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Hardware Synths : Disappointment In Recording Gear #6

Brandon Drury —  January 7, 2013 — 23 Comments

Recording Gear Disappointments

In December of 2010 I made a forum post asking about “Techno Synths”:  Big Time Techno Synths

Note: You can always tell a person doesn’t know a damn thing about electronic music when they say the word “techno”. It would be like me saying “fly” around the brothas in 2013. It’s almost comical if it weren’t so “dope”.

Regardless, I had ingested this idea that the REAL synth sounds were in hardware….usually analog hardware and not in the “toy” plugins. I picked up a DSI Prophet 08, Moog Voyager RME, Virus Rack, Roland JP-8080, Novation Bass Station, and borrowed a buddy’s Korg MS-2000R.

I was VERY wound up about these hardware synths. I was about to kick some serious ass. I could feel it.

Lesson Learned #1: It turns out that to REALLY good at any one synth you have to be obsessed with that one synth.   You simply can’t master multiple synths at once.

Lesson #2:  Hardware synths take forever to learn because their “GUI” sucks so bad compared to the plugins. (The Prophet 08 is a breeze with the on screen librarian controller thing.)

Lesson #3: Hardware synths more or less force you to commit to sounds in the midst of creating. At least they do when you’ve got a electronic music session on Tuesday night and a hippie jam band coming in on a Wednesday with metal guitar solos on Thursday.  This commitment stuff isn’t a big deal so much in electric guitar rock/metal land where you are used to the drums, guitar, bass, and vocal standard.  Many guys have their guitar sound and you don’t run into too many songs where there is no bass or the bass is everything.

The roles change radically in synth land from song to song particularly when the group doesn’t have a specific sound they use everytime. The need to go back to retweak a track in a dense mix is high. (It’s not nearly as big of issue in ultra sparse Deadmau5 productions.) This makes learning electronic music production VERY difficult with hardware and until a person gets REALLY handy at knowing how a dense mix is going to unfold, nailing this right out of the gate with hardware is a real bitch.  I believe this is why our consistency improved radically when switching to soft synths.

The Sounds

The best thing about hardware synths is they all sound so unique.  My Roland JP-8080 (possibly supersaw champion) is lightyears from my Moog Voyager RME.  While the Moog is a mean son of a Bob in the low end, the lead sounds almost always have that 70s synth sound unless get really creative after the fact.  My Prophet 08′s first preset sounds exactly like something from Halloween 2.  (Basically that 70s synth sound again.)  I’m showing my age a bit, but I abhor those 70s synth sounds for the most part.  It’s just my personal tastes.  I’m sure I’ll be ridiculed for being so into the Night At The Roxbury synth sounds, but that would mostly be by those so into the Moog Voyager lead sounds….and that’s my point.

The lack of effects on the analog synths was a real drag for me as I seem to really like effected synthesizers.  The limited effect options on the JP-8080 really kept me from being creative.  The Virus had great effect options, but editing through menus was horrendously slow and daunting.  You could always add effects later, but that causes major workflow issues that could be handled if a person were setup for it, but were generally a pain.

Limited Modulation, Voices, and Oscillators

As more of an exercise in synth land than anything else, we tore apart the Skrillex sound.  It requires modulating maybe a dozen parameters with a single knob.  That concept is awesome.  Super awesome!  My Prophet only has 4 modulators and I never did figure out how to set them all to be controlled by the modwheel the way I wanted.  It’s not even worth trying.

The Prophet is can do some wicked things with all 8 voices tossed on a monophonic synth.  I love that Moonster preset and have a few variations I made off of it that are really fun.  However, it’s not enough for me when I want to do something new.  I’m sure in the right hands it’s absurdly powerful, but it just didn’t fit my sensibilities.

Now What?

Fast forward two years. I don’t say “techno” anymore.  SMILEY I have a good 2,000 hours of work on electronic music under my belt. I make my own kicks and snares. I’m working almost entirely with Zebra2 now. Minivanz, my partner in electro crime, is handy with Massive and Sylenth1. We really don’t feel the need for any other tools, really.

I have $5,000 in “highly respected” synths I don’t have any need for. We are better with the plugins. With iZotope Trash2 behind them, I hear nothing I’m missing. So much for hardware synths.

Whether a hardware synth is “better” than their software counterparts is the wrong question in my opinion. I can say without hesitation that I am better with Zebra2.

Conclusion

Many hardware synths have an immediately recognizable sound (like that or not) and in many cases this sound is rather desirable.  However, spending the big dough on hardware synths (analog or digital) is not a guarantee that you will be most effective in your shop.  The hype surrounding the analog synths and hardware synths in general caters to a very small sect of the population making electronic music.  I was disappointed.

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 RecordingReview.com and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.
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23 responses to Hardware Synths : Disappointment In Recording Gear #6

  1. I am totally bonkers over the Arturia Modular V collection in combination with the Arturia Laboratory keyboard. For that matter, you can do much just by owning the latter (it comes with tons of great sounds that are tweakable with real knobs and sliders on the keyboard). Major bang-for-the-buck, too.

    That said, GREAT point about getting to know one synth at a time, whether hardware or software (or the combination such as the Arturia model). They are each a unique musical instrument and to truly play them, to REALLY make music, requires a LOTTA time spent.

  2. Morten Nielsnen January 8, 2013 at 6:49 am

    Hi There

    well… its not a quistion about what gear is the best
    but…what is the best gear for you…

    for me Hardware will allways be the winner :)

    best regards
    Morten Nielsen
    denmark

  3. Synths are like guitars – if you love them, you have to have the absolute best. Do me a favour: program a simple saw wave on both Massive and your Voyager. Now sweep a highly resonant filter over this (slowly!) on both synths. THAT is why people get so excited by analog. If you don’t think there’s much difference there, en don’t spend the money on analog.

    Not to say that I dislike soft synths – quite the opposite. But there’s a certain set of sounds that I will always prefer in analog.

  4. Brandon, you ever wondered why that guy on the keys in the successful band has 8 different keyboards in front of him all stacked up?

    That’s why.

    You discovered one of the universal truths about hardware synths: you can’t just have one.

  5. Being a huge fan of hardware synths, specifically modular systems old and new, I couldn’t agree more. Have have many thousands invested in my hardwar modulars and love them to bits. I’m as happy as a pig in shit when doing sound design and working on projects such as gallery installations or building sample libraries.

    When recording songs in a more tradition sense I love softsyths for the flexiblity they give me in my workflow. If the synth sound is too bassy in the mix and interfering with the bass guitar then I don’t eq the synth I change the filter setting. If I want to change the modulation tempo as the song tempo changes I lock the LFO’s to the DAW tempo.

    Both hardware and software synths have their place and I love them both.

  6. And this, I guess, goes for any piece of gear: It is not the gear itself, but you feeling comfortable wih its workflow, that matters. This is not to say that virtuals are better than realworlds, the opposite might just as well be true for you, but it is a question about where the real importance in the whole of the production-landscape lies: the sound (being analogue or digital) is just a tiny little issue. Work-flow, appeal to your creativity, comfortability, effectiveness and so on being the real deal.

  7. A camera might be a handy tool for recalling settings on hardware synths :)

  8. Interesting. I come from owning lots of synths over the last 25 years (since the beginning of midi) and am just now coming to grips with software synths. I’m tossed up about what to get but leaning towards Zebra 2 as it reminds me most of how I used to program the Oberheim Xpander. It’s a hard transition. The hardware synths sound great but I agree, you need to really dig in for a long time to be able to get great results, especially under time pressure.

  9. well – every tool is just worth what the user does with it..

    for the rest – as heavy hardware AND heavy vst user i disagree so much with a variety of statements above that i even prefer not to engage in any specific discussion.
    this is so much a matter of taste, worflow, philosophy and skill that its useless to argue.
    but i dont like the fact that this “lerned lessons” suggest that “this is it” – btw. you generalize on hardware but only mention quite weaker synths…so all in all your article is not at all informative but almost misleading.

  10. Interesting perspectives (and much better argued than the boring I HATE SOFT/HARD Synth Debate). I will try not to go down that route, but rather just share my perspective.

    What I find most interesting is that the lessons you learned and dislike about hardware are all the reasons I swear by them.

    “Lesson Learned #1 & #2: It turns out that to REALLY good at any one synth you have to be obsessed with that one synth. You simply can’t master multiple synths at once.”
    -I find this to be awesomely worthwhile. I’ve gotten really good at manipulating the Korg MS2000, for instance, understanding it’s intricate routing and how to use it to it’s max coaxing sounds it’s not necessarily ‘supposed to.’ This in fact took a year or two and it’s like I’ve learned another instrument or became fluent in a different language. When I go that the machine (or others I’ve learned) I know how to coax the exact sound I want from it, saving hours of time in the long run

    Lesson #3: Lesson #3: Hardware synths more or less force you to commit to sounds in the midst of creating.
    -As an electronic musician, I find this to be a great limitation. I always use synths that have presets, so if I do need to go back and tweak it a bit to make it fit in the mix, I can. But, the best thing about committing to a sound is precisely that: YOU’RE COMMITTED. I can tweak for hours and hours, messing around endlessly, but to actually finish a song, I need to find a sound and go, ‘Yep, that’ll work.’

    The thing for me about hardware is, to my ears anyways, they sound so much more RAW and in your face. Some may find this as bad thing depending on the type of music, but I hear all this smooth electronic music and I find it lacking in GROWL. Also, I find it beyond fun to have actual instruments with actual knobs, connected with actual cables going through an actual mixing board. Making music this way, for me, is just waaaaay more fun than using a computer.

    “The hype surrounding the analog synths and hardware synths in general caters to a very small sect of the population making electronic music.”
    -I guess that’s me….to each his own right!

    PS. With all this said, if I had to overdub synth parts to a band who was recording in my studio, and not just producing my own pieces, I can totally see the benefit of software.

  11. Simple solution…dont spend big bucks on hardware synths. Buy them at a discount from musos that need cash or from music stores that are chopping them out if you feel the need to have them. Most of these synths have been sampled up the wazoo as well…get some sample libraries…much cheaper and takes up less physical space. Do what Jan Hammer does and be a preset surfer and make music with what you find. Asses your goals: is it to make music or program ADSR curves and the like. Decide which is the most effective use of your time with respect to your desired outcome. Im a software synth guy as well, that being said Ive still got my JV-2080 with 6 cards an M3R, a D-110 and an FB0-1 that make nice dust collecting rack fillers with nice lights and an ocassional patch or two to inspire me.

  12. Yo B! I have too been working with electronic music for more than a decade, but also a lot with other genres like prog rock etc. In other words, genres that is heavy with synths.

    When u come to this conclusion I get excited, coz I totally agree. I have 4 hw synths, two which I built myself, and all that is cool to have, yeah, but 95% of what I do is done from Sylenth1 and refx nexus2.

    It is like you say, soft synths are imo a lot easier and faster to work with. I also play a lot live, and there’s no denying that bringing ur small 4u rack, a laptop and a master keyboard (i use a stagepiano for that) is way more practical than having a wall of equipment with ya.

    I also spend a lot of time with people who thinks hw synths and hw sequencer is the only approved route to go. That is imho ridiculous, and a bunch of bullshit.

    Sound quality of relatively new synths and romplers is more than good enough nowdays. I don’t blame the guys for thinking hw is God, and LP being the preferred format, but I for sure am not interested in buying a high rack with “old” synths and being kinda stuck with the few options and also I’m not at all interested in making my sound sound like my dad or grandad’s sound.

    People I know tell me about big problems with sound quality on soft synths. I say, as long as it works for me and the ppl listening, I could not care LESS if they can stick the scope probes on there and measure the difference.

    /end rant

    Have a nice day:)

    Btw, its been a while since I read the blogs now, because I do it mostly on my phone, and the webpages for mobilephones etc sucked, and there waa stuff on top of each other etc. Making it impossible to read half of it unless u spent time fighting with ads blocking the view. It looks very nice now and I can finally read it again, and that is good coz u write (and other contributors) about lots of interesting things! Thanks!

  13. Now sweep a highly resonant filter over this (slowly!) on both synths. THAT is why people get so excited by analog. If you don’t think there’s much difference there, en don’t spend the money on analog.

    I here a difference between all synths I’ve used (filters, oscillators, effects, etc). That Moog filter does sound pretty cool when you are in “analyze filters” mode. I won’t deny that. I didn’t find it making me drool so much when listening to the final mixes where it would be used. (Most of that is due to the “dense mix” tendencies cited above. These house tracks that have a giant kick, one loud bass, and that’s about it obviously put more of a spotlight on such idiosyncrasies.

    I guess my biggest disappointment with hardware synths is there was an implication that my music would be a LOT better with them It’s not nearly that open and shut. They are tools. Their workflow is specific. Their sound is often fairly unique. However, to suggest that you can only make a pro-level mega production with hardware synths would wipe out 3/4 of the songs on the radio in the past few years. I didn’t realize that until I watched repeated episodes of Pensado’s Place where guys doing Lady Gaga, Rhianna, etc production are happy with ES2 in Logic. That came as a shock.

    So I think a very specific checklist needs to be put together for a person deciding which route they want to go . We need to identify those things that make analog so cool, but we also need to make note of the things that make soft syths so cool. There are a handful of sounds that are entirely unique to either of them as far as I’ve found.

  14. There’s really the question of appropriateness for use. I mean, you bought a voyager and a prophet, two synths built basically to reissue and improve upon classic synths that defined the 70′s…and you’re annoyed that they sound like the 70′s? That’s like buying a 68 Mustang and being upset that it looks a little dated.

    And a JP8080? That’s an early-generation virtual analog from 15 years ago. I’m not surprised that didn’t impress you much. My pentium III from back then probably wouldn’t light your fire either. If you’re looking to make some hypermodern dance music, expecting it to come from machines not really designed with that in mind is just setting yourself up for disappointment. In a world where we start every DAW session with access to 9000 softsynths and effects at our fingertips, it’s easy to forget that a hardware synth isn’t generally designed to provide every option and be a synthetic swiss-army-knife, they’re designed to do some things particularly well. Just as you wouldn’t fire up Sylenth to get realistic guitar sounds, you don’t buy a Prophet 08 expecting it to make a perfect gritty dubstep bass.

    I use primarily software, myself, but I recognize the utility of hardware.

    Would I buy a moog voyager for making electrohouse music? Good lord no, that creamy moog filter would be lost among the armies of supersaws and buzzy distorted basses. Would I buy one for making funk or hip-hop? Probably, becasue that moog sound is perfect for smooth funk leads that sit well in that sort of mix. Would I buy a JP8080 for making progressive house music? No, because it’s not 1998 and everyone’s used that thing to death already making trance. If I were making berlin techno, I might buy a hardware modular. Or maybe a software modular (although honestly while many of the sw modulars sound great, their UIs don’t as a whole encourage the kind of i-wonder-what-happens-if-I-plug-this-in-here sort of experimentation that a hw modular does). If I were, say, Depeche Mode, I would buy hardware and software (becasue that’s what they do). A lot of “name” dance acts switch off between hardware and software, depending what they’re looking for. It’s all about the right tools for the job, and sometimes the job requires the sort of “power it on and go” immediacy that hardware gives you.

    And speaking as a guy who’s currenlty gigging with a laptop, there’s a definite advantage of stability with hardware that you don’t have to worry about with softsynths. You power up an MS2000, it’s going to sound like an MS2000 all night and not suddenly processor-choke halfway through your set because you forgot to turn off the automatic wifi backups!

  15. Well, I think it boils down to whatever you feel most comfortable with. I can´t really understand a few of the points made in the article. How can anyone possibly consider it´s easier to program using a mouse (or worse, a touch pad on a laptop) than having a dedicated knob for each function? And doesn´t the notion that you can´t really learn a synth if you don´t spend massive amounts of time with it apply to software synths as well? Or do you just rely on having a huge library of presets that you tweak a little bit?

    For me, the idea of using a new, unique and exciting patch every time is not an issue. I grew up with classical music and think in terms of colours, contrasts, lightness and darkness, and such. For me, the most important thing is to find sounds that work together and fill their proper role. The sounds are only a vehicle to the music, not an end in themselves. I would probably be as happy composing with a Juno-60 and a Mirage as I would be with a bunch of high-end plugins. Furthermore, for live use I feel way more confortable using hardware than software. My gear is simple and it does exactly what I need it to do.

    So it all boils down to how you feel with your gear. To write off somebody who prefers using only hardware synths and sequencers is just childish. After all, it is the music that we create that truly matters, not what gear we use.

  16. Well, first off, the article is about MY disappointment and not necessarily what anyone else will feel. I’m betting on there are enough people with circumstances similar to my own for it to be of some value.

    How can anyone possibly consider it´s easier to program using a mouse (or worse, a touch pad on a laptop) than having a dedicated knob for each function?

    The only one of my synths that has dedicated knobs for each function is the Moog Voyager RME. All the others use menus to varying degrees.

    I’ve not encountered a hardware synth with modulation remotely as intuitive as found in Zebra2, Massive, or Absynth. The fact that you can’t simply look at the synth and what is routed where is a MAJOR hassle on the hardware boxes. When you click on the modulation bus on even rudimentary soft synths, it’s almost always a menu of 30 options to choose from (sometimes more).

    As for whether knobs are more fun than a mouse, I find that subjective. I like working with a mouse, being able to save a preset with a custom name in .3 seconds, etc. That isn’t for everyone, I guess.

    And doesn´t the notion that you can´t really learn a synth if you don´t spend massive amounts of time with it apply to software synths as well?

    Yes, it definitely does. The problem with that is you need that one synth that can do everything. That rules out Moog. It can’t even handle polyphony. The Prophet only has 8 voices, 2 oscillators, 4 modulation buses, and zero effects. The effects on the JP-8080 are very limited. That leaves me with the Virus, which isn’t a bad option. The Virus is a digital synth and sounds that way (both good and bad..to each his own), but if I’m going to battle on the side of hardware, I’d be lost without the more brute-like analog synths.

    For me, the idea of using a new, unique and exciting patch every time is not an issue. I grew up with classical music and think in terms of colours, contrasts, lightness and darkness, and such. For me, the most important thing is to find sounds that work together and fill their proper role. The sounds are only a vehicle to the music, not an end in themselves. I would probably be as happy composing with a Juno-60 and a Mirage as I would be with a bunch of high-end plugins. Furthermore, for live use I feel way more confortable using hardware than software. My gear is simple and it does exactly what I need it to do.

    Sure! This is a perfectly find vantage point. From that perspective, an acoustic guitar, snare drum, and violin will still have uses in 1,000 years probably. That is a different point of view on the synth thing and one that a person trying to figure out which synth and synth style to use should factor.

    So it all boils down to how you feel with your gear. To write off somebody who prefers using only hardware synths and sequencers is just childish. After all, it is the music that we create that truly matters, not what gear we use.

    I agree 100%! Just in case anyone got that vibe from my article, I apologize for not articulating myself. The implication that I felt was “Hardware synths are always better” and after 2 years of experimenting, I’m in a position to say that I didn’t agree with this assessment and here is why. Nothing more. Nothing less. SMILEY

  17. two synths built basically to reissue and improve upon classic synths that defined the 70′s…and you’re annoyed that they sound like the 70′s? That’s like buying a 68 Mustang and being upset that it looks a little dated.

    Kinda, but both gadgets have very modern uses. It just turns out at either only sound “modern” when pushed to their limit in very specific ways. I was under the impression that the modern sounds I had heard with either synth were in “normal” mode. I didn’t realize just how little play we had once we had gotten over to the modern end….if that makes any sense.

    And a JP8080? That’s an early-generation virtual analog from 15 years ago. I’m not surprised that didn’t impress you much

    I never said it didn’t “impress me much”. The JP8080 is the supersaw king as far as I’m concerned. I’m not really sure how you can do that one particular sound any better, but that’s never been my issue with the JP8080 or any other hardware synth. Using preset sounds (or stereotypical sounds in a given genre) is fairly straight forward with any synth (hardware or software) and the ROMplers do that fine. If I were to work in that fashion, hardware sounds begin to make a lot of sense because you could just use the same drums, saws, bass, etc every time and be sure they’d fit in the mix relatively well (just like in rock music where the drums, bass, guitars, etc fit).

    you don’t buy a Prophet 08 expecting it to make a perfect gritty dubstep bass.

    Fair enough, but that’s the problem. Where does a person gain such information on the Prophet 08? In most circles, you are going to hear “give it a try in your own studio and see what happens”. Then the next post will say, “Analog all the way, bro.” Then you’ll read “+1″ 12 times.

    although honestly while many of the sw modulars sound great, their UIs don’t as a whole encourage the kind of i-wonder-what-happens-if-I-plug-this-in-here sort of experimentation that a hw modular does

    My experiences have been the exact opposite. I find the soft synths that allow for it (not all do) to be absolutely superior in the THIS IS FUN, crazy noise way. YMMV

    I’m starting to feel like I NAILED this article, because all the critiques have added up to a resource on approaching synths that I’ve simply never seen before on a single web page. I wish THIS blog was around 2 years ago. SMILEY

  18. Sounds to me like someone just took a shortcut into synth land and decided to dump hardware just because it is hard to operate.
    The best sounds I’ve heard have come from hardware synths. I like the high end MOTIF sounds a lot better than the 50,000 synth plugins I currently own. They (the vsts) are also a lot more convoluted to work with on daily basis.

  19. Sounds to me like someone just took a shortcut into synth land and decided to dump hardware just because it is hard to operate

    I can’t really argue with that. Me ditching the rack synths isn’t all that different than me ditching my first guitars with terrible action. While workflow and playability aren’t exactly the same things (particularly in MIDI land), if either is compromised a person’s ability to get the music in their head down to tape/disk suffers.

  20. It’s hilarious how a bunch of synth nerds are fighting over analog vs digital. It isn’t even a real instrument lol. Cut the snobbish attitude and use what works best for you. If you girls have to have joysticks and knobs to play with, so be it. Brandon does just fine with vsts, as do I. :)

  21. Morten Nielsnen January 10, 2013 at 3:56 am

    Dont understand how a Moog can dissapoint anybody ????

    Ohhh i see … if you are going only for that boring ” and allways mentioned” lead synth sound

    Or the virus for that matter.. If your skilled… this synth can allmost sound
    like any synth… and what a punch… :)

    Hardwaresynth will IMOP allways sound warmer / and much more out of the speakers.. than any Plug..

  22. Hardware synths are instruments. Soft synths are sound generators. Like any physical instrument, each hardware synth has its own, special qualities; not least of which is the feel of the keybed, which can change the way you play. You don’t get that with softsynths – that is unless you buy lots of different controllers – most of which are generally of questionable quality anyway. I’m not bad-mouthing soft synths, just pointing out that hardware synths have a quality, feel, and uniqueness you’ll never get from a software synth because it merely exists as zeros and ones.

  23. The game is changing. Tools like Ableton Push have turned soft synths into “instruments” or at least helped narrow the gap. In may case I bought all rack synths so I can’t comment on most of the feel aspects.

    I’m not sure I attribute any shortcomings of VST Instruments to them being zeros and ones just as I don’t think the fun of a good analog synth on a good day is merely due to electrons and AC voltages.

    I’ve never been a huge fan of the concept of digital modeling as, by definition, it’s goal is immitate and that sets it up for defeat. However, I’ve been absolutely THRILLED by the Arturia Collection. I like the sound of the Arturia MiniV better than my Moog Voyager RME, for example. Whether a person digs each synth or not, there’s no denying that a Jupiter, Prophet, and Moog model are all outstandingly unique.

    So I get all your points, but I think we are moving towards closing any gaps between digital and analog synths.

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