Best Synthesizers 2018
The rollercoaster ride of hardware synthesizers shows no signs of slowing down. Our table tops are filling up and our walls are being racked with keyboard after keyboard of synthesizer goodness. Software instruments have their place but if you really want to craft some sounds then there’s nothing like getting your hands on the knobs and sliders of a proper synthesizer. Hardware often has the advantage of longevity and so there are plenty of synthesizers from last year and beyond that are still in production and still awesome (check out our Best Synthesizers of 2017 article here) but for this round-up, I wanted to focus on synthesizers that have emerged in the last twelve months. These synthesizers are pushing the boundaries, offering amazing sonic soundscapes. They’re completely inspirational. They’re not going to necessarily be pure analog. They may or may not have a keyboard. I’ll try to touch on a variety of synthesis methods and a range of price points. Let’s check out your next synthesizer.
Our 2018 Picks
Street Price: Korg Prologue 8 – $1499 (at time of writing)
Street Price: Korg Prologue 16 – $1999 (at time of writing)
Korg has been impressive with their return to analog synthesis. The Minilogue and Monologue of last year were truly great little synthesizers. You could tell something big was coming and when it arrived it was unexpected and completely awesome. The Prologue is a polyphonic hybrid synthesizer, meaning it mixes both analog and digital technology and can play more than a couple of notes at a time. There’s a Prologue 8 with a 49 key keyboard that can handle 8 voices of polyphony (8 notes held or playing at once), and a Prologue 16 with a 61-note keyboard with 16 voices of polyphony. The Prologue is bi-timbral, meaning it can load two different programs and play them layered or split.
The analog side builds on the strengths of the Minilogue and Monologue and has 2 VCOs, a filter, 2 envelope generators, a VCA and an LFO. The digital side introduces a third oscillator that brings digital, Variable Phase Modulation, Noise and FM waveforms to the party. This third digital oscillator can also be programmed to be all sorts of things via a software editor. Right now, a community of users is inventing new waveforms and new ways to use the oscillator.
At the end of the chain is a digital effects processor with chorus, delay, reverb and further effects available via a user effect slot you can program like the oscillator. The Prologue 16 also has an analog compressor/booster built in for extra growl. A powerful arpeggiator rounds off the feature set.
The Prologue looks completely gorgeous and sounds like a classic polysynth. The wooden cheeks and layout on a black aluminum panel give it a vintage yet modern look. It even has a little oscilloscope displaying the waveform as you play. Most of the parameters are available directly via the field of knobs and switches for complete control of your sound. It’s a modern classic.
Link to Website: korg.com
Quantum is an extraordinarily versatile synthesizer from a future age.
Street Price: $4299 (at time of writing)
German synthesizer manufacturers Waldorf have been making interesting digital synths for many years. Their latest is a hybrid analog and digital synthesizer called Quantum. It has a design and layout structured and ordered in such a way to make it distinctly Waldorf; they are all about the future rather than modeling the past.
Quantum has 3 oscillators, offering four types of synthesis and can load up to 8 waveforms each. Suffice to say that interesting things can happen when you combine them together. It starts with Wavetables from the legacy of Waldorf synthesis, and then there are classic analog waveforms for super fat sounds. Next is a Granular Sampler and it finishes off with a resonator for virtual sound sculpting. It sounds impressive and complex in description but it does sound very impressive and amazingly complex when you hear it.
The controls are all beautifully lit and responsive to create an ergonomic and intuitive sound sculpting interface. The ultra hi-resolution touch-screen display in the middle reacts to and demonstrates exactly what’s going on, stunningly rendering waveforms and samples as you tweak and fold them into new forms of sound.
It comes with 61 keys, can handle 8 voices and is bi-timbral like the Prologue. There are two analog filters and a “digital former” with bandpass, notch, and comb filters, bit-crush, drive and more. It has an amazing 6 LFOs and 6 envelopes and a multistage LFO/envelope modulator. There are a whole bunch of effects, a compressor, a step-sequencer…in fact, the features list goes on for pages. It has 4GB of wavetables a 1GB of preloaded sample data and you can load more via SD card.
Quantum is an extraordinarily versatile synthesizer from a future age.
Link to Website: waldorfmusic.com
Street Price: Kit – $999 (includes 12 PCBs and the front panel, the rest of the components you have to source yourself)
(at time of writing)
Street Price: Built – $3749 (at time of writing)
Adventuring into the past glories of vintage synthesizers is a preoccupation for many manufacturers. One such romantic endeavor is the Black Corporation’s love of the Yamaha CS-80. The synth was made famous by Vangelis when he used it to create the soundtrack to the 1982 Ridley Scott film Blade Runner. Deckard’s Dream aptly embodies both their love of the film and the synthesizer that underpinned its classic theme.
Deckard’s Dream is a homage to the Yamaha CS-80 offering 8 voices of analog polyphony and stunningly expressive control. It does look rather like a bit of lab equipment. There’s no keyboard, instead they’ve gone for a rackable format with a forest of color ended sliders that reflects the controls of the original.
Each voice has two independent layers of synthesis and behind the front panel are 16 voltage-controlled oscillators. The waveforms route through discrete waveshapers to help reproduce the oddities and imperfect character of the CS-80. The two layers are available for direct hands-on control via the front panel. There are sliders for pulse width modulation, noise, filters, envelopes, and touch response. Polyphonic aftertouch allows you to alter the notes independently after you’ve played them. It fully supports MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression) when using controllers like the ROLI Seaboard.
Deckard’s Dream is an immense tribute to the emotive sound of the CS-80. It’s available either fully built or as a kit so you can build it yourself.
Link to Website: deckardsdream.com
The original MiniBrute was a cool and edgy monosynth, version 2 doubles the feature set and opens it up to splicing into the modular world. It’s going to get infectious.
Street Price: $999 (at time of writing)
An unexpectedly colorful release from the granddaddies of synthesis, Moog music, the Moog Grandmother is the simplest of the synthesizers in our round-up. It’s beautifully designed to offer an intuitive modular synthesis playground for both seasoned professionals and newcomers alike. It’s instantly classic in its approach, oozing class, inviting touch and play and rewarding the player with a familiar and satisfying sound. And it’s just a little monosynth.
Grandmother is semi-modular, which means behind the front panel it is wired to follow a regular analog synthesis architecture and will make sounds, bleeps, and noises without you having to do anything other than play the keys. However, the modular part of the synth provides 41 patch points where you can completely redesign the signal path and modulation to push it into different sonic palettes.
The internal components all come from Moog’s vintage range of high-end modular synthesizers. There are 2 analog oscillators, the classic Moog 4-pole ladder filter and a single pole high pass filter, an ADSR envelope, an LFO that can go up into audio rate frequencies and a proper hardware spring reverb. Hidden away are a cool arpeggiator and quite a capable sequencer that can hold three 256 note sequences for instant recall. The minimal specifications are no match for the other complex synthesizers on this list but with the Grandmother, less is most definitely more. Nothing can touch it in terms of fun, fruitiness and sheer class.
Link to Website: www.moogmusic.com.com
Arturia MiniBrute 2 and 2S
Street Price: $999 (at time of writing)
Street Price: MiniBrute 2 and 2S – $649 (at time of writing)
The last on my list is another monosynth. It doesn’t quite have the class or sunny disposition of the Moog Grandmother, it’s more like a spunky, dispossessed cousin that wants to muscle in on your inheritance. The original MiniBrute was a cool and edgy monosynth, version 2 doubles the feature set and opens it up to splicing into the modular world. It’s going to get infectious.
The MiniBrute 2 is semi-modular, like the Moog, so it will work perfectly well as it is but a 48-socket patch bay lets you completely redesign the architecture. There are two oscillators with multiple waveforms and a mixer so you don’t have to choose between waveforms — you can mix them all together. The Steiner-Parker Multimode filter brings in some beefy low, high, band and notch modes and resonance can be pushed into self-oscillation. There’s a regular ADSR 4-stage envelope and a fruity 2-stage CV controllable AD looping envelope. 2 LFOs with 6 waveforms offer a good bunch of modulation. A decent sequencer/arpeggiator makes it great fun to play with and Arturia’s own “Brute Factor” drive circuit pushes the sound into delicious levels of distortion.
The patchbay is very extensive, letting you route out to other Eurorack modular systems for control, processing, and modulation. But Arturia has taken this a bit further. They’ve introduced their own Eurorack modular case format designed to integrate with the MiniBrute 2, making it easier than ever to fall down the rabbit hole of modular synthesis.
Arturia has one more trick up their sleeve in the shape of the MiniBrute 2S. It’s the same synthesizer but with a hardware step-sequencer front end in place of the keyboard. It turns it into a different sort of performance synth because not everyone wants to “play” a synth, some people want to program one. It’s a great idea and you should probably have one of each.
Link to Website: www.arturia.com
It’s quite amazing how synthesizers continue to evolve. Every time I think we’ve reached the pinnacle of what’s possible we get a whole new generation of noise boxes to play with. And it’s not always about innovation in synthesis technology; it can be about the sensitivity of design, the approach and the way these electronic instruments make us feel. Manufacturers seem to be able to keep reinventing electronic music and we are all quite happy to buy into the results.
I’m really pleased with this particular list. There are so many great synths out there that could make it into your top five but here I think I’ve captured a broad selection of synthesizers that represent the different directions the culture is moving in. We have the reimagined classic polysynth in the Prologue, the futuristic soundscapes of the Quantum, the homage to a vintage icon in the Deckard’s Dream, the beautiful repackaging of classic tones in the Grandmother and the spunky newcomer that takes us into modular with the MiniBrute 2. Which one is going to be your next synthesizer?
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