Which Synth to get?

This is a rather self-centered post. I’m looking which synth to get. Potentially. So this is not an overview of the market, or something targeted at some specific application scenario – other than my personal one.

Note that this post will be in two parts. For the (happy?) ending, you’ll have to wait a little.

Where is that center?

I have a lot of synths, some old, some new, some I have stored away, some I use regularly. Apart from “I rather get something I don’t have already”, real estate is an important factor: I have 3 HU of rack space to spare (not that this is of any relevance here), and could make place on up to two tiers on keyboard stands – meaning two five- (or small six-) octave synth keyboards, one keyboard, a small one and a groovebox or anything in that size.

Ground Rules

I’ll only consider synths that are available new right now. Nothing we might get somewhere in the future, and nothing that’s out of production, either. I might include offerings with a clearly defined delivery date (i.e. series production has started and it’s a matter of weeks until we can get them).

After some careful thinking, I decided to not group them by product categories, rather by manufacturers. The reason? First of all, I’m not looking to get something from a specific category. Furthermore, it appears that there’s more uniting elements to be found within the product line of, say, Yamaha, than there is among all the available workstations, to give but two examples.

There is an area where group of manufacturers and device category match, and that is in the modular area. Those small companies keep among themselves.

Note: I will refer to some findings documented in my old What does a Synthesizer cost? article. You might want to briefly browse this if you wonder where I got some of the blatant statements in this text from.

General Observations

Things with “analogue” are still going strong, be it actual, full-blown analogue, virtual analogue or some kind of hybrid. In the purely analogue category, there’s Moog doing “nothing but”, and there’s a few offerings by Sequential (formerly known as DSI formerly known as SCI) and Korg as well. The virtual analogue thing is going strong for Roland, and there’s still Clavia, albeit we’re missing some novel additions (they are more moving into the stage piano area it seems). Among the hybrids, there’s “all analogue plus optional digital effects” to “all digital with analogue filters”, and everything in between, with products as diverse as Behringer’s DeepMind (analogue + digital FX), Korg’s Prologue (analogue + optional digital oscillators) to DSI’s Prophet X/XL  and Waldorf’s Quantum (digital + analogue filters).

So what would be the sensible step after “virtual analogue”? It’s “virtual digital” it seems: taking synths that replicate the behavior of vintage digital gear. There’s Korg’s Volca FM, Roland’s D05 and, less targeted at a specific synth, Elektron’s Digitakt.

There’s not that much that is entirely new, rather it’s combining and maybe quantitatively boosting trusted recipes. You have Yamaha’s Montage flagship, which in the end combines an FS1R-style FM engine with a contemporary sample-based engine. For the Korg Kronos workstation, tons of different trusted synthesis algorithms are combined, some doing nothing more than replicating old gear (e.g. the MS20).

As for new players in the field: both Arturia and Elektron have been playing the field for some time now, and successfully so. Arturia is also targeting the super-hip Eurorack field, without actually providing any modules, just synths that allow for interfacing and rack cases. The latest addition however is Behringer, and it seems they are going to do a lot: in addition to their list of current and planned clone synths, they have two of their original designs with the DeepMind and Neutron – most probably with more to come.

The Big Three

The title of this section refers to the big Japanese companies: Korg, Roland, Yamaha (the order chosen to be alphabetical).

Korg remain unchanged in offering a big choice of stuff: From 4000k workstations to modules priced below 50 bucks, small and medium-large drum machines, virtual everything and true analogue, faithful recreations of gems from days gone by…you get the idea.

While I like both the idea behind the and the actual Prologue, it’s not for me (at least at this time): the Prologue takes the “Logue” family one step further each in size, prize and feature set, and gives us an eight- or 16-voice analog hybrid polysynth.

With that, right at the beginning, we get some kind of a recommendation. This is a full-sized (as in five-octave keyboard), flexible, powerful and great-sounding synth for your synth playing duties. I say “playing” to point out that as a bread and butter HW synth in a heavily sequenced setup it wouldn’t work – it’s bi-timbral only. Available with up to 16 voices and priced at ca. 1k5 for the big version – this one’s a winner (though not for me. At least I think that).

With such a flagship in the range, it’s easy to overlook the smaller ones: Minilogue (4-voice poly analogue), Minilogue xD (same with added digital oscillators) and Monologue (analogue mono). I already said why I like the Minilogue, and among those three, I’d still pick it: it’s still the most interesting small formfactor, small price analogue polysynth.

Speaking of analogue, we still have the Volca range of Beat, Bass, Keys, Kick and now Bass NuTube (kind of a Volca Bass with a hardware tube emulation). There’s the FM for “virtual digital”, the sample, and the Modular as Korg’s first step into modular stuff since the semi-modular MS synths (and it’s MS20mini recreation). The Volca Modular is another nice thing, simply because of its west-coast flavour. And while it’s not designed to fully integrate with an existing Eurorack setup, the possibilities are there.

So the Prologue is not the “bread and butter” solution, but Korg has this base covered with a multitude of synths, and it’s often hard to exactly understand which one you need. There’s the Kronos, Kronos Platinum, Kronos LE, Kronos LS, Krome, Krome EX, Kross, KingKORG and Triton Taktile. That’s a lot of synths.

So I don’t need a(nother) bead-and-butter synth or powerful VA synth, but I might need a powerful workstation to replace my aging Kurzweil K2600XS. Is one of the Korg offerings for me?

The video above does not so much show off the sonic capabilites, but how Korg presents it shows that it may not be for me: this thing is obviously focusing on delivering complete tracks out of the box, rather than offering an all-capable synth. Perhaps the thing I have really trouble with is the fact that it has nine different synth engines. For a big, powerful synth, I want to have one big, powerful engine. Such as in the Kurzweil (ok, it has two) or in Kontakt, or in HALion (ok, that one has four. This really seems to be a problem). Let’s say you want a cutting, analogue-style lead. Would you, on the Kronos, use the HD-1, MS-20EX, PolysixEX, AL-1 or MOD-7 engine? I don’t know. I don’t want to know.

Still, it’s a powerful workstation, but…maybe I’ll wait for the next generation.

Would I want a MS20mini or Odyssey recreation of old things? Most probably not. I have a pretty nice MS20 clone (as part of the Legacy Edition VSTs by Korg), and there might be a cheaper Odyssey clone on the horizon if I really would need that (which I don’t think I will. I’d rather have a 2600).

Roland. I have to humbly admit that I gave them too little credit until I took the time to try and find what they have. And that’s a lot. It’s also not so easy because from their product strategy, they sometimes place products seemingly arbitrarily into the synth or DJ category (because the latter also contains everything under the AIRA umbrella).

Within the synth category in the widest sense, they do not only offer the usual: Roland is right now seemingly the biggest and most advanced maker of guitar synth solutions, electronic wind instruments, advanced electronic drums (including their synthesis part), and the only normal synth maker with modular (in their case: Eurorack) components. Called “System-500”, it’s a recreation of old System-100M components in Eurorack format. For me personally, there’s nothing in that series that I’d really need…but that might very well be different for people looking for that specific sound.

It’s only obvious that their milking their EDM legacy with the TR-8(S) and TB-3 – both not the least bit analogue, though. What’s more, they built an ecosystem around those that includes the MX-1 mixer, which in turn can interface via USB with the Boutique series synths.

The Boutique are small and cheap (digital) recreations of past successes by Roland. The series includes (among others) digital clones of Jupiter, Juno, JX-3, SH-101 and D-50. Yes, a digital clone of a digital synth. And not surprisingly 808, 909 and 303 clones. There’s also an analogue synth with the SE-02.

As if that wasn’t enough, there’s still the System-1 and System-8, called “plug-out synthesizers”, which allow you to run different VA models of old Roland synths. And differently to the Boutique series, the System-8 is also a decent keyboard synth with lots of knobs and a form factor where you’ll immediately know where to put it.

Moving to the workstation area, there’s the FAs (obviously successors to the Fantom) which appear bland and boring to me. Then there’s a newer series named Juno-DS. This one is called a “performance workstation” and as such somehow moves into the territory of entertainer keyboards – and as such is of no interest to me.

With all these products, it’s easy to overlook what is to me the most (or really only) interesting thing, and that is one of their JD synths, the JD-XA.

What makes this so special? Roland has combined a somewhat bread-and-butter digital synth with an analogue polysynth, the usual (performance) workstation additions of sequencer and effects, and packed this into a keyboard synth with lots of sliders and knobs. And it sounds fine! The price point puts it into the same territory as the (big) Prologue, and compared to that it lacks in analogue voices (4 vs. 16), but makes up for it with a workstation-y surrounding (including 64 digital voices) – and it’s eight-part multitimbral. Added are two pairs of CV/gate, so you can also take care of your Eurorack needs, and with that, I could very well see this as the centre of an EDM-style performance setup, together maybe with a lead synth, drum machine and a small modular setup. All in all: the JD-XA is a truly interesting synth.

Finally Yamaha. Some people might say they appear to be caught up in the past, or in the year 1983 to be precise: in 2019, their biggest synths (workstation and alike) rely heavily on FM synthesis. Yes, it’s a very powerful and flexible implementation, but no, it’s not that much more powerful than 1998’s FS1R (which I happen to have). So there’s the Montage and the MODX, both of which use a combination of FM and sample playback (or AWM2 in Yamaha’s wording), and then there’s the MOXF and MX keyboards and Motif Rack which use AWM2 exclusively. Not that interesting.

Both the Montage and MODX are often filed by music stores under “workstation”, while Yamaha prefer the category “synthesizer”. And with that are in line with Chrissie Caulfield, with in her (very positive) thoughts about the Montage states that “the Montage is not a workstation keyboard”. With that out of the way, I’d put it in that “performance workstation” category, i.e. a synth that is targeted to be played, maybe in front of an audience, and in that context can do a lot.

Rather than linking to yet another bland review, let’s see the thing in action under the auspices of the very Chrissie Caulfield (having the nice side-effect that we’re going to see and hear a lot of other synths as well).

However, if I wanted to retire the Kurz, this wouldn’t be the right thing to succeed it, and do I need a performance workstation? Maybe not. So while with their specific DNA the Montage and MODX are interesting as performance workstations, they are not so much for.

The second half of Yamaha’s product lineup is them finally getting into “virtual anything”, calling it “reface“.

There’s a total of four products, called CS (analogue-style), FM (FM, obviously), CP (stage piano) and YC (electronic drawbar organ). They all share three octaves of mini-keys, battery power and built-in speaker, and go for a little over 300 bucks. More expensive than (but equally mobile as) a Volca, same ballpark as a boutique.

The CS is a straightforward one-oscillator affair, but offers a surprisingly flexible and powerful sound. There’s no big surprises for the FM – maybe only that is only offers four operators per voice, making it essentially on par with Yamaha’s weakest DX spinoff ever, the FB01. But can you get nice sounds with only four operators? You can.

The idea of this product line loses some of its sensibility for the CP and a lesser degree for the YC. A 128-voice electric piano with three octaves? Are Yamaha expecting us to use this together with one of our large keyboards (even though the sounds are good)? All in all, I leave it to you to decide if those things with their “take it anywhere” approach combined with a very specific sonic spectrum do it for you, or if you’d rather have something else.

Generation VA and Post-VA

Next up is a generation of companies that have appeared during the area of VA or afterwards, and also share the property that they are all European: Arturia, Clavia, Elektron and Waldorf. Actually, the first statement is not completely true, as Waldorf formed from the remnants of none other than PPG (but they weren’t anything analogue to begin with).

Arturia had started with plugin recreations of vintage analogue synths (read: VA), and then moved into (mostly mono-) synths that were analogue. Minibrute, Microbrute (each in two versions), Matrixbrute, Minibrute 2, Drumbrute, Drumbrute Impact and as the latest addition the Microfreak (not analogue – seems “analogue=brute” in Arturia’s mindset). Their first Minibrute already offered some Eurorack-style CV/gate connectivity, and today, they offer the Minibrute 2 as a true semi-modular, with Eurorack cases in a fitting form factor to go along.

The MatrixBrute is (like its siblings) analogue monosynth glory – and a big (physically and from the possibilities) amount of glory it is. Having said that, I’d rather have a modular synth than a really big and expensive monosynth – think reuse of components.

The Minibrute 2 is a great monosynth, and the semi-modular capabilities here do not hurt at all. For me however, it doesn’t give me enough difference to justify getting it in addition to my first-generation Minibrute.

Let’s not forget that their Eurorack case (dubbed “Rackbrute”) allows you to mount a Minibrute 2 and a rackcase together and transport them in a patched fashion. So although the artist here doesn’t use the Rackbrute case, this is what you could just set up, then grab the handle and carry to the gig.

As for the Drumbrutes, I don’t need another drum machine, and so haven’t really looked at them in depth. And finally for the Microfreak, I can’t really see why I wouldn’t rather get some wicked Volca instead.

Clavia is a (and maybe even the) synth maker most famous for VA . Among their many products were the fantastic Modular and Modular G2, and many generations and variants of their Nord Lead.

Everything is still digitally generated sound for them, but they’re no longer focused on synths: looking at their product lineup, you find in “models of electric keyboards” four stage pianos and an organ, as opposed to a drum synth and a meager two keyboard synths.

I have yet to find a true innovation in either the Lead 4 or Lead A1, so my interest in those is really limited at best. Sadly, they didn’t follow through with the much-wanted (by me) option to use samples in a VA context, something they had in the (discontinued) Nord Wave.

As I’m not interested in stage pianos today, that only leaves the Drum 3P, a drum pad with synth. While it is a fitting synth design for a drum synth, it’s also not something out of the ordinary. Meaning I won’t treat it (and with that, Clavia) any further.

Staying in the geographic vicinity, we land at Elektron. The first thing I noticed from them was the Octatrack, a sample-oriented groove workstation, which for that reason is not of interest here. Since then, they’ve been launching some analogue things (Analog Rytm – drum machine and Analog Four – analogue polysynth), which are now available in their second generation.

The big thing seems to be “everything digital”, the digitakt (FM-based drum machine), digitone (FM-based synth module and keyboard) and model:samples (sample-based drum machine).

As analogue drum machines go, I discovered some time ago that the Elektron Analog Rytm is the best thing there is, and that hasn’t changed. So if you’re in the market for something like this, get it (but I won’t because I already did). For a four-voice polysynth, there’s more desirable competitors, also considering the Analog Four’s price point of above 1k – we’ve talked about some, and will talk about a few more.

Which leaves the digital fraction: following the virtual digital trend (and among that, the FM trend), we have to products which are four-operator (read: weaker than 1983) FM synths, and one sample-based one. For all of them: I don’t need another FM synth, I got a FS1R.

Which has the Model:Samples as the only remaining device as a sample-based drum machine. Do I need this? There’s the Korg Electribe competition, and there’s something else coming up in a few chapters, so…no.

Which leaves us with the final contestant in this group: Waldorf. You might say I’m somewhat impartial here because I already stated that their age-old Q is the best synth in the world, but hear me out on this: this may no longer be the case, because Waldorf has something new.

The Quantum is a big one. Let’s just assume somebody took the Q+ and added samples, more wavetables, granular stuff, and a bigger display, but put in a weaker keyboard (no release velocity, no poly aftertouch). That’s the Quantum in a nutshell. Having samples in an architecture similar to the Q is really a dream come true for me, however, there’s also a few downsides. First, a few features were trimmed: next to the keyboard-specific ones, there’s fewer connectors, fewer parts (only two as opposed to 16) and fewer voices (eight as opposed to 16/32). I don’t know if Waldorf have made the right choice here with regard to the limited multitimbrality. Hell, my DSI Tetr4 (four-voice fully analaogue) has no less than four, which is twice as much as the Quantum, but cost only about one-tenth of it (albeit used)? Ah, speaking of prices, the around 4k price tag puts it definitely in the upper range of the products considered here.

But let’s look at it for a moment:

This thing really leaves me torn…on one hand, it’s a great evolution of a fantastic synth, with a lot of new synthesis options. On the other hand, a lot of features were left out, and let’s not forget it’s one of the most expensive synths today. Like, if I got a Roland JD-XA, a Korg Prologue and another really big thing we’ll talk about two chapters later, I’d still have some money left compared to the Quantum.

In the end, it’s really a question of the price. It does offer great sonic capabilities, great editing, and good playabaility.  And yes, it sound truly impressive and inspiring. If it’s really worth that money…I’m not really sure.

There is, however, more from Waldorf. Starting with the small things, there’s the Streichfett (eight-voice string-synth inspired thing) and Rocket (monosynth with powerful oscillator and analogue filter), Pulse 2, a cool analogue monosynth I’d get if I didn’t have it already, the somewhat odd STVC (string synth with 256-band vocoder), and there’s still the Blofeld.

With the Pulse 2 already taken care of, the only thing really of interest to me here is the Blofeld. This one is (also) something like ingredients from the Q, spiced up with all Microwave wavetables – and a sample option. Also, around 440 bucks, it’s affordable, at least compared to the Quantum.

Wrapping this chapter up, let’s note that Waldorf has also jumped onto the Eurorack train. They offer five different modules, among them the nw1 wavetable oscillator, and maybe best of all the kb37 – a decent three-octave keyboard with 107TE of Eurorack space on top. Now this is cool for a compact solution…

We’re done with Japanese and European synths, at least with most of them. For the resurrected US players, for a look at the Eurorack Elephant in the room, and for a visit to those that didn’t fit any other category, wait for Part 2. Hopefully with a somewhat sensible conclusion.

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