The 22 best hardware synths in the world today
16th Nov 2012 | 16:30
The best hardware synths in the world today
Software synths are convenient, relatively cheap (free, in some cases) and many of them sound terrific, so why would you buy a hardware model? Live performance is one obvious reason but, for many, a ‘real’ instrument is something that simply has more soul.
Recently - and for the first time since 2012 - we asked you to pick a favourite from a user-generated shortlist of the best hardware synths currently in production. Based on your votes, we’ve compiled the following rundown.
Obviously, each of these instruments is distinctly different and our runners and riders cost from just a couple of hundred to several thousand pounds. However, while not all of these synths are comparable, our list should give you a good idea of what’s currently on the market and help you to understand what you can get for your money.
Analogue Solutions Telemark-k
Analogue Solutions is a British company that specialises in the manufacture and modification of analogue synth-related gear. It produces a range of synths, all utilising different architectures and methodologies, some of which emulate the design of classics from the past.
The Telemark-k is a keyboard version of the Telemark, which is itself an expanded version of the earlier Semblance synth. This in turn was manufactured as a newly recreated and MIDIfied version of the original Oberheim SEM (Synthesizer Expander Module) from 1974.
Like its older sibling the Semblance, it's aimed squarely at those musicians who are looking for that Oberheim SEM module sound - not Moog, not Arp or any other. If this sound is your bag then you should seriously think about giving the Telemark a go - you won't be disappointed.
Vermona Perfourmer MK2
Combining four discrete monophonic analogue synths into a single rack-mountable and desktop unit, the Vermona Perfourmer MK2 enables you to combine these ‘channels’ in different ways and play them monophonically or polyphonically.
Also onboard are a resonant low-pass filter and a VCA, while modulation comes courtesy of an LFO and ADSR envelope generator.
Predictably enough, Vermona promises that the Perfourmer MK2 sounds great, but it also believes that it’s been designed to be straightforward to use.
Future Retro XS
It looks a little like Sequential Circuits Pro-One and has patching similarities with the ARP 2600 and Korg MS-20, but the XS stands up as a quality analogue monosynth in its own right. You could easily use it with other modular gear, but it’s got plenty to offer on its own, too.
In fact, the XS can stand up there with the best of the analogue mono brigade, and represents the perfect route into modular synthesis.
Korg Electribe EMX-1
The EMX-1 groovebox - a tweaked version of the original Electribe - uses a combination of PCM drum samples and digital wave shapes for sound generation. Basic envelope generator controls and filter options allow the sound to be shaped, but the real power lies in the modulation section in the top-right-hand corner.
Here, an oscillator (LFO all the way up to audio rate, with BPM sync option) can be used to modulate parameters such as pitch, filter cutoff or oscillator settings. It's a relatively simple but highly effective system and the range of sounds on offer is phenomenal.
However, the outstanding step sequencer is the star of the show, making this a great choice for creating loop-based music.
Mutable Instruments Shruthi-1
Billed as “a simple synth that rocks”, this hybrid digital/analogue monosynth is said to have a surprisingly wide sonic range that encompasses gritty, bleepy and warm tones.
Shruthi-1 is sold as a self-assembly kit - it’s an eminently hackable instrument - and you can also choose to buy an enclosure on top of that.
Clavia Nord Stage 2
Nord's original Stage launched in 2005 and became a hit with live performers and studio bods with its great sounding organ, piano, electric piano and synth sections, coupled with versatile effects and controller functions, in a portable and easy to use package.
The Stage 2 sticks to a similar blueprint but can load user samples (beats, chords or any WAV files you like using the Nord Sample Editor) plus instruments from Nord's ever-growing sample library, extending its sonic palette infinitely.
There are new built-in samples, too, so as a one-stop piano, electric piano, organ, synth and sample playback instrument, the Nord Stage 2 is hard to beat.
Roland Gaia SH-01
Though borrowing some of its look from the original SH analogue units the Gaia is a thoroughly modern instrument that can produce fat monosynth basses, screaming leads, big rave pads and arpeggiated euphoria.
You might be a soft synth master but you just can't beat the physicality and speed of a hardware synthesizer and the Gaia positively begs you to make new sounds as soon as you engage Tone 1. It’s flexible, tweakable, infinitely playable and cost-effective - a winner, in other words.
The Jupiter-80 is largely based on Roland's acclaimed 'Supernatural' sampling technology, which samples every key from the instrument (instead of just a few zones) for super-realistic, dynamically smooth sounds.
It also features a virtual analogue modelled synth - which Roland calls a 'Supernatural Synth' - featuring several virtual analogue waves and the 'Supersaw' wave which debuted on the JP-8000 (and is a staple sound for Trance producers). Plus, like the Nord Stage 2, it also has sampled PCM waves, though you can't import your own currently.
Once you get to grips with its confusing sound structure and sparse interface there is very little to fault with the Jupiter-80. It’s a sonically versatile, impressive and supremely powerful synth.
In many respects, the UltraNova is a modernised version of the SuperNova, an early virtual analogue classic.
However, to describe the UltraNova as a virtual analogue synth doesn't really do it justice in terms of the range of sounds it can produce. Simple analogue-style sounds are easy to program, but digging a bit further reveals digital FM effects, chiptune-style 8-bit timbres, great evolving wavetable sounds and a range of heavily modulated modern virtual analogue patches.
With a powerful synth engine, built-in vocoder and effects, audio interface and VST integration, the UltraNova is an excellent option for anyone who’s looking to step outside of the computer box.
The Integra-7 is a two-unit rack synth featuring all the sounds from the highly regarded XV-5080 module, Supernatural sounds from the latest Jupiter-50/80 synths and V-Drums, plus all 12 virtual SRX expansion cards and seven new virtual expansions.
The I7 will be particularly appealing to media composers looking for very realistic acoustic/orchestral sounds but also to more progressive electronic heads. The sound quality is warm yet precise but definitely up-to-date and classy - this really is a one-stop sonic solution.
Clavia Nord Lead 2X
Since the release of the first version in 1995, Clavia’s Nord Lead has been a standard by which other virtual analogue synths are measured.
The Nord Lead 2 X comes with more polyphony and memory than any previous version, while also boasting a higher-quality output. Use it in the studio, certainly, but also bear in mind that its easily-tweakable nature makes this a great synth for the stage.
Yamaha Motif XF
The Motif has been a big name in the workstation world since its launch in 2001, and the XF is the latest flagship version.
The XF contains just about every type of sound you could wish for, for any style of music. What's most impressive is the level of expressiveness that can be coaxed from these sounds. There’s a sequencer and sampling options onboard, too.
The XF is without doubt Yamaha's best featured and best sounding workstation to date, and a great keyboard for live players, too.
The Monomachine has six monophonic synth engines (all DSP-based, so no analogue here), each of which is associated with a sequencer track. There are also a further six polyphonic tracks provided for sequencing of external MIDI gear.
This is a synth that encourages you to experiment in ways that would be impossible with most other synth/sequencer combinations. In fact, it comes close to providing what a large analogue modular system might offer, albeit with its own sonic character, and is a lot of fun to use.
Despite having only recently been released, the MiniNova is already making its mark. It’s based on the same synth engine as the company's UltraNova but, as its name suggests, is a more compact proposition that has some unique features of its own.
The most eye-catching of these is VocalTune, which translates into a vocoder and a built-in gooseneck mic. There's also an arpeggiator, plus an Animate function that lets you warp sounds as you play.
Teenage Engineering OP-1
The OP-1 was touted as an intuitive musical tool with a radical new approach. It offers incredible build quality that’s backed up by an unorthodox but effective synth engine, excellent effects and a quirky tape recorder.
There's something inherently likeable about the OP-1. It's colourful, it's portable and using it makes us feel like we're playing with a very powerful toy.
Don't expect analogue-style synth sounds, but take the OP-1 on its own terms and you'll discover that its synth engines can create a broad range of highly usable tones.
Dave Smith Instruments Poly Evolver
DSI’s flagship is an analogue/digital hybrid, a four-voice instrument that features four oscillators - two analogue and two digital - in a unique stereo voice architecture with a real Curtis analogue low-pass filter per channel on each voice.
The digital processing is integrated with the analogue electronics and provides feedback, distortion, bit crushing and synced delays. The result is a synth that can sound both warm and edgy, and is also a joy to program.
Moog Little Phatty Stage II
The Little Phatty experience starts with two of the juiciest analogue oscillators money can buy, and this is followed by a creamy ‘Ladder’ filter, an Overload dial that cranks up the gain both pre- and post-filter, four-stage envelopes and a simple but functional modulation section. There’s an arpeggiator, too.
Of course, the signal path here is 100% analogue, and it doesn’t take long to get acquainted with the LP's minimalist panel. So you’ve got a synth that sounds juicy and is effortlessly tweakable: who wouldn’t go for that?
The MiniBrute is a single oscillator VCO-based synthesizer allied to a 25-note keyboard, but this description does somewhat understate its sophistication.
Basses, leads and effects are all easy to create, and with no memory storage in sight, experimentation is the key. For those brought-up on synths with multiple presets and built-in effects the MiniBrute might seem like a step back into the dark ages, buy this is a great performance synth that encourages you to play.
Featuring nine sound engines, Kronos is Korg’s most fully-featured workstation to date. In fact, it might be the most fully-featured workstation ever.
We haven’t got the space to explain all of these features here; check out our review to discover the full scope of what it has to offer. Rest assured though that, although the Kronos may be expensive, it’s pretty much in a class of its own.
Dave Smith Instruments Prophet '08
Dave Smith revisited his seminal Prophet range here to introduce a new generation to the sound of polyphonic analogue synthesis.
The Prophet ‘08’s sound architecture and sound shaping features are very comprehensive. What’s more, it sounds classy, has very ﬂexible mod routings and the eight-note polyphony allows several sounds to be stacked and split within one patch.
In short, this is the answer to many a keyboard player's dreams.
Moog Minimoog Voyager XL
The XL is a wonder to behold even before you've plugged it into your speakers. It looks like someone designed it in Photoshop under the title 'Fantasy Moog'.
This is the Aston Martin of Minimoogs and, as such, it's not easy to sum up this instrument without resorting to hyperbole. It sounds better than superb, it's a wonder to play and it's just glorious to program and listen to.
If your mission is to track down the holy grail of analogue synths then it's time to board the good ship XL.
Access Virus TI
A measure of how highly the Virus TI is thought of is that even software aficionados cite it as a piece of hardware that they’d really like to own. A virtual analogue instrument, it’s available in Desktop, Keyboard (61- and 37-note) and compact ‘Snow’ formats, and whichever one you go for, you’re guaranteed the now-classic Virus sound.
The exact specs will depend on the model you choose, but sonically, there’s something for everyone here. The Virus is capable of subtle and gentle tones, but make it mad and it has a penchant for sheer, unadulterated brutality.
With a well-considered control set and easy integration with a DAW, the Virus TI is a seriously powerful synth that’ll slot effortlessly into your studio.