The Dream Of The Perfect Analog Synth Emulation
For fans of the analog synth, digital emulation has always been a heated topic.16 years ago Steinberg released the first commercially available virtual analog synthesizer called Neon (now a free download). Since then every new emulation has claimed to sound more ‘analog’ than anything preceding it.
Purists have always claimed digital emulations are inferior in sound quality. Virtual synth designers are constantly coming up with new ways to improve their emulations and take advantage of newer faster computers to run them on. It seems there is an ongoing battle to be the first to truly create the perfect digital emulation of an analog synth.
So in 13 years time a lot has changed, are we any closer to the dream of a perfect emulation, or at least one that would fool an experienced listener?
Why Would You Want A Digital Synth Plugin To Sound ‘Analog’ Anyway?
The word ‘analog’ has been twisted by pro audio marketing over the years to become a kind of catch all word for a great sound, and ‘digital’ as bad. This is of course meaningless nonsense, they are 2 totally different synthesis technologies that can be used in whatever way the synth designer dreams up.
Unfortunately there does seem to be a lot of ‘lame’ sounding digital synths from the 80’s adding to this myth, but don’t forget everyone thought they were incredible at the time. It’s as much about fashion as subjective sound quality. In the 80’s everyone was throwing their analog synths in the dustbin and buying digital ones!
Having said that, there are sound characteristics of an analog synth that are considered desirable by many people, and are at least theoretically emulate-able using digital technology.
You will have read all about ‘warm’, ‘fat’ and ‘organic’ vs the evil ‘thin’ and ‘cold’ I am sure.
Just to counter that brain buggering bit of marketing speak, can you imagine a mix where everything sounded ‘warm and fat’. It would be a mess. You want a sound to be right for the part, which may well be cold and thin, or even an aliasing auto-tuned digital 8 bit monstrosity.
What Are The Problems In Emulating Analog Sound In Digital Systems?
The main problem is the sheer amount of CPU power needed to accurately model every component of a circuit board inside an analog synth. Every little component plays a small part in the sound, and when they are added together we get the result. Of course, they all interact with each other and also are subject to alteration by heat and age. It is these almost infinite minute details that come together to form what many would describe as an organic ‘analog’ sound. Closer to a real instrument that a bit of computer code.
Classic analog poly synths from the 70’s and 80’s are now worth a small fortune. The cost to mass produce them again would not be economical as factories are now tooled up to make digital equipment. Having a perfect digital clone conveniently inside your computer would be a dream for many musicians.
Many believe this dream came true a long time ago (some as early as Neon’s release I am sure). There is a huge selection of emulated synths on the market now, and they all claim to sound authentic, but how do we judge this?
Taking A Step Back From Internet Hype Based Marketing
Many musicians are getting hardened to the modern marketing technique of massive forum based hype building up to a virtual instrument release. The forums are seemingly exploding with praise for an instrument, then seemingly overnight it is forgotten and everyone has moved onto the next big thing.
It seems an unspoken but accepted fact in technology that anything newer is better… remember back to the 80’s when everyone was throwing their analog synths in the bins!
We have reached the point where companies are literally describing their plugin’s as analog, which is of course ridiculous as they are coded digitally. Reminds me of marketing gibberish from the food industry like ‘freshly frozen’ and ‘home cooked’.
How Far Have We Come In Emulating Analog Synths?
I have personally been auditioning a great deal of VSTi virtual instruments over the last 13 years. I have also allowed myself to be caught up in forum hype, been misled by marketing and now have the benefit of hindsight. I also own real analog synths to compare them to, and have recorded albums with both.
My first big shock was listening back to an album I recorded using a mix of virtual synths and real ones 6 years ago on a better set of monitors. I slowly started to pick up a flatness to the emulated synths I had not heard before. It just seems like they lacked depth, there was something fake about them.
This was back in the days of Native Instrument’s Pro-53 and the standalone SimSynth. Today we have the like of u-he’s Diva and memorymoon’s ME80 with at least technically far closer analog emulation. Do they sound better?
How Close Are We To The Perfect Emulation?
In my opinion VSTi’s emulating analog synths do sound closer today to analog than they did 6 years ago, and far better than 13 years ago. I also believe they will continue to sound more and more authentic. The best of them are probably about 80-90% of the way now. Check out a comparison I did between Model E from 2000 and Diva from 2012.
I also believe that there will be continued marketing bullshit trying to sell you synths based on them sounding more analog. Use your ears and don’t believe the hype.
Every so often there will be a breakthrough, and that emulation actually will sound closer to analog. You probably will only know this when listening to it yourself and making your own mind up. Keep on training your ears, nobody can listen for you, only point you in the right direction.
The more complex the newer generations of soft synth’s code becomes, and the more CPU power that becomes available, the more tiny nuances can be modeled and the more complex, involving and authentic the sound becomes. This does NOT mean each new VSTi makes the last one obsolete, genuine advances are slow and most marketing claims are bogus.