Types of Synthesis in Modern Softsynths
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What are
Software 
Synthesizers

And the Types of Synthesis within Today's Software Instruments

By Rich the Tweakmeister

Selecting a software synth for your studio is like going to a candy store.  They all look soooo good.  And with all the incredible variety of flavors of synthesis now available in the software realm, it truly is a choice of ear candy.  You can choose your flavor and happily skip home to the sequencer, install it, and marvel at the new possibilities for you music.  And if you were a good boy or girl and did your homework, this story has a happy ending.  Don't like homework?  Awww.  Well, lets hope you don't have to learn the hard way. 

We already talked about plugin formats in a previous class, right?  If you were out playing hooky that day you better go back and find out which formats are compatible with your sequencer or you may be weeping over lost cashola at the end of the day.  Remember that stores will not take back software after you open the box, so get it right the first time.  So do your research at manufacturers sites before you shell.  Oh, by the way, you'll find MP3 demos of most of the synths on this page if you follow the links. 
 

Types of Software Synthesizers

To really understand what's going on with soft synths, it helps to have an understanding of synthesis in general and the hardware synths that these virtual instruments attempt to emulate.  This way, you'll get an idea of the way these things sound and can choose which kind of sounds you want to have in your music.  So in addition to rounding up some of the softsynths available, I'll also give you a short course in the history of synthesizers.
 

Analog Soft Synths

Lets start off with good old analog.  If it needs to be said, analog soft synths are not really analog synths but digital models of analog synths.  Real analog works with voltage, not data.  It starts with a harmonically rich waveform (Saw, Square, Rectangle and Triangle) which is genrated by an oscillator then "filters" or cuts away, part of the sound in an exacting fashion with filters and envelopes.  Hence, analog is often called "subtractive" synthesis, as it cuts away part of this big fat sound to make presets such as bass (which it does well) and leads  (which are sometimes biting, buzzy, sometimes oozing liquid), pads, gurgling effects, blips, whooshes, "vintage" sounding keyboards, clavs, organs, gooey, sometimes sensuous strings, a passable woodwind, and totally fake guitars and pianos.  Drums are bursts of noise shaped with filters to resembles kicks and snares.

Analog synths are quite evident in trance and industrial music.  They are good for anything that needs a fluid, liquid-like texture that is thick on the bottom and mildly fuzzy on the top.  Analog has a hard time being crystalline and precise.  Its hard to get a clean bell tone.  Analog synths used to be monophonic in the heyday of the MiniMoog, ms20s, and they evolved to be polyphonic in the early 80s with the Sequential Prophet 5 and Roland Juno and Jupters, Oberheims Matrix, Korg's Mono Poly's.
 

Today's Analog Software Equivalents

The Arturia MiniMoog V  Check out my review

Arturia's Minimoog V has been noted by many as an excellent replica of the original mono mini.  Aturia also makes the Moog Modular V  which has up to 9 oscillators per voice and has 64 (!) voices.  I don't have those yet, but soon...  A long standing soft synth is the Native Instruments Pro-53, which emulates the Prophet 5 by Sequential.  The Prophet was a polyphonic analog, capable and warm, and easily adaptable to rock, pop, industrial, techno and trance. Its easy on the CPU, unlike the MiniMoog V.  The Pro53 is so tight it will actually read sysex files from the original unit.  That shows the incredible level of detail these models are capable of.  Also take a look at ImpOSCar, a play of words off "Imposter" and OSCar, the synth it emulates.  The Korg Legacy Series includes two important analog replicas--the MS20 and the PolySix.  The MS20 is a mono analog synth with strong resonant filters capable of many forms of noise, distortion and overdrive.  You even get a controller keyboard with the package that has all the MS20 knobs, jackfield, wheels and switches on it.  I have that one.  Awesome.  Another analog model is the GForce Oddity which emulates the venerable ARP Odyssey, a monophonic 2 oscillator synth. 
 

 

FM Synths

 

FM stands for Frequency Modulation.  It was the technology behind Yamaha's groundbreaking synths in the 80s, the DX5, DX7, DX9, TX7, TX802, SY and TG series.  Rather than subtract from a big fat waveform, FM synthesis started by using several "thin" Sine Waves (operators and carriers) at user selectable frequencies and then "patched" them in various ways to come up with tones.  The result-- an entire universe of sound opened up, from very pure tones to  discordant atonal chaos.  FM is capable of interesting replicas of acoustic instruments.  FM sounds are precise, bright and bell-like, the opposite of analog.  FM makes very precise bass sounds with lots of top, which makes them ideal for mixes where the bass has to be clean and accurate.  FM has a kind of cheesy ring to many sounds, like clavs and organs.  Its strings are obviously fake, but in a nice way.  Its brass is bratty, plastic.  Winds are often cutting but precise.  FX that many programmers discovered on FM were usually of a wacky, sci-fi vintage but beautiful spacey textures are possible for those that listen.  I know.  I've been there.
 

FM Software Equivalents

There are many softsynths that use FM synthesis too some degree, but not that do it as well as Native Instruments FM7.  Check out my review.  Just let me say here, the FM7 is great software and MUCH easier to program than the original FM machines. What is a bit surprising about the FM7 is how good it sounds:  it sounds better than all 3 FM synths I have here.  Sort of like how FM would sound if you died and went to heaven. LOL. Definite 2 thumbs up

Reaktor has some FM models among its collection of soft synths.  Reason's Subtractor, though more of an analog synth can also do FM.  MOTU's Multisynth uses FM among its methods of generation
 

Wavetable and Linear Algorithmic Synths

 

Linear Algorithmic

(LA) synthesis is a combination of a sample playback and digital waveforms.  Back in the day when sample playback was just starting, memory on synths was precious and small.  Developers took tiny bits of samples and spliced them together in one big wave chunk.  As in sample playback synths, when you played an instrument the processor would scan over a tiny looped section where the sample was. So, you had the realism of low bit samples combined with sine and analog like waveforms. The sound of these synths was surprisingly evocative, a touch of realism, yet totally digital.  The Roland D series (D50, D10, D110) is most representative of LA.

Wavetable Synths  

The wave table approach took LA one step further.   It would let you scan through a series of contiguous samples in the big wave chunk at once, which gave a "morph" of one sound to another. Right around this time developers were realizing they could use real time controls like faders and knobs to shift from one sound to another.  These are often called "Vector" synths because you could map out a path, or vector, from one sound element to another over time. The PPG, Waldorf's Microwave, Ensoniq's VFX and the Korg Wavestation are synths that used wavetables and the latter two can be considered vector synths. 
 

Wavetable/LA Software Equivalents

The Korg Legacy package has an exacting model of the Korg Wavestation, an unbelievable feat.  Ok, I have to quote the blurb here. "...provides all 484 waveforms and 55 effects found on the WAVESTATION series (including the WAVESTATION-SR!), with 32 digital oscillators, 32 digital filters, 64 envelope generators, and 64 LFOs that allow letter-perfect replication of the three-dimensional WAVESTATION sound, ..."  Those waveforms are quite neat.  The synth architecture followed the philosophy of the PPG, if I recall properly, the Synergy, the synths of the era when Wendy Carlos used on Digital Moonscapes.  The Wavestation SR is one of my favorite synths. If you take the time to go beyond the presets you can make powerful evolving timbres that go beyond the stuff Tritons and Fantoms can do. Of course, there is a tradeoff for getting this much power.  Make sure you have a strong CPU for the legacy package.  Also check out the inexpensive Digital Edition of the Legacy Collection

 

 

 

Arturia Analog Factory Experience Hybrid Synthesizer with Keyboard Controller
Arturia's Analog Factory Experience offers the immediacy of a hardware synthesizer combined with the flexibility of a software based solution. How is it possible? Analog Factory Experience is a unique combination of a software synthesizer that brings 3500 sounds, along with a high quality dedicated hardware controller. Once the Software is started, you can put your mouse away, all functions can be activated from within the keyboard controller: select a sound to play, modify this sound, recall snapshots... This is a true hands-on experience: simple, straightforward and fun.

So far, I've yet to see any Roland D-series models but I would not be surprised to find out a D50 soft synth is on some developer's bench right now.  After all they are bringing the D50 back into the hardware V-Synth II.
 

Sample Playback Soft Synths

Sample playback came into popularity with the first Proteus synths by Emu and quickly took over the synth industry.  The Roland JD and JV, XP and XV series, the Yamaha AWGS system, the Korg, Kawaiis, and many others are in here.  Its the same technology you find in the Fantom, Triton and Motif today.  Digital samples of acoustic instruments and samples of analog and digital waveforms are arranged into layered presets.  You get typical analog style envelopes and lfos and digital filters to round it out.  The sound, we we all have heard, is clean, authentic, precise at best and at worst, brittle, starchy and unconvincing. 
 

Sample Playback Software equivalents

General Synths

Cakewalk released its Dimension Pro Software synth which has a whopping 7GB library and 1500 sound programs of instruments we all use.  It even runs on a Mac as well as on Windows.  Hmm.  Think about that.  Simpler and less expensive is the Native Instruments Bandstand, a "modest" 2GB, and is GM, GS compatible.  2GB is "modest"?  Umm, sure, it beats the rap out of the old 512KB GM soundbanks that come on many soundcards!  M-Audio is getting in on the act with the low cost Drum and Bass Rig and Key Rig soft synths.

It Used to Be Hardware (not long ago)

There are many out there, so lets start with the Emu Software Proteus X2  With the Proteus X you can buy modules that use the same samples as the original hardware Proteii, such as the Planet Earth (world) Virtuoso (orchestral), Mo Phatt (Hip Hop) and more.  There are several emu collections that cover a history of analog and digital synths but remember these are samples of those synths, not models, so they correctly belong in the sample playback section.

Another way to get the old classic emu synths in software form is through Cakewalk's Dimension Pro.  Many of these sounds are on famous dance and electronica tracks as they go back to when the Emulator samplers ruled the electronic jungle.

Cakewalk Dimension Pro Software Synth (Macintosh and Windows)
Dimension Pro is the critically acclaimed synthesizer that combines real instruments with advanced synthesis, giving you endless sound possibilities. The immense 2 DVD sound library that ships with Dimension Pro makes it the ideal go-to instrument for musicians, while its deep editing and sound generation capabilities have a natural appeal to sound designers.

Cakewalk EMU PX7 Drums Sound Library for Dimension Pro
Capture the dynamic feel of a real drummer or percussionist with the PX7 drum collection. You get fantastic multi-layered acoustic drum kits along with an in-depth percussion ensemble. This collection offers eight precisely recorded drum kits that were then meticulously layered and programmed to provide the human feel often missing in MIDI drums. Kits include Rock, Funk, Jazz, Hip Hop, Swing, Electronica, and more. Warning: other producers will be asking for your drummer's phone number.

Cakewalk EMU Virtuoso 2000 Sound Library for Dimension Pro
Virtuoso 2000 is your ticket to world-class orchestral sounds. Become the composer and conductor of a professional symphony orchestra recorded under ideal conditions. Get string (section and solo), woodwind, brass, and percussion sounds at your fingertips that preserve the natural sound of these high quality acoustic instruments. And best of all, this collection was created for ultimate musicality by one of the most revered sound designers in the industry.
Cakewalk EMU MoPhatt Sound Library for Dimension Pro
There ain't nothing like the real thing. Mo'Phatt is THE ORIGINAL Hip Hop sound generator. In this collection you'll find the actual sounds that have made your head nod and booty shake on countless #1 Rap and R&B hits. Drums, bass, synth leads, pads, hits and moreā€”you'll recognize them all. Accept no substitute.
 
Cakewalk EMU Planet Earth Sound Library for Dimension Pro
Add the kind of global warming that everyone enjoys with Planet Earth, an amazing collection of authentic world instruments and percussion. We've toured the globe for you to find the best sounding instruments and the best players, and recorded samples at multiple velocities to present the ultimate realism. Whether you're looking for tambora, kotos or shakuhachi, marimbas or timbales this collection features unique textures guaranteed to spice up any mix.

Cakewalk EMU Proteus 2000 Sound Library for Dimension Pro
The Proteus 2000 represents a vast array of instruments used in film, TV, and commercial scores. This incredible sound set includes custom programs tailored to the needs of composers, and features a wide-ranging collection of instruments which cover many different styles of music. This may be the most useful sound library ever created.
Priced from 79.95
Cakewalk EMU Xtreme Lead-1 XL1 Sound Library for Dimension Pro
Cut through the mix and make an impression with Xtreme Lead-1, a diverse set of cutting edge synthesizers and percussion. Perfect for Electronica, Trance, Dance, and other modern music these synth basses, sizzling leads, drum kits, vocal stabs, and DJ scratches will liven up any house mix.

Atmospherica

Another soft synth that uses samples of old synths along with some quality acoustic tweaks is Spectrasonics Atmosphere, which I have reviewed.  Its a fantastic choice. Spectrasonics just released Omnisphere, which will be reviewed here soon! In the Atmospherical veins we also have the Zero-G Altered States which uses the Intakt engine and Morphology which uses the Kompakt engine.  Its tempting to call these sample libraries rather than soft synths. I hope to hear these soon. 

Grand Pianos

Synthogy Ivory Grand Piano

Among the software acoustic pianos available today, all sample-driven, we have the Native Instruments Akoustik Piano,  Steinberg's The Grand, and Synthology's Ivory

Covering the Basses

While guitarists are a dime a dozen, a good bass player has always been hard to find.  Not so in the virtual domain.  These Bass players come with a truckload of basses and, unlike those I know, they won't drink all your beer. Yellow Tools has the Majestic Bass.  East-West has HardCore Bass.  Steinberg has Virtual Bassist and Spectrasonics has Trilogy, which will be replaced soon with Trillian. Trilogy won't work on newer Macs, so I hope they hurry.

Axe Me One

The Virtual Guitarist, a Steinberg product, is, and I quote "a perfect rhythm guitarist who plays both acoustic and electric guitar, including all keys and difficult chords, who never gets impatient, follows the tempo of your song..."  Let me add that the product will never hit on your girlfriend, wife, mother or daughter.  Reason enough right there to get it. 
 

World Sounds

Mark of the Unicorn's Ethno World is one of the first World sample collections in a soft synth plugin format and is a combination of sampled instruments loops and phrases.  Usually you have to buy a sample collection to run in a soft sampler to get these sounds, so this is cool. 

 Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) Ethno World Virtual Instrument Soft Synth
The Ethno Instrument delivers expressive ethnic instrument sounds combined with authentic world music loops and phrases in one easy-to-use window. From solo instruments to full ensembles, the Ethno Instrument delivers all of the exotic textures you need to take your recordings to the four corners of the globe.

 

Hybrid Physical Modeling Soft Synths

 

While physical modeling hardware synths have been around in modules such as the Yamaha VL70M they have never really taken off, much to the surprise of many.  That is changing now that developers have gone to the soft synth realm to take advantage of the computer's superior processing power.  As one software modeler put it, "you can develop models of any sound occurring in nature.  Once the mathematical characteristics of sounds are captured, you can apply them to other models. 

Those with Logic Pro 7 should explore the new softsynth Sculpture, based in part on models of a vibrating string.  Sculpture can create everything from EPs to guitars and harps conventionally but also make totally unearthly sounds like deep waterphone-like scraping metallic noise, very real sounding voxs, and scary effects you have not heard at the movies yet.

Physical modeling the technology leading the edge of soft synth design.  Just as developers have emulated analog and digital synths with mathematical models, they have developed them for other instruments as well.  The Electric Piano is one of these.  Its relatively simple design makes it a good candidate.  Take a listen to the Native Instruments Elektrik Piano and the Lounge Lizard. 

 
Tweak:  Komplete is a great way to get a lot of softsynths in one bundle. 

Also see
Arturia Vintage Collection Software Bundle
 

Of the Hybrid Modeling Synths we have Applied Acoustics Tassman which has digital models real world instruments (not samples).  As they say "You' ll find all the classic analog and FM instrument emulations you'd expect in a modular synthesis solution, staggeringly realistic acoustic instruments including various drums and chromatic percussion, string instruments of all shapes and sizes, an electric piano, tonewheel and pipe based organs, and more, complete with the nuances and subtleties that would be simply unattainable with a sample based solution" Version 4 is now out and adds a lot of compatibility.  This could be where the future is headed that finally breaks our (over) reliance on sample playback. 
 

Hybrid and Abstract Synths

 

One of the cool things about making synthesizers in software is that you don't have to emulate something that already existed as hardware, you can go wild and really take all the synthesis technologies and combine them into a single synth or set of synths.  Then you can add other stuff, little mini-sequencers, arpeggiators, effects, samples and really go a warpin'. That's essentially the recipe Native Instruments used for Reaktor.

In many ways, this program is ahead of other softsynths out there in terms of sound making potential. You can build your own synth engine from templates and presets.  Add FM, analog, ring mods, fx, samplers, step sequencers...getting the idea?    Another flash of greatness is that there are tons of user built synths that are freely downloadable at the Native Instruments site.  These aren't just "patches" but full-hog user-blown total virtual synths! (careful though--lots of them crash!) But in the balance: Reaktor is visionary! Check out my review of Reaktor Session

Arturia ARP 2600 V Software Synth (Macintosh and Windows)
The ARP 2600 is one of the finest analog synthesizers ever made. Celebrated by the most respected musicians over the last thirty years, it is capable of creating amazing sounds, heard in numerous popular tunes from Herbie Hancock to Stevie Wonder.  Tweak:  Like to Tweak like the old school?
 

Absynth  is another heavy NI soft synth.  Extremely powerful. I've had it for years.  This synth is for heavy tweaks.  You get a lot of different filters and can "granualize" your own samples with it. Cool and unusual.  Absynth will also do convincing analog and FM Check out my review.

Kantos's ad states "finally liberates you from the tyranny of MIDI, keyboards, controllers or, in fact, anything that stands between you and the music you hear in your mind"  oh-key.  That's quite a claim.  The way it works is you patch it as an insert on an audio track.  Kantos takes the audio data and generates sound. Someone tell me if it works.  I'm still trying to get over shelling out another $100 to keep Antares Auto-Tune working in Logic 7.     

 

Tweak Sez:

OK, I know you want to know, "what's the bes...NO! don't say that word!  Which do I like the most?  Sorry, still can't answer.  I have a lot of those on this page and I like them all for specific things.  Ok which do I use the most?  That I can answer.  Omnisphere. There you go.

A really good strategy is to get different types of synthesis.  If I were starting today what would I get.  Easy.  Omnisphere and Komplete, then a Moog.  If you can't get Komplete, get Absynth.  Even if you never program it, Absynth will open your ears.  The Mini Moog V is so Moog-like that it will make you smile.  Omnisphere has all of atmosphere in it.  I have it sitting here waiting for my Mac pro (the G5 1.8 is just shy of the recommended requirements).  Next time i update this article I'll tell you all about it.

Naturally, it is impossible to cover all of today's software synthesizers on one web page.  This is a rapidly growing field.  I can only imagine what it will be like 10 years from now.  Will every vintage analog synth be modeled?  Or will manufacturers release all their synths under the software flag.  "In this box you get models of all the Roland Synths from 1977-1995".  Will mathematical models of acoustic instruments finally overthrow sampling technology?  Will the next software guitarist actually shout sampled insults so we feel its more real?  Keep thine chops up and ears peeled.

Rich the TweakMeister

 

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Software Synths and Samplers INDEX
Understanding the Virtual Studio
What is a Software Sampler?
What is a Soft Synth?
What are Software Processors?
Atmosphere
Spectrasonics Omnisphere
Spectrasonic's Trillian
Superior Drummer
My Favorite Vintage Soft Synhts
Stylus RMX
Battery by Native Instruments
MOTU BPM
Albino 3
Intakt
Guru Review
StormDrum Review
Reaktor
Korg Legacy MS20
Garritan Personal Orchestra
Altered States
Massive
FM7 and FM8
NI's Komplete Bundle
MiniMoogV
MOTU's Ethno
Are Hardware Samplers Obsolete?
MOTU MX4
Absynth
Antares Filter
Logic's EXS24 Sampler
Kore
Kore 2 Review
Kontakt
Kontakt 3
Waves Gold and Platinum
Software Plugins Price List

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