Book Review – Refining Sound by Brian K. Shepard

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Looking for a clear, concise, accessible textbook on synthesis and synthesizers?  Unless you’re already an advanced student, then look no further than this excellent book.


Brian K. Shepard teaches audio design and is the Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs at the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation. He also happens to be a first rate writer.  Having taught synthesis for two decades, he is supremely qualified to write a textbook on the subject, that book being Refining Sound – a Practical Guide to Synthesis and Synthesizers.

This book should be of interest to two types of people: novice to intermediate students of the subject and teachers of synthesis looking for a suitable textbook from which to teach.  The principal focus of the book is subtractive synthesis, although a smattering of other topics makes their way into the discussion along the way.

For the student there are many positive qualities to recommend this book.  Most importantly, the subject is presented in a logical order and with great clarity.  In other words, a sufficiently motivated student can easily learn the material without the benefit of an instructor or a structured class.  There are numerous self-study exercises throughout.  Furthermore, a companion web site with presentation videos to augment the reading.

For teachers, the author includes a course outline suggestion for a sixteen session class.  The self-study exercises are equally suitable for “homework” assignments.

In either scenario, self-study or formal class, much use is made of a free software synth called Crystal.  Although free, this instrument (available in both 32- and 64-bit) is actually quite a bit more sophisticated than one would expect for a freebie.  It has three oscillators, six LFOs, flexible and powerful envelopes and a 12-slot modulation matrix.  For an exploration of subtractive synthesis, the instrument is easily up to the challenge.  Furthermore, the book makes full use of its capabilities.  The exercises presented at the end of each chapter start simple but eventually get into some quite refined synth programming practice.  In fact, the final chapter, Putting It All Together, takes the reader through a ground-up construction of five programs (or patches, if you prefer), and these illustrate the practice of a very experienced sound designer in their extensive use of modulation and the like.

The book is just over 225 pages in length, and it’s got just about the right amount of illustration.  So, to just read it would not be a big investment of time.  But to get the most value, the well-thought-out exercises at the end of each chapter should be tackled with serious intent.  For the student that does so, a solid knowledge of subtractive synthesis will very likely be your reward.

The book begins with a chapter on synthesizer history.  I’d venture to say that even veterans will find a few interesting facts here that were previously unknown to them.  Chapters 2 through 8 are where the practical learning happens.  These are:

  • Oscillators: Mining the Raw Materials of Your Synthesizer
  • Oscillator Combinations: Creating Exotic Compounds from Your Raw Materials
  • Amplitude Envelope Generators: Shaping Your Sounds
  • Audio Filters: Refining the Color of Your Sounds
  • Internal Modulation Sources: Dynamic Shaping of Your Sounds
  • External Control Sources: Shaping Your Sounds with Playing Techniques
  • Effects Processors: Polishing Your Sounds

And there you have it.  This has not been a long review, but I don’t think more detail is needed.  You should have enough information from it to determine if Refining Sound is a book from which you will benefit.  It’s not for those with much experience (although I could almost promise that just about anyone would learn at least a few new facts from it).  But it’s a first rate source of instruction for those with no knowledge or just partial knowledge of subtractive synthesis.  Additionally, I can’t imagine a better textbook to use in a formal class.

For your convenience, here’s the US link:



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