So this one has come up so much in the last year. Im not sure whether to file it under revival or something else, but its fantastic to see so many people turning back to hardware, or discovering it for the first time. Either way, its a big win in my eyes. Anything which leads a composer/musician back into a process where they are directly manipulating any instrument, this is still progress from where we are now.
I don’t mind a nice GUI on a tooth removing hybrid library, i honestly do enjoy vst soft based modular synths, meat and taters libraries, and i see the total instant value of them and how easy and fluid working “in the box” really is. For the sake of a personal history reflection, i really don’t hark back with a deep longing to fire up 20 synths, play with a 100 cables, booting a session from footnotes and ZIP disks just to write or edit a small part that day.
Progress is a good thing, but for a wee while, we did just stay on target (gold 5 style), and think Mac or Pc and our chosen daw.
So with the advent of pad controllers like maschine, Push and groove box, a totally new generation and beleaguered older one, are turning to the magic of hands on hardware, not least hardware synths which as always, have come back in vogue but perhaps with a proper intention to stick around this time. The integration is much better, it all makes more sense now to sit a Moog alongside Logic or PT than a few years ago when it still felt a little like “this way” or “thatta’ way” and not much middle ground.
We have a bevvy of synths that come with USB midi, editors acting in realtime,plenty of panel controls. knobs and sliders and a spec that kinda makes sense now.
Even the grandfather of synthesis, the modular system, has made the biggest revival of them all, now sporting dozens upon dozens of euro-rack companies and startups all tinkering in the basement, releasing new modules each week. Who would have thunk it?!? Modular the lust of many a composer and EDM producer. But it happened, and im so glad it did.
Now swiftly bypassing the pointless analog vs digital debate, just for your info if you are in your twenties, this is a preoccupation which absorbed a huge amount of time for some people, the remnants of which still clog the forums trying to religiously convert you to analog and wash your mouth out.
For the most part, i think you can spare yourself that utterly futile argument.
If you are totally new to synthesis and the closest you have come is firing up Omnisphere, then this is mainly aimed at you. Omnisphere is a fantastic place to start by all means. It does come with the most comprehensive modulation source routing any hardware synth would be envious of, copious DSP effects, the ability to import audio in Omni 2, and so many features it would take all day to delve into.
But soft based vst synths aren’t by any means a bad place to start.
For your first hardware synth you need to look at things standing back a bit and evaluate the basics before you lunge to buy a 1000 dollar synth because Junkie XL or Dead Mau5 has one.I cant fault you, i followed my synth using idols all the way to debt and more than my share of face palming and long repayments, so understand your budget because the “value” side of things is very misleading. Ask any Access Virus owner like myself who bought one brand new and that’s your answer…..
With an understanding of budget, what is it you think you need?? Are you interested in one of a million mono synths?? These are perhaps the cheapest means to get a foot on the ladder, do you hanker for a poly with or without onboard effects?? added arp and sequencer?
All the things you would want, they all reflect on the added price, then factor in “coolability” with some of the big names, or niche builder with a cool reputation, you can be buying into costs you could do without for your first foray.
What i would always suggest, is looking into synths that cost a few hundred dollars/pounds/euros, whatever. You don’t have to go big or go home on this one. Something very cheap like the Novation synths, the bass station II which has not long had a revision, has seen it price come right down in the process. Its a full analog signal synth, USB buss powered if need be, beautifully made, lots of features, but a short keyboard, no effects etc blah blah.
If you just want to literally ‘learn’ synthesis hands on, then something like that will be the best tool you could imagine. Simple, yet cunningly powerful. It will walk you through what the basic wave forms sound like, their distinctive character and how they interact with filters and LFO’s.
A basic synth will just help focus your mind into the process. The chain that is fairly typical for a hard routed synth IE: one that is rigidly mapped out unlike a modular in which you create the path of the signal taking your oscillator and feeding this into ……….< whatever the hell pleases you that day. In a regular routed synth, you will see all the familiar parts of the build
The oscillator, in which produces your sound, your chosen waveform. You may have 1 or more, its nice to have 2 on the go for sure some have a 3rd or a low sub oscillator, and some have a noise generating oscillator also.
Then you have your attack, decay,sustain and release to shape the sound alongside your ADSR for your filter and envelopes. Ok so lets cut short an actual full on lesson, but i would suggest something that is a monosyth and has it all laid out on the panel easy to see.
The Moog Little phatty, now discontinued but readily available, is what i would describe as the easiest damn synth to grab the basics on. The stage 2 model has half decent CV connections and not badly implemented USB midi too.
As mentioned previously, a lot of the novation synths are extremely good value for money and handy to learn on.
Dont be afraid of older tech at all, but obviously be very wary of the price as second hand prices are nothing short of sheer lunacy, but their are gems to be found, so use as many sites as need be to research and figure out whats useful, whats a bargain. When i say “older”, you can easily find any number of forgotten gems made during the 90’s when some would say it heralded the most questionable range of “techno” plastic and very digital synths for a generation.
Their were also some amazing synths during this time, but typically most are menu driven and not very hands on at all. It was one of the reasons that synths took a decline into the 2000’s. in that we did away with very useful controls and thought a small LCD menu and wrapping our fingers in tight knots was a better way to do it. Hence why with the progress of in the box computing, we got outright sick of synths and clicked mouses and keys instead. Its kinda like progress just consuming itself but thankfully, hands on synths have made that strong return so you dont have to have a PHD in finger/menu acrobatics now to enjoy the process.
On the side of synth power alone, you have to factor in what you really need or could do without.You will always pay more for synths with big flashy onboard DSP, so ask do you really need it? Their was a time when man would wander into a music shop, and a synth drowning in every reverb you could imagine, reigned victor among a swathe of much better synths, not coked up in 8 bit garbage.
You already have a huge ocean of plugins and effects, so if you don’t need that side of things, if you’re buying a synth for studio work, its a big factor you can side step.
Now poly synths will always tend to cost more, none more so than full analog signal path polys.It supposedly costs lots more to make them, so typically expect to pay a percentage per added polyphony, im not joking either. This is where virtual analogs come in play and give you a huge amount of feature set from the get go, but minus the mahoosive cost of pure analog.
Dave Smith instruments are for me, a great example of where analogs laden with all the bells and whistles, come with the hefty price tag i mentioned earlier. Their bloody brilliant, sound incredible, very unique among anyone’s synth pallet, but you will pay the premium to have one.
Lots of companies made “virtual analog” synths going back a lot further than you probably realise.The Nord lead being a good example. Made in 1995, its mission like all VA’s. was to mimic analog oscillators, the signal path behaviour and give this random feeling analogs give you. Subtle detunings,none of the harsh crisp defined “stepping” in a digital synth, but all of this essentially written and at its heart still digital framework.
The Virus TI being a brilliant example of an old VA concept still sought after today, not only for its ability to mimic lots of classic synth models with its huge bank of waveforms, filter types, DSP power, but its also very well supported and relatively easy to integrate into a modern daw setup.
On that issue on integration id also suggest thinking ideally about USB. Purely for now because its so damn easy. Its plug and play in most cases and i find that a majority of the modern USB synths just make a typical work day much easier. All of your knobs and sliders sending realtime info without any extra mapping that you do when you link up a VST to your chosen controller keyboard.
Im not anti 5 pin MIDI as such, but for the most part, in the line of work i do and the demands, i just find that messing with MIDI routings, thrus,old school paramters, kenton interfaces, patching, is a huge pain in the arse and one of the things i dont cherish with modern gear. It steers me away from the over priced gems of yesteryear which are all due a good service, dont always work, their midi timings can be very debatable and they take up way too much room if you have just a small space to play in.
If you can whittle down a few areas like you initial budget, expectations and goals, you can make this first time buy easier than you think. During your research, you will find that everyone is heavily opinionated on what sounds best, and what you should spend your money on. To the degree, your almost handing over money to strangers, so spend as much time as you need making sure whatever you buy suits you, and not the guy 5000 miles away writing totally different music in his bedroom putting the world to rights.
Ill make some lists of things to read up on, that way you have some idea of features and how they might migrate into your work flow.
Korg Micro korg – Despite diminutive stature and mini keys, tons of power, very distinctive and widely loved tone and decent range of features, very bargain price.
Novation ultra nova – Again, small but very well specced. Virtual analog, poly, usb buss powered and easy to integrate, lots of hands on action.
Moog Sub Phatty – short board but full size keys, doesnt take up lots of room but hugely powerful mono synth,daw librarian editor, full analog signal path, silly amount of hands on features, USB,authentic Moog sound.You can buy these around half the cost of its big brother the sub 37, which btw is def one to take a good look at too.
Nord Lead 4 – Admittedly pricey, but an extremely powerful virtual analog poly with lots of effects, distinctive creamy Nord sound, not something id compare to any vst synth i know of and a good alternative to the Virus TI.
Novation BASS Station II – Dont be mislead with the name, just think ‘extremely cheap yet powerful full analog synth thats very easy to program integrate, and wont make you broke’. I totally swear by this for a first time synth.
I wont make an exhaustive list here as its going to be more of a distraction than assistance but just focus on your needs. That you want to learn, have something unique in your setup that isnt just point and click, something that will bring the fun and creativity back into a jaded work flow, that wont cripple your finances or need too much time to get the basics from.
Their are a ton of online guides to give you synthesis basics and if you spend just a little time watching some walk throughs, especially if you did buy a synth and want to learn on the fly, vid tuts are great for fast tracking and bringing you up to speed. We all approach this our own way, their is no right or wrong way to discover synthesis or how you adapt and learn. Some will instantly take to it and have music infused with home grown sounds during that day, others will want to tinker and study more, thats fine, its all part of the fun of it.
I had left behind hardware synths for a good few years. They were all i knew and i adored my time learning their quirks and choosing what colours to pick that day, but my own return was because i just woke up to he banality of clicking a mouse all day.
When i did buy synths again, i wasnt in any rush to lay them down in my music, in fact it was a good year at least until i did ,and it became more and more a natural daily usage turning to what had a certain flavour. Dont feel under any pressure, any expectation from your self or others.
It is a journey worth taking, you will have a lot of fun, take your time, research and then pull the trigger
How to use external synths in your daw video tutorial – Logic.
How to setup external hard ware in Cubase
The fundamentals of Synthesizer programming Part 1
Nord Lead 4 Virtual Analog Synth review
Moog Sub 37 Hands on review
Novation Bass Station 2 Hands on review
Arturia MiniBrute Hands on review