It's been yet another exceptional year for synth-lovers. The big players continue to march on with a steady output of new products, while even smaller and brand new companies have cropped up with some exciting prospects for beginners and pros alike.
Despite the lack of Winter NAMM (opens in new tab) and our usual window into what would be hitting the streets in the year ahead, it was hard to see what the forthcoming trends in the world of synthesis would be.
However, Korg took the brave approach of announcing all of its upcoming synth releases for the entire year (opens in new tab) in January for NAMM's online event. And while it got many excited, bubbles were soon burst when the realisation that we'd all have to wait months to see the things for real dawned on us.
The Japanese synth-maker did drop the Modwave synth early doors, which soon became a firm favourite among synthesists for its loose inspiration from the classic DW-800.
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Then, of course, we were treated to a late showing of Superbooth in 2021. With the Berlin-based electronic music event shunting over to the Autumn from its usual Springtime slot.
They say all good things come to those who wait, which was certainly true of some of the brand new instruments we got lay our hands on. The likes of the PWM Malevolent and Waldorf M were just two highlights from the show.
So we come to the end of the year and find ourselves, once again, deciding which hardware synth would we crown the best of 2021? And, yet again, we find ourselves unable to decide and so leave it to you, the trusty MusicRadar reader to do the work for us.
Without further ado, here are the best hardware synths of 2021 as voted by you...
1. Winner, Sequential Take 5
Dave Smith didn't rush recreating the Prophet-5 when the Sequential name was returned to him a few years back and we're glad he and the team finally did in 2020. What we weren't expecting was British synth-maker, Novation, purchasing the Sequential brand in 2021 and even more unexpected was the launch of the Take 5.
What is essentially a Prophet-5 in a more compact and much cheaper chassis, Take 5 takes your crown of best hardware synth release of 2021. Sequential's most compact polysynth to date features two analogue VCOs (w/sub octave) per voice and the same four-pole filter found in the Prophet-5 Rev 4.
2. Korg Modwave
Modwave is the third of Korg’s recent line of digital synths, kicked off in early 2020 with Wavestate and expanded a few months later by Opsix. The Modwave follows a similar blueprint to those two; again, an all-digital instrument that wears its DSP-power on its sleeve.
We felt Modwave to be the most versatile of the three, able to do convincing analogue impressions alongside oddball digital textures and nice percussive sounds.
All in all, it's a very powerful instrument with a remarkable depth for the price. There’s enough potential that you could happily ignore half the features and still find copious depths of sound design inspiration.
3. Korg ARP 2600 M
Just sneaking into third place was probably one of the most hotly anticipated follow-ups, after Korg released the full-size recreation of the legendary ARP 2600, is the 2600 M, a more compact and affordable version of the semi-modular behemoth.
Despite the downsizing, it's all the same analogue circuitry as the ARP 2600 FS inside, so it should sound just as good. There is a slight difference with the spring reverb - it’s been re-engineered and adapted to the smaller body size - but we’re promised the same lush quality of the effect.
Another one of the early-announced synths from Korg back in January, the 2600 M is out now, but in very short supply, so you might have to wait until the new year before you can get your hands on one. At least you'll have that lovely Christmas cash gift from great aunty Nora to put towards it.
4. Waldorf M
Sliding in at number four is the blue beauty of the Waldorf M, with some of the nicest looking rotary encoders we've ever seen. Tuning in with Korg's reimagining of its digital past, Waldorf announced it had gone back to its own digital roots by revisiting the classic Microwave.
Onboard you are treated to two wavetable oscillators, each with two generators courtesy of the Microwave I and Microwave II models.
What struck us the most is the combination between the wavetable synthesis engine and analogue filter brought out quite gritty and characterful results, especially in comparison to Waldorf's other wavetable synth, the Quantum/Iridium.
5. Make Noise Strega
The fight for the fifth spot was narrowly won by the Make Noise Strega, though a notable mention must go to another Asheville resident, Moog, for its Sound Studio bundle.
Strega was designed in collaboration with Alessandro Cortini and is absolutely unlike the rest of the winners here. Instead, geared up for sonic exploration through happy accidents and processing via patching cables and activating various touchpoints.
Housed in a similar chassis to the hugely popular 0-coast and 0-ctrl instruments, all three make for an expressive system of sonic exploration.