Dave Smith On Why Hardware Synths Still Matter – ‘Fun Is Extremely Important!’

Dave SmithSynth pioneer Dave Smith shared some interesting thoughts, recently, on why hardware synths still matter:

How silly it is to have a computer screen—QWERTY keyboard and mouse on one side, MIDI keyboard on the other—and somehow try to have fun.

Fun is extremely important when playing with a synth! Menus and typing and clicking and so on . . . even using a control surface is not ideal when the knobs’ functions change or don’t have logical placement relative to the instrument they’re controlling. It just doesn’t feel or act like a musical instrument.

(Hardware) is fun. It has knobs and switches. And, unlike soft synths, it’ll still work in 10 years. Soft synths have to be ported forever to new operating systems, platforms, and endless versions.

I like designing an instrument once, then moving on, not working on the same thing forever. The Evolver first shipped in 2002; we’re still selling it eight years later, and there’s still nothing that can touch it!

Smith’s comments come via an interesting new interview by Francis Preve in KeyboardMag.

There has been a resurgence of interest in hardware synths, in recent years. And sound, immediacy and fun seem to be major reasons behind the trend.

What do you think? Are hardware synths just more fun? Or is there more to it than that?

58 thoughts on “Dave Smith On Why Hardware Synths Still Matter – ‘Fun Is Extremely Important!’

  1. I 100% agree. I work primarily with software, but I also try to incorporate some hardware into my setup. I think the arguments that analog hardware sounds better than digital software is ridiculous because they simply sound different. I think the true benefit from hardware comes from the workflow which it allows. it’s fun to program beats on a step sequencer in your DAW, but it’s a different experience to jamming out live on a machinedrum for example. the same thing can be said for synth patch creation.

    however I would disagree that you can’t have fun whilst creating on a computer. I know Dave Smith is running a business so he obviously has a certain viewpoint, but it can of course be fun to work only with a laptop running software (even with no MIDI controller). it’s just different strokes for different folks. some people will much prefer to work totally with software and won’t get the appeal of hardware, some people will prefer to play all their elements live, other will prefer the rigidity that step sequencers and drum machines afford.

    the great thing about music making in the year 2012 is that we have so many options. there are so many tools out there that all grant different workflows.

  2. About the only thing that I agreed with is the bit about the vst not working in the future. I’ve had plenty of fun with VSTs. Korg Legacy rocks. I love DSI gear. I just picked up a PEK to add to my other 23 hardware synths, but I am so very tired of the “this or that” attitude. How about both?

    1. If a VST works now it will work in the future as long as you keep the minimum requirements (OS being the number one).

      People keep going on and on about how software will not work in the future as if the OSes and VSTs will stop working. Computers today are powerful enough to run Windows XP in virtual machines and can run VSTs. That how I play on my macbook with some VSTs that don’t work on OS X.
      Virtualization rocks and is getting better.

      Software does not degrade with time. Hardware does. Remember that the next time one of your capacitors, DACs or Opamps blows… or having to wait for the next (if you’re lucky) firmware to solve some bugs 😉

      note: I do use hardware synths and DAWs/VSTs. Love them both, but neither are perfect.

      1. Really?…well, I had a track that used the Waldorf PPG vst. I upgraded from 32 to 64 bit for professional purposes unrelated to music production. No workie. I was told too bad by Waldorf and that it doesn’t work. Granted, I haven’t tried the latest version, and am guessing it will work again, but to say that software will always work and never degrade is flat out naive. Drives crash. Storage media degrades. Computers exist in the physical world, too.

        1. You must keep the minimum requirements :p
          It’s funny you mention Waldorf. I was thinking about the blofeld when I mentioned the firmware 🙂
          Computer parts live in the same world as hardware synths, they eventually die. The code OTOH, is just a bunch of 01s, it will always do what it was meant to do.

          1. You recite “you must keep minimum requirements” in your posts as if you are a robot.

            The plugin doesn’t work. Lots of plugins don’t work because the OS’s keep changing, the hosts all have different VST implementations, and the VST standard itself is incompatible with each and every previous version, killing off countless plugins.

            I have 20 plugins that don’t work any more, and 20 that do.

            Meanwhile all my hardware is still functional.

            Now what.

  3. Sorry but changing a parameter is changing a parameter – I have loads of fun with soft synths. Not to say I don’t like my MiniMoog or MiniBrutte or the Rack of Waldorf gear staring at me all the time… but it’s not “cumbersome” to use a soft synth…. Still tons of respect to a friend of mine for his comments.

  4. I don’t like Dave Smith’s Design’s, The big red “push me” and signature and all that. Bleh… DIY is best. Also, I try out as much software as I can until I find something worthwhile. The thing I think That’s terrible about software is there is no resale value. Especially since the decent ones are ridiculously over priced.

  5. To dave Smith:

    Fun should be cheaper.


    A frustrated broke ass musician who would love to be able to afford any of your instruments.

    1. I went to eBay and searched for completed listings for mopho. Found one for $220. Yes it’s used, butwhat complaints can be in regard to an analogue synth for the price of a damn VST??

      You fail at life if you can’t afford that!

  6. Basically agree. After working in front of a computer all day, hardware is more fun, even though I have tons more options in software.

  7. I ain’t gonna lie, I dislike using VST’s but like them at the same time. I rather use a hardware synth or sampler like a ASR-10 for sounds any day. The “fun” part about it for me is learning a new machine (usually vintage), diving through the menus and going “oh snap, I can do this?!”. That’s where the fun is it for me. Sampling new sounds from synth to sampler and creating a whole other sound without a computer.

  8. I’d feel better about this if I hadn’t purchased a Tetra, the dark sheep of the DSI line. Filled with extremely frustrating bugs that STILL require work, it’s been a disappointing experience, particularly given the wonderful sound. It’s the only piece of gear I’ve ever actually returned to the store.

  9. Hardware is good, but nothing beats having your whole studio in a small portable, textbook sized box that you can carry around with you when you need instant inspiration, or in a backpack to carry to a gig, or travel with on a plane. Opening a piece of software and having instant recall of all or your patches for a given song is awesome. And there is so much in the way of fantastic sounding software synths available to day, including synthesis methods not even available in hardware, that I have to side against Dave. Get a decent controller keyboard, and the magic is still there.

    And the ability of instantly buying and having a synth available to play is VERY convenient.

    1. as i am migrating from laptop to hw synths and samplers i would have to disagree.
      the way you work on a computer is just so different and the results are too. capturing a “feeling” is not a computers strong point. this is my opinion only.

      if you want a portable sketchbook electribe mx is my recommendation.

  10. “How silly it is to have a computer screen—QWERTY keyboard and mouse on one side, MIDI keyboard on the other—and somehow try to have fun.”

    Like… playing games? Making music? Watching videos on YouTube? Communicating with all my friends?
    I think there’s plenty fun to be had in front of a computer!

    Music hardware is *different* from software. Not necessarily better.

      1. Excuse me, four points…. Why the hell would I want to communicate with friends on the computer? Discussion on a forum is one thing…but I can use a phone and my computer cant share a 12 pack!

  11. Well… Hardware synths sometimes have more menus than most softsynths I’d say. The Tetra and Tempest for instance, relies heavily on menus. And hardware synths have many kinds of problems you won’t ever see in a softsynth. Pads that stops to work and knobs falling off for instance. (hint hint)

    I like Dave Smith, but these kinds of comments are really quite silly. He hates softsynths – We get it already. It’s time to move on.

    1. BTW, a Dave Smith softsynth would be really, really cool.

      A pal of his, Roger Linn has Adrenalinn Sync and it is quite one of the best FX plug-ins I used.

  12. Usually I have more fun using hardware but I am more productive when I work more with software. But some hardware is really cumbersome to use and there is not much fun in playing with a menu laden synth that has “don’t even look at me” written all over it. It’s somewhat easier with software to create a decent user interface because the cost of virtual control elements is nearly zero whereas pots and sliders and buttons cost quite a lot (in total including design and manufacturing, writing software if applicable etc.). What sofware will never really be able to replicate is the modular experience or any big analog synth that gives your direct control of every parameter. Another thing that’s great about hardware is that even if you have menus (well-designed ones at least) you can use muscle memory to learn how to really play the thing. That’s a little problematic with soft synths that do not offer (computer) keyboard control.

  13. Sold all my HW analogs and digitals, working completely ITB now, having instant fun. I just KNOW HOW. And Lemur is the best thing to be touched by fingers. )

  14. probably the main reason for sw is convenience but that has a flipside:

    the fact that you can switch presets, load new plugins in a blink of an eye.
    more and more that got distracting for me. with hw you shape the sound the way you want and make it your own expression. it´s a better sound too but that is another story…

  15. there a store locally split in two. one does soft synths and midi gear. the other does hardware synths and analog gear. they sell 90% in the synth analog store. the physical thing is overwhelmingly the more desirable amongst musicians.

  16. I love you Dave!
    I hate my mouse and the stupid screen I’m watching all the time.
    A vst is no fun at all and can’t compete with hardware.
    But yes ,your price is too high.
    I have the bad luck that I’m born and live in Europe and that DSI gear is very expensive here.
    And if you read this,please put some fx in your synths like reverb and delay and chorus.
    But don’t charge more please 🙂
    You’r the man!
    Thank you for building real cool instruments.
    And don’t spend time on making a softsynth please.
    And don’t make too much submenu’s in your synths .
    And everything hands on like the mopho keyboard,not like the desktop version.
    Thank you!

  17. Dave Smith,
    Top man!! To me he is right and the day there are specific sites for hardware users and software users the better. The evangelical nature of the software debate is really boring. All the sample packs etc remind me of a form of ‘auto acompaniment’
    I do use cubase as a midi sequencer and wold love one day to have v good ‘atari esque’ hardware based midi sequencer the better.The early cubase ran better on Ataris .
    I had my first synth in the early 80s, nothing beats real time control . I did mess about with soft synths in the mid 00s and I thought they where crap, and they do need upgrading etc. I have proper hard ware synths from that period that are still going strong and still reliable after five computers later.
    I wouldn’t want to be drawn into the debate on any other level than saying , if you watch people who began on hardware , then check out what they are doing now . People are herded by manufacturers and trends, and their ‘art’ can be in being consumers of those trends rather than on delving deeply into composition and sound. for their own music.
    I listen to a lot of electronic music and have done for 30 years, v little now has an edge and occupies new ground.
    Dave , please make those of us into hardware midi sequencer a box that we can use like cubase, key edit, drum edit and then real time midi input. with a nice screen and mouse port!!!
    Rock solid timing and the ability to sync other gear !! Why is that so hard in this day and age!!!?
    Thank you

  18. I hear you, I hate my mouse and the stupid screen too,.
    But I learned the hard way that hardware isn’t exactly the cure by itself.
    I got a NI Maschine, with high expectations how I would be able to create beats, simpler, faster and more intuitive. However, it turned out tp be much more complicated, fiddly, un-intuitive. You have to learn weird shortcuts, roll through tiny LCD menus, look up for a function in the manual, turns out it doesn’t exist…
    I love hardware when it’s straightforward and simple. I also love many iPad apps for that. You don’t have to learn a whole new workflow just to operate them.
    As soon as a hardware instrument has a LCD screen, shift buttons and all that crap, it’s actually a step backwards from computers/software again, IMO.

  19. Fun is important, true, but I think its quite stupid to insinuate that one can’t have fun with soft synths. Just because you don’t consider it to be fun doesn’t mean its no fun at all.

    The whole analogy here is majorly flawed. Both have their pro’s and con’s, simple as that. That doesn’t make one better than the other. For example; the comment on how soft synths need to be ported to other OS’s is plain out wrong. The obvious issue: people aren’t forced to install newer versions of an operating system. Looking at current userbase of Windows XP is proof of that.

    But the important issue: most OS’s take great care to remain backwards compatible. I can easily run software dating from the Windows 98 or 3.1 era on my copy of Windows 7. No problem…

    And another thing; its not as if hardware synths will live forever. Oh the irony; on this very same front page can you read about the Dark Energy I (hardware) synth being discontinued because some parts are no longer available.

    Does that make soft synths better than hardware synths? Of course not! The idea alone that one brand is better than the other is IMVHO utterly stupid. Both have their pro’s and con’s, simple as that.

    If you can’t see that then I think you should open yourself up some more and look into what other people are up to. Who knows; you might even learn something…

  20. I just wrote my opinion,I don’t say anyone else can’t have fun with soft synths.
    NI maschine is not a hardware synth it’s a midi controller for a software sampler.
    I just hate to use my mouse or a midi controller for programming a synth,it just feels bad to me.
    For programming a synth it’s more fun for me to turn real knobs and hear and feel the analog feeling of an analog hardware synth.
    Just take a hardware synth (moog,DSI,Nord,minibrute, and plug in your headphone and play it,than plug your headphone in your audio interface and play your soft synth.
    Hardware is the real thing ,not just a computer program that’s trying to be a synth.
    Hardware has character ,software don’t.

  21. Hardware sounds better about 99% of the time. That’s all that matters to me. You can use hardware to control your softsynths, but softsynths don’t sound as good.

  22. If I stick my ipad into my mpk25 and play animoog with sun raiser, or any other synth app join them all with midi, I have the best of both worlds a portable light weight fun machine

    1. actually not at all but as long as you are having fun.
      i am using the ms20 with the legacy controller and loved the sounds and the interface.
      then i heard a real ms20.

      1. I agree that laptop/iPad electronica with a portable MIDI controller is extremely fun, and am also a fan of Animoog, Sunriser, Magellan, Cassini, SynthX, Addictive Synth, NanoStudio, GarageBand, etc.. It’s nice how many iPad instruments give you polyphonic modulation/expression. I also find GB/Studio.hd/Multitrack DAW to be rather convenient and useful for recording hardware synths, guitars, voice, and other instruments.

  23. I agree that it’s more fun with the real thing but…..I work all day with most software synths both privately in my studio and also with students. It works and it is sometimes fun. But the moments I really remember is when I dial in a good sounding patch from my DSI synths or my Moog (that thing is like steering a plane). And the end results sound so freaking right.
    I can take an example from a song I worked on last summer:
    I had an idea with recorded chords and bass. It sounded good but lacked the beat. I have the DSI Tempest but I was lazy and tried some different plugs with drums in it. 2 hours later I was NOT satisfied. I turned to my analog drum machine Tempest and recorded a beat within seconds and nailed it instantely.
    This is not the first time this has happened.
    I love analog but I also love the virtual but if I had to choose with a knife to my throat it’s analog.


  24. I agree…Not only for me is it more fun…but I am more creative on a actual instrument…one that has some scope to it…I find and work within the limits of the instrument…luckily those limits are pretty big…

    I tried softsynths…and they helped teach me the basics of synthasis but I was able to do more with my DSI Mopho Keyboard creativly and spontaneously than any softsynth I tried…and some other analog modeling hardware synths…

  25. I love hard synths , got a few (30) , I love soft synths , got a couple . Im not really bothered about the softsynth / hard ware debate . I will use both in studio. What annoys me is bands on stage with their laptops and not one hardware synth in sight . But each to their own.

    1. With my travel rig I carry two… always an SK-1 and I switch between a Waldorf MicroQ and one of my Novations (a bass station kb or the A station). I hate using my laptop live but unfortunately I had some things stolen. The Roland VS880R was great for triggering stuff and sounded great. I used to sync it with an RM1X running sequences and the VS880R was used a bit like a sampler. The 880 had its individual tracks running to a mixer with a couple effects units on the sends so I could mess with non synthesized stuff as much as the synths. Since I would play keys the entire time I used a minidisc player as a back up but the draw back at that point would be no live tweaks or improvisation, just straight jamming over a backing track. The show must go on!

  26. I have many hardware synths and many softsynths, use them both and enjoy them both (when they work).
    Two facts:
    1. On many of my tracks, friends comment on the wonderful sound quality of my hardware synths, when in fact they are listening to sounds produced by softsynths.
    2. My studio is considered serious/professional/big/etc by visitors, because my PC (filled with serious softsynths) is surrounded with lots of keyboards and racks with multi-colored blinking LEDs etc. Noone asks if i use them, they just love to SEE them here blinking, lots of buttons and small lights, ooohhhh, it MUST be professional … when i had only two keyboards and software they said my studio was “small” despite the fact that i had many TOP/SERIOUS softsynths in the box.

  27. Either/or, big deal. I once owned 2 Prophets and the legend is both real and accurate. I started with those and other hardware, working my way up to Logic today. There are sounds I still get from a pair of Korgs and an E-mu, because real circuitry has a sound of its own that 98% of all software emulations can’t provide. Its true; digging in with an onboard sound DOES feel different and inspires from a different angle. My solution is to use both methods, because the magic is different in each case, even between software synths. I used Autosampler to preserve a large library as EXS files and there are a few pads, violins and lead guitars that just don’t speak as well unless used natively. I deeply WANT for people to use keys, strings and actual drum kits as their controllers part of the time. Everything downstream from that benefits to a high degree. BTW, you know who could shred like mad? A guy using a DAW, a Tetra and a smooth Fatar controller that lets you… dig in. No lacks there at all, I’d say.

  28. What would be fun would be a combo mode on the poly evolver that let’s you save each part! Come on don’t abandon us.

    My biggest complaint about software is stability. Worrying about saving isn’t fun! being in the zone and then losing work due to a crash isn’t fun. On the whole hardware is more stable, there are exceptions though.

    My other complaint with software is how unfriendly it is in communicating with the outside world. I feel it’s much harder to integrate hardware into a software setup or play with other people that are using hardware or even another computer. If anyone has had good experiences doing so, please share!

    The good hassle free external audio and MIDI interface for computers seem to offset much of the price difference.

  29. People tend to enjoy what they learn first, If you grew up playing keyboards and other hardware,you tend to prefer it. I took piano lessons and still enjoy just playing keyboards the best. My favorite at the moment is the Korg Kronos, using Karma, it just a blast jamming away. Software is just so mousey, point and click. Feels like I am building a spreadsheet, not performing a beat. But I am 50+ and I know my son being only15 prefers the keyboard and mouse, it’s more natural for him. But don’t get me wrong it’s all great stuff if you take the time to learn it. Funny thing I miss Opcode, sequencing has never been the same, I got Live, DP, Cubase, Protools, but I just use my Korg D3200 and record direct audio into the box. It’s not digital vs analog, neither one sounds better than the other, it the method of creation that different.

  30. I’m surprised no-one’s mentioned the Virus Ti. Great fun for hardware knob twiddlin’ with VST convenience (various bugs aside).

    Each to their own on this one. Whatever makes you smile.

  31. I agree about the QWERTY keyboard usually getting in the way – I rarely use it on the iPad. 😉

    Dave Smith’s instruments are underrated – I greatly enjoy programming them and playing them through headphones without any effects or intermediate gear!

    I blame synthtopia for actively encouraging an addiction to both iPad apps and hardware synths.

  32. I have very little hardware now. I feel much more creative with software. I have a larger choice and variety of synths and obscure instruments and modules than I ever had with hardware due to cost and space, but that’s not the main reason. I teach and write with software and hardware and yet I will still use software more as although fluent on both I still feel faster and more intuitive on a computer doing everything in the DAW. I even use my mouse more for automation than the knobs and sliders on my Novation trigger keyboard which doesn’t bother me. I don’t feel the need for the whole ‘tactile’ thing and prefer and enjoy using my sequencer. I am prolific at writing and so feel no need for change. I don’t feel the computer is a barrier as some do but find it more like an instrument. I have come from using hardware and still record guitar, bass guitar and vocals as well as electronic material but also use software for all styles . I don’t actually believe one is better than the other but that the control is clearly different, and I find the one step control from the sequencer less time consuming. I have been around computers since the first home computers came out and feel comfy with them creatively too. I understand quality and have good recording hardware RME, PMCs treated room etc and I’m absolutely satisfied with soft synths and plugins(and I don’t say this lightly as I have access to many hardware synths in the studios I work in. In my opinion the important thing is not the type of platform you use but what you do with it.

  33. Back in the days of great music came great musicians. Musicologists had to work with hardware to produce musical sounds and forms came about from pure imagination. Musicians back then were more focused on development of style and impressions. Modern times and advancement in technology made modern day musicians technical rather than creative. The evolution is tragic; moreover, the rat race has now been escalated to technical specs. Gone are the days when musicians focused on doing real music. Now with the youtube generation, music is just part of the new “lifestyle”. When would kids these days learn that music is not about the “self”?


Leave a Reply