Audio / Buying Guide

How to Choose an Analog Synth that’s Right for You

Synthesizers appeal to a broad range of users, many of whom experience sheer delight with the sounds and symphonies they can create on a synth. Analog synthesizers are making something of a big comeback this year, and we'd like to take this opportunity to share information about the more outstanding models, and the people who love to create the tones and multitimbral tunes that these instruments are able to produce. In the course of this article, you will meet three different types of analog synth aficionados: the Desktop Beat Slinger, who straddles the lines between DJ, producer, and musician; the Seasoned Professional, or “Muso,” who is all about the keys: playing them and being surrounded by intimidating banks of them, on stage and in the studio; and the sound-exploring Mad Scientist, who prefers to design sounds from the ground up by patching together oscillators, filters, clocks, quantizers, random generators, and other more unusual devices.

2015: The Year of the Analog Synth

If this year’s NAMM and Musikmesse trade shows were any indicator, 2015 is set to be another big year for analog synthesizers. With heavyweights like Moog, Korg, Tom Oberheim, and Dave Smith all trotting out their latest re-creations of classic ’70s and ’80s instruments—Moog’s System 55, System 35, and Model 15 modular behemoths; Korg’s flawless remake of the ARP Odyssey; Oberheim’s updated Two Voice Pro; and Dave Smith’s Prophet 6, a modern-day take on the original polyphonic synth, the Prophet 5—it appears that significant numbers of musicians are following these manufacturers’ lead and dispensing with the all-singing, all-dancing virtual instruments and keyboard workstations of recent years. What they’re discovering in the process are the simple joys of sculpting sounds out of a pure analog signal path, unspoiled by nested menus and fancy GUIs.

What instruments like this lack in versatility they more than make up for in sound and hands-on interfacing. Certainly, every one of the classic synths mentioned above has its very own virtual equivalents, each with hundreds of presets that can be called up, ready to play, inside a DAW within seconds. But part of the magic of the original machines, and no doubt a factor in their vintage allure and inflated collector prices, is their sheer—for lack of a better word—“instrument-ness.” In a market flooded with cheap plastic boxes stuffed with little more than a DSP chip and a digital-to-analog converter, analog synths, with their discrete components and physical knobs and patch points, are like electrified mini ecosystems of voltage, current, and resistance. To the owners of these sound-making marvels, they can hold a pride of place in a studio or stage to match the likes of a vintage Neve mixing console or a 1950s Fender Telecaster.

With the current crop of analog synths, both vintage-inspired and modern, growing by the month, musicians now more than ever are truly spoilt for choice. Whether you’re after accurate re-creations of classic instruments, analog sound engines under precise digital control, or something entirely different altogether, this guide will help you uncover your inner synthesizer—so let’s start tweaking those knobs!

The Desktop Beat Slinger

The Desktop Beat Slinger is ubiquitous in the EDM, dubstep, house, and techno scenes. When they’re not raving or clubbing ’til the wee hours of the morning, they can be found hunkered down in their bedroom studios, crafting the perfect “wobble bass” or programming ear-perking rhythmic buildups and drops in programs like Ableton Live. Performers such as this straddle the lines between DJ, producer, and musician, meaning the traditional modes of keyboard performance are less important to them than crafting DJ-ready beats with tightly sequenced bass and melodic lines.

Multiple boxes synched to a master clock

To this end, Beat Slingers typically favor multiple, different tools, all under tight synchronization, to accomplish their musical visions. While full-size keyboards could certainly find a place in the studios of these techno maestros, you’re more likely to see compact desktop sound modules, some with built-in step sequencers featuring their very own quirks and limitations, all connected or daisy-chained to a common Master Clock. Among the most diminutive of these sound-generating boxes is the affordable Korg Volca series. Comprising an analog drum machine, monophonic bass synth, and polyphonic “keyboard,” together they form an excellent core of essential components for anyone new to synthesis. One of the key features of the Volcas is the ability to link them together via their sync in/out jacks, making it possible to run sequences on all three machines in perfect sync with each other. Add to this the ability to record real-time parameter changes while the sequencers are running, and it’s easy to develop complex, sonically evolving bass and lead lines, and even chord progressions.

While affordable desktop synths like the Volcas offer a great foundation for beginners or those looking to expand their systems with easy-to-integrate, simple-to-use tools, certain producers may long for something with more advanced sound synthesis engines, multitimbrality (ability to play more than one sound at time), expanded audio, MIDI and sync connections, or even interfacing possibilities with computer-based systems and software.

If a heritage in bread-and-butter analog synthesis is something that you’re after, consider a desktop module from Dave Smith Instruments. Founded by Dave Smith, the engineer-inventor responsible for the first polyphonic synth (the aforementioned Prophet 5), as well as the now-ubiquitous MIDI standard, the company specializes in machines that represent a pleasing hybrid of analog and digital technologies. Desktop units like the Evolver, Mopho, and Tetra all combine analog ICs, including the prized Curtis low pass filter, with digitally controlled oscillators, integrated step sequencers, and highly flexible modulation routing. What this adds up to is a sound that ranges from straight-ahead traditional subtractive synthesis to cross- and frequency-modulated madness rivaling the most complex modular systems.

A bridge between the analog and digital worlds

For those who are generally unconcerned with the vintage pedigree of their desktop machines, Swedish manufacturer Elektron—whose first-ever product just happened to utilize the 8-bit sound chip from a Commodore 64 computer—has designed a line of mysterious black boxes with a core foundation of analog sound synthesis under precise digital control.

Completing a trilogy of products that began with the Octatrack, a digital performance sampler, the Analog Four and Analog Rytm—Elektron’s purely analog 4-voice synth and 8-voice drum machine, respectively—are prized for their deep synthesis capabilities and performance-oriented controls, making them the ideal centerpiece for computer-free jamming and live performance. Featuring uniquely Elektron innovations such as Parameter Locks (per-step parameter changes) and Sound Locks (per-step sound changes), sequences created onboard and in real time can take on a life of their own with dramatic timbral shifts and morphs that can be as rigidly defined and precise or as chaotic and unexpected as you’d like.

And for desktop producers who desire an easy way to integrate all that analog goodness with their computers, Elektron has announced a forthcoming OS update for both the Analog Four and Rytm called Overbridge. What Overbridge promises is unprecedented in a hardware analog synth—and essentially transforms these unassuming black boxes into 24-bit, 96 kHz multi-channel audio interfaces. When they’re delivered later this year, the Analog boxes, via a USB connection, will be able to stream discrete audio from each of its voices (4 for the Analog Four, 8 for the Analog Rytm) directly to a DAW for recording or processing. This promises to work bi-directionally, as well, with any audio from a DAW able to be routed directly to the hardware units for processing with their own internal effects. Add to this a plug-in interface for the hardware units that enable the control of every synth parameter directly from a DAW, and you’ve got a serious tool for studio experimentation and recording.

The Seasoned Professional, aka “The Muso”

This type of synth user is all about the keys: playing them and being surrounded by intimidating banks of them, on stage and in the studio. These hep cats eat musical scales for breakfast and know their way around a chord inversion or two. Keys players in this category possess the chops to shred alongside the most seasoned session musicians and front people, and to that end require powerful, easy-to-gig rigs that’ll help them hold their own against flamboyant guitarists and ego-tripping lead vocalists.

Velocity and pressure-sensitive keybeds allow expression and nuanced play.

The analog-obsessed Muso will generally turn their nose up at virtual re-creations of vintage synths, or workstation keyboards providing sample-based approximations of the same. What they’re after is the genuine article, and are willing to stockpile two, three, or several different keyboards to get the vintage sounds they’re after. A typical Muso’s stage or studio rig may comprise a large 61-key polyphonic synth for chords and pad sounds, various smaller monophonic synths for bass and leads, and maybe a separate, more oddball or vintage piece for creating effects or percussive sounds.

First and foremost players versus programmers, Musos value the expressive possibilities of these instruments via the feel and playability of their keys. Most analog polysynths will have, at minimum, velocity-sensitive keys (striking a key harder plays the sound louder), but some, like Dave Smith’s flagship Prophet 12, feature the less common ability for channel aftertouch, allowing for even more expression and nuanced play. In fact, key players accustomed to electronic organs or pianos (such as the Hammond B3 and Fender Rhodes) may want to seek out a polysynth with a weighted or semi-weighted keyboard action to get the kind of resistance not found in the more “springy” key beds typical of cheaper poly- and monosynths. Nearly the entire Dave Smith Instruments lineup has you covered in this department.

"What instruments like this lack in versatility they more than make up for in sound and hands-on interfacing."

For many Musos, no synth rig would be complete without a monosynth from Moog, whose original Minimoog Model D popularized the use of synthesizers in rock, funk, and jazz, beginning in 1970. Prized for their “fat” sound, a result of stacking three individually tunable oscillators and sending the signal through what’s arguably the warmest-sounding 4-pole low pass filter in the business, the Minimoog’s distinctive bass and lead sounds have been a fixture in pop music for the past several decades. Once a relative rarity on the vintage market, the Minimoog has been retooled and rereleased by Moog as the Minimoog Voyager in a number of standard and deluxe iterations.

As wonderfully corpulent as Moogs are, a well-rounded synth rig can always benefit from contrasting sounds and textures. At the reedier end of the sonic spectrum, and a vintage classic in its own right, is the duophonic ARP Odyssey, a favorite of jazz-fusion musicians such as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and George Duke. Distinguished from the Minimoog not only by its ability to play two simultaneous notes, the Odyssey also features hard sync-able oscillators. This feature produces a sound that is aggressive and rich in harmonics while retaining a pleasing musicality, due to the distinct frequencies and timbres of the two oscillators being kept in phase with each other. Originally released during the ’70s and early-’80s in three different iterations, Korg has reissued the classic synth in its popular Mark 3 design. The retooled design is more compact at 86% the size of the original, and includes another interesting addition in that the filter designs of all three iterations (2-pole or 4-pole low pass with resonance characteristics ranging from smooth to sharp) can be selected with the flick of a switch.

Sound Explorer: The Mad Scientist

These somewhat eccentric types are more atypical in the world of synthesis—but their numbers appear to be growing! Intrepid tinkerers, tireless experimenters, these bold explorers of sound have little interest in presets and stock synth sounds, preferring instead to design sounds from the ground up by patching together oscillators, filters, clocks, quantizers, random generators, and other more unusual devices. The Sound Explorer’s sonic weapon of choice is more often than not the modular synthesizer, an instrument that’s been around since the earliest days of synthesis, and has recently enjoyed a surge of renewed interest from sound designers and experimental musicians.

Modulars, with their custom modules, allow ultimate flexiblity in constructing unique sounds.

Modulars differ from most synthesizers in several different ways. Most importantly, they offer no fixed signal path. This means that to create a sound, a signal path must first be determined by the user and the required modules must then be interconnected using patch cables. On the one hand, this makes modulars intimidating for novices; however, the flexibility this offers in creating a truly one-of-kind sound is unparalleled—and this, for true mad scientists of sound, is essential!

Another factor in modulars’ somewhat rarified reputation is expense, with even the most modest of systems starting in the thousands of dollars. To cite an example of the astronomical prices that some of these instruments command, Moog, no stranger to the modular world, has reissued three of its 5RU large-format modular systems (System 55, System 35, and Model 15) in limited quantities, with the smallest of the three starting at $10,000 and the largest topping out at $35,000!

"What they’re discovering in the process are the simple joys of sculpting sounds out of a pure analog signal path, unspoiled by nested menus and fancy GUIs."

While such deluxe, vintage re-creations are far out of reach of all but the most deep-pocketed enthusiasts, the popular Eurorack format offers an affordable entry point for budding modularists and other budget-minded musicians. Smaller in size than the aforementioned Moog 5RU format, Eurorack modules are 3RU in height and utilize 1/8" jacks (as opposed to Moog’s 1/4" jacks). Adding to Eurorack’s flexibility is the ability to customize a blank case of virtually any size with an assortment of modules from dozens of manufacturers, with functions ranging from bread-and-butter analog synthesis to the most esoteric sound manglers imaginable.

Just how far down the modular rabbit hole you’re willing to go is entirely a matter of personal preference and budget. And since individual taste dictates choice in modules and the ultimate goal of their use, no modular synthesist is likely to build a system that’s exactly like another’s—with some constructing systems for traditional subtractive synthesis, while others explore additive and FM models, and voltage-controlled effects processing, among just a few of the numerous possibilities.

While the Eurorack format has been around since 1995—dominated by German manufacturer Doepfer (the format’s inventor) and a handful of boutique module builders—recently the field has opened up to include many more independent companies, as well as established synth manufacturers such as Waldorf, Dave Smith Instruments, and Roland, with its own track record of modulars with the System 100 and 700 instruments.

Of all the new crop of Eurorack modules, Roland’s System-1m, a rack-friendly version of the company’s System-1 synth, appears to be the one that’s set to deliver the format to the masses. Designed around Roland’s intriguing “Plug Out” concept, which enables the hardware to load computer plug-in versions of classic hardware synths, such as the SH-101, SH2, and ProMars, the Eurorack-format version includes patch points to allow voltage control of various synth parameters from other Eurorack modules, while retaining a hard-wired signal path to enable its use without external modules.

While the System-1m is a digitally modeled synth that emulates analog circuitry, adding voltage control of its parameters brings it in line with the modular ethos, enabling it to be just one component in a highly customized setup—whether as sound generator, effector, or controller, the possibilities are left to the user’s own imagination.

And that interesting twist serves to illustrate the emerging paradox of digital technology meant to mimic analog synthesis coexisting with analog technology that sounds nothing like traditional analog. This hybrid of methods spells truly interesting times ahead for musicians to get the best of both worlds while rediscovering a more hands-on approach to sound synthesis.