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Tools or Toys? Why your synths might be ruining your music

Updated: Aug 29, 2020

The birth of synthesizers and the birth of electronic music are essentially one and the same. The meaning of the term "electronic music" may have evolved over the decades, and the variety of sounds offered by synths at this point may seem almost infinite, but synthesizer sounds are at the core of the genre and will likely remain there forever.

I've owned around 20 synths in my lifetime. Some vintage, some state-of-the-art. Some cheap, some expensive. There's something magical about these dream machines: you play some notes, turn some dials, and something cool and entirely new fills your ears. I will admit it's easy to become obsessed. New models are developed every year, and whenever I see a demo of one, I still salivate and start looking for my credit card. But I never hit that Buy button. In fact, I don't only any of those synths any more...

...I got rid of every single one.

Every. Single. One.

Because I realized I was turning into this guy...

Don't be this guy! (...apologies to renowned producer BT, pictured here)

This is my advice to fellow electronic music makers. Don't become a synth collector/hoarder. Don't get sucked into the world of perpetual sound design. Don't become a "knob twiddler". I was, and it turned out to be my main barrier to actually making (and more importantly completing) songs.

I finally had the epiphany that all this technology was less of a power tool for making music and more of a huge distraction; a hurdle; a productivity killer. I realized I wanted to be a music maker more than a sound designer. So I ditched hardware synths and went all digital. Nowadays there are a plethora of amazing software synthesizers to choose from, some that mimic the sound and circuitry of hardware synths, and some that go in completely new directions. But what they all have in common is that they come with a shit ton of preset sounds. Presets crafted by professional sound designers. Folks that know a lot more about how to program synths that I ever will. So it makes perfect sense to leave that job to the experts, and free myself up form that chore so that I can focus on the music.

Now, I've observed a certain degree of snobbery amongst electronic musicians, along the lines of "I never use presets, yuck, I always design my synthesizer sounds from scratch". The preset haters will complain that soft synths don't sound as good, or don't give you as much control over the sounds. In my opinion the first point is untrue, and the second is largely irrelevant. When I see musicians manipulating hardware synth controls in real time, it's nearly always just basics like filter cutoff and resonance, and soft synths make it pretty easy to wire these settings to knobs on your master keyboard, if you really wanna do that.

Another benefit of soft synths is their integration with recording software (aka "DAWs"). Your DAW sends the MIDI notes, and the synth sends digital audio right back into the DAW. Dead simple. With hardware synths, there are setup and lag and audio recording issues to deal with, plus the number of different parts that your hardware can play at once is relatively limited. With soft synths I can have as many copies going at once as I like.

Another advantage of soft synths is their price - typically only a fraction of what hardware synths cost. But a word of warning: There are many to choose from these days, and with those lower prices it can be easy to fall into the same trap you did with hardware synths, and start obsessively collecting! Fortunately most offer a free trial version, which will give you a chance to figure out which ones are really going to meet your needs.

Someone only ever making long-form ambient electronica. But never actually hitting Record. Taken in 1976 or 2020.

While I do miss the pure joy of manipulating hardware synths, I am so glad I made the switch. It has made the whole creative process so much more fluid. Pretty much all the synth sounds on our album Drama were created using Omnisphere from Spectrasonics. Omnisphere comes with almost 14,000 presets. That might sound like a lot to wade through, but it has a powerful search engine that makes it easy to discover and compare sounds that have the specific characteristics you are looking for. It's also very easy to tweak individual sound settings, and it has one of the best arpeggiators I've ever seen.

For those that are interested, all the remaining non-acoustic sounds on our album were generated using the EastWest Composer Cloud (for realistic orchestral and acoustic instruments), the Arturia V Collection (for emulations of specific vintage hardware synths) and the U-he Zebra 2 (an innovative modular synth favored by Hans Zimmer).

Of course, there's nothing fundamentally wrong with using hardware synths. Like I said at the start, they are super cool and fun. And they facilitate some styles of electronica better than soft synths do. Personally I think a good goal is find that one piece of hardware that is versatile enough to be a "jack of all trades" and can fill whatever gaps you feel that soft synths leave.

Having said all that, at some point I expect I will cave, and add one physical synth back into my setup, probably for the specific purpose of creating complex, evolving experimental background textures behind all of the regular music. And as a former MS-20 owner, this is the puppy I have my eye on...

The newly re-issued Korg MS-20 FS (now in color!)

...then again, I might just buy the software emulation version. It's 1/14th the price and 32 times the polyphony.

What about you? If you had to choose just one hardware synth for your setup, what would it be?



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