One of the software categories that has benefited most from recent advances in computing power is software synthesizers. Today, turning your computer into a full-blown synthesis engine is nearly a trivial matter, and even systems that are less than state-of-the-art can usually provide valuable new resources to the desktop composer.
This article will examine a wide range of programs that use your computer's CPU as the sole sound-generating hardware, often with all the adjustable parameters that you'll find in today's outboard synthesis gear. I'll look at the most recent versions of some older programs and discuss several of the hottest new releases on the market.
Because so many programs are available, I'll only cover a few in each of the main categories. No doubt you'll find many other excellent programs, especially shareware, by surfing around the Net. Also, my focus will be on Macintosh and Windows applications, but you can certainly find high-quality options for other platforms such as Linux and BeOS. And I'll discuss only programs that run free of any dedicated hardware, which means that plug-ins written for TDM, for example, won't be included.
Those Were The Days
The concept of native signal processing, in which the computer's CPU provides all the computing power that a real-time multimedia program needs, is not new. In fact, it was originally brought to market by Intel, Motorola, and others in the early to mid-'90s-alas, somewhat before its time. Only in the past few years, with the advent of vastly more powerful processors, has it been possible to realize the potential of native signal processing, and all of these programs operate under that basic process.
Of course, when Max Mathews at Bell Telephone Labs first developed the means for computers to make sound in the late 1950s, the method of specifying values for sound parameters was much different from what it is today. Mathews and his colleagues used punch cards to enter their scores, as well as the routines that the computer used to generate sound. That method remained current for several decades, until terminals on which data could be typed and sent into the computer became available.
What a long way we've come. The soft synths covered here offer a host of real-time controls, including onscreen sliders, knobs, and faders. They also can be controlled from external MIDI keyboards, joysticks, and the like, allowing you to "play" them live. And in most cases, you can control them from a sequencer running on the same computer.
You Pays Your Money
What are the advantages of using a soft synth? Sound quality comes to mind; if your audio hardware supports digital I/O and has multichannel outputs, you can look forward to excellent audio quality with considerable routing flexibility. Another advantage is independent effects processing on each MIDI channel, a capability you'll get from several of the multitimbral synths. With so many basic design components available, you can also expect a high degree of sound-design flexibility; and of course, adding new features by way of software downloads is a cinch.
But there's no question that dedicated synthesis hardware also has its advantages. These include reliable and consistent performance (because it's not dependent upon a host CPU), portability (rack it and take it on the road), low or nonexistent latency, and ease of real-time tweaking (just how many parameters can you change at once with a mouse?). Nevertheless, a synthesizer running completely in software can be the best solution for many musicians, and it will certainly be a tremendous asset even if it's not your only means of creating sound.
By the way, I won't be making any absolute judgments about performance here, because it varies greatly depending on many factors (see the sidebar "Performance Practices"). There are simply too many variables to establish any relevant benchmarks.
However, on the test beds that I used-a Pentium II/400 MHz with 128 MB of RAM and a Mac G3/266 MHz with 256 MB of RAM-I got completely satisfactory performance from all these programs when using them as my only sound source. (Using a soft synth while playing audio tracks in a sequencer or attempting to sync incoming MIDI data with events in a sequencer track being routed to a soft synth can be more problematic.) I'm confident that a soft synth can offer valuable sonic resources on any modern machine; but, of course, the more horsepower you can put at your synth's disposal, the better your results will be. This is an excerpt from the following article: Going Soft Synthesis.
To stay informed about new articles, be sure to click here to sign up for the DigiFreq Music Technology Newsletter. It's free!