How To Get Analogue Synths - Cheap

We're big fans of all things digital here at Prime Loops. From virtual synths to samplers, audio manglers and classic emulations, there's pretty much nothing you can't do with a laptop. But over the last few months, the hardware companies have been striking back with a range of clever and creative analogue hardware, that just urges you to get your hands dirty tweaking dials and jamming in some original sonics.

They offer great sources of inspiration, but one of the most exciting aspects is the price range – many of them are around the same price as a high end plug-in. Far cheaper than the genuine analogue synths of old, they're accessible to novice producers, and also come with features such as MIDI, built-in sequencers and the ability not to go out of tune every 5 minutes. There has never been a better time to get involved with true analogue synthesis. But which one should you go for? Well, that depends what you need it to do. Luckily, we've had a play with the main contenders, so that you don't have to.

Here's four of our favourites:

1. Arturia Microbrute

Having impressed everyone with their Minibrute in 2012, Arturia squeezed things even further with the new Microbrute. It's got a tiny keyboard, single oscillator, a built-in sequencer, and many of Arturia's own additions like the 'Metalizer' and 'Brute Factor' knobs that can add harmonics and grit up the sound somewhat. It also has a little patchbay matrix that you can use to route things around, for instance sending the LFO to the pitch control.

In use it's a lot of fun. It can throw out speaker-bothering levels of sub-bass, and ear-shredding top end at the same time. Despite the diminutive size, all the knobs and sliders are 'full size', which means you can jam out enthusiastically without knocking the wrong control. The sequencer is surprisingly useful, and can be transposed by different keys, even while a pattern is playing – which gives you great customisable one-finger arpeggio action without having to touch the MIDI data.

If we had to fault it, it would be to say that sometimes the sound is too tough, if that's possible. Perhaps that's to be expected from something with 'Brute' in the title; the top end can be seriously distorted and filthy, and a couple of tweaks of the Brute Factor, Metalizer or Ultrasaw knobs will quickly turn your patch into something seriously rugged, which demands a lot of space in your mixdown. Which means that if you're a dubstep or electro producer, you'll love it. If you're more into deep house, you'll still get a lot out of this synth – for rolling subs and warm square waves it's great - but you'll have to be careful to reign in its determination to create the biggest sound in the world.

2. Korg Volca Bass

Korg have been churning out innovate and user-friendly hardware like it's going out of fashion lately, and the Volca range continues this obsession. On paper, the Volca Bass looks unbeatable. Three oscillators, a sequencer, and less than half the price of a MicroBrute. That's a good start. But three oscillators that can be independently tuned and sequenced – we're talking genuine analogue polyphony. The sequences can have different amounts of steps for different oscillators (up to 16), so you can end up with some incredibly complex patterns going on, with chords and polyrhythms and glides. Get the LFO going on the filter, whack it through a delay unit, and you've got instant psy-trance. If that's your bag.

The sequencers are also remarkably well designed; one afternoon with one of these and you'll be able to get a credible sequence programmed in seconds. You can record something in real time, then edit it on the fly, using the classic 303-like glides and step edits. It makes them ideal for live performance and gives you endless inspiration for musical lines when you're stuck for ideas. The main downside is the tiny scale – if you thought the MicroBrute was small, the Volcas are positively tiny. This means you can easily knock the tempo knob while you're trying to adjust the envelope, amongst others. But that's a small complaint. Sonically, the Volca bass is much less weighty and full than the MicroBrute; it may not be to the taste of the average junglist or dubstep fan. But if you're into house, techno or trance, we'd struggle to find anything that was as enjoyable and as inspiring for this kind of money.

3. Waldorf Rocket

Waldorf have a reputation for doing things differently, and the Rocket fits that bill perfectly. It's an analogue synth, but not like one you've ever seen before – they've taken the ingredients and given them a good shake. At first glance it's quite confusing; there's a knob which has 'detune' on one side and 'chord' on the other. There's an envelope with a decay knob but not attack. There's a button marked 'boost', and the LFO also doubles as an arpeggiator. Some of the knobs (such as 'chord') even change function depending on where the other knobs are set. Lacking a keyboard, it's not the most 'pick up and play' synth around, but it certainly rewards deeper exploration. Plug it into a computer and you'll find it a lot more controllable, but this doesn't mean you have to control everything with MIDI; the arpeggios and chords mean you can get some incredible sounds and patterns without touching the mouse. For sheer fun it's hard to beat – it's not often you come across a synth where you have literally no idea what's going to happen next. It can be incredibly inspiring as a result.

Who would want such a synth? Well, luckily, the Rocket also does some basic stuff very well too; the sounds are fat and warm, it can create leads and basses alike, and the chord function can work very well for techno and rave sounds. But ultimately, the people who will enjoy this synth the most are those who will be inclined to read the manual and spend some time getting under the bonnet. We'd also recommend it for anyone looking for something a bit more leftfield – electronica artists will get some real inspiration here.

4. Dave Smith Mopho

Arguably one of the synths that kicked off the whole movement, the Mopho has been around for a little while, but still packs a sonic punch and these days can be picked up for a price that puts it alongside the others mentioned here. And sonically, it's arguably the best of the lot; in terms of classic analogue sound this is perhaps the 'truest' to the vintage roots of the synth world. But there are some telltale signs of the modern age: It has a digital display, to help you use the editor built in, although this is somewhat fiddly, and is perhaps best accessed via a computer. It also has no keyboard, but the red button marked 'push it' partially makes up for this by triggering notes and sequences – although again, these are often best set up beforehand with your computer.

One of the more surprising inclusions is a built-in feedback loop. With this you can feed your sounds back through the filter and turn your warm analogue bass into a fearsome wail of distortion – or just a slightly harmonically enhanced version, if that's more your cup of tea. We found the Mopho to be an odd blend; sonically it's unbeatable at this price, but the limited interface means it's probably the least fun to use of the options mentioned here. But if you want an all-round analogue workhorse, this is still a great purchase, and will be extremely useful to producers of all genres.

So there you have it – four great synths, at superb prices, each with their own unique niche. Any of these will slot beautifully into anyone's setup, but some are better suited than others for particular musical styles – so check them all out before you take the plunge. But if you do decide to invest, a whole new world of musical inspiration and production fun awaits.

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