Saturday, 17 May 2014

Analogue vs Digital : why can't we just have both?

It's a debate that has raged for as long as there have been people making music: analogue has a warmth and character that is unparalleled, whilst digital synths offer greater possibilities and are cheaper to make - but which one is better? 

This piece was inspired by the story of the TB-3, Roland's attempt to re-release the classic TB-303 after seeing the demand for cheap synth boxes. From the announcements, teasers and various press releases before the official unveiling, it seemed that Roland had finally woken up to the idea that they could make money on their synth heritage and follow up with an analogue bass machine that could rightfully be called the successor to the original.

What irked a lot of fans when they learned that the systems were all digital was a let down to expectations. On a more general marketing note, this serves as a cautionary tale of how not to stoke the hype too much, as if all of Roland's time and energy spent in labs with oscilloscopes was for nothing. 

However, something also reminded me that the internet is full of faux experts.

I didn't see the logic either, given the huge sums they could earn by throwing an official, all-analogue Roland 303 clone out in the wild. That is, until I actually had a chance to play around with one in the flesh and I have to say that I am impressed with it. Like its originator, it has a few control quirks that need to get use to, but it sounds very very similar to the TB303 and then goes one step further with more wave forms and built in effects, plus USB and MIDI all as standard. In short, you can get all your acid bassline fun without resorting to taking out a loan for the privilege to pay for it and a retrofit kit.

There are some good examples of companies who see a happy middle ground and these include those like MIDI-guru Dave Smith - his latest flagship synth the Prophet 12 includes digitally controlled oscillator units but analogue envelopes, effects and filters. Waldorf also do the same with their Rocket bassline machine among other products in their lineup and it sounds pretty good. 

Lovely, if you can afford it.
People tend to forget a time in the eighties when musicians were throwing their analogue kit out for trendy digital keyboards that offered stable tuning, more robust manufacturing for touring, more voices of polyphony, built in effects, better connectivity (especially as MIDI had just come out on the scene and people wanted to talk to their gear in better ways) and so on. I recall people on YouTube interviews who were able to pick up whole racks of vintage modular gear in the late 80s/ early 90s simply because musicians found them too unwieldy, too difficult to store or found they could get most of the same sounds they could actually use in production through a smaller box of tricks. In the race to get a chart hit, if bands could do the same and more with less expensive hardware, I am sure that no one would berate them too much for choosing what fit a budget if it worked.

Software and digital synths also offer the modulation and oscillator shape options that analogue machines can only dream of, or can offer wave shapes and filter types that are simply something that is different from what other synths are doing. I've noticed this a lot recently with things like the Electric Druid and Arduino programmable pic synths as well as the waveforms on the Korg MicroKorg as trying to offer something different that might be useful for the enterprising musician. Actually, there are some excellent demos of people scanning through the waveforms on the DW-8000 set on the MicroKorg, 

I can pick you up for half of what I sold you for now :D
Yet contrarywise I know that in the past, software synthesizers and digital synths have been accused of being sounding weedy and thin compared to their cousins, either down to badly programmed units or simply because the processing capability of PCs and digital keyboards just wasn't cheap enough to mass produce keyboards and soft synths of similar abilities and quality. I happen to be a massive fan of Nord keyboards for their fabulous virtual analogue engines and for Arturia for their excellent software recreations of synthesizers past. Not to mention VST manufacturers with their revolutionary soft synths like Massive, Sylenth and so on. All of these products and more have been used in many contemporary albums and yet somehow, I feel, this reputation of a less capable, robotic or even soulless sounding tones stays. I have a feeling that some of this has been maintained by those who wish to justify their own purchases or those companies who have a stake in maintaining sales in all-analogue products.

Thanks to for this great illustration

Yes, I'm sure that the wide variety of cheaply made Casio keyboards went some way to damaging the reputation of digital synthesis. After all, digital synthesis is getting a high enough bit rate to simulate a smooth, mathematical analogue curve in square, digital steps. Back when the technology was simply too expensive to roll out on a grand scale, I'm not surprised that the low end machines used digital samples or low-bit oscillators to cut corners - you literally got what you paid for and no wonder it sounded weedy and crap. Nowadays, things have improved leaps and bounds and there are far fewer barriers to making great sounding digital oscillators at a reasonable price. So if the technological barriers have more or less been overcome, why the hate?

This was never a good synthesiser...but it has character!
I didn't have to go far for further articles on this subject - Computer Music in the UK carries another article in their magazine this month that questions why this lust for analogue machines continues. In trying to emulate the musicians that they like listening to from the past, there's a tendency to go for the gear they had access to in an attempt to get a very similar sound to start from - almost as if they can get it to sound right from the get-go they think that they are on the right track. I understand this perfectly, hence the reason why I bought a MicroKorg in the first place - because everyone else I was listening to had one, according to music press. Another reason that analogue might be valued greater than digital might be because the sound can never sound the same twice, much like a traditional instrument that is affected by temperature, the way it is played, string strength, tuning, the manner it is held and so on. But with Roland and their new instruments, they manage to simulate the imperfections of analogue quite convincingly with digital circuits to overcome some of these concerns. Honestly, look at this video with Nick Batt and tell me you're not convinced.

When you have access to both hardware and software at all price levels to suit a budget and musical tastes, why should there be this idea that one type of thing "sounds better" than another? Buy what you want and make music the way you want, from a soft synth on a Raspberry Pi or Korg Monotron all the way up to the monstrous, $20,000 a pop Schmidt synthesizer. We live in a wonderful time when even "budget" synths like the Microbrute can give their thousand-dollar brothers a run for their money.

Just remember that whatever you do buy, make sure you can get the most out of it!