Hardware Synths vs. VSTs

Hardware Synths vs. VSTs


I recently had a conversation about the use of hardware synths versus VSTs in the context of live performances. On one hand VSTs are quite cheap compared to a bank of hardware synths. A new Nord Lead A1 runs about $2900 at the time of writing, while the Discovery Pro VSTi by DSP runs around $100. On the other hand, a bank of VSTs can tax a computer system as well as adding additional elements into the chain. As we all know, each element we introduce between the keyboard and the sound generating engine is just another thing that can go wrong during a live performance.

My first real synth was the Yamaha DX7 I purchased in 1983. It was such a great feeling on so many levels. First was the simple fact that it was a real instrument that I spent the previous two years saving every penny I had in order to buy. Actually, I was originally saving up to buy a descent guitar. A year earlier, however, I discovered keyboards and my plans changed. The DX7 was the only real synth in my price range at the time. This was 1983 after all and we didn’t have a choice but to use hardware synths. But we have choices and with choices come difficult decisions.

discoDSP Discovery Pro (Demo Version)

Pros and Cons of Hardware Synths

One of the great things about my DX7 and later my Casio CZ-101 was that they were self-contained instruments. All the sounds were built in—or in the case of the Casio, stored on memory packs—and easily accessible in live performances. This remains one of the primary advantages hardware synths have over VSTs.

Another advantage hardware synths have is the speed at which changes can be made to sounds. Any analog modeling snyth has a bank of controls on the top panel that can easily shape sounds during live performances. Even digital synths typically have real time controls that let you modify things like cutoff and resonance on the fly.

Another advantage of hardware synths is the hardware itself. When you buy a hardware synth, you are buying a piece of hardware that has been designed from the ground up for music production. Every component is optimized for one and only one task—making music. This means that hardware synths are typically rock solid and will almost never let you down unless the synth itself dies.

The main disadvantage of hardware synths is the expense that I mentioned earlier. Hardware synths cost a decent amount of money when compared with their VST counterparts—see the comparison chart below for details. You might think that hardware synths weigh a lot more than midi controllers and they do. My Korg M3, for example, weighs in at just over 30 pounds and it has 61 keys. The Arturia KeyLab 88 Keyboard Controller weighs in at just under 29 pounds and has 88 fully weighted keys. So, weight can be an issue particularly if you are using more than one synth for live performances.

Advances in hardware synthesis in recent years lets digital hardware synths to model even analog synths quite convincingly. A hardware synth like the Korg Kronos can create nearly any sound you might want including close enough analog sounds for covers. But, again we come back to price. The 88 key Kronos runs about $3700 at the time of writing.

Pros and Cons of VSTs

The primary advantage of VSTs comes in the form of price. I did a little comparison to see what the best MIDI/VST setup I could get for less than the price of a Nord Lead A1 and came up with the setup below.

Eluktronics N870HP6 Pro-X Laptop $1200
Arturia Keylab 88 MIDI Controller $800
Arturia V Collection 6 $500
Reaper Commercial License $225
Total $2725

As you can see, we can get a new 17″ laptop, fully weighted MIDI Controller, a massive collection of vintage Synth VSTi’s, and a DAW all for less than a 49 key Nord Lead A1 and nearly $1000 less than the Korg Kronos. For the musician on a budget, this is really something to consider. This set up is kind of tricked out. You could easily get more budget friendly setup by swapping the high-end controller out for a $200, 61 key controller and the 17″ laptop for a $900, 15″ model.

Unfortunately, for most people money is an issue and as working musicians most of us have to make compromises between our ideal set up and what makes the most financial success.

Adding realistic sounding instruments is easy and relatively cheap. In short, the main advantage VSTs have over hardware synths is price, and second is the ease at which one can add new VSTs to your system.

The weak link in the VST approach is the hardware. Whereas hardware synths are running on hardware specifically designed for music production, VSTs are running on hardware designed for the general public or possibly gaming. The chance that a gaming laptop will malfunction is low, the possibility does exist. And the more you rely on VSTs the more taxed your system becomes.

What do I Think?

Few things make me angrier than reading an article online only to have the author wrap up by saying something like; “Well, it’s really up to you. Tell me what you think is the best option.” If I didn’t want help making a decision, I wouldn’t have read your damn article in the first place.

If money were no obstacle then I would opt for hardware synths 95% of the time. There are times, cinematic scoring for example, where VSTs are preferred over hardware synths. Unfortunately, for most people money is an issue and as working musicians most of us have to make compromises between our ideal setup and what makes the most financial success.

My current setup makes use of both hardware synths—including my Korg M3, which I still use because nothing short of a new Kronos is even in the ballpark—and VSTs. For those who don’t know, I’m in an 80s synth pop cover band (because it’s fun music to play) as well as having my own band, Our Dark Goddess, and my solo projects which are all 100% original material. My solo project makes heavy use of drum machine VSTs and with the 80s cover band project, I make use of several VSTs to sequence elements since it’s impossible for a single keyboard player to cover all the parts of most 80s songs live.

That said, if given the choice between using a good VST/MIDI controller setup or using a keyboard like the Korg Kross or Yamaha MX I would choose the VST/MIDI setup without hesitation. Likewise, if I didn’t already own a Korg M3 I would be hard pressed to shell out the $3700 for a Kronos when I could get a VST/MIDI setup for $1000 less.

If music is your hobby or you have plenty of money to spend on a bank of hardware synths then do it. I love hardware synths and prefer playing on hardware, but I’m not shy about using VSTs when they make sense.

If you don’t already have a good hardware synth and don’t have the cash to fork out for a Kronos, I would recommend the VST/MIDI controller route before I would recommend getting a cheap hardware synth. In short, if you can’t buy a high-end workstation, you’re better off with a good VST library and high-end MIDI controller than you are with a consumer grade “workstation.”



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