Two products, both labelled with the legendary number 2600: One costs €3999, the other €599. What does value mean for synthesizer fans in 2020? Are premium synth brands justified in charging customers top prices? Or is the creativity of legendary designers and manufacturers being copied and dumped on the market at lowest prices? Just who is ripping off who? What’s your synth worth? Time to explore some thorny issues for the synth community.
Synthesizer pricing in the age of Behringer
I can understand new technology replacing old technology, there’s a sense of evolution in that. Our phones get slimmer and more powerful and our cars get more efficient and reliable. But when hardware comes up against the same hardware we find ourselves asking different questions. Questions about the value of a brand, the value of legacy, of authenticity and to some degree morality. On one hand, does a company have a right to harvest the ideas of the past and sell them at knock-down prices that undervalue the very reputation they are selling on? On the other does a company have the right to ask for a price based on what they think people will pay?
We’re in a Golden Age of Synthesizers
At the moment the world of synthesizers is in a golden age of renewal. The interest and availability of amazing electronic music-making machines is at an all-time high. There’s everything from big companies making big synthesizers to a cottage industry of makers producing Eurorack modules out of their kitchens. Big names like Moog and Sequential see themselves as boutique brands with exquisite products offering a lifestyle of synthesis where the price is secondary to the art and craft of sound and electronics. Companies like Korg and Roland see themselves as offering similar tools at more reasonable price points through automation, efficiency and scale.
We understood that relationship. Moog made the synths we couldn’t afford, Roland almost but never managed to make the thing you always wanted and Korg filled in the gaps with decent bits of quite exciting gear. Then into the mix comes Behringer with a mission to flood the world with cut-price replicas of all the synths you ever wanted.
There have been a few moments that really made me think about this. The first one was the re-release of the Minimoog Model D in 2016 for £3249. You could actually own a classic Moog synthesizer for the price of a second-hand car. A year later Behringer released their Model D clone for $299. Now I could have the authentic sound of the Model D in a hardware analogue synthesizer for the price of a digital groove box. It’s a tenth of the price and according to the people who know it sounds pretty much the damn same.
But there are two very recent moments that prompted this explorative article: Behringer’s announcement that their ARP 2600 clone will be €599, and the release of the Sequential Prophet-5 (Rev4) for €3,555.
Earlier in the year Korg produced a reissue of the legendary ARP 2600 synthesizer which could be yours for €3,999 if you were one of the lucky people to get in quick enough to bag one of the 500 that were initially produced. We all went nuts at the fabulous authenticity and wished we could afford it. It’s never going to be ours; it’s an aspirational synthesizer that gives us a sense that there’s a higher level to aim for. Along comes Behringer’s clone of the very same synthesizer and it can be yours for €599 and there will be plenty to go around.
Moog or Boog?
How do we reconcile these things? How do we contribute value to the Korg ARP 2600 at nearly 7 times the value of the Behringer? The Moog Model D is 10 times the price of the Boog. The hardware is different, for sure. It may be based on the same circuits and sharing all the same components but with Behringer they are surface-mount versions and miniaturised circuits which, to the gods of analogue sound, mean that their electrons have not gone through the same pathways as the electrons in the real thing. However, differences in hardware can only make up for a proportion of the price difference.
So are Moog and Korg pricing things based on costs of materials or on what they think people will pay? Sequential recently released the Prophet 5 (and 10) Rev4. It’s a beautiful thing, an ultimate synthesizer from a vintage age of awesome electronic sound. Arturia had recently announced the PolyBrute polysynth and it was priced around £2k which felt like the right sort of price for an awesome polysynth. The UDO Super-6 was similarly priced and in fact, Sequential’s own Prophet-6 and OB-6 were in the same ballpark. So when the price of the Prophet-5 arrived at over 3 grand and the Prophet-10 at 4 grand it felt just a little bit inflated.
Of course people who have that sort of cash to spend on synths will lap them up. As a business model for Sequential it completely works. By keeping the prices high, Sequential are able to build a premium product with high-end and uncompromising components. But it also stamps it as an aspirational product, something that professionals use and us mere mortals can only look at longingly from our screens. Is it really worth as much as the ticket?
Behringer has stated that it builds pricing upon how much a device costs to make plus a little bit for profit. If that results in a €599 price on the 2600 then what exactly is the component price of the Korg ARP 2600 and how much is what they think people will pay? You could say that Behringer is saving on R&D because they’re not developing their own products although it takes a fair bit of time and effort to analyse old synths and build comparable sounding circuits. But then what about Korg? How much R&D did they put into resurrecting a decades-old synthesizer that they had the original engineers working on?
Another point Behringer makes is that it doesn’t spend any money on marketing and advertising. Their social media team might make a couple of fruity demo videos whereas Moog will produce long-form, cinematic films with professional producers and musicians, glossy catalogues and double-page magazine adverts. It also makes you wonder where else Behringer are making their savings. Do they perhaps keep their costs low by leveraging low-wage production economics? Is there an ethical element involved in synthesizer production or is everything actually made in China and it’s only the last few screws that are put in by a well-paid worker in San Francisco or Asheville? How important is that when we make a purchasing decision?
Does it matter?
I would be the last person to suggest that this somehow makes Behringer the only honest company in the game. There are many factors involved in creating an electronic instrument. And that’s a factor right there – I’m not sure that Behringer sees its synths as instruments in the same way other companies do. It doesn’t appear to put a lot of thought into the layout or ergonomics or design of its devices. The driving force is to provide fabulous sounds at the cheapest price possible. Other manufacturers perhaps put a lot of time and effort into developing interfaces, testing the feel and crafting an instrument and it’s that which inflates the value of their products – and probably quite rightly.
It’s an argument that will continue and it’s a fascinating time to be interested in synthesizers. I know that there are beautiful synthesizers out there that I aspire to own. But I also know that realistically I could be playing on something, that sounds to my ears identical, right now for a fraction of the cost. Both those feelings, those concepts can sit perfectly fine in my head without contradiction. What a time to be alive.