What is the Difference Between a Synthesizer and a Sampler?

What is the Difference Between a Synthesizer and a Sampler?

The world of music technology can be confusing, especially when terms like “synthesizer” and “sampler” are thrown around.

You might wonder, “What’s the difference between a synthesizer and a sampler?”.

Well, you’re not alone, and understanding the distinction is crucial for any music enthusiast looking to step into digital music production.

A synthesizer, at its core, generates waveforms from scratch using oscillators, filters, modulations, and a range of processing techniques.

On the other hand, a sampler works with pre-recorded audio clips, playing and manipulating them to create a unique sound.

So, while a synthesizer is perfect for electronic and dance music, a sampler shines when working with acoustic instruments and real-world sounds.

Key takeaways:

  • Synthesizers generate their own waveforms, while samplers work with audio samples.
  • Synthesizers excel at electronic and dance music, whereas samplers focus on real-world sounds.
  • Understanding the difference between synthesizers and samplers can help you decide which best suits your music production needs.

The Difference Between a Synthesizer and a Sampler (Overview)

History of Synthesizers

Synthesizers are electronic devices that generate and shape sounds. They play a vital role in the creation and production of electronic music.

In the 1960s and 1970s, synthesizers were primarily large, expensive, and limited to professional studios.

With the advent of digital technology and microprocessors, synthesizers became smaller, more affordable, and accessible to a wider audience.

Some key milestones in synthesizer history include:

  • The creation of the Moog synthesizer by Robert Moog in 1964 played a prominent role in shaping the sound of electronic music.
  • The release of the Yamaha DX7 in 1983 changed the landscape of music-making, thanks in part to its use of frequency modulation (FM) synthesis.
  • The arrival of digital audio workstations (DAWs) in the late 1990s and early 2000s turned computers into powerful synthesizers and samplers.

History of Samplers

Samplers are devices or software programs that record, store, and playback audio samples.

They can be either hardware or software-based and allow you to create new sounds through the manipulation of recorded audio.

Samplers had humble beginnings as “musique concrète” experiments in the 1940s, where musicians recorded and manipulated sounds on tape.

Key points in the history of samplers include:

  • The development of the Mellotron in 1963, which played back tape loops of recorded sounds, such as orchestral strings, choirs, and flutes
  • The release of the Fairlight CMI in 1979, a groundbreaking digital sampler that enabled users to record, edit, and manipulate sounds with a high degree of control
  • The introduction of affordable hardware samplers like the Akai MPC in the late 1980s and early 1990s revolutionized genres like hip-hop and electronic music.

As you explore synthesizers and samplers, remember that each tool has its unique advantages and applications.

Synthesizers excel at generating complex, evolving, and unique sounds, making them ideal for electronic and experimental music.

On the other hand, samplers can accurately reproduce and manipulate real-world sounds, making them perfect for orchestral simulation or realistic drum programming.

Whether you’re creating music for dance floors or film scores, a combination of synthesizers and samplers can provide you with an extensive palette of sounds to work with.

Key Components and Functions

Oscillators and Waveforms

In a synthesizer, the core sound generator is the oscillator. Oscillators produce a basic waveform, which can be a simple shape like sine, square, or sawtooth wave.

These waveforms determine the harmonic content of the sound you create.

Whereas in samplers, sounds are generated using recorded samples of real instruments or other audio sources.

These samples can be played back at different pitches and manipulated to create new and varied sounds.

Filters and Amplifiers

Filters play a crucial role in shaping the tonal characteristics of your synthesized or sampled sounds. They can alter the frequency content of the waveform, allowing you to sculpt the sound to your liking. In both synthesizers and samplers, filters can be adjusted using knobs or sliders on the control surface to modify the tone.

Amplifiers, on the other hand, control the volume or gain of the signal. They can be used to increase or decrease the overall level of the sound, allowing for precise control over the dynamics of your music.

Envelopes and Modulation

Envelopes are functions that control the dynamic changes in amplitude, pitch, or timbre over time. Both synthesizers and samplers use amplitude envelopes to determine the attack, decay, sustain, and release (ADSR) characteristics of the sound. This helps you create sounds with varying degrees of sharpness or smoothness, as well as dynamic evolution over time.

Modulation refers to the process of using Low-Frequency Oscillators (LFOs) or other control signals to modulate various parameters of the sound, such as pitch or filter cutoff. This can be used to create vibrato, tremolo, or other expressive effects.

Control Surface

The control surface is where you interact with the synthesizer or sampler to modify its various parameters.

In a synthesizer, the control surface might include knobs, sliders, buttons, and other components for editing the sound’s waveform, filters, oscillators, and more.

In a sampler, the control surface typically consists of knobs or sliders to tweak the sample’s playback parameters like pitch, filter settings, and velocity-sensitive volume.

In summation, synthesizers work more from the ground up, creating sound from oscillators and waveforms, whereas samplers work with pre-recorded audio, manipulating the samples to generate new sounds.

Both make use of filters, amplifiers, envelopes, and modulation to shape and modify the sound while providing a control surface for hands-on interaction.

Synthesis Types

In this section, you’ll learn about the primary synthesis types and their differences: subtractive and additive synthesis. Both of these methods are used in creating sound with synthesizers.

Subtractive Synthesis

Subtractive synthesis is a method used in synthesizers where complex sounds are created by filtering and altering simpler waveforms.

A sound source, such as a sawtooth, square, or triangle wave, is passed through various means of manipulation, including filters, envelopes, and low-frequency oscillators (LFOs).

You will typically encounter the following components in a subtractive synthesizer:

  • Oscillator: The sound source that generates the basic waveforms.
  • Filter: Used for shaping the tone by removing specific frequencies.
  • Envelope: Controls how the sound evolves over time in terms of amplitude, pitch, and filter characteristics.
  • LFO: Modulates various aspects of the sound, such as pitch, amplitude or filter cutoff, at a low frequency.

Additive Synthesis

Additive synthesis, on the other hand, is the process of creating complex sounds by combining simpler waveforms or harmonics.

The individual elements of the sound, usually sinusoidal waveforms, are added together to create a more complex final product. This method allows you to create unique tones by combining different frequencies and amplitudes of the waveforms.

Some key aspects of additive synthesis include:

  • Harmonics: Individual sinusoidal waveforms with specific frequencies and amplitudes.
  • Partial: A single harmonic with its own frequency, amplitude, and phase.
  • Spectral envelope: The overall shape of the sound in the frequency domain, determining which partials should be louder or softer.

By understanding and using both subtractive and additive synthesis techniques, you can explore a wide range of sonic possibilities with your synthesizer and create unique sounds for your music compositions.

Sampling Techniques and Features

Recording and Importing Samples

To begin working with samplers, you need to record or import samples. You can record samples using various audio sources, such as microphones, instruments, or sound recordings.

Once recorded, import the samples into your sampler software or hardware device, where you can organize and manipulate them.

Sample Bank and Loops

After importing samples, you can create sample banks and loops.

A sample bank is a collection of samples organized by categories, such as instrument type or genre.

You can also create loops, which are short sequences of samples that automatically repeat. Loops are useful for creating rhythmic patterns or recurring elements in your music.

Pitch-Shifting and Time-Stretching

Pitch-shifting and time-stretching are essential techniques for modifying samples.

With pitch-shifting, you can change the pitch of a sample without affecting its duration. This allows you to create harmony or adjust the key of a sound to fit your composition.

Time-stretching, on the other hand, changes the duration of a sample without affecting its pitch. This technique is useful for adjusting the tempo of a sample or creating special effects, such as slow-motion sounds or time-warped textures.

Processing and Manipulation

Once you have your samples organized and modified, you can further process and manipulate them using various effects and techniques.

Some common processing tools include:

  • Filters: Enhance or suppress specific frequency ranges of your samples, such as low-pass or high-pass filters.
  • Envelopes: Control the amplitude or other parameters of your samples over time, shaping the attack, decay, sustain, and release (ADSR) of a sound.
  • LFOs (Low-Frequency Oscillators): Add modulation to your samples, creating vibrato, tremolo, or other dynamic effects.
  • Effects: Apply reverb, delay, distortion, or other effects to enhance or transform your samples.

By mastering these techniques, you can unlock the full potential of samplers in your music production workflow.

Remember always to experiment and explore new ways to manipulate and process your samples, as this will lead to unique and creative outcomes.

Unique Sounds and Timbres

When it comes to creating unique sounds, both synthesizers and samplers offer different approaches.

Understanding these differences can help you make better decisions and produce more versatile music.

A synthesizer is an electronic instrument that is typically played with a keyboard. It generates various waveforms, such as saw, square, sine, and triangle waves, to create distinct sounds (source).

Synthesizers can even emulate other instruments, making them valuable tools for audio producers (source).

When crafting sounds with a synthesizer, you can manipulate various parameters to adjust the timbre, which is the tone, color or texture of a sound (source).

Some key parameters for shaping unique sounds with a synthesizer include:

  • Oscillator type (saw wave, square wave, etc.)
  • Filter settings (frequency, resonance)
  • Envelope (attack, decay, sustain, release)

On the other hand, a sampler focuses on capturing and manipulating real-world sounds, such as recordings of acoustic instruments or found sounds (source).

You can modify these samples in various ways, such as changing the pitch, applying filters, or looping certain sections.

The timbre in a sampler often comes from the actual recorded sounds, giving you a more organic and realistic feeling.

Here are some techniques to create unique sounds with a sampler:

  • Layering multiple samples
  • Time stretching (altering the duration of a sample)
  • Manipulating the sample start and end points
  • Applying effects (reverb, delay, etc.)

Understanding the differences between synthesizers and samplers allows you to leverage each tool’s strengths to create a vast range of unique sounds and timbres in your music production process.

Analog vs Digital Synthesizers

When you’re diving into the world of synthesizers, it’s important to understand the differences between analog synths and digital synths.

These two types of synthesizers have distinct features, sound qualities, and functionalities that may influence your decision depending on your musical goals.

As you explore analog synths, be aware that they generate sound using voltage-controlled components, creating a warm and authentic sound with a distinct character (source).

Since they use real electronic circuits, these synthesizers can be more expensive than their digital counterparts (source).

However, they have a much more hands-on approach, which can be appealing to those seeking a tactile experience when crafting sounds.

On the other hand, digital synths use digital signal processing to create and manipulate sounds numerically (source).

Typically, digital synthesizers offer more diverse features, parameters, and sonic options than analog synths (source).

Additionally, they are generally less expensive, and many are polyphonic, allowing for multiple notes to be played simultaneously.

Here are some key differences between analog and digital synthesizers:

  • Sound generation: Analog synths use voltage-controlled components, while digital synths use digital signal processing (source).
  • Price: Analog synths tend to be more expensive than their digital counterparts (source).
  • Polyphony: Digital synths generally offer more polyphony than analog synths (source).
  • Tone quality: Analog synths have a warm, authentic tone, while digital synths offer a variety of tonal possibilities (source).

Ultimately, the choice between analog and digital synthesizers depends on your personal preferences and musical goals.

Give them both a try to determine which type of sound and functionality best fits your needs as a musician.

Pads and Patches

When working with synthesizers and samplers, you’ll come across terms like “pads” and “patches.” Understanding these concepts is crucial to differentiate between a synthesizer and a sampler.

A synthesizer is an instrument designed to create new sounds using electrical, analog, and/or digital processes.

A sampler, on the other hand, focuses on real-world sounds like vocals, instruments or environmental sounds, and manipulating these recordings as needed.

Pads in Synthesizers and Samplers

A pad in music refers to a type of synthesized sound used to create atmosphere, harmony, or texture in a track.

Pads are often flattering and can have a wide variety of timbres, but they’re generally characterized by a slow attack and long decay.

In synthesizers, pads are created by layering different synthesized sounds together or using modulation techniques like LFOs, filters, and envelopes to create evolving and expressive timbres.

You can design your synth pad by tweaking parameters or combining various oscillator and modulation types.

In samplers, pads are created by layering various recorded sounds or samples.

These samples can then be edited, looped, or processed through effects like reverb or delay to give the pad a unique character.

The sampler then assigns the pad sounds to different keys or pads on the hardware or software interface.


A patch is a configuration of settings within a synthesizer that creates a particular sound. This may include settings such as oscillator type, filter settings, modulation parameters, or envelope settings.

Patches can be saved and loaded, allowing synthesizer users to recall specific sounds or preset configurations easily.

Here are some types of patches present in synthesizers:

  • Bass patches: Designed for creating bass sounds, they often use subtractive synthesis techniques with simple waveforms and low-pass filters.
  • Lead patches: These patches create foreground sounds in a track, typically used for melodies or hooks. A lead patch may use sawtooth waves, pulse waves, or FM synthesis to achieve a rich, expressive tone.
  • Percussive patches: Percussive patches recreate drum or rhythmic sounds, like kicks, snares, and hi-hats. For example, a hi-hat patch can be made by using a white noise generator as the source, adjusting attack/decay amp envelopes, and filtering out unwanted frequencies.

In comparison, a sampler doesn’t have patches in the traditional sense. Instead, they have sample libraries or collections of recorded sounds that can be edited, manipulated, and assigned to keys or pads.

By understanding pads and patches, you can better harness the capabilities of synthesizers and samplers to create unique and expressive sounds in your music.


Navigating the world of music production can be overwhelming, and understanding the difference between synthesizers and samplers is crucial.

Synthesizers generate waveforms from oscillators, while samplers record and playback audio samples from real instruments or other sources.

Don’t worry; it’s common to feel confused when diving into this topic.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “I don’t know if I should invest in a synth or a sampler for my music production setup.

Just remember, after reading this article, you’ve gained valuable knowledge to make an informed decision.

You’re on the right track, and your music production journey will only get better from here. Keep exploring and applying what you’ve learned – you’ve got this!

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