Zynthian – An Open Platform for Sound Synthesis

Zynthian is an open platform for sound synthesis, based on the Raspberry Pi. We talked to Fernando Dominguez, founder of Zynthian about its features and future plans.

Fernando, please introduce your project to the HifiBerry Community

Zynthian is a project with the goal of creating an Open Synth Platform based in Free Software and Open Hardware Specifications and Designs (as open as possible). The project started as a personal project in 2015, but currently is a community-driven project, with active members around the world.

A Zynthian Box is a hardware device, a small digital computer designed to run the Zynthian Software. Currently it’s based in the Raspberry Pi platform, but it could be easily adapted to other computer platforms.

All the software used by Zynthian is Free Software (free as in freedom, not as in free beer) and it’s covered by the GPL license or similar.

Currently, a Zynthian Box can be used to play live music with a MIDI instrument (keyboard, guitar, …), also can be used as effects processor (real-time audio processing), for music production (live or studio) or sound exploration.

Anybody can build his own Zynthian Box using an official kit and following the tutorials from the wiki, or from scratch, using the schemes and specifications published in github. The forum is quite active and the better way of getting involved in the community.

How did you get the idea to create Zynthian?

I had the idea of developing Zynthian while trying to connect my digital piano with a commercial Hammond emulator module called Ferrofish.

My digital piano have a MIDI-USB connector but not a standard MIDI-OUT. Ferrofish module has a MIDI-USB connector too, but i found that is not possible to connect both devices directly: an USB host was needed in the middle. Normally a computer is used for that, but a didn’t want to use a desktop or laptop computer, so i thought that a Raspberry Pi could do
the task, writing a little script that auto-connected the devices.

I wrote such script and it worked really fine. My problem was solved, but along the way, bigger ideas had invaded my brain and i was really excited with it: Why not trying to run a software synthesizer in the
Raspberry Pi? My favorite free software synthesizer, ZynAddSubFX, was my first candidate.

My first tries were really frustrating, as the RBPi’s analog audio output is very bad. The sound quality is terrible and the latency huge.
Then I found the HifiBerry soundcard and it was amazing. The sound was clean and rich. I was astonished with the possibilities and a name
appeared in my head:

Zynthian = ZynAddSubFX + Synthesizer + Debian

the Zynthian Project had been born!

What features has Zynthian?

  • Zynthian can be connected directly to standard MIDI sources and also to “MIDI-USB-only” keyboards and controllers. You don’t need a computer!
  • Zynthian can run several layers simultaneously. Layers can be assigned to any sound engine and preset, configuring the desired MIDI channel. You can have several instruments in the same MIDI channel or a full orchestration, or both, if you want. In other words, Zynthian is a fully multi-engine & multi-timbric synthesizer. The limit is the CPU power 😉
  • Tablets and mobile devices can control Zynthian using OSC and a wireless connection.
  • The MOD-UI web interface, from MOD-Devices (, can be used for creating complex patches using LV2 plugins.
  • Zynthian can be updated easily from the user interface.
  • Zynthian can record the audio output directly to a pendrive, in
    digital format, without conversion loss.
  • When using a soundcard with audio input, Zynthian can be used as a real-time effects processor, and also have an “Audio-to-MIDI” experimental feature.
  • And many more interesting features

What synth-engines are supported?

Zynthian official software images includes, among others:

  • ZynAddSubFX (Additive+Substractive+Pad synthesis with effects)
  • FluidSynth (SF2 soundfonts)
  • LinuxSampler (SFZ+GIG soundfonts)
  • setBfree (Hammond emulator)
  • Dexed (DX7 emulator)
  • TAL NoizeMak3r
  • MDA plugins: JX10, ePiano, DX10, …
  • and many more!

Of course, you can potentially use any open source synth-engine and also any LV2 plugin compiled for Raspberry Pi.

Which people usually work with your platform?

Currently the Zynthian community is mainly composed of a mixture of technical people (hackers & makers) with musical interests and musicians and music producers with some technical skills.

You can take a round by the forum for having an idea …

What are your future plans?

I would like that more “pure” musicians (no technical skills!) start using Zynthian, so we are working hard for improving the user experience and easing the mounting process as much as possible, improving and simplifying the official mounting kits.

The goal is making an truly easy to use and reliable device. A device that any musician wants to use and enjoy with it. At the same time, we want to maintain the “hackability” and DIY spirit. It’s a quite complex

If we success (and will do!), we will produce finished units, perhaps through a crowd-funding campaign. We haven’t the details yet, as we have a lot of work to do before taking this step.

Finally, i would like to integrate sequencer capabilities and turn Zynthian into a “micro-DAW” station that can be used for live performing and studio production. Something similar to the amazing new AKAI MPC machines, but completely free (as in freedom!).

May 15, 2017

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