A software synthesizer (or virtual instrument) refers to a software application for generating digital audio. Also known as “softsynths”, these computer programs are often fashioned after existing models of musical hardware such as a synthesizers or drum machines. There are advantages and disadvantages to working with virtual instruments.
The Advantages of Softsynths
Although softsynths require a personal computer to operate, they are almost always more cost effective than their hardware counterparts. For example, one can readily purchase the Arturia softsynth version of a Minimoog for a fraction of the price of the real analog synth. The money saved provides the option of buying several virtual instruments instead of a single dedicated hardware module. This means the user can have a collection of both current and retro sounds without spending thousands of dollars.
Softsynths are obviously more portable than their hardware equivalents. Carting around just one synthesizer can be a hassle, let alone trying to carry several modules with all the necessary cabling. With today’s virtual instrument technology, it is easy to fit a virtual synth rig with a sample library on a typical PC or Mac laptop.
Another advantage of using softsynths is the ease at which they interface with software sequencers and digital audio workstations (such as Cubase and Pro Tools). Regardless of which DAW is used, most virtual instruments will work seamlessly with the host software. And of course, they do this without the need to patch any physical cables.
And as with most things digital, these virtual instruments produce inherently less undesirable noise than the hardware versions – perhaps implying that the software synthesizers can sound better than the originals.
The Disadvantages of Using Softsynths
The first problem with software synthesizers stems from the fact that they must run in a third party environment. This environment is usually a personal computer meaning that the virtual instrument designers must work around the architecture of the computer’s operating system (such as Mac OS or Windows) to make their software function properly.
In many cases, this is not a problem but it undeniably introduces compromise to the software synthesizer design process. Softsynth stability also becomes an issue whenever the operating system has to be upgraded. Hardware synthesizers eschew both of these problems by having dedicated system software designed in conjunction with the hardware.
By nature, a software synthesizer does not have a dedicated physical user interface. The user must use a mouse, a trackpad or a generic third party MIDI controller to tweak the on-screen parameters. Of course, there are some notable exceptions such as Korg’s dedicated MS-20 MIDI controller.
Virtual instruments generally require a fair amount of computer processing power. This is not a problem when running one or two softsynths. However, it is easy to get carried away and have half a dozen (or more) softsynths running at once while using other audio plug-ins to process them. This results in a massive amount of number-crunching which can slow the fastest CPUs to a crawl very quickly.
A hardware synth needs only to receive tiny MIDI messages from a DAW to produce audio. Many DAWs do offer the option of “freezing” softsynths to save CPU power but this slows down workflow and is unnecessary when working with hardware instruments.
Hardware Synth or Software Synth: Which Sounds Better?
This is a highly subjective debate, drawing heavily on each user’s unique tastes and sonic experience. Proponents of virtual instrument technology suggest that softsynths sound as good as if not better than their hardware counterparts while hardware purists will scoff at the notion of there even being a comparison.
The one aspect of this debate that cannot be denied is that virtual instrument technology is constantly improving. The softsynths of today are closer than ever to emulating not just the stock sounds of the older hardware, but also the subtle nuances that made those original dedicated hardware instruments so desirable in the first place.