We’re heading into the final stretch of 2023 and synth manufacturers have been busy with new and updated models that offer sonic inspiration. With so many choices, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. In this buying guide, we’ll demystify some of the latest synthesizer technology and find that perfect instrument for you or a loved one that fits any budget.
Synthesizers have been around for more than 60 years and, as much as technology progresses, we still find the same basic analog subtractive synthesis principles used for most synthesizer designs. Common circuits used include a voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO), a voltage-controlled filter (VCF), and a voltage-controlled amplifier, as well as control circuits like envelope generators (ADSR) and low-frequency oscillators (LFO). For a complete tutorial of analog synthesis, check out this Guide to Analog Subtractive Synthesis. I mention this because as we move through this list, you’ll see a lot of commonality between instruments, regardless of whether the sounds are created digitally or by analog components, or even hybrid designs.
Analog synthesizers are coveted for their warm, organic sound that’s derived from analog components and their wonderful imperfections. The earlier designs had issues with tuning stability, but it didn’t stop them from sounding spectacular. Through the years, we improved the technology and are now able to achieve near-perfect control of components with a reliable and repeatable sound. But it’s almost too perfect because the reason we are drawn to the “analog” sound is the oddities and anomalies. We want the strange subtle rub between oscillator’s pitch or slightly out-of-phase filters. Thankfully, some manufacturers were listening and developed clever ways to recreate these imperfections.
• My favorite new synthesizer with this capability is the Sequential Trigon-6, a 6-voice polyphonic analog synthesizer with a 3-oscillator-into-a-ladder-filter design with a big and bold sound that’s reminiscent of a Moog. The on-board Vintage circuit adds voice-to-voice variations in calibration and component behavior and is adjustable from subtle to extreme. I can’t tell you how awesome this function is. Go from a perfectly tuned modern instrument to a janky, out-of-tune vintage synth with the turn of a knob. It’s also worth mentioning that the Trigon is part of a trilogy of instruments from Sequential. The Prophet-6 and the OB-6 also share a similar design with a 4-octave keyboard, vintage character control, and familiar panel layout. You can also get the sounds of Sequential Circuits, Oberheim, and Moog in a desktop module.
• Another fantastic analog poly synth is the Oberheim OB-X8 keyboard and module, a newly released instrument that’s based on classic designs from more than 40 years ago. The OB-X8 combines the three different voice architectures of the OB-X, OB-Xa, and OB-8 into a single instrument. There have been many enhancements to the instrument, including 40+ nuanced controls, such as additional SEM filter modes, per-voice panning, LFO keyboard tracking, Mod delay time and envelope inversion, independent pulse width control, and much more. The OB-X8 keyboard features a premium FATAR 61-note keyboard with velocity sensitivity and channel aftertouch, which provides even greater expressiveness than the originals.
• If you are an analog purist who’s interested in a classic mono-synth, then you are in luck. Moog has begun production on the Minimoog Model D once again. You can own the instrument that started it all. This reissue of the Minimoog features the exact circuit boards that retain the same component placement and through-hole design of the original. The 3-oscillator synthesizer utilizes the classic Moog ladder filter with resonance to ensure that no changes were made to the sound engine.
• A bit of history: ARP electronics created the Odyssey synthesizer to compete with the Minimoog and were subsequently sued. (Thankfully, everybody’s friends again!)
• Korg received permission from ARP to re-release their iconic instrument in kit form. The Korg ARP Odyssey FS Kit allows you to build your own collectable instrument. The kit is easy to assemble and requires no soldering. Once complete, you'll have an instrument that's 100% of the original size and features the original circuitry, with some updated features including MIDI and USB. And while we are talking about ARP, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the iconic Korg ARP 2600 M. This classic vintage synthesizer has been used by some of the most notable artists in rock, funk, and jazz. It’s also the source of R2D2’s bleeps and bloops! The ARP 2600 M is a classic 3-oscillator semi-modular synthesizer with integrated speakers, a spring reverb and lots of processing potential. The semi-modular design offers the best of both worlds. You can simply use the instrument without patching a single cable. Or utilize the multitude of patch points to create unbelievable sounds and effects.
Digital synthesizers can open up the world of sound by introducing different styles of synthesis, such as Frequency Modulation (FM), Wave-Scanning, Wavetable, PCM, Phase-Distortion, Physical Modelling, Additive, and Virtual Analog. Digital instruments may have gotten a bad rap in the past. Early digital was sterile and lifeless. Some people love the bright shimmery bell-like tones of FM, while others found the sounds too saccharine. Thankfully, today’s crop of digital instruments provides a ton of character. The great thing about digital is you are no longer confined to analog components, which take up space and power. Digital allows for more functions and operations. Where an analog synth might be limited to two envelope generators and an LFO, digital synths can offer six envelopes and six LFOs and a massive 40-point routing matrix. That's the power of a modular synthesizer in a tiny desktop module.
• Virtual Analog is an obvious and easy choice for users looking for familiar parameters and control because it uses the same principles and nomenclature as true analog. Modal Electronics offers the COBALT 8, an 8-voice virtual analog synth with two independent oscillator groups with up to four oscillators each generating powerful virtual-analog tones and 34 complex algorithms such as Sync, Ring Modulation, Waveform Morphing, and many more. There’s a morphable ladder filter with drive, three LFOs, three envelope generators, a 12-slot modulation matrix, real-time step sequencer, advanced arpeggiator, and on-board effects.
• Another type of digital synthesis is Vector Synthesis, also known as Wave Sequencing. The Korg wavestate mk II is inspired by the original vintage Wavestation and harnesses the power of the flagship OASYS and KRONOS sound engine. The instrument can generate an organic and inspirational pallet of lush evolving pads and driving rhythms that are ever changing. Taking its cues from modular synths, groove boxes, and algorithmic compositions, the compact, 37-note form factor transports easily and fits neatly into any stage, studio, or desktop setup. This latest version ups the voice count to a whopping 96 voices and sample memory has been doubled to 4GB.
• Wavetable synthesis is a popular type of digital synthesis that’s having a bit of a renaissance. The process is fundamentally based on periodic reproduction of a single-cycle waveform. Typically, several single-cycle waveforms are collected in a bank or table and the user programs some modulation to create dynamic movement. If you’d like to know more, check out this article on Wavetable Synthesis. The ASM Hydrasynth is a modern 8-voice (or 16-voice) wave-morphing synthesizer with an advanced wavetable engine featuring three oscillators per voice and dual Wave Mutators. You’ll also find two series/parallel multi-mode filters, five LFOs, and five looping envelope generators (DAHDSR), a 32-slot modulation matrix, an advanced arpeggiator, CV/Gate I/O, MIDI USB I/O, and dedicated pre- and post-FX plus reverb and delay. The instrument is easy to navigate and program and offers numerous ways to control and interact with the synthesizer including eight control knobs, eight assignable macros, and a ribbon controller.
• And last but certainly not least, the EXPRESSIVE E Osmose, a 49-key digital synthesizer that’s equipped with multiple types of synthesis and a cutting-edge MPE controller keyboard. This 24-voice polyphonic synthesizer is compatible with MIDI Polyphonic Expression (MPE), a new protocol that allows digital instruments to behave more like acoustic instruments in regard to spontaneous, polyphonic sound control. The MPE keyboard provides an innovative way to control sound using gestures (press, bend, shake, and more). The instrument also features a deep sound-design engine and hundreds of ready-to-use, innovative presets.
As I mentioned previously, early synthesizers struggled with tuning stability. One of the ways to fix this issue was the use of digital oscillators while the rest of the synthesizer remained analog. The digital waveforms sounded good, but with the analog filter and amplifier, you could achieve that unique character that was lost in early all-digital instruments. In fact, early wavetable synthesizers such as the PPG Wave and Waldorf Microwave used wonderful sounding analog filters. In my opinion, this approach combined the best of both worlds and I’m happy to report that this tradition is alive and well today.
• The Waldorf Quantum MKII is the latest flagship featuring 16-voice polyphony and several ways to split or layer sounds multi-timbrally between two parts. Each oscillator is capable of five synthesis algorithms including Wavetable, Waveform, Particle, Resonator, and Kernel. The instrument can also generate custom wavetables using audio that can either be routed into the Quantum’s audio input or loaded from the internal memory or removable sample memory. There are two analog lowpass filters per voice, each in a 24dB or 12dB configuration as well as two digital multimode filters. If the analog components aren’t a necessity, check out the Waldorf Iridium, a slightly less expensive synthesizer that features the same synth engine and architecture as the Quantum, but all digital.
• Another fantastic hybrid synthesizer is the 3rd Wave from Groove Synthesis. This 4-part multitimbral synthesizer features 24-voice polyphony, three high-resolution digital oscillators per voice, and a classic SEM-style multimode analog filter. The instrument includes 64 wavetable positions and features the 32 original 8-bit wavetables from the classic PPG-2. Additionally, the instrument works with custom Wavemaker Tool software for creating your own wavetables. If you are after a classic wavetable instrument that’s cut from the same cloth as the original PPG and Waldorf synthesizer, then the 3rd Wave is definitely worth considering.
• A recent newcomer to the synth market is PWM and its Mantis Synthesizer, a duophonic hybrid digital/analog instrument that was designed in collaboration with the late, great Chris Hugget (OSCar, WASP, Gnat). Like the WASP, the PWM sports two digital oscillators and one sub-oscillator per voice and a completely analog, multimode, state-variable VCF (based on the OSCar) per voice, multiple VCA gain stages, and two fully independent ADSR envelopes that sport a unique Sustain Fall feature.
• Arturia turned some heads a few years ago with the MicroFreak synthesizer. This year, the brand released the MiniFreak, a cutting-edge experimental hybrid analog/digital synthesizer featuring 6-voice polyphony, digital oscillators, analog filters, effects, a performance arpeggiator, a 64-step sequencer, and a 37-note velocity-sensitive slim-key keyboard with aftertouch. The MiniFreak expands upon the originality and immense sound design potential that began with the MicroFreak.
• Another relatively new company that’s producing fantastic sounding instruments is UDO Audio. This company offers several models in different formats and colors. The aim is to create cutting-edge polyphonic synthesizers with no menus and one-to-one control over the parameters. The layout of the Super 6 might remind one of a vintage Roland synthesizer, like the Jupiter 6. This 12-voice digital-analog hybrid synth features two digital FPGA-based oscillators per voice, fed into a true analog SSM2044-inspired VCF with a resonant 4-pole LPF and fixed linkable HPF, a fully analog VCA with selectable velocity sensitivity, and two highly versatile envelope generators. The Super 6 synthesizer can support binaural output for true-stereo audio with massive spatial potential, allowing you to create uniquely immersive and dynamic sounds with the benefits of analog warmth and digital precision. If 6 voices aren’t enough, check out the Gemini with 20 voices.
As you can see, there are many fantastic choices for new and original synthesizers available today. Sadly, I couldn’t cover everything. I hope this list at least piqued your interest in your quest for a new, shiny synthesizer.
For more information about the latest synthesizers, including additional features, specs, and highlights, be sure to check out the B&H Synthesizer page. Or drop us a line below and let us know what your favorite synthesizer is. As always, we’ll do our best to reply to your comments and questions.