Why still use a hardware synthesizer when there is so much good software around ?

This quora article by Mark Slee covers the advantages of hardware synhesizers above software synths.

“First, note that some hardware synthesizers contain analog electronics, which employ entirely different mechanisms of sound creation and manipulation than digital software. Digital software can emulate this (and will do so increasingly well as technology improves), but if you want true analog sound, you need analog hardware.

In terms of digital hardware synthesizers, realistically there is very little they do that isn’t technically feasible with comparable software. That said, some of the advantages of digital hardware synthesizers are:

  • Reliability. Most hardware synthesizers are more reliable than their software counterparts. Many hardware synthesizers made 15+ years ago still run completely fine. No driver upgrades, compatibility woes, etc. They just work, very rarely crash, and most can cold boot in seconds. Even with new products, hardware still tends to be held to a higher standard than software, which can be very important for live performance.
  • Latency. If you want really low latency on a software platform, you need a quality audio interface with solid drivers, and you need to make sure other software does not interfere. You don’t have to worry about this with hardware synthesizers, which have dedicated low-latency hardware.
  • Portability. Less of an issue with modern laptops, but it’s nice to unpack one device, then plug in power and audio, rather than multiple devices (computer, MIDI keyboard/controller, audio interface) with various connections.
  • Interface. Hardware interfaces offer much more ergonomic and tactile controls than most software counterparts (though offerings like NI Maschine and some of the Arturia products are starting to get there). Of course, you can map software controls with generic hardware, but when push comes to shove, purpose-built tools often perform better. Play around with many synthesizers and you’ll quickly find that different instruments inspire different musical ideas, even if their technical capabilities are the same. Creatively, this is one of hardware’s biggest advantages.
  • Performance. Related to the previous point, many hardware instruments are designed with performance, rather than production, as a primary design goal. Their interfaces and physical attributes yield more interesting and engaging live performances.
  • Resale Value. Software holds extremely limited value – it is practically impossible to resell. Quality hardware synthesizers hold their value extremely well. If you buy used gear locally from its owner rather than through a middleman retailer, you can often re-sell at the same price.

In short, if you’re looking for raw technical capability, software will always be one step ahead, the development and release cycle is just quicker. If you demand high levels of simplicity and reliability, hardware still has the edge. Approaching the question as a creative, musical question rather than a technical one, there are many tradeoffs, each hardware synthesizer is a different instrument.”


just another contemporary paradox

In the last decade the student numbers in engineering have been decreasing. Because society we live in becomes increasingly more complex and engineered, this sounds like a pardox to us. In 2009 a team led by professor Dick van Schenk Brill from Fontys University of Applied Sciences in Eindhoven conducted a research and published the following paper.

‘Motivating students in engineering & ICT

I would like to quote the first line of the paper’s abstract.

“We found out that 25% of our students come to study at the Electric & Electronics (E&E) department because they were active (as a hobby) in music.”

Imaginably, we were very pleased when reading this. It was also the reason we both studied electronics, and as said before, the reason we wanted to make our master thesis in that domain. This for us is just another confirmation that the topic we have chosen is an ideal subject for motivating students to choose for electronic engineering.



On the 21th of November, a TED article was published about a newly launched SynthKit. This kit was born from a collaboration between Ayah Bdeir’s littleBits electronic building block company, Reggie Watts and world-renowned synthmasters KORG. When they gave the kit to world famous musician Brian Eno, he commented on it as “This will be the birth of a new kind of music”.

For us this is really stimulating as it indicates that DIY synthesizer kits are still hot among many people. Also it shows that new synthesizers can still be a contribution to an already very diverse electronic music culture.

Exponential current source

The final component of the synthesizer is finished! The exponential current source was the last component which needed to be designed and constructed. Intrinsically it’s no crucial component, in fact the synthesizer would perfectly work without it.

What does it do ?

To understand the use of the exponential current source in the global design, some knowlegde on the human ear is needed. To start, the human does not work in a linear way. Here is an example:

If a certain note is 100 Hz, the note 1 octave up will be 200 Hz. If our ears were linear, then the next few octaves would be 300 Hz, 400 Hz, etc. However, frequency doubles  with each octave. Octaves are 100 Hz, 200 Hz, 400 Hz, 800 Hz, etc. This clearly is not linear.

To create an intuitive interface for the frequency control of the synth, a linear shift at a sensor should create an exponential shift in frequency at the oscillators. The distance sensor we connect to the frequency control already has an exponential response by itself. The reason we still add an exponential source to the design is to encourage creative users to experiment with other interfaces, who very often will give linear responses.

The design

The design is based on the following circuit:





The blow controller

As a standard tone control for the synthesizer, a blow controller is included in the DIY kit.

This blow controller is made with a piezo-element, this allows the user to vary the oscillator frequencies by playing the controller similar to playing a digeridoo.

We chose to do it this way for multiple reasons. First of all, a tone interfacing like this will make the user experience much more intuitive for people familiar with traditional music instruments. Secondary reason is that we want the users to fully benefit from the open-source DIY concept of the synthesizer. By introducing a blow controller instead of more traditional methods like rotary buttons or keyboards, we encourage the builder to use his creativity and hopefully inspire him to think outside the box.