Let’s face it: It’s basically impossible to keep up with the pace of trade shows through the late winter and early spring. Between the flurry of announcements about monitors, synths, modules, mixing desks, and the endless stream of video demos pouring out, merely paying attention can feel overwhelming, let alone taking meticulous notes on what’s being released. The fact remains, however, that knowing what’s new and keeping up with the latest technology can impress a client and/or unlock the creative spark your home studio is lacking.
The pace is alarming, and the quantities of products are beyond overwhelming. I mean, just look at all those gadgets!
That’s where we come in.
After following all the announcements and demos as closely as possible, we sifted through hundreds of new synthesizer releases to narrow down and present our top five most inspiring synths from both the NAMM Show in Anaheim and Superbooth in Berlin, arguably the two biggest synth-trade shows of the spring season. In advance of Moogfest this weekend, which features a synth-heavy Modular Marketplace, here are some products you might expect to see there.
Dave Smith Instruments’ Rev 2
This one came as a surprise to many. After the Prophet 6 and the OB8, Dave Smith teased synth lovers with a new product before the trade shows. While many expected to see another analog classic reworked, the pioneer stayed one step ahead of the hype, unveiling a much-needed, long overdue update to the classic Prophet 08.
The 100% analog signal path and fully hybrid polysynth sound that made the Prophet 08 such a classic to begin with are intact here and made better with a completely retooled UI for a more minimal, simplistic interaction with the software under the hood. This means faster, WYSIWYG knob-twiddling that can get out of hand quickly — just the way you might like it!
Another tool at this synth’s disposal is the classic gate sequencer, allowing for complex rhythmic and multi-timbral melodic sequencing to play off each other in deeply challenging ways in the DAW domain. As a final touch, there are two voice options — an eight-voice and a 16-voice, both priced to compete at the market’s mid-range. (If you get the eight-voice, never fear — just under the hood is the option to buy an expander card.)
Here’s an in-depth overview of all the new features of the Rev 2.
+ Learn more on Soundfly: On the surface, these machines all look pretty complicated, but their circuitry is based on pretty simple, functional foundations. Check out our free course series, Demystifying Synths, to learn everything you’ve always wondered about how synths work.
Novation, makers of the classic Bass Station, look to complement their line of sequencers and desktop synths with a flagship, digital polysynth that takes digital out of the DAW and puts it at producers’ fingertips on the desktop. Enter
Enter the Peak. With three completely redesigned oscillators that focus on wavetables under the control of eight voices — not to mention a completely bonkers distortion circuit, a ring modulation circuit, white noise, reverb, delay, and chorus — it would be hard to run out of timbres to explore. Oh, and like the company says in its marketing, it is analog too, with state-variable OTA filters that overdrive pleasantly.
A second, yet important, feature of this box is its connectivity. With Control Voltage (CV) ins; connectivity for two pedals; and MIDI In, Out, and Thru, this synth will play nicely in both a beginner’s and a veteran’s home studio. Priced to move, the footprint-to-cost ratio is quality on this box.
Moving onto the boutique end of the market, the Greek company Dreadbox stormed onto the synth scene a few years back with a line of analog synths and modules that sounded, well, fatter than most of what else is out there. A hard-to-describe, rounded, noisy tone characterizes their boxes and with some clever soldering, paraphony in a small, analog format was too much to refuse for some.
The Abyss is the latest offering from the company, and while it’s by no means cheap, it packs a very hefty punch. The biggest of their synths thus far, its four voices can move from unison to polyphony to chord modes. And boy, can they get big — each voice has not only one VCO, but a sub oscillator as well. Add a white-noise generator, a waveshaper, an OTA drive circuit, and an unusual four-pole 24db low-pass filter into the mix, and you’ve got sound with legs.
After the already-powerful, all-analog front end of the signal, the Abyss comes fully loaded with effects as well. The bucket-brigade delay harkens back to the best delay units, and all the standard (and non-standard) sound design possibilities are opened up with that. It’s also got a chorus and a flanger, and with CV control and LFO control over everything, it can be a lot of beast to tame.
Not for the beginner by any stretch, the Dreadbox is a centerpiece analog hub to add some serious depth to your sound.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “How to Make ‘Pew! Pew!’ Laser Sounds with a Synth”
MFB Dominion 1 Club
A few years ago, MFB released a highly ogled, yet scarcely found synth, the Dominion 1. It featured everything that made MFB special: deep modular connectivity, three analog VCOs, sync, FM, and a specially designed SED multi-mode filter. But the synth remains elusive. For whatever reason, they seem hard to make. And despite these originally making a big splash, they’ve yet to catch on in a major way simply because there aren’t many of them in the world.
So, MFB decided to slim things down to a desktop box. Eliminating the keyboard and adding a sequencer, this synth is ace for exactly what its name suggests — the club. It comes loaded with the same two analog VCOs, only the club version packs two sub oscillators for thick, low-end sequencing and a digital FM oscillator for some top-end sheen to ensure it cuts over big systems.
Something most people don’t think about are envelopes; they’re not sexy, but when done right, they can help you shape an average-sounding signal into something truly special. And on the Dominion Club, the envelopes are wonderfully snappy and crisp, delivering a ton of punch to the sequence. It’s got a boatload of inputs and methods for control: MIDI CCs, step sequencing, and real-time recording of knob parameters. For anyone looking for a small, affordable, yet immensely playable and powerful analog sidecar to their MIDI rig, this seems like a no-brainer.
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Jomox Alpha Base
Any news out of Jomox is big, and the Alpha Base is no exception. A full drum-machine follow-up has been in the cards for years, and the famed 909 master has delivered what looks to be another masterpiece box with this offering. Right about now, you’re probably thinking, I thought said he was writing about synths, not drum machines. What gives?
Well, beyond the flexibility of drum machines to play complete bass lines and melodic tom patterns, this synth comes loaded with a full MBrane system, which is a two-oscillator voice featuring unique timbral shaping to create different types of physical surfaces. The MBrane and MBase boxes from Jomox have been techno staples for years, and combining them with tailored sample selection under the auspices of one super-snappy sequencer and infinite control is an all-around win for house- and techno-heads.
This is a purely subjective and shortened list for the purpose of editorializing what made each of these pieces so inspiring, although we’ve had to set aside quite a few incredible models that truly excited us. For a more thorough list of what went down at Superbooth in particular, feel free to head over to Synthtopia.
What are your favorite, newly introduced synths this year? What made your top five and why? Let us know in the comments!
Looking to deepen your understanding of how synthesizers work? Check out our free course series Demystifying Synths.