Top 5 Synthesizers of 2017
2017 brought a good sized bundle of new and often exciting synthesizers into being. In trying to find my top 5 synthesizers, electronic sonic shifters and shapers I’m looking at innovation and quality, but also impact, pizazz and whether it would attract attention at a party. Top 5 doesn’t have to mean “best” or even what sold the most units, it’s what raised a smile under my knob-worn fingers.
Just to note that this list will only include synthesizers released and made available for the first time this year. It could include synths announced last year but only made it to market in 2017, but it won’t include anything that hasn’t actually made it to the shops (I’m looking at you Behringer Model D). Also, this is about hardware, not software synthesizers, and ones that are complete synthesizer voices and not just a component of a modular system. For my Top 5 Eurorack modules of 2017 check out my separate article here. And so, in no particular order:
Analogue Solutions Fusebox
It has an unexpected orientation, a rake reminiscent of the Putney VCS3, and a similar wall of controls inviting sonic exploration. The colour is perhaps the first thing that strikes you, but not loudly in alarm, rather it has a soft warmth like the embers of a cosy fire. It stands out, like the hairs on the back of your neck as you start to fiddle with it.
Fusebox is a 3 oscillator monosynth with FM sync and PWM and proper analogue circuitry that gives it that unique “Analogue Solutions vintage synth sound”. For modulation and sound shaping there are 2 envelopes and a multi-mode filter. There’s one main LFO with delay and re-trigger but 2 of the VCO’s can also be used for modulation. Noise and a sub oscillator round off the sound generation while a 4 note “Patternator” brings in some self-contained melody and arpeggiation.
It would look splendid in your studio or anywhere else in your house.
More information here.
Novation’s unexpected Peak 8-voice polysynth was a delightful surprise when it arrived in April. Digitally controlled with analogue signal paths it blends old and new technology in immensely pleasing ways. It uses 3 Numerically Controlled Oscillators (NCO) per voice giving it a total of 24. These have the feel of analogue while alternatively being able to run 1 of 17 wavetables, or can be employed as FM sources. It was designed by Chris Huggett who was behind synths like OSCar as well as Bass Station. They wanted to bring together sonic advantages of analogue with the power and control of digital. And so Peak manages to be something new and familiar all at the same time.
The look of it is good, the layout and the form factor gives a decent amount of room for the controls and display. And the cool optional stand sets it up at a perky angle for better access. Distortion is a big factor with each voice suffering(!) from 3 distortion points; pre-filter, post-filter and global. Modulation is provided by a 16-slot matrix with 3 envelopes and 2 LFOs per voice. Reverb, delay and chorus rounds it all off. There’s a lot of room for sound design and precise tweaking which can be saved to any of the 512 preset slots.And then, just for fun, there’s a pair of “Animate” buttons which will totally mess all your hard work up.
There’s something about the Peak that’s sensible. It feels like Novation have worked hard and done everything right. The result is exciting, but in a solid and dependable way rather than audacious and I mean that as a compliment.
More information here.
A synthesizer inspired by Vangelis, Philip K Dick and the Yamaha CS-80. That’s really enough to know that Deckard’s Dream is going to be an awesome piece of work. Originally developed by Roman Filippov from Sputnik Modular it’s a labour of love that seems to have made it to market. Deckard’s Dream is an 8-voice polysynth with 2 VCOs per voice. Waveshapers are used to help reproduce the instability of the original waveforms and a good slice of autotune keeps it all together – unless you don’t want it to.
They stress it’s not a clone of the CS-80 as the original was built with custom and exclusive chips. But they have paid attention to the synth architecture, the waveshapes and filter topology so that the experience of playing Deckard’s Dream offers the same feel as the original. And they’ve gone further with the polyphonic aftertouch and MPE support. A forthcoming additional 1U rack expander will bring more effects and open it up to CV patching.
Available as fully built or as a rather daunting kit it’s not a small investment at $3749. The kit is $999 but only contains the boards and none of the components. It’s either a lot of money or a lot of effort but to me this is a dreamy and unique synthesizer that would never lose its value.
More information here.
Roland Boutiques are a bit like Marmite – you either love them or hate them. Although I sometimes find myself flip-flopping between the two. However, Roland have outdone themselves this year with the release of three Boutique synths that really stand out from the crowd and on their own feet.
Firstly the SE-02 analogue monosynth. Designed with Studio Electronics this is a proper synthesizer that has no business being squeezed into the Boutique form factor. It sounds amazing, great features, awesome sequencer but the knobs are small and fiddly in order to get into that space. Secondly the D-05 reissue of the classic D-50 Linear Arithmetic synthesizer. This is a proper old school workstation digital synthesizer that has bugger all programming controls and so fits the Boutique size perfectly. It’s a great synth and well worth bringing back at such a compelling price point.
But, for me, it’s the SH-01a that’s the best Boutique of the year. Designed to bring the soul of the classic SH-101 back to life, I believe it accomplishes it in spades. For one thing the layout and those sliders suit the Boutique form factor more than most. But it’s the 4-voices that tip this over the edge into being a neo-classic synthesizer. It already sounds like an SH-101, so near that I don’t really think you can honestly criticise it for lacking any authentic sonic qualities. Then Roland hit us with polyphony and it’s a whole other thing.
It becomes its own synth with an authentic SH-101 as just one of several modes. I do think the sequencer on the SE-02 look better though.
More information here.
It’s the polysynths that have really captured our interest in 2017 and Dreadbox were one of the first out the gate with the Abyss. It’s a 4-voice, all analogue synthesizer with a lively and creative front panel. Each voice has an independent oscillator and sub and one LFO each. There’s a white noise generator, a wave shaping modulator, polyphonic glide function and autotuning on the oscillators. The filter and amplifier both have dedicated ADSR envelopes with velocity mapped to the attack rate and level. Then it has this interesting effects section. Firstly stealing the delay from the Erebus, then adding a 4-stage analogue phase shifter, and chorus/flanger “Reflector”. These can all be modulated with 2 LFOs and CV control.
The Abyss feels to me like Dreadbox are pulling together everything they’ve learned so far and celebrating it in this one device. It has an edginess to it that the Novation Peak tries to emulate but it’s just a little too pristine. The Abyss feels risky, like at any moment it’s going to catch fire or fall apart – and that’s not a criticism of the build quality, it’s more to do with the perceived explosions that are going on in the circuitry. It has a physicality to it that imposes itself on the desk, that demands attention. It’s brash like an OSCar, or an ARP as opposed to being gorgeous like the Peak or Deckard’s Dream. For this last entry in the Top 5 it was a toss up between the Abyss and the Dave Smith Instruments Prophet REV2, which is a wonderful synthesizer. But in the end I had to decide between the perfection of the REV2 or the character of the Abyss and for me character wins every time.
More information here.
That’s my selection from all the releases I’ve covered in 2017. NAMM is just around the corner and we already know there’s a big Korg release scheduled for it. I wonder what else we’ll find in 2018. What was your favourite from 2017?
- Analogue Solutions Fusebox: Analogue Solutions
- Novation Peak: Novation Peak
- Deckard's Dream: Deckard's Dream
- Roland SH-01A: Roland
- Dreadbox Abyss: Dreadbox
This is indeed some very exiting synths, and at some point I was almost convinced I would get the Fuzebox, the Peak and/or the Abyss before throwing my entire 2017 budget after the Oberheim TVS Pro (a decision I have not regretted). Deckard’s Dream I hadn’t heard of until recently, and wow, the thought of having a brand new 8 voice analog polysynth that doesn’t need repair ever so often, and that it is a CS80-not-CS80 is very exciting. I don’t know if the CMS 2607 came out pre-2017 but IMO it should replace the SH-01A on this years top 5 list.