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Recommendation Report

Analog vs. Digital Synthesizers

Gabriel Maraboto

11/8/2015

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Table of Contents

Research Proposal.……………………………………………………………………………………….……3

Progress Report

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Recommendation Report

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To:

Memorandum sjones@musicplayer.com, Sarah Jones, Editor of Electronic Musician

From:

Gabriel Maraboto,

Date:

October 23, 2015

Subject:

Proposal to Write Article Comparing the Differences Between Digital and Analog Synths

Proposal Over the past five years there has been has been resurging interest in hardware analogue synths. Although this is a great thing for the manufacturers of these synths, the question can be asked, is there really a need for hardware analogue synths to be made nowadays? The main point brought up by supports of hardware synths is that the sound quality is far superior. That was definitely true back in the 80’ when software synths did not have nearly the amount of processing power they can have today. With this in mind I propose doing a personal study of the current difference in sound quality between hardware analogue synthesizers and modern digital synthesizers to see whether the sound quality is still worth the price.

Scope This study will take into account price of analogue synths versus price of digital synths, and sound quality of low end analogue synths vs. low end digital synths. Additionally I will look into differences in the waveforms created by digital and analog synths.

Method I already own a Korg MS-20 Mini, a prime example of rereleased analogue, so all I would need for sound comparison is a digital synth of relative price range. Since even the most expensive digital synths are still cheaper than the MS-20 mini, finding a cheap digital synth to compare it to shouldn’t be too hard or costly. I’d prefer to stay within the Korg brand if possible to keep the comparison fair. The price will be somewhat simpler as that will just be expenses vs. revenue from the product and shouldn’t have to factor in sound.

CC: None

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To:

MEMORANDUM sjones@musicplayer.com, Sarah Jones, Editor of Electronic Musician

From:

Gabriel Maraboto, Second-year Student, California Polytechnic State University

Date:

November 3, 2015

Subject:

Progress Report: Sound and Price Differences in Analog and Digital Synthesizers

Work completed As of now the following has been completed:

Auditory observation and waveform analysis of digital synths.

Research into the history of analogue synthesizers.

Outline of the final report.

Work to be completed Still underway is:

Auditory observation and waveform analysis of analog synth.

Continued research into the history of digital synths and modern analog synths.

What to expect I encountered some difficulties with rain yesterday, but I have managed to keep my observations on schedule. Unfortunately I do not have an oscilloscope in my apartment, and the only oscilloscope nearby requires me to transport my analog synth on foot. Although yesterday the rain prevented me from using the oscilloscope for the observation of the analog synth, I was able to instead do my analysis of the digital synths while indoors. By doing so I was able to remain on schedule and should have the final report finished by Sunday.

CC: None

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To:

MEMORANDUM sjones@musicplayer.com, Sarah Jones, Editor of Electronic Musician

From:

Gabriel Maraboto, second year Cal Poly Student

Date:

November 8, 2015

Subject:

Recommendation Report Differences Between Digital and Analog Synthesizers

Costs and Benefits of Analog Synthesizers over Digital Synthesizers

Introduction I proposed that I write this article for Electronic Musician due to the recent interest in analog synthesizers 1 from the 60s and 70s. Many people make the claim that modern digital synthesizers 2 lack the sound quality of the early analog synths due to their digital make-up. The late Robert BobMoog, founder of Moog Music and pioneer of the analog synth as a musical instrument, is on record saying that The best computer emulations sound good, they sound close, but no cigar.i With this in mind I set out to find what differences there really are between modern day digital synths and old school analog synths.

A Brief History

History of Analog Bob Moog began pioneering the analog synth as a new electronic instrument in the late 1960s. His model, called the Minimoog, soon became the standard in analog synthesizers. Throughout the late ‘60s and ‘70s other companies began to make their own synths, and the analog synth became a staple for many musicians.

Introduction of Digital Beginning in the early 80s new kinds of synthesizers began to appear on the market. Digital synths began to replace analog synths due to their cheap costs to produce and their ability to fix some of the problems associated with analog synths.

Analog Renaissance Over the last five or so years there has been a sudden renewed interest in ‘60s and ‘70s style analog synths. For some it begins as an interest in vintage technology, and others just want to find new sounds to experiment with. Along with this renewed interest, many companies such as Korg have been re- releasing their synths from the 70s and making substantial amounts of money off of the vintage synth craze. ii

1 For the purposes of this article analog synthesizer or analog synth refers to hardware synths using voltage controlled circuits that relate directly to waveforms and pitches.

2 For the purposes of this article digital synthesizer or digital synth refers to hardware or software synths that use digital circuits or binary signals fed from one algorithm to another.

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Analog vs. Digital

Sound Generation Analog synths make use of analog signals and voltages to manipulate sound. When a voltage is introduced to the Voltage Controlled Oscillator 3 (VCO) a waveform is produced. This waveform can then be modulated by filters and an envelope generator which allow the synth to achieve a wide variety of sounds and timbres 4 .

With digital synths a different concept is used to create all the waveforms. A digital synth uses the concept that any waveform can be generated by carefully adding together an infinite, or nearly infinite, number of sine waves. 5 With this method there should be theoretically no difference between the waves generated by a digital and an analog synth, but in reality, since we cannot add an infinite amount of sine waves, there are always artifacts left over in waveform which can come across as unwanted noise. Additionally, digital synths dont rely nearly as much on filters to achieve their sounds, with many cheap digital synths not having any filters at all.

many cheap digital synths not having any filters at all. Example of Artifacts left over from

Example of Artifacts left over from additive synthesis of a square wave. Picture and mark- ups are from my personal observations.

Waveforms Available Analog synths usually only have a few basic waveforms available. Sawtooth, triangle, square (pulse), and sometimes noise or a ring modulator is common across most analog synths. Analog oscillators have been known for being finicky when it comes to pitch, that is to say, they dont stay in tune very well. This turned out surprisingly well for the analog synth as the interplay between two oscillators slightly out of tune can result in some very pleasing and interesting sounds.

can result in some very pleasing and interesting sounds. Sawtooth Square Triangle Basic waveforms available to
can result in some very pleasing and interesting sounds. Sawtooth Square Triangle Basic waveforms available to
can result in some very pleasing and interesting sounds. Sawtooth Square Triangle Basic waveforms available to

Sawtooth

Square

Triangle

Basic waveforms available to both analog and digital synths. Captured using oscilloscope.

Digital synths, due to the way they generate sound, can have almost any kind of strange waveforms. In addition to those available to analog synths, digital synths can have rounded saws and rounded squares

3 An oscillator is the device or part of the circuit that generates a waveform

4 Timbre (pronounced tambər) refers to the tone produced by the instrument aside from its pitch or volume.

5 This method for producing waveforms is known as additive synthesis

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to name a few. Digital waveforms are much more likely to stay in tune than analog waveforms due to their less variable nature.

Ease of Use Synthesizers, whether they are analog or digital, always seem intimidating at first glance. Analog synths have the advantage of being very hands-on which makes them easier to experiment with. With digital synths it is necessary to know what you are doing before working with one; otherwise it is easy to get lost in all settings and options.

Programmability For the original analog synths programmability was impossible. The only way to save sounds on an analog synth was to remember the settings on all your knobs and recreate them live. With digital synths presets slowly became an option. Synths came preloaded with sounds, and if you made a sound that you liked you could save it for later use.

Applications in Music Back in the ‘60s when the analog synth was first sold as a musical instrument people used it as a novelty sound for small parts in a song along with regular pop or rock instrumentation. iii Contrast this with today where there are entire songs that make use of synth alone. Granted, the sound has evolved from a couple of sine waves together to layers of eight or more saw waves all detuned slightly and chorused to make a super saw sound. Digital synths shone in the 80s as they became used for pop and early techno to create.

Cost for Consumers It’s easiest to compare high-end analog synths to high-end digital synths. High end analog synths start at about $3,000 from Moog iv or $2,000 from Dave Smith Instruments, v both of whom are the standards in high end analog synthesizers. On the other hand, high end digital synthesizers have a hard time going over $200. To build an analog synth there are a lot of expensive hardware components, as well as manufacturing costs in addition to the time and effort spent designing and testing the system. Digital synths, especially nowadays where they are all software, require only one major resource, time spent programming.

Personal Test

Audible Differences in Sound Both synths used in my personal observations, the Korg MS-20 mini (analog) and the 3xOsc from FL Studio (digital software), are on the cheaper side of their respective branches. Due to this neither truly had an amazing quality of sound, yet the Korg still had a slightly sweeter sound to it. The oscillators naturally being out of tune with each other on the MS-20 mini causes a nice saturated sound that is inherently more pleasing. Detuning isnt impossible to do with digital synths though, and is often times the best way to get a unique sound out of a synth.

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Differences in Waveforms: Digital vs. Analog

Digital waveforms produce unwanted spikes and artifacts that many listeners may find jarring.

spikes and artifacts that many listeners may find jarring. Square Saw Wave Triangle and Square Wave
spikes and artifacts that many listeners may find jarring. Square Saw Wave Triangle and Square Wave
spikes and artifacts that many listeners may find jarring. Square Saw Wave Triangle and Square Wave

Square

Saw Wave

Triangle and

Square Wave

Overlaid

Analog waveforms are smooth with rounded edges. These are generally more pleasing to the ear.

and Square Wave Overlaid Analog waveforms are smooth with rounded edges. These are generally more pleasing
and Square Wave Overlaid Analog waveforms are smooth with rounded edges. These are generally more pleasing
and Square Wave Overlaid Analog waveforms are smooth with rounded edges. These are generally more pleasing

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Conclusions

Final Thoughts Though many of the analog synths from the 60 and 70s do sound great, there are plenty of synths nowadays that can produce sounds that are equal and distinct. Digital synths are a great way to produce cheap pleasing sounds for music production, or gritty thick sounds for a lot of modern electronic music. Still digital synths, with all their bells and whistles, dont come close to the hands on experience of using an analog synth.

Recommendations Digital synths are (relatively) cheap. If you already have experience with analog synths then digital synths may be something interesting to try out to get new sounds or vice versa. They both currently have their strengths and weaknesses, as well as different uses. In the future, as technology improves, we may come to see a day where we can accurately model analog synths. There are already virtual analog synths on the market that attempt to emulate analog synths through software, and as we are able to improve technology we might be able to perfect this and get the best of both analog and digital. For now, if you can afford the steep price of analog it is definitely worth trying out.

CC: None

i Vail, Mark. "A Conversation with Bob Moog: Analog vs. Digital Sound Generation | Moog Music Inc." A Conversation with Bob Moog: Analog vs. Digital Sound Generation | Moog Music Inc. Keyboard Magazine, Jan. 2005. Web. 08 Nov. 2015.

ii Lewis, Randy. "NATIONAL ASSN. of MUSIC MERCHANTS; Eerie Echoes of the Past Are Revived; Instrument Makers Are Reintroducing Analog Synthesizers That Were Popular in Rock Bands in the '70s and '80s." Los Angeles Times, (2015): E.6

iii Holmes, Thom. "The sound of Moog: using vinyl recordings to reconstruct a history of the Moog Synthesizer." Notes 71.2 (2014): 219+. Academic OneFile. Web. 8 Nov. 2015

iv Price courtesy of Guitarcenter.com

v Price courtesy of Guitarcenter.com