When synthesizers were first introduced, they were all same size and were based on analog sound signals. Those synthesizers had complex circuitry and relied on analog electrical signals for production of sound. These synthesizers were the ones we call monophonic. Now we have two main categories that differentiate synthesizers and these categories are monophonic synthesizers and polyphonic synthesizers. As the name describes, monophonic can play one note at a given time; whereas polyphonic can play multiple notes at a given time.
Earlier analog synthesizers had complicated circuitry and thus it was difficult to route each individual voice for creation of a sound effect. Different types of monophonic synthesizers were dealt with differently. Some were based on low-note priority meaning that they output the lowest note played, while others were based on high-note priority with output of highest note played. There some fancier ones based on last-note priority and they output the sound of last note played whether it is high, low or middle note. Each individual voice used to be passed through the signal chain and so the circuitry was fit for only one voice chain inside these synthesizers. For creation of each voice, a bunch of complicated electronics were needed and thus designing a polyphonic was challenging.
The concept of polyphonic is primarily associated with the modern digital synthesizers becoming common. As digital technology evolved, it became easier to implement the concept of polyphony with digitally-tuned oscillators and voice-assigners.
Evolution of Digital Synthesizers:
When initially digital synthesizers were introduced, they were really expensive and costs around $20,000 or more. The earliest was the Fairlight CMI but it was until 1983, when a truly digital revolutionizing synthesizer was introduced and it was the Yamaha DX-7. The price was marked at $2,000 which was much cheaper and it made this product a big hit. With this product, the analog synthesizers begin to decline however a growing revival movement focused on classic analog synthesis kept those synthesizers alive.
The digital synths introduced were tend to be monophonic or polyphonic depending upon preference of user. You may be thinking that monophonic may not even exist now but they do and there are several reasons to it that we would explore as we look in to details of each of these two types of synthesizers.
Let us dive in to get more details on how these synthesizers are different from each other.
Differences in Sound:
The main difference that makes monophonic and polyphonic synthesizers different is the way each of these instruments are played. Approach and mindset of players while playing each of these synths should be different. Each one has its own unique advantages and challenges with creation of sound and melodies with varied progressions. When you consider taking suggestions from different keyboardists; they will have varied opinions. Some might say that the sound feels much fuller when it is produced with a monophonic synth while others back polyphonic synths for enhanced sound energy and effects.
You might be thinking that if a monophonic synth can only play one note at a given time then why should one even consider using it. The idea is simple! A monophonic synth does create a single note at one time but that single note contains a lot of expression and character that a polyphonic synth may not be able to create. An extremely large tone can be produced with monophonic synths.
On the other hand, since a polyphonic synthesizer is capable of producing multiple notes at one time is therefore equipped and engineered with a thinner sound so that the senses of the listeners are not overwhelmed with sound energy. If each of the notes would have a large expressive sound, the overall sound effect may become quite muddy.
When Buying a Synthesizer: Monophonic or Polyphonic?
Few factors must be considered when trying to decide which synthesizer would work best for you:
- Cost: Many monophonic synths usually are cheaper than many polyphonic synths because of their simple internal construction and design. So, if you are on a budget and especially if looking for your first synthesizer, you may opt for an overall cheaper in price; monophonic synthesizer. But if you can raise your budget, there are options of plenty of polyphonic digital synthesizers available in market for purchase.
- Purpose of Buying: If you are purchasing a synth to serve as your main instrument/keyboard, many keyboardists would recommend you to buy a polyphonic synth. For example, if you are buying a synth that would be responsible for fulfilling your complete music production needs. A polyphonic synth, for sure, gives you greater flexibility. Many of the polyphonic synths today, can be used in monophonic mode too.
However, if you are looking for a supplementary synth that would be accompanied by another keyboard, you may consider buying a monophonic too. These monophonic synths are considered when you are looking to explore some sounds of yesterday (analog sounds). There still exists some exceptional monophonic products that produce exclusive sounds that are really difficult to simulate and create with any other product/instrument.
Where Monophonic synths can be packed up at a lower price point and thus has a standpoint in terms of cost, the Polyphonic offers more specific connotations. Depending upon your music and your own style, you can make the ultimate choice for yourself. Look at all the different options available in the market and list down your specific requirements, this would make choosing a bit easier for you.
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