MMW-14 -- Hardware vs. Software for Sound Synthesis -- Which is Better?

J@pan Inc Magazine Presents:
Commentary on the week's music technology news

Issue No. 14
Tuesday, April 16, 2002



++ FEATURE: Hardware vs. Software for Sound Synthesis -- Which is Better?

- MMO Japan Ordered to Suspend Service
- Taito Announces New Broadband Karaoke System
- Xolox May Restart Service


++ FEATURE: Hardware vs. Software for Sound Synthesis - Which is Better?

In the latest issue of DTM magazine, there is an interesting feature
comparing the relative advantages and disadvantages of hardware sound
generators vs. software synthesizers. This has long been a point of
contention among desktop music enthusiasts and tends to come up
frequently in the annual 'Which Sound Generator is Best For You?'
issues of computer music magazines. While software products have been
gaining ground on the hardware modules for some time now, this
feature marks the strongest endorsement yet for the software
synthesizer camp by the DTM editors.

First, a bit of explanation for the benefit of those who may be new
to this debate. With a hardware sound generator, the user buys a
separate box-shaped module which is connected to the PC via USB or
serial cable. All of the computational work required to produce sound
is offloaded to this box, which lightens the burden on the computer's
CPU. Examples of hardware sound generators are Yamaha's MU2000 and
the SC-8850 made by Edirol (Roland's electronic music subsidiary). In
contrast, a software synthesizer is simply a program which handles
the work of sound generation and does not require any external
hardware. Examples of soft synths are Yamaha's S-YXG100PVL and
Edirol's HyperCanvas.

Until now, most comparisons of the two sound generation alternatives
generally came to the same conclusion. Soft synths are great in that
they don't take up space or require cable connections. However, the
overall consensus was that hardware modules were a better choice
because 1) the sound was of higher quality and 2) they didn't slow
down the users PC, as most soft synths had a tendency to do. Each
year the gap in quality and performance decreased a bit, but even as
recently as last year it was rare to find an industry publication
that recommended software over hardware for serious music-making.

In the past year, though, it certainly appears that soft synths for
PCs and Macs have at last begun to overtake the hardware-based sound
generators. The processing power of most desktop computers today is
such that performance and stability problems (long associated with
soft synths) are no longer an issue for the majority of users. Also,
the sound quality of the best soft synths is easily on par with that
of comparable hardware modules. The DTM editorial staff remarked that
the only hardware modules still being advertised in the magazine are
those at the very upper end of the price spectrum. Much like the
professional photographers who steadfastly refuse to shift from
analog to digital cameras, there is still a fairly strong
professional market for the high-end hardware sound generators. The
mainstream, though, looks to be moving toward the software camp.

Parallel to the PC market for sound generation, a whole new industry
has sprung up for mobile sound generation, and the same hardware vs.
software battle is now being waged all over the world for control of
the wireless sound generation market. A handful of companies led by
Yamaha and Rohm Corporation produce sound generation chips for the
phone, which just like their PC counterparts of a few years ago,
sound better and greatly reduce the overall processing burden. Other
companies such as Beatnik are marketing special compact synthesizers
for phones and other mobile devices. In the case of mobile phones,
the choice of which sound solution to use is made by the individual
handset manufacturers. However, this choice is influenced in large
part by the requirements for which sound formats to support, and that
decision is made by the carriers. So, while the hardware side has
definitely lost some ground on the desktop PC platform, the mobile
market for both sound chips and synthesizers still looks to be wide open.

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** MMO Japan Ordered to Suspend Service

Extract: The Tokyo District Court on April 9 ordered MMO Japan to
suspend its MP3 file-sharing service, called File Rogue. This marks
the first court order in Japan seeking suspension of a P2P service
provider. The court order came unusually quickly, especially for
Japanese courts. Only two months have elapsed since a group of 19
record companies applied for a provisional injunction against MMO
Japan with the Tokyo District Court, seeking suspension of the
file-sharing service.

** Taito Announces New Broadband Karaoke System

Extract: Taito Corp. announced last week it will launch a karaoke
music distribution terminal for broadband use this summer. The
terminal is used for broadband distribution of instrumental music
data and musical scores to business customers such as karaoke music
shops. The data size is as large as 3MB, and the quality of the sound
is on par with that of CDs, the company says. In building this
system, Taito used the Csound programming API developed by MIT's
Barry Vercoe. The new system includes features such as changing the
tempo of the karaoke backing to match the speed of the user's

** Xolox May Restart Service

Extract: Apparently encouraged by a recent Dutch court ruling in
favor of P2P service provider Kazaa, Xolox said last week that it is
planning to restart its file-exchange service. The development team
posted a note on saying that a restart is definitely
planned, though the shape and form have yet to be decided. The
provider shut down last year due to fear of litigation.

SUBSCRIBERS: 569 as of April 16, 2002


Written by Steve Myers (
Steve Myers heads the Theta Group at Layer-8 Technologies, which
specializes in the development of music-related software
Edited by J@pan Inc editors (


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