Synth programming is an almost mythic career with a paradox at its core: despite most music industry professionals agreeing that it's impossible to make a living as a synth programmer, the skill continues to be in exceptionally high demand. The truth is that synth programming is not a career so much as a constellation of opportunities based around a particular skillset—and so-called synth programmers are multitalented musician-engineers who use their flexibility to find a wide variety of work.
Synth programmers are obsessed with the technical aspects of creating and shaping sound, and curious about new methods and technologies for doing so.
Synth programming as a skill can be complementary to almost any musical endeavor, which is perhaps why synth programmers perform so many different roles. Synth programmers might be hired to play keyboards as touring musicians, to care for and prepare synthesizers on tour as concert techs, to design new sounds for recording artists and music producers, or to maintain and repair finicky synthesizers for studio maintenance engineers or studio managers. They might also work with film and TV composers to beef up their MIDI sketches with the best samples around (a process called MIDI orchestration), or be employed by video game studios as sound designers. Some have their own studios, where they work as songwriter-producers and experiment with their craft, while a small number work full-time for major synthesizer companies, where they either design and refine preset packages or work as product representatives.
At a Glance
There's not much of an established career path for synth programmers. The common thread is that successful synth programmers use their synthesizer skills to forge unique collaborations and creative partnerships with composers, recording artists, producers, studio engineers, and sound design teams. "Making it" as a synth programmer usually means finding consistent sources of work that enable the programmer to continue exploring new sonic territory and growing as an artist. The top synth programmers provide vital support to other successful creatives or become eminent songwriter-producers.
Because basic synth programming skills are covered in the education of most engineers and producers, synth programmers looking for work in the record, film, TV, or video games industries generally need to bring some additional skills to the table. An aspiring synth programmer should accumulate experience in related roles (e.g., orchestrator, beat maker, composer, sound designer, session musician, or touring musician) in order to make connections with artists, engineers, and composers who may one day come to rely on the programmer’s expertise.
Synth programmers can also take part in synthesizer programming contests hosted by major synthesizer companies, which can be great sources of exposure. Additionally, major synthesizer companies hire a small number of extremely skilled engineers to design their sonic products full-time, as well as technology educators and product representatives to expand the user-base.
- Digital signal processing (DSP)
- Digital audio workstations (DAWs)
- Pro Tools
- Sequencing software
- Analog synthesizers
- Audio engineering
- Audio production
- Sound design
Synth programmers are obsessed with the technical aspects of creating and shaping sound, and curious about new methods and technologies that assist in doing so. Innovators and experimentalists, they would rather go to the source and program their own sounds than use presets. They’re humble and team-oriented, capable of listening closely to the needs of collaborators and willing to put in the work to support them without sharing evenly in the glory. Often, they are artists and musicians in their own right, which influences their more technical work as programmers and engineers.
Finding a steady source of work is the real challenge for synth programmers, who are usually employed as freelancers and perform a number of distinct roles depending on the needs of the project. While most synth programmers have a home studio, the certainties end there; synth programmers lead eclectic work lives based on the types of gigs they're pursuing. Some mostly play or assist in local studio sessions, while others go on tour, work in an office, run music production companies, or even own successful studios.