Nowadays, even pros wonder if hardware synths are worth the cost. When software synthesizers first appeared, the gap with hardware synthesizers was epic. As time went on and software companies started working on programs more seriously, the gap became smaller.
Are hardware synthesizers worth the cost? Hardware synthesizers are worth the cost if their interface, playability, and subjective enjoyment are worth paying for. Though software synths can emulate and exceed the abilities of hardware synths, the tangible nature of a hardware synth often outweighs all the pros of a soft synth.
In this article, we'll discuss whether hardware synthesizers are worth the cost, with a keen focus on the differences between hardware synths and their software counterparts.
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Are Hardware Synths Worth The Cost?
Hardware synthesizers can be rather pricey, especially when contrasted with their soft synth counterparts, which often sound just as good or better.
When determining whether a hardware synth is worth it to you, there are a few cost-to-benefit concerns worth considering:
- Do you plan on making money with the hardware synth? Sometimes, we have to spend money to make money. If you're in the business of live performance and/or recording, having a top-notch hardware synthesizer may be worth the hefty price tag, especially if you'll make the money back. Of course, software synths can also work wonders in these situations.
- How much do you prefer the tactile control of hardware over software? A major drawback of audio software of all types is the lack of touch control. Many musicians feel more connected to their music when they have a tangible instrument to play. This is perhaps the most important consideration when deciding whether a hardware synth is worth it.
- Consider the synth as an investment. Some hardware synths have established legendary status. Their price point may actually increase with time, especially if the manufacturer has discontinued them. Furthermore, while plugins may sell for 50% of the original cost on the used market, hardware synths tend to maintain their value, often selling for 70% or more if kept in good condition.
Hardware Synths Vs. Software Synths
While hardware synths are self-contained units capable of generating sounds, software synths need an outside “brain” where sound is generated. This means that what generates the sound in software synths (also known as VST, VSTi, or VST instrument) is the computer, and the hardware is only the interface.
Although some hardware synths (like the excellent new Yamaha Reface line) feature speakers and a built-in amp, most need external amplification to be heard. In the case of the software synth, it is not the trigger or MIDI controller that needs to be connected to a speaker and amp but the computer.
Related article: Can You Play A Synthesizer Or Keyboard Through A Guitar Amp?
Let's take a look at some of the pros and cons of each type of synthesizer.
Pros Of Hardware Synths
Hardware synths are an investment: Although, as we said before, not all of them aged well, some old synths will only gain value while sitting in your studio. Moreover, if you can get your hands on a bargain on sites like eBay and Reverb, you can make a difference by simply buying and selling.
Do not require computer skills: You do not have to know the first thing about computers to be a proficient synth player. This is because the interface on hardware synths is usually more intuitive and easy to operate if you handle faders, knobs, and keys well.
Are self-contained units: The only thing you need to play a hardware synth is the unit itself. You can then connect it to an amplification system so the audience can hear it, but they are self-contained units, which makes them more reliable and easier to set up.
Zero-latency: Unless you tamper with the “Attack” knob on your synth, there’s no perceivable latency from the moment you hit the key to the moment you hear the sound.
Reliability at its best: Because they are mostly made of analog parts, hardware synths are serviceable and won’t crash as a computer system would. Moreover, if the power goes off during a live performance, you don’t have to wait for the computer to reboot to keep playing.
Cons Of Hardware Synths
Not cheap: Hardware synths, especially the ones that are classic, rare, or special, are not on the cheap side. Furthermore, the more legendary the sounds it can make, the higher its price tag will be.
Usually bulky and hard to transport: Because they are self-contained units, they are mostly heavy apparatuses that are hard to transport. Moreover, the further back in time you go, the bulkier and heavier they will be.
It is easy to get lost with terminology and knobs: Just like you need to know a thing or two about computers to use a software synth proficiently, you need to know some terminology and have your way with knobs, faders, and keys to operate a hardware synth.
Requires physical upkeep: Upkeeping a hardware synth includes routine maintenance and cleaning and sometimes demands significant repair.
Related article: How To Clean A Synthesizer Effectively & Safely
Pros Of Software Synths
You can cover much ground with a small investment: Hardware synths can excel at producing a specific sound or a variety of sounds. Still, if you want to create sounds that aren't in your hardware synth, you have to expand your collection. On the other hand, software synths can recreate as many synths as the software allows with a single purchase.
They are easy to transport: If you can carry a laptop, a pair of headphones, and a MIDI controller in your backpack, you have a plethora of sounds ready to play. Furthermore, with the right software, you can play the heaviest synth while sitting on the grass in the backyard.
You can record them with zero quality loss and little effort: Since most DAWs are integrated with the VST software, there’s no need to set up any microphones. This cascades into no quality loss and no physical effort. Again, you can record an awesome take sitting on the grass in your backyard.
Sound renovation is easier and cheaper: If you want to grow or expand your sound gallery, all you need to do is get new software. Software is usually way cheaper than hardware.
Cons Of Software Synths
More elements involved that can go wrong: You need to connect your MIDI controller to your computer and the computer to an audio interface. Then, connect the audio interface to a power amplification system and a pair of speakers or just headphones. With more elements involved, the chances of something going wrong are always higher.
You depend on a computer for sound generation: What happens if the power goes off in the middle of the performance in a live situation and comes back immediately? All gear goes on, allowing the rest of the band to continue playing, but you have to wait until the computer reboots. Likewise, if the computer system crashes, you’re left with no instrument to play.
VST programming is not easy: VST programming is not the easiest endeavour in the world. Although YouTube and the internet are flooded with tutorials and posts that can help you, you need some computer know-how and experience.
Hardware and software synths have a legion of loyal fans all over the world. Some swear by their hardware gems, while others bet 100% on software-generated sound. The same happens with, for example, compressors. While some use software exclusively, others can’t live without the hardware.
So, in conclusion, if you have the ear to feel the difference and the extra funds to make the purchase, you can never go wrong with a hardware synthesizer; they are worth every penny.
When buying a synthesizer, it can be challenging to choose the most ideal option within your budget. For this reason, I've created My New Microphone's Comprehensive Synthesizer Buyer's Guide. Check it out for help choosing the best synth for your applications.