What I want to do today is go over the great hardware vs software synthesizer debate to answer the questions —
Do hardware synths sound better?
And by extension…
What are the pros and cons of a hardware synthesizer compared to a soft synthesizer or a VST and in which situation would you choose one over the other?
This article is mainly targeted at newcomers to music production but there will – inevitably – be some ideas that even pro producers haven’t thought of before.
Do Hardware Synths Really Sound Better than Soft Synths?
When soft synths first came out, they were far behind hardware synths in sound quality. Today soft synths are catching up and they sound better every day. In terms of variety, there still isn’t a single soft synth that offers a richer array of sounds like a hardware synth.
You still have to use a raft of soft synths to emulate a hardware synth.
Let’s go over a few basics for those of you that might be new to this.
A hardware synth (also known as an analog synth) typically has a keyboard, some kind of control panel with a raft of controllers, perhaps a display, and outputs to connect to an amplification system.
If a hardware synth doesn’t have a keyboard it’s a synthesizer module and you control it with a MIDI keyboard.
A hardware synth is, effectively, a self-contained device. Some even go as far as calling it a musical instrument… but I have my reservations about that.
A software synth (also known as a VST, a VSTi for VST instrument, or simply a soft synth) is a program that runs as a synthesizer on your computer.
Using a soft synth in music production is known as synth programming.
To program a software synthesizer, you are going to need a USB MIDI controller (or MIDI keyboard) which can play and send MIDI data to the soft synth.
Again, just like with the hardware synth, you’ll need to connect some type of sound output device (such headphones or amplifier) to your computer to actually hear the music.
This is connected to the sound card of your computer or using a USB audio interface.
Are we all on the same page up to there?
The Differences Between Hardware and Software Synths
Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s get on with the differences and the pros and cons.
Now, obviously, a hardware synth is a physical device that has a presence in your studio. It will take up some space. You can play around with physical knobs and enjoy its physical existence, but you’ll need to dust it from time to time.
Software on the other hand just occupies disk space and uses up memory on your computer. You can program with a raft of soft synths, look at this massive list of VSTs plugins on Landr.
Difference #1 — Hardware Synths are Extremely Quick and Intuitive
Hardware synths have a control panel with knobs and sliders for immediate hands-on control to adjust parameters and tweak the sound.
It’s extremely quick and intuitive once you know your way around a hardware synth.
You can play and tweak at the same time to create an immersive performance.
Although software synths have beautiful graphical UIs, at the end of the day, it’s really just a bunch of controls on a screen that you click and drag with your mouse.
Some soft synths are can be fiddly and unsatisfying, this is perhaps what producers mean when they say you don’t feel like you’re playing a musical instrument.
This drawback is somewhat mitigated by MIDI controllers which provide a set of sliders and knobs, but it’s a generic layout, and you’ll often waste a lot of time mapping the visible controls to the parameters in your software.
Turn on a hardware synth are you’re creating music within seconds, that’s not soft synths.
I’m not just talking about booting up your Mac or PC and soft synth here.
You have to start your DAW, find and load the soft synth, perhaps do an update or two. You may need to mess around with audio settings and you’ll inevitably find yourself tinkering with configurations (sometimes after breaking changes) and latency buffer settings.
That’s no fun at all when all you really want to do is actually get to making music.
Difference #3 — Some Hardware Synths Have Sequencers and Song Recorders Builtin
Some hardware synths have sequencers and song recorders builtin which is a really quick and easy way to capture spontaneous musical ideas.
This is much easier than when you have to start your computer and set up everything just right to get anything done.
Difference #4 — You Need Dozens of Different Soft Synths and Plugins to Get a Wide Range of Sounds
A hardware synth offers thousands of sounds in every conceivable category from piano to strings to organs to drums and so on, in one single device.
There isn’t really a single soft synth that offers thousands of sounds in every possible domain, yet. Instead, they tend to focus on one specialty or type of synthesis.
You need dozens of different soft synths and plugins to get a wide range of sounds that a single hardware synth provides.
However, a hardware or soft synth specializing in one type of sound will typically do a much better job than a jack of all trades — that’s something to think about.
That applies equally to software or hardware.
Difference #5 — Soft Synths are Much More Portable
If you want to make music on the move, there are hardware synths that are really great for this purpose.
You can make an entire track on the road.
However, you probably won’t be taking a collection of vintage hardware synths on the road with you.
A soft synth is just as portable (if not more). You just take your laptop, audio interface and a controller with you.
Difference #6 — It’s Easier to Get Your Hands on New Sounds With Soft Synths
If you want some new sounds, and you have a classic vintage synth, you’ll need to hunt around before you get your hands on a good example.
If those sounds come with a new synth, then you either visit the store when it opens or you place an order online and wait for delivery.
With soft synths, you can strike early. Want a new synth with a particular sound? No problem. You could be downloading and programming it within minutes.
Difference #7 — The Big One: Software is Undeniably Cheaper than Hardware
If you were to buy 10 different hardware synths, you’re probably out of pocket in the thousands, at least. 10 soft synths, however, are a fraction of the price.
There are hundreds of great new synths and plugins you can use to create music without spending a penny.
But there’s the flip side…
…buy a classic hardware synth and it will keep its value, forever.
A new hardware synth will depreciate, but it will retain most of its value for years to come — easily.
Software suffers from huge obsolescence.
It’ll probably be worthless after just a few years, and even if it retains some perceived value, it is tricky to resell because of license transfer hassles. You’ll probably never see any of your money again.
Difference #8 — Soft Synths are Recorded Without Any Loss in Quality
If you want to record your hardware synth then you probably need to run analog outputs into your recording system. This comes with degradation in audio quality as the signal is converted between analog and digital.
Some new synths do have digital USB audio interfaces, builtin. But still, the majority don’t.
Soft synths are recorded, in the computer, completely digitally without any loss in quality
Difference #9 — Soft Synths Have Much Higher Latency
Latency is the delay between when you hit the key and when the sound is generated.
High latency is a horrible experience and should be avoided at all costs.
Even hardware synths have some latency (the keyboard needs to be scanned, the oscillators must generate the sound), but software synths have much higher latency since the CPU is doing many other tasks.
The speed and memory of your operating system, the USB bus, and the audio interface all play their part as well in adding to the delay.
Hardware wins this hands-down.
Difference #10 — Hardware Synths are More Reliable
Hardware synths are dedicated devices, designed and built to do synthesis.
They are rock solid and won’t let you down.
You’re running your soft synth within a DAW, on a complex OS running on unpredictable hardware specs that are also doing a million other tasks.
Browsing the internet, running other software, updating your OS… you will get audio glitches and the computer will inevitably run into some problems from time to time.
You can handle that in a studio but definitely not live.
Who knows if the software will still run in 10 years or will become incompatible with a future software or computer hardware?
Although a vintage synth may require some costly maintenance from time to time, the hardware synth will still be going strong decades from now.
Difference #11 — Soft Synths Have More Recording Convenience
Recording a software synth is a breeze in your DAW, you simply record the MIDI data which is then rendered through the software synth in real-time or when you export the final track.
If you need to make changes, you just edit the MIDI data.
You can make changes to the sound or automate parameters anytime you like.
The synths and their patches or settings are saved with the song.
For hardware synths, you can also record the MIDI but then you’ll need to reconnect the synth and find a correct patch whenever you load the session.
Alternatively, you could record the audio, but then you lose the ability to make changes to the sounds.
Difference #12 — It’s Easy to Become Overwhelmed by Synth Programming
It’s easy to get sidetracked when programming synths on your computer.
With software, we have so many options — hundreds of VST synths with thousands of patches. It’s easy to become bewildered and overwhelmed — good old paralysis by analysis.
This heavily affects your creative process.
Pull up a patch on a hardware synths and it just you and the instrument.
Learning how to use a few dedicated hardware synths however is a much straight forward process.
Difference #13 — Are Old Soft Synths Worth Anything?
There’s a lot to be said about a collection of classic vintage synths. A lot of music producers seem to like that.
I think we can all agree there’s even sentimental value in a physical hardware synth.
You can closely emulate the sound of a hardware synth, but you can never recreate the experience of owning and playing the real thing.
A lot of master producers attach a lot of sentimental value to their synth gear.
Well, of course, choosing a synth doesn’t have to be an either-or decision.
I personally like both approaches.
I love the convenience of making a track with software and also experimenting with the great free and cheap soft synths that are available.
On the other hand, quite literally, I love the hands-on control and immediate inspiration you can get with hardware.
You start to appreciate the sentimental value when you play a hardware instrument, much the same way you do with a saxophone or guitar.
Ultimately, you don’t have to choose one or the other, they are not mutually exclusive options.
For the most part, you need the best of both worlds.
I’ve highlighted the differences and pros and cons so you can make up your mind depending on what factors are most important to you.
You can make great music with either.
It’s not the gear that moves people, the musicianship is what really matters.
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That’s it for this article.