Let me just start by making one thing perfectly clear: I have never been a synth head, mostly because I’ve always found that designing with recorded audio is much more immediately satisfying. Rob Papen’s The 4 Element Synth might change that.
I have taken courses, read magazines, looked up tutorials online and otherwise tried very hard to wrap my head around synthesizing my own sounds and with very few exceptions I usually wound up giving up in frustration.
Within 20 minutes of sitting down with The 4 Element Synth, I realised my frustration wasn’t due to my lack of understanding, but because none of my ‘lessons’ explained synthesis very well.
As the title suggests, The 4 Element Synth breaks down your (subtractive) synthesizer into, well, four elements: oscillators, filters, amplifiers and modulators. Each element is then broken down even further, with each control parameter explained in full detail always keeping its interaction with the other elements in mind.
The book itself is over 200 pages and would most certainly look great on a coffee table. As a reference text, small details like having a stitched-in bookmark makes picking up where you left off that much quicker, making learning that much more enjoyable. However, the book is best thought of as a reference guide to the DVD content, which is where this packages shines.
Throughout the four DVDs, an oscillator on screen provides an indispensable visual reference to reinforce how each control parameter affects a sound, and helps to explain concepts that can be trickier to verbalize such as pulse width modulation.
Another valuable reference is having Papen explain the same concept using a variety of synths, addressing individual manufacturers’ naming conventions. Of course, Papen’s own synths do feature in the tutorials, but not in any in-your-face kind of way.
Proper speakers and/or headphones are a must for certain tutorials, as you will need to hear sub bass frequencies (my iMac’s built-in speakers weren’t up to the task). Unfortunately, that means you will also hear some less than stellar lavalier microphone noise from time to time – bordering on distracting depending on how sensitive you are to these things.
If you’re sitting down for a considerable amount of time with the DVD, the repetitive nature of Papen’s delivery might get to be a bit much. However, it provides an extremely useful reminder of how a synthesizer’s four elements are inextricably linked to each other, reinforcing and building on earlier concepts so that the information ‘sticks’. Perfect for short attention spans such as mine.
That’s also useful for those of you who want to dip in and out of each chapter as you see fit as the repetition ensures that each lesson works as its own ‘self-contained’ unit
On the other hand, Papen does appear to make a few ‘jumps’ here and there – for example, introducing LFOs (found in Element 4) in the Element 1 section. In my opinion those ‘jumps’ are justified but they may confuse a rank beginner just getting into subtractive synthesis.
The bottom line: if you are just starting with synthesis I couldn’t think of a better resource to begin with. Just don’t be fooled into thinking you can get through all the information quickly; there’s a good 30 hours worth of material to cover. Do expect to learn – a lot.
The 4 Element Synth is an immediately rewarding, well thought-out and thoroughly useful reference that, I dare say may even have ignited a passion for playing with synths that I frankly didn’t have before.