In Part 1 of this series we looked at “Synths on a Budget” that all have perfectly playable keyboards attached where no external sequencer or controller is required. Now in Part 2 we look at Modules and Sequencers so it’s BYO keys.
Modules and Sequencers
BYO keys. Some instruments in this category feature a built in sequencer for standalone operation, but they all require an external keyboard controller of some kind for traditional playing e.g. Arturia Keystep
IK Multimedia UNO
At the time of writing, IK Multimedia’s battery/USB powered two oscillator analog mono-synth has only just hit the market. While industry reviews are yet to roll in, there’s already a lot to like here, not least of which the $329 price tag. IK’s first hardware synth is in fact a collaborative effort together with fellow Italians and boutique synth manufacturers Soundmachines.
Performance buttons labeled Dive, Scoop, Vibr, Wah and Trem allow popular modulation behaviours to be achieved with no programming or patching required making UNO an attractive choice for first time synth buyers.
27 buttons across the bottom of the front panel serve primarily as UNOs sequencer, however they can be played like a keyboard if required. The compact form factor and USB powered operation make for easy integration into a desktop environment and sequencing via a DAW alongside virtual instruments.
Bonus features: Surprisingly (at this price) UNO is manufactured in IK’s own Italian facility. UNO is likely the cheapest ever Italian made analog synth ever produced.
Behringer Model D
If you’re reading this article, you’re are probably aware of this product. Every synth-head dreams of adding a real MiniMoog to their collection, but the $5999 RRP of the limited edition re-issue puts it well out of reach for most.
Cue Behringer. The Eurorack friendly Model D got a lot of attention when it appeared at Superbooth last year, and upon hitting the market later that year, an expectedly sizable portion of the population were all too happy to remove their skeptics hat and part with the disguistingly low asking price of $479. For this cheap, we’re even willing to forgive the lack of keyboard and wooden cabinet.
YouTube is full of videos comparing it’s sonic qualities with the 1970s MiniMoog, the likes of which appear on Reverb.com for up to $10,000. We’ll leave it to you to decide how close they got.
Bonus feature: It costs $479.
Korg Volca Keys/Volca Bass/Volca FM
At approx. $200 AUD, Korg’s line of compact battery powered boxes dubbed Volca have been extraordinarily popular, and the range now consists of 3 synths, 2 drum machines, one sample player and a now a mixer. They’ve proved irresistible to bedroom producers looking to explore life outside of software synthesis, and electronic artists putting together a laptop-free live rig.
The Volca Keys is a bonafide 3-voice polyphonic analog synth with several voice modes including Unison and Ring Mod for everything from expressive chords to fat basses and powerful leads.
Volca Bass on the other hand takes a few cues from Roland’s classic TB-303 and it definitely has the analog gusto to satisfy your acidic cravings. You may also be surprised at just how flexible this bass machine is.
The onboard sequencer and speaker make them perfectly usable on their own, and sync in/out connectors make daisy chaining multiple Volcas via the included 3.5mm cable a breeze. If you’re budget is $500, why not pick up two? Maybe your local gear shop will do you a deal on three.
Bonus Features: If you’re the adventurous type and aren’t too attached to warranty agreements, why not type the words ‘Volca’ and ‘mod’ into your preferred internet search engine.
Roland Boutique SH-01A
Roland’s Boutique line of miniature synth modules kicked off with limited edition emulations of their legendary Jupiter-8 and Juno-106 keyboards which were met with predictably gleeful joy. Punters were immediately impressed with their ACB technology which digitally recreates the behaviour of analog circuitry. Fantastic as this was, the tiny knobs and sliders did prove challenging to operate, especially for larger fingered individuals.
The newer SH-01A model seeks to recreate their classic SH-101 who’s less dense substantially improves useability compared with the busier Jupiter-8 model.
Although the SH-101 is well known as a monophonic synth, it’s rebirth in digital Boutique form grants four voices of polyphony and other bonuses such as a step sequencer with 64 memory locations. Roland also make a mini-keyboard module which fits any of the Boutique synths perfectly.
Bonus features: Although digital, the SH-01A features Gate/CV outputs for connection to vintage or modern analog gear.