Despite the huge number of software synths available, there is still a massive market for more expensive hardware synths. This is in part due to the gratification of instant feedback when tweaking knobs and sliders, along with circuitry and operating systems that have been optimised for a single job.
It’s much easier to get lost while sound-designing using a piece of hardware, as you’re not so easily distracted by other effects and plug-ins, and touching controls directly feels much more intuitive than using a mouse to fine-tune parameters. You may also be buying a hardware synth for its analogue circuitry – something that can’t quite be matched by software – or simply to integrate a quality keyboard into your studio and live setup.
This is one of the first things you need to consider when choosing a hardware synth: do you already have a controller keyboard that you intend to use with your new synth module, or do you require a built-in keyboard? Many synths come in both rackmount and keyboard formats, and although you may not think you need keys, having a self-contained unit can make things much easier when performing live. It also means you don’t have to go via a computer to use the synth if your controller has only a USB connection. That said, many of the keyboard-less units have a small footprint, so if space is an issue, this may be the way to go. The other thing to consider is whether you want a polyphonic workstation or just a stripped-back, monophonic analogue monster. And you might consider building your own modular system from individual units, but don’t blame us if you have to eat rice for a year to afford it!
Before we proceed we should point out that the recently released Bass Station II isn’t included on the below list as it was compiled before it was available. However as our review points out – it’s definitely one of the best synths that you can buy today. We also make similar props to the mighty Nord Lead 4
Moog Minimoog Voyager XL
Price £4,549 Contact Source Distribution 020 8962 5080
Moog celebrated its 40th anniversary with this ultimate version of its Minimoog Voyager, which ups the keyboard to 61 notes and throws in a CV patchbay, additional ribbon controller and second LFO. Anyone familiar with the Minimoog layout will be right at home – there are the usual three super-fat oscillators, smooth ladder filter and external audio in. It’s monophonic and doesn’t include any form of arpeggiator or FX, but the Voyager XL is the still the Rolls-Royce of synths.
Price £499 Contact Source Distribution 020 8962 5080
If you’re after the Moog sound but want something a little smaller and more affordable, you might want to check out the Minitaur – a monophonic analogue bass synthesizer with two oscillators, an incredibly smooth and fat filter, two envelope generators for modulating the filter and amp, plus two LFOs hardwired to the VCO and VCF. Each knob on the front panel has a ‘one knob per function design’, making sound design quick and easy. An extended set of parameters and preset management system can be accessed from the editor software when connected to a computer via USB. The Minitaur is tremendous fun to play and capable of producing some gorgeous, earth-shaking basses, while the CV and audio inputs mean it’s also more capable than it may first appear.
Price £299 Contact Novation 01494 462246
MiniNova is designed for use both in the studio and on stage, with the sound engine of the Ultranova but in a smaller, lighter form. The 37 keys are bit too small for chord work, but there are plenty of controls for tweaking, plus an arpeggiator and a Chord mode. Other features include the ability to route external audio through the effects section, a mic input for use with the synth’s vocoder and VocalTune functions, and an excellent Animate mode in which snapshots of a preset can be triggered by hitting one of the eight pads. The MiniNova is a superb-sounding synth that has the bonus of coming with a software editor that can run inside your DAW. Also worth noting is that MiniNova and Ultranova owners can currently download a Supernova sound pack for free.
Price £449 Contact Source Distribution 020 8962 5080
The MiniBrute marks the surprise entry of software experts Arturia into the world of analogue synths, and features a pure analogue signal path with a single VCO and flexible Steiner-Parker multimode filter. Other unique features include a Brute Factor control that can be used to add crunchy feedback saturation to your sounds, an Ultrasaw for generating shimmering sawtooths, and a Metalizer for adding triangle harmonics. When you factor in the USB connectivity, arpeggiator and external audio input you actually have an interesting sound-shaping machine that’s much more capable than its single-oscillator design might have you believe. The filter is particularly exquisite, with the BP and HP modes allowing for some MS-20-style resonant squeals.
Price £1,999 (61-key) Contact Korg 01908 304601
Since the original M1 Korg has been at the forefront of the workstation keyboard world, and its latest offering, Kronos, is no exception. Available with three different sizes of keyboard, Kronos boasts a wealth of connections and features, from the ability to stream audio direct to your DAW via USB to the internal 30GB SSD drive, large touchscreen and multiple faders, dials and controls. You have the option of nine different sound engines, which can be routed through 16 simultaneous effects to create a massive range of lush and powerful sounds. Add to this a comprehensive onboard sequencer with 16 MIDI and 16 audio tracks plus Korg’s amazing KARMA system for generating new phrases on-the-fly and you’ve got a highly complex but powerful system.
Price £1,254 Contact Yamaha 0844 811 1116
For those of you looking for the main functions of the Motif series but not in a position to make the kind of investment required, Yamaha has released a scaled-down version in the shape of the MOX8 and MOX6. The combination of a USB audio interface, step sequencer, real-time controllers and MIDI via USB alongside the versatile sound set makes it an ideal production machine in conjunction with a DAW. A Category search function makes it easy to browse through the 1,127 voices, with Song and Pattern modes for fleshing out your ideas. There’s also a powerful arpeggiator with 6,720 types, an excellent FX section and a software editor that can turn the MOX into a VSTi.
Price £1,405 Contact DSI +1 707 963 7006
Tempest is a six-voice analogue/digital hybrid drum machine designed by pioneers Dave Smith and Roger Linn. Each drum kit consists of 16 sounds, with each sound using two analogue oscillators and two digital. There’s also a large bank of digital waveforms with samples taken from the Prophet VS, alongside one-shot samples from the 808, 909, LM-1, the LinnDrum and more. Tempest features extensive modulation options and can also function as an excellent monophonic synth. Although you can’t process external audio, the 16 touch-sensitive drum pads, two slider controls, intuitive sequencer, master buss compressor and distortion help to seal the deal.
Roland Gaia SH-01
Price £549 Contact Roland 01792 702701
Gaia is Roland’s follow-up to the SH-201, with 37 full-size keys, a host of real-time controls and two USB sockets – one for storing patches and one for streaming audio to a computer. The presets are mainly geared towards dance and electronica – bowel-shaking basses, acid leads and hard techno sequences – alongside more restrained pads and bleeps. Despite lacking a screen, the clever layout and colour-coded buttons and controls make editing the oscillators, filter and four effects fairly intuitive. There’s also an arpeggiator, phrase recorder and assignable D-Beam controller for hands-free sound-shaping.
Access Virus TI2 POLAR
Price €2,441 Contact via website
The Virus sound has been with us for years and has indeed, as Access claims, ‘shaped the sound of music’. Whether you access this sound from within the Polar (shown), the Snow or even through the TC Electronic PowerCore you will instantly be blown away by the depth, sonic interest and ageless beauty of it. TI stands for ‘Total Integration’ – in that the synth can be used on its own or can act like a virtual instrument in your desktop environment. A great idea that hasn’t always worked 100% smoothly. Nevertheless, the Virus is a sure-fire classic, but don’t expect to find it discounted anywhere, such is its greatness…
DSI Mopho Keyboard
Price £645 Contact DSI +1 707 963 7006
The Mopho Keyboard is the much-needed progression from the Mopho desktop synth, which gave us a single lush voice from the Dave Smith Prophet ’08. It comes in an all-metal case with a 32-note, velocity-sensitive/aftertouch-enabled keyboard with two digitally controlled analogue oscillators, each of which has a sub-oscillator. There’s also a 4 x 16-step sequencer and an arpeggiator that can be comfortably edited to create fat-sounding synth patterns or complex, sweeping pads. The Mopho Keyboard is a superbly built, great-sounding and easy-to-use mono synth.