The Secrets of Subtractive Synthesis

Book Review

Published in SOS March 2013
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Hugh Robjohns

Rob Papen is a well-known Dutch sound designer and creator of a variety of software virtual synthesizers, including Predator, Blue and Blade. In addition, he provides 'masterclass' training in 'synthesizer sound design', and has devised a teaching method based on a 'four-element synth' model to explain how subtractive synthesis works and how it is used to create sounds. The four elements, in case you couldn't guess, are the oscillators, the filters, the mixer/amplifiers, and the modulators and controllers.

The Secrets of Subtractive SynthesisThe Secrets of Subtractive Synthesis is an attractive-looking, large-format book, which comes complete with four supporting DVD videos, offering over 10 hours of content in total. The high-quality videos complement and support the book content, backing up the technical explanations and demonstrating the points being made as each of the four elements is explained, and the way they interact is explored. Most parameters and sections of the 'four-element synth' are illustrated using various well known hardware synths, including the Roland Jupiter 8, the Minimoog, the Korg MS20 and the Prophet 600, as well as Papen's own software models.

This book runs to over 200 pages and apparently took eight years to complete but, despite the title promise, I'm afraid I didn't discover any synthesis secrets — it's all pretty fundamental stuff, actually. Nevertheless, for anyone new to the subject or who really wants to get to grips with the underpinning principles of subtractive synthesis in a musician-friendly way, this book certainly provides a thorough education in all the fundamental concepts. It also explains and illustrates the typical facilities found on real-world subtractive synthesizers, and demonstrates how they can be applied to create and shape sound.

The book's layout is both stylish and spacious, which means there is little actual content on each page. That explains the high page-count, of course, but at least this bite-size information is easy to follow and digest. Some Dutch-English translation anomalies and typos can be found but, on the whole, the book is produced to a high standard, with most pages carrying helpful illustrations. There are also numerous thumbnail photographs in the coloured margins, showing panel sections from the classic hardware synths mentioned above (as well as various virtual synth screens), to highlight the particular parameter or function being discussed. However, these are all monochrome and most are frustratingly small, significantly diminishing their value, in my view. It's a case of style over function, really, and will undoubtedly exasperate any budding synth enthusiasts desperate to see control-panel details.

The four DVD videos are a very welcome addition, and not only because they help considerably to justify the price of this book. After all, there's nothing quite like being able to both see and hear what happens as a particular parameter is adjusted to really understand what it's doing. The video content is generally well produced too, although there are far too many occasions when the screen is filled with backgrounds of random and highly distracting pans, zooms and cut-aways of hardware synths that don't relate in any way to the subject being discussed. Personally, I found this style of editing an enormous distraction from the critical voice-over information being relayed at the time, and it was frustrating not being able to see clearly the revered products flashing across the screen!

A huge amount of work has obviously been expended in creating this book and the related videos, and the content is both thorough and of educational value to synthesiser novices. However, for anyone seeking genuinely advanced applications and real synthesis secrets, I would humbly direct the reader to Gordon Reid's appositely titled series of Synth Secrets articles, available on the SOS web site (/sos/allsynthsecrets.htm). Hugh Robjohns

£59.95 including VAT.

€79 including shipping.

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