How Authentic Is Analog Synth Emulation In VSTi? 4

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!


The FM stands for the future of music! (click for full size)

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.


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4 thoughts on “How Authentic Is Analog Synth Emulation In VSTi?

  • Ianc

    You could add that if you pass the emulated synth through a nebula preset taken from the orginal hardware the difference is even smaller still, I’m not even fussy half the time that it needs to be the same piece of kit, as you can try different things like a line amp or filters and they suit a patch, and they can still just give it that depth and harmonic distortion that just brings them to life.
    Nice site by the way lots of essential tips for us learners

  • sustudio

    I think your article too a side turn when you said there was “something” “flat” about them near the end, as you wandered into the land of vagueness and and possibly perceptual drift that can be caused by many factors, including bias due to emotion. Not calling you all emotional and stupid. Every single person is subject to this, including the most “logical” people. And those logical people at the end of the their decisions are based in the emotional factor in knowing they did a good job being “logical”. There’s things messing with our heads, including bias, placebo effects, and more. People who think they are so smart and won’t be subject to this usually are close to being on the mark, but if they think they are perfect, they are wrong. —

    That said, rather than saying “something”, which you may have very well noticed, a better test would be to put more effort into seeing if you can can for example a moog like sound that’s realistic enough an unsuspecting moog lover wouldn’t realize it was a plugin. I have conducted tests like this. It started with a digital sample of a pure bell. My friends said, “Wow, but I still tell it’s a recording”. The following month, I set all the levels really great and had them sit on a comfy couch. Then the unexpected. I blind folded my friend. And did it 20 times, going from the real bell to the sample. If he could really tell, he should have been able to say, “Real, digital, digital, real, real, real” and be at least 80 to 90% accurate. It turned out he was 50% accurate. That was many years ago.

    Fast forward to about 4 to 5 years ago. I did a repeat of this with the Moog VST against a real Moog synthesizer with about 25 recordings and also made a video. Each time I tried to faithfully make the VST sound exactly like the real moog. Only thing is I WOULD NOT TELL ANYONE which sounds were the real moog and which were VST. If it were true that the VST just had some characteristic about it where something was left to be desired, people should be able to faithfully pick out the VST reliably. If it fell to about 50% accuracy, A coin toss, that says nothing. And that’s what happened. People consistently would pick the VST as the “authentic” real moog just as often as they picked the real moog. The same thing happened on to random people online, and they had to email me for the answers. I made a mistake and lost my list somewhere a couple years later which listed the real vs plugin, and now I have trouble remembering which is which, lol.

    To make a difference, they should at least be able to do this with 55% accuracy or better, otherwise what’s the point when you’re within margin of error? Now, there are sometimes sounds you can create on one that are slightly differing from the other, true. but the point is it’s modular synthesis and it’s sound is down to modeling the filters which while is a task, isn’t the hardest thing the in the world. More work went into creating GTA5 I can assure you. I used to work in 3d games and knew what went into them. My point is that someone can do a crappy job trying to model a vintage synth, a good job, or such a superb job that people are just plain fooled.

    But as you said, what would people in the 60’s and 70’s etc done with their analog stuff if they could have the latest, fastest computer with all these new plugins, no more problems with lack of tracks, noise, wow and flutter. The Beatles would have shelved their 4 track in a heart beat and been playing with melodyne and other plugins to see what cool new ways they could reverse samples and alter them. And so would many other groups as the 80’s proved that they wanted fairlights (digital) etc and FM. And Paul McCartney when he went to wings ended up using many of the new recorders, and synthesizers, and likely the first digital stuff. And back in the day, he played that mellotron which was an early attempt at a fanlight. The biggest stars knew what they were doing, and all this squabbling over how “genuine” didn’t matter in the least to them in the technology world, as they were starving for new equipment. They used their ears and adapted. Phil Collins simply grabbed a great drummer known as “A. Linn” ;-). as in a drum machine, and created great music because he knew how. The audience only knows this, not a billionth of 1% of difference in any sound.

    The bigger point is in the digital world, it is possible to recreate the sound, to the point, people can’t tell. It’s only a matter of if they have done a good job, and sometimes, processing power plays a part. Try this on a 386 or 486 or even core2duo and you might fail because the programmers would need to cut corners. But as of a few years ago I KNOW the dream is realized and only held back by mistakes in their implementation etc.

    Now we also have newer plugins for pitch like melodyne. It sounds better. I don’t like using this for singing as I can sing, but a tweak is fun. But next point is melodyne requires more processing, especially for polyphony. It could have worked 10 years back, but it would have been like, go out to lunch and come back and probably choke the computer, and nothing real time. As we move forward modeling will lead to more advances as hardware gets even faster. As far as I’m concerned the modular synth is great, even if some can’t wrap their minds around not having the real heavy weight in front of them.. Again an emotional, and somewhat practical point due to the knobs. However there’s plenty of controllers, and I don’t use them. I am pleased with my mouse.

    I don’t know how you quantify 80-90% of the way there other than to say I agree in a loose sense, and only based on the programmers implantation, and the budget to stick with it until it’s more and more like the original. Then we have brand new synths plugins that do things the originals could never do. Also from one Moog to the next, no two were perfectly alike and even temperatures and tolerances in componants or not moving the dial to exactly the right position would cause the inability to sometimes reproduce the same sound. But could also get very close… Just as with the plugin, but that can be saved. Again, one of the things I loved about the moog was the fatness and watched my speaker cones going in and out just like on a real moog. No thin, digital FM which I also loved. But as you said, that’s all BS to frame digital as “evil”, “bad”, “voodoo” as you are 100% correct. First attempts to digitally sample were harsh because of low numbers of bits, bad A/D converters, low memory, low frequency response and little head room. There is nothing magical about today’s digital recordings. You get what you put in, and some people used to working with old tape etc, feel a sense of emptiness as they refer to it. but that emptiness was nothing more than noise, wow and flutter and the way tape compressed signals which was rather useful. It’s up to the person mixing to use that to take a closer look at what they made to begin with, and make sounds, or add in things to give some missing “texture”, noise, or ambience etc. If they feel the sounds are too raw, they don’t know what they are doing and need to re-learn how to mix in the digital world. Not blame lack of actual tape or be dependent on that. So yeah, the 1st digital sounded terrible, but now some miss what can be made up for with the correct compressors, filters and more. But it’s not like we aren’t bathed in luxury with the plethora of plugins.

    There’s nothing bad about the new (the best) tape plugins as they are mimicking the process to allow people to achieve the reshaping that it serves it’s main purpose. And does so, to the point that some sound like the authentic equipment, which isn’t required, but fun. Anyway, it’s not like we’ll be handing out 24 track reels or master tapes, and I don’t miss them other than for nostalgia. I also never want to go back to a room with patch cords all over, and having to turn every dial on the mixing desk to the same spot for each song ever again. My music also sounds better because I can just virtually reload the entire studio with all settings as they are saved. This is due to the saved time. The current world of recording is here to stay and sounding better than ever.

    • David Post author

      Thanks for this epic post, you have many good points!

      I don’t think i had heard NI’s Monark when I wrote this post, this is the best emulation yet to my ears. As far as I am concerned Monark nailed monosynth emulation, but I am yet to hear a polysynth emulation I think is 100% authentic. I tried to create an exact copy of my real Polysix with the Korg official emulation, and the emulation was just ‘flat’. In some ‘sound dimensions’ it was identical, but overall it was just ‘dead’ or ‘flat’ sounding. I hope the team that made Monark will return and emulate something amazing like a Jupiter 8, that would be something special I am certain.

  • Lamster

    Having been one of those guys that threw all the analogues in the bin to buy digital synths.
    I was never convinced that analogue was better all my digital synths were cheaper and sounded better at the time.
    After not playing for about 15 years getting married having kids and so on.
    I discovered Computers and Plugins and Ebay!
    I Decided to buy a lot of flagship digital synths when the trend reversed.I paid the same for a JD800 and a K2000 and I did for a Behringer Model D. I also picked up quite a few analogue bargains before they became sort after. I thought they might complement the VST plugins..
    As it is with older hardware you spend as much time staring at the insides of them as you do playing them.
    I managed to recreate a lot of what I did with my analogue gear ITB and to be honest with all the extra bells and whistles in VST the end results we IMO better.
    Do VSTi sound like analogue? No! they sound like VSTi-s What sells you the illusion is the nice GUI of a Mini Moog Pro5 or a Jupiter8 if you had you hands on the hardware in the past you know how to program them which is an advantage over most of the digital synths from the 90s So you can usually get a sound pretty close to you wanted pretty quickly.
    The factor to consider is does the VSTi perform well and not crackle or glitch where its a badly written free version. If not then does the sound gel in the mix and add to what you are doing?
    If the answer is yes then what does it actually matter what the source of the sound is..