Although software synths are inexpensive and tap into the resources of a host computer, nothing beats getting your hands on a real instrument. Plus, many users may prefer the living, breathing sound of analog, which may be imitated to an extent but can never be truly replicated. With all that in mind, we rounded up seven monophonic hardware synths that seem especially suited for the moment.
MicroBrute / Arturia / $349
The MicroBrute, the second analog synth in the Brute lineage, looks like a toy but packs a mighty sound. Its compact design has a tiny two-octave keyboard and sports a small CV patch bay that increases not only its modulation capabilities but also the potential for interacting with other CV-ready gear. Called a single-oscillator design, the synth uses eight knobs to create a waveshape, starting with the traditional triangle, saw and square blended to create a unique shape. These are further enhanced by Metalizer, Ultrasaw and Pulse Width knobs, which take the sound to a whole other level. There's also an overtone control that's basically a sub-oscillator tunable up to a fifth. The filter from Steiner-Parker (of Synthacon fame) can be switched between high-, band- and low-pass shapes. There's also something called the Brutefactor knob in the filter section that causes a serious boost and distortion that could easily blow some speakers. You'll also find a basic 32-step sequencer with eight overwrite-able presets. When connecting the synth via USB, the free connection software gives access to some unseen features and also acts as storage for sequencer patterns. Beyond sounding tremendous and being very portable, the synth also clocks in at a mere $349, challenging what is possible in the analog synth world.
TB-3 / Roland / $299
For electronic music heads, one of the most exciting product announcements from Roland in a long time was the release of the AIRA line, comprised of four units including the TR-8 and TB-3. As their names hint, the TR-8 is a rework of the 808 and 909 drum machines and the TB-3 a recreation of the original acid synth, the TB-303. This new bassline machine is not by any means an exact clone. For starters, it's digital, has a glowing pressure-sensitive touch pad keyboard, built-in effects and 134 preset patches that can be modified with cutoff, resonance and accent controls. There's also room for 64 user patterns up to 32 steps each. If you are solely going for the exact sound of the original, there are some patches in that classic acid style. They get pretty close, and with some processing, it'd be tough to tell which was which when worked into a mix. Beyond that, there are several other sounds for something new but in the spirit of the original. The back panel has MIDI in/out and USB, which can transmit and receive both audio and MIDI.
Rocket / Waldorf / $349.99
The Rocket looks like a straightforward desktop module with a single digital oscillator and an analog filter. Although technically a monosynth, the oscillator is capable of very thick sounds, especially in sawtooth mode. When turned past 12 o'clock, up to eight sawtooth waves are added for a detuned, polyphonic sound. There's also a special unison mode where up to eight notes can be played, although without their own filters and envelopes. In square wave mode, some interesting pulse width modulation is possible. So what appears at first to be a very basic synth is actually very versatile. The VCF is switchable between low-pass, band-pass and high-pass filter types, and the resonance can be turned up for some wild self-oscillation and percussion sounds. A simple boost switch adds saturation to the signal. The envelope is easy-to-use, with switches for sustain and release and a decay knob. A launch button on the top panel helps to trigger a note when no keyboard is connected. The LFO is rather limited, being only capable of modulating the oscillator or the filter, but not both. Furthermore, when using the on-board arpeggiator, the LFO becomes inactive. Rather than connecting to PC or Mac, there's a Rocket Control app for iOS—specifically iPad—to manage patches and play the keys.
Bass Station 2 / Novation / $499
Although in more recent times Novation has made many virtual-analog synths and high-end controllers, their rework of a '90s classic is an all-analog affair. The two-octave keyboard controls a sound engine that features two oscillators, a sub-oscillator and noise generator for a wide variety of thick sounds. Increasing the sound design capabilities, a two-knob effects section includes distortion and osc filter modulation controls. I found that the BS2's strongpoint is creating leads that really stand out in a mix. Interestingly, the filter section provides a switchable "classic" LP/BP/HP filter with selectable slope and an "acid" filter that is reminiscent of the Roland TB-303. There are plenty of modulation options, with two LFOs and two ADSR envelopes that have cleanly designed routing destinations. Even though the synth is compact and some section knobs have multiple purposes, Novation still found room on the top panel for a versatile step sequencer and arpeggiator. The synth also has connections for an external input and can be USB powered. There are also lots of under-the-hood features—you can sync the LFOs, for example—that are fully accessible without the aid of software. Unlike some analog mono synths in its class, the Bass Station 2 also has presets, 64 factory and 64 user.
MS-20 mini / Korg / $719.99
Fetching eBay prices into the $3000 range, the MS-20, originally released in 1978, seemed like only a dream to many. There was a software version released a few years back with a compatible controller, but the real analog re-issue, promoted as sounding the same yet with less noise from the VCA and a retail price of around $700, piqued much interest. Some of the MS-20's defining characteristics, beyond the big sound it generates, are its two-filter low- and high-pass design and the unmistakable semi-modular patch bay on the right of the front panel. The two oscillators, with ring modulation, noise and modulators, already offer a ton of sound possibilities. The patch panel, with external inputs and myriad ways to modulate, trigger and more, open up a world not usually accessible in any synth. The MS-20 mini really does sound like the original—the only drawbacks are the small keys, 1/8-inch connections and a cheaper plastic feel. But this really doesn't take away from the value when you consider the price and the addition of MIDI and USB. For those who want the full-size model, Korg recently announced the release of a kit where you can assemble one, with no soldering required.
Mono Lancet / Vermona / $619
Vermona is known for making some really powerful analog machines. So while their Mono Lancet is a small synth module, it's got serious range. It's capable of big basses, wildly resonating filter sounds and even some tuned percussion. It's a two-oscillator design with VCO one being capable of producing triangle, saw or square waves, and a second VCO trading triangle for noise and the ability to be tuned an octave higher. The 24-dB per octave voltage-controlled low-pass filter can self-oscillate and be played via velocity and aftertouch MIDI messages. A single LFO and ADSR envelope can be used to modulate the oscillators and filter. The LFO offers sample-and-hold for some really wild effects. Using the modwheel, pulse-width modulation of both oscillators is possible. For modular users, there is a DB-25 breakout that connects to a dock with CV and gate jacks, and extra knobs. For those who want something even more powerful, the PERfourMER MKII is similar to having four Mono Lancets in one large unit.
Sub Phatty / Moog / $1.099
The second synth in the Phatty family, the Sub Phatty brings the low-end in a way that its predecessor did not. It sports a classic Moog look and feel, and you can tell from the first play that the Sub Phatty is a quality instrument that you could keep for a lifetime. The two oscillators are wave shape variable, with a knob that smoothly goes from triangle through to saw, square and pulse. A square wave sub-oscillator tuned an octave below the first oscillator adds some of the fatness that the name suggests. The mixer section has controls for the three oscillators and a pink noise source, and all of them can be tuned high enough for some nice distortion from the filter—which, of course, is the famed Moog low-pass ladder design. A multi-drive distortion is positioned post-filter for some extra grit. A single LFO and the ADSR of the filter can be used to modulate the waveshape, oscillator tuning and filter cutoff. Eight backlit buttons are used to recall 16 presets, or the synth can be used in an old-school sense, where the current panel settings generate the sound you hear. Although 16 is not an exciting number of patches to recall, the free editor and synth librarian, accessible via USB, can be used for infinite patch storage and recall, and even as a VST/AU/RTAS plug-in that virtually turns all front panel controls in addition to some hidden ones. The side panel sports mono-in and -out jacks, MIDI-in and -out ports and 4 CV/Gate jacks. Also coming soon from Moog is the Sub 37, which adds an octave of keys, an arpeggiator/sequencer and a paraphonic mode for playing oscillators as different notes.