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Thursday, 6 October 2011

Software Synthesizers(Virtual Instruments) and DSPs

Lately I've been looking at virtual instruments (software synths). I didn't think much about doing anything serious with music, mainly because I felt that the technology is moving ahead faster than I can catch up with. Many of those techno sounds are so hard to reproduce unless you had loads of expensive hardware and dedicated gear to reproduce them.


However it recently dawned on me that most of that stuff can now be achieved with virtual instruments. There are loads of synth and sound generators out there that can give you that kind of sounds. They are also usually sold in a pack that gives you loads of flexibility and choice at a relatively low price. I am comparing the price to a hardware tone generator when I said "relatively low price".


The other thing that is hard to catch up would be those unique or sometimes iconic processing that is applied to modern songs and soundtracks that make them sound modern. I also realised that you can acquire these


DSP stands for Digital Signal Processors. In this context I am talking about signal processing for audio engineering purposes, like for sound/musical content. Includes processors for compressors, limiters, echo, reverb, etc.


Advantages of virtual instruments/DSP:
- It is not an external device. No external cables, no A/D or D/A conversion, no chance for noise to get into your mix. No external power sources needed. Hardware modules stack up. After a while you have to get a cases to house them. When you decided you have too many,  you have to think of a way to get rid of them to free up physical space. With software synths/processers, the only space they take up is your harddisk.


- Since it is not a piece of hardware, it means you do not need an audio interface device connected to your computer to get the signal into your machine. For studios who would have digital mixers anyway, it means freeing up physical mixer inputs to patch live instruments instead of synthesizers and sound modules.


- Hardware cost much more because of the cost gone into manufacturing the hardware, the firmware and the user interface for interacting with the phyiscal buttons


- Hardware synths and effects modules usually have a  very small storage size to store their samples. The lower end synths (the range that I'd be comfortable to spend money on), usually have "watered-down" sounding instruments compared to their higher end counterpart.


- Software synths and effects are aware of the tempo of your music. Lots of cool effects can be time-locked to the current tempo, even if the tempo changes in the course of the track


- The output from software synths can be directly channeled back into the software mixer of your music/audio production software to be processed by another DSP plugin. No patch cables, no noise introduced.


- Virtual Instruments / DSP plugins do not degrade in  quality over time. There is no maintenance to be done, input/output connections do not get rusty, internal batteries do not die or leak, electronic circuit soldering does not come off over time.


- Virtual Instruments / DSP plugins do not


Advantages of Hardware equipment:
- Easy to plug-in and operate. Imagine having to migrate a plug-in from 1 computer to another. You'd have to request for a new license for the machine and authorise the new machine. It becomes impractical to just go over to another studio, use your plugin, then uninstall again. With a piece of hardware, you can. Just carry the device over to another studio, plug it in, route a signal through it, us it, and carry it back after you are done with it.


- No need to fiddle with latency, buffer size, etc,  on the host computer's side. It just works. Real-time.


- It does not take up the processing power and memory of the host machine.


What do you think? Are you pro- hardware devices or pro- software processors/synthesizers?