Hardware vs software: which is better for learning synthesis?

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of playing a hardware synth. So when our students asked for one, we listened. We now have the Arturia MiniBrute 2 available to our students! While our esteemed lecturer, musician and producer Jason O’Bryan is (patiently) waiting for his turn to play with our new hardware, we asked him to explain Abbey Road Institute’s approach to learning synthesis…

new at abbey road institute

So there’s quite the buzz about our latest acquisition…
Yes! We have the Arturia MiniBrute 2. That’s amazing. It’s just been great to have access to physical kit as well as the software.

Have you used the MiniBrute 2 yet?
It hasn’t been available because the students keep booking it out. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on it though. Eventually. It’s just not ever free! I think I need to put my name on a waiting list…so far all I’ve been doing is looking over people’s shoulders as they crowd around it.

a timeless debate

Is the debate over software vs hardware still relevant?
There’s a lot of discussion about plug-ins versus hardware. There are so many positives to software. The only real drawback with plug-ins is the lack of physical interaction that you get from an instrument; being able to reach out and modify things and feel the instrument. It creates a different type of experience, which is really important. Now students get the best of both worlds, which is amazing.

What about the sound?
I use the Arturia V 6 Collection in all of my own work, and we use it for our lectures as well. In my experience, they are the best emulations. It’s also about having access to a large breadth of sounds. That would be difficult to do with hardware. It’s expensive, vintage synths are hard to maintain and they take up a lot of space in a studio. With plug-ins you can just pick and choose any key piece of equipment that you could’ve only really dreamed of owning, especially at today’s prices for vintage synths.

getting started with synthesizers

How do you approach teaching synthesis during the course?
I teach it from a historic point of view. It’s the way the course is designed; we teach chronologically in terms of historical developments. For example, when we get into the 60s we talk about modular synthesis. We look at the original modular synths, and obviously one of the most important ones was the Moog Modular. From a historical point of view, it’s brilliant having the Arturia collection because then we’ll use the Modular V to give the students the practical experience of using a modular synth.

Why approach it historically?
It takes students on a journey. They learn the historical aspects but they also get the ability to then interact with key pieces of equipment so it gives them a grounding in the subject. It just gives them a deep understanding of the components of the synths and why certain historical developments would’ve happened.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the controls in a synth…
That’s why the Modular V is a great starting point. It is literally modules that you patch together with the software. You have an oscillator that creates the sound, you might want to shape it’s amplitude over time using an amplitude envelope, you may then want to filter or subtract frequencies using a filter module, and then you might want to modulate the filter using an LFO. Once you understand the blocks that have been put together, and the function of the blocks, you can look at any synth and understand it.

So the next synth you tackle is…?
We move on from the Modular V to the Mini V and then we look at different progressions from there. So we’ll talk about FM synthesis and we use the DX7 V. Then vector synthesis using the Prophet V. We also talk about sampling using the CMI V and the Synclavier V. Synthesizers all do the same thing; create sound. But there are differences between how each synth approaches creating a sound. With the V Collection we can access all of them, learn about the development and then play.

which synth?

Do you have a favourite?
I absolutely love Arturia’s version of the Prophet VS, which is part of their Prophet V package. It’s just great for creating otherworldly Eno’esque sounds using Vector synthesis. I love the CMI V, I love the Synclavier V, I love the Jup-8 V. I love the Buchla Easel V as well. I just love all of them! On my most recent commercial project I used some of the more traditional emulations: the Farfisa V and the B-3 V. They just sound excellent. They’re amazing, for me personally.

With so many plug-ins available, do you think we’re spoiled for choice?
I think if synthesis is taught sequentially, and based on history, you learn which plug-in to load up for the type of sound you’re after. I think it makes it much more accessible to people. You’re not just looking at a list of multiple choices, you’re going to a specific instrument based on the authentic sound that you want, which is the core principal of what’s taught in class.

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