How do you learn to program a synthesizer? The owner’s manual is a good place to start, but it’s not always clear what a particular adjustment is really doing to the sound, and how it affects the overall makeup of a synth program (especially to a newcomer). Enter Syntorial, a synth training application that helps you understand and hear synthesis, from the ground up.
PROS: Clear, concise, ear-based lessons emphasize recognition of audio examples. Copius amounts of helpful videos along the way. Progressive material in lessons from bone-simple to more involved settings. Synth, called Primer, can also be used as a standalone or plug-in instrument. Quizzes offer audio examples to correct you if you get something wrong.
CONS: Primer synth is limited to six voices of polyphony.
Bottom Line: The most comprehensive and fun tool for learning synthesizer programming, hands down.
$129.99 | syntorial.com
When first starting Syntorial, and whenever you encounter a new section of the software, you are greeted by one of many help videos. These are your virtual professor, outlining how to use the software as well as giving subjective descriptions of the various sonic qualities you’ll be identifying and tweaking. There’s no need for a manual or any other documentation outside of the software itself.
Each lesson contains a demonstration and a challenge. The demonstration is a video that shows you the concept or synth function for each lesson. You can pause or replay it before going to the challenge.
The demonstration video displays the syntorial synth panel, which at first deals with the most basic building block of a sound: the waveform. You get to hear the differences between waveforms, and then during the challenges, one of the settings is played. Your task: Match it correctly by choosing the right setting. The narrator gives any important definitions as the demonstrations progress; even a user with zero synth experience could learn how it works.
The challenges play a simple note sequence on a “hidden” patch—a synth program whose settings are not shown. You can then make adjustments to whatever parameters are available, and can go back and forth between your patch and the hidden patch while the sequence continues playing. Once you feel you’ve matched the sound of the two, click “Submit” for your results. You’ll get instant feedback, outlining incorrect settings in red, which will turn green once corrected. (Don’t be intimidated by all of the possible values that a knob or slider can have; the settings are notched to just a few available values per control.) The help video states that it’s very important to play the sound while making adjustments so you can get to know the differences. This is a vital aspect of learning the synth programming process.
Once you’ve completed the series of lessons, there’s a short quiz. Each multiple-choice question asks you to identify something about a sound that corresponds to the content in the lesson. If you answer incorrectly, it reveals the correct answer, and a play button appears next to each choice. You can now listen to the differences in the answers. Some questions refer to concepts explained in the help videos, so pay attention! Once you complete the quiz, regardless on how well you did, the next lesson is unlocked. Fun.
Before moving on to the next lesson, syntorial gives you an “on your own” assignment. In this, you go to your own hardware or software synth and try some tweaks the program gives you. This applies to most subtractive synths, but if you’re working with an old DX7, most of the material may not apply.
Since you’ll be getting very handy at editing Syntorial’s internal synth, it makes sense to have it as a standalone or plug-in instrument. In this context, the synth is called Primer. It has healthy specs: monophonic or six-voice, two oscillators plus a sub-oscilaator, low/high/bandpass filter with resonance, LFO, distortion, phaser, chorus, delay, and reverb, plus envelopes and a few modulation routings. This is an excellent inclusion.
There’s a lot to like about Syntorial. It gets you listening to differences in sound right away, without bogging you down with too much jargon or information at once. Little by little, the synth’s front panel becomes more populated with parameters, and eventually becomes a nicely functioning virtual analog software synth. One likeable aspect is that it doesn’t just show you how a synth works, it deals with how to approach sound design when matching timbres. The videos and “on your own” assignments are full of effective strategies on approaching the tones you seek. If you really want to learn about subtractive synthesis and how to recreate the synth sounds you hear in music, Syntorial is a must-have.
The challenge begins with a “hidden” patch. Play it manually or let run a short looping note sequence run. Listen for as long as you like.
Switch to “My Patch” and the available controls will appear. Make the necessary adjustments to make “My Patch” sound just like the hidden patch. Toggle between the two as often as necessary.
Submit your results and Syntorial will tell you how you did. Correct settings are highlighted in green, incorrect settings in red.
The companion synth, called Primer, is available in VST and AU formats. It features the full array of Syntorial’s synth parameters, preset banks and user patches.