It's really up to you how much you want to get involved with building synths. You can simply stay on the surface and build an instrument like you build Lego or go real deep in the rabbit hole of designing and creating electronic instruments, modules or controllers.
Here's a breakdown of the various levels of synth DIY, and the tools and knowledge you'll need along the way.
🐭 Level 1 — Synth kits
Most synths you can buy are fully built instruments which you just have to turn on and play. But some come in semi-assembled format and you need to finish building it with some super-basic tools like a screwdriver or allen-key. Many times even these tools are included in the box so there's nothing to worry about — pretty much like the IKEA or Lego of DIY synths. Amongst others the Korg NTS-1 or the Moog Mavis are in this category.
Handling of super-basic tools. Absolute beginner friendly.
Who is it recommended for?
Since every important component is soldered and pre-built, this category is great for people who don't want to take any risk, spend a lot on synths, or simply are just getting into synth DIY.
🐿️ Level 2 — Kits and eurorack modules
This is probably the most popular category for beginners and advanced builders. There is a super-wide range of synths and modules in a non-assembled kit format. In the package you usually get one or more PCBs, all the components and instructions and your job is to assemble everything — including soldering. To get an idea of how it's done in real life, here's a video of a dude building a eurorack module from scratch:
To get started at this level you'll need the following basic tools:
- A soldering station & solder
- Solder pump and desolder kit because we all fuck it up
- A power supply, preferably dual rail
- A multimeter
- Wire cutters
- A vise or third hand
- Magnifying glasses if you have shitty eyes like me
Of course this is pretty much the baseline and there is infinite money you can spend on making things more efficient, more professional or convenient.
There are hundreds of desktop synth kits and if you're willing to go deeper into modular synth territory then the options are pretty much endless. For most of them you don't necessarily need electronics knowledge, however understanding basics like Ohm's law will come super-handy when debugging errors – which I can guarantee you'll run into.
Who is it recommended for?
This is definitely a more serious level and the difficulty varies synth by synth, module by module. I recommend to start with something super simple but fun (like a basic VCO) and go deeper gradually. Assembling a kit requires strong focus and dexterity so it's great for people who are looking for a serious hobby. It's also a really good way to learn how to use tools and techniques, plus it allows experimentation and hacking too.
🐈 Level 3 — Schematic builds
This level is not that different from the previous one but it's a legit step up. Here you move away from kits and instead you look up existing schematics (circuit diagrams), you source the individual components, build prototypes and assemble the final products.
The required tools in this category is pretty much the same as in the previous one. The real difference is that you'll need to source all the components which requires quite a lot of patience as most suppliers have a million component categories.
At this level you'll need to be able to read schematics, test them on a breadboard and build them on stripboards or on your PCBs. It is possible to build modules and synths from schematics without understanding the circuit, but I can tell you from experience that you will want to know how things work very soon. Study basic components like resistors, capacitors and op-amps — they cover 80% of the components you're going to use in the future.
Who is it recommended for?
The question is: how much does this excite you on a 1 to 10 scale? If the answer is 8 or above then I recommend to have a go. But beware that this is a door to one of the deepest rabbit holes with literally infinite things to learn and a lot of money to spend.
🐴 Level 4 — Remixing circuits
I guess it's clear that electronics is an infinitely deep topic and not even a lifetime is enough for learning it in its fullness. With curiosity and practice a lot of knowledge (both theoretical and practical) will stick, circuits patterns emerge and it gets clearer and clearer why something works the way it does.
I'm at this level right now — I've never used my EE degree in practice before getting into synth DIY. Since then I've built a ton of modules and studied their circuits a lot to learn how to remix them so the instruments sound to my own taste. I turned individual modules into complete synths and learnt how to reuse subcircuits in various contexts. It's a constant back and forth of going deep in theory and testing it in practice.
The tools at this level are pretty much the same as at the previous ones. The only extra I'd recommend is an oscilloscope (analog and digital if possible).
At this level you should understand common audio circuits, components, interpret datasheets, design schematics and PCBs. You'll learn about microcontrollers and C/C++ and go deeper in maths. It's a time-demanding level which requires dedication but it comes with the huge reward of truly magical experience of creating music out of electricity.
🦣 The pros
I'm deeply amazed by the knowledge and creativity of people like Bob Moog or Don Buchla who built a foundation and set standards for electronic instruments. They designed and manufactured fascinating electronic instruments that worked and still works since many decades.
Today there's a great DIY synth community in which many people share their incredible knowledge. Below is a non-comprehensive list of people who inspired and help me along the way:
- Ray Wilson and Music From Outer Space — The godfather of synth DIY, rest in peace.
- Rene Schmitz — Another classic synth builder with foundational modules
- Moritz Klein's YouTube channel — teaches electronics in a super-intuitive way. Probably the best combo of practice and theory. Highly recommended
- Matthew Skala and North Coast Synthesis — all of his modules have a detailed description of how it works. Amazing stuff
- Emilie Gillet and Mutable Instruments — creator of by far the best digital open source synth modules. Sadly discontinued
- Aaron Lanterman's YouTube channel — Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech with amazing EE content