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Please offer advice to an oldie/newbie -hardware vs software synths

Zep Dude

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Hi folks, this is my first post on this particluar forum although I'm a veteran of many of the pro audio forums.


I was a synth teenager before MIDI, I've been doing this a long time, programmed in top NY studios before getting into producing. Got sick of MIDI and hearing the same sounds rehashed endlessly by the major manufacturers -endless Breathpads and Flutahatchi's and horrible thin pianos touted as the "best ever"- and started working only with real instruments -bands who play, cool! So now, I'm getting back into it via a very interesting world music pop project and trying to get caught up.


I've got my old racks of things like Wavestation AD, JD990, D-550, TX816, T802, O1W, Kurzweil Pro 1, Akai S1000, Roland S760, Voce V3, Prophet 5, Memorymoog, Midimini, Matrix 1000, Super Jupiter MKS-80, MKS-20 blah blah you get the picture. I've worked with bands who had Triton/Reason so had little exposure to those.


Just to get my bearings I picked up a used rack Motif and Fantom XR. Some very nice improvements! Effects are so much better now, no more cheesy reverbs and paper thin flanges, samples are still not perfect (guitars suck) but much better elec pianos, synth textures, organs etc. Presets are impressive -a lot of very usable stuff here.


So then I begin to realize. What I like about the Fantom/Motif is not when they are trying to be a pure sampler (even Roland's SRX-02 "Our best piano ever" can't emulate the decay of a real piano) but more when they do the wacky stuff -electronica sequency stuff, viby pads, meshing real samples with wierd stuff etc.


SOOOOOOO, that led me to think maybe the real route to go is softsynths instead. For real samples, Kontakt/Colossus/Ivory, for wierd stuff, Reason, Sonik Synth, Atmosphere etc.


BUT, I am VERY suspicious of soft synth and modeling technology. I believe the POD was invented by Satan to suck the soul out of young guitar players and the word Analog Modeling Synth brings nighmares of being in the key dept at Sam Ash wondering "Why is Oberheim trying to model their own classic sound? And failing miserably at it?" An old copy of Virus I had several years ago that came with my Pro Tools sounded like more like a mosquito than a synth when put in a mix.


But, hey, I'm open minded! Maybe it's finally time. So I ask you people, those who also hate the POD and those who know what a REAL synth sounds like, can it be done with Sonik Synth, Atmosphere etc? Can these do the interesting textural stuff better than the hardware Motif/Fantom's of the world?


Do the sofsynths have the true dimensionality and texture so they can hold up in a mix? OR, do they kind of sound cool but then when you start layering them and building a track everything starts sounding 2 dimensional or too much the same?


I know these are somwhat loaded questions, but maybe some of you who have gone further down this road that I am just getting on can offer some useful advice.



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I think you won't be able to abandon your hardware (and certainly not your acoustic instruments). But you really do need to check out what software can do these days.


However, I use 'em almost entirely as imitators of vintage instruments (Hammond & even Rhodes though I have one). I use them for the convenience and control. It's great being able to lay down a Hammond (Native Instruments B4) track and then change the way I used the drawbars (perhaps because a solo or rhythm part changed and now I want a different tone or dynamics). Not to mention that I'm no keyboard wizard and I use MIDI to compensate by correcting my mistakes or for easy punch-ins. Note that I don't program MIDI parts and I doubt I need to tell you why!


No, the NIB4 won't sound exactly like a real Hammond. In many ways, perhaps not as good. But far, far easier to control in the mix due to the flexibility you have after the track is recorded.


If your production method is "Use great artists and capture the essence of the moment -- don't tweak", this is less applicable. But if you tend to tweak to get the most out of the performances and achieve your vision of what's possible, softsynths are excellent. Warning: that also means time-consuming.


You may find Arturia's Minimoog V (and probably also the Modular V) very interesting. To a purist, they probably do not replicate the sound of Moog filters perfectly. But the complexity of these instruments can make the real versions too time-consuming and unreliable in the studio (let alone live), whereas once you dial up a good program on a softsynth, it will always sound the way you programmed it, and it's available with a couple clicks. If you like rich analog-sounding pads, the Arturias may interest you.


Don't expect softsynths to be totally free of any kind of compromise. Instead, find out what they're good for and whether they'd fit into your production methods. And expect to invest some time into it -- just as you surely did with each of the synths and instruments you mentioned.

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Thanks, Learjeff and Linwood. I appreciate your input. I kind of suspected, Learjeff, that this would be the case, and ultimately I'll just need to dive in and see what the sofsynths do well, what hardware synths they might replace etc.


One reason I thought the hardare might be replaced by the softsynths is that since many of them are just playing rom sample bits with added waveforems and effects -and it's all being done via chips, isn't that just what Sonik Synth and some others are doing anyway? Is there any analog aspect to the Motif and Fantom (or even the JD990 for that matter) or is everything digital?


In other words, if everything is being done digitally in the Fantom/Motifs, aren't they really just rackmounted softsynths anyway?

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Boy this topic is bubbling up a lot lately - I think that we are reaching a critical mass for soft synths - I have avoided them since like Zep I have a large collection of racks. Also my day job is computer programming so when I get home I don't like sitting in front of the PC.


I recently picked up the Minimoog by Arturia and was very very impressed - thought it sounded better than my Mini. Then I heard the IVORY demos. Glup. Recently I played a session and used Logic's EP88 and a Fatar controller and it was great.


So I just picked up cubase SX and the EMU audio card. It is pretty wild to open a saved project and there is everything just the way you left it - I was always patching and routing modules.


Now I am looking at my racks thinking...

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Incorrect. A computer has as many audio outputs as you give it. Mine has 8 (MOTU 828).


And yes, any program you'd run one of these softsynths in has built-in mixing. It's called a "host program". I use two:


1) n-Track, an inexpensive but full-featured DAW (digital audio workstation: multitrack audio+MIDI recorder & mixer -- i.e., ProTools does).


2) "VstHost", a freebie program I use for hosting for live work but which I'd only recommend to a nerd or cheapskate. It was designed for testing VSTi plugins, not for live use per se. Definitely not up to the task for the demanding professional.

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