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I have played a lot of piano, some organ and a fair few synths in my time, and have yet to ever find a synth patch that

  • makes a good solo instrument (i.e. like a piano, you can play an entire concert on just a piano and people regularly do)
  • doesn't sound like some kind of piano, electric piano or organ

I've started to think that no such thing exists. If you think I'm right then why do you think this is? Possible reasons for the phenomenon, off the top of my head:

  • they're the simplest useful form of keyboard sound. piano and epiano sounds are intentionally fairly simple, which makes them more versatile - the actions of the player have a greater effect. At the other end of the scale you have massive polyphonic synth sounds with wave sequencing and delay effects. Of course less extreme/prescriptive synth patches are possible, but the simpler you make them, the more they tend to sound like pianos/organs anyway. And super simple sounds like a pure sine wave aren't rich enough to work with. (This argument ignores velocity sensitivity).
  • evolution. The piano has evolved over hundreds of years to be an amazing performance instrument. Synths haven't.
  • cultural. People expect to listen to the same piano for hours, but we expect synths to change patches.
  • social. Most synth nerds aren't that good on piano, and vice versa. (Some exceptions of course!)

On the other hand, I would love to be proven wrong on the whole hypothesis. If you think I'm wrong, please provide a link to a sound/patch that meets my requirements.

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What characteristics are necessary for a sound to "make a good solo instrument"? What are you looking for, specifically? –  JCPedroza Apr 12 at 14:18
Keep in mind that an instrument like a piano has a quite complex waveform with lots of harmonics (though a crucial feature is that the harmonics are not quite exact multiples). Same is true to a lesser degree for wind instruments. It is this combination of harmonics that humans tend to find pleasing in a solo instrument. –  Hot Licks Apr 13 at 2:54
Without knowing your tastes, it's hard to cite specific sounds. And I'd argue that Switched On Bach demonstrated that simple sounds CAN be "rich enough to work with" if used tastefully. This is a question about arrangement and performance, not just about patches. –  keshlam Apr 13 at 5:01
The "necessary characteristic" I'm looking for is that it doesn't sound dull to play the same sound for an hour straight. –  Sideshow Bob Apr 13 at 21:24

6 Answers 6

up vote 14 down vote accepted

The synth patches that you want will exist if you build them yourself. :)

You might consider studying some of the older musicians such as Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman. At that time, people usually rolled their own sounds, building them from the basic four waveforms. Also, you might read up on "additive synthesis" which has to do with the theory behind building your own sounds from scratch. In Wakeman especially you will find a kindred spirit; he says many of the same things you do.

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I was including patches I had built myself in the above discussion :) Thanks for the pointers though, sounds like some interesting reading/listening to do. –  Sideshow Bob Apr 13 at 21:13
If you're looking for two suggestions to get started, check ELP's "Brain Salad Surgery" and Yes's "Close to the Edge". –  BobRodes Apr 16 at 16:11
Eh? Patches that you had built yourself? I missed that. What did you do to build them, and what don't you like about them? –  BobRodes Apr 16 at 16:13
I didn't say I hadn't ;) but don't think that's relevant to the discussion. It's not that I dislike all synth patches mine or otherwise, it's that I can't play them for an hour without thinking it's too much. Anyway I will check out the tunes you mention cheers! –  Sideshow Bob Apr 17 at 8:49
Oh, I think I see what you are saying. Not to put words in your mouth, but I think you're saying they get stale quicker than, to use your example, a piano sound, and so need to change more often. If so, interesting point. –  BobRodes Apr 17 at 13:58

I think subtle expression possibilities is the key. Piano, electric piano and organs have a large and very finely controllable dynamic sound range1 (either by true continuous 𝆑𝆓𝆏 spectrum right "at the fingertips", or lots of of possible organ stop/drawbar combinations), so you can always counteract where it might get tiresome, without however necessarily creating an obvious and possibly distracting sound effect like the tweaking of a synthesiser's filters all too often constitutes.

Now, the question is what possibilities would a synth have to incorporate such subtle expression. The most obvious thing is to make some parameter[s] controllable particularly fine and intuitively – that's why almost all synths now have at least a big mod wheel today, usually in fact some joystick etc.. That works really well for melodic playing, but quickly runs into trouble when you try to serve more of a pianist role:

  • Using your left hand to tweak such controls is a big problem when you need it to play accompaniment, especially if there's no bass (which you could play with your feet on organ pedals)
  • Even when the parameter is steered by expression pedal or channel-aftertouch so you have both hands free to play notes, you'll only be able to add expression uniformly to all played notes. That makes it impossible to properly emphasise the "virtual voices" that are hidden in a well-arranged piano or organ score, short of selective dynamic emphasis or placement of voices on different manuals.

So that doesn't do the trick. Now, we could obviously copy the ways you control expression on the traditional instruments. All keyboards are velo-sensitive nowadays and can be used to control piano patches reasonably well. Great! Then, what do we route this to? Most obvious would be just VCA volume control, but that's hardly versatile enough. Filter cutoff and modulation / vibrato are good candidates (not without reason the typical mod-wheel parameters!) but here you'd really need continuous control, over the entire note duration. That's precisely what velo can not. Effectively, the only thing velo control does really well is a combination of volume and timbre – and then it'll invariably be a "piano-like" sound, at least roughly. With chorus-ey modulation it'll sound like DX-7 e-piano2, with short sustain like something between marimba and clavinet. At any rate not "typical synthetic".

For organ-like expression much the same issue: an additively composed sound will sound organ-like. Combining multiple manuals meaning you're effectively switching between patches, as you ruled out.

So, does that mean synths can't offer anything new when it comes to "consistent solo sounds"? I think they can! Parameters like filters and modulation, perhaps also intonation per-note can give amazing expressive possibilities. Only problem is, it used to be technically infeasible! Well, polyphonic aftertouch has long been doable, but the CS-80 wasn't exactly affordable. It's just really difficult to implement something like that with analogue technology.

This is the digital age however! The Haken Continuum has been around a while already – again, not quite cheap; also it's not really a keyboard-thing. But there are a whole lot of innovations in more-or-less–keyboard-like controllers. The Seabord adds some keyboard haptics to the continuum concept.

But my favourite candidate are Andrew McPherson's TouchKeys. You retain a true familiar keyboard, but with two dimensions of expression added for each note. (Saidly the first production was just the KickStarter-backed one; there's a waiting list for a second run right now.)

1Crucially: unlike when just turning some volume pot, pianos actually change the sound character a lot depending on how hard you strike the tones.

2Coming to think of it, the DX-7 may be the "historical synth" coming closest to what you seek.

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I'll have to download FM8 and have a play then. TouchKeys sound interesting - presumably more so the more years you play them. –  Sideshow Bob Apr 13 at 21:23
Still, controller notwithstanding, you need to program a patch that really makes use of the input. Like you say the best patches often map velocity to VCA and filter, sometimes envelope attack times too, and sometimes layering sounds by velocity. And the more you do all this the more it sounds like a traditional instrument. –  Sideshow Bob Apr 13 at 21:26

You're probably right. Even the most wonderful non-piano/organ synth patch would be too much if used for an entire concert (as would panpipes though). Many advanced synth performers will often tweak the patch as they play, equipment permitting.

Sound wise, most synth sounds are going to emulate instruments that are either struck, plucked, bowed or blown, so one can always argue most synth patches resemble traditional instruments, especially the patches in the General Midi set, since those patches are designed to.

A pure sine wave would sound like an organ anyway (like Close To Me by The Cure).

Synths are prevalent in dance music (Bowed string sounds, 'wobble' bass, sounds that sound like vacuum cleaners, etc). Synth enthusiasts are keen to develop unique sounds, not reuse existing ones (in contrast to using a sampler).

And yes, many synth musicians have under-developed keyboard skills, compared to concert pianists. The synth enthusiast (I like to think) is more focused on creativity and originality, with ambitions more biased towards music production than live performance.

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There are exceptions to your stuck/plucked/bowed/blown classification I think. Some of the more extreme FM sounds out there are not like any of these. But their very novelty makes them something you can't listen too all night. Except for hoovers maybe! –  Sideshow Bob Apr 13 at 21:15
@SideshowBob There are always exceptions, I'm going to include vacuum cleaners in the blowing category though ha ha, even though they suck, since harmonica's are similar. And sounds based on white noise can be just like unsuccessfully playing a brass instrument. What extreme FM sounds were you thinking of? I know some patch work can turn out more like an ensemble of several instruments playing a rhythm than a single solo instrument (well, or a didgeridoo). –  Lee Kowalkowski Apr 14 at 8:07
All sorts of FM once you have modulator on modulator on carrier, and especially when you start putting LFOs on the modulation amount. Here's one that springs to mind youtu.be/gJyoPBK3rdM?t=3m12s –  Sideshow Bob Apr 14 at 11:18

Part of the reason is that synths are most often used in electronic music, which is usually highly polyphonic and emphasizes the interactions between multiple layers instead of focusing on one sound. As a result, synth sounds aren't created to be powerful across the entire realm of musical functions, but instead to do one thing really well and play nicely with other sounds.

Another reason may be that pianos use different types of strings for different registers. For example, most pianos I've seen use thin wires for the middle octaves, but thick springs or coils for the low bass. If pianos used the same type of string throughout their entire voices, the low and high notes would probably not be suitable for solo performances. In a sense, a piano is a couple of different string instruments, put together as one.

In contrast, a synth is typically programmed to use the exact same algorithm for all its octaves, meaning that synths typically only sound good in a narrow register. So, for example, a bass synth will sound thin in high registers, while a lead synth would probably get very muddy and detuned in bass registers. To make a synth playable for a solo instrument, one would probably need to program it to behave slightly differently in different registers, like a piano.

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That's really a naïve argument. Synths can use any kind of keytrack curve for any parameter you like, so it's much easier to build a synth patch that will sound good in every octave than to build an acoustic instrument with a large range. And even if you don't account for this at all – a synth sound that's uniform everywhere can be used very well for playing homophonic organ-like accompaniments. Only, that'll become boring rather quickly. The main problem is that you have a hard time getting any part of what you play to stick out, short of the dynamic response a piano offers. –  leftaroundabout Apr 21 at 15:56
Also, IMO most decent bass synth patches actually make for good lead melody lines when played in high registers, and vice versa – it's just a bit different. What doesn't work well of course is replacing mono lead/bass sounds with pads, which again is an issue of dynamics and attack character (as well as possibly portamento etc.) rather than pitch range. –  leftaroundabout Apr 21 at 15:59

Apart of the wise responses here, I've found that the simulators of brass instruments can give good results as solo instrument. Thinks like flughel, horns, flutes, basson etc. Although I suspect this may depend greatly on the specific synthesizer. By the way using here the software emulator of the Korg M1, from Korg itself, exact outcome as the original but at a ridiculously low price

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To be fair the brass modelling on the Korg Prophecy is amazing. But I still couldn't play it for an hour on its own - nor a real trumpet for that matter - it works best with other instruments. –  Sideshow Bob Apr 28 at 10:07
Then there's the Analog-Digital comparison. Any analog (real) instrument is made of atoms while a digital thing is made of a much more "rough" material numbers that although scientifically and "officially" are unappreciable by the senses, I am pretty sure they leave infinite unperceptible events that something in us is able to sense and miss. –  Juan Apr 29 at 11:06

Keith Emerson's Minotaur patch (the "Lucky Man" patch)

Stevie Wonder's "clavinet kazoo" patch ("Boogie on, Reggae Woman")

Bjork and Emilie Simon both often feature natural sounds that sound synthetic, and process natural sounds into very synthetic sounds. Tom Waits as well. I consider these "synthetic" sounds because, technically, they are even if their primary waveform sources are derived natural sounds.

Listened to any Crystal Castles?

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