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10 Best: Analogue Synths

In today’s world it’s becoming increasingly difficult to identify a true analogue synthesizer and even more so to choose the one that caters for your individual needs. Analogue modeling, true analogue signal path and DSP are just some of the confusing terms that the manufacturers throw about, so in this article our resident caped-crusader dissects the attributes of our ten most popular analogue synthesizers, helping you to decide which knobs you should be twiddling.

Dave Smith Instruments Prophet ’08 PE Keyboard Synthesizer


The original Prophet 5 was a polyphonic synthesizer manufactured by Sequential Circuits (which was sold to Yamaha in 1987, who then flogged it to Korg). It found fame with the likes of Kraftwerk, New Order and Radiohead and was one of the first commercially available synths to implement an internal memory for saving parameters. It was designed by Dave Smith, who now owns his own company and has re-created the Prophet in the 08 incarnation. This unit employs true analogue subtractive synthesis, although the oscillators are DCO’s (which are arguably more reliable than the traditional VCOs) and it boasts an army of new features, including a four channel analogue step-sequencer (with multiple trigger modes and sequence parameters), a modulation matrix, an arpeggiator, plus a brace of RCA stereo outputs which means that its two program banks can be flexibly routed. Dave was nicknamed “The Father of MIDI” back in the day, so it’s no surprise that he’s graced us with that all too rare Poly Chain Out fourth MIDI socket which allows the hook up of multiple instruments for increased polyphony. Operating the 08 is walk in the park – everything can be controlled from the front panel with knob twiddling bliss as 38 of the 52 knobs are potentiometers (with 300 degrees of rotation) and the remaining encoders have endless rotation. The keyboard’s characteristics can be switched between Normal Mode, which plays the same sound over the eight voices, or Stack Mode, which allows you to layer combinations onto one key. Finally, Split Mode allows you to assign layers of voices to different parts of the keyboard. Like the original Prophets, the filters either operate in a self-oscillating 24dB/octave (four-pole) mode or a non-self-oscillating 12dB/octave (two-pole) mode. As you’d imagine from a synth in this price range, you really get what you pay for regarding sound quality, regardless if you intend to use it straight out of the box for instant stabs, pads or basslines, or spend a lifetime tailoring each frequency pulse to perfection. Also available in rack-mountable module format. [Find out more at Juno]

Specifications:
Type Polyphonic analogue synthesizer
Keyboard 5 Octave
Programs 256 (2 banks of 128) with 2 Layers (2 separate sounds) in each
Sequencer 16 x 4 gated step sequencer
Oscillators 2 digitally controlled analog oscillators
Filters 1 Analogue Curtis low-pass filter per voice, selectable 2 and 4 pole operation
Envelope Generators 3
LFOs 4
Glide Glide (portamento): separate rates per oscillator
Analogue VCA Yes
Dimensions 30.73 x 88.39 x 9.84 cm
Weight 9.98 kg
Inputs/outputs MIDI In, Out, Thru, and Poly Chain
Main stereo audio output: 1/4″ unbalanced
Sustain pedal input: accepts normally on or normally off momentary footswitch
Pedal/CV input: responds to expression pedals or control voltages ranging from 0 to 5 VDC
Headphone output: 1/4″ stereo phone jack.
Power Supply 10V – 240V AC operation (13-15 VDC, 400 mA)

Dave Smith Instruments Mopho Keyboard Analog Synthesizer


 

You could argue that this is the ancestor of the Sequential Circuits Pro One (the filter is the descendant of the CEM3320 chip), or the little brother of the Prophet 08 (the oscillator chip is the same as the 08). Whichever way you choose to dress it up, what you are essentially getting here is a one voice, two-oscillator mono-synth with four LFOs, two or four pole filters plus an arpeggiator and sequencer. The signal path is all analogue, the ‘pots’ are digital and there is an on-screen MAC/PC editor available via USB connection. The sunshine yellow case is made of metal and the craftsmanship (especially the semi-weighted keyboard and walnut side-panels) is faultless down to the last screw. We’re blessed with a very well rounded analogue sound which is uncomplicated to use and a lot of fun to tweak. If you’re new to the world of hardware synths, then this is an ideal first purchase. Likewise, existing collectors can have a piece of that sought-after Dave Smith sound without having to postpone the summer holiday. Also available in rack-mountable module format. [Find out more at Juno]

Specifications:
Type Monophonic analogue synthesizer
Keyboard 32 Note Keyboard
Programs 384 (3 banks of 128 programs) plus free downloadable software editor for Mac OS and Windows
Sequencer 16 x 4 step sequencer
Oscillators Dual
Filters One classic Curtis low-pass filter (switchable 2- or 4-pole)
Envelope Generators 3
LFOs 4
Glide Glide (portamento): separate rates per oscillator
Analogue VCA Yes
Dimensions 47.4 cm x 28.2 cm x 9.1 cm
Weight 9.4 lb
inputs/outputs USB type B receptacle
MIDI In, Out/Thru, and Poly Chain
Audio input: 1/4″ unbalanced
Left and Right audio outputs: 1/4″ unbalanced
Sustain pedal input
Expression pedal/control voltage (3.3 VDC max.) input
Headphone output: 1/4″ stereo phone jack
Power Supply Includes power supply for 100V – 240V AC

Analogue Solutions Telemark Synthesizer


 

The Telemark is a hand-numbered synth loosely based on the Oberheim SEM, with the addition of MIDI and a host of 1/8 inch patching points that effectively make it semi-modular, with the added bonus of having the ability to cross-patch with other synths or interface with external hardware sequencers (the MFB Urzweg Pro instantly springs to mind). This is a true analogue synth devoid of any voice DSP, and the manufacturer is keen to point out that, despite media speculation, it is not intended to be a clone. The point of the exercise is not to cram as many “look what I can do” features into the equation – the Telemark is a fine example of a synth that performs a number of traditional synthesis maneuvers with a supreme level of grace and dignity. Out of the box this steel monolith of joy’s fixed architecture will yield an extremely pleasing sound from the twin oscillators which come armed with tune, fine tune, pulse width modulation, frequency modulation, manual pulse width, modulation source controls, saw out, pulse out and sync controls. Combine this with the high-pass, band-pass and variable notch filter (which gave the SEM the edge up against the Minimoog) and you’ve got a very easy way in which to design your sound. There are no presets, it doesn’t come with any patch-cables but frankly it does look like the kind of module you’d find in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (or HEP dam control center). [Find out more at Juno]

Specifications:
Type Semi-modular analogue synthesizer
Keyboard N/A
Programs No preset memories or any other kind of digital control
Sequencer N/A
Oscillators 2 x flexible modulateable oscillators
Filters Low pass filter, High pass filter, Band pass filter, Notch filter, variable Notch filter
Envelope Generators Single EG
LFOs Single LFO
Analogue VCA Yes
Dimensions 24.2 x 27.5 x 11.0 cm
Weight 2.3Kg
Inputs/outputs 45 x monophonic 3.5mm patch points (cables not included)
3 x 1/4″ TRS Jack for Audio In/Out and VCF in
5 PIN DIN MIDI in/out
Power Supply Includes power supply for 230V, 15VAC at 500 mA

Doepfer Dark Energy Analog Monophonic Synthesizer


 

This is another fully analogue, modular edition to our ten best series, and for a synth of this size (15 x 13 x 5cm) it’s packing more ins and outs than your average top shelf magazine. Like the Telemark (and aside from its hard-wired architecture) it comes with 1/8 inch CV inputs in the form of VCO frequency, VCO pulse-width, VCF frequency, VCA amplitude and gate, plus you can input your own external audio signal for further twiddling. Up on deck the VCO has a frequency range of approximately 10Hz to12kHz, with manual tuning control for sharp or flat tuning of the pitch. The VCF’s sound is bewitching, particularly the resonance, which allows you to get properly stuck into the harmonics around the cut off frequency point, which at a certain level will start to self-oscillate. There are no surprises with the envelope generator, which has a nifty range switch for the time related parameters. As previously mentioned, the EG can be triggered by an external gate signal (0/+5 to + 12v). Both LFOs are the same, with three operation modes for frequency: Low for periods of up to a minute, Audio for above 5 kHz, and Medium, which is the usual LFO range (few seconds or 10Hz give or take). You can hook up multiple Dark Energy’s in Stack Mode on the same MIDI channel, which will sound simultaneously when a note is played, which adds a seemingly limitless depth to your sound. If this is a feature you’d like to make permanent, just unscrew the side-panels and bolt ‘em all together. As well as being perfect  for bass, classic pad sounds, acid and analogue style drums, it’s small enough to fit into standard DJ luggage, and will add spice to any Ableton Live set! [Find out more at Juno]

Specifications:
Type Monophonic stand-alone analogue synthesizer
Keyboard N/A
Programs No preset memories or any other kind of digital control
Sequencer N/A
Oscillators Single triangle based VCO
Filters Single VCF
Envelope Generators Single EG plus external control
LFOs 2 x LFO
Analogue VCA Yes
Dimensions 185 x 145 x 75 mm
Weight 1.2 kg
Inputs/outputs Monophonic 3.5mm jacks:
CV In VCO frequency (1V/oct
CV In VCO pulsewidth (about 5V range for full scale)
CV In VCF frequency (~ 1V/oct)
CV In VCA amplitude (0…+5V)
Gate In (0/+5…12V)
CV1: controlled by Midi note messages, 1V/Oct, 0 to +5V, internally connected to VCO CV input
CV2: controlled by Midi pitch bend, ~ -2.5 to +2.5V or ~ 0 to+ 5V
CV3: controlled by Midi velocity, 0 to +5V
CV4: controlled by Midi control change messages
Inverted LFO1 Out (~ -2.5 to +2.5V)
Envelope Out (~ 0 + 6V)
Audio Out (line output, typ. 1Vss, monophonic)
USB
5 PIN DIN MIDI in
Power Supply Includes power supply for 230V, 15VAC at 400 mA

MFB Nanozwerg Monophonic Analog Synthesizer


Berlin based Manfred Fricke has been making synths since 1976 and he’s got the art down to a tee. If we were talking about cars then the Nanozweg would be the sports edition – compact with a filter that you just can’t help pushing to extremes. On the bench it’s smaller than the Doepfer (at 140 x 130 x 35 mm) and it lacks that bomb-proof build, but anyone familiar with MFB’s range knows it’s a different vibe entirely. Here we’ve got a single oscillator mono synth with triangle, saw-tooth, rectangle and needle-impulse waveform shapes, the base pitch of which can be switched over four octaves with a one octave range on the fine tune. It’s got a sub-oscillator with two mix-able settings, which can be replaced by the noise generator. The real money shot here is the multi-mode filter, with a 12dB slope per octave over low/hi and bandpass-modes, not to mention notch-filtering and resonance up to self-oscillation. The LFO has four waveform shapes plus a couple of 1/8 inch CV in/out patch points, which is a nice touch as you can route it back into the audio input. Besides the cut-off frequency, the LFO can also modulate the pitch or the VCO rectangle’s pulse width. It doesn’t matter if you’re using the synth’s hard wired architecture or feeding audio signals into the VCF and VCA – you’ll doubtlessly come up with some classic analogue creations with bass sounds not too dissimilar to the original Novation bass-station. [Find out more at Juno]

Specifications:
Type Mini Monophonic stand-alone analogue synthesizer
Keyboard N/A
Programs No preset memories or any other kind of digital control
Sequencer N/A
Oscillators Single oscillator with sub oscilator
Filters Single state-variable multimode-filter
Envelope Generators Single EG
LFOs Single
Analogue VCA Yes
Dimensions 140 x 130 x 35 mm
Weight 0.56 kg
Inputs/outputs Monophonic 3.5mm jacks:
Audio in
Audio out
CV-/Gate In
VCF In
VCA In
5 PIN DIN MIDI in
Power Supply Included power supply

Moog Slim Phatty


The Slim Phatty is the all new monophonic, two oscillator wonder from the Moog stable. It’s essentially a Moog Little Phatty without the keyboard, with an output signal which is 100 per cent analogue. The omnipresent retro styling on the Slim Phatty will please even the hardiest synthesiser boffins and the specifications are equally pleasing – particularly the fact that an external signal can be routed through the filter for modulation, thus maintaining analogue purity throughout. Another strength is the ability to polychain the unit to another Slim or Little Phatty, thus enabling polyphony. The first thing you’ll notice after you’ve allowed the Slim Phatty its 15 minute warm up time (VCO has a heated chip design to ensure proper tuning) is the immensely powerful sound the synth has. If you’re a classic synthesizer lover with a passion for sculpting your own soundscapes from a raw waveform upwards, then you’ll undoubtedly yield some impressive results from this beast. Anyone serious about making dance music should take notice as the bass sounds are infinitely warmer than any results that you’ll get from a soft synth. Dubstep producers desiring the basslines pioneered by the likes of Skream can route the LFO to the filter cutoff and tweak away for that distinct wobbly effect. There are two analogue voltage controlled oscillators, with 16′, 8′, 4′, 2′ octave parameters, each with a continuously variable waveform from triangle through to saw and square to narrow pulse. You can adjust the waveform’s frequency, glide rate and level, with fine tuning also possible via the numerical display on the LCD screen (you can also sync oscillator one and two). The Moog’s voltage controlled 24db/octave ladder filter, however, is the real money shot. You can control the cut-off and resonance frequency parameters as well as other functions such as the keyboard amount, which allows you to set the degree that the cut-off frequency tracks the note being played. The EG parameter allows you to set the degree that the Filter EG affects the filter cut-off frequency, and you can wreak absolute havoc with the overload function, which uses soft to hard signal clipping. Operating the Slim Phatty is incredibly easy, as in addition to the wave-shaping capabilities there are 99 factory presets which range from basic sine, square, triangle and sawtooth waveforms to analogue drums and complex pads. Names such as Dead Robot, Dirt Bubbles, Stab Me, Disturbance, Cheese Grit and Game Over give us the idea of the kind of thing that we can expect. [Find out more at Juno]

Specifications:
Type Monophonic 100% analogue signal path desktop synthesizer
Keyboard N/A
Programs 99 preset sounds plus four banks of performance sets (32 in total)
Sequencer No
Oscillators 2 ultra-stable analog VCO’s
Filters Single Voltage Controlled Low Pass Filter: 24 dB /Oct Moog Ladder filter with overload
Envelope Generators 2 ADSR EGRs assigned to filter cutoff frequency and volume
LFOs Dual
Analogue VCA Yes
Dimensions 431.8 x 133.4 x 109.8 mm
Weight 2.6kg
Inputs/outputs Control Voltage Inputs:
Pitch CV: -5 to + 5V
Filter CV: -5 to +5V
Volume CV: 0 to +5V
Keyboard Gate: +5V trigger
5 PIN DIN MIDI In, Out, Thru
USB MIDI In, Out
Audio Out
Ext. Audio In (accepts +4dBu line level signal)
Monophonic Audio Out (1⁄4” TS)
Headphone jack (1⁄4” TRS)
Power Supply includes universal power supply,
100-250 VAC, 50-60 Hz,
power consumption: 12 Watts

Moog Minimoog Voyager Electric Blue Edition


Having been the driving force behind the popularization of the analogue synth since the late 1960’s, Moog doesn’t let up with this latest edition of the recent classic Moog Voyager. This version has been given a facelift so that its look matches its sound. This synth has been placed in a fractal blue solid ash cabinet and with its electric blue backlit control surfaces; it looks like a winning combination. The Minimoog Voyager has all the weight of analogue synthesis with the convenience of the digital age. With three stable voltage controlled oscillators (with variable waveforms), a noise generator, well respected dual moog filters, flexible modulation busses that bring a world of patching possibilities to bear. At the Voyager’s heart is the legacy of the Model D synth which was discontinued in 1982, but this well loved technology has been brought into the 21st century with Midi in/out and a three dimensional touch surface, there is even some useful software developed by Lintronics to help you store and recall your own saved patches or banks via Midi. This is in addition to the 7 banks of 896 pre programmed sounds that come ready to cut through your mixes like butter. When it comes to mono synthesis (one note at a time), Moog have been the yard stick to measure against and the Voyager has become the go to synth for well known musicians such as Jesse Carmichael of Maroon5 and Printz Board of the Black Eyed Peas. But Moog quality stands by itself and if you’re looking for the fattest sounds with the most amount of flexibility over 44 keys in a keyboard that really looks the part then you cannot go wrong with the Electric Blue Edition Moog Voyager.

[Find out more at Juno]

Specifications:
Type Monophonic analogue performance synthesizer
Keyboard 44 keys with velocity and after touch response
Programs 896 x presets in 7 x banks, all locations are user
Sequencer N/A
Oscillators 3 x high stability, wide range, VCO
Filters 2 x Moog filters
Envelope Generators 4-stage analog envelope generators
LFOs Single
Analogue VCA Yes
Dimensions 77.5cms x 48.7 cms x 7.6cms
Weight 18.1kg
Inputs/outputs Mixer Ext In, Mix Out/Filter In/foot pedal control inputs
Stereo audio output with 2 x 1/4″ jacks
Mixer Ext In, Mix Out/Filter In/foot pedal control inputs
Power Supply 100-240v

Mode Machines x0xb0x Socksbox Synthesizer


The legendary Roland TB-303 synthesizer is probably the most famous piece of kit in dance music’s history. Manufactured for a period of approximately eighteen months in the early eighties, it was far from an overnight success, eventually finding fame with legions of electronic music producers, starting with the early US house pioneers such as Adonis, DJ Pierre and Fast Eddie. Picking up where Roland left off, the Mode Machines Xoxbox (pronounced ‘zocksbox’) is an open source project that is being constantly updated and improved by means of free downloadable third party OS updates, which are transferred via USB from your computer. Measuring up at 27.5 x 19.5 cm x 9 cm and weighing in at 1kg, it is available in a variety of different formats, including the kit version, which you’ll need a basic level of soldering to attempt building, or the manufactured models, which are available with either blue, red, white or purple LEDs. The Xoxbox comes complete with a sequencer, mini-keyboard and all of the beloved controls of the original model. You can also store 128 banks of track memory and 64 banks of pattern memory. It’s got a total of 40 LEDs, three encoders, seven rotary parameter controls, 10 utility keys and a waveform selector switch. The user interface is almost the same as its silver predecessor, although the controls are slightly better in their positioning, resulting in a much smoother tweaking experience. The real fun starts when you program your own patterns in step-write mode, entering each note individually whilst static or while the sequencer is running, then saving your creations complete with rest, accent and slide information to memory. You can change the swing timing of your patterns, adding a bit of shuffle or jam in loop mode, cutting up your patterns and reversing them. The note nudge is a tasty feature which means you can play around with a note’s position, jumping forward or backward within a sequence, and you can make your Xoxbox stutter in time (a nifty trick used by early acid bad boys). When all is said and done, it’s the sound that really impresses. It is in fact technically purer than you’ll get from the Roland TB-303 due to the now worn, ageing components of the original which degrades the sound (although some enthusiasts will argue that this degradation is what makes the 303 sound as it does). [Find out more at Juno]

Specifications:
Type Open source Roland TB 303 clone monophonic analogue synthesiser (with self assembly option)
Keyboard N/A
Programs 128 Banks for tracks, 64 Banks for patterns
Sequencer Yes
Oscillators Single
Filters 24dB low pass resonant filter, non self oscillating
Envelope Generators Single EG
LFOs N/A
Analogue VCA Yes
Dimensions 27.5 cm x 19.5 cm x 9 cm
Weight 1 kg
Inputs/outputs
1/4″ line output
1/4″ mix input
5 PIN DIN MIDI In, Out, Thru + DINSYNC
USB
Monophonic 3.5mm jacks:
Gate
CV
USB (for firmware updates)
Power Supply included power supply

Korg Monotron Analog Ribbon Synthesizer


The perfect gift for your beloved budding DJ/producer and indeed a worthy addition to any project or pro studio. This is a fully analogue, handheld semi-modular (well OK it’s got audio aux in) single oscillator synthesizer featuring an 18 segment ribbon keyboard and pulsating LFO knob that gives the Voyager OS a run for its money! The filter is the same as in the legendary MS 20, and the single oscillator and LFO will yield all manner of perfectly satisfactory analogue creations, including very passable and useable acid. Includes a built-in speaker for use on public transport. [Find out more at Juno]

Specifications:
Type Handheld analogue ribbon synthesiser
Keyboard 18 segment ribbon
Programs N/A
Sequencer N/A
Oscillators Single
Filters Single (can modulate either pitch of filter cutoff)
Envelope Generators N/A
LFOs Single
Analogue VCA N/A
Dimensions 4.72” x 2.83” x 1.10”
Weight 3.35 oz. (without batteries)
Inputs/outputs 1/8″ Stereo Input Jack
1/8″ Stereo Output Jack
Miniature internal speaker, disabled when headphones are in use.
Power Supply AAA Alkalines (x2)

Vermona Mono Lancet Monophonic Analog Desktop Synthesizer


The Lancet series from German manufacturer Vermona features a tasty reverb unit, a multi-mode filter, a kick synth and the Mono Lancet, all of which clock in quite considerably under the £500 mark. The ML is a desirable looking product which isn’t much bigger than a paperback book. The knobs have a beautiful retro styling hexagonal shape to them, with the rocker-switches looking like they could have come from a bass guitar. The whole thing is finished in a solid gun-metal grey case. Beauty isn’t just skin deep here, as this twin oscillator synth boasts a filter that’s not dissimilar to a Moog. The first oscillator creates triangle, sawtooth and square waves which you can set one octave lower than the second oscillator, which generates white noise instead of the triangle wave with de-tuning by up to seven octaves each way. You can control the pulse width via an external control voltage (such as the Lancet Modular Dock, which attaches by means of a 25-pin D-Sub expansion port) or with MIDI. The filter is a voltage controlled low pass job with a 24 dB per octave slope and tracking switch (0 is off, 50 is half and 100 is on) allowing it to be played in tune. The LFO is also juicy, with a frequency range of 0.05 through to 250 Hz that can be used to modulate the VCO and VCF. There’s a basic sequencer which doesn’t seem to be programmable as far as patterns are concerned, although you can change the octave, and restarting prompts a different sequence. For the price you can’t really fault the sound as it’s big and warm and yields all the classic analogue sounds you’d expect from a module of this specification. Recommended. [Find out more at Juno]

Specifications:
Type Monophonic stand-alone analogue synthesizer
Keyboard N/A
Programs N/A
Sequencer Yes
Oscillators 2
Filters
Envelope Generators single EG
LFOs single
Glide Yes
Analogue VCA Yes
Dimensions 210 mm x 145 mm x 55 mm
Weight 750 g
Inputs/outputs FM VCO1
PWM VCO1
FM VCO2
PWM VCO2
VCF In
FM VCF
CV In VCA
1V/octave CV VCO1 & VCO2
GATE (VCO1 & VCO2)
Mono Lancet In
VCO1
VCO2
1V/Octave CV (MIDI-to-CV)
GATE
Audio Out
25-pin D-Sub expansion port
Power Supply 25 mA