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Thomann's Cool Online Guides: Computer Based Studios

4. The Computer as an Instrument

The evolution of hardware synths arrived at a point where the internal electronics of most of them were essentially small computers. It didn’t take much of a leap of imagination to realise that these synthesisers could in fact be implemented entirely on a regular computer rather than a specialised one. In fact, with the use of modelling techniques, any sort of synthesis can be computer generated.

Hardware samplers already dealt in digital audio and relied on large amounts of memory, two facts which made sampling a natural for migrations to the computer, and with the development of clever software and advancements in computer processing power, it quickly made the move, where the editing facilities were far superior to those offered by tiny LCD screens. Also, massive libraries of sampled instruments that required a whole rack of hardware to play back could be run on a single home PC – it’s not hard to see why the computer has become the ultimate sound source.

Software synthesis and sample playback is not without its difficulties though - computers often share their processing power between a number of different operations, and so available polyphony and general performance cannot be guaranteed. Furthermore, computers are not designed for creating sounds, so they lack the tactile architecture that would normally accompany a hardware instrument. On the other hand, software instruments are much more cost effective than hardware, and are also sparing on desk space. But what about connectivity? Hardware synths have physical audio outputs that can easily be connected to a mixer with standard audio cables – if you’re using a computer with an external mixer, then the audio interface can give you the equivalent, but don’t forget that you’ll need something with many outputs, or maybe even multiple interfaces if you intend to run many software instruments simultaneously. Of course if you mix on the computer as well (of which more later), then your main limit is the number of ‘virtual’ outputs provided by your software.

It’s easy to be fooled into thinking that a computer can run as many instruments as you want, but unfortunately this is not the case! Musicians wanting to use whole orchestras of the highest quality samples often find themselves spreading instrument groups across multiple computers to get over the limitations of processing power. Even though computing power is ever increasing, so is the complexity of software instruments, and although gains have been made in terms of what a single computer is capable of, they are perhaps not as great as you might imagine.

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Computer Based Studios overview

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