Analog Synthesis in a Digital World

There’s no question that we live in Digital Age. Not only have computers played a central role in our everyday lives, but they have also become an important part of making music.

I still remember the early days of computer-based music production, which was still in its infancy a little less than twenty years ago. This was back in 1998, which was when I started my journey as a composer and music producer.

So, I have been able to see the evolution of music technology over the last eighteen years.

In a world that is full of recording software and digital plugins that can do everything to help you with the process of making music, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when all we had were ADAT tapes and reel-to-reel recorders.

Synthesizers could only be operated by turning knobs, moving faders, and routing cables, and there were no presets to help you get started. You had to know the right combinations to get the sound you wanted, and it was anything but easy.

These were the “bad old days” of music production, which was as much of a science as it was an art. Still, the potential of these instruments is massive, which is why they are still revered and used by music producers today. An example of this is the Roland TR-808, which has a kick drum sound that has been used by pop music producers for more than thirty years.

In today’s digital world, we aren’t limited by hardware-based synthesizers. Developers of music technology have been able to use computer software to recreate these instruments through digital plugins that can be used with many types of recording software. But how can they emulate analog processes in a digital environment?

If you are an experienced audio engineer, then you know that analog and digital don’t speak the same language. But if you’re scratching your head wondering what I’m talking about, then I am about to explain the difference between them and how they relate to music technology.

ANALOG VS. DIGITAL

All electronic devices come in two forms: analog and digital.

And there are clear differences between the two.

The simplest way to explain it is with the “clock analogy.” An analog clock has hands that move around a circular face, which has a series of numbers. They are controlled by a series of dials and gears that move in a particular pattern.

You are able to get an approximate time by looking at the position of the hands on the clock. This is different from a digital clock, which displays the exact time on a numeric display.

Of course, this is a simplified explanation, and there is a lot more science going on behind the scenes. Analog devices use circuits through which specific amounts of current (called “voltage”) move at a continuous rate.

The voltage can be manipulated by adding resistance to the current, and there is a minimum and maximum range for each circuit. This manipulation can be performed by turning a knob or a dial, but the exact amount of voltage can only be approximated.

Digital devices work a little differently. The amount of current is counted and not measured, so you can get a more accurate result in terms of the amount of voltage that is passing through the device. It doesn’t mean that a digital device is binary, even though it is a type of digital system.

But most digital devices that are used for making music are binary because they are meant to be used on a computer (which always uses binary code).

WHAT IS BINARY?

As I said before, saying that a device is digital is not the same as saying that it’s binary, even though it is a type of digital system.

Binary is a system of ones and zeroes, which serve as the building blocks of all computer software. Binary code is actually a series of on/off switches, where “1” means that it’s turned on and “0” means that it’s turned off.

Every program you run on your computer is manipulated and controlled by changing the pattern of switches in specific areas of the hardware.

So, any computer-based synthesizer that runs on whatever recording program you’re using will run binary code in the background.

This is very different from hardware-based synthesizers that music producers and performers have used in the early days of making music and recording. Now, we have recording software to help us create music on our computers, and we can use our laptops to perform pre-recorded tracks that we can play over.

But if analog is different from digital, how can we get the richness of analog synthesis in the world of computer technology?

The truth is, you can’t – at least, not to its fullest extent.

There is nothing like true analog, but unless you’re able to spend a small fortune in building a collection of vintage synthesizers, it will most likely be out of your price range.

But music technology has given people a happy medium in the world of digital music production, and the answer lies in what is called “analog modeling.”

WHAT IS ANALOG MODELING?

Analog modeling uses computer software and algorithms to emulate the sounds and process of analog synthesizers, and its purpose is to simulate their behavior.

It tries to duplicate their tone, and many of them are able to meet (and sometimes exceed) their qualities. Still, it’s not “true analog,” and some purists may refuse to see any value in this type of music technology.

However, they are worth taking a look at – not just because it’s a more economical alternative but because many of them offer more functionality than their counterparts. Some of these can include:

  • Better tuning
  • No heating issues (which can happen with hardware-based gear)
  • More enhanced polyphony
  • Storage of different presents and patches
  • MIDI support

There are many digital plugins that try to emulate these instruments, and they can help music producers take advantage of the sonic richness that these old synthesizers have brought into the world of making music. Here are some examples:

  • XILS – Lab PolyKB II – This plugin emulates the PolyKB Synth, which was made from 1979 to 1982.
  • GForce Oddity – The ARP line of synths were some of the best ever made, and the GForce Oddity seeks to emulate the ARP Odyssey, which has been used by electronic musicians since the early 1970’s.
  • KORG Polysix – As an experienced keyboardist, I love everything that KORG has to offer, and they have made some of the best electronic keyboards I have ever played. This is part of the KORG Legacy collection, and it’s designed to emulate a synthesizer that they manufactured back in the 1980’s. What was special about this synth was that it was easy to use, and it provided that “punchy” sound that has become a quality of many analog synths.
  • GForce Minimonsta – This is a recreation of the legendary MiniMoog, which has become one of the most coveted analog synthesizers ever made.
  • Arturia Jupiter 8V – The Roland Jupiter 8 was one of the best synthesizers ever made, and it has become a staple of 80’s pop music. This plugin is meant to recreate the sonic richness of this legendary synth.
  • Arturia CS80V – This is a recreation of the Yamaha CS80V, which was one of the early polyphonic synthesizers that had both a ribbon controller and an after-touch.
  • KORG Mono/Poly – This plugin is also part of the KORG Legacy Collection, and it’s designed to emulate the original instrument (along with some added features).
  • Arturia MiniMoog – This is another recreation of the MiniMoog, but this one has been endorsed by Bob Moog himself. So, it’s considered to be one of the most authentic recreations of this legendary synth.

Of course, there are other digital plugins that emulate several different analog and vintage synthesizers, so be sure to do your research to find out which one works for you.

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you’re an experienced music producer, you know that it’s not an exact science, and many times it’s what goes on in the background of a song that gives it that unique quality.

There are no rules, and nothing is ever etched in stone. There are, however certain sounds that have stood the test of time, and many analog synthesizers have been given new life as digital plugins that work seamlessly with any piece of recording software.

As someone who was a child in the eighties (and who came of age in the ’90s), I was able to see the evolution of music over the last thirty years. But most importantly, I have been able to see the incredible advances we have made since the new millennium – not just in making music but in how technology has changed the way people approach it.

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