Review – Syntorial from Audible Genius
Do you want to learn synthesizer sound design in the most direct and accessible way possible? Look no further than the marvelous Syntorial teaching software.
by David Baer, July 2016
Private, Personal Instruction at a Community College Price
In this review we are going to take a detailed look at Syntorial, interactive teaching software that can act as your own private tutor, on call at any hour of the day or night, which can teach you synthesizer sound design. Learning synth programming can be done from a book, but it’s much more difficult to learn nuances without immediate feedback. Syntorial supplies that to superb effect.
Syntorial will take you step by step through the often challenging task of learning how to program a typical subtractive synth. If you don’t even know what “subtractive” means, don’t worry. Syntorial is suitable for the total neophyte.
On the other hand, if you’re an experienced and confident preset tweaker (and I put myself in that category), trust me – you can still gain immeasurable amounts of sound design competencies by refining your skills courtesy of Syntorial. It will come down to how fast you cruise through the various lessons. The more experienced student will breeze through some of them, such as envelope design. But make no mistake, unless you are already an extremely accomplished sound designer, you will be challenged and you will learn much as a result.
Syntorial is the brainchild of Joe Hanley, who established Audible Genius to pursue commercializing it. Joe was a guest writer for SoundBytes, allowing us to adapt a web tutorial he authored for these pages. You can read that here:
Syntorial contains a teaching synth and requires nothing more than a sound card to function on a PC or a Mac. Those with a MIDI keyboard and a MIDI-computer interface will benefit, but such is not a requirement. The iPad is also supported, but my experience with Syntorial was on a PC, I cannot comment on the effectiveness of using this software on an iPad.
For maximum benefit, you should also have at least one moderately capable subtractive synth available – it could be a software synth or an actual physical instrument with knobs/sliders/switches and a keyboard. If you’re starting completely from nothing, the free but well-appointed softsynth, Crystal, (http://www.greenoak.com/crystal/dnld2.html ) should do just fine.
Syntorial approaches teaching by using several kinds of interactive sessions. First, there are basic teaching lessons, or lectures, if you prefer. In these we hear Joe Hanley narrating while demonstrating various settings on the Syntorial imbedded synth (hereafter, simply “the synth”). He does this in a clear and concise fashion and quite obviously spent more than a little time on the thoughtful development of the lesson scripts.
Let’s take a moment to talk about the synth. The synth grows in capabilities as the course progresses. In the early stages, it’s pretty bare bones, as seen in the image of one very early iteration below.
We see a very basic oscillator, a low-pass filter, a rudimentary amp envelope and a volume knob. The initial oscillator has a selection of saw wave and three pulse waves of approximately 50%, 30% and 10% pulse width. That’s it. Nothing unneeded to confuse us in the early stages. The synth has functionality incrementally added as the lessons progress into more advanced topics. In the end, we have the full-function synth seen following.
But back to the course – once a tutorial lesson has completed, the student is offered four kinds of challenges. In the first kind, a set (usually six in number) of successive example sounds are presented incorporating the behavior of the previous tutorial. The student is asked to match these, limiting the parameter setting to only that pertinent to the topic at hand.
One thing that makes this all possible is that none of the synth controls are continuous, as would be the case in an actual instrument, but rather have a fixed number of discreet control positions. Filter cutoff, for example, has one notch about every octave. Sustain in the amp envelope has just three settings: 100%, 20% and 0%. Filter cutoff sustain is even more restrictive with just 100% and 0%. The result is that there is only one exact solution to these problems where the student’s attempt will match the Syntorial solution.
Feedback on correctness of answers is supplied by the controls in error being highlighted in red. At the end of a series, overall levels of success is indicated with a three-star rating visual que and also a sound-effect of people cheering boisterously (three stars), not so enthusiastically (two stars) and so on. While amusing the first few times, most users will probably elect to turn the optional audio feedback off.
The focused sound matching challenges involve a screen with two buttons: Hidden Patch and My Patch. The Hidden patch button hides all the controls and just lets the user hear the sound. The My Patch shows all the (relevant) controls for the user to tweak.
One important feature exists, but it took me quite a while to realize it was there. When initiating a new challenge, or when pressing the Play button, a programmed note sequence plays. But the student can also turn off Play and use the keyboard on the UI with the mouse or an attached MIDI keyboard to make sound happen. Once I discovered this, I rarely relied on the programmed note sequences.
The second type of challenge is what I’ll call “pop quizzes”. A series of multiple choice questions like those on the screen image to the right. These are mostly finished rapidly, although some of the questions involving audio examples can be far from obvious to answer.
The third type of challenge is the “On Your Own” exercises. Think of these as homework. You are instructed to work with one of your own (non-Syntorial) synths and to locate features equivalent to those covered in the previous tutorial lesson, and then to do some sound programming with them.
The final type, and by far the most demanding and stimulating are what I’ll call here the free-form sound matching challenges. Everything you will have learned so far is fair game. Many of these are far from easy to complete. You have to sometimes find matching sounds while deciding between the use of slightly detuned oscillators at the same pitch, the use of unison function or the use of chorus … and that’s assuming you’ve properly matched the waveform and tuning selections in the oscillators. Do not even dream that you will cruise through these with consistently high marks.
But, Syntorial does supply us with recourse: the Hint button. At any time, the student can hit the Hint button and will be shown all the settings requiring better values, as in the image below.
Perhaps I’m not the best student in the world for this sort of activity, but I found myself using the Hint button more than a little. And I really didn’t feel too badly most of the time when it showed me errors. For one thing, a lot of these settings are quite subtle. The amount of reverb can be difficult to accurately match, especially if the delay is also engaged. Likewise, the amount of spread in the unison control is not immediately obvious unless you are specifically listening for that one thing and pretty much have everything else properly set.
The Big Picture
There are 199 separate steps in the Syntorial approach. How long will it take you to complete the course? Much, of course, will depend upon your background. The experienced preset tweaker will likely sail through many of the fundamental tutorials and exercises. Beginners will need to take things at a more measured pace. But to give you an idea, I am an experienced tweaker and am 75% of the way through the course as I write this. I did all the steps within Syntorial, but I skipped the “Own Your Own” segments. At my current rate, I should complete the course in somewhere around 36 hours total. And, believe me – I have every intention of making it to “graduation”. My publication deadline demands that I write this review before having finished the entire course, but I have full intentions of going the distance.
One final point, you can only take so much sound matching challenge before audio fatigue sets in. I would advise that you plan to spread your session over three weeks at a minimum.
The full list of topics can be seen in the following (reformatted) screen shot. While it gives you some sense of the variety of material covered, it fails to convey the momentum that builds through a serious trip through the topics.
In particular, I found the early lessons in combining multiple waveforms to get a specific sound quite a challenge – that was something very much outside my preset-tweaking experience. But as the course progressed and focused on other things, I found my ability to guess waveforms and oscillator pitch relationships becoming much more assured. In many cases, lessons build on previous teaching. The student may find the current topic formidable, but the lessons slowly sink in as you progress through the course – at least such was my experience.
Is Syntorial for You?
I really cannot say enough positive things about this software. It does its job efficiently and thoroughly, and for the most part, it’s an enjoyable journey on top of everything else. Syntorial’s list price is $129 USD. That’s like getting a private tutor who entirely accommodates your schedule for well under four bucks an hour.
Audio Genius thoughtfully supplies a demo version of the course, with the first 22 lessons available for your perusal. If you take these lessons and quizzes, you will have an accurate idea of what to expect in the remainder of the course.
I had the pleasure of meeting Joe Hanley at NAMM earlier this year. He proved to be a most engaging fellow, and that quality comes through in the Syntorial lectures. Joe tells me he’s working on several new initiatives. One type is to apply the Syntorial approach to some specifically-targeted virtual synths (I’m not sure if I am permitted to say just which synths, but let’s just say the results could prove to be massive). He also says he’s looking in to applying the Syntorial teaching method to other types of musical training. I look forward to seeing what develops along both of these directions with considerable anticipation.
To find out more and to buy Syntorial, go here: