An Overview of Getting Started with Synthesizers

I will be producing a number of posts with regards to getting started. This is a short overview of what I will be covering in the coming weeks.

DAW Software

Digital Audio Workstations (DAW) are software programs to produce and record music with your computer. DAW software also serve as a method of hosting software synthesizer plugins.

Software Synths and Effects

The most popular synthesizers used for recording these days tend to be software plugins. There are also plugins that can be used as audio effects. While many plugins are commercial products which can carry considerable cost, many are free. This is probably the best way to get started with learning synthesizers if one has a computer and is on a lean budget. In addition to desktop plugins, there is also the world of software synthesizers for mobile devices.

Keyboard Synthesizers

Synthesizers with keyboards have been a mainstay since the original minimoog. These often offer a relatively straightforward way to approach sound design. Previously the downside of these instruments, especially the analog ones, was the considerable cost involved. However, these days inexpensive analog synthesizers offer a great way to get started.

Modular Synthesizers

Modular synthesizers are a deep love of mine, and thus the name of the blog. These instruments offer a great deal of flexibility and frequently beautiful weirdness.  Modular synthesizers are at their heart analog computers designed for music. Getting started with modular though can be a rather confusing, even for those who do have familiarity with synthesizers. In addition to that I will provide some basic information on getting started with DIY instruments.

Beyond the Keyboard

Synthesizers are not just about keyboards. Theremins, sequencers, ribbons, and touch-plates are all valid ways to play a synthesizer without a keyboard. Many of these open up the instrument beyond the black and white approach keyboards offer.

And More

I will be covering everything from circuit bending, to exploring musical programming.  There is a great deal to cover, and these guides will explore both the very simple and straightforward starter guides to some more advanced topics for those wishing to dive deeper into synthesis.  This is all in addition to the normal blogging that will happen here.


The (Diminishing) Barriers of Entry to Modular Synthesizers: The Kilpatrick Phenol

The Kilpatrick Audio Phenol
The Kilpatrick Audio Phenol

The entry point to modular synthesizers used to be significant. The price points used were high enough that those who could afford the synthesizers was a limited audience.  Modular instruments were above all boutique instruments of enthusiasts and DIY builders.  Do not get me wrong there is nothing wrong with this, many of these early enthusiasts were composers such as Laurie Spiegel, who used them extensively in her early recordings. For women it was a way to compose and produce music without the institutional barriers of the conservatory.

While the barriers to synthesizers in general fell, modular synthesizers were a different story. In recent years the price barrier have been falling, the introduction of the Eurorack format by Doepfer in 1995 started opening up these instruments to a far broader audience.  In the last five years however the format exploded in popularity. The barrier to entry began to lower even more as a result as multiple manufacturers producing modules for the format.

In the last few days, Kilpatrick Audio, a Canadian company, announced the Phenol. While I will try to avoid endorsing products directly without trying them, the value of what they are offering is pretty impressive. It’s $850 retail price point (and I think that’s Canadian dollars) is lower than any comparable device . While the device is not a specific format, it does allow cross compatibility with other modular synths.  The added bonus is that it uses banana jacks, which are easily one of the most fun formats because the wires are stackable. The one thing that will never disapear with modulars though is the differences in jack formats. However, unlike the Korg MS-20 mini, the Kilpatrick Phenol synthesizer uses the standard voltages found in modular synthesizers.

The $1000 price barrier is a bit mythical in the realm of musical instruments. It is the real difference between enthusiasts and professionals, and a larger general audience and hobbyists.  While I can recommend several synthesizers to people, and I will on this blog, modular synthesizers which are close to my heart, tend to be out of reach to most people. It is hard to spend thousands of dollars on instruments with student loans, kids, and a mortgage. It is hard for teenagers to save up for modular instruments as well. The Phenol on the other hand could provide of an excellent entry point, one that can bring this type music technology into homes and schools.  I can only imagine bringing something like the Phenol into a Girl’s Rock or Women’s Rock program.

While I am not going to make a final verdict on the Kilpatrick Phenol until I play it myself, the effort to make a high quality affordable modular instrument is commendable. While I will be reviewing and discussing instruments that are expensive,  I am happy to start off this blog focusing on the announcement of a modular instrument that is accessible and more affordable.

When the Kickstarter opens up, I will be posting more about the Phenol.

Kilpatrick Phenol Specs:

  • Banana patch system with colour-coded jacks and voltages compatible with Kilpatrick Format and other modular systems
  • Two analog VCOs – triangle, ramp and pulse outputs
  • Two analog filters (low pass and high pass)
  • Two analog VCAs with level control
  • Two envelope generator / LFO combos with many unique features
  • An LFO with sine and random output
  • Internal MIDI to CV converter with DIN and USB MIDI interfaces
  • Compact mixer with digital delay with over 330ms of delay time
  • Digital pulse divider – divide MIDI clock or LFO output to create 4 musical time divisions
  • Buffered mixer / mult / inverter with level control
  • External audio input allows a stereo input to be patched like an oscillator signal – process your drum machine or other source through the system
  • Designed and made in Canada using high quality parts
  • Warranty: 1 year