Getting a kinda-analogue synth which doesn’t break the bank

The idea for this post manifested during a short twitter discussion with Tom Emmons aka @napadude, during which we talked about analogue synths to expand the possibilities of his bread-and-butter Roland SH-201. Of course, @fripptastic chimed in and screamed “Moog Little Phatty”, after which Tom mentioned he was looking for something more affordable.

Ok, that’s the question: synths which are a) analogue to a certain degree (more on that later), b) interesting (i.e. not bread-and-butter), c) affordable (we will define what that means in a second) and finally d) about which I can say something because I have them (or at least used to have them).

Starting off with a), I decided to not only include purely analogue synths here, but also hybrids and even virtual analogues. While the inclusion of VA synths will most probably trigger a “heresy” shout from many purists, I decided to include them anyway. C) is an interesting question – I decided to consider a second-hand value up to about €300 to be affordable – mainly because there’s not that many synths fulfilling the other categories much below that.

(That value is computed based on current ebay prices in Germany – YMMV, especially in other regions).

Putting all those conditions togehter, we end up with three contestants: Enter the Oberheim Matrix-1000, the DSI Evolver (Desktop) and the Clavia Nord MicroModular.

Three different musketeers

First of all, all three contestants fulfil condition c): with ebay prices (in Germany) going slightly above €300 for the Nord, this is the most expensive, with the DSI coming second with prices in the €250-300 range (also depending on the hardware version, see below for details). The Oberheim is the cheapest of the pack, with prices sometimes below €200.

Interestingly, the “degree of true analogue content” as for condition a) is exactly in the same order. With the Nord being virtual analogue (meaning: DSPs and converters), the DSI is a hybrid, combining two analogue and digital oscillators each, an analogue lowpass filter and amplifier and a digital effects section. Finally, the cheapest of the pack, the Oberheim, is purely and truly analogue, although it’s a digitally controlled analogue, which has the nice by-effect that it stays in tune even if it hasn’t been warming up for more than half an hour.

As for the package, the uniting element is a numeric oldskool red LED display which all three contestants sport. Both the Nord and the DSI come in a desktop case with some knobs on the top, and each sport a stereo pair of inputs and outputs. The Oberheim, true to the style of its time (this synth is from the Eighties! True vintage!), is a 1HU rack case, which on the front panel has a few buttons, a volume knob, power switch, and on the back only one output (it’s mono! True vintage!)

As for polyphony, the DSI is the truest oldskool cat by being monophonic. The Matrix-1000 offers six voices of true analogue polyphony, actually stunning considering the price tag. And the Nord? It’s not so easy to say…as it’s a virtual modular synthesizer, meaning polyphony is directly based on the complexity of a patch, and can range from zero (for effects-only patches) to more than eight, albeit that only in theory. It’s safe to say that typical patches will have one or two voices, sometimes for more simple and optimized designs extending to three or even four. It’s also worth noting that none of the synths is multi-timbral – although the Nord can be tricked into behaving “as if”.

So, the contestants have been introduced – let’s see how they look in detail!

The Real Deal: Oberheim Matrix-1000

Oberheim Matrix-1000

The Oberheim is by far the oldest of the three. Being released back in 1987, it was the youngest (and also most simple, and least expensive) of Oberheim’s Matrix series, which also included the Matrix-6/6R, Matrix-12 and Xpander. It sports a fully-analogue architecture (albeit digitally-controlled with DCOs) including two oscillators, a 24dB LPF, dual (serial) VCAs, three multimode envelopes, 2 LFOs and two ramp generators. You can also sync the DCOs, as well as use them to frequency-modulate the VCF.

I already mentioned that it’s a 1HU package with a (3-digit) LED and a few buttons. So how do you edit sounds here, you might ask? The simple answer is “you don’t”: the main selling pitch for the Matrix-1000 (and the reason it was considerably cheaper than the Matrix-6R, which has an identical voice architecture) was that while it offers 1000 presets (hence the name), you can’t edit those patches – at least not on the synth itself.

Of course, using a MIDI editor (and if you don’t already own a MIDI librarian/editor, you can get an editor for cheap or free) works around this limitation, and so if you have a computer with a MIDI interface (and who hasn’t?), you get full editing acces to a complex six-voice analogue synth for below €200 (and to 200 of its 1000 patches, the others are read-only, sorry)!

So how complex is it? The main innovation with the Matrix series was the complex modulation possibilities (the name-giving matrix), which allows you to modulate everything with anything (or nearly that).

And so, all theory aside, how does it sound? How does it feel? First, it’s worth mentioning that you really get what you pay for, which means a cost-optimized eighties synth, which means that with 1000 patches, trying to remember what patch 652 is is…not very user-friendly. But essentially, this thing is meant to be integrated with a DAW (which knows all the ROM patch names) and used with a computer-based editor (you can also use an Access Matrix Programmer, if you happen to find one). And so, it’s really “what do you expect”: you get Oberheim and true analogue, and you expect warm string pads, throbbin bass lines, soft leads – and you get all of this, and then some. And by “and then some”, I mean that due to the complex modulation matrix, this synth is very well capable of some sounds you wouldn’t usually associate with a vintage analogue synth. You can even stack all six of its voices, to get it to do “superfat”.

All in all, this is your chance to get full-fledged analogue, and that for a truly competitive price. Yes, you need a computer to edit patches, and you also need a booklet of patch names to just browse presets, but that’s well worth it, simply because with this, you get a true analogue from a truly classic company, and with an achitecture based on one of those wet-dream-synths, the Matrix-12.

A New Breed with Honored Genes: DSI Evolver

DSI Evolver

A fairly recent addition to the synth world, DSI is only “new” at first sight: Dave Smith Instruments is really the company of the Dave Smith, the guy who brought you things like the Prophet line of synthesizers, and had a very influential role in the definition of MIDI.

Decades later, he’s back, and he’s doing analogue and hybrid synthesizers, the Evolver being one of the latter.

Housed in a blue desktop case with eight knobs, three-digit LED display, lots of buttons and LEDs and a spreadsheet with parameter names in the center, it does of course include connectors for power supply, the “MIDI Trio”, and stereo audio ins and outs. Yes, we got inputs as well, because everyone likes to use his oldskool synth on any audio input.

A sidenode: there are three different versions of the (desktop) Evolver, V1 to V3. While V1 can be updated to V2 via MIDI software update, V3 requires change of a NVM chip. Which means you should try to get a V3 one, as this offers addtional options, mainly for the modulation feature set.

This synth is monophonic, but that single voice is not to be underrated: there’s four oscillators (two analogue ones and two digital ones), a stereo 24dB LPF and VCA, and the effects working in the digital domain. As for the oscillators: the digital oscillators are wavetable oscillators sporting the original Prophet VS waves, which even allow you to edit your own waves via MIDI editor, and they can FM each other or be sent through a ring modulator. As for effects, we get a three-tap stereo delay, HPF, distortion and “hack” on the inputs and outputs (which is, essentially, more distortion).

As with the Oberheim, one of the key concepts behind the Evolver is complex modulation possibilities: to allow for that, we get 4 LFOs, 4 envelopes, plus four 16-step sequencers.

Editing of the total of 512 patches is done via an editing matrix: by selecting different rows with pusbuttons for either sound parameters or sequencer steps, you then use the eight knobs to adjust parameters. To get more parameters onto the front panel, there’s also a shift button.

This is, I must admit, not the most performance-oriented way of doing so, mainly because you lack the possibility to assign your personal set of eight parameters to the knobs, so if in a performance you want to adjust filter frequency and oscillator shape alternatingly, it’s always push button, turn one knob, push another button, turn another knob. Still, with the limited space available and considering the price tag, there’s hardly a better way.

Another thing which I don’t like (or rather leaves me baffled) is that, given that we have two analogue oscillators, inputs, an analogue LPF and analogue VCAs, why isn’t there a possibility to “shortcut” the synth so it can also work with a purely analogue signal flow? The way it’s made, you always go through a series of A/D and D/A, even if you don’t use any of the digital components.

Apart from that: this synth is huge fun! Building wavesequences, screaming distorted filters, odd noises, audio signal processing, analogue leads and basses – you get everything analogue is famous for, plus some wavetable stuff. And, given the complexity of this beast, it’s rather intuitive!

All in all, this synth (which also comes with big recommendation from @twoquietsuns) may really be the thing to get, if you want a truly flexible synth with a truly analogue sound if you ask it for that, which can also process audio and if you can accept it being monophonic (which, for basses, leads or odd effects, you most probably can).

Virtual Modular: Clavia Nord MicroModular

Clavia Nord MicroModular

Clavia is a company which doesn’t have any true analogue history. During the mid-nineties, they jumped onto the virtual analogue bandwagon, and while for most of the time, their Nord Lead virtual analogue synth was their most successful (if somewhat boring) product, they had by end of the 90s release a true gem: the Nord Modular. The idea: take a typical virtual analogue synth hardware (meaning: DSPs, converters, analogue ins/outs and some knobs), put some software on the DSPs which allows it to run something like a virtual modular analogue synth, and add a computer editor to build your modular patches.

Following the Nord Modular keyboard and rack versions (which are well above our price range, and today still fetch prices over €750), they decided to do something for the poor musician: reducing the number of DSPs from 4 to 1, omit the DSP expansion option, scratch the rotary encoders with displays and lots of buttons, replace that with a total of four pots (one for volume) and three buttons, put that in a desktop case and voilá, you get the Micromodular, which right now can be had around €300 (which makes it the most expensive of our contestors, only barely fitting into the range).

First of all, the editor application – which is available for Win and Mac, but not for Linux, requires a dedicated pair of MIDI connectors to the computer, Then – and this is the most important thing about this synth in my opinion – this editor is simply stellar. You get an editor which intuitively and playfully allows you to build your modular setup and listen to it in realtime while you build it. As for the available building blocks, there’s mostly everything available you might find in your analogue toolbox and then some – including several effects (but no pitchshift or reverb) and lots of sequencer/logic processing stuff.

Nord Modular Editor - showing a "Ring Modulator Sequencer" patch
Nord Modular Editor – showing a “Ring Modulator Sequencer” patch

From all the synths we’re looking at here, this is obviously the most flexible – and that by a big margin. How many oscillators per voice? Can it do FM? How many stages on the envelope? The answer is always the same – you decide, with every patch you design.

The knobs in your patches can be assigned both to the three pots and one button on the Micromodular, and to MIDI CCs a well. Using the so-called morph groups, you can put together several parameters on one MIDI CC or knob and even scale them differently – nice.

I already talked about polyphony before – it’s typically equal or a little greater than one. Or, you don’t have a single voice and use the thing as an effects processor and nothing else – it works great for that! And it sounds what we tend to call “almost analogue” (and high-quality as well – 96kHz sampling was already standard back then). There’s even different low-pass filters available.

There’s also things lacking in the module world. I already mentioned the lack of pitch-shift and reverb (which you can try and make for yourself). You can’t work with samples or wavetables. And the available delay time is miniscule (unless you run tricks to downsample the delays, you really can only use it to build a cheap pitchshifter or similar things).

Another question is that of the price-performance ratio in comparison to its bigger brethren: while they are still more than twice as expensive, with them you not only get four times as much processing power, but also a user interface which is more comfortable. But that is not the question here, with the cost limit condition we had defined before.

All in all, this synth really shines due to its huge flexibility, but caused by that, misses out on “character” – that effect that you listen to a sound and immediately can identify the synth, something which is very well possible with the Evolver and to a lesser degree also with the Matrix.

Final Showdown – which to choose?

As usual – it depends. On one side, you got the Matrix-1000 as the perfect analogue synth for “standard” sounds (and then some). It’s the only real analogue synth in this comparison, and let’s not forget it is also the cheapest by a considerable amount. The 1000 factory patches are bound to keep you busy for some time, but if you want to do some editing of your own, you’re bound to get an editor somewhere. And finally, its six voices of polyphony will not only work for bass and lead lines, but also for typical synth pad parts.

The DSI, is by far the most “playable”, and that simply because you can edit sounds on the fly while playing the synth, and without any computer connection. Interestingly, due to its characteristic digital waveshape oscillators, it sounds the most digital of the three (unless you don’t use the digital oscillators – you’ll still have two analogue oscillators). The four step sequencers allow for endless hours of fun – using them to play pitch sequences, or make very lively sounds. This is, of the three, the most characteristic one.

The Nord, finally, is the most flexible of the bunch (of course, with its modular architecture). I have in the past already raved a lot about this synth, and also its successor, the G2. Lacking a personality of its own, it gets its personality from your tricky patches – and you’ll do a lot of them, because the computer editor is really a joy to work with. However, with all the things you like about it, you’d usually still want the “proper” version (meaning not the “micro”), which, although not fitting into our price margin, do offer a better price/performance ratio.

So, in summary:

  • if you want classic analogue sound and/or polyphony, get the Oberheim,
  • if you want a synth with a (twisted) personality, or if sound editing on the device is desired, get the DSI,
  • if you’re the deep “from scratch” patch editor and value flexibility over everything else, get the Nord.

And finally, if you have the coin, why not get all three? But then, the question arises if for the total cost of around €700, you couldn’t get something better ;).

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