Not that many years ago if you wanted to play a synthesizer, you either bought a keyboard synthesizer or a sound module, which is the synth without the keyboard. Today that’s all changed, however. Computer processors have become powerful enough, and memory cheap enough, that a standard desktop or laptop computer can do a satisfactory, if not outstanding, job.
A softsynth is just short for software synthesizer, as opposed to dedicated hardware synthesizers as mentioned above. It’s a program that runs on your computer, and this article is a primer on making them work.
Softsynths generally come in two forms – plug-ins or standalones. The difference is that a plug-in requires some sort of host program that it “plugs” into. The most common form of softsynth plug-in is the VSTi format developed by Steinberg for their Cubase program and almost universally adopted. Cubase is an example of a host that can play a VSTi softsynth, as can Sonar, Ableton Live, and Reaper. These programs are also DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) that can record MIDI and audio data for later editing and playback. (In the Mac world, Digital Performer and Logic are the big dogs).
For live playing, some prefer a more streamlined approach. They will either play the standalone versions (many larger softsynths come in both versions) or use a dedicated VST host program that is less complex than the standard DAW. Some examples of these are SaviHost and Chainer in Windows, and Apple Mainstage on the Mac. The advantage of live hosts like Chainer and Mainstage is that you can preset all your synths and effects for each song and call them up with a button press or MIDI command. This makes changing from song to song painless (on stage – lot’s of homework first).
That takes care of the software. Now you have to get controller information in and sound out of the computer. For a desktop and home recording, the sound card that came with your computer will get you started for audio. You will, however, need a MIDI interface. Many keyboards available today have built-in USB interfaces. If you don’t have one of those, a 1-in/1-out USB interface can be had for cheap. (I’ve seen as low as $4 for a NIB on Ebay). You can, of course, invest in better audio converters than your stock sound card. You can spend anywhere from $100 up to the price of a small car on these, but for under $250 you will be happy for years to come.
If you are using a laptop in a live situation, then the equation is a little different. While you can use the 1/8″ miniplug headphone jack on the computer for live sound, I recommend a hefty USB or Firewire interface. They’re not terribly expensive, and much more roadworthy. Don’t forget the USB MIDI interface.
So there you have it. Go to Google and start finding the products that meet your needs. Then go make some music.