Are analog synths really better than vsts?
While many claim that analog synths have unparalleled warmth and depth compared to their digital counterparts, the gap is closing fast.
Before we get into direct comparisons, let’s first take a little trip back in time.
The Digital Age
The battle between analog and digital synths first properly kicked off commercially in 1983, with the release of the Yamaha DX7.
The DX7 introduced an entirely new sound palette - the glassy and chilly tones of FM synthesis which defined an entire era of pop music in the 1980s and are still in use by top performing artists today (The main keyboard sound in The 1975’s “Somebody Else” is a DX7).
And there was a lot to like about the new digital synths. They were generally more reliable, easier to use and eventually much cheaper than their analog counterparts.
With the introduction of the Digital Audio Workstation, or DAW (software such as Logic, Ableton and Pro Tools) along came VST (Virtual Studio Technology) Synths - many of which emulate much more expensive hardware.
But as music and art continually recycled and remixed itself, it was inevitable that the warm, wavy sounds of analog synths would hold strong, and now here in 2022 they are more popular than ever - synths are currently enjoying a renaissance worldwide with communities springing up in all sorts of neon-lit corners of the internet.
As a user of synths my whole life, I am happy to say that we are out of the digital nightmare of the early 2000s, and that DAWs and VST synths are getting really good.
But how good? Should you fork out that $3k on a new analog polysynth? Or will a $200 vst do the trick?
Analog vs Digital
The answer of course, is not clear cut.
Let’s look at the pros of Analog first.
If you’re a synth purist/enthusiast, or are creating synth-based music, there is an incredible richness and depth to some analog synths that as of writing, still have an edge (at least to my ears).
Take a listen to this Blade Runner inspired track, demonstrating the incredible sound of the Yamaha CS80 if you’d like to hear for yourself. To my ear, no VST can compete with this (and I have tried a bunch of CS80 vsts). But the incredible sound comes at a price - an original, working order CS80 can sell at prices $100,000 or more (!).
The Yamaha CS-80
There are of course less expensive analog synths, and they do sound great. Melodic House producer Tim Green once told me he can definitely hear the difference - not that one is necessarily better than the other, just that they definitely have a different sound.
I personally own a Sequential Prophet 6, and to my ear it does seem to have a depth to it that I can’t quite get out of a VST. It has wonderful filters, and is a joy to play. But do I think I really need it to create good music? That’s still an open question. It depends on what my goals are with the synth itself.
But how about VSTs?
The VST World
If you’re not creating hollywood level synth soundtracks, and are willing to dive into the digital realm, there are some really good options.
U-he Diva VST
U-he’s Diva is a popular analog synth emulator vst that I keep coming across in production tutorials, and for good reason - it sounds fantastic. And not only to my ear - Disclosure, 3LAU, Ben Bohmer, Monolink, Todd Terje, Odesza and Hans Zimmer all have it as a part of their synth arsenal. If you’d like to hear it for yourself, here is a direct comparison of Diva (€180) and a Sequential OB-6 (€3000).
And there are many more out there - endless reviews, youtube comparisons and demos to explore.
At the end of the day, this is the most important question.
Are you an audiophile synth enthusiast who needs the richest, most high fidelity analog synth sound imaginable? If yes, then the analog world is probably your world.
Un-emulatable filters, a subtly deeper sound, the tactile feel of real keys and controls, there’s a lot to love about analog synths.
But they do come at a cost, and whether that’s worth it is another question.
Are you creating low-fi beats, where the focus is on the vibe, or the vocal? Or making music where the synths are buried among all the other instruments in the mix? In this case, a couple of well chosen vsts may just do the trick.
And the most important question - does the audience know (or care?) ?
I always have to remind myself that (at least for me) synths are a part of my toolkit to make music, and as we have discussed in Why there are no rules in the music industry - zooming out and looking at the bigger picture can be really useful in deciding about gear purchases.
So the question I ask myself is always: “is this gear necessary for my mission of making the best music I can?”
Maybe this question can help you decide as well.
Unchained Music is in no way affiliated with any brands or links mentioned in this post.