Since the first two MeeBlips came out, the market for cheap hardware synths with analogue signal paths has become probably the hottest market area in music production. Korg have been especially active with the Volcas and the Monotribe, which are priced (in the UK) exactly the same as the Anode (with shipping). For a bit less you can get a Monotron, and for a bit more, Waldorf are offering their Rocket.
But before we look at how the Anode fits in with its newfound friends, let's see what it offers on its own. The signal path begins with a digital microcontroller, where the oscillators are generated, and then passes through an analogue filter. Thus, it's not fully analogue, but as Juno-106 owners will attest, such an arrangement is more than capable of producing a bottom end with plenty of weight and presence. (The Anode has primarily been designed as a bass synth.) The oscillators generated by the microcontrollers were, on the review model, two pulse-wave oscillators, with adjustable pulse width. However, a firmware update improves this to a wavetable synthesis engine that allows you to select between 16 different oscillators upon startup, including sawtooth, square, FM, distorted, bit reduced and granular waveforms. Automatic pulse width modulation can be achieved by flicking a switch, and the oscillators can be pitched an octave apart by flicking another one. The detune knob allows you to detune them apart by up to eight semitones, too. Small amounts of detune can be used for a thick, phasing, unison-like effect, or larger amounts can be applied for useful harmonic intervals.
The envelope is pretty simple. You can either use it in the more simple attack-decay mode, or in an attack-sustain-release mode where the decay knob controls the release time. The filter behaves like a low-pass filter (and features something called a "Twin-T" design), with cutoff and resonance controls. It feels pretty fat. An LFO section allows you to modulate either the oscillators' pitches (both together) or the filter cutoff, and to adjust the rate and depth of the LFO. All of these controls, apart from the filter resonance, are available through MIDI. (There's a MIDI port at the back; no USB, though.) Also, portamento and filter envelope amount are only available though MIDI.
And that's it. In terms of a feature set, it's quite a lot less than the Volcas. The Volca Keys, for example (which does bass sounds, too) offers a multitude of extra functions for the same price, with the Anode only trumping it on the inclusion of PWM. Almost all of these extra functions can be replicated in your DAW, though. And the Anode isn't a Volca but something different—in particular, it's open source. There are a few other open source synths available, most of them for slightly more than the Anode (PreenFM, Shruthi and Korg's littleBits, for example). But, with the exception of the littleBits (a kind of synth Lego), they invariably require the use of a soldering iron before you can use them. In contrast, the Anode comes fully assembled, with the potential to get into the guts of it. You can edit the firmware, which is written in assembly language (the programming language that gives you the best feel for the actual bytes and registers in the microcontroller). You could use this to make the pots do something completely different, or to set up a different sound generation engine. You can also circuit bend the board, since you have the schematics. The filter chip is fitted in a standard-size socket, so that you can easily replace it. Or maybe you could wire in something like this.
To rationalise the price using only the feature set would also be somewhat uncharacteristic for synthesizers. More expensive synths do tend to have broader feature sets, but there's a lot of variability around that general trend, and that's because when you're buying a synth, you're going for its unique character. The Anode doesn't sound like a Volca. It's fatter and nastier, and it also feels like more of a staple. The oscillators are designed to alias at low frequencies, which give them an unhinged, metal-rock edge. With short envelopes, it gives powerful percussive basses, whereas with longer ones, the motion that you can get from detune, PWM and the LFO means that it's capable of gritty, morphing and frankly evil bass washes. Although it was designed as a bass synth, it can, of course, be played further up the keyboard, where it keeps the same powerful, present quality and feels something like a '70s monosynth. The feature set is also very immediate, making it ideal for getting a feel for synthesis.
So the Anode is especially suited to people who want to learn the electronics behind synthesizers. But even if you don't, it brings something of its own to the area of rock-bottom hardware synths. It has a grittier, arguably more analogue character than anything in its price range, and it's simple yet proficient. As with all synths, it's best to pick the one that sounds and feels right for your own purposes. But there's a lot to love in what the Anode is offering.
Ease of use: 5/5