Get to know this recent breed of versatile, multifaceted synths that seemingly do it all
A decade ago, the best software synths could barely run on a home computer without CPU spluttering and overloads. Today, computing power has clearly caught up with advances in DSP tech. Relatively inexpensive virtual instruments can now emulate costly hardware synths, generate unheard of uber-complex timbres, and manipulate audio samples in countless ways. So where next?
Well, recent years have seen the rise of so-called ‘powersynths’: all-singing, all-dancing behemoths that aren’t restricted to one single method of sound generation, but instead allow you to mix and match between synthesis and sampling types across different oscillators. Want a plain ol’ subtractive waveform? Easy! A wavetable oscillator? That can be added side-by-side. Sample-stretching granular synthesis? You get the idea.
What’s more, these offer a lot more than versatile sound generation. Designed for use as semimodular ‘playgrounds’, typical powersynths give you the option to configure individual modules as you see fit. Advanced modulation capabilities go far beyond regular mod matrices and traditional wave shapes, with handy drag-and-drop assignments, multi-stage LFOs, looping envelopes and ultra-complex sequencer signals. Switchable multimode filters can be called up and reconfigured, facilitating next-level tone shaping. Macro controls – ie, ‘empty’ knobs that can be assigned to multiple parameters – are now the norm, so you can completely transform a sound with one twist. And in signal processing terms, these epic synths serve up modular-esque racks of studio-quality effects that almost rival a DAW’s offerings in sheer scope and power – the main boon being that these reroutable effects chains are saved within a single synth patch for instant recall.
The obvious caveat is the complexity that comes with learning such feature-packed synths. With fiddly architectures and multiple synthesis modes to grasp, these deep instruments aren’t as intuitive as more basic single-use synths. However, the benefits of learning a hybrid powersynth are obvious. Once you’ve mastered that one instrument, you can explore new types of synthesis within an interface you’re familiar with. And having the ability to combine multiple oscillators within one synth, each using a different synthesis type, lets you create timbres you’d never generate otherwise – imagine a dense bass patch comprised of a solid VA sub, midrange wavetable ‘growl’, a stereo vocal sample layer and top-end spectral fizz, for example.
This month, let’s explore some of today’s most powerful softsynths, see how easy it is to combine oscillators… and build a track using just one instrument!