Daniel Fisher, Sweetwater's synth scientist, gives a rundown on the differences between analog and digital synths, the strengths and weaknesses of each, and much more to help you choose your next (or first) synthesizer.
When Sweetwater customers are looking to purchase their first synth, they often ask us whether they should choose analog or digital. And the answer is… it depends on what you would like your synth to do.
The fundamental difference between analog synths and digital synths is that an analog synthesizer uses voltage-controlled components to create sounds, while digital synthesizers are numerically controlled and use digital signal processing to create sounds. In practical terms, analog synthesizers produce free-flowing signals with near-infinite resolution. Digital synthesizers produce signals in steps, so their resolution isn’t as fine, which can lead to audible stepping and aliasing, especially at higher oscillation rates. However, technology is improving rapidly, and digital synths are getting closer and closer to reproducing the one-to-one responsiveness of analog synths.
Both analog and digital synths generally comprise the same basic building blocks — an oscillator, a filter, and an amplifier. In analog synths, those components are voltage controlled, hence the acronyms VCO, VCF, and VCA. In digital synths, the same components are labeled DCO, DCF, and DCA. Additionally, both analog and digital synths will contain several modulators to affect and shape the signal — LFOs, noise generators, sample & hold, ring modulators, etc.
Digital synthesizers do have an advantage in terms of flexibility, offering additional sound generation and modulation techniques, including wavetable synthesis, granular synthesis, physical modeling, and sample-based synthesis. Another advantage of digital synthesizers is the ability to store and recall numerous presets. This is available on some analog synths, but, for the most part, you’re building a sound from scratch every time — which could be considered limiting or inspiring, depending on your perspective.
Another factor to consider is cost. Because analog synthesizers require each component in their signal chain to be physically produced, they tend to be more expensive. For instance, if you’re looking for a polyphonic synthesizer (one that can play multiple notes simultaneously), an analog version will generally have a higher price, due to the cost of manufacturing. On the other hand, digital synthesizers only require additional processing power to expand their polyphony.
So, which should you choose? We recommend both! Digital and analog synths excel in different ways. Using them in tandem gives you unlimited creative possibilities.