The Analogue Synth Setup – A Case Study

Analogue synths. They’ve been all the rage for a considerable amount of time now, with interruptions ever since the acid/techno era told us that Roland’s TB/TR things are a great thing to get. And today is a good day to get into this rage.

I happen to have, bit by bit, acquired a small but fun collection of my own in the past. So does it make sense to do something musically (and in the end, this is really what it’s about) with only them, and how should I proceed tech-wise?

Why even bother?

One thing I will not do is to go into this discussion – why we should use analogue synths at all. I will simply assume that it makes sense musically and go from there.

A Definition

An analogue synth here is defined as a synthesizer instrument where there’s no D/A conversion in the direct signal path to the output. The other way round, it however means that digital things outside of the signal path are very well acceptable: Digitally controlled oscillators (DCOs), MIDI (or even MIDI-over-USB) input, and of course digital sequencers (maybe within a DAW) are cool. Part 1 of this article will look at those synthesizers.

Can we really call this "analogue"?
Can we really call this “analogue”?

In a second step, it makes sense to look at the entire signal chain in the production – after all, if the absence of digital audio signals is the goal, it wouldn’t help to have fancy synths, only to run their output through a ton of digital processors. Therefore, we’ll be discussing the remainder of the signal chain up to the end product (whatever that means) in part 2.

Part 1: Synthesizers. Analogue Ones.

The Hybrid Conundrum

There’s some synths called “hybrid”, in the context of them being partly digital and partly analogue. The term, which dates back to the time when digital was more cool, was typically used for synths which had a digital oscillator and control section, combined with analogue filters (because back then, running those digitally would not have been affordable) – things like the E-mu Emulator II,  Korg DW-8000 or Ensoniq Mirage come to mind.

So can we use a hybrid synth in our analogue setup? Sticking closely to the definition above helps: if all things digital can be removed from the signal chain, then yes, otherwise, no.

Three contemporary examples (incidentally, all three from DSI):

  • Prophet-12 (marketed as a “hybrid digital/analog”): digital oscillators go through an analogue processing chain. So there’s always converters in the signal chain. Cannot be used (the same line of argument holds for the aforementioned vintage examples).
  • Tempest (marketed as “analog”): Two analogue and two digital oscillators, going through an analogue signal chain. It’s ok to use it, if we don’t use the digital oscillators.
  • Evolver (marketed as “analog/digital”): As with the tempest, two analogue and digital oscillators each. However, this goes through converters after the lowpass for some processing, hence it cannot be used. Pity.
DSI synth architecture comparison. Red = digital, green = analogue
DSI synth architecture comparison. Red = digital, green = analogue

So all in all: it depends.

Status Quo

I already mentioned that I’d include MIDIfied synths, and here I’m going one step further and will only list those which are MIDIfied.

The first one I got of those is the Oberheim Matrix-1000, already mentioned here as great bang for the buck. In a 1HU rack unit with mono output, you get six polyphonic voices, 1000 patches (200 of them user-programmable), unison-mode for stacking all twelve oscillators for “fat mode” – and of course the famed “Oberheim sound”. This works of course for super-big mono voices (and let’s not forget crazy effects), but more importantly for six voices of the same sound.

The Matrix-1000 in 12-oscillator unison mode.
The Matrix-1000 in 12-oscillator unison mode.

The next one chronologically in my setup was the Sequential Circuits Six-Track. Seemingly more focused in its design on the six-part multitimbrality and sequencer to go with it, the voices are simple one-oscillator designs. There’s big limitations in parts – maybe the biggest one is that the envelope values can only be adjusted in 16 steps. On the other hand, while it lacks in the “punchy basses and soaring leads” department that all synth manufacturers talk so much about, this one works well for soft pads and, interestingly, an almost chiptune-like sound.

Next up is the Arturia MiniBrute, the most “authentic” analogue synth in my collection. I already explained some of the details here, like the powerful single oscillator or the non-standard filter design. And the lack of pitch storage – total recall is not an option here. Sufficient to say, this is more of the standard “what analogue is good for” synth – basses, and leads.

The final addition just now was DSI’s Tetra. Now this is an interesting one: essentially, four Mophos lacking analogue ins. But in consequence, four polyphonic (and multitimbral) of the powerful mopho voices, going through four individual outputs. And like the Oberheim, it can do all of the fun stuff, including big, lush, and otherworldly sounds – only it sounds different. It can even do convincing percussion sounds!

In summary, this gives us a total of 17 polyphonic voices in up to twelve sounds at once. And definitely enough to get started. You can do the superimposed polyphony of lead and bass (e.g. with the MiniBrute and either the Oberheim or one part of the Tetra). You can do pads (Oberheim, Six-Track, and Tetra, if four voices are enough). And drums (Tetra). But if I want, say, two polyphonic parts at once, and drums, and bass and lead, I’m short one monophonic voice. So I could use either that, or a dedicated drum synth, as an extension.

Path Forward

There’s so much available regarding analogue monosynths even today (and let’s not forget the world of vintage) that this seems like a tough choice. However, I have secretly been lusting after the Waldorf Pulse for quite some time, and the release of the Pulse 2 hasn’t helped any. This offering essentially sums up what you want from a contemporary analogue mono synth. Great thing. I want one.

There’s only one alternative I might consider, and that’s either the Korg Volca Bass or Keys, simply because of the price. Three oscillators for a little over a hundred bucks – come on! This one costs about the same as three and a half Pulses. But then, I want one really cool voice, not three and a half not so cool ones.

For the drum synth options, the market is much more sparse (simply because most people seem to want samples when they think “drums”). There’s the Akai Rhythm Wolf and companions (which don’t seem that great), there’s of course the Korg Volca Beats (unbeatable price, but no individual outs), there is (or was) the MFB 522 (which for some reason has been discontinued), and it’s successor, the Tanzbär Light (more expensive), and of course the Tanzbär (nice, but kinda expensive), then the Elektron Analog Rytm (more expensive) and finally the aforementioned DSI Tempest (even more expensive).

I want those individual outs. But I’ve also seen people add those to a Volca Beats. So either that, or maybe a used MFB 522, or something else…I’m not sure. Maybe none of those.

Summary

I could start right away. And I could remove potential limitations with acceptable effort. That’s the good news!

Part 2: Thinking it through

So what happens to those analogue signals once they leave the synthesizers? We need a mixer. And outboard gear. And then the signal chain continues…

The Mixer

I have two analogue mixers relevant in this context, one of them also used until recently in the Nerdville context. The smaller one is a Mackie 1202 VLZ. Four mono and four stereo inputs, two aux sends, and a stereo plus Mackie’s signature Alt 3/4 bus. Graphic 3-band EQ on channels 1-4. The number of inputs may be too small.

The other one is a Behringer MX2642A, which I’m hugely in love with, and which has been removed from the MoinSound Studio setup with version 4. Eight mono and four stereo inputs, plus four aux returns. Six sends, four subgroups. Three-band with semiparametric mids plus lowcut on the mono channels, four-band graphical on the stereo ones. That will work.

Outboard Gear

I have quite some outboard gear. But not a lot of analogue stuff.

Let’s start with rackmount stuff. There’s a compressor/gate/limiter combo (Behringer Composer) with two channels, and there’s the Aphex Dominator II, however the latter is more of a 2-bus thingie than for individual channel/instrument treatment. Then there’s a PEQ-6 six-band mono EQ, but only one of them.

As for stompboxes, there’s an old Boss OD2 distortion pedal, and an Ibanez AW5 auto wah. As for hybrid things, there’s the Jomox T-Resonator two-channel filter (you can turn down the digital section, so that works).

And that’s it. Told you it wasn’t much.

Path Forward

So I’m definitely not going to get a lot of outboard gear for that specific application. I might try to borrow some stuff. And maybe get a fancy analogue stompbox or so.

What I have is essentially a mixer, a mono eq and a two-channel and a stereo compressor. I might need at least two compressors for the “drum section”, one for the bass voice and another stereo one for the 2-bus. Maybe I can work without the bass one by using a driven tube micpre. Or an actual bass amp. So maybe look for one channel of compression.

I always liked delays. Actually, I love delays. I might need one. Electro-Harmonix has a few cool ones. And others. Some of them are affordable.

Filter – I already have one. Same goes for distortion. If I need another one, I might ask my guitarist friends. Or build one myself – I already have a lot of fancy ideas with regard to that.

Modulation: I might want chorus. Also, there’s affordable analogue stompbox things.

And beyond…

So I know that by getting (whichever way) maybe a compressor, a delay and a chorus, I can have a fully analogue signal chain up to the output of the mixer. What happens next?

The audio goes into a computer, is converted into a file, and this is made available on bandcamp.

This doesn’t seem logical. Didn’t we just try to get anything non-analogue removed?

One possibility would be to take the mixer’s output (possibly refined by some mastering stuff) and record that on (analogue) tape, then make a vinyl master or else cassette (or reel to reel) copies of it.

First of all, vinyl does not seem realistic, because I don’t want to carry that financial burden (bound to turn into a loss).

What about cassettes? Now here’s an idea: all the time, we’ve been talking (well not talking, but thinking) about that great sound. So a copy is far worse than the original. Why don’t I record every cassette individually by running the entire stuff from the sequencer through the synths, all the while turning knobs? A truly individual recording. Would anybody be interested in this (yes, I’m asking you)? I need to think about this some more…

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