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"Today's technology is not about permanence. It's about constantly learning and exploring." --Bob Moog

Software Synthesizers

The material below and on the following pages is excerpted from Software Synthesizers, which I edited (and wrote large chunks of) and which was published in 2003 by Backbeat Books. Alas, the book took so long to move from my desktop to bookstore shelves that by the time it became available it was already well on the road to obsolescence. As a result, the book pretty much stiffed, which is a shame, as software synthesizers are an extraordinary musical resource, and this book was (and remains, as far as I'm aware) the first to attempt to put anything like a comprehensive discussion of the topic between two covers.

If you're curious about the state of the art in softsynths c. mid-2003, you can probably find a copy of the book gathering dust in the Backbeat warehouse. If you buy it, you'll find in-depth reviews of more than 30 software synthesizers. All of the reviews were reprinted from the pages of Keyboard magazine. Also included is a CD-ROM stuffed with demo software. Very little of it, I'm bound to admit, was not readily available online at the time of publication. To make matters worse, newer demo versions of most of the programs are now available for download.

The chapter on this and the following pages, however, is not reprinted from Keyboard. I wrote it specially for the book. Nor is it likely to go out of date quite as rapidly as the product reviews.

The book's other chapters are as follows: "Send In the Clones" (reviews of emulative synths such as Native Instruments B4, Steinberg The Grand, and Waldorf PPG Wave 2.V), "Analog Madness" (Native Instruments Absynth, VirSyn Tera, etc.), "Virtual Rack Systems" (Propellerhead Reason, Arturia Storm, etc.), "Sample Players" (Tascam GigaStudio, Ableton Live, etc.), "Design It Yourself" (Cycling '74 Max/MSP, Software Technology VAZ Modular, etc.), "Percussion Modules" (Waldorf Attack, Native Instruments Battery, and Steinberg LM4 Mark II), and "Synthesizer Concepts."

Chapter 1: The Softsynth Revolution

Maybe Gil Scott-Heron got it half-right: Maybe the revolution won't be televised -- but it may be downloadable. Only a few short years ago, the best sounds you could get from your computer were the tacky, lo-fi synthesizer tones dribbling from a consumer-grade soundcard. Today, thanks to screaming-fast CPUs and a lot of clever software engineering, the world of music-making has been turned on its head.

If you'd like to make music with your computer and want to know about the coolest and most intriguing options for high-quality synthesized sound, you've come to the right place. While this book doesn't cover by any means all of the tools you can use to get music from a computer (at the end of this chapter you'll find a brief explanation of what's not covered, and why), most of the best and the brightest are lined up in these pages. Also on tap: clear, concise explanations of what you need to get started and a step-by-step tutorial of synthesizer terminology. Oh, and let's not forget the CD-ROM filled with demo software you can install and try out.

But first -- the title of the book is Software Synthesizers. Most of you probably know what software is and what a synthesizer is. Even so, I'm going to do my best to avoid making glib assumptions that will create confusion. In the world of music software, I've found, far too many people - even experienced people -- get frustrated and bewildered and eventually give up because no one took the time to explain to them exactly what's what. If I want you to share my enthusiasm for softsynths (and I do), it's up to me to make sure you're on the bus. So let's start by defining what we're going to be talking about.

What's a synthesizer?

What is software?

How can they put a synthesizer inside a computer?

A word or two about MIDI

Plug-ins vs. stand-alones

What do you need to get started?

Copy protection

What to do when disaster strikes

When is a synthesizer not a synthesizer?

Dedicated hardware vs. computer-based instruments


Excerpts from Software Synthesizers (c) 2003 by United Entertainment Media. Introduction (c) 2006 Jim Aikin.
All rights reserved.