Hardware synths are smaller, cheaper and more flexible than ever. Scott Wilson picks the best pocket-sized, affordable and hackable synths synths on the market for experienced studio heads and beginners alike.
As computers gradually replaced hardware synths towards the end of the last century, it seemed as if outboard gear was a dying relic of another era. However, the demand for hardware has picked up in recent years, spurred on by a surge in availability of analog gear from boutique companies and small, affordable synths from legacy manufacturers like Roland and Korg.
Today, the synth market is more open and innovative than ever. Off-the-shelf, plug-and-play synths sit comfortably alongside open-source units that you can reprogram or DIY kits you can modify yourself. The technology is becoming so inexpensive and the lines increasingly blurred nowadays that a great deal of these synth occupy several categories at once.
However, the market for these devices is exceptionally crowded, and it’s not always clear what each is capable of. Below are 12 of the best, all coming in at under $500. Not all of them are guaranteed to fit in your pocket, but you’ll at least be able to throw them into a backpack.
Korg – Volca
Price: $159 each
Korg didn’t invent the pocket synth with the Volca, but few instruments have captured the imagination quite like the Japanese giant’s affordable series. For good reason too: the Volca range has made a full analog setup affordable on most budgets – something that would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago. What started out with just three models (Beats, Bass and Keys) has since expanded to include the FM (which is pretty much a tiny Yamaha DX7), Kick (a powerful kick drum generator) and Sample (a tiny MPC).
Each has a 16-step sequencer, so it’s possible to write patterns without the need for additional equipment, and it’s easy to sync each model together with the included cable. If you enjoy the sound of analog grit (or FM sheen), the Volca range is one of the most charming ways to get into hardware production, and if you’ve already got a collection of vintage gear, you’ll probably find a place for at least one of these units in your studio. They’re dirt cheap too: it’s possible to get a drum machine, bass synth and a model to make chords for well under $500.
Roland – Boutique Series
Price: $199-$499 each
The Boutique series gives you classic Roland synths at an affordable price, in a compact form factor that won’t take up too much space in your studio. The range covers three vintage polysynths (Jupiter-8, Juno-106 and JX-3P) a classic drum machine (TR-909) the legendary TB-303, a vocoder synth and all new analog synth, the SE-02. With the exception of the SE-02, some compromises are made: the units use a digital recreation of analog circuits, they don’t come with a keyboard as standard (that’ll set you back another $99) and the Jupiter-8 emulation only has four voices instead of eight, but for the most part, they sound just like the real things.
Each module isn’t quite as compact as a Volca, but the Boutiques have many of the same functions, including battery power, a 16-step sequencer and a built-in speaker for impromptu jamming. There’s also a USB port that serves two functions: it’s both a power supply and USB audio interface, which means you can plug the synth directly into your laptop with no additional interface required. If you’re using the TR-09 drum machine, it’ll even split the audio into four separate channels. Don’t let the virtual analog put you off – these are some of the best synths Roland has made in years.
Teenage Engineering – Pocket Operators
Price: $49-89 each
Teenage Engineering’s Pocket Operators might look like the bastard child of a calculator and a Nintendo Game & Watch device, but there’s enough power in each of the seven models to go up against Korg’s Volca series. The crunchy, digital sounds they create are simplistic compared to some of the other synths on this list, but they boast high-end features such as sequencer, parameter locks (to save variation on each step) and pattern chaining. The size makes them a little fiddly, but they’re very simple to use.
Each Pocket Operator has its own distinct personality conveyed through the LCD screen; for example, the 8-bit-inspired PO-20 has its own arcade cabinet. The most recent model in the series, the PO-32 Tonic, goes a step further with the concept, allowing you to transfer sounds from the Microtonic drum VST wirelessly through the built-in microphone. At just $89, it’s one of the cheapest drum machines you can buy, and if you want to add a PO-14 for bass and a PO-28 for melodies, you’ll still have change left from $200.
Korg/littleBits – Synth Kit
A cross between a Lego set and a DIY home science lab, littleBits has been expanding its range of magnetic electronic modules over the last few years with everything from a kit to build your own Mars Rover to a system that can turn household objects into internet-connected devices. Given that its system resembles a ragtag modular synth, littleBits’ synth-based collaboration with Korg is entirely logical, allowing you to build your own basic synthesizer from a set of 12 pieces.
The Synth Kit contains a power supply, two oscillators, one envelope, sequencer and keyboard, as well as a filter, delay unit, mixer and speaker, all of which can combine with any of the company’s other kits. For example, if you have the littleBits Arduino kit, you can control the oscillators with your own self-written code. The littleBits Synth Kit might not look hugely professional, but the ability to get stuck in and build endless combinations makes it an ideal starting point for those wanting to know how synths work and have some fun along the way.
Make Noise – 0-Coast
If you want to get into modular synthesis but don’t have the cash to spend on all the gear you need to get started, the 0-Coast is an ideal starting point. Created by modular experts Make Noise, the single voice synth’s name derives from the fact that it blends elements of both the East and West Coast synthesis popularized by legendary figures Bob Moog and Don Buchla. And although it’s a fraction of the size of a Eurorack modular system, the build quality is among the highest you’ll find of any pocket synth, with a rugged steel enclosure that feels incredibly luxurious.
The 0-Coast’s clearly labelled functions make it easy to use out of the box, but the real fun starts when you get some patch cables and start routing the sections in different ways. For example, you can connect the random output to the pitch and the synth will generate a strange, atonal melody when used in conjunction with the internal arpeggiator, which is controlled by a tappable clock control. If you decide you want to go even further and build yourself a full modular, the 0-Coast can be patched in and out of that as well.
Soundmachines – NS1nanosynth
Soundmachines’ NS1nanosynth is a fully patchable synth made of analog components, with enough mini modules to put a lot of semi-modulars and starter Eurorack synths to shame. There’s a ribbon controller that allows you to generate a tone without plugging in a keyboard, and though it’s only a little bigger than a Korg Volca, it’s able to make the kind of noises you might expect to hear from Aphex Twin’s notorious recent modular setup.
The NS1 is more than just a micro-modular though, it’s a compact modular synth with an Arduino micro controller built in. This means that it can do practical tasks like transmit MIDI data over USB or recognize a mouse and keyboard, and also cool stuff like allow you to use the Arduino Mozzi library to turn the digital section into a synth or effects processor. If you feel like writing your own code, you can even add your own sounds.
Arturia – MicroBrute
Arturia made its name crafting software versions of vintage synthesizers, but the company has since become adept at making real analog gear. The company’s cheapest analog synth is the MicroBrute, something akin to a tiny version of Roland’s classic SH-101 synth. Arturia compromises on some of the hands-on controls to fit everything in, but it’s dirt cheap considering it’s also got a built-in step sequencer for creating 303-style acid jams, chunky basslines or simple arpeggios.
However, it’s the MicroBrute’s miniature modulation matrix that really stands out. Using the included patch leads, you can, for example, use the LFO to modulate the pitch, or use the envelope to modulate the filter. It’s also got CV (control voltage) ins and outs, which allows you to connect it to your existing analog gear or Eurorack modular synths.
Bastl Instruments – Kastle
Bastl Instruments is arguably the king of weird, affordable, pocket-sized synths. The Czech company’s imaginative devices range from a tiny granular sampler to a “psychedelic analog noise creature”, but its smallest device is the Kastle, a $90 synth with a lo-fi digital sound. It has three synthesis modes, each of which offer something different than the average analog box: phase modulation, phase distortion and track and hold modulation, each of which are capable of quirky sub-aquatic sounds.
Despite packing its circuitry into a footprint the size of just three AA batteries (which also power the synth), the Kastle has its own tiny patchbay. Kastle is also fully open-source, allowing anyone who wants to get stuck into the code to reprogram the LFO, VCO and more. If you want a synth that’s affordable, open-source and truly pocket-sized, there’s nothing in the world that fits the bill like the Kastle, and if you want DIY, there’s even a self-assembly kit version.
Critter & Guitari – Organelle
Critter & Guitari’s handmade instruments look a bit like something you might expect to see Finn clutching on Adventure Time — the company even has its own animated mascots to guide you through its gear. While the design philosophy of the Brooklyn company’s instruments is decidedly cartoonish, it makes very capable hardware, especially the Organelle, which is capable of running lots of different patches using its on-board processor.
While it comes with plenty of synth presets, the Organelle has audio inputs that allow you to use it as a sampler, for example, sampling and pitching vocals. It also functions as an effects processor, drum machine and sequencer. However, Organelle’s biggest selling point is that it’s possible write your own patches using the Pure Data programming language – just plug the device into a monitor, keyboard and mouse (via the USB ports) and you can do it without a computer.
Moog – Werkstatt-01
You can expect to pay a premium for Moog’s handmade gear, unless you build it yourself. The Werkstatt is a Moog synth for under $200 that you assemble at home and doesn’t require any soldering – just snap together the pieces and you have a tiny, one-oscillator Moog synth with built-in button keyboard and Moog’s legendary four-pole ladder filter. There’s even a tiny patchbay that uses single-pin cables, though an optional CV expander will open this up for use with anything that uses 3.5mm jacks, such as Eurorack modular gear.
On its own, the Werkstatt is a solid synth with a surprising capacity for powerful low end rumble, but it doesn’t have any MIDI connections, which means controlling it with an external keyboard will be a struggle unless it outputs pitch via CV. However, if you are proficient with electronic engineering then the Werkstatt is highly modifiable – users have done everything from hacking in a second LFO to adding motion control with an Arduino. It may not be the most powerful synth in the world, but it’s a brilliant laboratory for budding synth designers.
Meeblip – Triode
The concept behind the Meeblip Triode is exactly the same as its open-source predecessor, the Anode: To make a powerful monophonic bass synth with hands-on controls and analog filter with a lot of grit, and fit it onto a tiny, 4” x 4” square. Designed and created by Create Digital Music’s Peter Kirn and James Grahame of Reflex Audio, the Triode packs three oscillators into its sound engine.
It’s also a great synth for live performers: it has full MIDI control over every parameter, as well as hidden parameters including pulse width and envelope modulation that can be controlled using MIDI CC messages. Going even deeper under the hood, there are 24 wavetables for making raw digital textures. More than anything though, it’s the sound of this thing that impresses, and proves that a synth doesn’t need to be analog to have bite.
Patchblocks Programmable Mini Synths
Price: $71-$117 each
Virtual modular synth environments such as Reaktor and Max/MSP present the eager synthesist with endless possibilities, but despite being programmable, they lack the tactile physical presence of physical modular setups. Patchblocks offers a solution somewhere between the two, with physical modules that can be programmed via an editor on Mac or PC and snap together magnetically. Think of each Patchblock as a blank canvas – once you’ve programmed one to perform a particular task, you upload the code, unplug it, and take the device away to use independently of your computer.
As with a standard modular system, the possibilities of Patchblocks are almost limitless. You can turn one into a synthesizer and automate it with a control signal from another, or attach your own custom filter. If you want a drum machine, you write one, and control it with your very own sequencer. If you need a Patchblock to perform a different function, you just write over it. The Patchblock system isn’t a walled garden either: for example, you can write a delay and route external audio from any other physical hardware, making them incredibly useful for producers wanting to write their own effects without being bound to a laptop.
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