Perhaps due to budget constraints, or a desire to always have something that few others did, I’ve always sought out music technology on eBay rather than buying new. Don’t get me wrong, my studio is full of modern-day stuff too – I wouldn’t suggest getting a computer from eBay and I’ve heard mixed results about monitors and sound cards second hand, but for synths and effects units there really is nothing better.
For me there’s always been a draw to buying second hand. Obviously the price is a huge advantage but it’s not without it risks (I’ve bought some utter nonsense in my time). However owing a piece of history that’s out of production or from a by-gone time is appealing.
Liam Howlett of The Prodigy surrounded by lots of vintage and rare gear.
I’ve put together a list of some of the best bargains there are to be had currently. I’ve refrained from adding prices to them as they’ll no-doubt fluctuate beyond recognition in a few years time and I want to keep this as future proof as possible.
So, without further-ado – here’s some of what I consider to be the best deals in synth and hardware on eBay. Let’s go!
In the 60s and 70s there was analog, and in the 80s and 90s there was digital, but there was a brief crossover period where lots of hybrid synths were released, boasting the tuning stability, reliability and flexibility of digital with the simplicity and sound of analog.
Released in 1985, the 6000 (like Juno 106) offered 8 digital sampled waveform cycles with an all analog amp and self-oscillating filter. The 8000 took this a step further doubling the number of available waveforms, adding some crude wavetable functionality and expanding the envelope stage.
What’s great about this is it’s a lesser known 80s polys that goes for peanuts. Both the DW 6000 and 8000 can be found on the ‘bay for well under what they’re both worth due to an inherent problem in their battery life.
Like many digital/analog hybrids of the 80s, they are susceptible to power-up problems, but this shouldn’t dissuade you if you’re happy to peruse some forums too look for the answer and potentially get the soldering iron out.
Perhaps not a headline synth, the Bass Station has seen many incarnations since its initial release in 1993, but it’s the rack mounted 1995 sibling that interests me.
Nothing about the synth itself screams out from the stands, it’s an analog/digital hybrid, monophonic, two oscillator number, but what’s nice about it is that not only are most of these parameters MIDI controlled but more importantly it has a CV and Gate output round the back, which makes this a perfect addition to any studio where you might want to add more pre-MIDI synths to your setup.
Image © Perfect Circuit Audio.
Of course there’s a plethora of MIDI to CV boxes out there already, but this takes up hardly any rack space at all and doesn’t sound half bad. What it lacks in character it makes up for in versatility.
Perhaps better known for their Urban Outfitters dwelling, over-priced digital watches now, Casio have a rich history of making some pretty interesting synths. The CZ-101 (released in 1984) is perhaps the best know of theirs, making it into the rigs of various other Warp-era techno acts, but the rest of the range still packs a punch.
Billed as Cosmosynthesisers, these 8 voice digital synths use the same engine as the 101 (and 1000), with an incredible 16 oscillators. Yes, they can sound a bit Miami Vice if you’re not careful, but the engine is incredibly powerful and capable of a wide range of sounds.
The 5000 also had an additional 8 track sequencer, and for what they tend to go for, they’re stunning sounding polys with few emulations available in VST format.
If they’re breaking the bank I would highly recommend the Casio CZ-230S; easily confused with a home/toy synthesiser, it’s light weight and costs a fraction of the price of its big-bros. Containing exactly the same engine again and a built in drum sequencer, all it lacks is the ability to edit patches – other than that it’s great!
One of the most iconic synths from the era. In production from 1994-2001, the JV is a sample-based rack mounted unit with 64 voice polyphony (16 part multitimbral). Sadly like many of its 90s compadres, most of the programming was done on a tiny VDU.
It’s bread-and-butter sounds (drums, pianos, strings etc) have been forgotten in the sands of time, sounding a bit dated. Some of the pads in particular though, are absolutely beautiful so it might come as no surprise that one of the men behind many of the expansion cards for this is none-other than Eric Persing, who has contributed vast quantities of sounds to Spectrasonics’s legendary Omnisphere.
If you’re looking to make Artificial Intelligence-era ambient techno [yes I know this was released a year before the JV…], floaty dolphin jungle or any classic chill out sounds, you could do a lot worse than this unit. Be careful you don’t turn into Enigma though.
Like a lot of early 90s tech, the JVs are a fraction of their original price, but well worth every penny. I’d get one now before they go the same route as the Korg M1 and get hugely inflated in price.
Some JV-like pads.
Two rack mounted units, the former a pink flavoured vocoder and it’s pal an orange coloured 303 emulator. The PCP330 is the vocoder used on The Beastie Boys Intergalactic – it’s a crusty sounding11-band vocoder with a built in VCO. Sadly only let down by no MIDI or CV capabilites, but an external carrier/modulator can be run into the unit.
The FB383 is a mono synth based on the Roland TB-303 – how closely it emulates it is down to you to decide [not that well], but both of these are only 1U and between them cover a lot of nice analog ground. They typically go for well below what they’re worth as they’re not so well known.
This table-top unit from Yamaha contains all the sounds of the DX7 with none of the editing capabilites, and while FM8 does a great job of making the world of the DX7 that much easier to use, a lot of people would be happy with just the DX7’s presets.
Image © Perfect Circuit Audio.
Some patch editing is possible over MIDI using external programs, so if you’re prepared to hunt around for those and learn how to use this, it’s basically a fully functional DX7 at a tenth of the price, even less sometimes!
The DX7 has so many classics presets and this thing does them all. You can even use it as a glorified coaster, rest a sandwich or roll a cigarette on it. Bonus.
The Kaoss Pads were something that always fascinated me. I remember doing my work experience at Digital Village and seeing the first generation one on display behind the decks and wanting one desperately. However my issue with the Kaoss Pads was always that such a fantastic idea was thwarted by being marketed at DJs, and latterly other producers and more experimental guitarists got on board with them.
Low-pass filtering some generic Ibiza-house filler is nothing special, but some of the more esoteric effects on here are genius, and I got a lot of use out of this. Fast forward a few years and Korg release the Mini KP – a battery powered, light-weight alternative to its clunky older sibling. Sadly this is out of production, and not to be confused with the Mini KP-2 that Korg actually still produce – I much prefer the design and layout of the original.
These can be bought with actual pocket money they’re so cheap, and they could probably fit in your pocket too.
Interestingly this unit is eurorack size, and I’m currently investigating getting it mounted to my modular, (it’s roughly the same size as a Make Noise MATHS) – I’ll report back with any findings!
There are too many great reverbs by Alesis to mention them all but the Midiverbs, Quadraverb and Microverb series are absolute stalwarts for me, especially if you’re after a lo-fi ambient, shoegaze or post-rock styled ‘verbs and delays.
This was certainly one of the cheapest ways to get pseduo reverse reverb before DAWs and it’s defiantly still one of the best ways to emulate that Kevin Shields type guitar without too much faff.
It sounds like a cop-out but I love the sound of these hardware reverbs, they aren’t even closely moddelled by any VST (please point me in the direction of some good convolution patches if anyone has?).
If you’re interested in shoegaze production be sure to check this.
The SPX-90, 990, 1000 and 2000 are rack mounted multi-fx units that could be described as a little uninspiring with few stand out patches that really blow your mind. So why did it makes the list?
Aside from being found on many-a-shoegaze rack during the early 90s, the SPX has tonnes of really useable reverbs and delays. Yes the modulations sound a bit trite, harsh and dated by today’s standards but at the price these go for, it’s a perfectly capable multi-fx unit.
A bit noisy, mind – but great lo-fi alternative to Behringer, Boss or other economy alternatives. People are virtually throwing these things away..!
Roland released many of the SP-series hand-held samplers, and these even went on to form the brains of their drum sampler units, but it was Roland’s sister company Boss that released this SP-202 that I want to have a look at.
Much cheaper than the other SP-series units, it offers up-to 260(!) seconds of sampling time at rates of between 4 to 31 kHz [so quite lo-fi to just under hi-fi]. There was as ever with Boss units many on-board FX that aren’t half bad.
This is basically a cut-down MPC, perhaps not quite as sexy and lacking the hip hop credentials but it’s actually really useable – here a beat being built from the bottom up:
Four-tet is a proponent of the other SP-series units, but this is a perfectly passable alternative option if you’re a budget.
The Electribe series by Korg started back in 1999 and saw three generations before the current crop released a few years back (2014), but it’s the brightly coloured 3rd generation that I think pack the most bang for the buck.
The two models (red = ESX-1 and blue = EMX-1) covered sampling and synthesis respectively. The Electribes were what was known as grooveboxes, they had dedicated sequencers that triggered synths, drum machines, samplers and had rudimentary on-board editing facilities as well as some half decent fx.
Arguably a bit limited on their own but used in conjunction and you could cover a lot of ground. I remember going to various free parties in the woods and seeing a guy perform on two of these and having my mind blown – pressing play on a CD this is not.
Famed as being the french-house compressor that helped launch a thousand careers, in particular the likes of Alan Braxe, Thomas Bangalter and most of Ed Banger. The 3630 is not without it complaints, breaking up with distortion a little too easily, the left and right channels not matching well, but it’s the sidechain analysis circuit that makes it special.
Typically feeding your whole track sans kick into the unit and triggering the compresssor with a big-phat 909 bass drum and voilà!
I mean, just listen to some of these records…
Need I say more? Je voudrais un croissants.
There was a time when every studio you went into had about three or four of these. I don’t know if they’re still as popular as they were, but for a cheap compressor you can do a lot worse.
A two channel VCA-style compressor with a built-in gate as well, dbx actually still produce this unit, but there’s plenty of bargains to be found if you pick up a second or even third hand unit.
Perhaps not quite as glamorous as the 1976 dbx 160, the 1066 isn’t a bad alternative and at just 1U it hardly takes up any space at all. Sounds great on snares, toms, vocals, as a mix glue… it even has an RMS meter, which I am a big fan of.
Developed by the Roland Corporation from 1987-89, the D-50 and rack mounted D-550 utilized a type of synthesis known as S&S, or sample and synthesis. This cleverly forged sampling technology and synthesis (as the name suggests).
Sampling only the short attacks of sounds allowed significantly less hard disk space to be used than other samplers by having an analog modelling digital synth creating the rest of the sound – fooling the ear into thinking that that’s a real trumpet/violin/piano you’re listening to!
Of course by today’s standards it sounds dated and and a pretty poor attempt, but it has a special place in synth history and some of the presets are still sought after for their ethereal textures. Beware you don’t turn into Enya.
An finally another early 90s synth that’s had a resurgence since Korg released their Legacy Collection – the Wavestation. Notoriously tedious to program (trust me on this one), the Wavestation came in keyboard and two rack mounted formats (A/D and SR – the latter being the one I own).
It’s a sound you would have heard plastered over the first couple of seasons of the The X-Files and various other sci fi shows of the era. The Wavestation was what’s called a Vector synth, a complicated engine simialr(ish) to wavetable synthesis sounding sonically similar to s&s, frequency modulation and other digital synthesis types.
The Wavestation excelled at making pads, which is one of the initial reasons I was attracted to it, have a listen to some of these demos and enjoy:
I hope this list has inspired some of you to dig around the latter pages of your eBay searches and potentially take some gables on lesser known synths and fx units. Hardware is of course no replacement for talent, creativity and original ideas, but simply interfacing with something that isn’t a mouse and QWERTY keyboard can sometimes make you approach things differently, and since retro sounds are so in vougue, there’s nothing wrong with having the real things, as they generally sound that little bit better than an emulator/sample. Enjoy!