't think this way anymore.

If you can create ordered sound at will with something, it is a musical instrument.  Doesn't matter if it was designated an instrument centuries ago and is made from wood and wire, or if it is a machine you need to punch code into, or if it requires the fires of hell to power its mechanisms.  Placing physical mandates onto what is deemed a music instrument is silly.

Nobody had to defend that Synthesizers are instruments more than the early synth users.   And I ardently support that stance.  The intent of my post probably would have been worded better if I posed the question "are they a class of instrument on their own".    Everything else I can think of is making a vibration.  That's all I'm saying.    Even the guitars and Rhodes, although both on the fringe of audible on their own, are still vibrating. 

Are one of you computer guys able to help me with this?  How does a computer based synth (VST) make its sound?  Is it the computer chip circuit that acts as an oscillator or is it the software somehow acting as an oscillator?

I didn't think I would ever do this being a happy hardware owner, but  recently I picked up a software synth- Omnisphere, sold on the fact that I could control it as a dedicated controller with my Sequential and other synths.  But I also was sold on how the arpeggiator can be exported, and how powerful that arpeggiator really is.   So, after the fact,  I want to know how this thing generates its sound  ;)   

Re: Are Synthesizers really Musical Instruments?
« Reply #9 on: October 16, 2020, 08:36:21 AM »
megamarkd,

What you are saying about methods of amplification is an interesting perspective. 

I'm a bit defensive about the hobby.  I do sense sense that some of my past musical acquaintances and even band mates can be dismissive of  what I do now.  As if playing drums to the same ole ZZ top tune in some bar week after week was somehow better exploring my musical horizons.  (not knocking ZZ top, rock blues or bars, I like all three ;)).  Just that I'm surprised they don't think cognitive (and even physical coordination) apply every bit to this instrument. 

DSI Equipment: Poly Evolver Keyboard, Evolver desktop, Prophet 8,  Pro-2, OB6, P-12
 

https://Soundcloud.com/wavescape-1

Re: Are Synthesizers really Musical Instruments?
« Reply #10 on: December 23, 2020, 03:49:07 PM »
The answer is yes. It breathes life from electrons and creates vibrations through air  and makes a connection as well as any other instrument
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