Using Hardware Synths In Softsynth World

Brandon Drury —  June 26, 2008

The Old Days
In the good old days everyone had a mixing console. People actually needed them. A sequencer could be locked up with a tape machine so a person could do all of their work on a MIDI sequencer, send that MIDI data out to a hardware synthesizer (or sampler) and then run that audio back to the mixing console. It was a fairly simple process. When the musician was ready to commit to their composition, they simply armed the proper tracks, hit play, and recorded the audio output of their synths to the tape for eventual mixing.

The Current Soft Synth World
These days there is a greatly diminished need for a mixing console in the typical home recording setup. The software synth world is all the rage and for good reason. You can do incredible things within the computer and the synths sound great in my opinion. These days the MIDI sequencer, synths, samples, and mixer are all within the computer and I can’t think of any good reason for a person starting from scratch to head down the old hardware synth path. The software based system works extremely well. Just add a MIDI controller (keyboard) to a laptop and you can begin creating masterpieces on the beach or playing live shows.

Combining Hardware and Software Synths
The situation becomes a bit more complex when a person wants to use their hardware synths with their recording software or computer based MIDI sequencer. The process is basically the same, at first. We enter MIDI data onto a MIDI track by playing a keyboard or entering dots with a mouse. That part is the same. When we hit play, that MIDI data is sent from the computer to the output of the MIDI port. That part is the same. When this MIDI data enters the hardware synth, a sound is triggered. This is also the same. What differs is what happens with the audio output of that hardware synth? If we were to route that MIDI data to a software synth, the output would automatically be routed to a channel in the software mixer. (Some recording software would require Rewire for this). However, there is no channel automatically created for the output of the hardware synth. The audio output really has nowhere to go. Not yet anyway.

It needs to be clear that we are still in the composing stages. The second we are ready to commit the output of the hardware synth to the wav file, we can simply record it into our recording software the same way we record a vocal or whatever to an audio track. However, we aren’t ready to commit because we are still building up our tune.

Our Options
External mixer – I don’t recommend an external mixer often these days. Why You Don’t NEED A Mixer For Home Recording Current audio interfaces and modern ways of working with recording software have pretty much eliminated the need for external mixers. Working with hardware synths is one exception. We could build up our tracks in our recording software by running all audio already in our recording software through the stereo outputs and into our mixer and combine that signal with the outputs of our hardware synth in the mixer, send that the studio monitors, and be off to the races. When we are ready to commit, we simply route the outputs of the hardware synth to our audio interface and hit the record button.

Standard audio inputs – Your recording software allows you to monitor the signal through it. For example, when I record vocals, the vocal flows through the mic > preamp > audio interface and into a channel in my recording software when I add compression and maybe reverb. Then the signal is sent out of the audio interface and into both my studio monitors and the headphones of the singer so they can hear what they are actually singing. We could use a similar setup by arming a track and running the output of the hardware synth into the input of the audio interface. This would technically work, but it has some drawbacks.

A big problems is it uses up two channels of your audio interface. If you only have a 2 channel audio interface, you won’t be able to record anything with a microphone without first committing the MIDI stuff to wav. This is no good. Even if you did have extra channels, the fact that the audio track is always armed would mean you would constantly be recording to that synth track from the output of your external synth even though you only really want to be recording vocals. This is a very poor way of dealing with our hardware synth. Let’s dig deeper.

External Bus – I can’t speak for all recording software, but I was able to setup a system to allow the use of external synths in about 2 minutes (I had never done this before) in Cubase SX3. Cubase allows the creation of an external bus. This external bus means that the signal from a given set of inputs in the audio interface are permanently routed into the Cubase mixer just like we were using an analog mixer. I can apply effects real time, adjust levels, and do everything like you would expect with an analog mixer. The only real difference is that when we render down the mix, the mix must be done real time so that Cubase can record the incoming audio from the external synth and combine that along with the other tracks.

When I was sure I was finished composing, I’m sure I would go ahead and record each separate sound from the external synth to a separate track in the recording software simply because I may want to apply different effects and automation to different elements from the external synth.

I’m sure that Cubase isn’t the only recording software out there to have this sort of functionality. However, few recording software companies go out of their way to make a big deal about this feature. It’s becoming increasingly clear that more people are still using hardware synths than I had originally thought. Personally, I’m very pleased with the quality, ease of use, etc of the soft synths and I wouldn’t hesitate to use them in a live situation with a laptop (and I’m not exactly cutting edge on this).

It is possible to merge external hardware synths with soft synths within recording software if your audio interface is has enough inputs and you have a bit of creativity and willingness to crack open the manual. If your recording software doesn’t have the ability to route external audio into a channel/bus constantly you may have a problem.

Either way, I’m of the opinion that soft synths are the way to go. If you are about to invest big bucks in a modern hardware synth, take a look at the soft synths beforehand. I think you’ll be impressed. If you are vintage synth junkie, there is no hope for you (just like there is no hope for me and my vintage guitar amps). Ha ha

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.

5 responses to Using Hardware Synths In Softsynth World

  1. Some further notes for you or anyone.

    I have a lot of hardware synths. I have a lot of software synths too, some I even made myself. I have a lot of hardware effects and guess what? software ones too, commercial and created right here in the studio.
    I blend both worlds, bend them, twist them, use powers most physics majors will tell you, do not exists.
    In use here hardware wise, a general flow. 2 Roll Rm203 stereo line mixers. Most of the hardware synths go there. Note, there is some exceptions and I will mention them very soon. The output of the Roll’s, go to a 24 channel mixer. I use both busses as much as I can to route and send things around the studio, in and out.
    In use software wise, the DAW of course. DAW feeds a MOTU 24i. Yep, that is about 20 more inputs than I need in most cases. Also feeding out software synths is a XP box that uses a personus firebox. Those synths I bring up in that box, the cream of the crop so to speak. I crank the bit rate up as high as possible. I can use several at once, apart and in conjunction at the same time. It is also a very weak XP CPU power wise and memory. However, works very well and was the right price, free.

    Now that exception. I have 3 rows of 48 points patch panels. I use them in line with the synths and effects to get what I am after. Maybe someone will think of it as a modular type arrangement. A good deal of my newer effects are midi adjustable. If so, I do make midi tracks to play in sequence with the synths or work I have recorded to automate this a bit.

    Midi wise, a midiman 2×2, 8×8, 3×8 and a Edirol UM 880 is in use. Presonus and it’s midi adapter for the XP box. I use midi-ox and Sonar to route as needed. Several advance programs in use, advance as in Karma software version to the Triton Extreme so I have a Karma Synth so to speak. Making the Extreme more multi use. I also use the Extreme as the main midi controller but I have other midi input devices around as well. Among them a P5 Glove, a Les Paul with GR3 pickup to a GR 20, microkontroler and other self made midi devices like drum triggers, pads pressure devices. Ebow and bow in use for the Les Paul btw.

    Why only 4 tracks recorded normally? Well, I want a left and right, I do them separate. I want a clean left and right too. Clean as in before any effects. That way I can go back, tweak alter and even mix back in as needed. I like having versatility. If I was working 5.1 or greater, you bet there would be more inputs in, convertors and mikes around the studio.

    Oh yes. Sometimes to get the sound I am after, one needs to drive a speaker, amp, guitar amp, broken speaker and so on. Mike that several different ways to just sweet spot it.

    All of this stuff, goes into use as needed to make the music I do. Many layers are recorded in the DAW. Some times, all of this is done live, a single wave is the outcome. Midi tracks being created for playback at a future time or just in case the wave needs to be reproduced. Often layers are not used, stay in the project and later I will add in or substitute what was there for something special for a PR work, radio or general snip to put up on Myspace or youtube.

    Yep, I generalize a lot above. I tend to get to techy so I am trying to keep it a fly over, over view. There is much more in the details and things I put into use than I mentioned. As mentioned in the article, use your creative skills.

    Wonder what all this sounds like? Just visit those links in my tag lines. If you like, please pick up a CD or two or download. Those funds from the sale of my music, fund the creatures I mention above.

    More on softsynths
    Your softsynth is only going to sound good if you sound card / adapter out is decent. Crap built in sound card, crap sound. Same for your effects. Some times, this is good, you want that low quality sound. Do not just throw the crap card out, it can be used.


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  2. I used to use a bunch of softsynths, and swore by them for at least 3 years. They are great….and until I recently purchased a Yamaha S90ES and Roland Fantom X, I had the same idea in my head as you. That softsynths are superior.
    But thats all changed now, and I barely use any softsynths anymore. Integrating the S90 and the X into my studio is the best decision Ive made thus far, in my ‘career’.
    Sure there is still some use for the softsynths, but all my bread and butter sounds now come from my hardware synths, and comparing my old stuff to my new stuff, its fair to say, I wish I switched sooner!!
    Now really the only ‘synths’ I control via software are Ezdrummer, and orchestra libraries. But those are really samplers, not softsynths.
    So I guess….to each his own eh?

  3. Well, in my defense, this article wasn’t really about the sounds of soft synths vs hardware synths. At least that wasn’t the main focus.

    The article was more about dealing with the hardware. It’s certainly more expensive from a hardware standpoint to utilize hardware synths especially if you are working with MIDI first.

    I’d LOVE to hear some comparisons of your soft synths vs hardware synths because I must admit that I’m a bit skeptical. I’ve been very impressed with the soft synths I’ve heard, but admitted I’m not a synth junkie. (I’m a guitar junkie).

    This could be an awesome entry in the latest contest.


  4. There was a whole new batch out (soft-synths) I heard last week at Winter NAMM. Some new hardware things too of course.

    It’s all good, depends on what you are after, styles you play and so on.

    Samples not really soft-synths? (Kyle’s comment) several things I have to run samples, also give you the way to use them, treat them even alter them in the same ways of a synth with a set of OSC are used. Samples are not just for playback here in this studio. ;-)I also have to point out my korg extreme, I can place samples in it and alter the heck out of them.

    Brandon’s futher comments, he is dead on. I have seen performances with just a laptop and even sometimes a midi control. Not my cup of tea but there it is. Will we ever be soft-synth only? no, I can not see that. The open-labs systems, well they too use a xp OS, keyboard and a presonus firebox. Sound very good and very flexiable.

    Guitar Junkie? … I have a Left Hand Les Paul with a g-3 to roland gr-20 that also feeds soft and hard synths (midi wise) and (audio wise to those soft and hard synths I have that will take in audio input) … no guitar player am I but I use that to feed string modulation into the
    synths. ;-) my wife is a guitar junkie, 30 + guitars, bass and things with strings, yes I know there are others with more but I am not living with them.

    again, I point to samples of this madness at my web sites and … there you can hear a copy of the live radio stream we did new years day on . We took a track I had completed, I had said it was finished, my wife (well need I say more?) wanted to put strings on it, my faviorite pedal steel player showed up the same day in the studio and guess what, I let them add their touch to it. You can hear the whole thing and the next day re-recording and mastered track at . As we all tell ourselves, if you can not have fun making music, the outcome might not be as good. Enjoy the show and the laugh.

    I think several net radios this weekend will be playing some of our work too this weekend, UK area. TDFZ for sure. ( )


  5. Am not sure about this, maybe because I’m a newbie:

    “A big problems is it uses up two channels of your audio interface. If you only have a 2 channel audio interface, you won’t be able to record anything with a microphone without first committing the MIDI stuff to wav. This is no good. Even if you did have extra channels, the fact that the audio track is always armed would mean you would constantly be recording to that synth track from the output of your external synth even though you only really want to be recording vocals. This is a very poor way of dealing with our hardware synth.”

    I could send the MIDI file recorded from the hardware synth back to the synth while recording from the microphone. When I’m happy with the result, I could send the MIDI again and record the hardware synth on a separate audio track. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the statement “the audio track is always armed”.