The question isn't so much "Are they worth it?" or "Do I need it?" because for some artists, analog is a luxury investment that yields diminishing returns or collects dust in the garage. For others, analog is an addiction. It's an itch that can only be scratched by resistors, transistors and capacitors. Something that softsynths can neither capture nor transfer to a dance floor in exactly the same way. So, for those with a lot of extra shrapnel in their trousers, here's what's available right now.
No synth carries as much mystical weight as a Moog. The word "legendary" doesn't even begin to describe the cachet that the brand embodies. Its filters are warm, creamy, rich and as immediately identifiable as the sound of a Harley. Its oscillators have a fatness and depth that other manufactures have yet to fully match. The team at Moog knows this, so although the actual parts for a unit cost the same or less than the parts for any other product in this line-up, the price tag is about twice as much. Such is the price of owning a legend.
The monophonic (single-voice) Moog Voyager comes in a bunch of flavors, each suited to a different wallet size and aesthetic disposition. You can change the wood grain, panel color and get it with or without an integrated keyboard. With the Voyager "Old School" edition, you can even dispense with preset memory entirely and opt for raw analog potentiometers instead of rotary encoders, delivering a vibe that's much more like the original Minimoog.
But these are largely cosmetic considerations. What really matters with the Voyager series is what's under the hood, so here's a rundown of its voice architecture: three oscillators feed a pair of Moog ladder filters—each of which can be lowpass or highpass, allowing bandpass effects when configured correctly. The modulation options are decidedly less extensive than a Prophet, but do the trick for classic Moog sounds. A basic LFO includes triangle, square and sample-and-hold (random) options and two ADSR envelopes are dedicated to the filter and amplifier, but can also be routed to other destinations via the Moog's operating system. There's a Korg Kaoss-style X-Y controller for nifty real-time tricks as well.
While the Voyager is a tad pricey for what it delivers in terms of features, there are countless professionals who are more than happy to pony up the ducats for the right to include its monumental sound in their tracks.
For about half the price of a Moog Voyager, the Little Phatty includes all of the essentials for whipping up full-on Moog sounds with a tad less sonic complexity than its big brother. The voice architecture is rather simple, but still with that trademark Moog thickness. Two oscillators feed a single-mode resonant lowpass filter. Modulation options include one LFO and two ADSR envelopes, one each for the filter and amplifier.
Four knobs access all of these parameters. The function of each knob is determined by a set of associated switches located directly underneath it on the front panel. For sound design in a studio context, this is quite tolerable. For playing parts on-the-fly, it's decidedly less enjoyable compared to performing edits on a Prophet, Voyager or any of the other synths in this price range.
Even so, the Little Phatty is a top-notch monophonic synth with a sought-after sound that only a Moog can deliver. If you're looking to add that particular color to your audio palette at a more reasonable price, then the Little Phatty is worth a close look.
While Dave Smith's Poly Evolver is the big daddy of their product line-up, its analog/digital hybrid architecture precludes it from our all-analog roundup. Instead, our focus is on the Prophet 08, which sports a completely analog signal path from oscillators to filters to amplifiers. Dave's Prophet reissue and its distinctive sound runs the gamut from bass with bollocks to uber-creamy pads with a sparkle and bite that's unlike much of its competition.
In addition to two analog oscillators, a lowpass filter that can operate in either 12dB/oct or 24dB/oct modes and a solid stereo amp section that includes panning amenities, the Prophet 08 includes a stunning range of modulation options. There are four LFOs, each of which can be synced to MIDI data at a wide variety of note values. Three ADSR envelopes provide classic control over amp, filter and pretty much every other available parameter in the Prophet's sonic arsenal. Ratcheting up the modulation tools are a set of four 16-step sequencers that can also be assigned to a wide range of parameters. These sequencers can be used for Roland TB-303 effects or even more complex rhythmic patterns that are usually the domain of sophisticated modular synths.
Each Prophet preset can consist of two layered or split patches, so the unit is technically "duo-timbral," meaning it can spit out two different sounds simultaneously for really fat, complex textures. Or sequencing two different parts as you produce your next opus.
While the basic model comes with 360 degree rotary encoders, you might look at the Potentiometer Edition, which is much more intuitive to program, thanks to its classic knobs that have definite start and end points in their rotation. If you've already got a keyboard controller and/or don't plan to gig with the P08 live, then be sure to check out the module version, as it's a bit less expensive and is sonically identical to the keyboard.
A-100 Analog Modular
MSRP: Approx 1700 euro
(Basic System 2, includes MIDI interface)
As we mentioned in our previous feature on analog gear under 1k, Doepfer is one of the world's leading brands for analog modular gear. "What's a modular synth?" you may ask. To use an analogy, consider Lego. You can go to the toy store and buy a simple Lego kit of a pirate ship, with all of the components ready to be assembled in a certain way. That's a traditional synth. A modular synth is the ultra-deluxe Lego set that comes with a massive array of different pieces. You can build almost anything your heart desires.
With a modular synth, you get a set of synth components like oscillators, filters, LFOs, envelopes, as well as more exotic stuff like ring modulation generators, random voltage generators and so on. Then, using patch cables, you can configure these modules any way you please, creating synthesizer architectures that are impossible to create using any other method.
While you can buy pretty much any analog, voltage-controlled audio tool from Doepfer, they make several starter rigs that are more than capable of starting you on the path to total sonic mayhem. For example, the A-100 Basic System comes in a few configurations that are optimized for price, performance and expandability.
Here's a sampling of what's included in one of these systems: two VCOs, one Lowpass VCF (24 dB/oct), one Multimode VCF (12 dB/oct), two ADSR envelopes, two LFOs, one ring modulation generator, one audio divider, one noise/random generator, logarithmic and linear VCAs, mixers, a sample & hold generator and a bunch of other really exotic stuff—like slew limiters—that modify voltages in very unique ways. Suffice to say, snagging a modular synth is a bit like falling down a rabbit hole and being lost for days. For some, that experience could be quite disorienting. For others, it could be a gateway to Nirvana. It's a red pill/blue pill thing. Choose wisely.
According to our sources, the Alesis Andromeda A6 is no longer in production, but we're including it anyway. (There are still a smattering of equipment dealers that have a few left in stock.) For many, the Andromeda was the ultimate 21st century polysynth, with a sound that some say is reminiscent of the Roland Jupiter 8 or late-model Moog, but with a slightly crisper, cooler sound than the originals.
The Andromeda's voice architecture supports that statement. Each of the synth's 16 fully analog voices includes the following components: two oscillators (each with its own sub-oscillator), white/pink/red noise generator, two filters that can be configured in series or parallel (one 24 db lowpass, one 12 dB multimode), three LFOs, three seven-stage envelopes, analog-style step-sequencer, arpeggiator and an extensive modulation matrix that provides a lot of flexibility for routing its envelopes to pretty much any useful parameter.
The Andromeda also includes some really unique implementations of traditional synth components. Instead of the traditional method of switching between highpass, lowpass and bandpass in the multimode filter, it allows you to blend each mode via its "post-filter mix" section. Another useful amenity is available via the envelopes, which can be set to loop. In practice, a looping envelope functions like a highly programmable LFO with a user-definable shape. Perfect for sounds that wobble and throb.
If the Andromeda's voice architecture sounds appealing, consider this: You can also run external audio through its filters and amps. Note that this doesn't allow you to use it as a sampler or vocoder. Think of it as a killer filter effect with tons of modulation. In addition to being a great synth, that is.
It's almost an act of torment to include the Buchla modular gear in this round-up, since a fully loaded model will set you back by about the same amount as a new BMW. But if you want to scale the heights of analog modular equipment, Buchla's got more exotic options than a Thai bathhouse.
With modules bearing names like "Source of Uncertainty," "Twisted Waveform Generator" and "Arbitrary Function Generator," you can quickly see what you're getting into. Throw in some mythical Buchla innovations like the Multi Dimensional Kinesthetic Input Port—which consists of both multiple tactile touchplates that can be stroked and a spatial sensor that tracks mid-air hand gestures—and you've got a synth that not only can't be touched, but doesn't have to be touched.
Of course, you can also outfit the 200e with slightly more standard goodies like frequency shifters, morphing filters and "waveform generators" (that's "oscillators" to us mortals), if only to keep a vague sense of familiarity as you explore its very deep and slightly menacing uncharted waters. The bottom line with a Buchla is that for a hefty five figures, you really can be the only kid on the block with a synth of this magnitude. And, for some, that's reason enough.