November 15, 2013

Mini Synthesizers: It’s a Small World After All

It was only a couple years ago that we saw an explosion of DJ related equipment, especially within the DJ controller market. This trend coincided with the rise of EDM culture and performance across the globe with nearly anyone with some cash and motivation learning to DJ and getting gigs right away. This hasn’t gone away necessarily but the initial high of this DJ over saturation has worn off in a big way. Electronic music is as popular as it has ever been, but a lot of DJs are seeing that their longevity is dependent upon producing their own music. More and more people are becoming or are already aware of the tools used to make popular and even more esoteric electronic music and they want to gain access to those tools in an affordable way. Couple that with the rise of the portability ideology and you have a new generation of musical instruments: Mini Synthesizers.

While you can argue that mini synthesizers are nothing new, its become apparent that 2013 has been the year of the mini synthesizer. Multiple companies have developed or are developing affordable and portable synthesizers for the studio and the stage. Personally I think this is a great shift in the marketplace that had really been an exclusive club for those with only the deepest pockets being able to participate. This is great for more than just economic reasons. The accessibility of analog synthesizers has really expanded the knowledge and creativity of up and coming as well as established musicians, producers, and electronic music aficionados. It also gets people out of their ITB method of music production and a chance to experiment with new sounds that a VST can’t really achieve.

For these reasons (and my new found love affair with synthesizers) I decided to give a rundown of some of the popular mini analog synthesizers out in the marketplace. This will hopefully help you when making a decision on which one is best for you. For those of you looking for that perfect gift for the synthesizer nut in your life, hopefully this overview can give you some ideas on what to give that lucky guy or gal. Let’s start with the synthesizer that has all the buzz right now.

Arturia Microbrute

Arturia MicroBrute

Arturia released the MiniBrute in April 2012 to a eager crowd of synth-heads. Most of us couldn’t believe the sounds that were coming from this powerhouse synth, given it’s accessible price point. Coming on the heels of that popularity Arturia has released the Microbrute, a smaller but equally as powerful analog synthesizer. Now we have one of the most affordable 100% analog synthesizers on the market, and it has been welcomed with a lot of praise from users across the globe. When you take into account all of the features on the Microbrute including a voltage controlled oscillator, an oscillator mixer with sub, sawtooth, square, and triangle waves, an arpeggiator, an LFO with 3 waveforms, and a fast envelope generator, you are getting some serious control at an incredible price. I didn’t even list all of the features on the Microbrute which only further emphasizes that this should be a synth you include on your short list of “must-haves.”

Don’t just take my word for it, check out Arturia’s YouTube videos with the likes of Keith Shocklee and M83 playing with the MicroBrute and visibly having a lot of fun doing it.

Korg Volca Series

Korg Volca Series

If you are familiar with the Korg line of Monotron synthesizers then you will very pleased with the Korg Volca Series synthesizers. They have more control and features than the Monotron Series while still keeping it affordable. Weighing less than a pound each, the three synthesizers in the Volca Series include the Volca Keys, the Volca Bass, and the Volca Beats. As their names imply one is a lead synthesizer, one is a bass, and one is for drums. You can chain them all togehter and come up with some really creative arrangements. Much like the Monotron, the Volca Series have an exceptional amount of control for such small devices. With features like polyphony on the Volca Keys, three analogue oscillators on the Volca Bass, and an Electribe-style 16-step sequencer with eight memory patches on the Volca Beats, you can have endless amounts of fun but also get serious with the sounds on the Volca Series.

The Volca Series are also battery powered, making these little synthesizer boxes great for getting your ideas down on the road. This is one of the preeminent synthesizers on the market today in terms of affordability and portability. Check out some of the sounds you can make with the Korg Volca Series here.

Korg Synth Kit

Korg Synth Kit

The Korg Synth Kit from littleBits has the Lego fanboy in me giddy for getting one of these kits immediately. Essentially the idea behind the Korg Synth Kit is to have you build your own synthesizer with the parts provided. You can arrange the parts into different signal paths to create different sounds based on the configuration. Included in the kit are a power supply, a random noise generator, a micro sequencer, a filter, 2 oscillators, a keyboard, an envelope, a delay, a signal splitter, mixing control, and a speaker for output. To put it succinctly, the kit has everything you need to get your synthesizer rocks off and have fun doing it too. While it might not look as pretty as the MicroBrute or the Volca Keys, it is an awesome project for any synth nerd out there.

If you want an idea of how the Synth Kit sounds, check out the videos on Synthtopia’s page. Even comedian/musician Reggie Watts takes the Synth Kit for a spin.

Korg MS-20 Mini

Korg MS-20 Mini

The Korg MS-20 broke onto the scene in 1978 and has been an iconic synthesizer for decades. It can be heard on albums from artists such as Aphex Twin, Daft Punk, Depeche Mode, Gorillaz, Neon Indian, and Skinny Puppy to name a few. The Korg MS-20 Mini looks to build on that legacy by incorporating the same circuitry from the original 1978 release. The MS-20 Mini was a big hit at this years Winter NAMM Conference and for good reason. With two voltage controlled oscillators, 2 envelope generators, a noise generator, a modulation generator with positive sawtooth, triangle, negative sawtooth wide pulse, square, and narrow Pulse wave forms, and the inclusion of a USB connection, this is a great vintage synthesizer for a 21st century studio.

The MS-20 Mini is a bit of a stretch being included in this list but it does have an impressive sound in a relatively small package. It might be a little more expensive than it’s contemporaries on this list, but you are certainly getting what you pay for with the MS-20 Mini. Check out some sounds and get to know the Korg MS-20 Mini more intimately in this video.

Moog Minitaur 

Moog Minitaur

If you know anything about synthesizers then you have probably heard of Moog. From their MiniMoog Voyager synthesizers to the Little Phatty, Moog have a long history of classic sounds and modern alterations on classic sounds. One product that made Moog synthesizers a little more accessible to the average user is the Moog Minitaur. Hitting store shelves in the Spring of 2012, the Minitaur provided all of that signature Moog bass sound in a small and affordable box that could fit nicely into any studio. Some of the features include two oscillators with sawtooth and square wave-shapes for each VCO, a Moog ladder filter with adjustable resonance, and analog control inputs for pitch, filter, volume and gate. You also have all of the MIDI capability that you need to make this a fully functional synthesizer within a modern DAW package.

Check out some of the sounds with this demo video from Moog.

Novation Bass Station II

Novation Bass Station 2

Hitting store shelves near the tail end of Summer 2013, the Novation Bass Station II is arguably the flagship synthesizer for Novation right now. The controls resemble those found on the Mini and Microbrute but where those synthesizers require you to develop your own sounds, the Bass Station II has a bank of presets ready to go right out of the box. Also unlike the Arutria and Korg synths, you can create your own patches and store them into 1 of 64 bank presets. To give some perspective, the Minitaur allows for patch storage too but only within their proprietary software. The Bass Station II features two analog filters, a step-sequencer and arpeggiator, two oscillators and a sub-oscillator, analog effects, two LFOs and 2 envelopes, and MIDI/USB I/O.

If you are looking for a good starter synthesizer, the Novation Bass Station II is a great choice. Again this is a little larger in size than what I have labeled as “mini synthesizer,” but for the price this certainly fits into the portable/affordable category. If you want to hear a sample of some of the sounds, then check out this performance video from Novation.

Dubreq Stylophone S2

Stylophone S2

Much like the Korg MS-20, the original Stylophone has seen popularity amongst popular artists like David Bowie who famously used a Stylophone on the track “Space Oddity.” With a long history behind them, Stylophone partnered with Dubreq to reinvent and reinvigorate this long lost synthesizer line and we saw the fruits of that labor at Winter NAMM 2013 with the release of the S2. With a stylus in hand you can craft some pretty cool sounds with the Stylophone S2, but don’t be afraid to get your fingers on the ribbon-style key bed either. With an all analog signal path, a classic British filter, sub oscillators, eight waveform LFO, and a portable design, this is one of the quintessential mini synthesizers of the year.

If you are curious how this mini synthesizer sounds, check out this demo video showing off some of the features on the Stylophone S2.

While this is not an exhaustive list of all of the affordable and small synthesizers on the market, these are some of the most talked about and highest rated among synthesizer enthusiasts. If there is a synthesizer you think should be included in this list, feel free to tell us why in the comments below. Be sure to look for these and other professional audio products for great prices at