Music from the Sound Up: The Creative Tools of Synthesis

Music from the Sound Up: The Creative Tools of Synthesis

October 18, 2019 - April 30, 2020

As the world became increasingly electrified in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, musicians and scientists began laying the foundations of “synthesis”—an entirely new way of building sound through electrical current. This also opened the door for the development of entirely new instruments. Although early instruments were limited to only a handful of sounds, each new development in synthesis brought new opportunities for expression and personalization. It soon became apparent that with synthesis, everyone could make their own sound

This ethos of individuality continues to drive synthesizers today. It’s possible to build almost any sound you can imagine – including the sounds of traditional instruments – and play your sound in almost any way – with a piano keyboard, a guitar, a wind instrument, a smartphone app.

SPECIAL THANKS

Music from the Sound Up: The Creative Tools of Synthesis is generously supported by Sweetwater and Fishman. Instruments on display are loaned by Yamaha, Roland, Arturia, and Critter & Guitari.

Sweetwater    Fishman Logo WHITE    Yamaha 

Roland
Arturia 
C R I T T E R  & G U I T A R I
 

Creating your sound!

In this interactive exhibition, you’ll learn about and use a process called “synthesis” to create your own unique sound. It is a progressive experience where you'll explore and customize your sound using each of the following building blocks:

Waves
Waves

The music we make and listen to is built from sound waves. Think of ocean waves: tall, short, fast, slow. Taller waves carry more energy and crash more loudly. Sound waves can be tall or short, too, depending on their energy, or amplitude: more energy makes a louder sound. Sound waves also move back and forth at different speeds, or frequencies. A slower frequency creates a low sound, while a faster frequency creates a high sound. 

Want to know more? Synthesizers make waves using oscillators. These electrical devices generate signals that move back and forth between a high value and a low value. When the movement is done smoothly, the result is a sine wave, the most fundamental wave in synthesis. 

Light
Light

Imagine being outside at different times of day— sunrise, noon, dusk, nightfall. Things around you might be subtle and dim or blindingly bright depending on the quality and amount of light hitting them. Synthesis combines sound waves to create a similar sonic effect: a sound can be dark, bright, shimmery, or even aggressive based on how the waves are mixed together. 

Want to know more? The frequency of the first wave gets multiplied to produce the rest of the waves. The second wave is twice as fast, the third is three times as fast, and so on. Combining related waves produces a rich but not overly complicated sound.

Sieve
Sieve

A sieve separates something you want from something you don’t: edible wheat from inedible chaff, pasta from its cooking liquid, brewed tea from tea leaves. In synthesis, filters do the same thing, removing unwanted bits from your sound. 

Want to know more? Filters in synthesis are named for the frequencies they let through. Low-pass filters let through frequencies below a certain threshold, while high-pass filters let through frequencies above the threshold. Band-pass filters let through a specific range of frequencies and block everything else. 

Taste
Taste

Think of the way your favorite food tastes. Does it have a sharp flavor that hits you immediately or does it take a moment or two to build? Does the flavor linger, or does it fade quickly? With synthesis, you can shape how slowly or quickly sounds start (the “attack”) and stop (the “release”). This combined shape is called an envelope. 

Want to know more? Envelopes can have more parameters. Synthesizers often use “ADSR”: attack, decay (how quickly the sound fades to the sustain level), sustain (how loud the sound is while the note is held), and release. As more parameters are added, musicians can make their synthesizers even more expressive. 

Motion
Motion

Picture a bicycle wheel: how many spokes does it have? As it starts to rotate, can you still count the spokes? How about when it’s spinning very quickly? Can you count the spokes or is it a blur? As the motion of the wheel changes, its appearance changes, too. Synthesis can add the feeling of motion to sound with a low-frequency oscillator, or LFO. 

Want to know more? An LFO can be applied to almost any parameter of synthesis. Here they’re affecting amplitude and frequency, but they can also add motion to a filter, an envelope, the mixture of multiple waves, and even other LFOs. 

Space
Space

Imagine speaking, singing, or even shouting in a small room. Now think of making the same sound somewhere like a cathedral or a cave. What’s different? As spaces get bigger, sounds bounce around more and take longer to decay. With synthesis you can make sounds feel like they’re happening in different spaces, from tiny to massive, by adding reverberation. 

Want to know more? Reverberation is a natural phenomenon—every sound that you hear has some amount of reverberation in it. Our brains hear reverberation as a way to understand where we are in relation to things making sound. Without reverberation, a sound can seem unnatural or unreal. Adding reverberation in synthesis helps us to hear our new sounds as more likely to be coming from a physical instrument in real space.



Exhibition Related Events

Exhibition Preview: Music from the Sound Up with Michael Lehmann Boddicker

Oct. 18: Exhibition Preview: Music from the Sound Up with Michael Lehmann Boddicker
Members and a guest are invited to celebrate the opening of our newest exhibition with wine, light bites, music, and special guest Michael Lehmann Boddicker!