Monophonic vs Polyphonic synths:
When you’re adding a synth to your collection, one of the first things to think about is whether to go monophonic or polyphonic. As you probably already know if you’ve spent any time in the strange world of oscillators, filters and LFOs, the basic difference is that monophonic synths can only play one note at a time, while polyphonic synths can play several. This, of course, affects the type of music that you can play on them, and the types of sound they can produce – and there are endless debates raging online about which type is best. As with any musical tools, there can be no right answer to this question – but each type of synth has its own particular uses.
Uses of Polyphonic Synths
Because monophonic synths can only play one note at a time they lend themselves well to basslines, from the funky squelch of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Watermelon Man’ to the ubiquitous acid lines of the Roland TB-303.
Because polyphonic synths can create chords, they are great for all-around duties, from playing jazzy chords in progressive rock, Detroit techno or urban music, to ambient pads that evolve slowly and create atmosphere, such as you would hear on classic film soundtracks like Vangelis’ Blade Runner Blues. That’s not to say that polysynths can’t pump out floor filling basslines too. It was the fact that polysynths could handle a wide range of sounds that made them rise to prominence in the late 1970s and remain so essential today. Some producers swear that monosynths can create a richer sound by focusing all their energies on one voice at a time. And while there are many monosynths that are great at what they do, polyphonic synths are just as effective at shaping rich and interesting individual voices. However, as well as covering all your bases, they can also go to some special places where monosynths can’t follow.
While monosynths often had two or three oscillators to create their one monophonic voice, to produce multiple notes at the same time, polyphonic synths had to have many more oscillators in their circuitry. For example, if we made a polyphonic version of a monosynth with five-voice polyphony, we would need 15 oscillators to create its sound.
Many polysynths allow you to use all these oscillators in ‘Unison mode’ – where their sound is combined in to one monophonic voice. If the synth is analog (or an accurate digital model of analog such as those created by Native Instruments), there will always be slight tuning discrepancies between each of the oscillators, which results in a massive sound – like an army of analog synths storming your ears. This mode became a stable of epic techno breakdowns in the 1990s and one of the most sought-after sounds on Rolands JP-8000 – known as the ‘Supersaw’.
In this way, polyphonic synths give you the flexibility to play almost anything from chords to pads, while also giving you the option to play like a monosynth on steroids. Another trick that polyphonic synths have up their sleeve is the ability to split the keyboard into two different sounds, by dividing the oscillators up between them, allowing the bottom half of the keys to play bass while the top plays lead.
Polyphonic synths can often have interesting modulation abilities too – where one oscillator can be set to modulate another, or interact with the filter in interesting ways.
The history of Polyphonic Synths
The Old Skool
Until the early 1970s, most synths were monophonic, so they tended to be used for single note melody lines, such as the solo from Because by the Beatles, on Abbey Road. When chords were required, unwieldy old machines like the Hammond organ or Mellotron were the only options. With the advent of multitracking – compositions could be painstakingly assembled with monophonic synths, such as Wendy Carlos’ famous Switched on Bach from 1968, but it was a far from ideal solution.
As technology developed, it became possible to add more oscillators to synths, allowing them to create more voices. This first resulted in string machines like Roland’s RS-101 and 202 and eventually to expensive studio-only beasts like the Yamaha CS-80. But it was the late 70s before relatively affordable and portable polyphonic synths became a reality. One of the most enduring of these classic synths was the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, released in 1978.
Like the Minimoog before it, the Prophet-5 quickly gained wide acceptance for the wide range of sounds it could create, it’s simple analog tweakability, and its relative portability. It had 5-voice polyphony, with two oscillators per voice, which can generate sawtooth and square waves with variable pulse-width. Though five voices were meagre by today’s standards, it was enough that the Prophet came to be used all over popular music and film soundtracks. It can be found liberally on early 80’s records such as ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash to Madonna’s Lucky Star, and remained a favourite through the 90s and onwards with a wide range of musicians from Doctor Dre to Radiohead, as featured on ‘Everything in its Right Place’. The Prophet-5’s ability to produce complex atmospheric textures made it a hit with soundtrack composers too – John Carpenter relied heavily on it for his iconic 80’s soundtracks such as Escape from New York and it has featured on Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s masterful scoring work for the Netflix show Stranger Things.
From Analog to Digital
Though we love analog synths for their warm tones, the fact that they need physical oscillators to create sound limits how much polyphony they can achieve, as the synth’s enclosure can only physically handle a certain amount of oscillators (and the heat they generate!). The Prophet-5 was limited to five notes of polyphony, which is constraining for a two-handed piano player. However, the advent of digital synths in the early 1980’s changed this.
Digital synths such as the Yamaha DX7 or PPG Wave could fire out as many waveforms as their processing power and memory could handle, making them capable of 16-note polyphony, which ought to be enough for most humans (Jerry Lee Lewis’ shoes notwithstanding). This made the DX7 and other polyphonic synths of the 80s an ideal way to fill out a band, allowing a keyboard player to emulate a pianist, organist, or horn section with just two hands. However, that versatility often came at a cost – the Yamaha DX7 was notoriously difficult to programme because its complexity required lots of menus. Interfaces like the DX7’s are another reason why we still love analog synths – simple knobs and intuitive workflow.
From Digital to Analog
As hardware synths gave way to soft synths in the late 1990’s, polyphony became less of an issue – and many modern software recreations of old monosynths allow you to play them polyphonically as long as your computer can handle it. Softsynths are also practically unlimited in what they can do with those oscillators in terms of routing and modulation too, making now a great time to get the best of both worlds – warm analog tones, with the endless flexibility of digital.
Native Instruments new Super 8 is a nod to classic polyphonic synths such as the Prophet-5. Like the best vintage polyphonic synths, it has a simple interface that gives you instant access to a world of sounds from the past to the present. It has a simple, clean look inspired by classic eighties design and everything is intuitively laid out with no menu-diving necessary.
Like the Prophet-5, it has two oscillators, which can be set to sine, sawtooth, square or any mix between them. Each oscillator also includes a dedicated square-wave sub-oscillator, which can be switched to a white noise generator for atmospheric or percussive sounds. There is a filter module with its own ADSR envelope, but the filter is switchable between low-pass, band-pass and high-pass filters, giving you a wider range of expression than the simple low-pass filter on the Prophet-5.
There are extensive modulation capabilities on the Super 8. You can use oscillator 2 to frequency modulate oscillator 1, (a little bit like the Polymod mode on the Prophet-5). You can use 2 LFOs to modulate oscillators 1 and 2 as well. You can also dive under the hood a little bit, and decide how you want your modulation options to be routed so that you can choose how complex you want your sounds to be. The Super 8 also comes with classic chorus, flanger, delay and reverb effects built, as you will often want to save the settings of these key effects with each of your patch creations.
You can also generate massive sounds by using the Super 8 in Unison mode – using up to 8 voices (each of which can contain the 4 elements of each oscillator) which takes the vintage sound of massed oscillators beyond what was possible in the hardware realm.
Why go Poly?
Polyphonic synths are a must for any producer’s arsenal. They are great all-round synths that can create anything from massive wall-of-sound pads to deep chesty basses to warm cascades of chords and melodies. But they are no ‘masters of none’ – they can handle any task your throw at them with dedication, and reward deep engagement with their nuances. Polyphonic synths are still the backbone of modern styles from lo-fi house to dubstep, techno, hip hop and grime.
With the Super 8, Native Instruments have created a modern synth that tips its hat to vintage polysynths like the Prophet 5, and builds on this classic legacy with a fresh, modern GUI that will bring classic sounds into the modern day.