I'm both the pianist and synth player in a (amateur) band, but mainly a pianist from training and experience. I'm pretty decent at piano, so technique isn't really a problem. However, when I play Synth, I have trouble enjoying it due to a lack of real knowledge. I usually play pads, where I find it pretty easy to create sounds (and many presets and sound banks these days have very nice pads) and enjoy that. Unfortunately, what I'm really drawn to are the "popier" sounds that have a rhythmic, guitar-like feel to them (Smallpools, Magic Man, Wolf Gang, Foster the People, etc) as opposed to simple pads or leads.

Except I have a really hard time coming up with anything that sounds modern and cool, everything instead has a very 80's sound. I use Mainstage, so I don't have physical controls, but it has pretty much everything there is to configure, so I don't really think I'm lacking equipment. I am quite tech-savvy (studying CS), it's just that I can't quite convert what I imagine in my head to the actual sound. So, all that said...

What are some resources/techniques that will help me understand how to create synth sounds? There are plenty of people who can dream up and create amazing sounds, but I'm not sure how they learned to do it. I realize this is sort of a general question, and hopefully not too broad, but I'm really just looking for ways to hone my sound-creating skills.

  • What are you actually asking here? You have a lot of questions that seem to be very broad and unanswerable. Could you edit your question to focus on one?
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Commented Nov 15, 2014 at 21:07
  • @DrMayhem, Yes, that's true. I suppose I really am just looking for any tips or resources to help me learn about sound composing. I haven't been able to find much that talks about it.
    – Josiah
    Commented Nov 15, 2014 at 21:16
  • 1
    There is a series of articles called "Synth Secrets" from Sound on Sound magazine. The actual patches may not serve your needs, but going through them might be helpful.
    – Dave
    Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 14:32

1 Answer 1


I recommend you to learn synthesis through a graphical patch-based synthesis environment. This makes very explicit and clear how everything works and is connected (literally).

The most popular are Reaktor, Max, and Pure Data. Pure Data is free, so grab it and see if you are into it. While learning it you'll be learning synthesis at a very deep level. It's a huge learning experience to digest subtractive synthesis by building a subtractive synthesizer, for example.

You can get pure data here (I recommend you to get Pd-extended), and here are some learning resources, and some books here.

There are many video tutorials out there too, like this one (which assumes you know nothing and has many parts, so it's a very good tutorial to start with).

You can end up building things like this, or whatever you can come up with.

If you are into coding you might also (or instead) want to learn a synthesis environment like SuperCollider. No patching, just code. I recommend you to start with a patching environment, though, since everything is graphical, explicit, and clear.

If you don't want to dive that deep into synthesis, you can grab any synth and learn its in and outs instead. There are many different types of synths, the most common being subtractive synths (like the Minimoog Vogayer), which is also the most simple synthesis type so it is a very good start point.

Grab a very simple subtractive synthesizer (hardware or software, it doesn't matter) and go through the manual or a youtube tutorial or an article or whatever you can find. You'll learn concepts like envelopes, oscillators, filters, and modulators. Once you digest that you can go to other types of synthesizers (FM, AM, additive, sample-based, whatever).

One free and simple subtractive synth is Synth1, you can get it here. It's also a very popular synth, so you'll find countless documentation and tutorials out there, like this one or these.

Reading Dave's comment

There is a series of articles called "Synth Secrets" from Sound on Sound magazine. The actual patches may not serve your needs, but going through them might be helpful.

I was reminded of that great resource for learning synthesis: Sound on Sound's Synth Secrets. I don't know how I managed to forget that one. It's a compilation of all the synth secrets articles from 1999 to 2004. It starts from the basics and builds up to many different types of synthesis, teaching how to synthesize several instruments (strings, bells, percussions, wind, organs) through both theory and practice. One of the best resources out there, give it a read.


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