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Old article
All About
Software Synths and Samplers

This page is older and has been updated here


Making sense of the VSTi, DXi Jungle

Time Out!  What is all this VSTi, DXi, AU and Rewire Stuff? 

Here it is plain and simple.  VSTi (virtual studio technology instrument) was developed by Steinberg as a Universal platform for soft synths and samplers.   Not all the companies bought into it.  Logic did,  but also developed it's own softsynths that are built into Logic. You can't use Emagic Soft synths with anything else.  Cakewalk did not go with VSTi, it went with DXi, which is based on Microsoft direct X code.   Rewire is a scheme that pipes digital audio from Propellerhead's Reason and Rebirth and Ableton's Live to other sequencers. An AU stand for Audio Units, which means it is Mac OSX compatible.

Q) Are VSTi and DXi compatible on Macs?

A)  VSTi's can be run on Mac sequencers if the sequencer supports VSTi's.  Sometimes developers will have a PC VSTi version and a Mac VSTi version, so be careful to get the right one. Usually, these days they are both on the same cd rom. In Logic in OS X you can only use Audio Unit plugins   DXi's cannot be run on Macs.

Q) What about MAS plugins?

A) MAS refers to plugins that work with the MOTU audio system in digital performer, which can also use VSTi, AU and ReWire

Q) What are TDM and RTAS plugins?

A) These are plugin formats for Digidesign ProTools.  Neither of these will work in common "native" applications like Sonar or Cubase or DP.  TDM requires special hardware to work while RTAS works with products like Pro Tools LE

Q) What is a Plugin Shell

A) A plugin shell usually refers to a software "wrapper" that fools a host (i.e., the sequencer) into using formats that would be incompatible without it.  For example, in a VSTi to DXi shell you can run VSTis and the sequencer will treat them as DXis.  Through the use of shells, Sonar users can use VSTis and Logic Users can use VSTis.  Without a shell, Logic can only use AUs and Sonar can only use DXis. 

Sequencer VSTi     DXi   MAS Re
Audio Unit
Cubase SX Yes Yes No Yes  
Logic 5 PC Yes No No Yes No
Logic6 OS X No No No Yes Yes
Sonar  No  Yes No Yes No
Digital Performer Yes No Yes Yes Yes
Soft Synth or Sampler VSTi     DXi   MAS Re
Audio Unit
Pro53  Yes  Yes No   Yes
Battery Yes  Yes  No   Yes
B4 Yes  Yes  No   Yes
FM7 Yes  Yes  No   Yes
Halion Yes  No      
PPG Wave Yes No No    
Model-E Yes No No    
Kontakt Yes No No   Yes
Reaktor4 Yes Yes No   Yes
Dynamo Yes No No    
Atmosphere Yes       Yes
Trilogy Yes       Yes
Stylus Yes       Yes
Project 5 Yes Yes No Yes  
Reason No No No Yes  
Ableton Live No No No Yes  
Fruity Loops Yes No No    
Kantos Yes Yes      
Arturia Moog Yes Yes      
Rebirth No No No Yes  
Emagic EXSP Yes   No    
Mach 5 Yes       Yes
SampleTank Yes Yes     Yes
Kantos Yes Yes      
Kompakt Yes Yes     Yes
The Grand Yes        
Absynth2 Yes Yes No   Yes
Novation BS Yes        
GForce Oddity Yes No Yes   Yes
Korg Legacy Yes       Yes
ImpOScar Yes       Yes
Tassman Yes Yes Yes    
BFD Yes       Yes
Drumkit f/Hell Yes        
EastWest Bosendorfer Yes        
Vocaloid Yes-PC        
Yellow Tool Yes        
LinPlug RMIV Yes       Yes
Note: the above table may be outdated as the development of soft synths and sequencers changes with every update
Time Out!
Are Soft Synths Better than Hardware synths?
A) Well, you will never break your back carrying a soft synth to a gig.  But softsynths will rather quickly degrade your PC's performance as they eat CPU cycles with veracity.  Why is this? The CPU must deal with the soft synths instructions immediately or there will be latency.  Most fast computers can achieve a latency of 5 microseconds (that is 5 hundredths of a second) and when they do, the soft synth "feels" like a hardware synth when you play it.  However, as you build your song and have 10-16 softsynths playing back at this incredible rate, the CPU gets behind in other tasks.  When you add effects on top   might notice clicks and pops and other nasties in your audio.  If you don't heed the warning, suddenly the whole shebang may stop dead in its tracks. 

Hardware synths do not suffer this as it just has to receive midi data on time, which is any computer can do easily.  So you can use your CPU for other tasks, like recording audio, effects, even running other applications. 

Soft synths are a good sounding as many hardware synths, sometimes better. They also can be very specific in their focus.  People don't mind spending $350 for a softsynth that just does pads and atmospheres, but they would mind buying a hardware box that only does this for $2000.  Hardware costs more because making the thing costs more.  Once software is made it is much less of a problem to make 100,000 units

A Soft Synth mimics a hardware synthesizer with different sounds and waveforms.  Many follow the model of a vintage analog synth with oscillators, filters, lfos and amp envelopes making the sound, other's may use a model of FM, wavetable, or may be modeled after an acoustic instrument.


What is the difference between a soft synth and a soft sampler?

A Soft sampler works like a digital sampler.  These don't sample sounds per se (you usually need an audio editor/recorder for that). But they do take "samples" (i.e., .wav or .aif files typically) and let you map them along your keyboard, the same way one does in a hardware sampler.  A soft sampler may let you load sample cd roms that are used by hardware samplers which gives you access to a universe of premium sounds.  Once you map the samples to the keyboard, you can then program them with filters, lfos, amps like a soft synth.  One advantage of soft samplers over their hardware rivals is that there is no memory limit to how many samples are immediately accessible--any wave file on the computer is fair game.  Compare that to hardware samplers that have banks which are limited to 128, 256, or maybe 512 megabytes.

So the soft sampler has an open architecture which lets you import any sound.  The soft synth is a closed architecture that allows you to select from a number of supplies internal waveforms. 

By Rich the Tweakmeister

Its like being in a video game these days.  New, previously unreal possibilities are everywhere as the day of the Virtual Studio has finally arrived. It's here.  It's real. And it sounds excellent.  More and more, my studio is getting smaller.  I realize, as I look at the several tiered racks of equipment surrounding me that I only absolutely need about half of it to make music at the quality I am used to.   And if I really wanted to, I could make a great cutting edge piece with all the hottest sounds using only my computer. Nowadays,  there are often several different ways to obtain an audio result.  More often I am choosing to do audio manipulation on the computer, rather than at the mixing board. Instead of routing tracks through sends and returns, matrixing sounds with FX processors and compressors, I am opting to record the track as digital audio and mess with it on the screen where I can see as well as hear what's happening.

I took my first step in this direction by going into SoundFonts, which was perhaps, the first affordable software sampler available.  Some of you may scoff and think "that's for game-makers". Read on. SoundFonts are essentially WAV files (sampled audio files) with synth parameters. They play exactly as a sample-based synth does. If you have a Creative Labs Soundblaster card, you probably already have a SoundFont Engine installed in your computer.  The quality is as almost as high as an external sample based synth with good samples.  "Latency" or the time from when you trigger an event to when you hear it, is very low. I have several banks of SoundFonts always ready to go on my PC.  Its just like having another sampler on the chain. But instead of this sampler costing $1500, it cost me the price of an inexpensive soundcard. If you have a Creative Labs Soundblaster you can get everything else you need (Vienna) from Creative's site for free. There's tons of soundfont sites with free sf2 files and you can get a massive library for nothing. And if you are actually willing to pay for a soundfont library, you can get great stuff inexpensively.  Oh and just a note, many high-end soft samplers will load SF2 files.  Kontakt, the Logic EXS and Halion will; even Mac OSX can load them so you are really not going to lose any work down the road if you start out with good old soundfonts.

Rewire Applications

The Propellerheads have a massive virtual application for the new millennium called Reason Unlike Reaktor, which is more like an infinitely variable synth/sampler/drumbox you can add to your audio tracks in a professional sequencer like Logic, VST, etc, Reason is like a total software studio in itself and needs no external mother application.  The look is totally awesome. You can turn the rack of synths, drumboxs, effects around and mess with patching cables, doing some very advanced tweaks, like routing control voltages from the synth to modulate parameters in other instruments--hehe, exactly the kind of tweaking many trance artists used. Except in reason, you do it on the screen, instead of crawling behind a 8 foot rack of gear with a flashlight If you like to tweak synths, you have to try it.  Reason records all your knob/fader moves, and you can do incredibly nasty things to drum loops, samples, midi sequences. Take it out for a spin and Download Reason (The demo) Reason does support Rewire, so you can presumably run it from external sequencers.   If you use Rebirth, you'll  love Reason and you can run Rebirth from within Reason and route the outputs through the Reason Mixer and FX.  The most outstanding bit with Reason, IMHO, is the killer sound.  If you want to put some real hipness into your mix, this is it.  Reason is an efficient running program and you can get dense mixes on an average computer.  The program exports to WAV very nicely so you can use other applications to add vocals, master, and further tweak. I have it, and will attest to its intense sound.  After getting Reason, I have taken the coveted Tweak's Pick award from Reaktor and have given it to Reason. 

If you like classic Techno music, Propellerhead's Rebirth is a must have.  It is the classic 808/909/303 all in one program and it sounds utterly authentic.  Knobs and sliders function in real time just like on the original machines and you can watch all your tweaks on playback.  Why mess with loops when you can get awesome results with Rebirth and totally control every note?  If you are serious, you have to have it in your virtual toolbox. Add a bit of delay to the outputs and you are transported to realms that are very psychedelic, grubbing around in a vast techno feeding ground.

The third Rewire Application is the Ableton Live.  I wrote a review of it elsewhere, so go check it out.  The Ableton Live hooks into your sequencer's mixer and pipes in hit fresh audio loops, perfectly timed to the sequencer's BPM, with it's own killer FX engine.  Can you run more than one Rewire application in a sequencer?  Yep! If your CPU is up to the task. 

The latest addition as of this writing is Cakewalk's Project 5.  It needs a powerful computer, but if you have that, it can really make your rig move with hot electronica and effects.  See my review.

Software Synths

I favor Reaktor, by Native Instruments.  This program is leaps and bounds above any hardware synth out there in terms of sound making potential. Uhhh, go back and read that line again.  I mean every word. The dudes at Native Instruments are cooking some great stuff in the kitchen.  Build your own synth engine from templates and presets.  Add FM, analog, ring mods, fx, samplers, step sequencers...getting the idea?  Make sure you have a relatively fast computer as it works best with the ASIO 2.0 protocol. If you have the latest versions of VST or Logic, your ready.  Congrats to Native Instruments, they have a winner with class!  The thing that got me was, unlike all the other soft products below, the Reaktor modules had me tweaking up sounds I had never heard before in just a few minutes after installing the program.  I had erroneously thought I had heard it all.  Nice surprise!  And the coolest thing is that there are tons of user built synths that are freely downloadable at the Native Instruments site.  These aren't just "patches" but full-hog user-blown total virtual synths! Tweak sez: Visionary thinkers at NI! Check it out at Native Instruments  And check my review of Reaktor Session

A truly classic Pro52 (now the pro53) the software clone of the Prophet 5 synth made by Sequential circuits in the 80's.  The Pro52 works as a stand alone synth or as a plugin to logic, Cubase or Sonar, etc., and it has the classic Prophet sound you have undoubtedly heard on classic remixes.  You'd have to pay some pretty big bucks and deal with near non-existent service and parts if you had the real deal.  This allows anyone to get the classic sequential sound for a fraction of what you'd pay.  The program is so tight it will actually read sysex files from the original unit.  Now that is attention to detail!

Also from Native Instruments is the FM7 and B4 soft synths.  The FM7 is a software clone of the type of FM synthesis that was used in the many version of Yamaha synthesizers, such as the DX7, TX7, TG77, SY99, TX 81Z, TX 802, DX7II.  The FM sound is nothing like the sound of an analog synth, which is by nature warm and fluid sounding.  FM is clean, distinct, a little cold and brittle and cuts through a mix of analog stuff like a laser.  Hence it is popular for basses, FX, bells, mallets, anything that has to be crisp. What is a bit surprising about the FM7 is how good it sounds:  it sounds better than the FM synths I have here.  Sort of like if you died and went to heaven how FM would sound. LOL. Definite 2 thumbs up. 

The B4 is NI's software clone of a Hammond B3 organ.  And it sounds like a B3 in all its blueseyness, churchliness, and more.  Does those killer Emerson-esque tones like were featured on Tarkus, and can also give you that B3 bass notes you may have heard in many dance remixes.  Emagic, ever on NI's heels, has their version of the venerable B3, called the EVB3.  Remember now, emagic soft synths are only available in the Logic Pro 6 package

Absynth 2 is another heavy NI soft synth.  Extremely powerful. I got it a few months ago.  This synth is for heavy tweaks.  You get a lot of different filters and can "granualize" your own samples with it.  Check out my review

 The Emagic ES1 once got high marks from me as a Logician. But that was before I got the Emagic ES2.  The ES2 is utterly great, so so flappin' fat sounding, it just oozes with cellulite! Also has a killer randomize function that lets you filter certain things out of the randomizer so you don't get stuff you don't want. It's not going to work with anything else but Logic, so don't try if you are on VST or Cakewalk. The Es1 is good for straightaway analog synths and is easy to program. The interface is streamlined, efficient, and easy to use. The Es2 is a MONSTER Analog  The sound is very animated with automated knobs in Logic 5.  Oh Yes you can do what you think you might do.  The Tweak likes the ES1 and Loves the ES2.  It's truly mind-blowing! 

Another add-on to the emagic system of soft-wares is Emagic EVP88 Vintage Virtual Piano.  These are high quality pianos that replicate vintage Rhodes, Wurlitzer's and Hohner EPs.  There's some truly astonishing effects possible with a built in phaser, Tremolo, Overdrive and EQ for making EP sounds with bite and intensity or shimmering ethereality.  A nice compliment to logic's arsenal. Now if I could just play like Hancock or Corea, I'd be set.  If you have exacting requirements for authenticity in your EPs--this will satisfy.  And like the other emagic soft synths, it comes bundled in the Logic Pro package.

Soft Samplers

Another Emagic great addition is the EXS Sampler.  It works exclusively within Logic and is extremely powerful.  Yet, that is its problem.  It only works in Logic. Someday, I hope, manufacturers see the light that proprietary formats only weaken the product in the long run. Software makers, get a clue.  To be fair, Emagic is not the only one doing this.  The Propellerheads are too with their secret NN sample format in Reason, and of course Akai and Emu have been buried in this all through the 80's and 90's.  Now just think had they decided differently. Ok, off the soapbox, the EXS is tight with Logic and the plugins really bring out extreme (buzzword of the newbie) sounds.  I have two hardware samplers but still find a use for the EXS in my music that really makes it standout.  Think for a minute.  Lets say you have Reaktor or Dynamo and you cook up a great CPU intensive patch.  Sample it into the EXS and free the CPU, and then go to town with Logic Plugins on top of that! Now, (we're not done yet) render to an audio track and resample it again! Ok, you see the point, I hope. The point is what's possible. If you like to make wild and contorted noises, nothing satisfies like an over-sampled EXS24 with a rack of plugins.  It can make nice sounds too.  :) As of Logic 5 you can import Recycle files. Dude, you don't know how cool that one feature is.  That is sheer audio power.  Go to my EXS resource page. 

Now that Emagic "letting go" of PC users, you might wonder what to do with all those cool EXS instruments you made.  Will they work in Cubase?  Nope!  Not unless you get an EXSP24 sample player which works as a VSTi and can work in all sequencers that use VSTi's.  It cannot make instruments though. But if you already have them made then.... 

A Mac softsampler that is getting some looks and nods is the MOTU Mach Five.  This sampler can import sample libraries from Akai (S1000, 3000, 5000, 6000), Roland (s7xx), Emu (E3 and E4), Gigastudio, Emagic's EXS, Steinberg's Halion, and even Digidesign's SampleCell and Creamware's Pulsar.  Just the thing for those of us with lots of legacy libraries and wall-fulls of sample cd roms.  Also throw in importing Kurweil K2xxx. Akai MPC, Wav, AIFF, SD2, and even REX on the sample level.  All I can say--It's about time! I despise these format wars and its a great thing that one program can load them all.  Mac Only for now.

But if Cubase VST or Cubase SX is your game and you are starting fresh, you would want to go with a soft sampler like Halion or Kontakt.  Kontakt is getting great reviews and I am just dying to put it in my virtual rack.  Halion is to Cubase much as the EXS is to Logic, so if you are diehard Steinberg, it the path.  As Halion is a VSTi, it will work on other sequencers too--not Sonar though, which only uses DXi's.  Next up is Battery, perhaps the ultimate drum sampler.  Easy as heck to use.  Just drag N drop samples from your hard drive's directories right on a pad in Battery.  Then you play them on a midi keyboard and record away in Logic, Cubase, or Sonar--works well with them all. If you are serious about your drums, give it a go.  Yep, you can use multiple outs in sequencers that support them, like Cubase.

Finally, we get to Kontakt, which, so the ads say, works as a VSTi or a DXi, meaning it's good to go with Sonar, Logic, or Cubase.  I just got it myself and it is impressive. Not only can it play samples really well, it can re-synthesize them with some utterly unique modulators. The folks at Native Instruments set out to make the world's best sampler ever.  I think they might have it. One thing that is cool, you can make "Multis" of sampler instruments--yep, just like a synth, 16 channel multitimbral Multis, complete with insert FX.  If your sequencer supports multiple VST outs, like Cubase SX does, you can route stuff within the multi to different audio channels of you audio interface.  Tres' Cool.  In case you are wondering, it can import soundfonts, Akai, Battery, and Gigasampler.  No it will not import the EXS...yet.  I imported my Mystik Window soundfonts and they came in almost perfect.  I predict a long and happy life for Kontakt at the TweakLab.  You can read my full review. Also check out the new condensed versions called Kompakt and Intakt Intakt, particular, is great for putting loops into sequencers that do not automatically timestretch.

Take a look at the GigaStudio products formerly owned by Nemesys Systems, now owned by Tascam.  No, I am not ready to toss out my Emu.  But it does things that I would need a stack of samplers to do, like play really long pads.  I does all the things well that you never wanted to tie up your sampler with.  Non-looped Orchestral strings being one.  A massive number of dance loops all set up across and ready to go being two.  Of course you can do this with any sampler, as many as you can fit in your "puny" 128 meg ram.  With the GS the presets are always 'on board',  you just drag them to a channel.  Get the idea?  No more fumbling with hunting through multiple cd roms for the preset you "think" was the sound you wanted.  No more loading, mounting, scsi refreshing, messing with click of death zip disks.  You just open a window and drag and drop.  Comes with a preset editor, no more tiny screens, no more sysex protocols and editing software that only works when its raining.  GS has hooks to your favorite sequencer and wav editor.  You should go out and get a 21" monitor now, and while you are there get a few 30 gig hard drives.  Your computer just got busier.  The Giga products are neither VSTi or DXi.  This is a totally different game.  The application installs a GSIF engine that your sequencer can access by MIDI.  The engine stream audio data from your hard disk.   I think GS works best on a 2nd computer as it is on my system a bit of a hog.  And you should carefully check to make sure it is compatible with your soundcard before you buy, it must be GSIF compatible.  Make sure, ok?  One reason to go with Giga is there are many upscale libraries available used in film scoring.  Tascam is ahead of the game in that department.  Now that computers are getting faster, I am warming up to these again.


Rich the TweakMeister
  Want to Discuss SoftSynths?  Discuss Soft Synth and Samplers here at Studio-Central

recommended reading

Doing it with Digital.  This is a primer that tells you how to make a fully digital recording with as few passes through converters as possible. 

Digital Audio Tricks and Tips

Creative Uses for Hardware Samplers

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