That hard stuff
As we made clear in our guide to 21 of the best affordable hardware synthesizers, you no longer have to pay megabucks to get your hands on a decent digital or analogue instrument. And yet, there's something enticing about those synths that cost a little more.
Frequently boasting improved build quality, more options, larger keyboards (if they have one) and, of course, better sound, these flagship instruments are the ones that many of us dream about owning. Unless you're super-rich then you'll probably never be able to justify buying more than one or two of them, but as they take pride of place in your studio and become objects of practicality as well as desire, their value to you is likely to become even greater than their initial cost.
Let's take a look, then, at some of MusicRadar's favourite high-end synths. They're not ranked in any way - we've listed them in ascending price order and given you an idea of the current street price pf each one - but we've lavished praise on every single one of them.
NEXT: Korg RK100s
With the recent ’80s revivalist trends that have been doing the rounds for the past few years and the growing number of electronically-centric live acts, it’s surprising that we only saw one noteworthy keytar released in 2014.
Not that it would’ve mattered if hundreds had been brought to market - we’d still have picked the RK100S as our favourite.
Resurrected in the same three colours that adorned the 1984 RK100 version, the S takes its mid-sized keys from the MS-20 and its sound engine from the microKorg XL. Plus, most notably, it includes not one but two ribbon controllers, one of which spans the entire length of the keybed - shredtastic!
Teenage Engineering OP-1
The OP-1 was touted as an intuitive musical tool with a radical new approach. It offers incredible build quality that’s backed up by an unorthodox but effective synth engine, excellent effects and a quirky tape recorder.
There's something inherently likeable about the OP-1. It's colourful, it's portable and using it makes us feel like we're playing with a very powerful toy.
Don't expect analogue-style synth sounds, but take the OP-1 on its own terms and you'll discover that its synth engines can create a broad range of highly usable tones.
Dave Smith Instruments Mopho Keyboard SE
This Special Edition of the Mopho keyboard gives you 44 notes to play as opposed to the standard version's 32. The extra octave on the SE is a welcome addition in terms of playability, and makes it a much better proposition as a controller. Also, despite the bigger footprint, the SE is still very compact and portable.
The SE's architecture is the same as in the Mopho module and Keyboard (and the Mopho X4, but that's monophonic, not polyphonic). There are two DCOs with saw, tri, saw-tri and variable pulse waves, (alas, no sine), plus a sub oscillator per oscillator.
The overall Mopho character is well defined and upfront, though it can also do warm, smudgy and juicy, particularly with the powerful self-oscillating resonance of the four-pole filter. The Mopho SE can nail most classic monosynth sounds, and the tuning is very stable due to the DCO architecture.
If you're considering the Mopho Keyboard, then we would definitely jump for the SE instead considering the relatively small price difference. It looks classier and the extra octave is indispensable.
Billed as a performance synthesizer, KingKORG is designed to be used both in the studio and on stage. It uses a new XMT (Xpanded Modeling Technology) engine to provide sound sources across a wide range of tones, from accurate sample-based models to rich, analogue hybrids.
What's most pleasing is how carefully the KingKORG's design has been considered. You can reach for most of the functions you'd want, with 'critical' settings for each section of the synth clearly labelled and readily available. Its synthesizer roots draw influence from a long line of Korg classics (including the MS-20 and MS2000), and its physical modelling echoes pioneering products such as the Z1 and Prophecy.
If you're looking for a synth with a well-designed interface, cracking sounds and scope to create your own, get in front of this instrument and give it a try.
Studiologic Sledge v2.0
The original Waldorf-powered Sledge launched in 2012 and, despite being pretty reasonably priced and offering a very solid synth engine, it has largely fallen under the radar. However, v2.0 will get people taking it a lot more seriously.
There's no doubt that the Sledge's front panel has been largely influenced by the Minimoog with its classic three-oscillator plus filter plus dual envelope layout. It's a great choice of design as it's very familiar to most people and flows very nicely.
Throw in wavetable and sample import options, plus FM, 24-note polyphony, split/layering facilities and aftertouch support, and Sledge starts to look like a great buy.
Korg ARP Odyssey
Originally Launched in 1972, the 2800 series (or Odyssey as it became known commercially) was ARP's answer to the hugely successful Minimoog - which appeared two years earlier - and was quickly adopted by many top players, including jazz-funk-fusion gods Herbie Hancock and George Duke.
Korg's emulation nails the sound of the original, and goes further with some welcome new enhancements. What's great is that the Oddy is now even more versatile sonically, and can easily make subs, screaming or rich leads, dirty noises, snappy drums and FX. Having MIDI and USB connectivity is great, too.
It's amazing to have a new, reliable and - above-all - authentic-sounding Odyssey in our hands, and we're genuinely excited to see where Korg will take the ARP brand going forward.
Moog Sub Phatty
This monophonic Moog offering is a 25-key unit that features two variable waveshape oscillators and is littered with plenty of knobs.
The Sub Phatty's true brief is to be all synths to all people. Fat-bottomed basses, quavering Geddy Lee-ish lead lines or Moogy flutes are all there for the twiddling once you find your way around the instrument.
The original Minimoog Model D promoted exploration and found a niche in almost every genre of popular music. While the Sub Phatty may not be in a position to do quite the same, it has an organic and patently clear connection to those halcyon days of innovation.
Flexible sound shaping, playability and an everyman price make the Sub Phatty a real contender.
Access Virus TI
A measure of how highly the Virus TI is thought of is that even software aficionados cite it as a piece of hardware that they’d really like to own. A virtual analogue instrument, it’s available in Desktop, Keyboard (61- and 37-note) and compact ‘Snow’ formats, and whichever one you go for, you’re guaranteed the now-classic Virus sound.
The exact specs will depend on the model you choose, but sonically, there’s something for everyone here. The Virus is capable of subtle and gentle tones, but make it mad and it has a penchant for sheer, unadulterated brutality.
With a well-considered control set and easy integration with a DAW, the Virus TI is a seriously powerful synth that’ll slot effortlessly into your studio.
Korg MS-20M Kit
In most ways it's the same as the keyboard version, sporting two oscillators, two envelopes, two fiRead Korg MS-20M Kit reviewlters and a plethora of modulation options for making bubbles, squeaks, evolving sounds, basses, leads and sound effects. However, there are several key new features included.
However, Korg has also added oscillator sync (activated via a switch between the two oscillator waveform selectors) which really sounds superb. Then there's FM, which is activated by a switch between the oscillator footage controls, which adds yet another level of sonic versatility to the already MS-20 engine.
In short, if you can do without the keyboard and are happy with the self-assembly requirement, this is the best MS-20 yet.
Elektron Analog Four
At its heart the A4 is a four-voice analogue synth featuring two DCOs (digitally controlled analogue oscillators, not digital oscillators) per voice, with a sequencer track per voice (four tracks), an FX track and a CV track for controlling voltage-controlled gear. There's also an analogue ladder filter and multi-mode filter.
All things considered, the A4 is an amazing little box that sounds polished yet raw and organic, and it's inspiring to use once you have negotiated the initial learning curve. It excels at big basses, warped FX, punchy drums and dreamy soundscapes, and can go from subtle to in-your-face in the twist of a dial. The send effects are also great for adding space, movement, and stereo width to your patterns.
If you want an analogue synth/step sequencer with enough to keep you hooked for a long time, then look no further that the Analog Four.
Elektron Analog Keys
The Analog Keys is very much a sister product to the Elektron Analog Four synthesizer/sequencer. The signal path from the oscillators to the audio outputs is completely analogue, and the external inputs can be routed in right at the start of the chain. However, the noise generator, envelopes and LFOs are all digitally generated.
The learning curve to get the most of the Analog Keys hardware is quite steep in places. While there are many areas of apparent creative freedom and flexibility, there are other aspects that frustrate.
However, there's plenty to like about the Analog Keys. It has a fine synth engine under the hood, some interesting interfacing options, and is capable of some great results in sonic terms.
Analogue Solutions Telemark v2
The Telemark was originally conceived as being a more feature-rich variation of Tom Oberheim's SEM (Synthesizer Expander Module) design from 1974. This achieved legendary status and went on to form the basis of some of the earliest polyphonic synth systems.
Despite the similarities, though, Analogue Solutions makes it very clear in the manual that it is "not intended to be and is not a clone of the SEM. If you want a true SEM sound, buy an SEM!". So you've been told.
The Telemark is a flexible, very capable and fine-sounding analogue synth, especially when hooked up to an analogue sequencer or used in conjunction with software such as MOTU's Volta or Expert Sleepers' Silent Way (which allow some audio interfaces to double as multi-output CV/Gate sources).
Spending a tenth of this will get you a pretty good software emulation of an Oberheim SEM, but it will most definitely lack the charm, sound, flexibility and physical presence of this very usable and individual hardware.
The Monomachine has six monophonic synth engines (all DSP-based, so no analogue here), each of which is associated with a sequencer track. There are also a further six polyphonic tracks provided for sequencing of external MIDI gear.
This is a synth that encourages you to experiment in ways that would be impossible with most other synth/sequencer combinations. In fact, it comes close to providing what a large analogue modular system might offer, albeit with its own sonic character, and is a lot of fun to use.
Nord Lead A1
The initial view on the A1 was that it was a slimmed-down version of the Lead 4, which was possibly due to the proximity in release to the NL4. It is, however, a direct replacement for the Lead 2/2x range which hadn’t seen the light of day for a good 17 years.
First impressions focus on its diminutive size compared to the rest of the Nord stable; the same goes for the price point. The bright red case, sturdy rubberised dials, hard plastic buttons and stone-effect mod wheel/wooden pitchbend are all standard Nord issue. But the A1 is designed to be more compact, portable and easier to program than the Lead 4, and it is.
If you want the Nord sound at a low price then look no further.
The Integra-7 is a two-unit rack synth featuring all the sounds from the highly regarded XV-5080 module, Supernatural sounds from the latest Jupiter-50/80 synths and V-Drums, plus all 12 virtual SRX expansion cards and seven new virtual expansions.
The I7 will be particularly appealing to media composers looking for very realistic acoustic/orchestral sounds but also to more progressive electronic heads. The sound quality is warm yet precise but definitely up-to-date and classy - this really is a one-stop sonic solution.
Moog Sub 37
Quite obviously the arch rival to the Pro 2, the Sub 37 is a duo/paraphonic limited edition synth based on the Sub Phatty engine.
Dubbed the Tribute Edition - in honour of Bob himself and his love of education - each Sub 37 sold has a portion of the proceeds donated to Asheville Area School Music Programs.
While both this and the Sub Phatty have their own unique characteristics, for Moog lovers the real boon here is the inclusion of the arpeggiator, something not even featured in the massive Voyager XL, let alone other Phattys.
Clavia Nord Lead 4
The Nord Lead 4 is a raw yet polished-sounding synth, with plenty of sound and feature enhancements in comparison to its predecessor the Lead 2X. The new filter types and Impulse Morphing are especially notable (along with the versatile new effects), and though you can't upload samples and the interface could be more spacious and flow better, the basic sound and feel is great, and the wavetables add a lot of new scope.
It's certainly one of the nicest-sounding virtual analogue synths around, and gets very close to the real deal. It will appeal to those looking for one synth that can do authentic analogue emulation (both for live and in the studio), yet it can go way beyond into futuristic digital sonic mayhem, and back in a snap with the ingenious new morphing implementation.
It's certainly pricey, but the Nord Lead 4 is inspiring to play, and very much a player's instrument.
Dave Smith Instruments Pro 2
Not wanting to rest on its laurels, Dave Smith and crew came back with the Pro 2, a reimagining of the original Sequential Circuits Pro 1, but certainly not a reissue.
This versatile mono/paraphonic synth has more in common with the Prophet 12 than the Pro 1, and is a huge improvement on the Mopho.
Better still, the inclusion of superwaves, a sequencer, four-note paraphony, new filters and extensive CV control make this synth a must-have.
Dave Smith Instruments Prophet '08
Dave Smith revisited his seminal Prophet range here to introduce a new generation to the sound of polyphonic analogue synthesis.
The Prophet ‘08’s sound architecture and sound shaping features are very comprehensive. What’s more, it sounds classy, has very ﬂexible mod routings and the eight-note polyphony allows several sounds to be stacked and split within one patch.
In short, this is the answer to many a keyboard player's dreams.
The Jupiter-80 is largely based on Roland's acclaimed 'Supernatural' sampling technology, which samples every key from the instrument (instead of just a few zones) for super-realistic, dynamically smooth sounds.
It also features a virtual analogue modelled synth - which Roland calls a 'Supernatural Synth' - featuring several virtual analogue waves and the 'Supersaw' wave which debuted on the JP-8000 (and is a staple sound for Trance producers). Plus, like the Nord Stage 2, it also has sampled PCM waves, though you can't import your own currently.
Once you get to grips with its confusing sound structure and sparse interface there is very little to fault with the Jupiter-80. It’s a sonically versatile, impressive and supremely powerful synth.
Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 12
Unlike the Prophet 08 (which uses digitally controlled analogue Oscs), the P12 uses powerful Sharc DSPs to produce new high-resolution, anti-aliasing digital waves.
At its heart are 12 voices (with four digital oscillators per voice, plus a single sine sub osc) and a completely analogue signal path from the filters to the output.
In use, the P12 is a dream to play and work with, and everything you would expect from an analogue synth is onboard. Its overall character is best described as precise, upfront, punchy and organic. It excels at everything from low-filtered background pads and sizzling strings, to fat basses, industrial clangorous tones, authentic FM four-op sounds, sweet bubbling arpeggiated FX and authentic analogue-style leads, pads and brass. It's a real testament to the quality of the analogue-style waves.
The price is definitely on the high side, but this is a pretty unique synth, both in terms of sonics and features.
Moog Minimoog Voyager XL
The XL is a wonder to behold even before you've plugged it into your speakers. It looks like someone designed it in Photoshop under the title 'Fantasy Moog'.
This is the Aston Martin of Minimoogs and, as such, it's not easy to sum up this instrument without resorting to hyperbole. It sounds better than superb, it's a wonder to play and it's just glorious to program and listen to.
If your mission is to track down the holy grail of analogue synths then it's time to board the good ship XL.