When it comes to producing electronic dance music, there are a few tools of the trade. A digital audio workstation (DAW) is one and a set of studio monitor speakers or DJ headphones are as well. However, there is one thing without which no electronic music of any sort could ever exist and that’s the humble synthesiser. These machines generate waveforms of harmonic noise, which are shaped and sculpted by a variety of filters, envelopes and effects to form bass lines, searing leads and soaring pads.
Today we’re going to be doing a comparative study of hardware versus software synthesisers. Hardware being self-contained, standalone analogue or digital synthesisers, with software being virtual instruments that function as plug-ins for a DAW.
There are some purists that argue that hardware is the only way to go. There are certainly some advantages to hardware. First of all, a hardware synth is very hands on. You can play the keys (or trigger it via a MIDI keyboard), tweak knobs and slides and create some amazing sounds – all without touching a mouse.
The sound from some analogue synthesisers is also said to be deeper and richer. A great deal of these machines, save the very vintage, will also plug in and sync with a DAW as well – making arranging and composing dance music a smooth process. However, hardware synthesisers can be expensive – and size consuming. Some of those with a small bedroom studio space may not be able to fit more than one or two synths without running out of space.
There are a multitude of software synthesisers on the market – from standard subtractive synths through to digital-analogue modelling units, 303-style acid boxes and FM synthesisers. One advantage of software is that size is no limit – you can fit and run as many machines as your CPU and RAM will allow. Another bonus is that, if your PC or laptop can handle it, you can run multiple instances of the same synthesiser software – so all your bass, leads, pads and chords can come from the same program!
They are often significantly cheaper than hardware synths. One downside of software synths is that that unless you have an external MIDI control device that you have to use a mouse and keyboard to operate them, which can take away the “hands on” vibe of making music. Also, there are some that claim that software will never sound the same as hardware.
In this case, it’s really up to the individual and their preferences for producing dance music! As long as you’re having fun, and being creative – it’s a win-win!