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Why I Love... Soft Synths

David Baer
By David Baer

Why I Love... Soft Synths

I am a bit older than most Sound On Sound readers. I was in high school when I watched the Beatles get introduced to the US on the Ed Sullivan Show. More significantly, six years later on the Dick Cavett Show I watched a young man demonstrate a revolutionary electronic keyboard instrument playing Bach. It rocked my world.

I had just finished my undergraduate studies by then and was, for the first time in years, without access to a piano. Given the nomadic existence typical of a recent graduate, owning a decent piano was just not possible. The 'portable' keyboards at the time were completely unsuitable for my earnest attempts at playing the classics.

Fast forward to 1986. The MIDI spec was three years old, Yamaha offered a MIDI controller with 88 keys and a piano action, and Roland sold the MKS-20, a rackmount device that produced a credible (certainly for the time) piano sound and that never went out of tune. Musically, I was back in business. Even better, home computers could be had for $5000 (in today's dollars, adjusted for inflation, as are all dollar amounts to follow). These computers could be connected to MIDI and sequencer programs could record and play back keyboard performances — what was not to like?

I couldn't help myself. I started buying soft synths almost indiscriminately...

But better still, other rackmount devices could be connected: actual synthesizers. Oh, the joy! Unlike that early Moog instrument seen on the Dick Cavett Show, these devices were polyphonic, a huge advance. But none of this was cheap. My Roland D550 (rackmount D50) cost me around $3500. My TX802 (more or less a rackmount DX7) cost nearly that much.

But the costs didn't stop there. With their limited front–panel controls, although you could program patches, doing so was beyond tedious. One needed to purchase an editor program for each device in the rack to program them from the PC. The price of these was typically $175 and up.

For a couple of years, I was totally absorbed with my brilliant new toys, but career demands forced me to focus my attention elsewhere. My gear became no more than expensive gatherers of dust.

Fast forward again to around 2010. Computers were unbelievably more powerful than those of 1986, and I started getting wind of extraordinary developments in computer audio. The simple sequencer programs of 1986 had grown to become full-blown professional recording studios. And those expensive and difficult to program synthesizer units had evolved into software devices that could run directly on the computers.

What was hardest to comprehend for those of us who experienced the first wave of MIDI was just how economical this all was. You could buy a very capable soft synth for $150 or less. This was like buying the 1986 synth editor software at a discount and having the instrument thrown in for free!

I felt like a kid in a candy store who had just found a $20 bill on the sidewalk. I couldn't help myself. I started buying soft synths almost indiscriminately — at these prices it hardly felt like I was even spending money. Long story short, I now have far more synths than I can possibly ever learn to use effectively. I hate that. But, damn, I still sure do love them!

Published December 2019