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I want to start making music on my computer. I already play a bunch of real instruments, but I imagine I'll want to also use synth noises and such. Intuitively I don't see why I can't just produce any random synth noise on my computer (given the right program/sound file/etc, which I imagine must exist), but people also do frequently use external synths and such.

Is there any reason to use those? Is it just easier? Or are they higher quality or something?

Thanks!

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2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

There are analogue and digital synthesizers. The digital ones you'll likely be able to emulate faithfully through a computer, but opinions differ when it comes to analogue. There are both digital synthesizers and programs that try to emulate them, but many feel that it is not like the "real deal". There is also a big difference manipulating real keys and knobs compared to a computer program. This can be achieved with different interfaces though.

So to summarize, starting out in this field you definitely can use a computer. To my ears, there are many good digital analogue emulations. Depending on preferences, you might later find that some things can only be achieved through dedicated machinery.

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It is not a matter of quality. You can get great sounds from a computer and many albums have been made on nothing but a laptop or even an iPad or GameBoy. Quality is not the concern.

There are good reasons for wanting hardware synths, though, even digital ones.

  • They start up instantly and generally never crash.
  • They have many knobs and controllers for direct control of the sound
  • They are usually ruggedly built to survive gigging on stage

In other words, Built for performance.

  • Even the most versatile ones give you a limited palette of sounds, forcing you to focus instead of getting lost in the distraction of 5,000 different plug-ins
  • Creating your own patches is often a more free-flowing and intuitive process because of the tactile connection to the synth.

Potentially more inspiring

  • Analog synths do make sounds that are hard to emulate. The best computer emulations are 99% of the way there, but that last 1% is like the fizz at the top of a freshly-poured soda. It adds an ineffable zing to everything you play.
  • Some synths are so physical they only exist as hardware and couldn't work any other way. There's really no way to play a theremin without having the genuine article.

Analog has its charms

There is one great, looming con to hardware, though:

More expensive

Stick to the computer while you're learning. The mistakes and the lessons learned from them are cheap, and the array of options is vast. Graduate to hardware when you can't help yourself. That time will come, soon enough.

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Quality can be a concern. Some people might be satisfied with what GameBoys can bring, and some might need the specifics of vintage analogue equipment. –  Meaningful Username Mar 29 at 10:53
    
There are a few other cons of hardware. Specifically, having to save/load configurations which would automatically be saved with the song if you were using a VST; lack of portability for big gear; latency when recording or bouncing daw->midi->synth->audio->daw. –  Sideshow Bob Apr 17 at 8:54
    
Is a good computer + quality soundcard/Audio-MIDI-USB interface + DAW + a pro set of virtual instruments still cheaper than an all-in-one synth workstation? –  marczellm May 27 at 22:15

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