Ordinary differential equations (ODEs) have been studied for centuries as a means to model complex dynamical processes from the real world. Nevertheless, their application to sound synthesis has not yet been fully exploited. In this article we present a systematic approach to sound synthesis based on first-order complex and real ODEs. Using simple time-dependent and nonlinear terms, we illustrate the mapping between ODE coefficients and physically meaningful control parameters such as pitch, pitch bend, decay rate, and attack time. We reveal the connection between nonlinear coupling terms and frequency modulation, and we discuss the implications of this scheme in connection with nonlinear synthesis. The ability to excite a first-order complex ODE with an external input signal is also examined; stochastic or impulsive signals that are physically or synthetically produced can be presented as input to the system, offering additional synthesis possibilities, such as those found in excitation/filter synthesis and filter-based modal synthesis.