Subtractive: Families

Subtractive Families

Based on the same principle, different families of subtractive synthesizers can be defined - without claim to completeness:

  • analog modular
  • analog monophonic
  • analog polyphonic
  • virtual analog / analog modeling

These sub-groups of subtractive synthesis have different characteristics and are used for different applications.

Analog Modular

The first subtractive synthesizers were large, cupboard-like devices and rather expensive. Although multiple voices are possible, they are designed as monophonic instruments. Two well known and opposite examples are the first models released by Bob Moog on the US east coast and Don Buchla on the west coast.

  • Moog Synthesizer (1965) - Switched on Bach, Wendy Carlos, 1968

    Bob Moog brought the typical VCO-VCA-VCF approach in a rack with a keyboard. It could hence be performed like a typical piano-like instrument.

  • Buchla 100 (1965) - Silver Apples of the Moon, Morton Subotnick, 1967

    Although the Buchla works with slightly different concepts than subtractive synthesis in the Moog synthesizers, it is mentioned in this list.

Analog Monophonic

Analog monophonic synthesizers used the same techniques, yet in a more compact design and not fully modular. This made them more affordable and hence more disseminated and used.

Minimoog Model D (1970)

The idea of monophonic analog subtractive synthesis is usually linked to the Minimoog.


Designed as a fully integrated musical instrument, the Minimoog could be used as a virtous tool for expressive musical performances. Chick Corea's Minimoog solo, starting at 4:20, is a prime example:

EMS VCS 3 (1969)

The semi-modular EMS allows access to the signal flow in a patching matrix. It is thus more suited for experimemtal sounds, as used by Pink Floyd in Welcome to the Machine for the wobbling machine sounds in the beginning:

Roland TB 303 (1982)

Although released several years later - and for a different application - the TB303 fits best into this family. The TB 303 was intended to be used as an accompanying instrument for musicians. It has a different interface, a programmable step sequencer.


Due to the quirky filters it failed as a bass accompaniment but gave birth to techno and especially acid:

Analog Polyphonic

After the monophonic analog synths of the 70s, which were intended as solo instruments, came the polyphonic ones.

Polyphonic analog synthesizers shaped the sound of 80s pop (and especially synth-pop) music with their recognizable sound, often used as pads and harmonic foundation or for bass lines.

Yamaha CS-80 (1977)

Sequential Circuits Prophet-5


Oberheim OBx (1979)

Roland Jupiter-8

  • 1981

Virtual Analog

When digital technology was ready, it took over and various synthesizers were released which emulated the principles of subtractive synthesis. These devices were much cheaper and the digital means could provide more voices with better memory options.

Virtual analog synthesizers were the backbone of trance development. They lack some of the analog warmth but are tighter in sound.

Clavia Nord Lead

  • 1995

Roland JP-8000

  • 1996

    The Supersaw

Access Virus

  • 1997

Yamaha AN1x

  • 1997

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