A few years ago I had a Korg MS2000R, and it was fun to play and mess around with. Eventually I sold it as I didn’t play it as much, and I think I was tired of having to have a separate keyboard setup for it. I also sold my humungous Yamaha stage piano, and I do miss the amazing keys it had. I’m pretty much set as far as guitar and bass, but I’m not happy with my keyboard/synth situation. I still have a Roland RS-5, and while it’s ok it’s just not what I want. It tries to be a jack-of-all-trades, so it has both mediocre piano as well as synth sounds, with hardly any editing capability. I also have a Novation MIDI keyboard controller, and while I like the slightly-smaller size I HATE having to setup the driver, mapping for each DAW and software synth, etc. I want to use a computer for recording and maybe some light MIDI sequencing, and that’s it. I don’t want to be chained to it for synths, having to depend on upgrades and DAW compatibility, etc.
So where does that leave me? Looking at getting another hardware synth, this time with its own keys. My budget could be pretty big depending on what I see, and if goes toward a high-quality instrument similar to my guitars and bass. I immediately dis-qualified any synths with mini-keys; sorry but ain’t happening, especially if I’m spending close to or over $1000. And even though it has mini-keys and it almost made the cut, I also had to dis-qualify the Korg MS-20 mini and the Arturia Mini/Microbrute, as they don’t save patches. Yeah I could record samples and use those, but it’s not enough. Which ones have piqued my interest? Here they are:
Clavia Nord Lead A1
While it doesn’t have as many possibilities as the Nord Lead 4, the A1 does boast a few more voices, enhanced effects, and overall a better sound. It’s definitely geared more towards playing and tweaking rather than deep programming on the 4, which does seem to go along with what I’m looking for. I like the look and build quality of Nords, and the 4-octave keys is a perfect size. With 4-part multi-timbrality, I can certainly use a sequencer and wouldn’t conceivably need another synth for a song! At $1800 the A1 is $500 cheaper than the Lead 4.
Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 08
The original Prophet 08 had problems with its encoders/knobs/pots, which has been long-fixed with the PE version. Some have criticized the Curtis filter, but it’s hard to deny the build quality, interface, and variety of sounds possible on the Prophet 08. At 8 voices this has the most potential for very rich pads and chords, which goes along with its 5-octave keys. While DSI has many other choices (Prophet 6, 12, and Pro 2), the 08 is the cheapest of the bunch at $1800.
Elektron Analog Keys
Elektron started with the SidStation, but has come a long way with more sonic creations. The Analog Keys has a terrific sound with a heavy-duty sequencer and interface. Of my choices it will certainly take the longest to learn, but also has the most potential. While not really polyphonic there are some multi-tracking possibilities. The keys do stick out beyond the case, but as I’m not looking to gig that’s not an issue for me. Currently at $1524, the Analog Keys offers quite a bit bang-for-buck.
Moog Sub 37
Moog started with the Little and Sub Phatties, and then the SubPhatty. But it only had 2-octave keys and a limited interface. Before long the Sub 37 came along, adding another octave of keys, far more knobs and buttons, and a sequencer. This is a duophonic synth, but the Moog filter guarantees some outstanding sonic possibilities and quality. That quality extends to the build, as this is an all-American Synth like the Prophet 08. For learning to program a synth the Sub 37’s interface is king, and its manual is also outstanding. While this won’t completely satisfy my desire for pads and chords, it’s gonna be really hard to not go with this synth anyways. At $1500 this is one of the cheapest Moogs with keys, but is it worth that much more than a $500 Moog Minitaur just to have the Moog sound?
Novation Bass Station II
While advertised as a bass synthesizer, there’s quite a lot the Bass Station II has to offer, and its interface rivals the Sub 37 in terms of ease of programming. With only 2-octave keys it is a bit limited in terms of playing. At $500 I don’t think you can find any other analog synth with keys.
Moving from the Bass Station II to the UltraNova, we lose the intuitive interface and analog sound; we do gain additional polyphony, keys, etc. At $599, only $100 more than the Bass Station II, it’s pretty hard to pass up, even with an interface that may take awhile to learn.
Back in the day Waldorf was a German power-house of synths, with many models to choose from. Unfortunately they went bankrupt and only recently have resurfaced in a much smaller role. Among their current offerings is the Blofeld, seen as a smaller cousin of the Q and other Waldorf past glories. The keyboard version boasts a great build quality, but not very many knobs or switches. The software has been criticized for being flaky and crashy, but after several years it seems most issues have been worked out. This synth won’t offer much in the classic warm tones, but for pads and other quirky sounds it’s hard to beat a Waldorf, past or present. At $1000 is it worth the risk to go with them?