Before Buying Hardware Synths...
What was your first glimpse into the world of hardware synthesizers? Was it a producer's masterclass, and their wall of modulars that caught your eye? Does your favorite artist use hardware? Did you wander through a music store, and play around on a display synth, and decide you just had to have one?
No doubt you may be prowling through Sweetwater's or Reverb's offerings, and feeling a little overwhelmed. Maybe you want one, but aren't sure if hardware is for you.
In today's article, I'll break down some hardware basics, things to know, and how to help you decide what, if any, pieces of gear you should get.
1. Know Why You're Getting Gear
Let's get the big question out of the way first: what do you want hardware for? Do you have a specific need for hardware, that VSTs and samples can't provide?
Hardware synths aren't cheap (not good ones, anyway). There's no two ways about it. Beyond the actual synth itself, you are also looking at TS cables, MIDI/ MIDI-USB cables, patch cables (if you're going modular), and possibly a newer/ bigger audio interface to accommodate the synth. Before you get a synth, you need to ask yourself if you're willing to take on those extra costs.
Hardware isn't a magic bullet that will immediately make you sound instantly better. If you're not writing good music without hardware, you still won't write good music with it. It certainly helps if you've been producing for a few years, and have a few songs/ remixes out on a record label or two, before you start browsing for gear. Otherwise you're wasting time and money on equipment you likely don't need.
If you've been at it a while though, and feel like gear is the next natural step for your tunes, it's time to decide what type of synth you want.
Which brings us to...
2. Analog vs Digital
Just to clear the air here: I don't hold Analog on any magic pedestal compared to Digital. They both serve their purpose and have their own special characteristics that will suit different needs at different times.
The only reason we're covering it here now, is because there are certain aspects of analog synthesis you need to be prepared for before buying one.
Analog synths frequently tend to be a lot more expensive than digital synths. Especially polyphonic analogs (more on that in a bit). They also tend to be much more limited with effects, voicing, and waveform options.
Analog synths, especially Moogs, often require extensive warmup times before they're properly in tune, and can be used for music that requires stable tone.
You may not be able to store patches and presets on slightly older Analog synths, so making and storing patches requires more time and a photographic memory to do.
However, Analog synths have certain timbral characteristics that make them desirable for music production. The analag signal generation and filters can lend a certain warmth and personality to a sound that a fully digital signal might not. This is because of the inherently imperfect nature of generating an audio signal from a voltage-controller oscillator. There are slight and subtle imperfections in the sound that give analog its warmer, "fatter" character. The filters, being analog, often sound smoother than digital filters, so you an make sweeps and sounds with much
That said, digital has more pros than cons - especially these days.
More built-in FX, more waveform options (including wavetables, and Super/HyperSaws), more routing and modulation options, much higher voicing, and higher likelihood of proper integration with your DAW via USB (or at least a VST interface controlled by MIDI data).
And so we go on to...
3. Monophonic vs Polyphonic
When you come from the VST world, it's easy to forget that there was once a time when synthesizers could only play one note at a time, due to the limitations of the oscillators. That time is long past, but Monophonic, Duophonic, and Polyphonic synths are all still around, still being made, and will likely be around forever. So how to choose?
First and foremost, a monophonic synth can only play one note at a time. No chords, or lush harmonic strings or pads will be (easily) gotten from a mono synth. They tend to be analog synths, and so thick basslines and distorted leads are what mono synths are most commonly used for.
A duophonic (sometimes called paraphonic) synth can only play two notes at a time. They're not super common, but they pop up occasionally.
A polyphonic synth can, as its name denotes, play many notes at once. A poly synth will typically range from 4-100+ voices, depending on the complexity of the patch. With a few exceptions, poly synths tend to be digital, and as such can create sounds and timbres no analog synth can generate. You can also write lush choir and string and pad sections, create sounds with long release tails, and layer chords in ways no mono synth is capable. As an added bonus, most poly synths have a Mono feature enabled, allowing you to turn the poly synth into a mono synth for specific sounds.
And due to the generally digital nature of poly synths, patch storage and recall is a feature of all poly synths, allowing you to store and bring back up presets and sounds you made, for future use.
Effects are a somewhat divisive issue in the synth community. Some love them in their synths, others prefer you only play and record synths dry (then use outboard effects).
Again, it largely boils down to personal preference, and the type of gear you're looking at. Analog synths tend to be more minimal on effects. You might get a Distortion effect, maybe a Chorus, and perhaps a Delay effect, if it's slightly newer. Moogs are famously minimalist in this department. Digital synths usually come with a full battery of effects ranging from Distortion, to Delay, Reverb, Flanger, Chorus, Phaser, possibly Saturation, and multiple types of distortion. Digital synths with lots of effects tend to be more expensive, but in most cases, the effects tend to be quite good (the Virus TI2 has some of the best onboard effects on the market).
When considering buying hardware, considering the onboard effects as well as the filters and oscillators will also be worth investigating.
Do your homework. There are hundreds of synths out there, each with their own special timbral characteristics and features, and it would be impossible to try and list them all here.
As a general rule of thumb though, based on genres, these are features you'll need to look for to find a good synth you'll get lots of use out of:
Trance: Polyphonic, with 5-100 voices. Some kind of Unisono Spread/ SuperSaw detune feature to create wide, complex trance synths. Good onboard reverb and delay are nice but not necessary. A good Chorus effect will serve you well. The more modulation options, the better.
House: Depending on the subgenre of house, a Monophonic or Duo/Paraphonic synth will serve you well, although a Polyphonic synth for bigroom house producers will do you a lot of good. Fat Analog warmth for basslines and leads is helpful, as is decent distortion capabilities. Analog filters will definitely be a plus.
Dubstep/ Riddim: Polyphonic Digital, for sounds requiring wavetables and lots of modulation, as well as high enough voicing counts to handle complex wavetable modulation. Onboard reverb/ delay not quite as essential, but solid distortion is a must. The more modulation options the better.
Drum & Bass: Depending on the style of DnB, a good Mono or Para synth will serve you well for Reese basses, deep sub basslines, and intense leads. Either Analog or Digital will work equally well, although the added warmth from Analog distortion might add a nice touch to the basslines.
Techno: Largely depends on style of Techno, but an Analog Mono or Duophonic synth will sound just right for techno. All the warm fat low end and oddball lead sounds will be done quite nicely by an Analog Mono. A Digital Poly or Paraphonic synth will also do super nicely, but the extra voicing and tons of added features are a bit on the overkill side.
With this guide in hand, I hope you can go forward and make a better, more informed hardware purchase.