Recently I read a story about a particular soft synth. In the post a point was made to state that this was the only soft synth that the author would not likely retrack with hardware. While I understand that using and mastering hardware synths can be a point of pride for some, discounting the value of software to the point of ignoring it outright is likely leaving out about 80% of the synth market.
I’ll warn you now, this is not an analog v.s. digital comparison. Though the subject is discussed to a certain extent, this isn’t really the point of my comparison.
The arguments for hardware are definitely compelling. Signal quality and resolution are one of the biggest pluses for hardware. Infinite points within an analog potentiometer with no midi aliasing or zippering effects is one of the reasons I love analog hardware too! This isn’t necessarily true though of all virtual analog hardware synthesizers though. True analog synthesis does in fact have a warmth that is hard to match in software. Arguably, tactile control is the biggest advantage for hardware synths. I loath scrolling through menus on synths, and while some hardware synths still have menus, it’s generally less likely than with software. Pages of hidden options in software drive me crazy. The ability to “grab and go” touching the sound and controlling it in a truly physical way is not to be underestimated. My Moog Voyager is a perfect example of this, as is my Juno.
My first synth was a Roland JX-8P, My second was a Juno 106. the difference in control was unmistakeable. While both synths have both analog and digital circuitry, the JX-8P (without the optional control module) was a nightmare to program and relied much too heavily on nested menus. Scrolling through menus and adjusting a single slider for all parameters was a slow and painful process. Enter the Juno 106. Every parameter on the Juno has a hardware control. Within minutes of playing on the Juno I had my mind made up to sell my JX-8P. That said, I have come to regret that decision a bit. The Juno is an awesomely versatile poly synth and can do virtually everything the JX-8P could but they are different. The tone is different, the filters have a different musicality and the envelopes respond somewhat differently. I preferred the JX-8P for pads and loved it’s velocity and (sometimes buggy) aftertouch, but I like the bass punch, filter and the chorus of the Juno.
Which brings us to the arguments for software. Price. It cannot be argued that software synthesizers are unaffordable. Between $20 and $300 dollars for a software synthesizer is awesome. Especially for the bedroom producer. In my experience most decent soft synths clock in at about $99. You don’t necessarily get what you pay for either. What I mean by that is, I’ve used the odd free soft synth that completely obliterates some of the paid competition. Also the software versions of many hardware synths can be thousands and thousands of dollars cheaper.
Preset memory is yet another advantage that many software instruments have over their analog brethren. Now this doesn’t always apply. Modern analogs have patch memory too. Even some older pre midi analogs have patch memory. But modulars by design have virtually no ability to store patches. The Arturia Moog Modular V was the first patchable soft synth I used and I was blown away at the time. With the advent of the Korg MS20 Legacy controller the patches were available in the real world but could be saved in software thus saving huge amounts of time when I couldn’t remember more complex routings. These memory tricks are simply things that modular analog hardware on it’s own cannot accomplish.
Portability and reliability are also a huge software advantage. I can, and do, carry my laptop all over town and can produce music anywhere and everywhere with hundreds of synth options. Try that with hardware synths. Add to that the fact that I don’t need to bring my software in to be serviced. It just works.
Bridging the Gap
The hardware control argument is slowly disappearing with the advent of the much higher resolution OSC protocol and extremely easy to program controllers like the Novation automap series. Though they’re generally meant for DAW control, I’d be lost without my APC-40, and my Launchpad is invaluable for controlling Numerology. I’m currently thinking of jumping into the deep end of hardware based software control with the Livid Instruments Code. I love controllers nearly as much as I love synthesizers as they let me explore software in a much more tactile, hands on way.
There is actually a DIY dedicated hardware controller movement emerging and being lead by a very talented gentleman in Germany named Mario Jurisch. At Synth-Project.de His amazingly accurate and detailed hardware midi controllers are perfect companions to their software counterparts. His impOSCar controller looks exactly like a modern version of the original Oxford Synthesiser Company OSCar synth. He also has dedicated OP-X and Project-5 controllers that look the part of an Oberheim OB-X and Sequential Circuits Prophet 5. Mario doesn’t limit himself to reproductions either. He has an amazing hardware controller for the TubeOhm Pure-D 16/24 software synth for which there is no original hardware counterpart. I really recommend you check out his stuff.
The reverse is also emerging with synths like the Dave Smith Instruments Tetra and the Access Virus TI. These compelling hardware synths have software that runs in your DAW that can control and edit patches on the hardware remotely, bridging the hardware v.s. software gap in the polar opposite approach of Mario’s dedicated controllers. There are advantages in both approaches but one disadvantage of hardware with software control is that it can make hardware manufacturers lazy. Layering menu after menu in the hardware with minimal hardware control until you open the software which has all the options. I love my MoPho to death, but I hate programming it and eventually I think I may trade it in for a MoPho keyboard or even a Prophet 8 PE.
Arturia, as far as I am aware, is the first software synthesizer developer to make the jump to hardware design. The Origin, Analog Experience and now their Spark Drum module are hybrids of software and hardware. The Analog Experience and Spark fall decisively into the MIDI controller camp but are specifically designed for the included Arturia software. The Axel Hartmann designed Origin on the other hand is a hybrid. In both a desktop and keyboard version, Origin has built in hardware that runs many of the Arturia software synths without the need for an attached computer. Add a full compliment of 2 inputs, 10 audio outputs and USB and you have a decidedly hardware synth with the flexibility and most advantages (and possibly disadvantages) of it’s software counterparts.
While more hardware control is almost always better for manipulating the tone and character of the sound in real time, you don’t always need it. Many synth patches are of the set it and forget it variety. For those that aren’t, there are hundreds of MIDI and OSC based controllers that do a great job of manipulating software. Hardware by nature has an element of control that cannot be matched by using a mouse. Some newer USB connected hardware synths stray from this rule, but generally hardware has a control advantage software alone cannot touch.
Software isn’t better or worse than hardware. It’s just different. Like my JX-8P, it may be slightly more difficult to program but it has its place. I would rather not program a synth with a mouse but the convenience and price tag can be too hard to ignore. If you were to ask the average club goer or music listener if they can tell the difference between Arturia’s MiniMoog V and a true MiniMoog Model D it’s most likely they couldn’t, right before they ask you why it matters. If the end result is good music why should it matter?
Now if we could just get rid of these “waste of a USB port” hardware dongles that some software makers insist we need. That said, I still have (and use) my ancient Atari ST Cubase dongle.