Synthesizers are the perfect mix of music, science, and engineering, which is why folks like Simple’s Kelly D are drawn to them. Growing up, Kelly was always interested in how buttons and switches allow us to change everything from lights, to radios, to big machines. This interest morphed into a love of music, where he would figure out how things worked by taking his bass guitar apart to tinker with pickups, potentiometers, and guitar pedals. Later, it was this inquiring mind that led Kelly to pursue two things—a career in engineering, and an obsession with synthesizers.
Kelly says, “Synths are this weird cross-section of all of these disciplines. I’ve always loved music, and playing around with things and assembling them, so it felt natural for me to be drawn to modular synthesizers.”
Kelly started out by seeing people playing synthesizers at shows, and began to research how synthesizers are assembled. From there, he jokes, he “went off the deep end,” buying up everything needed to build his own synth, but it was with limited success.
Kelly says, “I definitely went ahead and bought all the elements that sounded cool and exciting, but I soon found out that I was limiting myself, and couldn’t do much with the setup I had. There are a lot of things I wish I knew when I first got started.”
To help combat any first-time-buyer’s regret, Kelly has assembled a budget for everything you need to build your own synthesizer. He’s even mocked up his dream starter synth online, which you can view below, or in more detail here.
Kelly says, “This budget is just a starting point, of course. The great thing about modular synths is that you can start with a base model and go anywhere with it—you can switch elements out, add things to it, and even go online and sell things that you no longer need.”
The easiest way to get a case for your synthesizer is to buy one. Kelly recommends the Intellijel 84 HP case, which is available for around $300 online. If you choose to go the DIY route, you’ll end up paying around $330, but you will be able to better customize your synth case to your needs.
Kelly says, “Wood, glue and sandpaper to make your own case are around $30. It also pays to grab a plan online for the case you want, download it, and take it to a makerspace that has a laser cutter; that way, you can have a precision cut for your custom case. This will cost around $70.”
“To power the system, you’ll need row power, which is essentially your on and off switch for the entire system; it powers everything else you install, and costs $140. You’ll also need rails. I recommend 84 HP Rails, which cost around $90.”
Kelly says, “Envelope generators allow you to control variable inputs in your modular system, like tempo, the amount of a delay effect over time, or the depth of filter sweep. In short, they give you fine-grain control over your system.”
For your envelope generator, you can go with a couple of different options. Kelly recommends either the 4MS Pingable Envelope Generator, which gives you deep control over how you make changes to the sound over time, or Mutable Instruments Peaks, which can be a little more coarse, but has a few more features, like a Low Frequency Oscillator, and a drum voice.”
Kelly says, “I have the 4MS Pingable Envelope Generator, and I bought the kit for around $200. If you buy it outright, you’re looking at $345.” Kelly’s second, drum-inclusive option, costs around $200 outright, or as a kit.
Kelly says, “Voltage-controlled oscillators are the basic building block to sound. When you’re listening to synthesizer music and you hear a bell ringing, or a piano key being hit, that’s the voltage-controlled oscillator at work. The voltage-controlled oscillator generates root sounds, and from there, you control pitch with the Control Voltage output of your sequencer.”
To buy your own oscillator, Kelly recommends the Intellijel Dixie II+, available online for $229.
Voltage-controlled amplifier (VCA)
Don’t let the word “amplifier” fool you—VCAs are more complicated than your average volume control. Kelly says, “VCAs can also be used to change the strength or frequency of a signal you send to something. Using a VCA, you can say, ‘I want this oscillator voice to get louder over time’, or ‘I want this effect to be stronger’, and you can use the VCA to control the amount of voltage you send to other modules.”
For your own VCA, Kelly recommends the Intellijel μVCA II, at a cost of $155.
Kelly says, “Mixers are used to mix audio and control voltage. You use them to mix two or more signals together, and choose how much of each signal you use. This module is cheaper than some of the others, because it’s a very straightforward electronic circuit, unlike the more expensive modules, like the envelope generator.”
To save for your own mixer, Kelly recommends purchasing a Manhattan Analog DTM. It costs $118 online.
There are three items to consider purchasing that come under the utility umbrella. While you’ll need to buy all of these items individually, once you have them, you’ll be on your way to creating great music.
The first utility module is a clock divider, which you can buy for just under $200 outright, or just under $100 for a kit. Describing a clock divider, Kelly says, “There are a lot of signals in synthesizers, which are basically ticks, or pulses of energy called ‘trigger signal’. Just as a drummer divides the basic beat of a kick drum up to fill a beat in with a high hat, the clock divider takes a quick clock signal, and it divides it down so you can use it to trigger other things. You can send different divisions to different drums, and trigger all of those sounds. It’s the heartbeat of the system.”
The next utility module is the buffered multiple, which costs just under $60 online outright or as a kit. Kelly says, “This is a way of multiplying a signal. With that bass drum, it’s important to use that same signal in many different areas. When you’re hearing EDM, the bass notes are very lockstep with the bass drum, so you’re going to want to use that same clock signal somewhere else. The buffered multiple allows you to plug that signal in once, make copies of it, and send those copies to different places. This allows you to keep everything in sync.”
Finally, Kelly recommends a standard output module, which, at a cool $89, allows you to connect your synth to the house mixer, and prevents you from blowing out other systems, or your own synthesizer.
Like pop filters, which stand between a vocalist and a microphone, voltage-controlled filters remove sounds from an audio source in your synthesizer, which creates a ‘smoothing’ kind of effect. Kelly says, “A voltage-controlled filter basically sweeps across the frequency band, and creates this whooshing effect. In EDM, when you hear the music building, that’s when the filter gets turned up, allowing for higher and higher frequencies to be heard.”
For your own voltage-controlled filter, Kelly recommends a Bastl Instruments Cinnamon, at a cost of around $120 outright, or $100 for a kit.
Kelly says, “When you think of sheet music or tabs, you’ll usually have notes that are spaced out over time; a sequencer provides the ability to do that for the synthesizer. Over time, it will change which note it is playing, and gives you the ability to change the value of that note. This is the way that you can create something musical. You have knobs that correspond from voltage to tonal values, so you will basically turn those knobs, and you’re tuning the sequencer to play certain notes at a certain time.”
If you’re building your own synthesizer, you’ll need a soldering iron and solder, which should cost around $100. You’ll also need patch cables, which Kelly recommends you spend a little extra on.
“We need to control our synthesizer with voltage, with electricity, so we ‘patch’ modules together by connecting them with cables. You can use any sort of 1/8th-inch phone jack cables to patch this, but you’ll be using these a lot, so grab ones of varying sizes and make sure they’re durable.”
To set this final Goal for your ultimate synthesizer, you’ll need around $130.
To learn more about the Simple synth group, check out this feature on Simple’s remote culture, and the interesting folks who work from outside of our homebase.
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