What is the Difference between Polyphony and Paraphony?
Understanding the terminology
When you are looking to buy a synthesiser, one of the first things you will see on any product description or specification is how many voices a synthesiser has. This equates to the number of notes that your synthesiser can play at the same time.
When you read about synthesiser or their technology or you talk with other synth nerds you will stumble across certain terms repeatedly. Let’s take a quick detour and clarify these terms.
Monophonic – One voice, able to play one note at a time. An example of a monophonic synth would be the CRAFTsynth 2.0.
Duophonic – Two voices, able to play two notes at a time. An example of a duophonic synth would be one of the Modal 001.
Oscillators & Voices – In synth terminology, an “oscillator” would be like a single singer in a choir and a “voice” would be that section in the choir; such as a tenor or soprano section. The more singers in the section, the richer the sound.
If you strip the choir down to one singer per section, you will fundamentally get a different sound than if you have 8 singers in each section.
Voice Stealing – This occurs when your synth runs out of voices (you are playing too many notes at a time) so the synthesiser has to decide which note to stop processing. There are different kinds of voice stealing, such as:
- Stopping the ‘oldest’ note (default)
- Ignoring any new note that is being played
- Stopping the ‘highest’ or ‘lowest’ note
However, we often see synths described as paraphonic, especially with compact synths. To understand the term “Paraphonic” or “Paraphony”, it first helps to understand how a synthesiser works:
A true polyphonic synthesiser will have a specified number of voices; this means you can play up to that number of notes before voice stealing (see below) will occur. A true polyphonic synthesiser’s critical feature is that each voice has its own full circuitry or signal processing and doesn’t share common features like filters or envelops across multiple voices. Basically, a polyphonic synthesiser is the equation of many monophonic synths playing the same sound on different notes.
An example of this is ARGON8, an 8-voice polyphonic wavetable synthesiser; each voice features up of 4 oscillators (32 in total) will be processed through the entire processing range in the synth – including amp, envelope, filter etc.