Digital Versus Analog: Understanding The Synthesizer Dichotomy

If you’ve never hear the name Bob Moog before, you probably don’t especially care about synthesizers. Moog developed the world’s first ever modular analog synthesizers in the 1960s, and began selling them in the 1970s. For experimental rock bands and especially progressive-rock bands such as Yes and Rush, the Bob Moog sound became an integral part of their epic records that were standalone orchestral journeys through an interstellar star-scape. Moog synthesizers, which are still manufactured and prized amongst musicians today, are extremely expensive to purchase. Many music manufacturers have designed digital synthesizers over the years, which are much cheaper than Moog synths. An easy point of reference for understanding the difference is the gap in sound quality between vinyl and digital streaming – some purists swear that Spotify sounds like garbage, while most would argue that their is no audible difference.

Another point of reference that Bob Moog himself is fond of, is the difference between fluorescent and incandescent light. While incandescent light forms a consistent light pattern that comprises a wide section of the color spectrum, fluorescent light imitates natural light poorly, emitting a sort of choppy imitation of sunlight that can only convey a tiny, ultra specific slice of the color spectrum.

Moog himself admits that for some, the more affordable option of a digital synthesizer makes a lot of sense. To untrained ears, there is virtually no difference. If you’re creating your studio masterpiece, or performing a sold out show at Madison Square Gardens, you might want to spring for an analog Moog (and you probably have the budget). But if you just started taking music lessons with professional musicians and are just finding your footing, surely a digital synthesizer that you can purchase for less than a thousand dollars will suffice.

As for the actual technical difference between analog and digital, here are a few quick points:
An analog synth is built with oscillators inside that vibrate and buzz to create sound waves which can then be altered and distorted through the various settings on the instrument. The argument that the sound is richer and purer could also be countered by the fact that analog synths are more difficult to program, since you’re dealing with real live physical components.

A digital synth, on the other hand, runs on software, rather than hardware. Each instant that the sound wave is being emitted is represented by a digital numeric, so that it is chopped up but then smoothed out through digital pioneering. While this sounds trashy in principle compared to a fancy analog synth, it has been engineered almost to the point where you couldn’t tell the difference.

The ease of programming on a digital synthesizer allows users to do things like side chaining the modulations to a specific drumbeat. If the beat is set to a particular bpm (beats per minute), as it often is in modern music, then you can lock the modulation to the beat. When you bust into that particular section at a live show, the synth wave will pulse along to the beat and get the audience dancing.

Analog or digital? It is a complex question with no right answer. There are certainly pros and cons to either, and we hope this article can help you decide what’s right for you!