One of the most powerful idea in music creation recently has been the control of hardware synthesizers within digital audio workstations (DAW) plug-ins.
Like most people, I started with a hardware synthesizer (Roland D-50). However, as I started using DAWs more and more, I got frustrated with the lack of integration between the two. MIDI messages are just not enough to reliably control all the parameters in a synth.
On the other hand, soft-synth plug-ins, although quite powerful usually require a lot of CPU resources. Also, because they are easily pirated, they do not warrant the same depth of development as their hardware counterparts. Of course there are exceptions, but usually, the best sounds come from hardware units. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to get the best of both world by controlling hardware synths through plug-in “wrappers”.
Direct digital IO
Since both audio and midi can pass through USB/Firewire, this results in higher audio quality and more solid MIDI clocking.
Since plug-ins can be used as “insert” effects, they can be used to reprocess sounds from any track (including their own). The only limitation is the number of “channels” supported by the device.
Again, let me reiterate this: there is no point in developing software if no one is paying for it. I don’t care how much some feel that “software should be free”: in the end somebody needs to get paid to keep going. This is the reason ProTools will always require an audio interface: it’s a built-in dongle. You can copy the software, but no one will sit down and replicate the hardware electronic. Hardware has the advantage of having zero piracy.
One Time Cost
Another very vexing part of investing in soft synths is that you have to keep upgrading (essentially, buying back) your plug-ins every time you upgrade your system. Some vendors allow you to download new versions for free, but this is rare. Again, with hardware, you pay once and you download integration plug-ins for free.
Example 1 – Korg M3
This is why I’m so excited about the new Korg M3. In a way, Korg have been playing with this idea way before anyone else when they introduced the Oasys PCI in 1999 (not to be confused with the more recent OASYS synthesizer). The Oasys PCI was an add-on PCI card that you could install on your computer to provide a wide range of Korg FX and synth algorithms. Korg also came out with a range of Legacy plug-ins that resurrected famous synths from the past such as the M1. This provided them with the know-how required to design and maintain the M3 host plug-ins under many formats (RTAS, VST and Audio Units). I’m looking forward to plugging my electric guitar directly in the M3 for recording Adrenalinn-type sounds.
Access‘ TI (Total Integration) has been around for a while now. This is a natural progression for them, since they’ve been producing both hardware and software plug-ins (mostly on PowerCore) for some time. Although I love the Virus sound, I feel that it is less useful as a general synth for songwriters.
Example 3 – Line 6
With their amp modeling software technology, Line 6 has been doing total integration since at least 1999. They sell DSP-based software on a variety of hardware “interfaces”. In a way, Line6 is really a software vendor. The hardware can be made anywhere (mostly China), but all the modeling technology is “made in USA”.