Making music with a DIY synthesizer | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 04.04.2013
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Making music with a DIY synthesizer

A growing movement of musicians and engineers are building their own synthesizers. And most of them are buying their circuit boards and components on the Net. DW looks at DIY synths.

Pavel Sraj building his synthesizer for the story.

Pavel Sraj und Eliran Rubin

A synthesizer is a controlled voltage device, according to Anthony Norris, an award winning sound engineer, producer and senior lecturer at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia.

"We power a tone generator and that tone generator will produce a sine wave sound," he said. "We can then send that circuit into another one […] thereby modulating the tone […] then we would shape the sound […] add a filter."

So a synthesizer needs an electrical current to produce a waveform - a sound which is then shaped and manipulated.  Synths were developed in the late 19th Century, but only became very common in popular music in the 1960s.

"The Beach Boys were the first ones to use them in a commercial track," Norris explained.

An image showing a Minimoog from the 80s.

The Minimoog was the first synthesizer to go mainstream in the 70s

And then a whole lot more artists followed - using synths as a means of creating sounds that weren't trying to emulate acoustic instruments, he added. But the cost of electronic instruments when they were first manufactured was out of reach for all but the most wealthy. The Fairlight, a synth made by a company of the same name, was around $200,000, according to Anthony Norris who worked for Fairlight in the 1980s.

"Herbie Hancock bought one, Stevie Wonder bought one, Duran Duran had one" he said.

Synthesizers were brought to the masses by American inventor Robert Moog. He pioneered the Moog synthesizer, which became one the most famous electronic instruments of all time.

Do-it-yourself synths

Today, many synths have become affordable. Synthrotek nand 4093, a small DIY synth about the size of an iPhone, sells on Ebay for 30 euros. It comes with capacitors, resistors, some linear pots, switches, jacks, wires and a circuit board. A soldering iron is used to attach the components of the synth to its circuit board.

Pavel Sraj shows his finished DIY synthesizer

Pavel Sraj built a synthesizer for his story

Once the soldering is finished, the small green circuit board looks like it has sprouted red wires. These wires hook up to the 3 silver switches and the 4 control knobs. The board is also covered with small yellow capacitors, resistors and a black socket.  Once it's done, it can be connected to some power to make some noise. And just because it's DIY doesn't mean that you can do less with it, says Manuel Richter, a prominent ambient musician and sound engineer from Leipzig.

"You can reach a very high quality when you do the DIY stuff. It depends on your skills and on the complexity of what you build," he said, adding that he builds his own synthesizers.

Richter, who also runs Leaf Audio, uses a combination of these lo-tech DIY synths, combining them with hi-tech gear.

"What I like is to integrate raw lo-tech stuff into this high quality studio equipment…then you can process lo-tech sound with high tech filters or compressors and this is really interesting," he explained.

Listen to audio 07:22
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07:22 mins.

Listen to some cool synth sounds in Pavel Sraj's radio report

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