On my quest to find which (if any) synthesizer to get, we already looked at the shape of the market in general, as well as what the Japanese “Big Three” and the European “Post-VA” generation have to offer.
Today, we’ll be looking at the remainder of the market, and try to reach a conclusion of sorts.
The Phoenix Group
Waldorf used that name for their reissue of the mighty Q, which somehow was resurrected from fire. I’m going to use it for the two big US names that have, for a few years now, been active under their original name.
Moog. Everybody knows what the name stands for. And today’s company remains true to its roots. Among the companies we’re having a look at, this is the only one that does analogue and nothing else.
Following a period where they mostly had overpriced Minimoog updates and trimmed-down versions of those, we now see a generation two of their product line: there’s monophonic keyboard synths (Model D, Sub Phatty, Subsequent 37, Grandmother, Matriarch, the last two being semi-modular), there’s monosynth modules (Werkstatt-01, Sirin, Minitaur), there’s semimodular voice modules (Mother-32, DFAM) and, for the biggest uproar in the synth community so far, a proper analogue polysynth with the Moog name on it: The Moog One with eight or sixteen voices in three timbres.
What is truly nice about this one is that it doesn’t appear to be something made so you also have a polysynth: it’s a very powerful synth with eight or sixteen voices each of which would be equally desirable as a monosynth. Three triangle core oscillators. Two filters. Three DAHDSR envelopes. This is an impressive synth that is also nice to play and program.
It’s also expensive. Hideously expensive. 6k7 for the eight-voice vs. 8k7 for the 16-voice variants is by any contemporary synth standards a lot.
I cannot see myself spending that money on a synth right now. There’s so much else I can spend it on. Maybe I’m not professional enough. Or it’s too expensive. Most probably a little bit of both.
With the remainder of the product lineup, it’s a little bit of the same for me: I’m not that big of a fan of “that Moog sound”, and with that in mind, most of their offerings are not interesting enough to justify the price tag (the DFAM being somewhat of an exception, but I already have that). So in the end, I’d rather get the Behringer clone than the Model D (but will get neither one), don’t see a reason to get a Sub, and for the semi-modulars, I’m sure I’d have more fun with a Waldorf kb37 and a bunch of hand-picked modules.
The other company we’ll be looking at also had been looking at several name changes since it was reestablished: Dave Smith Instruments now proudly uses its name of old, Sequential, and with that, most of their offerings have old names (most of the time that name being “Prophet”).
There’s one thing I love about this company, and that is that they have a handy Synth Comparison Chart. That way, you quickly get an overview, like that every synth has analogue filters, the Mopho x4 looks closely related to the Prophet line, and the Tempest isn’t in the chart.
I don’t need a Tempest, because I already have the analogue drum synth I chose back then also over the Tempest. And I don’t need a Mopho x4, because my Tetr4 can do pretty much what I’d want from one.
That still leaves seven synths, all but one being polysynths. Would I need another one? After all, I do already have four analogue polys, two of them coming from Dave Smith…
In the end, none of these synths was really able to “touch” me – with the exception of the Pro 2. Now I need an analogue monosynth even less, and it’s not even truly analogue, but…
A great synth. Then again, 1700 quid for a digital monosynth with analogue filters – most probably money I’d rather spend on Eurorack modules…
Let’s stick with the alphabetical order and thus start with a company that has in the synth world been mainly known for two product lines, one of which was discontinued long ago. The company is Akai, and the remaining product line is the MPC.
In that product line, there’s a bunch of products, including some that are software only, and some that are controllers for software. Then there’s the MPC X.
Imagine a wishlist for a thing that is made to serve as the center in a hardware-based performance (or production) setup. You’d most probably want it to have a powerful sequencer, and maybe the means to do stuff with sample loops. Add lots of connectivity, storage options, a large touch screen and assignable knobs with scribble strips, and throw in a sample-based synhtesis engine for good measure. To top it off, generate some way that it interfaces well with the computer.
That is the MPC X in a nutshell. Looking at the connections alone, there’s audio (four ins, eight outs), MIDI (two ins, four outs), USB (one in, two outs), CV/gate (eight outs)…when was the last time you bought a hardware synth that had eight audio outputs?
I haven’t played it that much yet, but what I experienced was simply stunning. This makes implementing things just…well, really well integrated.
So this is definitely one of the things I wasn’t looking for, but having seen it I guess I might want or even need it.
Moving up one letter in the alphabet, we’ve finally reached Behringer. They’re an odd company. Their first synth was a clone of the Moog Model D, which lots of reviewers agree is just as good as the original thing. Then there was a twelve-voice analogue polysynth, the Deepmind, which a lot of people love, although it somehow didn’t click with me. Then the Neutron, a great and original Eurorack voice module. There’s the MS-101 (a Roland SH-101 clone), there’s the VC340 vocoder, and then there’s a series of announcements, leaks, intended leaks and whatnot which make us expect at least TR-808, TR-909 and OB-X clones in the near future. And expected to be really cheap as well. Cheap as in: the MS-101 costs 300 bucks (like all the other Behringer things) and is a true analogue thing with keyboard, while the digital recreation boutique thing by Roland costs 50 bucks more. Ah, speaking about that information policy: there were demos (also by Behringer) of a small semimodular thing called Crave with a €150 price point, but we haven’t really heard anything since.
So what to make of it? First of all, we’re only discussing things that are available, meaning all the 808, 909, CS-80, Odyssey and whatnot discussions will not happen in this post. The only questions is: does Behringer currently have something (other than the Neutron) that I want?
On to check them off: Model D? I don’t want a Minimoog (clone). VC340? I definitely won’t get a strange clone of a vintage vocoder synth. Deepmind? As said, for some strange reason I don’t like it. MS-101? I don’t know what I’d do with it what I couldn’t do with the Minibrute. So I don’t need anything from them. Maybe that will change if they suddenly release a 2600 for 300 bucks or a Matrix-12 for 700 bucks.
So far, we’ve followed the “Japan-Europe-US” order of the first three chapters, and so it’s no surprise that the last company in this section is an US one: Kurzweil.
Kurzweil looks back on a history of only a few but very influential synths. Be it the K150 (additive synthesis), K250 (very early sampling keyboard) or the K2xx family, which culminated in the K2600XS, these were all cool synths, at least at their time. Then the company got sold, and since then there’s been a bunch of products somewhere between synth workstations, performance workstations and stage pianos.
At first sight, I got completely lost in their product lineup (and to add to the problem, I have only experience with the PC3-series things before the last release, which I think was the “K”) – fortunately, they also have a product comparison chart.
In the end, it comes down to this: the Forte offers more onboard piano sounds but lacks the fancy ribbon controller the PC3K retained from the K2xx series. All others are sub-par. Interestingly, both cost about the same, ca. 2800 bucks. Ah, none of them offers the K2600S’ Live Sampling option. And they only have four outs. 2800 bucks if all I really need is a more convincing grand piano? Maybe I’ll just get a sound module that does grand pianos really well and connect it to my old Kurz. Maybe Kurzweil will do something great in the next iteration. Most probably not.
When I talk about modular, I talk about Eurorack, simply because it’s the one I use. Will I give you a proper overview? Modulargrid.net lists over 3200 modules that are currently available, so the answer is a clear “no”.
The tricky part is that I have decided not to make my system any bigger than it is right now. The system is a A-100 MonsterBase which looks some like this:
Add to that a board in front which holds a Neutron, a DFAM, a 0-Coast and two SQ-1 (which aren’t really Eurorack and also have an impractical form factor), the only thing I might want right now is a proper interactive sequencer (something less “computer” than the Squarp Hermod I already have and plan to retain).
I might just get the Makenoise Rene 2018.
Then I need something for cases to make the setup more practical. Either a 104TE skiff to hold the Rene and the 0-Coast, or a very long skiff also holding the DFAM and Neutron. Some manual labour or custom jobs might be required. Ah, and I might want a Doepfer multicore to link it to the main case. The Eurorack problem…let’s end this.
So what’s the conclusion here?
The synth world right now is devoid of the next big thing – at least it appears that way.
Within the big current things, there’s a bunch of interesting keyboard synths, being somewhat different beasts. The ones I’m going to mention are all of the “analogue something” kind: Korg Prologue, Roland JD-XA and Sequential Pro 2. If had to get one right now, I’d most probably opt for the Roland because of its interesting architecture – and also because I didn’t get a Roland in a long, long time.
The Waldorf Quantum is a fantastic synth no doubt – but it also have a price tag at the very top of the current spectrum. And so for that reason, I will most probably not make that investment. In other words: I consider it overpriced, and it will be interesting to see how it fares in the current market.
Sadly, the workstation world doesn’t have something interesting to offer for me right now. Which in part goes to show just how powerful the K2600XS really is. In the end, the only big letdown is the lack of a decent acoustic piano patch. Maybe I just get something like this. Maybe I just wait for the next generation of workstations.
Moving in the other direction price-wise, there’s nothing I’d like to have either. Which also might have to do that in recent years I got a number of sub-1k synths, and so there’s nothing that I really need.
If you’re looking for clones of analogue synths, Behringer might be the company for you. Let’s see which of their ideas they actually decide to follow through with. But again, not for me.
In the Eurorack world, the strategy I put on my gear acquisition has put a damper on things, making the Makenoise Rene 2018 the only thing on my wishlist right now. This Rene is a great interactive and tricky (in a good way) Eurorack sequencer. And I’d also like a 246TE skiff case with PSU. Maybe need to build one myself.
If there’s one thing in the market that can fit an empty spot: Akai MPC X. This one is a great thing, not so much as a synthesizer, but rather as a center of music production – and that’s what its name stood for all along.
All in all, I don’t really need something right now. But I’d be surprised if I didn’t decide to get something later on…I’ll keep you posted.