Perhaps you just picked up your first synthesizer, and you want to get the best sound out of it, or maybe a friend of yours suggested you pick up an amp to play it through. I think these are all good enough reasons for you to consider buying an amp for your synth. But do you actually need an amp for a synth?
Synthesizers output a line level signal, which is an already conditioned and pre-amplified signal. This means you will hear them clearly when connected through a mixer or directly to an active monitor or speaker. However, if you are using your synthesizer for live performance, it’s a good idea to use a keyboard amp to give you more stage volume.
Whether or not you pick up an amp for your synth will ultimately depend on how you intend to use it. There is a good reason why you should pick an amp for your synth, and a valid reason why you probably don’t need one.
And in this post, I’ll demystify all of the things you should consider before you decide to pick up an amp. I’ll also talk about some other options you have besides the amplifier. But first, let’s take a look at the purpose of an amplifier.
What is the purpose of an amp?
An amp is a device that boosts an audio signal’s strength by increasing the amplitude of the audio waves. After processing that audio signal through an amp, you should expect the signal to be much louder than before.
There are different types of amps made for different instruments. But the ones that stand out the most amongst musicians are guitar amps. That’s because guitar amps don’t only boost the loudness of the guitar and make it audible. Most of them have features that allow you to tweak the output sound to give you a unique tone.
Amps are also referred to as power amps. They are essentially the same thing. However, power amps are mostly used by sound engineers. These are devices that boost audio from a line level signal to speaker level signals. Meaning, power amps increase the strength of a signal from a mixing console so that they can be played through big speakers and PA systems.
Now that we’ve got the basics of an amp covered, let’s move on to why you probably don’t need an amp for your synth.
Why you don’t need an amp for a synth
There are three levels of audio signal — mic level, line level, and speaker level signals. Mic level signals are the weakest audio signals. As the name depicts, these are signals usually picked up by microphones from acoustic sound sources such as drums, vocals, and more.
Because mic signals are weak, they need to be boosted by an amplifier so that it can be strong enough for further processing. This is why the preamp was made. It’s a special amplifier used to increase the amplitude of the weak mic input signal.
After the preamp boosts the mic signals, it becomes a line level signal. I’m sure if you are familiar with live sound engineering, you have probably seen microphones being routed through a preamp before they are connected to the mixing console.
Line level signals, on the other hand, are already strong audio signals that don’t need to be amplified to be audible. All digital instruments, such as the digital piano, electric guitar, electric bass, and synthesizers, sends out a line level signal.
Line level instruments can be connected directly to a mixing console without any amplification. If you also have active live or studio monitors, you can connect them directly to it, and you will hear your instrument loud and clear.
So here is the catch.
If you are going to record the synthesizer in a studio, or simply for practice and explore new sounds, you don’t need an amp. That’s because you can connect the synth to your mixing console or to an active monitor or speakers, and you will get a nice, loud, and clean sound without any amplification.
Can You Use a Headphone for Synths?
Short answer, yes. You can definitely use a headphone for a synthesizer. A lot of synths come with the 1/4 inch headphone jack. You can also use a headphone adapter to convert it from a ¼ inch to a 3.5mm headphone jack if that’s what your headphone uses.
You should take extra caution by reducing the volume when you are using a headphone for a synth, especially when designing sounds.
Why do I say this?
When you are experimenting with different sounds and features on your synth, you get in the habit of turning random knobs to figure out what sounds you can achieve. And things can get really loud really fast when you turn the wrong knob.
Having all that harsh frequencies loud into your ears can be detrimental. Listening to loud and bright synth sounds for an extended period can lead to high-frequency hearing impairment. This is a very common hearing loss among musicians, especially music producers who work for long hours listening to loud mixes.
You certainly don’t want this to happen to you. As a musician, your ears and hands are one of your most priceless assets. You want to protect it as best as possible. I recommend you pick up a portable headphone volume control device such as the Koss VC20 Headphone Volume Control (on Amazon). This small device will act as a bridge between your headphone and your synthesizer. And just as the name suggests, you will use it to regulate the synth’s loudness before it gets to your headphone. I highly recommend it if you’re going to play your synths with headphones plugged in.
When to use an amp for a synth
Just as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, using an amp for your synth isn’t such a bad thing. It’s simply unnecessary for some use cases and not worth the extra budget.
There are still some excellent reasons for you to get an amplifier for your synths.
For live performance
If you are going to use your synthesizer for live gigs, it’s definitely a great idea to use a keyboard amplifier. It will boost your synthesizer’s signal and give you that extra volume you need to hear yourself play on stage.
Keyboard amps are a must-have for every live gigging keyboard player, in my opinion, especially if you work with different sound engineers all the time. With your own keyboard amp, you are assured of hearing yourself clearly on stage.
Most keyboard amps are full range. Meaning, you will have the entire frequency of your synthesizer captured, and you will get the full representation of the sound your synth is producing.
For band rehearsals
Most of the time, during band rehearsals, we don’t use PA systems. We simply hear ourselves and our band members instruments through their respective amps. The bass player will have a bass amp, and the guitar player will have a guitar amp. So it’s a smart idea to get a keyboard amp for your synth, so you and your band members can hear you play during rehearsal.
The whole point of getting an amp for your synth is to get more volume out of the synth. However, if you are recording your synthesizer in a home studio, or simply use it for practice, you can get a decent level output from the synth without using an amp.