What are soft synths?
So you've got your midi controller but is does not make any sound, or the sound it does make is based on the built in Microsoft Wavetable GS Synth and your are wondering if this is as good as it gets. Well in today's computer age of 4+ gigabytes of memory and terabyte hard drives the choices in sampled synthesis is almost overwhelming.
To really understand
what's going on with soft synths, it helps to
have an understanding of synthesis in
general and the hardware synths that
these virtual instruments attempt to emulate.
This way, you'll get an idea of the way these
things sound and can choose which kind of sounds
you want to have in your music. So in
addition to rounding up some of the softsynths
available, I'll also give you a short course in
the history of synthesizers.
Lets start off with good old analog. If it needs to be said, analog soft synths are not really analog synths but digital models of analog synths. Real analog works with voltage, not data. It starts with a harmonically rich waveform (Saw, Square, Rectangle and Triangle) which is genrated by an oscillator then "filters" or cuts away, part of the sound in an exacting fashion with filters and envelopes.
FM stands for Frequency Modulation. It was the technology behind Yamaha's groundbreaking synths in the 80s, the DX5, DX7, DX9, TX7, TX802, SY and TG series. Rather than subtract from a big fat waveform, FM synthesis started by using several "thin" Sine Waves (operators and carriers) at user selectable frequencies and then "patched" them in various ways to come up with tones.
Linear Algorithmic is a combination of a sample playback and digital waveforms. Back in the day when sample playback was just starting, memory on synths was precious and small. Developers took tiny bits of samples and spliced them together in one big wave chunk. As in sample playback synths, when you played an instrument the processor would scan over a tiny looped section where the sample was. So, you had the realism of low bit samples combined with sine and analog like waveforms. The sound of these synths was surprisingly evocative, a touch of realism, yet totally digital.
The wave table approach took LA one step further. It would let you scan through a series of contiguous samples in the big wave chunk at once, which gave a "morph" of one sound to another. Right around this time developers were realizing they could use real time controls like faders and knobs to shift from one sound to another. These are often called "Vector" synths because you could map out a path, or vector, from one sound element to another over time.
Sample playback came into popularity with the first Proteus synths by Emu and quickly took over the synth industry. The Roland JD and JV, XP and XV series, the Yamaha AWGS system, the Korg, Kawaiis, and many others are in here. Its the same technology you find in the Fantom, Triton and Motif today. Digital samples of acoustic instruments and samples of analog and digital waveforms are arranged into layered presets. You get typical analog style envelopes and lfos and digital filters to round it out. The sound, we we all have heard, is clean, authentic, precise at best and at worst, brittle, starchy and unconvincing.