Software v.s hardware synthesizers
Back in the day when computers were nothing more than glorified calculators. Which they still are today, by the way, only a bit more powerful. Music producer and musicians had to use hardware devices to create sounds. I am talking about hardware synthesizers, samplers and effect units.
Most music producers today, especially electronic music producers, use software more than anything else. Well-established producers probably still have hardware synthesizers but unfortunately, all they do now is gather dust. Most producers say that software is just less of a hassle and you can have hundreds of instances of the same synth running at the same time. Every parameter can be automated and saved per project and it runs on nothing more than your tiny little laptop.
Some say hardware is outdated and that every sound is available as samples or emulations anyways. So why would you spend money on these pieces of hardware taking up space when all you need is some software plugins?
Why should you use hardware?
There are various advantages of hardware. The biggest advantage is the ability to tweak physical knobs with both your hands. This direct connection makes you come up with new ways of making sounds than if you only use a mouse. You’ll have to think carefully about what sounds you want to use and how you use them in your productions. Most synth’s and effect units only have a single mono output, or if you’re lucky, a stereo output. This means you’ll have to record each part if want to make overdubs with the same unit.
Why is this an advantage? Well, it is in the limitations where creativity thrives. You have to commit to your playing and the sounds you use within that instrument. In the box, you can tweak your settings indefinitely and you can undo every step you make. Leaving open options might seem flexible at first but it will actually prevent you from moving on. Whereas with hardware, you simply record and roll with it.
Another difference is the sound quality of hardware synth’s and effects. And I’m not only talking about the well-known vintage hardware compressors and eq’s. Even cheap guitar pedal distortions and 90’s synthesizers can bring their own unique sound to the table. Some gear that might have cost thousands back then can be bought for a couple of bucks today. And just because it is cheap doesn’t mean it can’t be used.
Hardware doesn’t need to be expensive
I bought a cheap analog delay pedal once for around $30,- and it is extremely noisy. Compared to the digital domain where there is practically no noise, especially with in-the-box dance productions, this can really add some life to your productions. If you record to analog tape, staying above the noise floor is your main concern. Record too hot and you’d start hearing saturation artifacts. Analog tape recordings also don’t have a lot of high-frequency content but it is these technical errors that actually sound quite musical in our ears. Hence the hundreds of tape emulation plugins available today.
Hardware gear isn’t made up of 1’s and 0’s. Even if you have a digital synth like a Yamaha DX7, there are still real-world components in there that can’t be emulated by software plugins. Think about digital to analog converters that were actually quite bad in comparison to today’s standards. But it is these little quirks that give hardware it’s character.
Add life and character to your productions
Nobody wants to listen to a perfectly edited and tuned vocal take, it would be boring as hell. We need to hear some variation, the little ‘flaws’ make music sound human to us. Using hardware can help you bring more character and life to your productions. And it isn’t even that hard to implement in the modern production studio.
Most hardware synthesizers have the option to send and receive midi information. Even vintage gear can be retrofitted with midi boards from companies like Kenton. There are software manufactures that make plugin controllers for your hardware synthesizers. These plugins allow you to automate controls or to access functions you couldn’t use otherwise. You can even save presets within your DAW. This is the perfect hybrid approach to modern music production.
And for those who say that classic synth sounds are dated. Look at how many productions use sounds from the 80s right now. It is your job as a music producer to use these sounds creatively and to blend them with modern software plugins. In this way, you’ll get the best of both worlds. You might even make it your own signature sound!