On screen or in the box?
If you’ve attempted any form of music production in the past few years, chances are you’ve come across soft synths in one form or another. From the colossal beasts contained with Native Instrument’s Komplete, through to the more limited efforts in Garageband, soft synths are everywhere. In essence, they are computer programme-based synths that are powered entirely by your laptop. They tend to be controlled by external units, operated via MIDI.
There are, of course, more options though. It might surprise you to learn that there were synths before Ableton. And they came in (often) enormous boxes with wires everywhere. You would be forgiven for assuming ‘real’ synths required a doctorate in electrical engineering to operate, such are their complexity. Check out the Arturia Matrixbrute if you’re feeling brave. But which is best; soft synth or hardware? Let’s take a look at the arguments on each side.
1. An actual musical instrument!
That’s right. Dedicated hardware synthesizers like the Nord Electro 5D are indeed musical instruments in their own right. In the same way as a piano, a drum kit or a kazoo. You switch it on, twiddle some knobs and make some noise. No extra strings attached. Indeed, with analogue synths, you are effectively manipulating an electrical signal to make it sound how you want it to. If Thor, God of Thunder, was a musician you could guarantee he’d be a synth player.
This ties in with the previous point. Each button, knob, fader and control on a hardware synth actually does something to the signal that’s being produced. The arpeggiator repeats notes over and over. Filters attack the EQ. Etc. Make the changes, hear them instantly. What’s not to like?
3. Great for live performance
Because you don’t require a laptop to give life to the sounds, you can use hardware synths much more simply than you would a soft synth. Soft synths require space for an audio interface, laptop, controller and other gubbins. With a hardware synth, you turn up, plug in and away you go. Simple.
4. Unique sounds
In the same way guitars, amplifiers, pianos and other instruments have their own unique sounds, so to do synths. Whether it’s the fierce low-end from a Moog Sub Phatty, or the searing leads from a Korg Minilogue, certain synths have their own inimitable style. Sure, soft synths will try and mimic them, but sometimes you can’t beat the real thing.
5. Controllable by MIDI devices
Let’s say, for example, your entire studio and performance rig is geared around a DAW like Ableton Live. Surely it would make sense at this stage to submit to the lure of soft synths once and for all. Wrong! Using an appropriate audio/MIDI interface (we like the tiny Presonus Audiobox 96), you can use MIDI patterns you’ve programmed in live to trigger sounds from your external hardware. Best of both worlds?
6. No hit on your CPU
Another bonus for those of us with a laptop setup. We all know the constant balancing act of your computing capability versus your sonic ambition. In other words, how far can you push your computer’s processing power before you get the dreaded pops and clicks associated with a heavy workload? By using hardware synths, you’re only adding in another audio signal to your recordings, not all the associated processing power of creating and affecting the sound.
7. Learn to work within limitations
The final point is definitely worth considering, especially if you’ve ever found yourself in a musical rut. Sometimes, to challenge yourself, it’s worth setting some limitations. You can only use two synth sounds or one effect. With a hardware synth, what you see is what you get (at least until post-production begins). This limitation forces you to think creatively. The results might surprise you.
If there’s one thing to be said for soft synths, it’s that they are prolific. There are thousands upon thousands of them – often free to download. If you can imagine a sound, chances are there’s a synth out there that will help you achieve it. The controller you use is the same, it’s just the computer innards doing something different. It’s always worth getting a decent controller though; we are a little bit in love with the Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol Mk2 at the moment. In case you were wondering.
2. Quick swaps
Tying neatly into the previous point; as your arsenal of soft synths continues to grow inside your laptop, so too does your ability to switch between them instantly. You can go from synth to synth to synth within a few measly clicks of your mouse. The possibilities here are endless.
Ok so perhaps recallability isn’t a word but it’s the only one that fits here. What this means is that soft synths have one unique benefit over hardware. That is, the ability to save and recall settings at a moment’s notice. It may be that you stumble across a particular sound you like – or more accurately, you spend hours sculpting it. A couple of clicks later and that sound is immortalised forever, to be recalled whenever you want it.
We touched earlier on how soft synths are often cheaper. Sure, there are examples like the aforementioned Komplete collection, which will indeed run you to a fair wedge of cash. But then, at the other end, there are usually a tonne of amazing synths included with most DAWs or music production apps.
Our final point is to highlight the infinite control you have over manipulating the sounds you create using a soft synth. Within seconds you can re-sample sounds, add effects, add MIDI tools like chords and arpeggiators. There is so much you can do. And yes, most of these things can also be achieved using the audio recorded from a hardware synth, there’s a lot to be said for ‘flying by the seat of your pants’ instant innovation. And here, soft synths really do excel.
The truth, as I think we’ve established, is that there isn’t a clear winner. Both hardware and software-based synths have their own advantages and disadvantages. It’s up to you, the user to decide which fits your needs best.
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Jon is a multi-instrumentalist with a passion for inspiring others to get involved in making music. After spending many years playing venues here, there and – pretty much – everywhere, he joined the Dawsons’ Music Web Team before progressing into his current role managing the Dawsons Blog.