Hardware synth development is a constant push and pull between the future and the past. Manufacturers are understandably keen to offer something different, but also mindful that electronic musicians just can't get enough of that vintage sound.
This dichotomy is clearly demonstrated in our list of the 10 best new hardware synths of 2020 - as voted for by you, we might add - which includes both forward-thinking synths and nods, winks and waves to the classics of yesteryear...
1. ASM Hydrasynth
In no sense of the word is the Hydrasynth conventional. For a start, you have three oscillators per voice which include standard waves,plus wave-scanning - the latter an intuitive type of wavetable synthesis where you can assign eight waves and then scan through them using a dial/mod route.
You’ll also discover linear FM within the 'mutants' and some unique types of pulse-width modulation. Furthermore, there are five (looping) envelopes per-voice, an amp module, two filter modules, five LFOs, reverb and delay modules, plus pre and post effects.
Essentially, everything you might possibly want in terms of sound design is all here, and it is directly accessible and mostly modulatable. This all looks very powerful on paper, and this power is reflected in the sound too, which is excellent.
This is a very impressive debut release. The Hydrasynth looks and sounds great and dares you to explore it further. Plus, it is impeccably built and fairly priced. There is a lot to like here.
2. Korg Wavestate
Born out of the ashes of Sequential and their Prophet VS vector synth, the original Korg Wavestation was one of the defining instruments of the early ’90s.
Wavestate sits on the spectrum between a remake and a sequel. On the one hand, this is very much designed to capture the sound and feel of its predecessor, right down to a classic vector joystick and the inclusion of a fair few recognisable waves featured on the original (or one of its expansion cards). The Wavestate also expands on the underlying tech in a number of interesting ways, though.
Happily, Korg has done a fantastic job of walking the line between being faithful to a classic and offering something new. Sonically, the synth nails what Wavestation fans expect - even just as a preset machine, this is an awesome source of rich, pulsating pads, oddball textures and powerful multi-timbral patches. It's a fantastic update to a much-loved classic.
3. Sequential Prophet-5
Timed to coincide with Sequential founder Dave Smith’s 70th year, the new Prophet-5 takes the iconic synth designer back to his roots. This reboot features five voices with two multi-waveform analogue oscillators, resonant analogue low-pass filters and amplifiers, and a filter and amplifier envelope per voice.
Modulation is provided by a multi-waveshape LFO and Poly Mod, which allows the filter envelope and oscillator B to be routed to a variety of destinations, including filter cutoff frequency, oscillator A frequency, and oscillator A pulse width.
Those with an eye on authenticity can also be assured that the Prophet-5 features original, genuine Curtis VCOs and filters (as used in the Prophet-5 Rev3), as well as the Dave Rossum-designed SSI 2140 filter, the modern counterpart of the original SSM 2040 Rossum designed for the Prophet-5 Rev1 and Rev2.
There are a few modern enhancements - velocity sensitivity and aftertouch on the keyboard, MIDI and USB connectivity, Control voltage and gate ins/outs - but to all intents and purposes, this is quite simply the rebirth of a classic.
4. Erica Synths DB-01
At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Bassline DB-01 was another 303 clone. It does certainly bear many of the hallmarks of its near-namesake; the single oscillator, resonant filter and simplistic envelope controls are pure acid-machine. However, beyond this there’s a lot of unique stuff going on that makes the DB-01 very much its own instrument.
Overall, the Bassline DB-01 is an excellent little bass machine that more than lives up to our expectations. Sound engine-wise, the marriage of analogue oscillators, Polivoks filter and gritty detune and drive make this an absolute beast when it comes to full, gritty bass and lead sounds. Throw in a powerful sequencer and plenty of unique features and this is much more than just another Bassline clone.
5. Arturia PolyBrute
It always felt like it would only be a matter of time before Arturia released a large-scale analogue polysynth, so the launch of the PolyBrute - a 61-key, 6-voice instrument - didn't come as a total surprise. That’s not to say that this new Brute is any way underwhelming, though; in fact, quite the opposite is true.
Each of the six voices features two Brute waveshaping VCOs, a full-spectrum noise generator, enhanced Steiner multimode filter, custom low-pass ladder filter, three LFOs, three Envelope Generators and more. The voices can be used polyphonically or in splits and layers, with a fully-loaded Unison mode also an option.
Each of the 768 presets exists in two states, and you can seamlessly morph between them using a dedicated knob. Other hands-on controls include pitch and multifunction wheels and an assignable touchstrip.
Sound-wise, the PolyBrute leans towards complex, evolving sounds full of subtle timbral shifts. It's a fantastically characterful, well-designed instrument - a top-tier poly and a worthy flagship for the Brute range.
6. Moog Matriarch
The Matriarch is a very elegantly designed self-contained synth; the nearest you can get to owning an expensive Moog modular but at a fraction of the cost. It has a great-feeling Fatar keyboard, audio rate modulation, intuitive sequencer and arpeggiator, killer analogue delay section, velocity and aftertouch and a very engaging soulful sound.
The patchability is also very well thought-out and allows you to travel very deep (if you want).
The Matriarch is truly inspired design and one that’s very hard to stop playing/ exploring once you get your hands on it. It’s well built, has the classic Moog Modular sound and is complex yet intuitive. A future classic.
7. Moog Subharmonicon
If Moog is to be believed, there’s almost a spiritual element to its new Subharmonicon synth - first seen as a DIY build at Moogfest in 2018 but only getting a proper release in 2020 - with the company stating that it’s “equally suited for losing oneself and simultaneously finding oneself through sound”.
More prosaically, it’s actually a semi-modular analogue polyrhythmic synth that uses subharmonically derived synthesis to generate its sounds. It has two VCOs, four subharmonic oscillators, two 4-Step sequencers, and four rhythm generators, and can be used without patching anything if you wish. However, if you want to go deeper, you can patch it into itself or interface with Moog’s Mother-32, DFAM or other Eurorack-compatible gear.
This is a well built and thought out synth, which could inspire countless hours of creativity. Its lack of conformity to previous Moogs might make you think twice, but it does what it does extremely well.
8. Waldorf Iridium
2020 saw Waldorf’s stunning Quantum synth being rebooted in a more format in the shape of the Iridium. This either sits on your desktop or slots into your rack.
This is a hybrid synth with three oscillators, each of which offers five synthesis modes: wavetable, Waveform (virtual analogue), Particle (sampling/granular sampling), Resonator and Kernels.
Iridium’s patches are compatible with Quantum (and vice versa), and you can store a whopping 7000 of them on the synth. Other features include three digital filters per voice and a powerful modulation matrix.
Control of the Iridium comes via dedicated knobs for the major features and a touchscreen with encoders for the rest. There’s no keyboard, obviously, but a 4x4 silicone pad matrix enables you to play notes, chords, arpeggios and sequences. There's comprehensive MIDI, audio and CV/gate connectivity, too.
9. UDO Super 6
Despite its very vintage look, the Super 6 is billed as a new take on the analogue synthesizer. In fact, it’s a 12-voice polyphonic, binaural analogue-hybrid synth with FPGA digital oscillators and voltage-controlled analogue technology.
The ‘binaural’ reference here refers to the fact that, when used in this mode, the Super 6 features a true stereo path; the 12 voices are twinned to create six ‘Super’ voices, which explains the name of the synth as well.
The parameters for each oscillator can be controlled independently, enabling you to create some complex and ear-grabbing stereo images, though you can turn binaural mode off and have standard 12-voice polyphony if you’d rather.
Then, of course, you have filter and amplifier sections, LFOs, envelopes and a modulation matrix. You’ll also find an arpeggiator and step sequencer and dual stereo 24-bit effects (delay and chorus).
There’s no screen on the Super-6 - it’s been designed very much as an intuitive, ‘hands-on’ synth. You do, however, get a Fatar keyboard with velocity and aftertouch, expression and sustain, and there’s also support for MPE controllers.
10. Sequential Pro-3
The Pro 3 is a three-oscillator paraphonic synth that combines both analogue and digital components. There are two analogue oscillators each with saw, triangle and variable-width pulse waves. These are joined by a DSP-powered digital oscillator that can produce 32 types of morphing wavetable, along with analogue oscillator emulations and a supersaw mode.
There are three analogue filter types onboard - a Prophet-6 LPF, a Moog-style ladder filter and the continuous, state-variable design from the OB-6. On the modulation front, the synth has four freely-assignable, looping ADSR envelopes plus three syncable LFOs with phase-offset and slew. A 32-slot modulation matrix with 171 possible destinations allows for copious amounts of routing options.
On the digital side of things, the Pro 3 has dual effects sections boasting multiple types of reverb, delay and modulation effects including chorus, phasers and flangers. It also promises a programmable analogue distortion and tuned feedback for aggressive tonal effects.
Finally, the package is rounded off by a powerful-looking sequencer with 16 tracks, each capable of 16 steps and four phrases.