As the possibility of quarantine or self-isolation in the face of Coronavirus comes closer, synth nerds everywhere are planning how to amuse themselves for 14 days without physical contact with another human being. If synths are your passion, you’ll have plenty of ideas about how to fill that time in wonderfully deep and musically interesting ways. Here are the synths I’d take into self-isolation with me.
Coronavirus and Covid-19
Now, just to be clear: This post is not trying to be flippant about a virus that has already affected many people out there and could end up affecting us all. But I think we could all do with some light-hearted reflection in these troubled times. So, here’s a list of synths I’d like to be stranded with and that I feel would benefit from a couple of weeks of intensive playing and investigation.
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Immense synth – Moog One
You’ve got to kick off with a dream of a synthesizer and for me that means the Moog One. It’s huge, deep and could be a useful object to barricade the door when society breaks down. Moog One is a polyphonic synthesizer with 3 oscillators, 2 filters, noise and modulation. You could spend a long time exploring the knobs of the front panel before you even think about pressing the “more” button and tackling the display panel in the middle.
It’s the sort of synthesizer you sit and play and simply enjoy for the sound it generates. Lose a day in the dual-source noise generator exploring the mixing of colours and envelope shaping. You can move between unison and tri-timbral modes, splitting and layering sounds, blending together multiple synthesizers into a chorus of machines. Spend an hour with each preset and that’s about 4 days right there (assuming you give yourself time to sleep).
There’s an arpeggiator to play with and a sequencer with 64-steps per synthesizer. And at the end of the chain you have a bunch of cool effects.
The Moog One is an instrument, one that rewards exploration and will be difficult to feel bored by.
A good alternative would be the Waldorf Quantum if you wanted to blend in some different forms of synthesis in a similarly deep way.
Poly synth – Novation Summit
There are a lot of synths in this category. You have all sorts of good examples that you could happily spend a couple of weeks with. Anything from Sequential would be a good start, or the new Hydrasynth or Argon8 for people who are wavetable inclined. The Roland Jupiter Xm would give you a lot of directions to go or the Korg Prologue with its custom oscillator could keep on offering variation. But in this instance, I fancy the Novation Summit.
Summit has 16 voices or you can play it as two 8-voice synths. It’s not purely analogue so you can bring in that wavetable oscillator for some added digital spice. Summit brings more of the parameters to the surface than their Peak synthesizer and wraps it up in a good-sized keyboard. I’m loving the three stages of distortion running around the dual filters. There’s a ton of modulation which extends to the awesome effects engine so there are all sorts of places you can go in the time you have. I’ve had a Bass Station II for a long time and it’s a well-loved synth and Summit multiplies that up to mega proportions.
Perhaps the only thing missing is some kind of sequencer.
Journey synth – Korg ARP 2600 FS
There’s something in the physicality of Korg’s reissue of the ARP 2600 that gives me the impression that I’d be starting a journey to somewhere. It’s only a semi-modular synthesizer and a mostly monophonic one at that and yet its size and intention seem to suggest that after two weeks you still wouldn’t have unlocked all its secrets. But you’d be close, you’d be something approaching a master of the ARP 2600 and you’d have explored every inch.
You have 3 oscillators to play with and both types of filter from the early and later models. The Ring Modulator and Sample & Hold circuit add an unusual amount of variation to the sound and dynamic. The keyboard and arpeggiator would be essential parts of the journey. As would digging into the potential of the external audio processor as you feed it back into itself. The patching opens it up to endless ideas and the built-in speakers would reassure other people that you’re still alive.
An alternative would be the forthcoming Behringer 260o. It somehow doesn’t invoke that same sense of adventure as the full-sized Korg ARP 2600 FS but will offer the same sort of sonic possibility.
Groove Box Synth – Roland MC-707
Playing with a single synthesizer may not be enough when you could be playing with rhythms and multiple layers of sound and percussion. Maybe a groove box would be a better companion. With Roland’s new ZenCore technology forming the sound engine of the MC-707 this is a box with deep possibilities.
As a groove box you have 8-tracks of recording and sequencing of audio and synthesis with a large library of loops and loads of effects. You could build entire songs in the MC-707. It has the classic sounds of the Roland back catalogue built-in and lots of excellent hands-on control. You can even record your rasping vocals or sample your coughing fits to add to the authenticity of your album that you’ll inevitably name “Quarantine”.
It’s quite sexy, packed full of sounds and is fun to use. I’m still disappointed that it doesn’t have the D-Beam from the old MC boxes.
Alternatively, anything from Elektron would do the job and you may actually have the time to get your head around the workflow.
DIY Synth – Deckard’s Dream
Oh, to have a solid two weeks to spend soldering this fantastic project together would be complete heaven. Assuming you had all the components ready to go, some solder and an iron then I reckon you could build one in 14 days – probably.
Black Corporation’s Deckard’s Dream is based upon the legendary Yamaha CS-80 polyphonic analogue synthesizer and features 8 voice cards with thousands of components. You’ll have time to learn about surface mount soldering and how to read the values on resistors.
Each voice consists of two layers that can be individually programmed and controlled with MPE-based velocity and aftertouch. You have waveshapers to play with, low and high pass filters with a multi-segment envelope. In fact once you’ve built it you’ll need to find another excuse to self-isolate so you can spend 14 days playing with it.
Alternatively, check out the TTSH kit version of the ARP 2600 as a challenging build.
Modular Synth – Eurorack
Eurorack is ridiculous. It’s almost never-ending in possibility. The range and scope of modules can take you to places where you never knew you could go. A couple of rows of interesting modules could keep you busy indefinitely and this amount of concentrated time would give you the opportunity to fully understand the nature of modular and control voltage.
I’d start with a couple of regular analogue-style synth voices – VCO, VCF, VCA and then add some modulation in the form of envelopes and LFOs. Introduce a couple of digital sound sources to add some alternative timbres. Spice it up with complicated modules you could spend time with like the Make Noise Morphagene or Instruo Arbhar and then build up a collection of effects and sequencers. Assuming couriers are still happy to deliver to your plague house then a new module every other day could really keep you on your toes discovering new ways to patch the whole thing together.
It’s endless and absorbing and you could set up a generative patch that would soothe the hours away.
Alternatively AE Modular offers a scaled-down modular experience in a more compact space where you could explore the concepts without having to worry about the more diverse and esoteric modules. Or another more complex route would be to enter the world of Buchla with Easel Command Module.
Little Synth – Korg NTS-1
There are a lot of very cool little synths out there at the moment but I wonder if they have sufficient depth to fill an intense two weeks of jamming. The Korg NTS-1 has possibilities because of the custom oscillator into which you can load all sorts of new designs, waveforms and effects. You could potentially start learning how to program your own oscillators. With the recently announced development kits would could start coming up with your own synthesizer or effects pedal taking it well beyond the bounds of your regular monosynth.
The alternative would be to pick up a couple of smaller synths and see how they interact. Maybe get a Behringer RD-8 combined with a TD-3, or perhaps the IK Uno Synth and Uno Drum to give you a bass line and a drum machine for hours of fun. Is it enough for 14 days though?
Software synth – Cosmosf Saturn7
What the heck is it? Well, what better time to have your mind blown by something that could take a couple of weeks just to scratch the surface. Saturn7 is a real-time dynamic stochastic synthesis engine which can generate complex sonic textures using stochastic/deterministic functions. The rest of it you’ll have to work out for yourself. But basically you set the parameters in which sound is created in space and how it is interacted with.
Software has the added bonus of still being available once all the courier companies are self-isolated, assuming we still have power and internet.
- Sonic lab Cosmosf Saturn 7 webpage.
Alternatively, I’ve always wanted to spend some time learning the Usine Hollyhock DAW and sound design environment.
The synths that you have
You may not get the opportunity to pick up a brand new synth in time for your visit to quarantine and so we should also consider turning our attention to what we already have. You could begin with a massive studio tidy and sort out all that cable management that you’ve been putting off. If you have a bunch of little synths then invest some time in working out how to sync them all up, how you connect them to your DAW, how you record and mix everything. I find that my synth collection grows in an ad-hoc fashion with very little plan about how they integrate – this is an ideal time to work on that.
For someone who makes YouTube videos, I would spend a bit of time making and videoing the creation of patches on analogue synths like the Behringer MS-1. Sharing your exploits is also a good way of staying connected to people. You could then Live Stream the music you came up with during the day.
There’s no harm in being prepared although do bear in mind that panic buying and stockpiling synths is not really necessary and you could be preventing other synth enthusiasts from spending their time in self-isolation wisely. To synthesizer sceptics I would say that there are only so many box-sets you can watch and so consider buying an interesting box of sound for the sake of your music enjoyment, creative expression and sanity.
What would be your go-to synth to amuse yourself for 14 days? Let us know in the comments.