Hello, I did a music tech A level so I think I can help here!
What should my character own if she’s a synth musician?
Synthesisers are pretty varied so there are a number of things you can use (emphasis on can rather than should!):
- Analogue synths: Oldschool synthesisers that generate sound via diodes and electrical voltages and all that. These were the first type of synths made and they really allows you to really customise, experiment, and come up with new sounds. Modular synths require the use of patch cables to control the settings (e.g. Buchla Music Easel, Eurorack) but other synths just use dials (eg Roland TR808, Moog Minotaur)
- Digital synths: Instead of using analog circuits, these synths use digital processors/computers to generate sound. Basically most keyboards you see are digital synthesisers, eg Yamaha, Korg
- Samplers: These aren’t actually synthesisers but are used a lot in synth/electronic music. You can record and store different sound clips and play them back by tapping different pads (these are the little boxes with pretty blink light buttons, eg Akai MPC). Some samplers have keyboards so you can change the pitch of the sound.
- Software synths: If you’re using a program like Ableton or Logic, you’ll have a lot of software synths at your disposal, rather than hardware synths like the previous ones. These are all in your PC and are sold as plugins for different music programs. Most will look and act the same as analogue/digital synths and samplers.
How many of these if she actually plays concerts? How easy is it to haul your stuff around?
Depends on A, what kind of music she’s playing; B, how she wants her live sets to work. If her work is really intricate and detailed (think IDM artist like Aphex Twin, Squarepusher) she might want to have quite a few pieces of hardware in there. If it’s more minimalist, maybe only one or two. If she wants to emphasise a live performance rather than a music set, she might just have her songs on a backing track and maybe a laptop or one piece of gear to change pace. If she’s not bothered about that though, she could probably have all the gear in the world on the table and use it as she sees fit.
If you have a lot of gear though (and the big analog/modular synth racks especially) it can get quite heavy to manouevre, so it’s best to pare it down to what you will need the most in your set. If you’re playing 14 songs and the synth you’re bringing is only on one or two of them, it’ll probably be easier to leave it behind. Along with that, you might want to bring effects units with you like mixers and pedals, so it’s mostly a mix of what’s essential for your set and not to hard to move around.
With all that said though, it really is possible to just do your whole set from your laptop (Holly Herndon made a whole album with just her laptop). DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) like Ableton Live are made for live environments and it’s easy to switch between different setups. A lot of artists will decide on their set beforehand what’s being played as a backing track and what they’re playing/improvising live.
Is it feasible to be a true soloist or does she need a team? What limitations are there if she does go it alone?
Tons of artist write, produce, perform, etc. their music all by themselves. It’s pretty much the same limitations as being a solo singer/songwriter vs being in a rock band. If there are multiple writers, you have to work harder to get a more cohesive sound. Different producers will prefer different sounds. In a live setting, most artists will have a team with them to help get from gig to gig, as it’s pretty much a given you will be in a van/bus for the majority of the tour and will need others to move your setup on stage ready and in time for the set. If you’re signed to a label (independent or major) it’ll probably be easier to get your resources together.
Is there vocab/slang I should know beyond what’s in a Wikipedia article or a YouTube tutorial? How do folks actually talk about this hobby/profession?
Probably the different controls/settings for synths and programs, musical terms anyone would need to know, mixing/mastering/production techniques (eg compressors, limiters, sidechaining, delay, reverb, phase…) the list goes on. It depends on what area you’re working in and who you’re working with. I would look into different magazines/websites about this thing, eg Resident Advisor, FACT Magazine, XLR8R, Boiler Room (more DJ oriented), Discogs, WATMM. A lot of people talk about it through social media really (r/electronicmusic on Reddit is a big one). Language doesn’t typically get super technical unless you’re going in depth with your setup and production techniques (whenever people talk about MaxMSP I totally zone out, that stuff’s beyond me).
I hope this helps! Synth/electronic music can be a difficult thing to breach if you haven’t been taught by someone. I find that the easiest way to learn things (if you actually intend to make stuff) is to play around with different synths and programs, and watch live sets and look at interviews to see how artists play and make their songs.