Best of 2017: Hardware Synths

Hardware synths continued to grow in popularity through 2017 proving that demand for tactile music machines is alive and kicking. Here's 10 of our favorite hardware synths released this year.    

Whether you're after a synth of the analog or digital variety, a new breed, or something modeled on a classic sound or design, 2017 had it all. Here we'll be exploring 10 of our favorite hardware synths (non-modular) released or shipping during the year just gone… while the Korg Monologue was announced in November 2016 we only got hands on with it in January 2017, so (spoiler alert) it makes our list too…

Roland SE-02 

Roland SE-02

The SE-02 is the newest in the Boutique line of synths from Roland. In collaboration with Studio Electronics, Roland has created the first true analog synth for the Boutique series (with digital delay), abandoning their Analog Circuit Behavior (ACB) modeling they have implemented on all previous synths in this line. The result is a compact yet powerful monophonic analog desktop synth. The SE-02 is an exceptional small form factor analog monosynth that is feature-packed and makes the whole Boutique line a lot more Boutique now. 

Price: $499

Pros: Exceptional tone. Layout very similar to the Minimoog. USB MIDI/Audio. XMod!

Cons: No dedicated Pulse Width Modulation. Knobs too tiny for fine control (but can be remedied by using an external controller). No mod and pitch bend touch strips like other Boutique synths.

Web: https://www.roland.com/global/products/se-02/

Reviewhttps://ask.audio/articles/exclusive-review-roland-se02-analog-synth 

Roland TR-08

Roland TR-08.

This TR-08 is a $349 USD digital recreation and like most of the Boutique range of synths which it joins, uses Roland's very capable ACB (Analog Circuit Behaviour) technology to emulate the analog characteristics of the original TR-808.

The TR-08 accurately recreates all the ingredients that make the TR-808 so special. Roland’s Analog Circuit Behavior (ACB) technology fully realizes all the sonic details and quirks of the original hardware, modeling each analog circuit right down to the component level. And the interface, though scaled-down in size, is 100 per cent authentic, with all the buttons, knobs, and switches found on the TR-808.

Like all Roland Boutique modules, the TR-08 is extremely portable and runs on USB bus power or batteries. It also includes a built-in speaker for monitoring the sound in mobile situations and comes with a DK-01 Boutique Dock that allows users to adjust the panel’s viewing angle. 

Dreadbox Abyss

Dreadbox Abyss

The Dreadbox Abyss isn’t your regular polyphonic synthesizer: its Hybrid Delay Circuit (the same one that’s on the Erebus) and individual Wave Shaping Modulation leaves a sense of space, making you feel like you’ve literally fallen into an abyss. The Filter, Reflector, Phaser and Delay are all controlled by two Analog LFOs. 

At first glance you wouldn’t think this synth is anything out of the ordinary, it might even take you some time to find its sweet spot. Apart from being well labelled, it’s a bit hard to wrap your head around its sound. Like I said, it’s not your regular polyphonic synth. I find it would be perfect for someone making profound ambient music or a trippy film score. The Abyss gives you a sense of landscapes, but not regular landscapes, more like taking a walk through an underworld where you will at some point walk over an edge and fall into a chasm of no return, forever falling into an Abyss.

Price: £999 / around $1300

Pros: Well built. Unique Sound. Multi-timbral

Cons: No USB MIDI. Limited Sound Palatte

Web: http://www.dreadbox-fx.com/abyss/

Review: https://ask.audio/articles/review-dreadbox-abyss-4voice-analog-synth 

Novation Peak

Novation Peak

The all-new Peak 8-voice desktop polyphonic synthesizer from Novation. Back in 2013, Novation released the second iteration of the Bass Station which was definitely my favorite Novation monosynth. Since its release many (including me) have been talking about and hoping a polyphonic version would be released. Peak’s origin lies in the Bass Station II, but the final result is an Analog/Digital hybrid polysynth which meets the needs of modern electronic music producers.

It’s a real powerhouse in a compact form factor with the ability to create classic analog tones as well as modern digital ones. The desktop form factor is welcome in this age of keyboard synths dominating the market. The MIDI implementation is very comprehensive so integrating it with a DAW setup or a good MIDI controller will produce excellent results. Novation have definitely created a winner here with Peak. 

Pros: Very clean oscillators, characterful filter and fantastic effects section

Cons: FM Index not very high. Effects parameters cannot be modulated internally. Price could be a tad lower. 

Price: $1299 USD / £1249 GBP

Web: https://global.novationmusic.com/synths/peak

Review: https://ask.audio/articles/novation-releases-peak-synth-first-look-video-indepth-review 

Moog Subsequent 37 CV

Moog Subsequent 37 CV

The Subsequent CV 37 is identical in design to the Sub 37. The main difference being the visually striking silver faceplate and the addition of CV & Gate outs. All the features otherwise are identical. Internally a lot has changed. Moog has updated the mixer section adding more headroom. The multi-drive on the Ladder Filter has been updated to boost harmonic saturation and analog compression. The headphone output it a lot hotter than the sub 37 and finally the keybed is updated for improved playability. I’m not much of a keyboard player so I was quite happy with the Sub37’s keybed.

If you like the Sub37, then you will definitely love the Subsequent 37. The Ladder filter has been updated but still retains the highly sought after Moog sound. The overall tonality seems to be a bit cleaner compared to the Sub 37 and this might be attributed to the extra headroom on the Subsequent 37. The old Sub 37 editor works great with this synth and is a great tool to backup or transfer presets. You do need to register your Moog to get the download link to the editor.  

Pros: Excellent tonality. More distortion possibilities with the Multi-drive, CV & Gate outs.

Cons: Expensive, not significantly different from the Sub 37

Price: $1799

Web: https://www.moogmusic.com/products/phattys/subsequent-37-cv

Review: https://ask.audio/articles/review-moog-subsequent-37

Korg Monologue

Korg Monologue

Korg continues to lead the resurgence of analog with the all-new Monologue; a completely programmable, powerful and groundbreaking monophonic analog synthesizer. Monologue features a unique new synthesis structure, an updated step sequencer, micro-tuning features and more. While sharing its sleek layout, knob-per-function workflow and high-quality construction with Korg’s best-selling minilogue, monologue is a truly unique new synth for all types of musicians with a price tag of only $299.99 USD. 

Monologue features a 25-key version of the same great-feeling key bed as minilogue – with a twist: instead of the traditional C to C octaves, it’s is laid out E to E, so those low bass notes are always there. With a low E right at your fingertips, guitarists and bassists will feel right at home adding monologue to their live rig to expand their sound palettes. The OLED display with a real working oscilloscope that lets you ‘see’ your sound in real-time. This display is unique to Korg’s latest analog models, and is as fun and educational as it is informative. monologue’s display is unprecedented on a monophonic analog synth of its caliber, calling up parameters as you play different notes and adjust parameters. 

monologue can run on 6 x AA batteries or an optional 9V adapter. In addition to 5-pin In/Out and USB MIDI, monologue includes Audio Sync connectivity, which allows it to play in time and integrate seamlessly with Korg volcas, electribes, minilogue and SQ-1. 

Price: $299 USD!

Availability: 17 November, 2016

Webhttp://www.korg.com/us/products/synthesizers/monologue/ 

Plankton Electronics ANTS!

Plankton Electronics ANTS!

Plankton Electronics might not be on your radar when it comes to synths. But this new Ants! semi-modular analog desktop synthesizer should put them firmly on the map. You can pick one of these beauties up for as little as €490 EUR (Aprox. $499 USD or £399 GBP). And, importantly, Ants! sounds really, really good. 

ANTS! features more than 50 patch points, 19 knobs, thousands of combinations and infinite modulation possibilities. If you’re new to the world of modular synthesis then ANTS! is a great synth to jump into as you don’t need to patch anything to start making sounds and there’s plenty of potential to take a or a methodical or “patch and see what happens” approach.

If you do nothing else, you simply must check out the video demos of ANTS! and the free masterclass Alex from Plankton Electronics did with Ask.Audio on ANTS!

Synthstrom Deluge

Synthstrom Deluge

We can't help but draw comparisons with the Synthstrom Deluge and a number of current MIDI controllers, synths and instruments. It's interesting to note that there's not many (any?) out there with 128 RGB pads right now. The Deluge, which has been known about since October 2016, continues to wow us... 

  • Full-featured internal synthesizer engine (subtractive and FM).
  • Polyphony limited only by CPU. Typically up to 48 synth voices or 64 unaffected sample voices may play.
  • Live adjustment of synth and effect parameters with two endless-turn encoders with LED level-meters.
  • Easy buttons to select the functions these control.
  • Parameter automation recording.
  • Arpeggiator
  • Dedicated volume and tempo knobs.
  • LFOs and envelopes on each synth / sample. Highly customizable modulation matrix.
  • Synthesizer engine features LPF / HPF, FM, arpeggiator, portamento, oscillator sync, ring modulation, unison detune, and more.
  • Four basic waveforms, or select any WAV file from the SD card.
  • FX including delay, reverb, chorus, flanger, phaser, bitcrushing, sidechain effect, live stutter, and more.
  • Keyboard mode, where the pads become a live instrument on a 2D grid.
  • Preset or custom scales, or chromatic mode.

Price: US$899.00 – US$919.00

Web: https://synthstrom.com/product/deluge/ 

FingerSonic EXP-1

FingerSonic EXP-1

The EXP1 is a fascinating little instrument with a great, unique sound. The company’s custom Fader OS is a clever way of giving you visual feedback, and arguably clearer and easier to understand than some other similar systems. Limited space means there is a learning curve - not all on-body labels are immediately obvious, and some tools and commands are necessarily accessed via button combinations, but this isn’t a huge problem and is common in devices like this. 

It’s got more sounds and greater polyphony than you might expect, thanks largely to its computer brain, and the sounds are tweakable, with effects available too. Battery power and a speaker make it super portable, while USB power and headphones provide alternative ways to use it. MIDI over USB is a nice touch as is the ability to combine it with other equipment via a computer. If you really want to connect it directly to MIDI hardware, the optional MIDI expander is available for 40 EUR. The tone / volume expansion is helpful too, and an extra 32 EUR. Various combinations of add-ons and accessories can be bundled together too, with the Gold Edition (it’s not gold in colour by the way) coming with all the extras and costing 307 EUR plus VAT.   

EXP1 is a cool, fun and powerful little portable synth and sequencer with the ability to talk to external gear. It’s certainly got its own sound and can make excellent beats and sequences. The price probably places it slightly beyond an impulse buy, but then it is a more advanced instrument than many others in this category.  

Price: -EXP-1 from 245€ 

Pros: More powerful than it looks. Sounds great. Make cool beats and sequences. Intuitive step sequencing. Talk to external MIDI software and hardware. Decent polyphony and voice selection. Battery power and speaker.  

Cons: These un-cased synths are by definition more delicate. Arguably a little expensive if you’re looking for a novelty synth - which this is not. 

Web: http://www.fingersonic.com 

Review: https://ask.audio/articles/review-fingersonic-exp1-synth

Elektron Digitakt

Elektron Digitakt

While not strictly a synthesizer that generates its own sounds, we couldn’t make this list without including the Digitakt has enough controls and functions to sculpt sounds you put into it.

Elektron's Digitakt is an 8-voice drum sampler machine. It's a beat-making powerhouse with an 8-track / voice sequencer built-in. There's built-in effects and plenty of interesting sound design / mangling options available to sounds you sample.

I'm going to say this straight out. I really, really enjoy playing the Digitakt. There's not many machines I get a buzz out of playing with, discovering sounds and functions like the Elektron Digitakt.

If it were possible to operate Digitakt using a battery that would make it the most insanely cool feature in the world for me. Although sturdy and bigger than one hand, Digitakt feels like it would be at home on a plane, train or when traveling. But really, I'm nitpicking here. Digitakt is a very capable, playable and fun 8-voice audio and MIDI drum sampler. And it's only going to improve as more updates come its way. Now that's a scary thought for the competition!  

Learn synths, machines and synthesis in the Ask.Audio Academy:https://ask.audio/academy?nleloc=new-releases

Rounik is the Executive Editor for Ask.Audio & the macProVideo Hub. As an Apple Certified Trainer for Logic (and a self-confessed Mac fanatic) he's taught teachers, professional musicians and hobbyists how to get the best out of Apple's creative software. He has been a visiting lecturer at Bath Spa University's Teacher training pro... Read More

Discussion

JohnDoe
Recently got a Toraiz SP-16. I'm certain it came out last year but now it really should be considered for people interested in Samplers (especially workstations) because it is incredible. Out of the box, mine came with firmware 1.0 and it was neat but once i updated to 1.4 .. WOW. More FX, comprehensive LFO, more responsive touchscreen, sample folders labeled nicely, incredibly easy to copy patterns, easy & fun MIDI usage, analog filter can be assigned to a certain track instead of all tracks, render entire song arrangement as WAV file to USB stick.... People need to seriously look at this thing. IMO it's the best sampler option out there for the < $1500 market.
JonHolstein
On the digitakt and battery power, depending on where one lives, it might be possible to get a power bank that is capable of running it.

Apparently there are quite a lot of rules and regulations when it comes to batteries...
Otherwise there would probably have been official Elektron Power banks... and Roland and Korg ones as well.

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