Semi-modular synthesizers have become a bit of a thing. As Eurorack modular has rocketed in popularity it makes sense for synthesizer manufacturers to fold in a bit of that CV/Gate voltage controlled goodness. A semi-modular will play perfectly well by itself, but patch it into some friends for a whole other synthesis experience. Here’s my pick of the most interesting semi-modular synths of 2018.
Pittsburgh Modular Microvolt 3900
One of the best releases at the NAMM and a surprising change in style from modular makers Pittsburgh Modular. They already had a semi-modular in most people’s top 5 with the Lifeforms SV1. But that has been eclipsed by this new product that seems to come from a different school of design. The Microvolt is beautiful, sleek and understated. It’s more petite than it looks and glows alluringly with those trademark blue LEDs.
The Microvolt is an analogue monosynth with a slightly different set of features to most synths. There’s wavefolding and halfway rectifying, a state-variable binary filter, a VCA with Low-pass gate, a loopable envelope, random voltages and a function generator. It has integrated MIDI, a sequencer arpeggiator and a 39 point patch bay.
Pittsburgh calls it a “love letter to the analog monosynth” and it’s certainly a lovely little box with bags of potential.
Amongst all the talk of clones Behringer snuck in something of their own. The Neutron is a paraphonic analog synthesizer. It runs with dual CEM3340 VCOs like those found in the Roland SH-101 and Sequential Circuits Prophet 5. The waveforms can be blended together before going through the self-oscillating multi-mode dual output filter. There are 2 envelopes, one for the amplifier and one for the filter. At the end of the chain is a BBD multiple stage analog delay circuit and an overdrive.
The thing is, is that there’s nothing particularly special about the Neutron. It’s a steady, no-nonsense analog synthesizer with all the right things in the right places. And that’s why it’s good. There’s no surprises, nothing to learn, just a classic sound for a ridiculous price of $299. And one that you can patch the hell out of with the enormous 56 point patch bay. It will also happily drop into a Eurorack case if that’s your wish. A totally brilliant and cost-effective way to start patching.
Arturia MiniBrute 2
More of a traditional looking synthesizer this one. Arturia has embraced the Eurorack world with their second generation MiniBrute. MiniBrute 2 is a cool, dynamic, adaptable evolution of their original monosynth. They’ve added a second oscillator with FM possibilities, a second LFO and the mixer now incorporates a blending of both oscillators, noise and an external input. The trademark Steiner-Parker multi-mode filter is still there and can be pushed into self-oscillation. Along with the ADSR there’s a cheeky loopable AD envelope that’s also CV controllable. And you have 48 patch points ready to integrate it all into your Eurorack if you so desire.
This synth has a keyboard, with velocity and aftertouch. The built-in sequencer/arpeggiator handles up to 8 sequences with 64 steps and syncs to MIDI Clock over USB. It also has Arturia’s new interlocking “Link” capability to attach it to their new RackBrute 3U and 6U Eurorack case system. There’s also the MiniBrute 2S alternative that has a drum machine style row of pads instead of the keyboard and brings in a more fully featured sequencer for those looking for a more percussive or loop based feel.
The MiniBrute was always a fiercely great monosynth and version 2 just swells its versatility to some fabulous places.
The Moog Mother-32 used to be the top dog in terms of semi-modular synthesis, but this year sees the release of the mother of mothers, the Grandmother of semi-modular and it’s pretty spectacular.
This is a proper synthesizer. It’s colourful and characterful, fun and accessible while being a great playground for learning about modular from the Godparents of synthesis. It has 2 oscillators, a classic ladder filter, envelope generation, LFO, mixer, mult and deep inside is buried a real spring reverb. The Fatar keyboard has pitch and modulation wheels and a decent sized 256 note sequencer and arpeggiator with 3 savable patterns.
The layout is that of a modular system. Placing the 41 patch points onto the individual modules next to the relevant controls. I so much more appreciate that sort of routing that having everything stuff into a patchbay at the side. It’s more organic, more intuitive which is really what you want when exploring synthesis.
At $999 the Grandmother is expensive for a semi-modular monosynth, but maybe not for a modern day classic that will shine in any environment.
Radikal Technologies Delta CEP A
I originally thought this was a Eurorack synth voice but it is also available as a standalone synthesizer making it a quite exciting semi-modular synth in its own right. The Delta CEP A made a bit of a splash at NAMM this year. It has 9 separate modules with the big one being the Swarm Oscillator which can generate up to 8 oscillators to thicken sounds or produce paraphonic chords and harmonic content. It’s a hybrid synthesizer meaning that it mixes analog and digital devices. So there’s an analog multimode filter and also a digital emulation and VCA. The effects engine at the end of the chain is also digital.
A unique feature is the Snapshot Interpolator which first of all allows you to take snapshots of your patch but then it can also morph between them.
The Delta CEP A has 23 knobs, 14 buttons, 28 LEDs and 31 patch points. You can drop it straight into your Eurorack or use it alongside in its desktop case.
It should have been available by now but apparently, they’ve run into some delays due to part allocation. Hopefully, it will be along soon!
Lots to choose from
The range of choice that’s emerged over the last year has been amazing. These semi-modulars are so good that you don’t even have to use their patching abilities. You can simply enjoy them as synthesizers in their own right. But they could also tempt you down that road into the never-ending world of Eurorack, and that’s always a good thing. What do you think of my choices? Let us know your semi-modular picks in the comments below.