Despite a decade of soft-synth development, hardware is still here – so why buy a hardware synthesizer?
Technology is a strange and unpredictable beast. Though most often, it is driven by convenience, sometimes other factors throw the proverbial ‘spanner in the works’ of what may be perceived as ‘progress’.
For example, despite over 60 years of development, the vast majority of guitars made today are inspired by a handful of early designs. Why? Playability, tone, and the fact that you can get nearly any tone you might want from these designs.
The synth world is full of such anomalies, too. When synths went digital in the ‘80s, players still clung to their analogue synths- even when digital synths started to offer similar hands-on control, with all of the benefits of digital, and none of the drawbacks of analogue.
Most recently, the debate has been over the benefits of soft synths of their hardware equivalents. Plug-in virtual synths offer unprecedented convenience for those working within a DAW environment, with instant recall of settings when loading a project, and with the benefit of taking no physical space.
And yet, this year has seen more ‘physical’ synthesizers released than any other in recent memory.
With so many benefits to software, why buy a hardware synthesizer?
It does what it says on the tin…
Computers these days are very powerful indeed, and it is this power that has led to the ‘in-the-box’ recording revolution. The beauty of the way these systems are designed is that you can keep adding effects or instruments until your computer’s processor runs out of juice.
However, developers tend to push the limits of what is possible with current computer hardware. This means that, as time passes, plug-ins place greater demands on the host computer’s resources. Just about everyone has worked on a project that has ‘maxxed-out’ the computer, requiring tracks to be bounced or frozen.
A hardware synthesizer, however, has a dedicated set of processors to generate its sound and effects (if it’s digital) or no processor at all (if it’s analogue). Either way, it means that the unit will do everything that it claims to do without complaint, or any additional strain on the host computer.
…So it sounds great
The other advantage of having processors that are dedicated to just generating synth sounds is that more ‘power’ can be attributed, resulting in richer tone. You’ll hear many synth-heads espousing the benefits of hardware over software on the grounds of ‘tone’- soft-synths can sound ‘thin’ by comparison.
However, it should be stated that, nowadays, the likes of Native Instruments produce synths that deliver incredibly full tone.
For those who value tone above everything, this year’s ‘analogue renaissance’ has plenty to offer. Analogue synthesis is still around because it offers the richest, warmest tone of all. Check out the Novation Bass Station II, Korg MS20 or Volca series to hear for yourself.
When the analogue synth began to give way to the digital synth, the armoury of knobs and controls disappeared, with a sleek, minimalist appearance commonplace.
Though a front panel packed with controls can make something seem complicated, the reverse is often true. Generally, it means that everything has a physical control to change a sound parameter- a sleek design with a few buttons generally means that you will have to navigate a menu system (aaaarghhhh!!!! Ahem, sorry- flashbacks…)
Synth-lovers clung to their beloved analogue instruments for this reason. I mean, try sweeping a filter using buttons…
Thankfully, in the ‘90s, when developers introduced analogue modelling synthesizers (digital synths that recreated the way analogue synths operated and sounded) they began to include the same hands-on controls you’d expect from an analogue synth. Hooray!
Soft-synths, by their nature, have no physical controls. Unless you have a midi-controller of some kind (which you’ll need to map), you’ll be tweaking sounds with a mouse…
I guess the final reason why you would buy a hardware synthesizer is pure inspiration. You can switch a hardware synth on and just have fun playing with sound. You would be amazed at how often this results in new ideas or directions.
With soft-synths, you have to have a controller connected, and audio interface, switch on a computer… It’s a whole lot slower.
Of course soft-synths have many, many benefits, too (we’ll discuss these in a later article). However, for instant gratification, great tone and hands control, a hardware synthesizer is difficult to beat.
Se our online store here for a full range of hardware synthesizers, or here for our range of software synths. Alternatively, you can our stores or customer service team (01925 582420) for information or advice.
Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.