2018 has been another great year for synthesizer hobbyists and electronic musicians, with an ever growing offer of affordable gear from major manufacturers, as well as an incredible amount of niche, “boutique” bits of kit put out by smaller companies. Here are our top picks for the most inspiring products that have hit the shelves these last 12 months.
SQUARP INSTRUMENTS HERMOD
French firm Squarp Instruments had already set the bar quite high when they announced their feature-laden Pyramid Sequencer back in 2015. Although the Pyramid already boasted CV and gate ins and outs -essential for modular gear and general analog synth interaction-, eurorack enthusiasts have been begging for Squarp to release a sequencer module since then, and boy have they delivered!
The Hermod is fairly compact module -for such powerful sequencer features at least- with 26hp of width, and a skiff-friendly depth of 30mm, featuring no less 8-tracks, 8 CV and gate outs, 4 CV ins, an LCD screen, a microSD slot (for storage) and 16 backlit pads. While this sounds quite impressive already, the coolest part -in our opinion-, is that it also features midi I/O (so it can control non-eurorack gear as well!), a USB I/O (for external software control) and it can even act as a USB-host and USB-device (so you can control it directly with any of those cheap usb-only midi controllers and it will also power them).
If you’re into eurorack, it’s the perfect centerpiece to a live or studio-centric modular system. It’s our favourite sequencer for the format along with the (more hands-on) Stillson Hammer MK.2. If you’d rather prefer a desktop unit, we blindly recommend Squarp’s recent 2nd revision of the Pyramid, for standalone sequencing in both environments.
Don’t forget to check it in our shop!
Some might be wondering why we didn’t feature Moog’s more recent, and definitely more epic and eye-catching, One polyphonic synthesizer -of which we did an article a while ago- in this 2018 top five. But the DFAM holds a special place in our hearts.
While it doesn’t look that special on paper (after all it’s just a monosynth with a seemingly generic 2 oscillator + 1 multimode filter configuration and an 8 step sequencer), don’t judge it by the specs, because the DFAM is much more than the sum of its parts. The organicness of the VCOs and the noise generator, the hairy overdriven tone of the VCF, the unquantized nature of the analog style sequencer, and the three punchy envelopes interact in a such way that is difficult to describe. There’s a certain growly magic in how the circuits combine and merge, it’s a synth that’s definitely “alive”.
Although marketed mainly as a drum synth (with its acronym standing for Drummer For Another Mother) it can also be used as an unorthodox melodic instrument or take part in a bigger modular setup with the help of its 24 patch points. It’s a bit specific sounding and not what I would recommend for a beginner, but if you have a decent setup it’s quite a worthy addition. A modern classic.
BLACK CORPORATION DECKARD’S DREAM
We know that Black Corporation announced the Deckard’s Dream quite some time ago (back in 2017), but it’s this past year that it has finally become widely available (both as a ready-built unit and as a DIY kit) after all the pre-order periods and such. Roman Filippov (of Sputnik Modular fame) wanted to capture the essence of a “certain cinematic sound from the late 1970s and early 1980s”.
That cinematic sound is, as the synth’s name implies, highly inspired by Blade Runner’s original soundtrack. An OST whose sonic imprint was shaped by the interaction of Vangelis’ own hands, the Lexicon 224 reverb and the mighty Yamaha CS-80 polyphonic synthesizer, the keyboard that this rack unit seeks to emulate.
And while the Deckard’s Dream is not a 100% part-by-part clone of the CS-80, its sound and architecture are similar in spirit to the arguable king of Japanese synths while, at the same time, its specs bring it to the new millennium with modern features such as MIDI implementation, MPE support and generous doses of preset storage.
ARTURIA MINIBRUTE 2-S
I’m a big fan of the Minibrute and of Yves Usson’s work in general (one of the main designers behind Arturia’s first analog synth). It’s a very underrated keyboard, and I think it was very brave of him and Arturia to bring to market such an innovative design. Many people are fascinated by Makenoise’s 0-coast, whose claim to fame is blending the east coast (Moog) and west coast (Buchla, Serge) synth philosophies (hence its name “zero”-coast). But Arturia did this long before them by pairing typical east-coast architecture with west-coast features (such as the “metalizer” wavefolding circuit, similar to Buchla’s 259 complex oscillator implementation). They also ditched the typical “Moog-ish” 24dB filter in favor of a more eccentric Steiner-Parker multimode VCF, and even put in some deluxe features such as a saw waveform animator (labeled ultra-saw) previously available only in modular systems.
After the release of the Matrixbrute, Arturia have brought us the successor to the very successful Minibrute, with an extra VCO, and a very extensive minijack patch-panel that make it the perfect companion to a modular system. But the best part of the Minibrute MK.2 is, in my opinion, only found in the “2-S” variant. The keyboard version of the synth features a very handy “basic” sequencer, similar to the one in the Keystep. But the “2-S” (that S stands for sequencer, of course) chops off the keyboard to feature an amazing seq that takes its main features from the Beatstep Pro.
It’s a very cool semi-modular package that would work beautifully as an eurorack synth “control station” and also as a sound source by itself (or in conjunction with some extra modules), more so if you pair it with Arturia’s Rackbrute 3u and 6u cases, that can be easily attached to it for a tidy and powerful synth setup.
Don’t forget to check some of Arturia’s products available in our shop!
Founded by Ondřej Merta and Václav Peloušek, Brno based manufacturer Bastl started out with their tiny Trinity series of standalone synths and tools, later entering the eurorack market with their trademark wooden panel module designs. After the success of their Microgranny (an affordable DIY-friendly granular synth) they decided to explore similar -yet different- terrain with their all new Thyme standalone unit.
This is not really a synth in the classic sense, but it’s quite a sound-design oriented tool, and (IMO) one of the most interesting sonic processors to have come out in the last few years. Thyme is, as Bastl themselves call it, “a sequenceable robot operated digital tape machine”. It’s a strange mix of sampler, granular synth and multieffect. Kind of like a sequencer controlled, non-modular version of Strymon’s Magneto or Mutable’s Clouds, with a proudly digital lo-fi soul.
It features controls for tape speed, delay time, feedback, filter, spacing and level (of the virtual “delay heads”), dry-wet mix and master volume. And all of these parameters can be modulated by the 32 step sequencer, the LFOs, the envelope follower or an external CV input. If you’re into experimental mangling of recorded sounds this one is sure to satisfy your inner “radiophonic” self.
Picking just five products was quite a challenge, and there were a lot more that we considered but finally couldn’t make it to the list. As we already mentioned in the intro, we chose the ones that felt the most inspiring to us, but amongst the numerous gear releases of the year there were a few that we would have featured had the list been longer (or less focused on the inspirational aspect).
In this extended list of honorable mentions you can find a few synthesizer keyboards, such as: Moog’s One 8 and 16 voice polysynths, the lesser known -but equally Moogy- Baloran The River, Korg’s Prologue and Monologue series of synths and the luxurious hybrid from Waldorf called Quantum.
There’s also a place in this list for desktop synths such as the rather innovative Medusa (a collaboration between Dreadbox/Polyend that features sequencing and a Monome-styled grid of pads), Tasty Chips’ GR-1 polyphonic granular synth (Check also their ST-4 project!), Elektron’s Digitone FM synthesizer, Behringer’s incredibly affordable Neutron semi-modular or Malekko’s hybrid groovebox called the Manther, an (inexplicably under the radar) synth/sequencer combo.
Our favourite modular stuff this year also includes Mutable Instruments’ Plaits (the successor to the legendary Braids “macro-oscillator”), Doepfer’s new line of polyphonic modules, Makenoise’s revised version of their“cartesian” sequencer Renè, and Erica Synths’ Techno System.
Last, but not least, our top picks for effects this year include: the OTO Machines Boum stereo warming unit, the always cutting edge Chase Bliss with their Thermae pedal, Strymon’s new Magneto delay module and Mod Devices’ line of modular multi-effects.
About the author: José -Pepe- Coca is a musician, producer and audio engineer from Zaragoza (Spain). He has a PhD in Art and teaches Sound Systems, Synthesis and Mastering courses at CPA Salduie and SEAS. He has also worked as a sound designer for companies such as Elektron, Befaco or HelloSamples.