Learn synthesis with Ableton's "Learning Synths"

One of the questions I get asked when sitting in as a synth tech in studio sessions with musicians is "how can I get better at using a synthesizer?". Sometimes even the basics of "how can I learn how to use this synth" from those who came into music via guitar or drums. Which is wonderful to see the curiosity of creatives tipping over when they see that there's more to synthesis than just turning a filter knob.

Thankfully Ableton's new Learning Synths website has emerged to help answer that question. And better yet it's hosted online and very much free. It's been designed to demystify the intricate world of synthesizers, and is itself an innovative platform that gives both novices and seasoned musicians an interactive way to grasp the fundamentals of synthesis.

Learn how to use a synthesizer with Learning Synths

For many, the world of synthesizers, with its oscillators, filters, and modulators, can seem daunting. Ableton (already a pioneer in music production software) has filled this gap with a platform that simplifies complex concepts, making them accessible to all, regardless of musical background.

One of the standout features of Learning Synths is its hands-on approach to learning. Users can manipulate a synthesizer directly within their web browser, tweaking various components and immediately hearing the results. This real-time feedback loop accelerates the learning process, allowing users to understand the cause-and-effect relationship between different synthesizer components.

From basic concepts like amplitude and pitch to more intricate topics such as envelopes, LFOs, and filters, Learning Synths offers a basic but important curriculum of the foundations. The platform is structured with step-by-step lessons, ensuring that users can progress at their own pace, and each lesson builds on the last.

A free resource for digital music education

What I appreciate is that it breaks the idea of synthesis away from the glossy marketing and blinking lights of the hardware or software products. This is almost subversive, given that one could use Ableton's own stock synths (and utility plugins) to create the vast majority of sounds possible. The paradox however is that a truly deeper understanding of synthesis actually creates more appreciation for the nuance of a range of products.

Here's an example. I'm a happy customer of Arturia's V Collection, as well as a number of their hardware units. I do so knowing that the majority of the sounds within can be replicated elsewhere and even with a handful of stock plugins or open source softsynths. So what gives? There's a few angles here. One is that in the sessions I get asked to sit in I'm not doing so as a software engineer or sound designer. I'm doing so as the translator of creative ideas and a human interface for the artist to pursue an aesthetic. Pulling up a Moog Minimoog Model D emulation, or a Prophet, or even a crazy Synthi is part of the creative language for those artists referring both to their new ideas, and a nuanced reference to the culture that came before.

This goes especially so for something as iconic as a Juno. A great emulation nails not only the sound but the interface and the nuance of that processing. A saw wave going through a filter and envelop and chorus isn't particularly novel in and of itself, but the specific range of performance of those elements is what set it apart. Knowing the fundamentals within all synthesis actually help one to appreciate the many ranges of creative expression and originality that can emerge from even small changes of the underlying component configuration. And trust me, as someone who has built Juno and Moog clones in Reaktor based on the original circuit diagrams, it's both fun and rewarding to dive deeper into how this all works.

A Game-Changer in Digital Music Education

The launch of Learning Synths is a testament to Ableton's savvy investment in their upstream community. Working as a product leader by day, I can say I love these kinds of projects even more because they aren't immediately obvious what return on investment they provide. While Learning Synths looks like it was built on Max's RNBO application, it's still a non-trival project with an incredibly slick UI and overall design aesthetic. While we see more and more music technology companies getting bought out and merging and consolidating under a handful of private equity, and then doubling down on endless trashy discounting campaigns and a torrent of inbound marketing content, Ableton just keeps on shipping daring products (like the Push and Push 2) and making big moves in the community space. We're lucky to have companies like Ableton (and Valhalla and Baby Audio) still around. And we're lucky to have new synth education resources like this. So go check it out.

  • Ableton - Learning Synths