Lately, there's been a bit of a renaissance for analog hardware synths. A few years back, Dave Smith—the inventor of the Prophet 5 and, well, MIDI itself—unleashed a brand new Prophet for the 21st century, then followed it up with a slew of truly affordable successors. Tom Oberheim recently jumped into the fray with a flawless recreation of his legendary SEM unit. Modular behemoth, Doepfer, recently released a baby modular for entry-level users. Heck, even boutique developers like Bleep Labs have produced analog toys for less than 200 euro.
To help producers get a better idea of the current state of the industry, we've created a guide to some of the analog synths on the market today under 1000 euro. In our opinion, these are the best and the brightest at the moment. But if the trend keeps up, there will surely be more to come.
Hot on the heels of Dave Smith's reintroduction of the legendary Prophet, DSI released the monophonic Mopho. Sporting a slightly different voice architecture than the Prophet, the Mopho's all-analog signal path features two oscillators, a resonant lowpass filter that can function in either 12dB or 24dB per octave mode, four LFOs, three envelopes, four 16-step sequencers, tons of modulation routing options and the ability to process external audio signals through its filter and amplifier sections, making the Mopho both a synth and a solid effects unit.
The sound is a bit more aggressive than the Prophet, since the audio input allows the oscillators to be overdriven with a touch of feedback. Adding low-end emphasis are two sub-oscillators—one for each of the primary oscillators—that track their pitches one octave lower.
The original Mopho module comes in a package about the size of a hardcover novel and is controlled via standard MIDI in/out connections. But this year's NAMM show heralded the arrival of the Mopho Keyboard edition, which adds a two-and-a-half octave keyboard and a bunch of knobs for real-time tweakage.
If the Mopho's synthesis engine piques your interest, then you'll definitely want to get up to speed on DSI's recently introduced Tetra.
Essentially four Mophos in an identically sized package, the Tetra packs a ton of synthesis power for its street price. The Tetra's four voices can also be configured multi-timbrally. That is, each of the voices can have its own unique settings so it really is like having four Mophos going at once. Better still, the Tetra also includes a direct USB port for much faster response times than the ancient MIDI standard. Granted, this USB port is strictly for sending note and controller information—no audio amenities here—so you'll still need a decent audio interface to capture the beauty of this synth.
Another audio-oriented distinction is the fact that the Tetra doesn't include the Mopho's external audio input, so you can't feed any other signals into its synthesis engine. This isn't a huge deal when you consider that this box is basically a four-voice Prophet 08 with sub-oscillators and a faster interface, minus the P08's luxurious array of knobs. As a result, if you're looking for a real analog polysynth for under a grand, the Tetra is the only one worth investigating.
Germany's Doepfer is one of the biggest names in modular synthesis hardware, so last year's introduction of their entry-level baby modular, the Dark Energy, has created quite a stir. Consisting of a single VCO, 24db/oct lowpass VCF, ADSR envelope and two LFOs that extend well into the audio range, the Dark Energy's simplicity belies its power. The oscillator can blend square waves with either triangle or sawtooth with a twist of a knob and can also be used to modulate the filter cutoff ala FM synthesis. The envelopes can be switched into a super-fast mode for really tight transients. Using the LFOs in the audio range can create anything from dirty sideband mayhem to extreme talkbox effects. What's more, the Dark Energy can translate its USB control directly into control voltages for sequencing vintage gear like the Roland SH-101.
So what's the catch? Well, because the Dark Energy is 100% analog with no digital encoding on the knobs, there's no way to store presets. For some users, this could be a critical omission. On the other hand, the lack of digitization means that the knobs are incredibly sensitive—moving them even slightly can radically change a sound, just like classic gear from the '70s and '80s.
To be absolutely candid here, I've been using the Dark Energy for four months now and it has become my go-to synth. Warm, big bass? No problem. Crazy modulation weirdness? Check. In-your-face percussive patches? Done and done. This synth covers a ton of ground in a tiny package that sits neatly next to my laptop at all times. Truly the perfect beginner's synth if you can live without the ability to store your own patches.
Released: July 2009
CV Patch version: Approx 600 Euro
MIDI version: Approx 700 Euro
Panel only version: Approx 500 Euro
After a year of buzz, Tom Oberheim's long-awaited SEM reissue has finally hit the stores—and it was well worth the wait. In Oberheim's words, the reissue is 98% identical circuit-wise, with a few improvements thrown in for good measure. The original SEM was a mainstay for '70s artists, with a big following in the progressive rock world. The architecture featured two oscillators, triangle-wave LFO, amp envelope, filter envelope and one of the coolest analog filter implementations on the planet.
Unlike most classic analog synths, the SEM included something called a state-variable filter that can operate in lowpass, highpass or notch modes in a continuously variable manner—as well as a switchable bandpass mode. On most synths, multimode filtering operation works via a switch. That is, each mode is a discrete option. Here, you can smoothly morph between modes, creating sweeps that are near impossible to achieve via any other technology.
While some users will want the MIDI version—so they can sequence the device via a standard MIDI interface—diehard synthesists will likely opt for the control voltage (CV) version, which includes an integrated patch panel for modular-style re-routing. The caveat with that version is that you'll need a CV interface of some sort, like say, the Doepfer Dark Energy—which is an outstanding solution, in my opinion. The two units combined should serve as a badass baby modular rig with a sound that transcends either device on its own.
There's been quite a buzz surrounding the MFB Kraftzwerg's modular-style design and extensive feature set. And for good reason.
The desktop wedge houses three VCOs that can deliver hard sync effects, a 24dB/oct lowpass VCF, noise generator, ring modulation, two LFOs and two envelopes. The modular capabilities on the Kraftzwerg are a definite notch up from the Dark Energy, with voltage control options for all of the essentials and then some. With some clever oscillator patching, it should be possible to create dirty, metallic FM and ringmod effects.
Throw in some switchable envelope curves and CV in and out on the LFO rates and there are a lot of sonic options here that would be impossible to nail on virtual analog hardware or software. As with the Dark Energy, though, you can't store presets for future recall so, again, your mileage may vary. Based on the online audio demo examples and the extensive feature spec, the Kraftzwerg's price tag is a rather reasonable point of entry for a unit of this scope. Definitely worth further investigation for sound designers looking for something other than "me-too" synth patches.
If experimental sonics are your cuppa tea and the recession has tightened your purse strings to the point of snapping, you should take a closer look at Bleep Labs' Thingamagoop 2. It may simply look like a little robot, but the sounds that come out of this beastie are quite monstrous indeed. The robot eye is actually a photocell that controls pitch. The LEDacle "antenna" houses a flexible LED that can be used to drive the photocell. Kind of like a 21st century Theremin.
The voice circuitry consists of an analog VCO that can be switched into one of five continuously variable modes courtesy of its programmable Arduino chip: sample & hold, arpeggio 1, arpeggio 2, white noise and audio rate digital data (kind of like bit-crushing). An LFO delivers either amplitude modulation, using a square wave or triangle wave based pulse-width modulation for really thick trance lead effects. The LFO can also be pushed into the audio range for ring mod type effects that go far beyond anything else in this price range.
Rounding out the synth are control voltage in and out connectors for attaching the Thingamagoop to vintage gear. While the Thingamagoop's oscillator doesn't calibrate to the one-volt-per-octave standard, it's still quite handy for creating pitched effects in either direction that would be hard to achieve otherwise.