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Our favorite affordable synths from NAMM 2019

Our favorite affordable synths from NAMM 2019

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Image: Behringer

Buying hardware synths can be incredibly expensive, but this year’s National Association of Music Merchants show, NAMM, brought loads of affordable announcements from well-known companies. Almost all of the below synths only cost a few hundred dollars, which is a steal compared to spotlight NAMM synth announcements from 2018 — like the Elektron Digitone and Korg Prologue — that started at prices closer to $1,000 and went up from there.

These picks from NAMM 2019 might (mostly) be in a budget price range, but that doesn’t mean they’re budget buys. Music hardware has seen a resurgence, with double-digit growth specifically for analog synth sales since 2010. People are flocking back to physical objects not just because of the pleasing tactile experience, but because it’s become markedly cheaper to explore hardware synthesis. Here are some of the standout synths we saw at this year’s NAMM show.

Behringer Crave

The new Behringer Crave is an original semi-modular monophonic synth that’s sort of like the company’s beefed-up take on the Roland TB-303.

Behringer is known for delivering highly desirable gear at a budget price. The Crave houses many iconic circuits in one small package, it can create harmonically rich, full sounds, and it’s only $199, making it an easy, entry-level sell. The company announced Crave toward the end of NAMM, which took the wind out of the sails for some other exciting and charming products, but you can’t beat mass appeal at dirt-cheap prices.

Image: Behringer

This is Behringer’s third original synth (following the DeepMind and Neutron), and it combines many popular bits from iconic synths over the decades. It has a single oscillator, based upon the fabled 3340 “Curtis” oscillator used in the Sequential Prophet 5, and a switchable high and low pass “Ladder” filter, which was invented by Moog and provides rich resonance and self-oscillation. There’s also an attack / decay / sustain (ADS) envelope and LFO.

It’s not all retro, though. The Crave also boasts a modern sequencer and arpeggiator. The step sequencer can hold up to eight banks of eight sequences, and each sequence can be up to 32 steps in length. It can be transposed via MIDI (there’s a five-pin and USB MIDI on the back), and each step can have parameters adjusted like gate length, glide time, and accent. There’s considerable control over the sequencer as well, with reset, stop, tempo, and other options. And due to all of those patch points sitting at the top of the unit, the Crave can use those to talk with Eurorack and CV-compatible gear.

Behringer hasn’t announced a release date for the Crave, but you can watch a demo of it in the meantime here.

Arturia MicroFreak

The new Arturia MicroFreak is a tiny digital / analog hybrid baddie with a tiny price tag of $349. It’s a four-voice paraphonic synth, which means it can play multiple notes at the same time, but they’re all affected by a single filter and amp. It’d be great for creating hooks and leads, could easily be used in a live set, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find something else at this price point that packs in so much power.

This is also a synth that’s for the adventurous, looking for sounds outside the norm. It has 11 wavetable and digital oscillator modes with names like “Texturer,” “KarplusStrong,” and “Harmonic OSC.” To zap things up, these are then paired with a state variable analog filter for adding movement and shape to your sounds. Some might be put off by digital oscillators, but this also means the sounds you’ll get from the MicroFreak will be very diverse, from traditional noises you would expect from a synth to the otherworldly. 

Image: Arturia

Yes, the keyboard is flat. It’s a PCB, not three-dimensional keys that move. But the keys are pressure-sensitive and there’s polyphonic aftertouch, which allows each key being held to transmit a separate, independent aftertouch value. (This means, for example, that you can play a chord and get different volume values for each key depending on how hard you press them.)

The MicroFreak has a 5x7 modulation matrix (a bridge to connect different parts of the synth to each other for effects and modulation) with three user-assignable destinations. This can be controlled with just a dial, instead of having to dig into annoying submenus. The MicroFreak also boasts an arpeggiator and 64-step sequencer. Assign up to four automation tracks per preset, edit notes per step, or throw on the “Spice” and “Dice” sequencer functions, which randomize notes you’ve played to create cool and unexpected variations. On top of everything else, there’s a wealth of inputs and outputs for connecting the MicroFreak with other gear: USB, MIDI, and clock in and out, along with CV, gate, and mod out.

The MicroFreak is set to arrive in April. Check out the rest of its features on Arturia’s website.

Teenage Engineering 400

Teenage Engineering has always been a quirky, artsy hardware company that’s known for its pint-sized Pocket Operators and distinctive OP-1 synth.

This year, the company is making its first foray into modular synthesis with three models called the 16, the 170, and the 400 (the yellow unit pictured below). They’re meant to be a more affordable entry point into synthesis, and they have a unique feature: all three come in flat pack units. You have to bend the metal chassis and assemble the synths yourself.

Image: Teenage Engineering

The 16 is a musical keyboard controller with sequencer and individual tuning option for $149. The 170 is a monophonic analog synthesizer with a built-in keyboard, a programmable sequencer, speaker box, and battery pack for $349. The biggest option, the 400, is an analog modular synth with three oscillators, a 16-step sequencer, filter, LFO, two envelopes, noise, random generator, two VCAs, a mixer, speaker box, and power pack. That’s priced at $499.

The 400 and 170 come with patch cables, and all the units can be incorporated into an existing Eurorack setup. To aid beginners, each comes with a 70-page manual that’s stuffed with big, simple graphics to show you how to set things up and put together some sample patches. The descriptions for each module are also written in a way that’s very easy to understand.

All of this makes the 400 a great entry for beginners in synthesis. It gives you a more vanilla sound with nothing crazy and unexpected. It’s straightforward to use and likewise, produces an array of straightforward sounds. And the thoughtfully made manual makes everything instantly accessible. On a side note, the knobs are Lego-compatible, which is very adorable.

They’re available to buy now, although the 400 is currently sold out. Teenage Engineering also plans to release individual modules later on in the year for as little as $29 each.

Korg Minilogue XD

The Korg Minilogue XD is the most expensive in the bunch, with a price tag of $650. But, it’s also the only polyphonic option out of the group. The Minilogue XD is Korg’s follow-up to the Minilogue, which was introduced in 2016, and it delivers big, poly sounds at a low price.

The new edition is a four-voice polyphonic analog synth that has the same oscillators as the original, but it tacks on a third user-programmable digital oscillator. It also introduces other improvements like a joystick for controlling parameters, replacing the Minilogue’s pitch slider.

For the price point, this is a nice do-it-all keyboard that nicely dovetails digital and analog. You get the best of both worlds and should be able to make sounds across the spectrum, especially if you make use of its customizable slots.

Image: Korg

At the heart of the Minilogue XD is a multiengine that’s provided as a third digital oscillator in addition to the two analog oscillators. The third oscillator features variable phrase modulation, noise, and 16 user slots you can fill with customized creations. Out of the box, the Minilogue XD comes with 200 presets and can hold a total of 500 programs.

There are lots of options for changing the sound coming out of the two analog oscillators, like wave shaping, sync and ring mod switches, a drive switch for adding thickness, cross modulation, a two-pole filter, LFO, and more. It’s capable of making squelchy, Prodigy-like leads as well as thick, electro bass or blissed-out and plush pads.

Effects include modulation, reverb, and delay, all of which can be varied with chorus, ensemble, warm tape delay, and an assortment of different types of reverb. Here, there’s also a user slot for loading in your own effect programs. It also has a 16-step polyphonic sequencer and a good amount of inputs and outputs, including a stereo output, sync in and out, two CV ins, MIDI in and out, USB-B, and damper pedal.

There are loads more to dive into with this feature-packed synth. Visit Korg’s site for videos and a SoundCloud playlist that shows off a variety of sounds the synth is capable of making. The Korg Minilogue XD isn’t available just yet, but it can be preordered now.

Korg Volca Modular

Here’s another entry from Korg, but it’s completely different. This compact little battery-powered synth is Korg’s eighth addition to the Volca series, and it’s the line’s first modular unit. The Volca Modular is a semi-modular synthesizer with eight modules that can be connected together via 50 patch points with jumper wires.

It’s a “West Coast-style” synth, and synths under this umbrella tend to buck tradition and create more interesting, sometimes abrasive sounds. With West Coast-style synths, you start with a source sound and add harmonics to it, which can make them hard to predict and somewhat experimental.

It comes with analog synth modules, digital effects, and a sequencer, all of which were purposefully picked by Korg for “stand-alone completeness.” These modules are internally connected so it can make sound without patching anything, and drawn-out lines on the surface of the Volca Modular show you routing.

Image: Korg

So, what are those eight modules? A source with a triangle oscillator, which can then be frequency modulated or refolded to make a more complex tone, a random signal generator that uses pink noise as its source, two low-pass gate circuits that package a filter with an amp, a spacey reverb-like effect, a split for combining or separating inputs, a utility for mixing and controlling signals, two envelope generators, and the sequencer.

That sequencer has 16 steps and can be used to perform step input or real-time recording. Up to 16 sequences can be connected with up to 256 steps, and up to 16 sequence patterns and sounds can be saved within the unit. Various options for adjusting time signature, steps, and randomization allow for creating unique irregularities and polyrhythms. It’s not just about creating wacky loops, though. There’s also the ability to choose from 14 different types of scale and the option to micro-tune for adjusting the pitch of each note.

This is a unit that both leans into the unknown and gives you control over it. If you’re looking for something atypical that encourages trial and error and you love bleepy-bloopy sounds (though it certainly can do more than that), the Volca Modular is a fun place to start.

The Korg Volca Modular costs $199.99 and will be available sometime soon. More info can be found on Korg’s website.

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