Software synthesizer

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A software synthesizer, also known as a softsynth, is a computer program, or plug-in that generates digital audio, usually for music. Computer software that can create sounds or music is not new, but advances in processing speed are allowing softsynths to accomplish the same tasks that previously required dedicated hardware. Softsynths are usually cheaper and more portable than dedicated hardware, and easier to interface with other music software such as music sequencers.

Hardware versus software[edit]

Dedicated hardware synthesizers can have software as complex as a soft synth. The distinction is that softsynths run on a general purpose computer with a sound card, and the hardware (dedicated) synthesizers have the custom software built-in. The advantage to dedicated hardware is that it can be more stable, and also that it often has a user interface that is physical (knobs and sliders) and therefore easier to manipulate during performances. Many softsynths use mathematical algorithms that directly emulate the electronic components and circuitry of the original hardware synthesizer. This produces an exceptionally authentic sound, even capturing "flaws" in the original hardware, such as oscillator drift caused by thermal sensitivity of the components.

Types of softsynth[edit]

Bristol Mini soft-synth

Many popular hardware synthesizers are no longer manufactured, but have been emulated in software. The emulation can even extend to having graphics that model the exact placements of the original hardware controls. Some simulators can even import the original sound patches with accuracy that is nearly indistinguishable from the original synthesizer. Popular synthesizers such as the Minimoog, Yamaha DX7, Korg M1, Prophet-5, Oberheim OB-X, Roland Jupiter 8, ARP 2600 and dozens of other classics have been recreated in software.

Some softsynths are heavily sample based, and frequently have more capability than hardware units, since computers have fewer restrictions on memory than dedicated hardware synthesizers. Some of these sample based synthesizers come with sample libraries many gigabytes in size. Some are specifically designed to mimic real world instruments such as pianos. Many sample libraries are available in a common format like WAV or SoundFont, and can be used with almost any sampler based softsynth.

The major downside of using softsynths can often be more latency (delay between playing the note and hearing the corresponding sound). Decreasing latency requires increasing the demand on the computer's processor. When the soft synthesizer is running as a plug-in for a host sequencer, both the soft synth and the sequencer are competing for processor time. Multi-processor computers can handle this better than single-processor computers. As the processor becomes overloaded, sonic artifacts such as "clicks" and "pops" can be heard during performance or playback. When the processor becomes completely overloaded, the host sequencer or computer can lock up or crash. Increasing buffer size helps, but also increases latency. However modern professional audio interfaces can frequently operate with extremely low latency, so in recent years this has become much less of a problem than in the early days of computer music.

It is also possible to generate sound files off-line, meaning sound generation does not have to be in real time, or live. For example, the input could be a MIDI file and the output could be a WAV file or an MP3 file. Playing a WAV or MP3 file simply means playing a pre-calculated wave-form(s). The advantage of off-line synthesis is that the software can spend as much time as it needs to generate the resulting sounds, potentially increasing sound quality. It could take 30 seconds of computing time to generate 1 second of real-time sound. The disadvantage is that changes to the music specifications cannot be heard immediately.

Plug-in compatibility[edit]

Stand-alone softsynths run as a program on the computer so additional software is not required. Plug-in softsynths require a host application such as a digital audio workstation, which records the music that is played. Common plug-in technologies include VST, AU, LADSPA, DXi, and RTAS.

Typical software synthesizers[edit]

Amongst the earliest successful software synthesizers were the Yamaha S-YXG series and the Roland Virtual Sound Canvas under the name Edirol.

S-YXG series[edit]

Essentially, the software is a VxD (Win98) or WDM (WinXP) driver that emulates a synthesizer by using the CPU to process MIDI data with an archive containing samples loaded into memory as a sound library. S-YXG50 (WDM) is made up of two sound libraries (a 2 MiB GM2 and a 4 MiB XG sound set). Both versions can be downloaded from Microsoft's Windows Update Catalog site free of charge.

Microsoft GS Wavetable SW Synth[edit]

The Microsoft GS Wavetable SW Synth (based on sample-based synthesis) included in versions of DirectX as an integral part of DirectMusic is a version of the Roland Virtual Sound Canvas with GS sound set licensed by Microsoft from Roland Corporation in 1996.[1] The file containing the samples is in DLS format.

QuickTime Music Synthesizer[edit]

QuickTime Music Synthesizer licensed by Apple Inc. from Roland Corporation in 1997[2] is a synthesizer software.

Newer Software Synthesizers[edit]

Software Synth developers such as Arturia offer virtual editions of analog synths like the Minimoog, the ARP 2600, as well as the Yamaha GS20. Gforce produces a Minimoog with sounds designed by Rick Wakeman and version of the ARP Odyssey

Linux Synthesizers[edit]

ZynAddSubFX is an open-source software synthesizer for Linux, Mac OS X and even Windows. It can generate polyphonic, multitimbral, microtonal sounds in realtime.[3] It is a free program, licensed under version 2 of the GNU General Public License.

There are many other open-source software synthesizers available gratis for unix-based operating systems, including amsynth, Hexter, TAL NoizeMaker, Xsynth, Wsynth, WhySynth, Add64, OBXD, Mx44, Phasex, Alsa Modular Synth (additive synthesis), Bristol and others still. Many of these are showcased at amsynth.com.

Mobile Synthesizer[edit]

Mobile Phones have become so high in processing power, that synthesizer applications (apps) can play with the same capabilities as the classic analog or digital synths. They can have several oscillators with pulse width modulated waveforms, frequency- and amplitude- modulation, ADSR envelope forming and a number of digital sound processing effects like filter, exciter, delay, chorus and reverb. One example is the Windows Phone Synthesizer.

Recently there have been many virtual synthesizers released for Apples iOS devices (iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch). Many of these are from independent developers. Hardware manufacturers have also released apps for the iPad and iPhone including Moog Music, Korg, Akai and Tascam.

Apple Logic Studio comes with a variety of Software Synths including FM, Bass, Analog, Ensemble as well as Electric Piano and Hammond B-3 emulation.

List of some of the earlier softsynths for PC[edit]

  • Audio Simulation AudioSim (DOS, 1996)
  • AXS (Analogue Xpansion System) (DOS, 1998)
  • Orangator (Windows 95/98, 1998)
  • SimSynth 2 (Windows 95/98, 1998)
  • Synoptic Probe (Windows 95/98, 1999)

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Microsoft Licenses Sound Canvas Sounds From Industry Leader Roland Corp". Microsoft Corp. 22 October 1996. Retrieved 23 July 2009. 
  2. ^ "Roland Corp. Licenses Sound Canvas Sounds and C Format for Apple's QuickTime 3.0". Apple Inc. 18 December 1997. Retrieved 23 July 2009. 
  3. ^ "ZynAddSubFX project page at Sourceforge". Retrieved 31 July 2012.