Make Your Own Music – Understanding Synthesisers, Samplers and VSTs

A Synthesiser

A hardware Synthesizer

There are numerous different forms of hardware and software related to music production. For someone new to the process of making beats this can be overwhelming and confusing. This is particularly the case where synthesisers and samplers are concerned. The two have many similarities, but are ultimately different. The software versions of both of these and Virtual Studio Instruments add further confusion to the mix. Today we’re going to unravel this knot of confusion and explain synthesisers, samplers and virtual studio instruments and describe how they relate to music production.

Synthesisers are exactly what they say on the tin: devices that synthesise sound. This is achieved, in terms of hardware based synthesisers, via the use of oscillators to produce frequencies and different tonal qualities that the human ear can detect. That is to say, they make sound from scratch. They exist in a variety of forms and produce a wide range of different sounds, imitating existing instruments or generating entirely new sounds altogether. In fact, the sounds produced can be entirely unique to the particular model of synthesiser.

The word synthesiser usually refers to the hardware based synths (an abbreviation). These come in various forms. A number are what are known as sound modules and require a MIDI controller to be attached in order to trigger and produce sounds. In fact, they can even be connected to and controlled by DAW (digital audio workstation) sequencing software. However, they also exist with their own on-board controls and can even be connected to and control other MIDI enabled devices.

Soft Synths have interfaces that mimic the look of their hardware based equals.

Soft Synths have interfaces that mimic the look of their hardware based equals.

The increase in computing power and improvements in sound card technology has led to synthesisers no longer requiring dedicated hardware to function. This means they also exist as software and, in this form, are referred to individually as a Softsynth, which, unsurprisingly, means software synthesiser. These emulate their hardware based counterparts and even have interfaces that mimic the look of the panels of their hardware based equals. However, there are tons of original Soft Synths that have no hardware based counterparts. There are even Soft Synths that mimic the sound of physical instruments and these are usually called Virtual Studio Instruments. We’ll discuss these shortly in this article.

Now let’s move on to samplers. These are devices where by sounds are recorded and played back when triggered. These triggered sounds are called samples. These samples generally come pre-recorded and can’t usually be modified. In simple terms, a sound, such as a note on a piano or a violin chord, is recorded and set to a particular button. When this button is struck, the recorded sound or sample is played back.  An early form was a keyboard featuring tape replay. This allowed music to be sampled and when a certain key was struck it’d play back the sample.

These also exist in both hardware and software form. The hardware variety can also require a MIDI controller to be attached to trigger sounds or feature an on-board controller. In terms of software a number mimic the hardware varieties similar to above and there’s also a whole host of different libraries out there containing thousands drumbeats, sound effects and vocal clips that can be assigned and triggered.

The difference between synths and samplers is this: synthesisers produce sounds from scratch, whereas samplers play back recordings of sounds.

Finally let’s take a look at virtual studio technology, commonly abbreviated VST.  This was developed by Steinberg, the company behind Cubase (a DAW market leader) in 1996. It’s an interface standard for connecting software synthesizers, samplers and effect plugins to music production software. In other words, it’s simpler to think of VST as a collective term for software synthesisers and software samplers.

VSTi Guitar

There are VSTi versions of most instruments. Here’s a guitar.

This technology means VSTs can be used as plug-ins with a variety of different DAW software, without it been necessary to design custom plug-ins for each music production software package. They provide their host applications with additional functionality they wouldn’t otherwise have. This usually means VSTs require a DAW or VST host to function, however, a number do work in standalone mode as well.

The different VSTs are both free and commercial. In fact, there’s a large market of them. You control the various switches, knobs, sliders and other controls with a computer mouse. Also, as mentioned above, where there’s a hardware based counterpart, the plug-interface usually mimics the hardware they emulate. Most of the popular hardware synthesisers and samplers have been emulated as VSTs.

In 1999 the introduction of MIDI input for VSTs opened the door to VST instruments, abbreviated VSTi. These mimic the sound of physical instruments. The most popular instruments have an equivalent VSTi and there have even been instruments with unique tones created as well. They work by receiving MIDI input and converting it in to relevant audio. This has meant that is now possible for people to use a variety of instruments in their home recording, which has increased the number of possibilities and helped open up music production to even wider audience.

In this post we’ve explored what synthesisers and samplers are and what the difference is between the two. We’ve also seen how the rise of software synthesisers and samplers in the form of VST and VSTi has dramatically increased the possibilities in music production software. What once would have required a host of different hardware and massive expense is now available via the use of beats software and plug-ins.

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