The differences between hardware and software synthesizers is a debate that feels as old as time. If you’re new to synthesizers, you may be wondering what’s different between a hardware and a software synth.
The difference between a hardware and software synthesizer is that a hardware synthesizer is made of physical components that generate sound, whereas a software synthesizer is a computer programme that emulates the sound and functionality of a synthesizer.
There’s some nuance to the above statement, such as digital vs analogue synthesizers that I won’t cover here.
Below, I’ve covered the advantages and disadvantages to both hardware and software synthesizers that you may want to consider if you’re a beginner.
To be clear, I recommend using both hardware and digital synthesizers as both have their merits. It’s important to use what sounds right to you.
That being said, let’s look into the advantages and disadvantages of both!
- Advantages of a Hardware Synthesizers
- Disadvantages of a Hardware Synthesizer
- Advantages of a Software Synthesizers
- Disadvantages of a Software Synthesizer
- Related Questions
Advantages of a Hardware Synthesizers
You can get an authentic analogue sound
True analogue synthesizers are built using Voltage Controlled Operators, or “VCO’s”, to generate the instrument’s sound. As there are minor fluctuations, which impacts its interactions with other filters or modulators in the signal path, this results in very small imperfections that give an iconic sound.
A software synth, however, will not have these small imperfections as the sounds are generated based on binary measurements, so these minor imperfections are not present, which can result in the synth sounding “cold”.
Entry level units such as the Korg Volca Keys are truly analogue and are capable of producing these rich tones.
They’re not dependent on your computer
Hardware synthesizers are self contained units that generate sound internally by changing (or “modulating”) waveforms generated by “oscillators”. This means that they do not rely on computers to make sound, like a software synth does.
This is good, because it means that you don’t need to consider your computer’s parts when recording. So, recording with a hardware synth, in most cases, uses a fraction of the computer’s processing power when recording.
As an example, I record my hardware synth into Ableton Live 10 with an Intel Core Duo processor and use between 1 to 2% of the CPU. A software synth, however, will use between 7 to 10% on average for me.
They have tactile interfaces
One of the most notable features, when you look at a hardware synthesizer, is the many dials and knobs on it which are used to shape the sound and tone of the synth.
Being able to touch and physically adjust these dials is one of the most fun parts of synthesis, as you’re playing with your sound in real time.
In my experience, this leads to greater levels of creativity, and is one of the best parts about using a synthesizer. It makes the synth feel more like an instrument than just being a sound generator.
They have a good resale value
If your hardware synth is sat gathering dust, or you’re just looking to upgrade, then you can sell your synthesizer for a good return on what you originally paid.
In some cases, the resale value may actually increase depending on whether the synth is still in production or not. Vintage synthesizers can sell for several times their original retail price, which is a good reason to hold onto any hardware synths you own: you never know what might go vintage.
This means that when it comes to upgrading to your next piece of gear, you can get some money back from old or unused synths.
Disadvantages of a Hardware Synthesizer
They need additional gear to connect to a computer
If you’re looking to record a song or session with your hardware synthesizer, then you’ll need equipment to connect it to a computer. This is generally going to be in the form of an audio interface or mixer, which costs additional money.
The average price for an entry level audio interface is around $200, which can be expensive depending on your circumstances. Audio mixers are a cheaper option, retailing for around $75 for a basic device. As with most things, you get what you pay for, so the lower priced interfaces and mixers may not be the best quality.
I’ve written a guide on how to connect a synthesizer to a computer that you can look through to get a better idea of the options available and potential additional costs.
They can be expensive
Depending on which model you go for, hardware synthesizers can quickly get expensive. This is because they use physical parts to build, especially with analogue synthesizers.
The average price for a beginners hardware synthesizer is around $300. At this price, you can get a top of the range software synth. Likewise, a beginner software synth will cost considerably less, and you can even get some for free in some cases.
This is even more true for vintage synthesizers that are no longer in production. These highly sought after models, such as the Moog Minimoog Model D, can cost thousands of dollars. In most cases, these synths will have been emulated in software which can be purchased at a fraction of the secondhand price.
The recording workflow is slower
When it comes to recording a song, you’ll often want to get to work as quickly as possible to keep your creative momentum going, which can be difficult with a hardware synthesizer.
As the synth sits “outside” the DAW, more work is needed to get everything sounding right. This extra work may come in the form of multiple takes to get your recording in time, reducing unwanted noise, or even getting everything connected and set up in the first place.
All of this takes up valuable recording time and can be “clunky” when it comes to editing, as you’re working with waveforms as opposed to MIDI, which is used for software synths.
They can break
This feels like an obvious one, but is definitely worthwhile considering. As hardware synthesizers are built using many different physical components, they run a risk of eventually breaking.
Depending on your make and model, the repair costs for a hardware synthesizer vary drastically depending on what you need fixing and what model your synth is. This can get expensive if there’s multiple synthesizers that require repairing or replacing at the same time. As well as this, some can just be unfixable!
In contrast, software synthesizers are written in code that can be updated or reinstalled if there is a fault with the programming at no extra cost to yourself.
They can take up a lot of room
Whilst they come in many shapes and sizes, hardware synthesizers usually require a lot of space due to them often containing keys.
This need for space can quickly add up if you have multiple synthesizers, or ones with more keys.
Space saving techniques such as buying wall-mounts or additional storage are an option, however, this costs additional money and can impact the recording workflow with the time taken to unpack and set up your synth.
Advantages of a Software Synthesizers
They have more functionality for a cheaper price
On average, software synthesizers are significantly cheaper than hardware synthesizers. This is essentially the main advantage of software synthesizers in one form or another.
As software synthesizers don’t require physical materials to make up the circuitry, they can be programmed to make a wide range of sounds and have a tonne of features for a fraction of the price of their hardware counterparts.
If you’re looking for a wide range of sounds and functionality for a low price, or just getting started with learning about synthesizers, then a software synth might be a great option for you.
They are easier to record and edit
Software synths use MIDI instruction to know which notes to be played, at what time, and for how long. This makes it easier to record with, compared with hardware, as the MIDI notes can be changed and manipulated with a few clicks of a button.
Not only this, but you can programme complex MIDI sequences in your DAW for your software synth to play, without needing to physically play it yourself. This means that if you have a complex melody, you don’t have to spend time practicing it, you can simply write it in MIDI.
Once your sound is recorded, you can also edit the sound of the synth. If you’re not happy with your current patch, you can adjust it to what you want, whereas you would need to fully record a hardware synth part again.
They take up less space
As soft synths are loaded on your laptop or PC, they’re not physical, so they don’t need to take up any room!
In fact, the only physical devices you need to use a software synth is your computer and a MIDI keyboard. This makes them the perfect choice for people who either don’t have a lot of room, or are frequently moving or travelling.
If portability is important to you, then having soft synths loaded onto a laptop means that you can make music from anywhere without having to carry around bulky instruments.
There’s a wide range available
There are some legendary hardware synthesizers that are simply not in production anymore, meaning that they can’t be bought, and if you do find one second hand it could end up costing thousands of dollars.
Fortunately, software synths have been created that emulate the sound of the original models, at a fraction of the second hand price, making them more accessible to everyone.
Instant patch recall
Imagine: you’ve spent ages tweaking your synth to find the perfect sound, and then you can’t save it! This is the case with some hardware synthesizers that don’t have a memory bank for presets.
Software synthesizers have the ability to recall saved patches, meaning that you can turn on your PC and get straight to recording.
Not only this, but depending on the synth plugin you have, you may have access to factory and community presets which can give you some inspiration with shaping a sound that’s right for you.
Free options available
What’s better than cheap? Free! There’s plenty of free software synthesizer applications available nowadays that are perfectly viable to use, learn from, and record with.
Most DAW’s will come with some form of synth plugin that will provide you with enough variety to learn what sounds you like. There’s also a lot of freeware synth plugins online that are very versatile. I recommend checking out “Mono Fury” by Full Bucket or “Vital” by Matt Tytel as 2 good freeware synths to start with.
Disadvantages of a Software Synthesizer
You need a computer to use them
The biggest disadvantage of software synths is that you need a computer to use them. This is a disadvantage for a few reasons.
First of all, your computer will become outdated over time. This is because software is continuously developed to the specifications of both the latest and most available computer components.
This means that if your parts are towards the older side, they will become either unsupported or unable to run the necessary software. Upgrading can be expensive, especially if you’re using a laptop.
Secondly, booting up a PC just to practice playing your synth, or trying out an idea for a riff, can be frustrating. In this regard, having a hardware synthesizer that you can quickly switch on, play, and then switch off is a lot better.
They can be CPU intensive depending on the synth used
The primary computer component used for a software synthesizer is the “Central Processing Unit” (CPU). This is because the CPU is responsible for processing the complex instructions of the synthesizer plugins and converting it into an audio output instruction.
As synthesizer sounds become more complex, this increases the work required by the CPU. This can lead the CPU to “max out” which creates choppy audio or crash your DAW.
Likewise, newer synth software will usually have a higher CPU demand as it has been designed with newer CPUs in mind, that can handle larger workloads than older CPUs.
Most software will have both a “minimum” and a “recommended” section for computer specifications. Always check that before you make a purchase.
Top tip: See if you can trial software to see if it can run on your computer before purchasing.
They can also be expensive
Whilst software synthesizers are cheaper than hardware synthesizers on average, they can still be considered expensive in their own right.
For example, software such as “Serum” by Xfer Records costs around $200. This may be a low price when compared with a hardware synthesizer of a similar capability, however, a hardware synthesizer can retain some of its value and be sold if no longer required, whereas this plugin, and others like it, cannot.
Whilst this isn’t a make-or-break decision, it’s still worth considering. Before making a software synthesizer purchase see if there is the option to sell the product if you no longer want it, or at least see if there is a free trial to make sure that you know what you’re buying.
You should now have a better idea of the differences between a hardware synthesizer and a software synthesizer, and the advantages and disadvantages of both.
My recommendation is to use both, as they both have their merits. There’s nothing quite like sitting with a hardware synthesizer and manually adjusting knobs and sliders to find the perfect sound, likewise the advancement in synthesizer software has made it so that there is a world of sounds available that are more accessible than ever before!
The important thing is to use what sounds right for you. After all, it’s you that is making the music!
Do hardware synthesizers sound better than software synthesizers?
Many people claim that hardware synthesizers sound “warmer” and more “real” than software synthesizers, due to hardware synthesizers using analogue components that produce minor imperfections. Some software synthesizers have made significant progress in emulating analogue synthesizers, to the point where people cannot tell that it’s a software synth. There are many “blind-test” videos on YouTube where you try to tell the difference yourself.
I recommend trying this video to see if you can tell the difference.
Conor is a music producer, multi-instrumentalist, and all-round enthusiast from the UK with over 15 years of experience. He’s the founder and sole-content creator for the roundtable audio blog and YouTube channel.