Friday, November 25, 2011

Virtual Instruments vs. Classic Hardware Synthesizers

Virtual Studio Technology (VST) instruments, or simply "virtual instruments", are software based sound generators. Many of which are emulators of classic hardware synthesizers.

Many electronic musicians that I know or have read about attest to the sonic superiority of hardware based synthesizers compared to their software based counterparts. Some people think that hardware oscillators and amps sound “warmer” or “fatter”.  I tend to agree with this analysis based on my own experience. There are, however, a number of VST instruments on the market that simply sound fantastic. One of my personal favorites is Spectrasonic’s Omnisphere. It is computer resource intensive but you can’t beat the diversity and capability of the sounds it has built in.

I started to record electronic music during the early 1990s and I have owned and currently own several hardware synths produced in that era that were made by Roland, E-mu, Ensoniq, and Korg. I’ve recently begun to integrate them back into my electronic music productions. My motivation in doing so is three fold. First, I like the way that they sound (it’s that “warm” “fat” thing). Second, some of them have really great sounding patches that I’ve rediscovered and that I want to tweak and use again. Third, it is geeky fun!

I control my hardware synth with a midi keyboard controller through Steinberg Cubase and a MOTU MIDI interface. I simply run the analog stereo outs of each synth through a Mackie mixer and then to my sound card. I typically record the audio in stereo 16bit wav format in Cubase, and will sometimes process the audio within the software (such as adding software based effects, etc).

I’m currently working on a new ambient album called “Singularity in Sound”. I’m using a variety of sound generation techniques to include VST instruments, hardware synths, acoustic instruments (processed guitar), and field recordings/audio samples. My goal is to create the best ambient music album that I can that balances excellent musical composition with interesting sound design. Lately, I’ve been snatching up used hardware synths to add to my collection and for use specifically with this project.

It strikes me that the youngest generation of electronic musicians may have very little if any exposure to classic hardware synths. I encourage you to explore the world of them, or to rediscover them. If you are really courageous, you might consider delving into the world of hardware modular synthesizers. These will enable you to build from the basic elements of sound synthesis.

Ultimately, there is no real turning back to the days of MIDI controlled hardware synths. Software based sound generation is way more flexible and easy for the musician and less expensive for the manufacturer to make and sell. Nonetheless, classic hardware synths are another tool to have in the electronic musician’s studio. Call me nostalgic but I, like Mr. Numan, still “dream of wires”.

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  1. Excellent post, Dave.
    I, too, find myself using actual hardware synths along with the virtual ones on most of Tangent Project's studio recordings. I bought my first synth in 1978 [an ARP Odyssey] which I still use [just replaced the 4 tuning sliders a year ago as they were way too worn to keep it in tune]. There are things that only a hardware synth can provide and things that only a virtual one can.
    For live performance I use only real hardware - no laptop involved. It doeas take a LONG time to setup my rig and it involves miles of cable, but I just can't get used to the idea of a laptop rig/laptop gig.
    I love the nearly endless morphing textures that you can get from soft synths [Absynth is a favourite here] and no hardware can reproduce these [they can and do try, but still come up short every time].
    I even still use a hardware sampler live [almost exclusively for Mellotron samples]. It's a beast to haul around, but still lighter than a real Mellotron [which I have been known to do also!].
    I understand the appeal of not dragging around racks of fragile gear and just bringing a laptop and a couple controllers, but I also feel that the sound suffers when just coming from a computer's sound card - it seems somehow 'smaller' and less dynamic. I find this true in the studio also - the analogue circuits in my real MiniMoog seem to pump far more air than the soft synth counterpart.
    Call me crazy or nostalgic, I still find a lot of use for the real thing every day.

    Jeff Coulter
    The Tangent Project

  2. Thanks Jeff - I really appreciate your insights on this. I'm a huge fan of the Tangent Project - when are you going to post some Tangent Project material on Ambient Hub?


  3. I am working on mixing some new studio tracks - hope to have some things done by the end of the year. Time just gets away from me so quickly these days... and I'm doing a major audio restoration project for a friend from a couple dozen old reel-to-reels in various stages of decay that is taking a HUGE amount of time and effort... but I hope to get some things posted soon - PROMISE!

    Congrats on the new record BTW - Chuck rather digs it:

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