Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Buying Your First Analog Synthesizer: The 2014 Guide




It's already that time of year again-- Musikmesse 2014 has come to a close, Winter NAMM '14 ended in January, so most of this year's synth offerings are out in the open, waiting to be picked apart.  While only a handful of new synths have been added to the roster this year, some of these are very significant, and have changed the recommendation order.  I'm going to mark the synths that were not announced at the time of last year's guide with NEW, so you will be able to easily distinguish what's new.

As with last year, this guide will be focused on new synthesizers, so don't expect anything that's not currently in production.  I've also mainly chosen to focus on analog synthesizers, although there will be a couple recommendations that are not analog in some form.

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!  Not only will it help support the blog, but you will also find Amazon has sales at times, so you'll find $10~$50 off on some synths.

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 voices.  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, because this guide would go on for pages and pages and be needlessly in depth.  But if you really need a full polyphonic synth for a low price, you can always go digital.  People have always debated if analog is better than digital, and each sides have great points, but I have always been a fan of analog, which is why this guide focuses on it.

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 budget mono module.

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.

Drums: Some newer synth modules include drum sounds, like the Korg Monotribe and Volca Beats, and the new Akai Wolf.  These are pretty inexpensive options for analog drum sounds, so if you're looking for that, it's well covered.

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, though many copy-cat filters exist, in modular form, in software form, and in other retro synths.  Years ago, there was no Moog under $1400, but that's changed the past couple of years, fortunately.  Moog's synths cover a wide range of prices, from the simplified $600 Minitaur to the robust $5000 Minimoog XL.

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



Moog introduced the Sub Phatty last year, and it's garnered quite its share of great reviews.  The Sub Phatty now has a new competitor in terms of features, introduced this year and listed directly below this paragraph.  The Sub Phatty still gets the nod as the recommended starter Moog, because of its excellent price of $999 and fantastic interface.  While it doesn't have the light up knobs that the Little Phatty and Slim Phatty have, the increased number of knobs make it a greater joy to program and experiment on.  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.

The Moog Sub 37 (NEW):



Moog's newest beast is the Sub 37, the 'paraphonic' synthesizer.  "Paraphony" gets thrown around quite a lot and can have different meanings, but in the case of the Sub 37, this means that you can play two notes using one oscillator per note, instead of one note with two oscillators.  Of course, this isn't the only improvement over the Sub Phatty-- the Sub 37 has more keys, more knobs, and incredible user interface, for a $1499 price tag.  While the Sub 37 doesn't come out until May, the initial demos have been consistent with the quality Moog sound, so if you're looking for something a little more robust, more knobs, and more keys, the Sub 37 would be recommended as the next step up from the Sub Phatty.  The biggest factor, for me, would be the increase in knobs, which greatly enhances the ease of programming, and would make it easier to learn synthesis.  Of course, all of this comes with a 50% price increase, and unless you're positive you're making the firm step into the synthesizer world, the Sub Phatty should be adequate to educate yourself.

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.

A few years ago, the best route to get a vintage sound in a reliable package was to get one of the many boutique do-it-yourself kits that recreate vintage circuits.  Korg has formed a new niche of remade analog synths, starting with their MS-20 Mini, and continuing on this year with the larger MS-20 Kit, and the synth I'm most excited for this year, the remake of the ARP Odyssey.  If your budget is tight but you want the sound of the classics, look no further.


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.  At the time this guide was written last year, the MS-20 Mini  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 IN as well), something that the original lacked.  If you're looking for an aggressive, vintage style synth, this will be your best bet.  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, as the routings will visually show you how different modulation sources affect your sounds.  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.

The Korg ARP Odyssey (NEW):


Though it hasn't been heard and won't be released until later this year, Korg's newest remake endeavor is already turning heads.  Korg has gotten the rights to remake the ARP Odyssey, one of the most well known and loved vintage synthesizers of all time, arguably even more popular than the MS-20.  And if you didn't trust Korg to take someone else's work, they've even hired David Friend, the original lead designer of the Odyssey.  Judging by how faithful the MS-20 Mini was to the original's sound, the Odyssey remake is set to be this year's blockbuster.  No word on price yet, but if you can hold off, it may be the number one choice of analog synth this year.

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, and you want features!  So what do you get?



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 feature-laden 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:




Much to the surprise of everyone, Arturia went smaller instead of bigger with the Microbrute last fall.  At $299 though, the Microbrute has become the go-to beginner synth because of its included mini-keyboard, aggressive analog sound, and funky patch routing.  Even if you ignore the keyboard, the price even makes it a deal as a module.  While the Minibrute has full size keys and an extra envelope, the Microbrute does win out in the fancy new step sequencer, which is a blast to play, and a fun yet simple creative tool.  For getting in the door, the Microbrute represents the best way to get into the analog world.  I have the feeling that in 10 years from now, a crop of young producers will still have their Microbrutes in their studios.


The Korg Volca Series (Beats, Bass, Keys):


The Korg Volcas released last year to universal acclaim, and rightfully so.  The trio each sound fantastic, and have fun sequencing and performance abilities.  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.  As an owner of the Volca series, the main detractors from the synths are their output.  I would have highly preferred a ¼" jack, which would have made the set easier to incorporate into a recording environment.  Aside from that, using a MIDI keyboard makes each very playable, and if you're not a fan of the battery power, you can buy a separate wall wart.

Akai Rhythm Wolf (NEW, but MIA as of 6/28/14):


It's a little bit hard to recommend the Rhythm Wolf from Akai just yet since I haven't heard it (and if I do hear it and it sucks, I'll cut this out of the guide) but I have to mention it because it marks the latest and greatest (and cheapest!) in analog drum and synth form.  At $199, the Wolf offers a single oscillator synth voice, a sequencer, drum pads, and a basic kick-snare-hat-percussion, all in a fantastic case with MIDI control.  For its price, it easily beats the Monotribe in functionality, and holds its own well against the Volca series. 

As of today, June 28th, no further information has been given about the Rhythm Wolf.

Waldorf Streichfett (NEW):


Waldorf's newest mini-synth is the Streichfett, based on old 70's string synthesizers.  I don't have an official price on the Streichfett, but it should come in around the same as the Rocket, at about $329, and be released later this spring.  While the Streichfett isn't true oscillator-for-voice synthesis, it should work similar to those old 70s synths it was based on (apologies for a bare description-- the Streichfett isn't released yet, so I can't be sure what's going on inside the box).  I wouldn't recommend this for a conventional setup for EDM production, but perhaps if you're in the market for something more retro-sounding, or you love Waldorf's fantastic line of synths, or want polyphony for under $400, this may be your match.

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 was released a couple years back, but had an initial struggle in production.  Since the supply has increased, the Minibrute became many people's first synthesizer due to its analog engine and $499 price tag.  The Brute isn't just hype though-- it has one of the most unique sound engines, and works incredibly well as a counterpoint to ever-expanding world of Moog and Roland wannabes.  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.

Other aggressive synths mentioned:
Arturia Microbrute
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 Pulse 2 is the updated version of the original (and incredibly well respected) Pulse analog synthesizer, for the price of $799.  While it doesn't feature the keyboard of the Mopho, or the polyphony of a digital synth (it does have 8 voice Paraphonic mode, though), the Pulse 2's 3 analog oscillators and fantastic design offer an incredibly large palette of sounds.  The 8 knobs may not look like much to work with, but the design lets you get depth from those knobs.  As with many Waldorf products, it doesn't sit in the limelight because it doesn't have wild features for the price, but it makes up for it in sound, and continues on Waldorf's legacy as true synth craftsmen.  If you're looking for something off the beaten path but with a ton of depth, the Pulse 2 should fit the bill, and last you well into your synth career.


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.



The Prophet 12 marks Dave Smith's ultimate synthesizer, featuring a massive 12 voice synth engine.  Though I'm normally an analog fan, the Prophet 12 features digital oscillators while still retaining analog filters.  What does this mean exactly?  The 12 can have way more flexibility in terms of oscillators, but still have the warm and squeaky filter.  The Prophet 12 isn't a high school synth, as the full version will cost you $2,999 and the module $2,199, but if you had to only have one new synth in your studio, this might be your best bet.  Highly recommended for professional producers and studios who can afford it, and are looking for a good catch-all synth.

The Waldorf Streichfett
Korg Volca Keys

What if 4 analog voices isn't enough?  Dave's catalog reaches upward, with the $3k Prophet 12 (or $2,199  in module form), which have 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.

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!

13 comments:

  1. What are your thoughts on Moog's Minimoog Voyager?

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    1. Great synth, but expensive for a beginner synth. I know the prophet is expensive as well, but I had to mention it as the only polyphonic synth. But the voyager is awesome!

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  2. Thank you so much for this overview. I'm looking for an analog/polyphonic synth -> went to a store an "walked" through most of the patches of the prophet 12 -> (very) disappointing. Think I will go for the prophet 8...

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  3. what would you buy if you want to make underground big bass house/techno songs?

    Thanks in advance for the info!

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    1. I would like to know the answer to that too please. with a budget of 2500$

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  4. A very nice list, thanks! The Doepfer Dark Energy II might be worthy of inclusion here?

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  5. Do you think that the Alesis Micron is still viable as a synth? I am thinking of getting one as a starting one, I know that it is alittle hard to programme but other than that would you recommend any other compared to it? I am leaning towards it because of it's size and because it seems to be able to do alot.

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    1. I love my Micron. It sits right next to me Blofeld, MoPho and Modular stuff. Insane value for the money. Spend a few hours under the headphone to learn to program here, and you won't believe the results. There is a great video on YT of a guy playing Enjoy the Silence in real time using one.

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  6. You definetly forgot to list the Analog Four and Analog Keys from Elektron!

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