Monday, May 13, 2013

Buying Your First Analog Synthesizer: The 2013 Guide


2014 Edit: Thank you for the tremendous support of this guide!  This has easily become the most popular post of the site.  If you're looking for the latest synths, check out the 2014 analog synth guide.  This current page is still mostly relevant and I don't plan on removing it, so you can still enjoy the 2013 guide!

We're only in April of 2013 and we've already seen a huge influx of awesome gear come out.  I still see a fair amount of traffic on my "What to Buy" article, so I figured it was time to revamp the whole thing for a better look at the cool synths you can buy this year.  So without further ado, I give you Synth Guide 2013.

This guide will be focused on new synthesizers, so don't expect anything that's not currently in production.  Also, I may tend to focus on newer gear more so than older synths.

Special note:  I've included Amazon links on the names of all the synths, so if you're interested in buying from Amazon, use that link!  It'll help support the blog.

Before you start, what do you need from your synthesizer?


If it's your first time, you no doubt are probably a little bit overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information there is on synthesizers.  Here are a few key things to think about before you start debating.

Polyphony: How many voices do you need from your synthesizer?  A voice is basically defined as how many separate notes on the keyboard you can play and get a sound pertaining to them.  For a basic example, a piano has 88 voices of polyphony, as we can play as many notes on it as our hands can manage.  On the other hand, a trumpet can only play one note, so it has one voice of polyphony.  Many of the synthesizers mentioned below are monophonic, meaning they can only play one note at a time.  Polyphonic synthesizers are generally more expensive because more circuitry is needed create multiple notes.  Monophonic synthesizers are limited to playing lead lines, bass lines, melodies, and effects, so don't expect to play harmonies with one, unless you plan to multitrack record it.

Analog/Digital:  I won't really make a case for complete digital synths here.  I've never been crazy about them, and I won't mention them below.  But if you really need a full polyphonic synth for a low price, you can always go digital.  You will sacrifice some of your sound quality though.

Price: Much of what I will talk about below will be under $1000.  Depending on where you are in your life and how much you want to spend, and what this synth will need to be for you-- your EVERYTHING synth, your bass or lead monster, or something else will change how you want to spend.  If you have $3000 to spend, and only want one be-all-end-all synth, you could get the Prophet 12.  If you're a budget synth player, you might want to stick to a cheaper option.

MIDI Implementation and Memory:  Do you plan on using your synthesizer with your computer?  Do you need it to sync notes so you can get an in-time recording?  Do you need to store your synth sounds?  All of these are important considerations, as some synths will or won't have these capabilities. Watch out for this. Usually new synth players need MIDI and memory.

Other features:  I'll do my best to highlight any pros and cons for each synthesizer, but if you're not familiar with some of the other terms I'll be using (LFO's, envelopes, filters, etc) I might suggest reading about these terms elsewhere, because they'll be beyond the scope of this guide.

And now, the categories:

If you absolutely need the 'Moog' Sound:


Every synth player learns what the Moog name means early on.  Moog's filter is arguably the fattest around, and seems to be synonymous with what many people want for their first synthesizer.  There's only one place to get the 'Moog' sound, and that's from Moog Music themselves (although I'm sure many vets will read this and disagree).  Years ago, there was no Moog under $1400, but that's changed the past couple of years, fortunately.

Keep in mind all Moogs are Monophonic, unless you spend the money to get multiple units and polychain them.



Moog's newest beast is the Sub Phatty, and it's also the cheapest keyboard they have, coming in at $999.  The Sub Phatty takes advantage of Moog's latest circuit developments, like the multimode filter, sub oscillator, and other cool hidden features (my favorite being beat frequency).  If I were starting all over and wanted a Moog, this would be my first choice, because of array of knobs to control each function, memory, MIDI implementation, and great look.  And the sound is all Moog, to top it off.

So you love Moog, but the $999 price tag scares you off, you can always grab the Minitaur for $599.  The Minitaur doesn't have a keyboard, so you'll have to control it by MIDI, but for fat basses, the Minitaur rocks.  Of course, it also has the classic Moog filter, which is probably the reason you're buying it.  Beware though, the octave tracking makes playing higher leads impossible.  There is also a basic "Memory" function hidden in the software too, but Moog has you covered elsewhere, as the computer software for this synth can save patches as well.

The $799 version of the original Little Phatty is still a great synth, although it lacks the keyboard and some of the more refined features of the Sub Phatty.  Still, it boasts a larger memory, and has a great interface, albeit less knobby.  If you want more features than the Minitaur, but can't commit to the larger price tag of the Sub Phatty (or just want a module!), this may be just what you want.

If you want classic sound, with modern reliability and non-vintage prices:


Old synthesizers from the 70s and 80s sounded better, there's no doubt about that.  There's a number of reasons for this (beyond the scope of this article) but what it comes down to is the vintage components, that were more unreliable, offered more variations in tone, and it created a more organic sound.  The human ear loves organicity in sound.  But unfortunately, many new synths, while more reliable, and still analog, lose a certain warmth to them.  Here's one synth that should buck that trend.


They said it couldn't be done, but Korg did it.  They revived the MS-20, an old favorite of vintage synthesists everywhere.  The Korg engineers made choices in this revival to preserve the sound of the original, and back to back listenings show how well it turned out.  The original MS-20's prices on eBay are currently floating around $1500, sometimes more, sometimes less, but this beauty is $599.  They've also added in a MIDI over USB connection (and regular MIDI as well), something that the original lacked.  If you're looking for an aggressive, vintage style synth, look no further.  Beware though, as newcomers may be overwhelmed by the modular style patch bay, which could be tricky to wrap your head around.  If you do take the dive, however, you will probably vastly improve your synthesis knowledge by forcing yourself to learn it.  It features 2 oscillators and both high and low pass filters, so you're really getting a full fledged synth here with no corners cut.  Keep in mind, this synth is monophonic, and without memory, so you'll have to write down, or take pictures of this synth if you want to remember your settings.

If you want the most full-fledged monophonic synth for the best price:


Sure, all that other stuff is cool, but you just want the most bang for your buck, but you want features!  So what do you get?

The Novation Bass Station II:

The Bass Station II came as a bit of a surprise to everyone, but the original is considered to be a bit of a hidden gem.  The BSII has an incredible feature set for its price of $499.  It boasts 2 oscillators and a sub oscillator, an arpegiattor and step sequencer, two distinct filter types, memory and USB/MIDI connectivity, and a keyboard.  For $499.  That's super-value.

While these two are a few years old at this point, the Mopho and Mopho Keyboard (priced $400 and $849, respectively) were, and still are, fantastic synthesizers for their prices.  If you're unaware about DSI's history, Dave Smith created the Prophet 5 and Pro-One, two incredible synthesizers of the 70s and 80s.  Dave is a synth legend, and it shows in these two.  The Mopho module boasts 2 oscillators, a classic Curtis filter, large memory, and tons of modulation settings, but is ultimately limited by its user interface-- much menu diving is required.  Fortunately, Dave graced us with the Mopho Keyboard, which costs more, but adds knobs to fix the UI issue.  In addition to these great features, these can also be had for great prices on eBay if you're willing to take them used.

If you want the cheapest thing possible:


The Korg Volca Series:

They're not out yet, but the Korg Volca series looks to be the greatest value of any analog gear on the market.  The series consists of the Beats, Keys, and Bass, each inspired by vintage gear.  The Beats is a part-analog part-digital drum machine, with editable sounds and patterns.  The Bass is a 303 style bass machine.  The Keys is a 3 voice polyphonic synth, with build in delay.  Each is only $149, which is mind blowing, considering the features.  These are tiny, which might be a setback for some of you, and they only have headphone out (or internal speakers) so you'll have to get specific plugs to record them into your DAW, but it's worth it for the sweet price.  Also, they have MIDI in!  The Volca series is proof that Korg is watching over the forums of the internet and trying to make customers happy.  

Waldorf Rocket:
The Rocket is brand new, but is unfortunately has been overshadowed by the current Korg line.  The Rocket boasts 8 notes (I'm not sure, but these are likely digital oscillators) with an analog multimode filter, and has USB control-- in fact, it's USB powered.  Really, it's a pretty cool synth with a ton of features for a good price, but it's just overshadowed by its competition.  If you're trying to go cheap, but the Volca line is too bare for you, Rocket may be the answer at a price of $329.

If you want aggressive:


So you're trying to blow away the crowd with an in-your-face monster synth lead.  What would be a good match here?


The MiniBrute is another synth that has fallen into an odd spot with its release-- last year at NAMM 2012, it was the rage.  Everyone wanted this $499 beast, but the heavy demand and slow production pushed the release date back... and back... and back again.  Original release was stated for somewhere around April (I think?) but people who were hoping to get in on the first batch were finding themselves waiting until the fall.  Of course, now that the production output is fine, we have so many competitors for the poor MiniBrute.  The MiniBrute has basic MIDI implementation (send and receive notes and pitch bend) but you won't be able to automate your parameters like you could with most of these other synthesizers.  You also have no memory, so you'll be finding yourself using patch sheets or taking pictures.  That said, the MiniBrute sound is awesome, and super aggressive, thanks in part to some of its features like the Brute Factor function (feedback), metalizer (a completely unique feature that adds harmonics to the triangle wave) and Steiner-Parker filter.  The MiniBrute also has only one oscillator, meaning you're a bit more limited in sound options, but Arturia has added in a neat function called Ultrasaw, which, as added, sounds like multiple saw waves in unison, which is a pretty standard and needed sound on synths but can't be achieved with just one oscillator-- so the Ultrasaw helps get around this.  Really, the MiniBrute is a labor of love from a new company, with everything incredibly well thought out, and a great price.  The job listings on Arturia's site indicates they're planning more analog, too, so perhaps in a year or two we'll see a MaxiBrute.

Other aggressive synths mentioned:
Sub Phatty
MS-20 Mini

If you want to be unique:


Sure, everything I mentioned is cool, but doesn't everyone know about those?  What about something a little more underground and boutique?

The Vermona Mono Lancet:
The Mono Lancet is a little module with a different style to its sound than the other synths mentioned.  Vermona isn't too big in the US (yet), so this synth in your setup could set you apart.  At the $620 price, it can be a little on the steep side (more akin to the Moog Minitaur than anything else), but the warmth and beautiful filter make this worth having.  Unfortunately, there is no patch memory.  I've reviewed the Perfourmer Mk II elsewhere on the site, which is basically the expanded version of this into four voices for $1850.

Other unique synths:
I've highlighted the Mono Lancet above, but in truth, there are a ton of small companies making cool little pieces of hardware.  Off the top of my head, Analog Solutions is another pricey but cool synth maker.  Of course Dave Smith has the Evolver, which is half digital, half analog, which can produce some mind blowing sounds as well.  If you want to get off the beaten path, google around, check different synth dealer websites, check reviews, and you'll find just what you need.

If you want polyphony:


OK, we've beat around the bush long enough.  Almost everything mentioned above is monophonic, which leaves one last category, for those of you who want to play chords.  Here are a few polyphonic options.

Dave Smith Instruments still holds the value award for polyphony. and the Mopho X4 and Tetra are fantastic achievements.  Both of these synthesizers offer 4 voice polyphony, meaning you can play 4 note chords.  The X4 is $1,299, and the Tetra, which is essentially the Mopho X4 without keyboard (but added multitimbrality) is $799.  Really, the functionality of these synths are fantastic, as they have so many routing options, you'll have so much programmability for an incredible range of sounds.  Of course, you have full memory control, and great MIDI implementation as well.

What if 4 voices isn't enough?  Dave's catalog reaches upward, with the $3k Prophet 12, which has 12 voices, and the Prophet 8, for $2,099 (or $1,549 in module form), which has 8 voices.  There are some differences in these synthesizers (the 12 has way more features but has digital oscillators), so if you are considering going this route, you'll want to look hard at the feature sets.

There you have it!  Synth Guide 2013.  I had it written weeks ago but had to take a break.  If you have any differed opinions, recommended edits, or anything, shoot me an email at thesynthesizersympathizer@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter at @thesynthsymp.  Thanks for reading!

5 comments:

  1. I borrowed a Korg from a friend. Do you think it's a great one to try out? I really need a keyboard and synthesizer right now.

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    Replies
    1. For Korg I love the Polysix or MonoPoly; very unique and very fun.

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  2. I'm really really trying to look for a poly synth, but I seem to totally despise the digitally controlled oscilator synths. I've played Bass Station 2 and several DSi products on store, and they don't seem the sound very good to my ears. They sound kind of thin for the sounds that I'm after, lacking the warmth, and being gritty/harsher side? I really really really hope MFB could make Dominion 5 happen, as I dig my X SED alot for its modulation capabilities (even though it's hardwired). Stuff like Omega are a bit too steep for my budget, but something like Dom 5 could cost under 2k euro

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  3. Can someone explain to me what the difference is between analog and digital synths? Wikipedia didn't make any sense to me...
    Also, like, I was watching this video about someone's studio setup, and they commented that if you see a producer with a lot of keyboards in their studio, most likely only one is a MIDI, and the rest are either analog or digital synths...What makes something a digital or analog synth?
    Thanks. :)

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    1. Hey Pelican. Digital synth's sounds are made by a chip that calculates how each of the waves should go. This means that the chip knows what each shape is supposed to look like, and draws it when you press a key, and if you filter it, it actually computes the filter. Some people don't like this because they think it sounds cold, while others like it because they think it sounds clean, and you can usually get it for cheaper.

      Analog synthesizers' sound waves are actually made by circuits of components, with no computer chips in the creation of the sound waves themselves. Oftentimes, these analog synths have variations in the tones they produce since it's actual electricity running through, so there are variations in the sound. Try to find some youtube videos comparing analog to digital to get an idea, although you may not be able to tell much of a difference at first.

      A MIDI keyboard is a keyboard that doesn't make sounds itself, but tells other keyboards and hardware and software what to play. So my midi keyboard can help me play a collection of analog or digital synths, or I can use it with the software in my computer

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