Sunday, 4 August 2013

‘The 4 Element Synth: The secrets of Subtractive Synthesis’ Review - a Gorgous and Highly Helpful Instant Classic

This Indispensable Guide to the Science of Synthesis is an Instant Classic

The world of synthesizers is one loaded with esoteric words and phrases which can easily intimidate the new musician.  With such a wide number of synths, both hard and soft, filled with scary-looking dials and settings and a myriad of features and capabilities, how does one get to grips with the fundamentals of how they work?  And how does the new musician (or at least, the musician new to synths) find out just what makes the sound they hear in their minds or on their favourite tracks?

Fear not, help is at hand, in the form of the book and DVD pack ‘The 4 Element Synth: The secrets of Subtractive Synthesis’ by Rob Papen.



Rob Papen is a world-renowned sound designer, with Predator, Punch and Blade being just three of his industry-standard creations.

In 2001 Rob began teaching masterclasses in his Netherlands studio.  Through these classes Rob developed his personal method of teaching subtractive synthesis.  He called it ‘The 4 Element Synth’, and it is this teaching method he uses here.

The method breaks synthesis down into:

1.    Oscillators
2.    Filter
3.    Amplifiers
4.    Modulation

The DVDs provide a ten hour course in total.  They cover all but Amplifiers in detail and are very easy to follow, especially considering the complex nature of synthesis. 

Papen delivers his tutorials clearly, in easy to understand language, at a well measured pace; neither rushing his words nor ambling along.  His dialogue and the audio / visual demonstrations have very good sound quality, lighting and camerawork throughout.

Occasionally, Rob hands over to a female colleague who explains an issue of particular note.  This adds variety to an otherwise solo gig - not that Papen is ever uninteresting or monotonous, but ‘a change is as good as a rest’ as they say, and these handover sections are a good way of making sure the pupil remains fully engaged at all times.

The book itself is not only a great information resource, but is also a thing of beauty.  A comprehensive guide with ‘coffee table book’ aesthetics to boot, it's the perfect mix of function and form.

The book and DVDs complement one another right from the onset, with Rob instructing the viewer to study the pull-out schematic at the back of the book.  This colour-coded diagram outlines how sound is first created and then manipulated by the four elements in a clear and memorable way and is a great introduction to the course.

The book provides information not found on the DVDs and which, had it been added to the DVDs, would have broken up the flow of the sessions.  In addition, it often reiterates key points in quick, easy to read format such as tables and diagrams.  The book is a vital resource for the viewer who wants to quickly brush up on a particular area after watching the DVD, or wants to get further into a topic touched on during the video tutorials.

The book itself is not only a great information resource, but is also a thing of beauty.   A sturdy hardback with clear text and formatting, nice blocks of colour and beautiful images of classic hard and soft synths, this is no soulless glorified instruction manual, but a comprehensive guide with ‘coffee table book’ aesthetics to boot - the perfect mix of function and form.

Of course, one of the best things about the DVDs is that they allow you to see and hear how the sound is manipulated from source through filter and control, modulation, the addition of different source sounds and so on.   Whilst this is far from being a comprehensive breakdown, here are some of the areas covered in the DVDs and the book.


Element 1: Oscillators

‘If you want to create your own sounds, you need to know what waveform to start with.’
Teaching that oscillators generate waveforms to create basic sounds, Rob takes the student through different waveforms - how they look and how they sound.  This is great for the beginner, who may not know which wave is which and can save them hours of frustration trying to get sounds out of the wrong wave form.

Rob uses a ‘multiscope’ to show that the waves actually create the shapes they get their names from.  This is followed by an easy to follow section on fundamentals and harmonics, essential to understanding how to change a sound’s character.

Another highlight of this disk is Rob using instruments to give examples of different waveforms along with character descriptions.  Want to create a synth sound with, say, a brassy feel? Rob tells you which waveform to start with.

In addition, modulation, Low Frequency Oscillators (LFOs), ‘white noise’ and ‘pink noise’ are covered in the same easy to understand way, with plenty of examples.


Element 2: Filters

Working on the principle that filters subtract, hence ‘subtractive synthesis’, Rob goes into the world of cut-off and resonance, how vital envelopes are to what we think of as a filter, the enigmatic ‘Q’ filter and how filters on a synth are different to filters on your EQ plugin.

One very interesting moment is when Rob shows just how quickly a bass sound can change from traditional hip hop to acid house through the turn of a dial.  Another fascinating section is when Rob explains just how important filtering and harmonics are in attaining realism in synth sounds.  This leads on to a great lesson on how filtering can be used to make your drum samples sound more dynamic and alive.


Disk 3: Modulators / Attack Decay Sustain Release (ADSR)

The filter envelopes section is very educational, as is the ‘reverse engineering’ segment including how to create trance sounds, use ring modulation to create interesting effects, and get brass sounds, electric snares and bass drums to sound more lifelike.

The disc does a great job in explaining ADSR, how important resonance parameters are, especially to ‘sweeping’ sounds; LFO, including tempo based LFO, with a nice instantly recognisable dubstep examples; and destination panning, the art of moving a sound around the stereo field.
Disk 4: Using the Keyboard as a Controller

The final disk details how you can use your keyboard to create effects instead of always relying on your DAW plug-ins.

Eye-openers include how to use velocity to stabilise instruments and sequences, with great examples of how you can avoid falling into the ‘fix in the mix’ trap by getting the sounds to ‘play nice’ together from the beginning; panning and arpeggiation; an explanation of MIDI and effects such as glide.


This final disk also has a wonderful bonus section in which Rob goes to visit his pal, fellow synthesist Michel Van Osenbruggen.  Seeing Rob in Michel’s synth lair is great, as he gets another chance to demonstrate and embed some of the lessons from the course, and it’s clear just how much joy he gets out of classic synths.

Speaking of classics, Rob uses a wide range of some of the most famous synths within his tutorials, including the Minimoog, Prophet 600, Jupiter 8, Virus, Korg MS-20, as well as his own aforementioned products.  With plenty of screentime for these classic pieces of kit, the DVDs are a great introduction and, arguably, a bit of a try-out for those who may be looking to get their hands on one.  Rob’s background on why these synths have the characteristics they do also provides an insight into synth culture and history,

What may deter some people from buying ‘The 4 Element Synth: The secrets of Subtractive Synthesis’ is the price which, at the time of going to press, is around £60.  However, I have to say that you would be very hard pressed to find a course that covers this much material in such an easy to understand way for the price of these well put together DVDs and beautifully presented book, which allow you to revisit the tutorials whenever you feel the need.  There is also additional material that can be downloaded from the Rob Papen site which makes it an even more comprehensive resource.

You would be very hard pressed to find a course that covers this much material in such an easy to understand way for the price of these well put together DVDs and beautifully presented book.

You would be very hard pressed to find a course that covers this much material, in such an easy to understand way, for anywhere near the price of these well put together DVD’s and beautifully presented book.

With this collection Rob successfully demystifies what is, for many beatmakers / musicians, a dark art.   If you have invested – or are thinking of investing - in a synth, invest in ‘The 4 Element Synth: The secrets of Subtractive Synthesis’. 

If this project doesn’t teach you all you need to know, there is only one thing left to do, and that’s book a trip to the Netherlands for a one-to-one with the legend himself.

To buy ‘The 4 Element Synth: The secrets of Subtractive Synthesis’ by Rob Papen visit RobPapen.com
Rob Papen ‘The 4 Element Synth: The secrets of Subtractive Synthesis’ Book Review

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