Analog Vs Digital Synthesis Explained

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The talk about analog and digital sound synthesis (learn more) is ongoing and detailed. It’s a mix of tech and music.

Analog sound creation is loved for its natural and warm tone. It uses something called voltage-controlled oscillators to make sounds via electrical signals – literally electricity passing through different circuits and components.

Some people say these sounds have a musical quality that digital systems can’t copy.

On the other hand, digital sound creation can be very exact and flexible. It lets you make a wide range of sounds through the use of math and algorithms. These can be copies of sounds from real instruments or even strange, out-of-this-world effects.

As we look closer at these two different methods of synthesis (see all types/techniques), we need to think about not just the tech and sound differences. We also have to think about how these differences affect the choices musicians and producers make.

Analog Synthesis Fundamentals

Analog synthesis means using non-stop electric currents to make sound waves.

These waves are full-bodied and have a lot of texture. This is done by molding things called voltage-controlled oscillators, filters, and amplifiers. These items help create and change audio signals.

The sounds made this way often have a special warmth and depth. Many people think this is unique to analog technology and can’t be exactly replicated through other means.

Moog One
The Moog One Analog Synthesizer

How Analog Sound is Generated Through Electricity

An analog synthesizer uses electricity to produce sound through a series of components: oscillators, filters, and amplifiers.

Here’s how it works in a nutshell:

  1. Oscillators: The process starts with an oscillator, which uses electricity to generate a basic audio waveform at a particular pitch. Since sound is just the vibration (movement back and forth – i.e. oscillation) of air particles, oscillators are used to mimic this phenomenon.
  2. Filters: The waveform is then passed through one or more filters. These filters can alter the sound by highlighting or suppressing certain frequencies. For instance, a low-pass filter lets low frequencies (ex/ bass + mids) pass while cutting out high ones (ex/ treble and air), while a high-pass filter does the opposite.
  3. Amplifiers: After the signal has been filtered, it’s sent to an amplifier. The amplifier strengthens the signal so it’s strong enough to drive a speaker cone to move air particles and produce sound. The amplifier can also be used to shape the signal’s volume over time to create various effects.
  4. Modulators: Modulators, such as Low Frequency Oscillators (LFOs) or Envelope Generators, can also be used to modify the sound. They can change the pitch, volume, or timbre over time, creating vibrato, tremolo, or other effects.

In each step, the analog synth uses electrical circuits to manipulate the electrical signal, which ultimately gets converted into sound waves that we can hear through speakers or headphones.

The key to an analog synth’s distinctive sound is that this signal remains analogcontinuous and variable – throughout the entire process.

It’s the variability of the audio signal that is so difficult to replicate digitally. This “mini-chaos” adds that special something to analog sounds.

Digital Synthesis Overview

Digital sound synthesis was a big step forward in making music. It uses complex formulas and computer systems to create sound.

In contrast to old-fashioned analog systems, digital synthesizers use software code (algorithms and math) to mold and adjust sound waves. This gives musicians more control and opens up new creative options.

This way of making sound not only gives a wider variety of tones and textures, but it also makes it easier to copy the sound of real instruments through modeling.

Plus, it lets musicians discover completely new types of sound.

Yamaha Montage 8
The Yamaha Montage 8 Digital Synthesizer

How Digital Sound is Generated Through Software

Digital sound starts with turning complex codes into audio signals. The heart of digital synthesis is this computer code. It uses signal processing methods to shape and improve the sounds.

Software is programmed to generate a stream of digital numbers. Each number represents the amplitude (i.e. height/strength) of the sound wave at a particular point in time. That stream of numbers is then converted back into an analog electrical signal, which drives a speaker cone and produces the sound you hear.

Software also allows the user to manipulate the sound in various ways, such as changing the pitch, volume, timbre, and duration. This is done through digital signal processing (DSP), which involves programming the software to modify or analyze a signal in a digital form.

These manipulations include things like Frequency Modulation or Convolution to help shape the string of numbers that generate the sound.

Which is Better – Analog or Digital?

The battle between analog and digital synthesis has raged for decades now.

And there’s no right or wrong point of view – some say digital has fully emulated analog, while purists say the feeling or warmth has never been exactly replicated.

Analog is known for this special character that most people can’t even identify or recognize when they hear an analog-generated sound.

But many people – some with great ears – say it’s definitely there.

Digital synthesis, however, is so completely powerful and versatile in what can be done. You’re working with 1s and 0s to program a machine to do exactly what you want it to.

The digital nature of this process allows for a high degree of precision and control. But this is also the reason it lacks the essence of analog sound, and can seem cold and clinical/sterile.

A lot of people are trying to emulate analog sound – along with all of it’s signal variability – and they’ve come close. But none are able to fully and truly sound (or feel) like analog.

But that doesn’t mean one is better than the other – they’re different tools for different uses. Again, there’s no right answer to the question “which is better – analog or digital?”

Which do you want to use for whatever specific project you’re working on?

Benefits and Drawbacks of Each

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s be a little more objective about the pros and cons of each style of sound synthesis.

Each way of generating audio signals has it’s advantages and disadvantages.

Let’s look at each…

Analog Synth Advantages and Disadvantages

Analog synthesizers make unique sounds that can be great for making music, but they can also be tricky to use.

They do tend to make a warm, natural sound. This is because they have tiny, little flaws in their circuits that make the sound more full and layered. They are especially good at making high notes sound clear and real, which can be hard for digital synthesizers.

Many musicians also like that they can use knobs and sliders on analog synths with their hands. This makes it easier to change the sound in a way that feels more physical and expressive.

On the other hand, it can be harder to change the sound in complex ways with analog synthesizers. Digital synths are usually better at this. Also, some analog synths don’t let you save your settings to use later, but this is less of a problem now because new analog synths often have digital memory.

Analog synths also have a few other downsides.

They usually cost more because they need special parts to make their sound. They can also be heavier and harder to move around, and they can be harder to take care of because of how they are built.

Plus, they usually can’t make as many sounds at once as digital synths, which can limit how complex the music can be.

Digital Synth Benefits and Drawbacks

Digital synthesizers are well-known for their many features and ability to play multiple notes at once. But like all things, they have their downsides.

Some people think these synthesizers don’t have the warm, natural sound of analog synthesizers. But digital technology is getting better all the time.

Nowadays, it’s harder to tell the difference between the sounds of digital and analog synthesizers. (But purists like me will insist that there, indeed, is quite a difference)

Digital synthesizers are great for live shows and recording music. They can play many different musical parts at once and make complex sequences.

Plus, they’re getting easier to use. Touch screens and software make them more user-friendly. Musicians can spend less time figuring out how to use them and more time being creative.

Digital synthesizers are also good for making unique sounds. You can change lots of different parts of the sound in ways you can’t with analog synthesizers.

Another good thing about digital synthesizers is that they can easily connect to other devices and software. They often have USB ports, and some can even connect to WI-FI networks. This makes it easier to work with other people and share your music.

But digital synthesizers can be complicated to use. And they don’t have the same physical feel as analog synthesizers, which have lots of knobs.

The Beauty of Hybrid Synthesis Explained

Hybrid synthesis is a cool new way to make music. It mixes digital and analog sounds to give musicians many options to create unique blends of sounds.

It’s like having the best of both worlds.

The mix of analog and digital has many advantages. Analog sounds are warm and deep. Digital sounds are precise and can be easily changed. So, a hybrid synth can make special sounds that you can’t get from just an analog or digital synth.

Korg Prologue
The Korg Prologue Hybrid Analog/Digital Synthesizer

Hybrid synthesis also lets musicians make sounds that match their vision.

They can make a wide range of sounds, from soft pads that mix analog filters with digital waveforms, to sharp percussive sounds.

They can use analog oscillators shaped by digital envelopes and effects. This means they can create sounds that are both immediate and flexible.

For today’s musicians and producers, hybrid synths are a powerful tool that allows you to choose both analog and digital synthesis together.

What to Do Next

Thanks for reading this complete guide on analog vs digital synthesis for beginners. Next up, deep-dive into another area you’d like to learn about:

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