I can’t count the many times that electronic music has metamorphosed its look, feel and sound. For a few years, it seemed like everyone was about sampling drum machines. Then, the computer became affordable, so there was the argument: Hardware or PC. Later everything was about Mac vs. PC, then it was about the best DAW, then it was about the best plug-ins. And, this should be no surprise. Mankind has been at each other’s throats over how to do things the ‘right’ way, better and worse, good and bad, and now it’s coming back to the old argument: Software or Hardware?
Granted, there are many of us, like myself, that uses hardware and software without even thinking about it. But, I know a growing number of peers have switched purely to hardware synthesizers—From expensive modular systems, down to small, boutique, tabletop synthesizers. And, the point of this article by no means aims to question those decisions. The instrument a musician chooses is as personal as the name he calls himself. And, the choice deserves, merits and demands sovereignty. But, if you are thinking of investing some of your hard-earned time and money, I think it might be handy to go over the perks of both, before you jump into an old and expensive habit. Which, in truth, is either of the paths you can take—hardware, software, or both?
Out of all the options, it’s hard to compare with the sexiness of real, tangible, plastic knobs, with beautiful, glowing LEDs, and sleek enclosure design. And, with the way that the industry is becoming more and more modular, you don’t have to spend that much to get ‘in’ to hardware, these days. $150 dollars here, a hundred dollars there. You can build up a nice little arsenal of gear. However, keep in mind that little drum machines with cute 1/8” outputs only supply part of the song. You need synths and recording gear, and this is where it gets real expensive. If you plan on recording yourself, than you'll most likely employ a computer anyway. If analog is your goal, all the way, well... more power to you! It’s amazing and magical to learn analog recording, mixing and mixdown. However, keep in mind that you’ll be spending a lot of time in ancient owners manuals before you ever get a track on tape. And, keep in mind, vintage recording gear goes for a lot more than it used to... Well, unless you find someone on Craigslist that doesn’t know the value of what they are selling... It can happen!
Starting from a laptop or a desktop (I’d recommend laptop, especially if you’re going to want to play shows in the future), you'll notice that you get can get a lot for the money right of the bat. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an Apple computer to be able to deliver some quality music without even the need to purchase software. That’s right, there are amazing platforms like Reaper that will cost you almost nothing to start out with. And, if you do happen to be starting out with an Apple computer, you’ve got the additional benefit of GarageBand, right outside of the gate. The only main difference is going to be that those plastic knobs and LEDs I spoke of above are going to be simulated within a computer screen. However, with a USB MIDI controller, it’s extremely easy to simulate the classic feel of a hardware synth, while merely triggering the reactions of a computer. The other frustration with computers is dialing in the settings. From buffer sizes, to simply learning to navigate any DAW, there is a learning curve.
Computers aren't all bad, are they? Logic Pro X GUI.
The path of incorporating both hardware and software isn’t necessarily the glorious route everyone is talking about. But, let me tell you, there are many reasons to investigate this path. First big reason? You aren’t limiting yourself! You get the best of both worlds! And, the market is really accommodating this path. For example: A few relatively inexpensive MIDI controllers (USB musical keyboards that make no sound of their own) have hit over the last couple of years that can accommodate both MIDI and CV. This means that any hardware or software you purchase, be it ancient, or ‘new-vintage’, you’ll have the ability to work with both!
Another method that I don’t see incorporated as much in modern rigs would be the MIDI patch bay. These devices, like the antiquated model I show below...
... are still around in both new and old packages, and they allow you to control multiple MIDI devices via computer. And, these things are cheap! The only thing is, MIDI does not supply audio. Which leads to one area where you could spend a lot of money: the Audio interface. This is especially true if you already have a lot of hardware devices, and want to record them all at once. Geez, this path sounds complicated, too!
Apologies in advance, if you’re new, and what I’ve listed so far seems ‘too much’. Electronic music is a complicated profession, hobby, or passion to get into. In summing things up, I’d actually like to give you my best piece of advice, period, that’s served me throughout all of my time in this industry: Learn every piece of gear like it’s the back of your hand!
That’s right! I recommend starting off with either a little piece of hardware, like a synth or an old drum machine, and learn it front and back, inside and out. Once you’ve got it down so well, that you know all tricks and you're even creating some, then buy the laptop or a mixer or another keyboard. The point is: this stuff will burn a huge hole in your pocket! By getting to know each purchase, intimately, you’ll determine, outside of fads, and current opinion, on your own, what would be the best gear for your musical path.
You may find that there’s no need to agonize over hardware or software. You can just make music... your way!