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One thing I get asked from time from other synthesists is, "Why does my mix sound so thin compared to other artists?". The usual answer is that professional artists master their studio recordings with all kinds of audio processing effects including equalization, compression, frequency filtering, and reverb (just to name a few). But sometimes the answer lies in the instruments being used. To explain why, we should look at a little (ok, a lot) of synthesizer history.
Going back into the depths of electronic music history, all synthesizers began as monophonic analogue beasts whose sound could saturate an entire room and easily drown out all those who played alongside them. These synths tended to be large unruly monsters and (sonically speaking) behaved that way too.
When the digital revolution took over, analogue technology quickly fell out of favor for the new Yamaha DX 7 (1984), followed by the Roland D50 (1986), and Korg M1 (1988). Very soon, Digital was king and master of all it surveyed as its emulated realism and extensive editing parameters opened up a new world of sonic texture. However, many synthesizer purists argued that these new instruments were weak and difficult to edit.
While analog synths had knobs, sliders and switches which allowed for live sound manipulation, digital synthesizers had parameter access through tiny LCD displays and punch buttons. Real-time manipulation of digital sound was difficult, if not impossible, in the early days of digital. It wasn't long before this limitation was overcome.
The purists wanted proper synthesizers, not the sample playback machines that now dominated the market making everyone sound the same. Then, something unexpected happened between 1987-89, and the synthesizer world was once again changed forever - acid house hit the dance scene!
Utilizing all the now vintage analogue gear that was selling dirt-cheap on the second hand market, these new artists were using it in a way that had never been thought of. Suddenly, analogue was cool again, and all those vintage synths became as valuable as gold dust. For example, in the U.K. second hand market a second hand Roland TR-909 spiked from £100 in 1987 to around £900 a few years later. Today it sells for over £1400.
Seeing all this happen, some enterprising manufacturers made devices that could re-produce the sounds of these old classic machines including Quasimidi's Quasar and Novation's Basstation (both 1993). While some of these were actual analogue devices, many others, especially drum machines like the Roland MC303 Groovebox, were based on samples of the originals. However, these sample based instruments sounded thin and weak in comparison but the market lapped them anyways as they were cheaper and easier to find than the machines they were based on.
Some manufacturers made genuine analogue synthesizers that re-created the sounds of the now much sought after classics as well as some added tricks, although this did not stop the rise in prices of the original equipment or stem the tide of people willing to pay any price to get them. Around the same time, software virtual instruments were becoming popular as a low-cost alternative for emulating these popular analogue classics. This meant that at least the sound was available to more people than ever before, even if the authenticity wasn’t.
After a few years, all the major synthesizer manufacturers were making digital versions of analogue synthesizers, many with real-time controls on the surfaces and burbling with sounds that to the uninitiated, sounded pretty close to the real devices from days gone by. Even the software synths were coming along and sounding more authentic. Today, even though digital synth emulation sounds exceptionally close to the real thing, its still just an emulation.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the software studio's that reverberate around the bedrooms of the world, where the virtual synth in use depends on how good the synthesizer algorithm is, the computer's CPU speed, the software host the synthesizer is running in, and the sound card that allows the emulation to enter the real world. Don't get me wrong here, there is nothing wrong with using a software studio, but this is where the sound can be at its weakest, especially if you're unsure on how to get the best out of the systems you are using.
Whether software or hardware, your choice of synthesizer will determine how they mix sounds. For software synths, many free and inexpensive synthesizers can be found on the Internet - many of which are fine creations. But in comparison, none of them can compare to the fat, warm sound of a true analogue beast.
For example, Erasure were well known for their use of synthesizers and 2 of their albums in particular show the contrast between analogue and digital really well. Their 1989 album, Wild, had some samples of analogue synthesizers, alongside an assortment of digital synthesizers from that era.
If you take the first single from that album, Drama, and compare it to the first single from the follow up album, Chorus (both album and single had the same name), Chorus sounds much more fuller and punches more with the drums, even though there is less going on in the actual arrangement than there is in Drama. This is due to the fact that while some of the analogue sounds in Drama are from actual analogue synthesizers, the prevalence of digital synthesizers in that track makes it weak in comparison to Chorus, which uses all analogue synthesizers - even the drum parts.
Compare Erasure's songs Chorus and Drama
However, as time moves on, progress is made. Software emulation of analogue synthesizers has progressed far enough for Vince Clarke (member of Erasure) to ditch his analogue gear in favour of a software studio, all contained within Apple’s Logic. Just goes to show how things have progressed in the last 10 years, though I feel the convenience outweighed any lack of character where the emulations were concerned. My personal feeling is that although Vince's sound is fuller on his recent album Nightbird when compared to the album Wild, it still lacks a certain character.
So why is it that true analogue is better than all but the very best emulations? Well, the beauty of old analogue equipment is the fact that it is unstable. For example, if you built 100 synth oscillators from components like resistors, capacitors and other such devices, each individual oscillator will have a slightly different character compared to the rest.
Build a synthesizer with 2 or more oscillators, and although they are supposed to be playing the same note as played from the keyboard, their individual character will mean they all play at a slightly different frequency, adding change and character to the sound. Digital on the other hand, has all oscillators made the same, playing the same and all at the same frequency, making the sound a little dull. To get around this, imperfections are programmed in to re-create the happy randomness element of true classic analogue oscillators, and in today's devices, they are getting very close, but for some they are still not as good as the real thing.
The imperfection of the analogue circuit is what gives the analogue synthesizer its depth and character and when you add in the filter section (again with it's own character and imperfections), it gives the overall sound additional width and depth. If all this pure, raw voltage is not carefully tamed at the mixing desk, it will swamp the entire mix! Digital synths, on the other hand tend, to be quite tame once the audio leaves output jack; even today’s ultra-realistic analogue imitations tend to fit into a mix quite well without too much interference.
So going back to the original question as to why some synth based mixes sound weak when compared to others, often it comes down to comparing a digitally emulated analogue synth to the real thing and expecting the same result. To get that original warm, fat sound out of a virtual or digital synth, many post recording effects need to be added such as emulated tape or valve saturation, which can help a great deal, but this is something I will cover later.