Great hardware synthesizers don’t have to be expensive. Over the last few years Novation and Arturia seem to push the bigger guns of Korg and Roland into more interesting and more affordable areas. Something we all benefit from. 2016 has seen a mixture of innovation, retro and classic reimaginings and here are my Top 5 hardware synths for under £500 that we saw for the first time this year.
You might have expected to see the Minilogue in this spot but for me, the Monologue refines and defines what a powerful budget synth should be. It’s classy and yet fun, familiar yet packed with little touches that remind you that this is futuristic as well as vintage. It has a great feel to the controls, a useful sequencer and that little waveform screen that’s more useful than you’d think. It all hangs together more pleasingly than the rather oddly proportioned Minilogue. What it loses in polyphony it makes up for in style.
At £299 it rivals the Arturia MicroBrute and undercuts the Novation Bass Station II and any other competition. More information on the Korg website.
The original Roland TB-303 Bassline started whole genres and movements of electronic music that informs into masses amounts of material still being made today. When Roland’s big 909 day came along, we held our breath for something synthy and were not disappointed. Although there have been many clones of the original, Roland’s own ACB circuit modelling reissue, the TB-03, is probably the best. Not just because it has the right name on it, but because it improves on the original while retaining the looks, the charm and that sound.
Perhaps they could have done more with it – patch points for instance and for £329 it’s not a bargain but it makes a lot of people very happy. More information on the Roland website.
Korg ARP Odyssey Module
Korg’s second appearance in this list is the desktop version of the ARP Odyssey. While the keyboard version is already a reissue classic this brings a more compact instrument to the game. The small keys were heavily criticised so maybe this was just a smart way to avoid the issue. The ARP Odyssey Module shares the same duophonic analogue circuitry and layout of the keyboard version and they haven’t sneaked anything new into the box. The size of the thing is still a bit chunky though and takes up a fair amount of your tabletop.
Last time I looked this was going for £499 but the shocking exchange rate might just push it over the boundary. More information on the Korg website.
Make Noise 0-Coast
Coming out of left field is modular developers Make Noise with a confused and fabulous work of genius. The 0-Coast is designed to be a mix of West coast experimental flair and East coast musicality. It has a single voice, a smattering of knobs and a bunch of patch points. It will make you work and it will make you smile as you battle to take control. Feed in a sequence and just play. Take a fistful of patch cables and see what you can modulate. I was hooked within 5 minutes of playing with one. It could easily be the start of a journey into modular synthesis although its form factor does not lend itself to a Eurorack case. It would sit very nicely, fidgeting and bleeping alongside.
Currently at £455 but susceptible to exchange rate fluctuations, it’s not like anything else you’ve ever played.
More information on the Make Noise website – although don’t expect to understand what they tell you.
Korg Volca FM
Not another Korg surely? Well, they have been prolific this year, particularly in the price range below £500. And in the absence of Yamaha doing anything interesting with their own technology, I’m more than happy that Korg decided to give it a go. Like all the Volca’s they have a toy-like quality that hides a pumpingly serious heart. The Volca FM has 3 voices of FM with 6 operators and 32 algorithms making it totally compatible with the DX7. It has a 16 step sequencer, arpeggiator and a stylophone style keyboard, plus a speaker and room for batteries. It’s a very mobile music making unit. Not everybody likes the small form factor and mini knobs but at £129 it’s a bonefide classic.
More information on the Korg website.
There are a number of other hardware synths that came to mind that are definitely worth mentioning but were released before 2016. The Dreadbox Erebus is a stunning little semi-modular box at £429. The Roland System 1 or System 1m offers a lot of synthesizer and the ability to morph into classics for £409 and £499 respectively. The Moog Minitaur is the only Moog you’ll find at this price point and it doesn’t disappoint. The Roland Boutique range gives classic sounds in tiny boxes from £249. And of course the Arturia MicroBrute and MiniBrute still rock that electronic sound at £269 and £369. There’s also plenty just over the £500 mark to talk about but that’s for a different article.
What do you think of my choices? Too much Korg? Let me know in the comments and I will frown upon your choices.