Software Synths / Samplers
Back in the day, a "synthesizer" meant a box with piano keys on it that made beeping noises, but as computers have gotten faster and better at producing sound, synthesis has increasingly become a software-based affair. Most digital studio musicians these days use MIDI controller hardware, like keyboards that control software synths via MIDI. It's a far more flexible, inexpensive and upgradeable approach to making digital music, as you don't have to buy new hardware when new technologies for creating sound come out.
These are some of the most widely used software synths and samplers, but this is by no means a complete list.
Propellerheads Reason 4 ($499)
Reason is one of the most useful -- and most unusual -- music-making apps out there. It essentially replicates a rack of synths, samplers and effects, such as you'd find in a music studio, combined with a sequencer. What it doesn't do, unfortunately, is record audio. But you can use Propellerheads' ReWire technology to hook it directly into most DAW environments (including Logic, Live and Cubase) to seamlessly integrate your Reason tracks into your recorded output.
Though it looks like it's designed strictly for ravers and drum 'n' bassheads, don't let that fool you -- I use Reason's NN-XT sampler in almost every track I record, for everything from grand piano to brushed drums to Armenian duduks. Reason comes with gigabytes of samples, loops and presets for its built-in synthesizers and drum machines, most of which are production quality. You can also buy hundreds, if not thousands, of Refill packs to extend its sounds, and the samplers can use standard SoundFonts as well, so your possibilities are endless.
Reason has a bit of a learning curve -- not least in part based on its interface, which replicates the tangles of cabling found in the back of every real-world effects rack. But if you're looking for an affordable (almost) all-in-one package for making digital music, Reason is definitely worth looking at. There's nothing else like it out there.
IK Multimedia SampleTank 2.5 ($499 for XL full version) / Native Instruments Kontakt 3 ($449)
SampleTank and Kontakt are sample engines, designed to replicate real instruments or vintage synths like the MiniMoog or the EMI Fairlight. They work by triggering actual recordings of these instruments. Both SampleTank and Kontakt allow sample bank builders to incorporate a certain amount of scripting into their banks, allowing for more realistic simulation of difficult-to-reproduce instruments like guitars or wind instruments.
Both packages include ginormous sample libraries, which is great for people who are less interested in tweaking synth parameters and hunting down sample libraries and more interested in just making music.
Cycling '74 Max/MSP/Jitter 5 ($699) / Native Instruments Reaktor 5 ($449)
For those of you who are into tweaking parameters, there's Max/MSP and Reaktor. These are less instruments and more mini-laboratories where you can build your own instruments and effects from the ground up. Of the two, Reaktor is slightly more user-friendly, while Max/MSP is the recognized powerhouse. Max/MSP also includes Jitter for video/graphic real-time manipulation.
These apps are not for the beginner or even intermediate user -- these are for hardcore synth freaks who want obsessive control over every aspect of their music making and are willing to plow through thick manuals to do it.
Think of these as the digital equivalent of guitar pedals or rack-mounted studio processors. They process your sound, adding effects or regulating volume/dynamics.
IK Multimedia Amplitube ($399) / Izotope Trash 1.14 ($199)
Amplitube and Trash are both software versions of hardware gear like the Line 6 Pod or the Vox ToneLab. They replicate classic guitar amps, cabinets and pedals, allowing guitarists to record amazing tones without having to buy expensive outboard gear. Of the two, Amplitube is simpler and more user-friendly, while Trash is designed for the obsessive knob-tweaker. Amplitube is also available in a stripped-down Live version, designed for on-stage performance.
PSP VintageWarmer 2 ($149) / Izotope Ozone 3 ($249)
Mastering music is a dark art, as much voodoo as science. Both of these plugins are designed to help make sense of the infinite intricacies of mastering by offering simple, easy-to-use interfaces for the user and keeping the black magic behind the scenes as much as possible.
The VintageWarmer is a loving simulation of an old-school analog compressor/limiter. It's designed to give your recordings a classic pumped sound, right on the edge of distortion, and it's one of the secret weapons in any digital producer's toolkit. You can hear the VintageWarmer all over most of the vocal tracks The Strokes ever recorded. It's an awesome plugin, but its applications are limited -- if you're recording jazz, for example, you're not especially likely to drop VintageWarmer into your mix.
Ozone, on the other hand, is an all-in-one mastering solution, and it's one I recommend highly. The factory presets are excellent starting points for mastering your mix, and there's enough control for even the most exacting audiophile.
Waves IR-L ($300) / Logic SpaceDesigner (included with Logic)
Reverb is one of the little sonic tricks that adds character to a recording. A big reverb sound can add a sense of space and majesty to a song -- think of Jeff Buckley's version of "Hallelujah" or David Bowie's "Heroes" or the Ronettes' "Be My Baby". Less reverb creates a feeling of intimacy -- think of Elliot Smith's "Needle In The Hay" or "I Will Follow You Into The Dark" by Death Cab For Cutie.
Convolution reverb is a technique in which real spaces and vintage equipment are replicated via a process similar to 3D graphic rendering, only with sound. You can download free and commercial "impulse responses", which are like 3D models of spaces like Madison Square Garden or Red Rocks Ampitheatre or hardware like the Roland Space Echo. Both IR-L and Logic's built-in reverb plugin SpaceDesigner can use these impulse response files to add great reverb to your mix. Use them with care, however: too much reverb can make your charming love song into experimental German noise-rock from the 1970s.
Again, these are just a few example tools to get you started. KVR Audio is an excellent resource for finding and learning about different plugins and software synths, as is Harmony Central.
Got a favorite synth or plugin I haven't mentioned here? Tell everybody about it in the comments!
In our final installation, we'll look at more resources for learning how to make music with your Mac.