yamaha modx

Best Synthesizer 2019

We’ve seen some extraordinary sound generating machines emerge over the last few years as our appetite for electronically generated music shows no sign of abating. There’s something about that connection between the electronics, the waveforms, the possibilities and the creative adventures that they can lead us on.

In this roundup, we’re casting a wide net to capture those electronic instruments that are pushing the envelope in 2019. And it’s not just about newness, it’s also about value, usability, workflow and sonic potential. Good synthesizers tend to stick around and so do check out our previous articles on synthesizers from 2017 and 2018 for more worthy candidates but for now let’s stick with the recent arrivals. Welcome to your next synthesizer.

Our picks for the best synthesizer of 2019 include:

  1. Moog One
  2. Waldorf Quantum
  3. Korg Minilogue XD
  4. Behringer Crave
  5. Yamaha MODX
  6. Behringer MS-101
  7. Elektron Digitone
  8. Moog Grandmother

Best Synthesizer 2019

1. Moog One

 Moog One 8 Voice Synthesizer – $5,999*
 Moog One 16 Voice Synthesizer – $7,999*

*At time of writing

Well, you’ve just got to look at it and you’ll know that this is something special. The Moog One is Moog’s first analog polysynth for 35 years. There’s certainly some resemblance to the MemoryMoog but that’s just a starting point. This is a dream of a synthesizer and the result of decades of research and development.

There are 8 voice and 16 voice versions, and you get 3 newly-designed dual-output analog VCO’s per voice with ring modulation and FM. There are two independent analog filters that you can combine and blend in interesting ways. There’s a dual analog noise source, an analog mixer with external input, 4 LFOs and 3 envelope generators. It’s a huge synth and there are 3 of them inside each with their own sequencer, arpeggiator and onboard Eventide effects library. They say the analog signal path of one voice is more powerful than an entire Minimoog Voyager.

The price is eye-watering but for your investment, you’re getting a modern classic synthesizer that will keep on giving for the next 35 years. I’ve spent some time with this synthesizer and it’s remarkable that behind the massive sound and evolving textures you can start with simple waveforms and build classic sounds. It will do everything you expect it to and then as you engage another engine it will take on completely different dimensions. You can enjoy it as an instrument, as a synthesizer, rather than as just another sound source in your studio.

2. Waldorf Quantum

 Waldorf Quantum – $4,299*

*At time of writing

Waldorf operates in its own realm of reality. While Moog cuddles up to the warmth of analog, Waldorf slaps you about the face with the cool edginess of digital. Quantum is the physical realization of Waldorf’s wavetable obsession and does a good job of being the hyper-modern Moog alternative.

Like the Moog, the Quantum has 3 oscillators but where the Moog plays with simple waveforms the Quantum rolls out the complexity from the very beginning. Each oscillator can offer 4 types of synthesis. You’ve got your classic analog waveforms for sure, but then you have an endless supply of wavetables from speech synthesis to wavetables pulled from audio files. Or you can apply a granular engine to those audio files, with multi-sampling or traditional sampling. Then finally there’s a Resonator algorithm for sound sculpting and physical modeling. When mixed and combined this hybrid synthesizer will sound like nothing else on the planet.

The control system is stunning. First, you have a huge array of knobs and controls to give instant hands-on control over all the most vital parameters. And then you have this high-definition touch display that adapts to whatever you touch. Color is used throughout to tie in controls and highlight the modes of operation, bringing highly complex connections together in a very workable manner.

Quantum can offer 8 voices of polyphony with 2 analog filters per voice with a split or layered dual-timbral mode. There are 6 LFOs, 6 loopable envelopes and a huge modulation matrix section. Of course, there are effects, a digital filter section, sequencing and animation possibilities. It can hold 10,000 presets and 4GB of wavetables and samples.

It’s an immense machine that wouldn’t look out of place in a Sci-Fi movie.

While Moog cuddles up to the warmth of analog, Waldorf slaps you about the face with the cool edginess of digital. Quantum is the physical realization of Waldorf’s wavetable obsession and does a good job of being the hyper-modern Moog alternative.

3. Korg Minilogue XD

 Korg Minilogue XD – $619.99*

*At time of writing

Korg continues to produce synthesizers of note, seemingly unable to put a foot wrong. A couple of years ago they introduced the Minilogue, a small but pleasing analog polysynth. They followed it up a year later with the Prologue, a properly grown-up polysynth with an interestingly digital 3rd oscillator. Now they’ve released the Minilogue XD which takes everything that was awesome about the original Minilogue and added in that special 3rd oscillator and a few other bits and pieces.

The deal with the third oscillator is that it’s open to being anything you like. It comes with a bank of interesting possibilities, some wavetables, and some noise, but it’s in the user section that it gets really fun. There is an increasing number of algorithms programmed by users that can be loaded into the userspace. These can be oscillators like the algorithms from the Mutable Instruments Plaits, or effects. And this adds versatility and continuing evolution to the Minilogue XD along with the Prologue.

It’s also a great little synth on its own terms. It has 2 analog oscillators, a filter, 2 envelope generators, 1 VCA, and an LFO. It has a good and clear workflow that gives you all the controls up front and the ability to tweak and craft your own sounds. The filter is much improved over the original and has a drive function to push it into deliciously nasty directions. At the end of the chain, there are three digital effects — reverb, delay and modulation — to give the sound some space and movement.

The polyphonic 16-step sequencer is a lot of fun and offers 4 channels of per-step modulation recording. And of course, there’s that little OLED screen, which is completely gorgeous, displaying the result of your synthesis skills. At this price point, there’s nothing to touch the Minilogue XD.

4. Behringer Crave

 Behringer Crave – Coming Soon*

*At time of writing

Behringer has a lot of synths coming out this year. We’ve already seen examples of their cloning work with the Model D and some of their own designs with the Neutron. They have another little monosynth on the way which is more of their own thing but with a very familiar sound. It’s called Crave. For the extraordinary price of $199, it is immediately impressive.

Crave is a classic single oscillator monosynth all laid out in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get configuration. The oscillator is the CEM3340 chip and sweeps between pulse and triangle; you get full pulse width modulation. Modulation can come from the envelope or LFO and switch to either pulse width or pitch. A mix knob lets you bring in some noise to give the sound a bit of bite. In the filter section, based on the classic Moog ladder filter, you get cutoff and resonance with the same modulation choices and an amount knob and polarity switch. The envelope offers Attack and Decay and a switchable Sustain.

To get things going there’s an arpeggiator and a step-sequencer laid out like a mini keyboard. At the top is two rows of patch sockets making it a great synth for patching into a larger system or for patching into itself for additional versatility.

I was lucky enough to play with the prototype and it’s fun and immediate and instantly satisfying with a meaty sound while offering all the sonic potential of a decent semi-modular synthesizer. It’s at a ridiculous price and should be out later this year.

It’s the playful nature of the Digitone that really wins out. You find yourself making rhythms and textures with small adjustments and then diving into radical changes as creativity moves you, layering up sounds into huge pulsing vats of harmonic generation. It really is a load of fun.

5. Yamaha MODX

 Yamaha MODX6 (61 keys) – $1,299.99*
 Yamaha MODX7 (76 keys) – $1,499.99*
 Yamaha MODX8 (88 keys) – $1,899.99*

*At time of writing

The MODX brings all the power of the flagship Montage synthesizer into a more accessible and controllable package, with two great synthesis engines combined and invigorated to create a vast range of sounds.

MODX draws on Advanced Wave Memory (AWM2) and Frequency Modulation (FM-X) and throws rhythmic and dynamic motion into the mix for animated movement and complex sound design. AWM2 brings realistic instrumental sounds created from samples and synthesis. FM-X brings complex harmonic structures that were the basis of the classic DX7 synthesizer.

This sort of synthesis is not about one-knob-per-function. It’s about pulling out relative parameters and exercising control over all sorts of things. The big glowing knob provides macro control over multiple parameters. The large central screen lets you dig down to all the parameters and possibilities you could possibly imagine. And those possibilities are largely endless. This synth is properly 16 part multi-timbral with each AWM2 part filled with 8 synthesizer engines and a multimode filter. The FM-X features 8 operators and 64 note polyphony bringing the total polyphony up to 128.

The MODX is a serious modern synthesizer with a huge sound palette and multi-channel function.

6. Behringer MS-101

 Behringer MS-101 – $329.99*

*At time of writing

Behringer is releasing quite a few homages to classic synthesizers. We’ve had the Model D and soon we’ll have the Pro-1 and Odyssey but it’s their reflection of the Roland SH-101 that really nails it for me. Plus, it’s available right now — which is always a bonus!

The MS-101 is a fun, fruity and fabulous synthesizer of a classic form that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The plastic case comes in a choice of three colors and the rather nerdy modulation grip for awkward live performance just fits the vibe perfectly. It’s the sort of synth that your kids would enjoy playing.

Beneath the surface, it mirrors the SH-101 with its layout and single 3340 based VCO. But they’ve made 4 waveforms available, a square wave sub and mixed in an FM section that was only available as a mod for the original Roland synth. The resonant and nicely squelchy VCF can be modulated with ADSR, LFO, keyboard tracking and bender controller. There are a 32 step sequencer and arpeggiator and full MIDI/USB implementation.

The MS-101 is the perfect starter-synth and would also fit brilliantly into any larger setup.

7. Elektron Digitone

 Elektron Digitone – $749*

*At time of writing

You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a drum machine — Elektron makes great drum machines — but the Digitone is actually a fascinating take on FM synthesis.

Digitone combines FM synthesis with a classic subtractive workflow allowing you to shape and sculpt sounds without having to submerge yourself in the underlying structure of FM. It has 8 voices of polyphony and a multimode filter with overdrive and 2 LFOs for each voice. The sequencer offers 4 tracks for the synth bringing in all sorts of modulation and animation possibilities. You can then add another 4 tracks of external MIDI alongside.

It’s the playful nature of the Digitone that really wins out. You find yourself making rhythms and textures with small adjustments and then diving into radical changes as creativity moves you, layering up sounds into huge pulsing vats of harmonic generation. It really is a load of fun.

8. Moog Grandmother

 Moog Grandmother – $899*

*At time of writing

At the other end of the scale from the Moog One is the Grandmother. It’s a matriarch of synthesis with a simple and intuitive workflow, set out like a modular synth with plenty of patching but with everything carefully wired behind the scenes. It reflects an earlier era of synthesizers that were bulky and hands-on, obvious and pleasing to work with.

It’s analog, of course, with 2 oscillators, sync, FM and noise generation. It has a classic low and high pass filter, a four-stage envelope, and an LFO. It has a surprising sequencer with up to 256 steps and real spring reverb that gives it that authentic vintage flavor.

The Moog Grandmother is simple, elegant, colorful and sounds simply lovely either by itself or as part of a larger setup.

Photo via Yamaha.

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