“Analog, digital, virtual analog, software synths… which one is the best option? Which ones sound the best? This is one of the most frequent questions I get from my listeners, students and even friends from the music industry. So I thought I’d post my thoughts about this in a very condensed and non-technical form. Obviously, I won’t be comparing specific models or talk about the exceptions in this article, rather discuss the benefits/disadvantages of the four major categories in general (as for professional or advanced amateur studio use). So let’s go from the most fundamental to the more recent concepts.
Can a digital synth sound as good as an analog one?
Define good. A digital synth can sound horrible or it can sound way more interesting than an analog, depending on what type of sound and character you’re after. They both have strengths and weaknesses, and it simply doesn’t make sense to compare them without talking about some specific characters. For example, for sounds with a truly vintage character, for soft-saturation-rich sounds, for naturally unstable tones or somewhat uncontrollably fluctuating parameters, analog instruments will have an advantage, while most acoustic instrument imitations will sound quiet pathetic coming from analog electronic instruments. Besides actual samples of acoustic instruments, many digital synths will give you access to non-traditional parameters, diverse control options including MIDI, other than subtractive synthesis methods such as stable FM, PM, PD, additive, wavetable, granular, etc., and modeled analog component designs (algorithms), which might be unfeasible or practically impossible to build in the analog domain. So, get that old digital synth down from the attic.
Virtual analogs never sound as good as real analogs, right?
Wrong. Again, define good. The individual character of a virtual analog will likely come from different elements/attributes of the sound it produces than those of real analogs, and if that’s what you’re after, they might very well sound bigger, fatter, harsher, punchier than their analog relatives. Built-in effects may be available as part of the sound design process (as opposed to just system effects) in many of the virtual analogs (think of the Virus or the Supernova), and can often be controlled and routed in unconventional ways and interact with the more traditional attributes of sound. While virtual analogs will certainly have their own character, they will let you create sounds with a different character quite easily, as virtual analogs typically offer a large number of editable parameters, the non-traditional combinations of these, and highly flexible routing and control capabilities. Classic analogs have their individual character, which is fantastic, but might be somewhat more limiting when you’re trying to create sounds that don’t necessarily feature the typical character of a given model.
If you are using a VA and going for a classic”imperfection” (of steady pitch, amplitude, control and dynamic behavior) of a true analog sound, an often highly desirable character, you will have to imitate this imperfection by randomizing the value of several parameters– still, it just won’t be the same as the real thing. While the “warmth” of an analog synth can be described with an algorhythm and added to a virtual analog sound, a monotonously consistent (sampled) analog character or a digitally pre-programmed change of that character just won’t give you the same sonic quality and feel as the dynamically (and often randomly-and-dynamically) changing warmth and imperfection of a classic instrument. These exciting imperfections result from minor, unpredictable voltage changes, unrelated parameters’ coincidental effect on each other, use of a less consistently acting keyboard, difference in design (often no consistency there with hand-built models) and degree of stability between the oscillators, temperature changes, etc. Not to mention the unpredictable effect of a true analog instrument’s mood at a given time, i.e. what kind of day it’s having…
Do the new versions of vintage analog synths, those with fully analog signal paths (like the Voyager, MS-20 mini, OB 2-voice, etc.) sound the same as their original versions?
Comparison test (including my own) show that they never sound the same. First of all, most units of classic analogs don’t sound the same to begin with, while there is very minimal difference, if any, between the mass-manufactured units of today’s analog synths (with a couple of exceptions). These synths can be really great as their analog signal paths and components give you the raw, warm, forgiving, “pushable”, powerful sound you might like, but with character stability, digital control and convenient features (flexible routing, performance controls, MIDI, software interface, patch memory, etc.).
Yet, sounding different doesn’t necessarily mean that they sound better or worse. More stable, yes. The question is whether you like a more or a less stable tuning, and a more or a less consistent reaction (amplitude, pitch, filter amounts, dynamics, etc.) to your otherwise consistent performance. Whether you like a cleaner or a “dirtier” analog output? In other words, when recording it, do you prefer more of a “the same notes played repeatedly never sound the same” behavior, or a more predictable, consistent sound? If the latter, recently (post-2002) built analogs (or most VAs) will be your best choices.
Another factor that might greatly infuence your choice is the synth’s ability to store your patches or settings. Today’s analogs often offer this functionality – for most, this is a clear advantage (more about the rest of us at another time). Lastly, besides the differences in sonic character and features, classic analog, new analog, and virtual analog instruments feel entirely different as a whole; the materials they are made of, the feel of their keyboard and controls… and of course, we all have our individual preferences between numeric displays, hi-res lcd screens with lots of details – or no screens at all.
Softsynths are just like digital synthesizers, but thank to the host computer they run on, they have more memory, handle larger samples, have more polyphony, offer higher multitimbrality, feature better interfaces… overall they are just better.
As far as the specs: yes. Better overall: definitely no! It is true that the numbers make software synthesizers seem like clear winners (especially if you don’t plan to show them off on stage), but I would argue that they have at least two major disadvantages, even when compared to digital synths.
The smaller disadvantage is that the sound they create either stays in the digital domain, or gets converted to analog signal by the D/A converter of your computer’s sound card or connected audio interface. This might not be a disadvantage for one or two sounds, but when 10-12 different sounds come from 6-8 different plug-ins or software, and they all go through the exact same host application and the same hardware’s D/A conversion, they might (and often they do) get a bit processed, “homogenized” the same way. Think of this as an extra spice, an extra character, which becomes part of every one of your sounds, making them sound a little more similar to each other than they did before conversion. On the contrary, if you keep them in the digital domain (the sounds never leaving your DAW), or if you have a very high quality interface with highly transparent D/A converters, you will end up with no added character in any of your sounds, at least in theory. This might be exactly what you want, but personally, I prefer to get that little bit of an extra sonic diversity, as long as it comes from different D/A converters, pre-amplifiers and other components for each digitally generated sound. I have blind-A-B tested the digital (adat, s/pdif) and analog outputs of several of my digital and virtual analog synths, and in 80% of the time I preferred the analog signal. (Surprisingly, the 20% of these synths where I opted to use the digital output, were virtual analogs!)
This is not to say that the advantage of an analog signal is that it’s warmer, less sterile, or in any way better than the digital signal – in fact, in some cases it’s less “clean” and less dynamic. But, the analog signal is usually a bit more exciting, as its character isn’t as consistent as the digital signal’s more “always perfect” character. Letting favorable accidents (like analog distortion, signal degradation) happen can lead to unexpected (good or bad) character in your sound – and now we are talking about a creative element of sound shaping, as opposed to just sonic quality!
The other disadvantage of software synths is even more interesting, partly because it’s actually a difference between software synths and all types of hardware synths (not only digital), in other words, in-the-box vs outboard gear. It’s a less obvious yet HUGE difference that only a few uesrs think about:
The consequences of a different interface
Based on my experience as a professional electronic music composer and synthesist, and as an owner of dozens of hardware synths and a long list of softsynths, I can assure you that the differences in the way we control software and hardware synths differentiate them more from one another, than their sound or features ever could. While hardware synths might feature (ideally) a large number of switches, buttons, faders, sliders, dials, encoders, joysticks, software synth applications and plug-ins typically offer a streamlined graphical interface, showing the image of buttons, sliders, selectable parameter windows, drop-down menus and value fields.
Our physical connection with an electronic instrument plays an important role in musical sound design: being “one” with a familiar model often yields more diverse and interesting results. While “mousing around” on the screen and trying to access certain parameters in menus and sub-menus of a software synth can make the sound sculpting process way too streamlined, unintuitive and even frustrating, the literally hands-on operation of the hardware synths makes the user able to hear or imagine a sound or tonal character first, at the same time reach for a dedicated knob and take the sound to the just imagined direction instantaneously. No ideas lost or “textures in your mind” gone before your ears get to hear the changes in the sound – the mind is ready to take the instantaneously heard sound to a new direction in real time by directing the hands. This sensation of literally touching a parameter, this continuous two-way feedback between the two hands and the ear/mind ensures a highly creative and idea-inducing sound shaping process, which is largely or completely missing when one is using an indirect controller such as a mouse, is entering values, scrolling through menus. Even with a controller keyboard, you are limited to one particular interface, the controls of which were not designed with your particular soft synth in mind. We use the mouse for way too many things in our lives today, why make the way we control all of our instruments so uniform, too?
Although some awkward menus of small-display digital hardware synths might slow you down in the sound design process, they will still offer a direct hands-on experience, and a menu system featuring a different structure and logic for every instrument – less likely that you will follow the usual left-to-right structure of soft synths, and less chance that you will end up at the same place when you’re trying to create a brand new sonic texture or behavior.
The significance of the difference between what tools (like a mouse vs physical buttons) and what senses (such as seeing vs touching) we use to communicate with an instrument is greatly underestimated by most, yet they might allow users to unlock the real creative and unique potentials of their hardware instruments, and more importantly, expand and realize the user’s sonic ideas.
Don’t get me wrong – I like many software synthesizers and actually use several in Studio CS. So where do I see their advantage? Some of them will feature unique parameters or functions not found anywhere else, and using these in conjunction with the more traditional ones can lead you to new sonic territories. Unfortunately, these instruments are quiet rare, I could name only a handful that give you truly new and actually useful options (and they aren’t the really popular ones). If you want a totally sterile, noise- and unintentionally distortion-free sound, they are a great choice, especially when you’re keeping your entire production inside of your DAW. Then, there are the obvious practical benefits, such as saving physical space (they take up none), and saving money (they usually cost fraction of the hardware instruments, or are even free) for the user. They usually have a faster learning curve, they offer a simple-to-understand, large graphical interface, many preset sounds and the ease of saving user sounds with a single click. They won’t increase your electric bill, you can’t drop them by accident, you won’t ever need replacement parts, and they don’t even need cleaning – softsynths are definitely the most convenient option when it comes to synthesizers.
The question is, however: is it convenience that you want, when it comes to your sound?