real synths vs. soft synths – advantages and disadvantages

let’s face it, there is no feeling on earth quite like it, sat at your actual mini-moog or yamaha dx7 or korg m1…the feel of the keys, the knowledge that you can push a button and “that” sound will come out, the knowledge that you can reach over suddenly and bend that note down two octaves…the knowledge that you can modulate a chord until it sounds flanged and warped to kingdom come…

there is a lot that is undeniably good about playing real synthesizers, it’s so tactile and so real – and each synth has it’s own personality and quirks, good and bad.

I know a lot of you have “real” synths, some of you have softsynths, and many have both. but what are the real advantages or disadvantages of real vs. software synths?

this is a topic that I will personally be “torn” on for a long time, possibly always, because I simply could not afford hardware synthesizers, although I have owned a few. if I could have afforded them, I would have a roomful of synths, moogs and korgs and yamahas and synclaviers and god only knows what else.

since I don’t, reluctantly at first, but now, fully embracing them – I began to get into softsynth. my friend and business partner ken mistove helped me at first, way back in SONAR 4, to get my first softsynths going, and over time, it’s become easier – well, somewhat easier – to install and use them.

the first softsynth that really captivated my interest is the m-tron pro mellotron softsynth. and like it’s hardware counterpart – it has it’s quirks. but what is also has is the most beautiful and the most amazing set of voices ever, including many looped and enhanced voices (as well as all of the originals) and it even has bizarre voices such as some pre-recorded sections of a roxy music song, that roxy used in performance; it has black sabbath samples which are awesome, and of course the famous beatles nylon string spanish guitar riff from “bungalow bill” on the white album.

so it’s beyond faithful to the original, but with almost none of the problems that are traditionally associated with “real” mellotrons. in fact, the only real issue I have with the m-tron pro is that it’s a bit too “hot”, you have to crank the output volume way down or you will end up with bad clipping.

but besides that – in a case like this, where the original hardware is very, very expensive, having something like the m-tron pro available is brilliant – let’s face it, the average working musician simply cannot afford a hardware mellotron!! so in this particular instance, I would say that the software version is the clear winner, for so many reasons.

first of all, I sat down in 2009, and made an entire album with it (“sky full of stars”) an album that practically “made itself” it was so easy to do, and the expansive and remarkable palette of sounds that the m-tron offers gave me so much flexibility – any sound I could dream, was probably a preset. I should take a moment to mention the artist presets, where well known keyboardists have programmed patches especially for m-tron – and I have to admit, I use those sounds a lot – the artist patches are outstanding, and yet another reason why soft synth mellotron beats real mellotron.

secondly, quite a few established artists that used to use hardware mellotrons, are now using m-tron pro onstage – so that in itself is huge testament to the quality of this soft synth.

finally, it is just the obvious physical consideration – the real mellotron is neither light nor small and is prone to mechanical failure…so not having to carry that massive beast around is yet another advantage of using the software version.

so in my opinion, in this case, the software version is vastly superior, it does everything the hardware version does and about 700 percent more…so it’s a bit of a no-brainer.

but there are other instances where this may not be true. for example, some of the classics, like the mini-moog, I think might be a little bit more difficult to replicate in the world of soft synths. the mellotron has a particular world of sampled sounds which was finite, but m-tron increased that in a most remarkable way, but, still based on the core sounds.

of course, the moog creates it’s sounds in a completely different way, it doesn’t use samples, so I think it may be a bit more difficult to emulate in the world of soft synths. I do have a couple of moog soft synths, and they are both remarkable, I love them, but unfortunately, I have never owned a real moog of any description (although I did once own an ARP Odyssey) so I cannot compare the experience to the experience of owning and playing a real moog.

I think that for sample based sound libraries, such as the mellotron library, and the fairlight library, that creating software synth versions of a mellotron and of a fairlight, well, the task is made simpler by the fact that the sounds are samples, whereas with both additive and subtractive synthesis, there are some ridiculously complex combinations of oscillators and filters that must be hell to program.

this might explain why we don’t yet have an exact soft synth “version” of certain synths yet, because it’s just too difficult to replicate the exact functions in every detail. having said that, I am very partial to one of my soft synths, the korg ims-20, which is one of the few fully detailed soft synths I’ve seen,where you can actually set up your oscillators and filters and ROUTING by hand – and that is fantastic – it offers and experience that is very, very similar (apparently, since once again, I could never afford the real thing!!!) to the original hardware synth.

my two moog soft synths also offer full control of oscillators, filters, ASDR, and so on, and for me, since I’ve never had or played the korg or moog originals, they offer a remarkably “real” experience – and for me, I can’t discern any real advantage or disadvantage of these soft synths as compared to their hardware equivalents. does anyone out there have a real korg ms-20, AND the ims-20 soft synth? I would love to hear your thoughts on how well, or how badly, the soft synth version compares to the “real thing”.

I must apologise here; I am mixing soft synths (m-tron pro, etc.) in with applications, but in my mind, they are all “soft synths” whether they play standalone on your PC; or if you call them up in your DAW’s synth rack; or if they are iPad apps that you access via a MIDI keyboard – already, in my mind, all of those are blurring into just….”soft synths”.

I never could afford a mellotron or a fairlight, so having the soft synth or app version of those very, very expensive hardware devices – well, in those two cases, I am going to vote for the soft synth or app version every time – since I will never play the originals.

for less expensive synths, for affordable synths, well, those may be more arguable. however, when I think back to my ARP Odyssey – frankly, no offence to Roger Powell or anyone at ARP who worked so hard on those early synths – but my Odyssey was almost unplayable – really difficult to tune – and I only used it very occasionally, with a LOT of set up and tuning time…it just wasn’t quite there. so even for a synth like that, if there was an ARP Odyssey soft synth – I would buy that every time over the original, no questions asked.

so almost solely because I could not afford many real synths, I have now ended up to be a huge proponent of the soft synth and the iPad application. I have so many of both, that I simply do not have the time to learn and use them all! as time permits, I learn another one, and another, because I LOVE finding new and unusual sounds that I can use in compositions or improvisations…every time I download a new synth app, it is so exciting to work through the presets to hear what the inventors have come up with for stock sounds, to test out the various arpeggiations, and so on – it’s enormous fun.

the main advantage of a soft synth or app is simple; no bulky hardware to move around. that’s the main thing that makes soft synths and apps so attractive.

but there are other advantages, such as the additional voices in the mellotron that are not in the original – enhancements like that, make soft synths very, very attractive. I could literally sit and play that mellotron all day long, I could happily make ten more albums using only the mellotron – it’s that remarkable.

in fact, when it came time to work on the “dreamtime” album (forthcoming 2013, the debut album from “scorched by the sun”) I first tried using guitars and ebows to overdub bryan helm’s pre-recorded contributions, but it just was not “working” – and then I had an idea – what if I used the mellotron exclusively? and that was the answer. everything went really well once I switched to the m-tron pro!! so – soft synth to the rescue 😉

I am afraid I am completely spoiled, having so many beautiful soft synths and amazing apps, my interest in real synthesizers has waned considerably…unfortunately. of course, if I had the room, and I had the money…but I don’t, so I am doubly pleased, because I can still PLAY all those remarkable instruments…in their more compact form.

what do you think? are there cases where you feel the hardware version is truly superior – and why? I am a guitarist, primarily, who happened to learn piano at an early age, and who happened to get into synthesizers early on, but I would love to hear from some real keyboardists, what are your thoughts on this?

obviously, soft synths work for me – but that is just a personal preference, and I would love to hear your thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of either approach.



4 responses to “real synths vs. soft synths – advantages and disadvantages

  1. Obviously hands on is more fun and I think is ultimately less expensive as the hardware will have a good resale value and the software one won’t. A real TB 303 or 808 sounds better than any sampled or emulated version hence why they are so expensive secondhand now. Hardware is also better at making bass sounds in my opinion as it allways seems to just rattle that bit more for want of a better description

    • Of course, I reckon anyone would take the hardware synth if they could. I could never afford them.
      I am a guitarist anyway, who plays synths too, but any money I ever had, went to support guitar stuff. So I never could afford hardware synths except once in awhile, when one would fall into my lap, and I kept it. I also very foolishly sold a couple of classics, an ARP Odyssey for one, and a beautiful Serge…two huge regrets, but what can you do??

    • I understand your point, but I must also … gently … disagree. I have both types: I have two classic hardware synthesizers from the 1970s, that I’ve used in live performance and in the studio, and one modern hardware synth, that I use in the studio. Those hardware synths appear on some of my CDs from the 1990s, they are part of my sound – although I am actually a guitarist.

      However, I have also used software synthesizers, most notably, the M-Tron Pro, on many recordings made over the past five years.

      In each case, on a 1990s CD of mine where I am playing say, my Yamaha DX7S, or, on a 2012 CD of mine where I am playing a software M-Tron Pro Mellotron using an 88-key hardware keyboard to trigger it – in both cases, my fingers hit a key, and a sound was generated, and it was music – and it is recorded onto in one case, a 20 year old album, in another, a one year old album – both, inarguably, music, both – made with musical instruments.

      your hardware synthesizer – I hate to say this, but the sounds it makes are produced with some kind of software, or, for older machines, oscillators, filters, etc. but there are still “instructions” that say “when artist presses key, make SINE WAVE sound”. personally, I don’t care where those instructions come from – if it sounds GOOD, I will use it on my records – so for me – either, both, any – all musical instruments.

      I have a battery powered tiny-keyed “toy” yamaha synth with a built in sequencer – it’s no less a musical instrument than an M1 or my beloved DX7S.

      I love them all, and I wouldn’t speak in absolutes about them personally – but, despite this, I do understand and respect your comment – I get it. But music, in my case, comes from both kinds – it really does, therefore, in my experience, they are both musical instruments. One is more portable than the other – but just MORE portable…

      All the best, and thanks for sharing!


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