Synthesizer Apps Are Good, but Sometimes You Want to Get Physical

Musicians still prefer hardware, despite its disadvantages

  • Moog’s Model D app, a clone of its legendary $4,000 synthesizer, is currently on sale for $6.99.
  • Software synths can sound as good as hardware—especially digital hardware. 
  • Musicians really, really love their knobs.
MiniMoog Model D synthesizer

Moog

Legendary synth maker Moog’s recently reissued Model D synthesizer cost around $4,000. Moog also makes an iPad app version of the same device, but for $14.99. So why bother with the (now discontinued, again) hardware? It’s complicated. 

Software synths can easily sound as good as hardware that costs many times the price. And if that hardware is also digital, instead of relying on analog circuitry, then the differences are probably undetectable. And yet, musicians continue to buy big synthesizers, line them up on racks in their studios, and lug them along to gigs. Why?

"Some of the applications currently available on the market are comparable to, if not better than, the hardware equivalent. They are not only easier to transport (you can very much use an app on the phone anyplace), but they are also significantly less expensive," James Dyble of the Global Sound Group told Lifewire via email. 

"However, because musicians and creators are artistic souls, nothing beats the real thing, and some musicians find that using hardware allows them to express themselves more freely. It is often psychological and a matter of personal preference."

Hard or Soft

Even if you haven’t heard of the MiniMoog Model D, you’ve heard it on a record, from Stevie Wonder to Portishead to Dr Dre to The Prodigy, and more. Wired called it "the most famous synthesizer in music history." Even better, Moog turned it into an iPad (and iPhone) app, and it’s not only one of the best iOS synths in general, but many people think it’s as good as the hardware version. 

"I don’t know what the secret [digital processing] sauce is in the Moog Model D app, but it is probably the best sounding synth I’ve literally ever heard in my life. I don’t even care if it sounds like the hardware, I just love it for what it is," electronic musician and synth fan Williohm told Lifewire via forum message

Moog’s Model D app on an iPad

Moog

One of the main reasons musicians give when asked why they prefer hardware is that it has knobs and buttons. This means you’re not staring at a screen, but it also means you can learn it like any other musical instrument. The knobs are always in the same place, and you can build "muscle memory," making it much more fluid to use. 

But soft synths can be hooked up to excellent MIDI controllers, giving them many of the advantages of fixed hardware, with the added advantages of software. If you use a plugin inside Logic Pro, Ableton Live, or Pro Tools, you can save its settings along with the project. If you come back to that song later, you don’t have to dust off the hardware and plug it in, and you can use multiple versions of the same plugin simultaneously. Try that with hardware. 

Missing the Point

But hardware still has plenty of advantages. One is that, if looked after, it keeps working forever. It requires no software updates, its sound won’t change, and it won’t break if the developer stops supporting it. It’s also easy to just switch on and play, instead of firing up and configuring your computer before each session. And there’s the physical aspect of using a dedicated device.

"But I have no interest in taking a laptop and one or more controllers to a live gig, or maintaining those projects and the software ecosystem for live stuff," musician DJSpaceP told Lifewire via forum message

Pitch and Mod settings on the MiniMoog Model D synthesizer

Moog

Another big draw for musicians is that hardware is often much more limited in scope. Some hardware is attractive precisely because it lacks endless options and features. It’s become a cliche, but limits can breed creativity, either because they let you focus on what is there, or because you’re forced to work around those limits and could end up with something new. 

"Hardware inherently has more restrictions which, in my opinion (and experience), breeds a mode of thinking that results in stronger concepts and, in some cases, more refined core qualities since there is ‘less to hide behind,’ so to speak," Ess Mattisson, designer of the legendary Elektron Digitone synthesizer, told Lifewire via forum message

In the end, it’s down to preference. Knobs versus a mouse, longevity vs convenience, and so on. The one thing that’s not necessarily different, though, is the quality of the sound.

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