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We take you through the basics of audio hardware
Tell you how to integrate a synth to your choice of DAW
Go over how to avoid feedback when using hardware
Long before we could fit an entire music studio into a laptop and still have space for games, movies and apps we never use, every component in our production toolbox was a physical unit that needed to be turned on, plugged in and sometimes even manually tuned!
Though this had obvious drawbacks, there is still a high demand for audio hardware such as synthesisers, effects processors and tape machines. Some of this demand is simply due to nostalgia – there is an immediate authenticity that is invaluable for ‘throwback’ genres like lo-fi house and synth-wave.
Then there is the world of modular synthesis which is focused more on sonic exploration and discovering new sounds rather than pure retro appeal.
Despite modernist appeals to doing everything ‘in the box’, hardware is here to stay, providing an endless source of inspiration for many musicians and audio nuts.
In this article, we’ll guide you through the basics of audio hardware and show you how it integrates with your DAW of choice.
How To Plug-In An External Synthesizer To Your Interface/DAW
You will need…
An audio interface with built in MIDI ports or a separate MIDI interface
A MIDI-capable hardware synthesiser
A DAW that can send MIDI messages to your interface and receive incoming audio
A MIDI cable and an audio cable (most likely a ¼ inch jack)
Plug your audio interface into your computer and launch your DAW.
Your interface may not be set as the default sound card, check your audio device settings in your DAW and make sure it is selected.
Connect a MIDI cable from the “OUT” socket on your interface to the “IN” socket on your synth. If you have more than one synth, connect a cable from the “THRU” socket on your first synth to the “IN” socket on your second synth. Make sure all synths are on – the “THRU” rarely works otherwise.
Make sure all synths are on different MIDI channels. Consult the manual if you are unsure how to change the channel.
Connect audio cables from the output sockets of your synths into the inputs on your interface.
Ensure the volume is up on your synths before adding gain to your interface preamps. Some gear will have a fixed noise floor and if the output volume is too low the signal will be too noisy.
Bring in an audio track in your DAW, one for each synth, and select the appropriate input channel for each one.
If your synth has keys, press them to test the audio before trying to send MIDI.
Make sure the signal is not even close to clipping. Ideally aim for a max level of -6db. Keep an eye on levels when changing patches too.
Insert a MIDI track into your DAW, one for each synth, and select the appropriate output MIDI channel for each one.
Send a note out to your synth from this MIDI track. If nothing happens, double check the MIDI channel for the synth and try changing patches. You may be sending a short note out to a pad sound with a long attack time.
Once everything is working, take note of the delay between sending the note and receiving the audio. Your DAW should let you adjust for this latency in the settings. Make sure your audio buffer size is low enough (256 samples or below is ideal).
As with all questions like this when it comes to creative arts – the real question should be why not? We all have access to the same plugins and software as anyone else with a computer, which is incredibly liberating but also means everyone runs the risk of sounding the same.
Analogue synths and effects have minutely subtle and unpredictable tone-shaping characteristics that are difficult to emulate effectively with software. Many people also prefer the ‘hands-on’ approach that outboard gear gives them, finding it more engaging to move real knobs and sliders rather than clicking with a mouse.
Many hardware units have achieved classic status due to their use in countless popular recordings. One infamous example is the Yamaha DX7, the original digital FM synth that was everywhere in the mid to late 80s until vanishing once sample-based synths became the norm.
Though it is a digital synthesiser, it is still limited by the primitive technology available in the 80s and these idiosyncrasies are difficult to capture with modern technology.
Ins And Outs
External audio and MIDI means you have to handle these things in the real world, physically, very often with your (recently washed hands). To free the sound and MIDI messages from the confines of your computer you’ll need an interface.
An audio interface will send and receive audio and very often include MIDI ports too, so it ought to do everything you need to work with your hardware synths – most of which still use MIDI.
Here we have a DX11 playing a riff using the classic “Lately Bass” preset, followed by Live’s Operator synth playing the same riff with a similar patch. Listen out for the ‘squeak’ and grit in the DX11 compared to Operator.
This time we hear Operator first, playing an “FM Sweep” with one carrier and one modulator. This is followed by the DX11, which is much noisier. This process is then repeated with the modulator tuned an octave up.
MIDI is something we’ve all heard of. It’s how we talk to our synths, tell them what notes to play and how to play them. MIDI is digital even though it is sent with voltage when outside of our DAWS.
Don’t worry – your expensive analogue synths are still well and truly analogue, we just use digital messages to control them. MIDI needs to be digital because it is conveying precise information about our arrangements – such as the pitch, timing and volume of our instrument parts. If these things were even slightly inaccurate, our arrangements would become meaningless.
No one wants to have just one synth. The good folks who invented MIDI recognise this, so they came up with ‘channels’ to talk to multiple synths. There are 16 channels available for any MIDI port which is more than enough for most.
The idea is really quite simple, let’s say you have a Yamaha DX11 and a Roland JV-1080 plugged into the same MIDI port, you simply set the DX11 to channel 1 and the JV-1080 to channel 2. Then any notes you send to channel 1 will be played by the DX11 and any notes sent to channel 2 will be picked up by the JV-1080.
Easy! You will need to look at the MIDI settings on your synths in order to designate the channels, but once set up they will stay that way. Some synths – such as the JV-1080 – have a ‘performance mode’ that will let you have multiple patches on different MIDI channels.
Before committing to buying anything, it’s your responsibility to check the condition and know what the average price is before you pay for it. Keep an eye on local classifieds, eBay, Gumtree etc and arrange for tracking on anything that gets posted. Music gear tends to hold its value pretty well as long as you take basic steps to care for it, so if you buy anything that you don’t end up using, you can rest easy knowing it can still be sold for a good price. With a little common sense (and dollars) you can suss out a decent collection of gear without going broke or getting ripped off.
Piping audio out of your DAW into effect racks, guitar pedals and tape decks is a great way to get truly ‘out of the box’ sounds for obvious reasons. Though there are some excellent plugins with clever DSP code for simulating the idiosyncrasies of analogue gear, using the real thing is much more satisfying.
One tricky area here is the issue of feedback. You need to be aware of this before proceeding as it can lead to some nastiness. Here’s the problem: you’re sending audio out of your computer, then recording what comes in.
If you want to monitor what comes in, then that will also get sent back out, creating an infinite feedback loop that – worst-case scenario – could destroy your speakers and damage your hearing.
The easy option is to not monitor the input through your DAW at all, but this means you need to find some other way of listening to the signal before it hits your interface.
A mixer will come in handy here, or perhaps your interface will let you listen to the input on your headphones without changing what gets sent out the back (a good excuse to read the manual and find out).
The most practical solution, unfortunately, involves spending money on a new interface, but if you plan on doing a lot of external processing this is the wisest choice. Your new interface ought to have at least 4 outputs.
The first two will be used for monitoring like normal and the other two will be used as an effect send. Then any time you need to process a track of audio in your DAW externally, you just change the outputs for that track.
Here we have changed the outputs for the Perc track from “Master” to 3+4 on our interface. This will send the audio out to our effects, and the EFX IN track will pick up inputs 3+4 on our interface to bring the processed audio back into our DAW. Though we are using Live here, any DAW should be able to do this.
Guitar pedals are an excellent candidate for external effects.
They are cheap, small and fun to play with. Many pedals are truly analogue, meaning you don’t need to splash out on high-end audio gear to get quality analogue effects.
The main downside to guitar pedals is they are almost always mono, but if you really want stereo you can bounce left and right channels separately (if you’re patient enough) or you can just buy two of the same pedals (if you’re cashed up).
An important consideration with guitar pedals is they are made for low gain signals, not the hotline levels that are being sent out to your monitors. It’s unlikely you will damage your pedals by being too loud, but it will change how they sound.
For example, overdrive and distortion pedals are gain sensitive effects that will sound too extreme if you send in a hot signal. Bucket brigades in delay, chorus and flange effects may also distort if you’re too loud.
So with this in mind, when sending signals out of your computer into your pedals, make sure the levels are soft. Guitar pedals expect signals before they are amplified so you need to take this into account.
If you have a guitar amp lying around, why not bring this into the mix? Plug your pedals into your amp and mic it up for a real ‘live’ sound. Even better if you have two microphones as this will allow for stereo effects as you experiment with placement and using different mic types.
This is a great way of adding realistic ‘distance’ to your sounds that is difficult to achieve with plugins.
Hardware isn’t for everyone, it requires patience and an appreciation for a different kind of workflow. But if it is for you, there’s a good chance it can completely change how you approach making music for the better.
If you are just curious and want to see what all the fuss is about, the best thing you can do is start small and build from there. The internet is your friend here – find out what your favourite artists use, read reviews, check demos on YouTube and make informed decisions.
Despite modern technology suggesting that everything shouldbe done in the box, it’s also true that most great art defies the ‘should’ and uncertainty begets creativity. Hardware or software, whatever approach you take is the right one if it leads to awesome music.