Best Synthesizers

Best Synthesizers in the World Today: 2017 Picks

Note: Meet 2018’s best synthesizers here.

Synthesizers have never been so diverse, plentiful and accessible as they are today. We have the most extraordinary range of sonic possibilities available to our fingers and creativity. Ten years ago, you could have predicted them pretty much dying out because of the prevalence and power of computer-based sound generation, but not now. These days both formats — software and hardware — (and sometimes combined in the same instrument) are alive and blossoming. We live in exciting times for synthesis.

In choosing the “best” synthesizers there are many factors to consider. Feature set and sound quality are obvious ones, but also price, usability, integration, and downright physical enjoyability. Most wear their influences on their sleeves, reflecting the vintage heritage of synthesis giants. But they also take us forward, blending sound generation into new avenues or opening up parameters to deeper collaboration.

One manufacturer conspicuous by their absence is Moog Music. “How can there be a list of best synthesizers with no mention of the Model D?” I can predict the Facebook comments raging. Well, sadly, Moog Music has discontinued the classic Minimoog Model D and so it’s going to miss out on the list. There are other great Moog products, but nothing quite recent enough to make this list.

As always, the “best” instrument is the one you have in your hands, but if you are dreaming of something new, then these synthesizers should be on your short-list.

Our 2017 Picks

Behringer DeepMind 12

Street Price: $999 (at time of writing)

Behringer has a reputation for knocking out cheap copies of classic gear, much to the displeasure of many self-appointed experts. The DeepMind 12 was their most project ambitious to date in attempting to reanimate the Roland Juno 106. The thing is, they did an awesome job. It’s much more than a clone. It takes a nostalgic view of the Juno and then runs with it into something far beyond said classic synth. This was made possible through the engineering prowess of the Midas team, a professional audio company based in Manchester, UK, who were bought by the Behringer’s Music Group company in 2009. It’s now possible to admire the DeepMind 12 for the awesome synthesizer it is, without the baggage that sometimes follows Behringer around.

The DeepMind 12 is a 12-voice analog polyphonic synthesizer with 2 oscillators and LFOs per voice, 3 ADSR envelope generators, 8-channel modulation matrix, 32-step control sequencer and 4-effects engine. It has an enormous amount of sonic potential in a remarkably compact form factor with a 4-octave, semi-weighted key-bed. The majority of the controls are instantly accessible via the 26 front panel sliders. Deeper editing is available not only through the little LCD screen but also via an iPad or Android app. They’re even experimenting with Microsoft Hololens to offer an Augmented Reality view of the internal synthesis. With the DeepMind they didn’t hold anything back; they went full force into building in anything they thought would make for a fun and rewarding instrument. It may not, perhaps, have the authenticity of some of the other players but you get a whole load of synthesis for a very attractive price.

Behringer is the master at putting amazing tools into the hands of musicians on a budget, which has got to be good for all of us.

Behringer is the master at putting amazing tools into the hands of musicians on a budget, which has got to be good for all of us.

Dave Smith Instruments Prophet Rev2

Street Price: $1999 (at time of writing)

If authenticity is the most important factor then you would be hard pushed to find a heritage matching up to synthesizer designer Dave Smith’s. Dave was the founder of Sequential Circuits in the 1970s and designed the classic Prophet 5 synthesizer. In the 1980s, it was Dave who convinced Roland, Yamaha, Korg, and Kawai this interface he and his small team had invented called MIDI was a cool idea. After many years doing R&D for companies such as Yamaha and Korg and working in the emerging world of software synthesis, he returned to hardware synthesizers in 2002. Since then, Dave Smith Instruments (DSI) have been releasing modern synthesizer classics.

The latest model to emerge from the factory is a reimagining of his 2007 Prophet 08 poly synth they are calling the Prophet Rev2. Dave saw it as an opportunity to enhance, improve and implement everything they’ve learned since the original release, which makes it one of the most capable synths on the market today.

The Prophet Rev2 has 16-voice polyphony which you can use together or split into two separate 8-voice instruments. Each voice has a 2/4 pole, low pass, resonant Curtis filter: the same kind used in many classic ‘70s and ’80s synthesizers. A separate “Audio Mod” control adds harmonic complexity and movement. While a “Shape Mod” control provides waveshape modulation on any of the four oscillator waveforms, either manually or via LFO modulation. There’s a single effects engine providing reverb, delay, chorus, phase shifting, ring modulation, and distortion but you can run a different effect on each layer. The Modulation Matrix is now twice the size of the ’08 original, with 8 individual slots and many more sources/destinations.

And then there’s the sequencer: 64 steps with up to 6 notes per step. You can create a different sequence for each layer when working in stacked or layered mode. You can also employ it as a modulation source, gating parameters in 4 different 16-step sequences, with ties and rests. Or, for simplicity, turn on the arpeggiator for instant rhythm and movement.

The room for sound design and tone crafting is immense. Everything about the hardware reflects the quality inherent in Dave Smith Instruments. Check out the clarity of the layout, those distinctive Prophet 5 style knobs, the size, shape and understated styling. The 5-octave keyboard is semi-weighted and offers velocity and channel aftertouch.

DSI has a range of awesome synthesizers including the Prophet 6 polyphonic synthesizer and the OB-6, made in collaboration with Tom Oberheim. They always feel like they are in a league of their own.

Roland System-8

Street Price: $1499 (at time of writing)

Roland takes us into the future with their well-received Aira range of re-imagined synthesis technology. The System-8 is a clever hybrid mix of vintage Roland analog heritage and modern DSP processing and modeling. It all comes about through their ACB (analog circuit behavior) technology which faithfully captures the sound and feel of their most famous and revered analog circuitry. This means it’s not “real” analog, but it’s a very clever and great sounding modeled emulation you would be hard pressed to distinguish from the real thing.

The System-8 is an 8-voice polyphonic synthesizer with 3 oscillators. The first 2 oscillators have 6 waveforms, including square, saw and triangle, plus variations, while the third oscillator has sine and triangle and can double as a sub-oscillator. The are 3 types of LFO: single, dual and “Resonanced Pulse,” plus variations including sample & hold and random. There’s a whole range of filter types, configurations, and variations. In fact, it’s the “variations” to all these sections that bring such a wide range of color and sonic possibilities. The effects are split into three sections, with the distortion in one, delay/chorus in another and reverb by itself. The Step Sequencer is relatively simple. There are 64 steps, recordable in real-time or entered step-by-step and savable with the patch. There’s also a dedicated arpeggiator section.

The hardware glows in this extraordinary green you find on all Aira products. It’s going to be something you either love or hate, but perhaps at the very least, it is tolerable. All the controls and sections are clearly mapped out, ready for your fingers to start shaping sound. The 4-octave keyboard is decent enough and the whole size and shape are that of a proper modern synthesizer. There’s no vintage styling or wooden cheeks on this one, although the CV/Gate outputs do allow for a bit of modular integration.

But the secret killer feature of the System-8 is its ability to load up other classic Roland synthesizers and make all the controls available on the front panel. It’s called “PLUG-OUT” and is like a plug-in virtual instrument, in reverse. Roland has created software versions of their classic synthesizers using their ACB technology. These include the Jupiter-8, Juno-106, SH-101, SH-2, ProMars, and System-100. You can load up to three at one time into the System-8 and play them like they were a hardware synth. In the System-8 Performance Mode, you can layer them up to generate super-synth patches of enormous possibility.

So, if you ever dreamed of owning some vintage Roland synthesizers, the System-8 is the most cost effective and authentic alternate to the real thing while offering a modern architecture and sound all its own.

. . .If you ever dreamt of owning some vintage Roland synthesizers, the System-8 is the most cost effective and authentic alternate to the real thing while offering a modern architecture and sound all its own.

Arturia MatrixBrute

Street Price: $1999 (at time of writing)

Arturia started off in the 1990s as a software company. In 2003, they somehow managed to get Moog Music to sign off on their Modular V software emulation of the classic Moog modular. Many more fabulous sounding emulations followed using their proprietary True Analog Emulation (TAE) technology. In 2009, they released a sort of hardware version of everything they’d learned up to that point called Origin. But it wasn’t until 2012 that they released something purely hardware, with the circuitry inside they had previously only modeled. The Brute product line was born, starting with the MiniBrute and then quickly followed by the MicroBrute, the very recent DrumBrute, and now the MatrixBrute.

The Arturia MatrixBrute is an enormous monophonic analog synthesizer. It has two “Brute style” oscillators, each with its own sub-oscillator and wave shapers. The Ultrasaw waveform can make a single oscillator sound like three detuned sawtooth oscillators. The Metalizer shaper in the triangle waveform can take things from mellow to extreme. There’s also a third oscillator with sine, triangle, square and sawtooth waveforms; it can act as an audio source and a modulation source at the same time. Oscillators can be routed into other oscillators to create dense cross-modulation. And then there’s a noise generator which can also be a modulator, to round off a comprehensive collection of sound generation devices.

On the filter side, Arturia has included two classic and independent filtering circuits. The Steiner-Parker filter was invented for the Synthacon synthesizer back in the 1970s and has been popular ever since, particularly in the DIY and modular world. Arturia has used it since their original MiniBrute. The Ladder filter is much better-known and was invented by Dr. Bob Moog. It appears in nearly all Moog synthesizers. You can set up the filters in either series or parallel, making for some serious sweeping.

The stand-out feature is probably the massive matrix taking up nearly half the front panel. It’s a routing system, it’s a sequencer, it’s a preset recall grid and it’s a modulation matrix. You can route any sixteen sources to any sixteen destinations for either modulation or sonic reasons. There are 2 LFOs ready for modulation duties and a third can be derived from the third oscillator. There are also 3 envelopes to give control over both the amplitude and filter. In sequencer mode, you get 64 steps with accent and slide and a wonderfully visual way of mapping out melodic patterns. For preset recall, simply hit one of the 256 buttons.

The physicality of the MatrixBrute is quite intimidating, especially for a monosynth. The vintage styling coupled with the massive matrix make it look slightly odd, somehow unbalanced, but the way the panel folds up to easier editing is something of a marvel. Along with the usual connections on the back are 12 CV inputs and outputs for connection to Eurorack and other modular gear.

Finish it off with a range of 5 analog effects and an arpeggiator and you’ve got quite a monster in the MatrixBrute.

Make Noise Black & Gold Shared System

Street Price: $4495 (at time of writing)

The shape and sound of synthesis are evolving, simultaneously returning to its roots while heading off in undiscovered directions. Modular synthesis may seem impenetrable to the uninitiated, but it’s one of the most exciting and innovative areas of music technology today. No exploration of synthesizers would be complete without touching upon something in the world of Eurorack modular. “Eurorack” simply refers to the size and format of the modules. “Modules” being the individual parts of a synthesizer — so the oscillator, the filter, the envelope, the amplifier and effects all exist as interchangeable modules, which allows you to build your own unique synth. It can be vast and complex, but there are some collections of modules sold as a complete system. And in this area, Make Noise are probably the most innovative and experimental.

The Make Noise Black & Gold Shared System is probably impossible to adequately describe. It brings together all sorts of synthesis techniques, from analog FM to voltage controlled granularization, from analog sounds to randomly generator sequencing and digital processing, from repetitive rhythms to perpetually evolving soundscapes. Make Noise say “the Shared System will go to more sound destinations than most folks have time to travel to in a single lifetime.”

There’s a dual analog DPO oscillator as the starting point of your journey, working in unison or independently. The René sequencer and expressive Pressure Points panels give you interesting methods of triggering sounds. Maths and the Wogglebug start the cascade of modulation with sound shaping and randomization. Modulation originates in modDemix and Optomix but can then be found in all sorts of ways, from all sorts of sources, in all sorts of places. Reverb from the Erbe-Verb, delay from the ECHOPHON and DSP processing of Photogene then transform your sound into unimaginable shapes.

It comes in a 7U 208HP case with 22HP free for further expansion and 30 patch cables. It’s not the sort of synthesizer you “play” as such, it’s more of a sound generating machine you interact with to go on sonic adventures. The price may well make your eyes water.

Alternatives

We have a wealth of hardware synthesizer possibilities available to us in 2017, from tiny desktop noise makers to vast modular arrays of beeps, drones, rhythms, and flashing lights. But within this lively market of electronically generated sound are some solid performance orientated instruments which give the musician a sound palette and a playability that makes them special. That’s what I’ve tried to capture here. Many of them have smaller and cheaper versions offering some of the same features. The System-1 from Roland is a great mono-synth by itself and can also handle a single PLUG-OUT classic. Behringer is releasing a 6-voice version of the DeepMind along with a desktop, keyboardless version and are planning many more synths to come. Arturia’s Brute synths are all a delight to play with. Dave Smith doesn’t really do entry-level, so their products are always going to be an investment. And in the modular world you can start small, with just a couple of modules, but as the saying goes — you’ll always need a bigger case.

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