Recently I’ve been diving back into making music on my laptop. Just like the iPhone has done to bulky equipment like cameras and keyboards, the digital workstation has shrunk tons of gear, from music to mastering, down into software. There’s certainly no way I’m going to lug a mini-Moog to a coffee shop. But I’m willing to dabble with synth software, turn those dials and knobs, and see what happens.
So this upload of “Intro to Synthesis,” an instructional VHS from 1985, is perfect for me, and maybe you too. The hair, the clothes, and the jokes might be dated, but the info is not. In the above video, Dean Friedman–who if you close your eyes sounds like late night host Seth Meyers–lays out the building blocks of sound (pitch, timbre, volume), the five types of waveforms, and the seven components of a synthesizer, from oscillators to the LFO.
All of these features are still found on the synth interfaces used today in some form or another, and Friedman goes through every element at a methodical but appreciated pace. The three videos are an hour each.
And it pays to study the controls of synths and learn what makes them tick. The Yamaha DX‑7 contained many pre-sets which, unfiddled with, sound dated and appear on many an ‘80s pop hit. Meanwhile, Brian Eno, one of the few to actually read the manual, made “The Shutov Assembly” and other mid-era ambient tracks with the very same machine and nothing sounds quite like it.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.