Synthesizer with multi-colored wires

How to Teach Synthesis as a Way of Helping Kids Sculpt Their Sonic Worlds

With readily available and inexpensive devices, it is more possible than ever before for students to create their own sonic worlds. In particular, the modern analog subtractive synthesizer, used by musicians and sound designers, is an incredibly powerful tool for sculpting sound; the analog synth can be a simpler yet more involved alternative to the digital synths that have been available for years, with their preset sounds. Although analog synths have sometimes been regarded as merely toys that go "beep" and "boop," these devices can provide deeply meaningful, immediate experiences for students, who have to manipulate all the parameters of sound themselves. This sort of synth also has the power to add the elements of STEAM - Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math - to your program, along with engaging students who may be be invested in traditional implements of music in school.

Synthesis 101

What is a modern analog subtractive synthesizer? Simply put, it is an instrument that converts pure (analog) electricity into sound. How? Imagine that you are standing at the beginning of an infinitely long hallway and in your hand is a red rubber ball. If you took this bouncing action, which makes a sound each time it bounces, and sped up the frequency of the bouncing, it would eventually get so fast that it would produce a single tone. If it helps, think about how a car engine seems to have a constant hum, even though it's just individual cylinders quickly firing at different times. This is precisely how the circuits in an analog synthesizer create sound. They "oscillate," or bounce electricity back and forth so quickly that are audible and identifiable to the ear. This is why these circuits are called "oscillators."

Oscillators can bounce electricity in different shapes, affecting the timbre of the tone generated. These shapes are usually defined as square, sawtooth, and triangle. A free-to-use, browser-based example is the Oscillators app offered in Google's Chrome Music Lab. User can click on differently shaped oscillators to activate them, then change the frequency of the oscillation. By keeping the frequency value low enough and steady, you can hear each individual click of the "bouncing red ball."

Beware: Encourage healthy headphone-wearing practices throughout all sonic exploration. The prospect of turning electricity into sound might be overwhelming for a novice due not only to the synthesizer's tendency to sound shrill, loud, and abrasive, but also due to the ever-tweakable depth of possibilities for both the tone and timbre of the instrument. The possibilities for "beeps" and "boops" can be rewarding, as well as treacherous. It is important to show students how to make sounds more manageable and appealing to the ear very early in the exploration process.

Other forms of electronic synthesis beyond analog subtractive synthesis feature different timbral tendencies, functions, and price-tags, such as pulse-code modulation (PCM), additive frequency modulation (FM), and granular synthesis. But none of these options offer such a tactile, tweakable experience with so many different and understandable packages as the analog subtractive synthesizer.

About Zachary Gates

Zachary Gates is a middle-school choral and piano teacher, guitarist, and producer for local musicians in central New Jersey. He has performed works with the New York Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, as well as presented on technology & arts in education at conferences throughout the United States.

March 1, 2019
Zachary Gates