June 13, 2016  

Classic Synths: Get The Sound Without Breaking the Bank

Hardware. All the established producers swear by it, regularly boasting they have just so much of it lying around. All the emerging producers can’t wait to drop into conversation that they’ve dabbled with a bit of it here and there and all the bedroom producers are keen to try it. But, they often can’t afford to do so.

We’re not the guy you have in your phone book as Party Dave Six. Nor are we advocating the absolutely best way to make friends at a house party. However we can certainly relate to the price of kit. As the former-EDM crowd enter their mid to late twenties, names like Roland and Korg have started re-releasing modern versions of iconic hardware in the hopes of winning over producers looking to step up their studio game. These items are fantastic and well worth your investment. However, until you can afford the these, check out our list of cheaper alternatives for emergent producers looking for the sound of the classics without the classics price tag.

Moog Minimoog

The Context: Born in 1970, the Minimoog became an instant hit because of its size: at a time when synthesisers were often enormous studio fixtures, the Minimoog was geared towards mobility and live performance. In fact, variants of the original Minimoogs are still in production today.

The Sound:

Kraftwerk’s Autobahn and Michael Jackson’s Thriller albums are among the projects heavily based on the Minimoog.

The Software Version: The Arturia Mini V is the leader in a busy field of Minimoog emulators. Yours for £79.

The Free Version: Steinberg Classics Model E has the added kudos of being one of the first ever VST synths. We tried it (running Ableton Live 9 on a Macbook) and it’s an ace little bit of kit.

ARP Odyssey

The Context: Launched in 1972 as a direct answer to Minimoog, the Odyssey was a stripped down mobile version of ARP’s bigger 2600 synthesiser available at the time. This is a particularly relevant piece of kit as it’s just been relaunched. Cue a slew of upcoming releases featuring this sound. Get on that bandwagon quick!

The Sound:

Abba’s Gimme Gimme Gimme, Juan Atkins and Sam Smith. So quite the range then.

The Software Version: The GForce Oddity 2  has a spec list longer than many respectable crime novels. At £116 it’s not the cheapest VST out there, but at glowing review over at ‘heads Music Tech indicates it’s money well spent.

The Free Version : There’s a few but they’re all Windows-only so our reviewer couldn’t test them… There also all keen amateur efforts so be wary of bugs.

Korg MS 20

The Context: Next to jump on the portable synthesiser bandwagon (seems we’ve found the root cause of most classic synths’ popularity), released in 1978. Like the ARP Odyssey, it’s also been subsequently re-released, into an ‘even more mini’, mini synth.

The Sound:

Mr Oizo Flat Beat, Daft Punk Da Funk

The Software Version: Korg make their own one. So… we’re just gonna assume that’s the best. Besides, it’s only $49.

The Free Version: Erm… there doesn’t seem to be many out there. Presumably because Korg bossed it by offering their own plugin at such a good price.

Sequential Circuits Prophet 5

The Context: With five levels of polyphony – that’s the ability to play five keys at once – like a chord, and the ability to save patches (sequences like modern day midi patches on your DAW) the 1978 release of the Prophet V was seen as a new era in high tech synths. It’s melodies were particularly popular later on with the emerging hip-hop scene.

The Sound:

Dr Dre, Too $hort, Madonna – Like A Prayer

The Software Version: Arturia are your people once again. Their Prophet V VST ships for €99

The Free Version: There’s a stack of Free VSTs just a Google search away, although most of them are Window-only and are enthusiast-builds so pick wisely.

Roland TB 303

The Context: To many, the most famous of them all. The TB 303 was produced with the aim of giving garage bands a programmable bass guitar substitute. It proved odd sounding for the job and difficult for bands to use. However, its affordable price (and even more affordable second hand prices as disappointed bands ditched them) led to the synths being swept up by experimental producers in the ’80s who went on to use the 303 sound to create the foundations of the house music sound so prevalent in electronic music today. We’re also going to point out here that Roland’s modern day version of this is pretty stonking and, at £229 within the realm of affordable too. We even did a review of it here.

The Sound:

DJ Pierre, Mr Fingers, and more or less every acid track you’ve ever heard.

The Software Version: Plenty out there. Best in class appears to be G-Sonique’s Alien 303, a bargain at £11. Can we go even better?

The Free Version: Yes we can. You can program a 303 sound into Ableton, by yourself. Check out tutorial on it here:

Yamaha DX 7

The Context: Possibly the best selling synth of all time and one that truly broke the mainstream, the Yamaha DX 7’s appeal was it’s (comparatively) affordable price, high tech spec and flexiblity – it came with optional upgrade cartridges of additional settings and had the ability to patch into computers in addition.

The Sound:

Billy Ocean, Lionel Richie, Kate Bush, Dead Or Alive and, er, Enya.

The Software Version: The daddy of the VSTs for this is Native Instruments FM8 at £169. Punchy, however it would appear to be the VST synth that rules them all so worth the investment.

The Free Version: The Yamaha DX 7 was the first commercially available Digital FM synthesiser. Consequently, any free FM Synth you download will have elements based on The Yamaha DX7. Or, if you’ve got Ableton, you can make your own here:

Electronic music’s a curious affair. At different points looking for a way to make new sounds in a way conventional instruments never good, but at the same time constantly referencing the past: hence all those Chicago house acapellas, 808 drums and disco samples. At any rate, add one of the above into your tracks and you’re bound to get a few nods from the right heads. Go and get em!

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