We couldn’t list every synthesiser, but we’ve extended the Buyer’s Guide to cover pretty much everything we’ve reviewed over the last four years that’s still available. Be sure to check out the Essential Guide to Synthesisers
Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators
Price £49 to £130
Contact www.soundtech.co.uk, teenage.engineering
You can manipulate all of the quirky sounds on each of the seven units in the Pocket Operator range and make complete pieces of music with each.
We say: “There’s a PO for everyone, from robot beats to dance leads.”
Okay, Blocks does stretch the definition of a synth to breaking point, but if you take it as being able to manipulate sound from an engine, they just about fit in. These mobile modular Blocks connect by Bluetooth and you can sequence, play (with the new Seaboard Block) and record complete tunes and all of that expressive movement.
We say: “Blocks is a cool instrument, but now has potentially bigger benefits to DAW users.”
Price from £102
With names like Keys, Beats and Bass – the analogue ones – you’ll guess what the Volcas focus on, and there’s a digital FM one, plus Sample for use of your own sounds.
We say: “At this price point, you’ll be incredibly hard pressed to find another analogue synth with a built-in sequencer.”
Roland Boutique series
Price from £224 to £349
The Boutique range recreates a whole list of Roland’s classic synths on a smaller scale. You get everything from a four-voice Jupiter to the newest SH-01A. You get a lot of Roland sound for your money with every one.
We say: “Perfect for those with limited funds, who want to explore synth worlds they’ve been unable to before.”
Yamaha Reface range
The portable Reface range recreates classic keyboards. It’s not model specific; you get an electric piano, organ, FM synth and an ‘analogue’ synth – all of which are very good,
with lots of hands-on control.
We say: “Sufficiently different to inspire specialist studio heads and appeal to the mass market.”
This mono version of the minilogue, is available in black, blue, red, silver or gold. It has two VCOs. VCO1 offers Saw, Triangle and Square; the other Saw, Triangle and White Noise.
We say: “A cracking little synth, with plenty of character, especially from the sequencer component. A mono monster.”
A mono synth with an analogue signal path based around a single multi-wave oscillator, which enables you to mix the Saw, Square and Triangle characteristics of the oscillator to vary the sound and thicken it.
We say: “A lot of fun and easy to get your head around. It’s a crazy amount of synth for the money.”
The Aira range was Roland’s big comeback into the world of properly emulating its legacy instruments. The TB-3 is a recreation of the famous TB-303 but not dial for dial – instead, it uses a touch surface to bring a very 21st-century approach.
We say: “Its 303 sounds are spot on, and the extra sounds on offer make this a great buy, for the silly money being asked.”
Seaboard Rise is all about the playing experience and the futuristic keyboard – available in four sizes – as it features extra playing dimensions. These ‘five dimensions of touch’ allow you to really alter the sound…, synthesise it live, if you like. They also throw in the rather great Equator synth.
We say: “Rise is a fabulous concept, which is made real by some great-sounding software.”
A three-oscillator synth with loads of waveforms, filters and hands-on instant action. There are five effects on each sound, including distortion, reverb, chorus/phase, delay, compressor, EQ and Novation’s Gator effect.
We say: “MiniNova is a fun and great-sounding synth with excellent live-performance features.”
MiniBrute is another very portable synth from Arturia, and is essentially a beefed-up Micro with a Steiner-Parker multimode filter, multiwave oscillator and sub-oscillator.
They say: “In a world dominated by hardware with too few controls and endless navigation in tiny LCD screens, MiniBrute brings back the fun with a true hands-on approach.”
Bass Station II’s an analogue synth, in that its audio path is analogue, but under digital control. It has two primary oscillators, a sub plus three other sources: noise, ring mod and an external input.
We say: “The focus is on electronica, and dance. No pads, no polyphony, no chords, no ‘real’ sounds or emulations – just ferocious analogue sounds.”
The JD-Xi delivers an analogue synth engine (monophonic) plus one digital synth engine offering 128 notes of polyphony, with a huge range of tones that includes drum sounds. The synth also boasts a pattern sequencer, vocoder (complete with gooseneck mic), plus effects.
We say: “400-odd quid for an analogue and digital synth, vocoder, effects and drum machine is simply astonishing value for money.”
A four voice poly synth with two Voltage Controlled Oscillators (VCOs) per voice. There is the choice of three waveforms, all of which can be ‘shaped’. You get a choice of Poly, Mono, Duo and Unison modes, the latter of which will stack all eight VCOs and sound gigantic.
We say: “At this price, the Minilogue is something of a no-brainer. Eight top-quality VCOs for under £500? That makes this a bargain.”
This is a Plug-Out synth from Roland: a software emulation of a Roland classic that can be loaded in and controlled in your DAW like any other plug-in. It also feature lots of Eurorack connectivity.
We say: “The flexibility of this synth is extensive, and the Plug-Out technology offers numerous other synths in a single package. It won’t be for everyone in the Eurorack community, but it will definitely suit anyone on a budget.”
Kind of a supercharged Bass Station II – the same sounds combined with Circuit’s flexible featureset. You get all the analogue-like sound to create grooves with movement, breathing new life into basses and leads.
We say: “Mono Station is aimed fairly and squarely at dance heads, but they will love it.”
AS-1 is a crossover synth designed by DJ experts Pioneer, with a Dave Smith Instruments monophonic Prophet built in. It’s designed for performance, possibly within a DJ set to add melodic flourishes – but is also a damn fine synth on its own.
We say: “These are Dave Smith sounds, ferchristssakes, and for less than 500 quid! Yes, you have to put up with a touch keyboard, but if you want the DSI sound, there’s no cheaper way.”
Price from £540
A recreation of the classic ARP Odyssey – and it really does sound like the real thing. This is available in a mini version (three colours) and a rack module. The full size version was limited, but you my be lucky to find one.
We say: “For the money, it’s a serious amount of sound and hardware. It’s enough like the original to make anyone who lacks long pockets sit up and take notice.”
Teenage Engineering just build whatever they fancy and in this case it’s a great-sounding synth, multi-track recorder and, er, radio – all built in to one portable music wonder. Once you realise the potential of this gadget, you might not need anything else.
We say: “This v1.2 is a great update to an already fantastic machine.”
A synth workstation which is arguably more about putting complete tunes together with than hands-on synthesis, but there’s a great sound engine at its core that you can work with, and plenty of varied, preset sounds.
We say: “A great workstation for the studio and the road. It sounds big, is supremely easy to use and is packed with tones that you can dramatically alter with both synth and effect engines. Everything you need to make music in one great package.”
Described as ‘the grittiest Moog synth ever’, it might only have 16 presets but you can get some incredible sonics from it. With only two octaves, but full- size keys, it’s the first Moog with a ‘multidrive’ circuit, offering a few extra stones for the aforementioned grit.
We say: “For taking your sonics to another level and making you stand out, the Sub Phatty is a great option.”
Behringer DeepMind 12
One of the cheapest analogue poly synths around. Behringer has always produced products cheaper than most and with a three-year guarantee, the company is staking a claim for being cheap and reliable.
We say: “I got lost for a couple of hours… reverse-engineering patches to hear how things had been created. With the DM 12, Behringer has set the bar exceptionally high.”
The most analogue digital synth? The signal path on the Novation Peak starts with the (digital) Oxford Oscillators which Novation says run at such a high clock rate that you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart from true analogue oscillators, and then the signal goes properly analogue through the filters. You get eight voices, each with three oscillators, ring mod and noise sources.
We say: “It’s years of fun and creativity in one box.”
One of the best-sounding synths we’ve reviewed, the SUB 37 has paraphonic sounds; not quite duophonic, but ones that have incredible depth to them. There are two main oscillators, both with variable waveshapes; a sub oscillator (fixed with a Square waveform); a noise generator; plus, you can also take external signals in.
We say: “One of Moog’s best synths, taking the best bits of the Phatty range and the Sub Phatty itself.”
The A1 may still be digital at heart, but like the Lead 4, what glorious virtual analogue this is. And thanks to a super quick and friendly programming interface, you’ll have great sounds out of it in no time.
We say: “A totally unexpected synth from Nord with one of the most ‘instant’ feature sets we’ve ever used. If you have an analogue heart, hold a note, dial some dials and after five minutes, you’ll be won over, too…”
A larger version of the System 1/1m, fitting into a 49-note keyboard with eight times the power, so it will run Roland’s bigger synths as Plug-Outs and comes with a Jupiter-8 emulation.
We say: “The System-8 is really great to use and is a very well-equipped pro-level synth. In a mix, you wouldn’t know it wasn’t a Jupe… With all the additional features, it’s a powerful creation, just like the original was.”
Nord does virtual analogue better than anyone else and the Nord Lead synth has been, ahem, leading the way for many years. It has 20-note polyphony and four parts multitimbrality plus digital FM synthesis, 2 VA oscillators, and Moog and 303-style filters.
We say: “We are surprised about just how versatile it sounds, how flexible it is and how easy such a many-layered beast it is to use. Nord Lead 4 is an exceptional synth.”
An expanded JD-Xi and some! Each program can be an eight-part combination, made of four analogue mono synths, which you can stack and four digital slots that take their sounds from the Roland SuperNATURAL engine with 64 notes of polyphony. The synth is all about the two crossing over, so channelling the digital through the audio and adding warmth.
We say: “We love the JD-XA’s sound. It takes the concept of Crossover synthesis to a much higher level.”
A giant-sounding analogue mono synth with three oscillators, two flavours of filter, three full ADSR envelopes and two dedicated LFOs, and an incredible modulation system.
We say: “An outstanding bit of synth design. There’s an awful lot on offer here and, unlike its competitors, it has the draw of the matrix, which is very helpful for routing modulations.”
Price £2,500 to £3,545
If you imagine all the synths here as a fleet of hardware, Montage is like their mothership. It would be simpler to say what it doesn’t do – it has sequencing, different synth engines, and a Motion Sequencer with more movement and emotion than you will have ever heard. Oh and something called a Super Knob which is pretty cool, too.
We say: “Bottom line? Montage is the mother of all synths: climb onboard.”
Dave Smith got the rights back to the Sequential name and to celebrate, remade one of the classic synths of all time, the Prophet-5, but added enough modern bells and whistles to it to name it a 6 instead of a 5.
We say: “Prophet-6 is a fantastic analogue poly. The original ‘5’ was notable for its extras and this has many more, and it’s these that set it apart from other synths: the routing, flexibility, and the sequencer.”
Synth legends Dave Smith’s and Tom Oberheim’s joint effort was worth the wait. This is a glorious-sounding poly synth. One of the most expensive out there, but worth every cent.
We say: “I nearly marked OB-6 down on the price. But after listening to it, I fell for its OB charms, and wanted to return to them again and again. At every turn, it inspires new riffs and complete tunes and, when all is said and done, you can’t ask for more than that from any instrument.”