A while back I started writing the following piece for Equipboard but for one reason or another it never came to be. Despite the click-bait-y subject matter it’s still a half decent list, so I thought I’d publish it here and adapt it slightly to fit more with what we do here at Zeros and Ones. Anyway, here are the best synths on the market in order to stand out from the crowd. Enjoy!
If you’ve been following the series so far on ways to stand out (on pedals and software), you’ll be aware that we’re keen on rummaging to the depths of the bargain bins as well as sorting the wheat from the chaff of new equipment, and this month’s instalment is no exception.
With easy access to sample packs and everyone sharing the same select plug-ins, it can be difficult to really craft original and creative music without sounding homogenous.
Sometimes it can be all too easy to reach for the best-sounding Sylenth presets; perhaps you’ve not delved into programming your flagship Novation synth or are relying on Logic’s native plug-ins too much. If so, then this might be for you!
It’s a synthesiser, it’s a sampler, it’s a sequencer, it’s portable, it’s like nothing else on the market: it’s the OP-1 from the guys at Teenage Engineering. It might look like a toy or some forgotten Casio from the 80s (Sonic State point out it’s somewhere between a VL-Tone and an Apple product), but don’t be fooled about how much power this can pack.
At the heart of it’s ten (yes, TEN) synth voices, with a four-track recorded, various DSP fx, an instant sampler (reminiscent of the SK-1) and, strangely, an FM radio.
In a market where synth manufacturers are churning out retro ripoffs and genuine innovation is sidelined, this is something that will go down as a classic trying to stand out from the crowd.
Retailing at over £650 is going to put off some, and this isn’t something I’d recommend as a first keyboard or anything to learn subtractive synthesis on, but it’s genuinely in a corner of its own in the manufacturer market. Well worth checking out some of the other oddities Teenage Engineering are producing too.
It’s no secret we’re big fans of modular synths here at Zeros and Ones, and Make Noise are at the front end of innovation in the West coast-style Eurorack world. Coming straight outta San Francisco and headed by Tony Rolando and Kelly Kelbel, Make Noise is perhaps best known for its function generator, the famous MATHS module.
Seemingly complex modules owing a lot to their love of Buchla (more on these later), these systems are not for the feint-hearted. Make Noise offer a variety of completed systems, ranging from small setups to process external sounds, synth voices, larger sequencers and all-in-ones, such as their famed ‘shared system’ (below).
This comes with the aforementioned MATHS, their idiosyncratic René sequencer, the sought-after Pressure Points touch controller, oscillators, DSP effects, CV generators and more. Starting at around £2300 they’re not exactly pocket money but the sonic capabilities are almost unmatched.
Most of us are probably familiar to some degree with western harmony─ it has been the standard in this part of the world for a good 600 years or so! However microtonal music, which uses microtones, has been mined by various composers in the classical, electronic and world music idioms since forever.
Something that is leveled at a lot the composers who’ve dabbled in this witchcraft is that it doesn’t sound all that pleasing to modern ears. The Tonal Plexus is an incredibly rich-sounding microtonal synthesiser capable of very musical sounds.
These are now discontinued as a full assembled synthesizers, but partial DIY kits and secondhand instruments can be picked up for anything from £200-400.
Cited with being one of the creators of the Eurorack modular craze, Doepfer offer some semimodular prebuilt systems, like their Dark Energy series. Currently on version 2, released in 2012, this is a synth voice with a plethora of modulation capabilities available by patching various ins and outs on the front panel.
This is a true analog unit capable of some insane sounds. It’s completely portable and has MIDI ports as well as USB – something which I am sad to see being phased out in other modern synthesisers.
The Dark Energy series is discontinued because of the availability of a certain chip needed to make it, but they can be picked up on eBay for around £400.
Another portable synth voice but, this time, coming in at under £90 it’s a total bargain. The MeeBlip Anode is a semianalog device that can really pack a punch. Two digital oscillators offer more reliable tuning stability (much like the Juno 106) with detune options running into a super-squelchy resonant analog low pass filter with LFO and envelope modulation capabilities.
It has a MIDI in for sequencing it with a DAW or other devices. It’s sadly let down by the lack of USB, which could allow for it to be bus powered. It’s not likely to be the synth that you build your live setup around, but for the price it’s hard to find better value for money with a sound this rich and powerful.
Here’s some weirdo reviewing it:
06. Waldorf Microwave XT
Produced for a short period of time during 1998, the Microwave is a product of German engineers Waldorf, famed for their comprehensive synthesizers made at this time.
If you’re a fan of the ambient/shoegaze stylings of Ulrich Schnauss, you’ll love this synth and what it’s capable of producing.
The Microwave XT is a fully MIDI, polyphonic desktop or rackmountable wavetable synth module with a 20-bit DSP effect stage. It’s capable of lush, enveloping ambient pads, soaring organic, ever-changing leads and everything in between.
Waldorf stopped production of these pretty sharply, but they can be found for around £850 on eBay.
It’s really hard to select just one of Critter and Guitari’s weird and wonderful products, as each of them could be an entry in itself, but their Pocket Piano is the one which has caught our eye the most.
Sounding somewhere between a cheap piano sampler from the eighties and a circuit-bent monstrosity, these cute little boxes come with wooden arcade-style buttons, a built in speaker and unlabeled rotary pots.
It’s hard to do them justice without hearing them so check this interview with Dubspot below:
08. Casio DG-20 Digital Guitar Synthesizer
One of the oddest looking guitar synths, and that’s saying something. Onboard are the sort of thin, buzzy FM (or likely phase distortion) sounds are strangely becoming en vogue again.
What’s nice about these sounds is that VST manufacturers have not mined this market of synthesis too much and, though on the surface a lot of what this produces might send shivers down your spine with eighties cringe, they’re only one or two steps away from something totally unique coupled with some cavernous reverb and other modulation.
It has six-note polyphony and of course a MIDI output to chain other devices, which in a way is sort of enough to justify the price alone. Long out of production can be picked up in second hand stores and eBay for around £150.
Most of you are probably familiar with Bob Moog and his excursions into synthesis on the East coast of America during the mid-way point through the last century, but Don Buchla isn’t quite such a household name.
Buchla is the modular opposite of Moog: whereas Moog was concerned with making music, scales and simple meters, Buchla is more about sonic experimentation.
The Easel is perhaps one of their more familiar systems, coming in at just under £2000.