Analog vs digital? Hardware vs software/ VST? In an increasingly digital age of music production, these are questions I’m being asked more frequently.
In the modern day home recording studio many people are increasingly turning towards software solutions over traditional analog hardware equivalents. The quality and availability of software now mean that a lot of music is now produced without any hardware whatsoever.
Due to the electronic nature of it. The synth lends itself to the transition from hardware to software more readily than traditional orchestral instruments. There are now thousands of software solutions. With many direct reproductions of hardware synths. So the question of hardware vs software synth (or VSTs) is one I get asked increasingly often.
Is there still any value to buying a hardware analog synth in the digital age? Could this money be saved and used elsewhere?
Well in this article I am going to investigate this in as much detail as possible to try and find some answers. I’ll start with a bit of background and history and move onto what I see as the key advantages of the different options.
A brief history of the synth
Due to its requirement for electricity. The synthesizer is one of the most modern instruments you are likely to see in a home studio. You may think of synthesizers appearing in music from around the 1960s. But we can trace the origin back as far as 1876!
It all started with the accidental discovery of a single note oscillator by electrical engineer Elisha Gray. He figured out that an oscillation within an electronic circuit would produce an audible soundwave. This soundwave could then be altered to make different sounds and therefore create music.
The earliest synths
You may have heard of the Theremin. Which was one of the earliest attempts to take this new technology and make it into an actual ‘instrument’. It was a product of the Soviet government in 1920 during the Russian Civil War. I won’t go into detail on how the Theremin works. Basically, it had an antenna and the frequency of the sound produced by the antenna can be altered by moving the player’s hand towards and away from it. Very weird!
Only used for novelty value at this point, the technology begun to advance rapidly through the following decades. In the 1930s the first polyphonic synths began to be produced in Germany and the USA and they began to appear in musical compositions from then on.
The analog synth boom
In the 1960s pioneers such as Robert Moog, brought the synth into the mainstream and that synth sound began to fill pop songs around the world. By the 1970s companies like Yamaha and Roland were in on the act too.
The true synth ‘boom’ happened as we entered the 1980s with the invention of MIDI. MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) was a standard language (protocol) that would allow all these instruments to communicate and also allow them to be connected to computers.
The digital era
As the computer advanced the possibility of creating software to mimic the function of hardware synths was born. The digital synthesizer appeared on the scene in the 1970s. With Yamaha licencing the digital synthesis algorithms in 1973.
It wasn’t until the 90s that virtual software instruments were created. Steinberg (the creators of the DAW Cubase), enabled users to communicate with virtual instruments on the computer using MIDI.
After this for many years, there was no contest. The analog synths were always going to sound more authentic. But in recent times, as with most computer-based technology, the quantity and quality of software synthesizers has improved vastly.
This is now causing many people to pose the question of analog vs digital.
What makes a synthesizer a synthesizer?
Getting a bit philosophical here. What actually makes a synthesizer a synthesizer? Before we head into the battle we should just clear this up so we have a fair contest.
The definition varies massively over the internet from some very vague like Webster’s dictionary that simply say:
“a usually computerized electronic apparatus for the production and control of sound (as for producing music)”
To much more specific versions like freedictionary.com which state:
” an electrophonic instrument, usually operated by means of a keyboard and pedals, in which sounds are produced by voltage-controlled oscillators, filters, and amplifiers, with an envelope generator module that controls attack, decay, sustain, and release”
I think for the purposes of this article I will stick to something in the middle such as Wikipedia:
“an electronic musical instrument that generates audio signals that may be converted to sound”.
So anything that can generate audio signals using electronics and then manipulate that signal in different ways to produce a huge variety of sounds, even mimicking other instruments.
How a synth manipulates audio signals can take several forms:
- Additive synthesis
- Subtractive synthesis (the most common form you are likely to see in analog synths)
- FM synthesis
- Phase distortion synthesis
- Physical modelling synthesis
- Sample based synthesis
For a full explanation of how synths produce sound and change it check out this article.
What is the difference between analog and digital synths?
So we have established that to be a synth you have to use electronics to produce audio signals. But the way this is done varies between analog instruments and digital instruments.
Digital synths use digital signal processing (DSP) to produce sounds rather than analog electronic circuits. So even if a digital synthesizer doesn’t look like a computer… it is a computer. Even the earliest digital synthesizers of the 1970s were really just computers that looked like keyboards.
The digital synth produces a stream of numbers at a steady sample rate using algorithms which are converted to an analog sound which we can hear.
Analog electronics are more closely related to traditional instruments, like guitars or drums. You can play the same note on a guitar in several different ways, hard or softer, with or without a pick, and this will change the timbre and tone of what we hear. This is the interaction of the physical elements with one another, the wood, the metal and the air etc.
In analog synths the different electronic elements interact with one another and create unique sounds depending on how they are played. A digital hardware synth can try and recreate this digitally but it is very hard to do. This is why we still love to listen to the human voice or a violin play, it is very hard to accurately reproduce these sounds digitally. The same is the case for an analog synth sound. Just because they create sound using electronics rather than strings or vocal chords doesn’t mean they are that different.
What is the difference between a hardware and a software synth?
As computers advanced the need to have a stand-alone digital hardware synthesizer reduced. Computers were becoming powerful enough to have software synthesizers that could run at the same time as other software programs.
This has lead to a boom in VSTs:
What is a VST?
VST stands for ‘Virtual Studio Technology’ and so software synths are a form of VST. You will often see them referred to as ‘audio plug-ins’ within digital audio workstations.
As I mentioned in the history section earlier, these technologies are recent, only appearing in the 1990s. But VSTs now cover a whole range of software applications that mimic traditional hardware equivalents. This allows impressive music to be produced without the need for any hardware whatsoever.
You have broadly two types of VSTs:
- VSTsi, which are the virtual instruments such as the software synths.
- VSTfx, which are virtual effects, this could be anything from distortion, to delay, to a compressor.
So a hardware synth is one that has a physical presence. Whereas a software synth exists simply as software on a computer. A hardware synth, therefore, doesn’t have to be analog, you can have a digital hardware synth. This often causes confusion when people are debating which is best, analog or digital, and so thought I best clear it up.
In an attempt to avoid confusion, when talking advantages and disadvantages, I’ve divided the following sections into two battles:
- Analog hardware synth vs digital software synth
- Analog hardware synth vs digital hardware synth
Battle 1 – Analog Hardware Synths Vs Digital Software Synths
Advantages of Analog Hardware Synths
1) A hands-on approach to dialling in a sound
This is probably the most obvious advantage of the lot. Having a physical piece of hardware allows a more hand-on experience.
Now I hear you say “but you can just hook up a MIDI keyboard to your computer to control a software synth”. And you would be correct. But that MIDI keyboard was designed to be used with a vast array of software. The hardware synth is built with all the knobs and buttons having very specific jobs for use with that particular synth. No MIDI controller is ever going to have that same ‘feel’ to it.
2) You are likely to dedicate more time to mastering it
This is one rooted in personal experience.
As someone on a budget, I had to save up for quite a while to afford my first analog hardware synth. This meant that when I did finally buy it, the synth got my undivided attention for a long time. I watched hours of youtube videos and spent more hours messing around until I knew exactly how it worked.
The truth is that synths are not the most accessible instruments for beginners. If you are just starting on your synthesis journey (as with learning any instrument) you will need to dedicate quite a long time to mastering and understanding it. What are oscillators? What’s an LFO? What are filters? I did write an article recently to help beginners understand the basics of synths but there isn’t really a substitute to learning by doing.
The advantage of the low entry costs of software synths (more on that in the next section) can be a disadvantage too. I had downloaded lots of free virtual instruments before I bought my first hardware synth and I just didn’t dedicate the same time to learning them. It was a combination of not having as much invested in them, so I could just download more when I got too confused and the distractions of being on the computer.
I also have friends that have spent more money on software synths than I have on hardware ones! The temptation to buy more and more with just a click of a button can be hard to resist. At least with physical instruments, you can visually see when you have a problem when you can’t move in the studio for synths!
As with all these advantages they are just my experiences and you may be able to master synthesis on a software synth.
3) It will hold it’s value more than a software synth
They are more expensive, but for that reason, they will hold more value in the long term. Particularly if you are buying an older ‘vintage’ analog hardware synth.
A piece of software will cost you much less, but the company can produce millions of copies of it instantly. The version you purchased will only ever decrease in value after you buy it.
Hardware synths have to be manufactured and therefore exist in much lower numbers. Their value may initially decrease, but in the long term, they are likely to hold value much better than a software synth (providing you look after them!). This is particularly true for vintage synths that were produced in lower numbers. These rare items are collectable and will likely only go up in value as time goes on.
4) Uniqueness and Wabi-sabi
When describing why I love analog hardware synths to others, the Japanese term wabi-sabi describes it better than any English word or phrase ever could. The term describes a world centred on imperfection.
It is the same reason why we still see people buying vinyl records when it would be much easier to download the MP3 album online. Or why people still use film cameras. We crave the physical item and the potential imperfections that come with it. With vinyl, it is that crackle and fuzz as the needle hits the surface and it begins to spin. With a synth, it is the warmth and uniqueness that comes from the analog circuitry.
This is obviously seen as an important thing by creators of VSTs, as some have even been created to go out of tune and have the same imperfections and quirks as the old analog versions.
Maybe some of this is placebo. You will hear people say something like “in a blindfolded listening test, even experts can’t tell the difference between hardware synths and modern software replicas”. But this misses the point of the joy of owning a musical instrument. Even though it is a certain model, no other synth will be exactly the same as yours. And to me that is still a special thing.
5) Changing computers is less painful
Your computer or laptop will be at the centre of your home studio. The reality is though, that most will only last about 5 years before slowing down and needing to be replaced.
If your machine is loaded with 100s of software synths, changing to a new computer can be a painful experience. You have to transfer and re-install or download again from scratch. You then have to find or remember all the licence keys.
With a hardware synth you will have an instrument that you can use without the need for a computer, potentially for decades to come. And when you change your computer, you just plug it in and start playing with no headaches.
Advantages of Digital Software Synths
Cost is never a point to be underestimated when creating a home recording studio on a budget. It will come as no surprise that the cost of a digital software synth is pretty much always lower than hardware synths.
A piece of software only needs to be created once and can then be distributed an unlimited amount of times with no shipping costs to anywhere in the world. A hardware synth, even when produced on mass, still has to be created from scratch every time and then physically shipped to you.
These savings in manufacturing are passed onto the customer saving you $$$.
When building your home studio on a budget, any money you can save will help massively. There are much more important items to dedicate hard earned cash too than a synth when starting out. A good computer, a great pair of monitor speakers etc. Check out this article for a full list of the ‘essentials’ for beginners.
2) There are now software versions of many vintage synths
Only a few years ago the only way to create the sound of a vintage Roland Juno 106 synth, was to own a vintage Roland Juno 106 synth. This would (and still does) cost into the thousands of dollars.
These days a vast number of these classic synths have been recreated as digital virtual software instruments. Some will still argue they aren’t the same, but as technology keeps improving they are getting closer and closer, to the point where telling the difference between the two sounds is becoming nearly impossible.
3) These days only the very experienced ear can tell the difference in sound quality
Yes you will read in the forums that some people can “easily hear the difference between analog hardware and digital software synths”. And maybe those people can. But the reality is that as a beginner you will really struggle to tell the difference. Is that slight difference enough to make you spend ten times the money? Probably not I imagine.
People don’t like change, they don’t like the fact they spent all their money on synths. Maybe they can tell the difference, but if you can’t, then software may be a better option.
4) Workflow and space
When composing music workflow is key. Being able to quickly get a sound recorded when you have a moment of inspiration is essential. It is much easier to quickly load up a digital software synth in your DAW than it is to find the correct hardware synth, turn it on and start recording.
Unless you live in a mansion, a home recording studio is likely to be quite small. It might even just be a small area in the corner of a room. So you are unlikely to be able to have lots of hardware synths out and ready to play. On top of any amplifiers and other instruments such as guitars, it is just more space taken up. Particularly as most people just put them on the desk next to the computer where they will certainly get in your way.
Using software synths means you can just have one MIDI keyboard which can control an infinite number of synths and taking up very little space indeed.
5) Many analog hardware synths are very complicated to master for a beginner
If you are thinking of taking your first steps into the world of synthesis be careful just going out and buying an analog synth.
As I mentioned above, learning on an analog synth can be an advantage. But it is only an advantage if you are prepared to dedicate a lot of time to mastering it. Be prepared for a lot of confusion and frustration. If you are not prepared then this could put you off synths forever.
A software synth gives you a low-cost entry point to the synth world. You can download one for free in some cases and have a play around before deciding whether you love or hate synthesis. Then when you become more obsessed and become a bit of a ‘sound nerd’, you can think about getting an analog hardware synth.
6) They don’t break as easily and you get updates
If you buy a rare vintage analog synth and it breaks. Good luck finding the correct parts or someone with the knowledge of how to repair it.
Although computers and laptops which power the digital software synth can break, the actual software is unlikely to break. They also have the advantage of updates. A developer can improve them or add new features, and instead of having to buy a new one you simply download the update.
Battle 2 – Analog Hardware Synths Vs Digital Hardware Synths
Many of the advantages of analog hardware vs digital software are in owning a physical product. So when comparing analog hardware and digital hardware those advantages are the same for both. You will have the knobs to twiddle, the unique collector’s item etc.
So the battle here comes down to sound.
Older digital hardware synths struggled to replicate an analog sound. But they did have their own unique sound that made it onto many iconic records. Analog equipment has a warmer more satisfying sound to many than older digital synths but that might not be what you are after. The key is one isn’t necessarily better or worse, they are just different.
Analog synths also give you a greater variety of sounds as the sound waves are created in an analog circuit. There are infinite ways all the different elements of the circuit such as the oscillaotrs and filters can interact with one another. In a digital hardware synth you are constrained to 1s and 0s and so you can’t get the same precision.
In an analog synth you often end up creating weird sounds by accident. Feedback may occur in the circuitry causing some crazy sounds. The real difference and fun of analog comes when you push it to it’s limits. You are unlikely to get this in a digital synth unless it has been programmed to imitate this.
I always seem to end up concluding the same thing in these articles: it comes down to your preference and taste.
I’ve outlined the advantages of the two options in the analog vs digital battle, but you don’t have to agree with them. I still have a soft spot for vintage analog synths, in fact, I wrote an article with 15 reasons why everyone should own one. But as the years go by, the case for the digital software synths gets stronger and stronger.
I think the digital synths edge the battle now. The incredible value of some synths cannot be disputed and the sound quality is incredible in many cases. If you have the money and you, like me, have a soft spot for owning the analog and something unique then you should definetly get one. But if you are a beginner and on a budget, software synths open up an entire new world of sound creation and the money saved could probably be better spent elsewhere in the studio.
My main tip if you head down the digital software route is to get a good MIDI keyboard!
I made the mistake of buying a cheap MIDI keyboard at first and it was a regret. It didn’t have enough keys to play piano parts. It didnt have enough knobs and buttons so I still had to use a keyboard and mouse in conjunction with it. And there is nothing more uninspiring than creating music with a mouse and keyboard!