Thursday, August 26, 2010

It Just Runs Programs

In trawling the web for comments good and bad about some hard synths out there, I have often come upon the argument that soft synths sound at least as good if not better, and are more powerful, than hard synths and far chapter, so why buy a hard synth?

There are a few reasons. The most significant reason is that the knobs on a hard synth create a musical space that lends itself to real time experimentation. The common response that is, that's true but there are controllers out there now that will give the musician knobs and sliders to control soft synths. Some, even have pre-made mappings to many of the popular synths or some soft synths have MIDI learn to make it easy to map knobs on the controller to the virtual knobs on the soft synth. DAWs also have tools.

All of this is true but its not the whole picture. First, the controller has no visual markings to label the knobs and sliders. Of course, one could create a series of templates but that is a lot of bother. There are also some attempts to improve on the basic paradigm of a controller such as Native Instruments Kore 2 but the fact remains that if you look at the hardware controller, there is no visual cue to what you are controlling so the direct interaction with the synth is lost.

One solution would be do have a very high res set of LEDs that provided soft templates. I am not sure why Native Instruments or someone else has not come up with this. Another problem is that the position of the knobs are still fixed. I have three hard synths. A Moog Voyager, a Korg M3 and a Waldorf Blofeld. Each of these synths have a very unique and very different set of knobs and sliders. The reason is simple. Each of these synths has a very unique character or personality if you will. That is reflected in the design of the keyboard or controller and reflected in the sound. The two are integrated together.

Now soft synths could have their own dedicated controllers and in a few instances they have but they have not gone over well because in the mind of the consumer, they are adding unnecessary cost. I don't really agree with this but the second problem is that if you have a lot of soft synths you would need a massive USB hub which would strain most computers.

So that's the first reason that soft synths fall short of hard synths.

Also realize that is possible to stack at least three keyboards. This is not the same as snazzy MDI controllers with keyboard splits. One has a full range on each synth whatever that range might be.

Now onto the financial argument that they are so much cheaper. OK, but what about those upgrades. Isn't that part of the game. I've played it. The company comes out with an upgrade and well, even if it's not all that significant, well, one just has to have it.

Now in some cases hard synths companies want money for upgrades but they don't come out as much and in some cases, like the Korg M3 for example, they are free which includes new samples. Add say three upgrades to a soft synth and that cheap synth has nearly doubled in price!

The final advantage I wanted to point out is often overlooked but important. Go look at the back of any hard synth and there are usually a whole wide range of in and outs. Often, sound can be routed differently to different sets of outs. Ins can also be used in different ways. On the Korg M3, the entire synth is an effects processor and through the audio ins it can process external audio and also resample it. Most soft synths have a meager set of effects. The Korg M3s effects are vast and powerful and directly tied to the hardware, yes, all those knobs and sliders. It even is more powerful than that but I will not get into that.

So if you find an extensive set of soft effects and add on a few upgrades for the synth and effects and your getting up price prize a lot closer to hardware.

The bottom line is that the ability to route audio to other hardware is something that soft synths and DAWS do not do all that well. Yes, I know about Reason and some other products as well but these attempts are not nearly as good as the ability to use a patch bay or even a more sophisticated matrix audio router like the "switchblade". One aspect of any hardware based system is that it is in a sense a modular itself. Combine it with a modular or with effects pedals and the possibilities expand far beyond the meager possibilities on soft synths.

The most significant part of it is there is something kind of magical about hardware. It lends itself to experimentation and for the reasons mentioned it can be rivaled by generic controllers. What is it worth? That's something each musician or composer has to decide. For me, its worth it. I see value in soft synths and frankly, some of my soft synths do things my hardware can't but I see it as supplementing not replacing my hardware.

1 comment:

Mark Mosher said...


I agree in general that there is something special about the character and relationship with hardware synths, especially if there is a one-to-one relationship with knobs to params. The Ensoniq Mirage's 2 character HEX LCD display probably counts as a software synth in a hardware body right :^). Someday, I’d like to get a Voyager for this reason.

One of reasons I use the Novation Remote SL, is the LED screens by-directionally sync with params and labels in Live. The downside is you have to do a little setup, but once I do, it becomes like a hardware synth. I simply LOVE it.

The other key element of my workflow is the new way Live does parameter mapping in Live 8. I shot this video “Ableton Live 8 + APC40 + Remote SL Controllerism” . While the video mostly feature APC40, you can see the Remote SL in here as well.
Since I shot this I sold my APC as the combination of the Launchpad + Remote SL are like an APC 40, with 2 extra user modes plus two LCD strips. Plus they both run on bus power.