Once upon a time, it seemed just about every keyboard synthesizer had a rack-mount version. Although rack-mount synths never sold that well, the concept has resurfaced as the tabletop (a.k.a. desktop) synthesizer.
Tabletop synths range from a basic, inexpensive unit like the Korg Monotribe to something as sophisticated as standard synthesizers—if not more so. Elektron’s Analog Four has more of a groove orientation, while Moog’s Minitaur is a special-purpose analog bass synth.
If you seek a tabletop synth, it’s important to define your needs and preferences so you make the right decision; this roundup explains the types of features and technology you’ll find, along with profiles of eight very different tabletop synth approaches.
TABLETOP TECHNOLOGYThe Analog Factor
I’m not a synth purist; whether a synth is analog, digital, or virtual, I’ll get some cool sounds. But analog synths have a particular sound quality that’s another useful color for your palette, and many tabletop synths make analog technology affordable by stripping away the keyboard, large casing, and limiting the number of voices. (More voices equals a higher price tag.) If you want analog, your least-expensive option will usually be a tabletop synth.
Waveforms Analog synths typically have a fairly limited collection—sawtooth, square, triangle, and maybe some variations like variable pulse-width or duty cycle. That’s been enough to power a lot of recordings over the years, but a digital synth architecture usually provides a wider range of options. The basic tradeoff is analog purity versus digital versatility.
Some analog synths accomplish a bigger oscillator sound by adding a sub-oscillator, which simply divides the main oscillator down an octave or two. Also, single-oscillator synths sometimes incorporate a chorus effect to imitate the sound of two detuned oscillators.
This means a synth can create different sounds simultaneously. It’s primarily a feature with digital synths, as polyphony and multitimbral operation are complementary; you need lots of voices to be able to distribute them over different sounds.Onboard Sequencer/Pattern Generator
A sequencer records your keypresses and (usually) controller motions. This function is great for songwriting, as you can often capture ideas faster than with a conventional recording setup. Full-blown sequencers are usually found only in digital workstations, so most tabletop synths downsize to pattern generators (also called step sequencers), which let you create mini-sequences of 8 to 32 notes or so. They’re ideal for bass lines, electro-type drum patterns, melodic riffs, and the like. Arpeggiator
An arpeggiator triggers held or latched notes sequentially in a pattern. (Sometimes arpeggiators are polyphonic, and can trigger several parallel patterns.) Typical modes include going up or down the held notes, up/down, random, or extended, in which the notes you hold down repeat over several octaves.Realtime controls
Don’t expect wheels or a control surface for your DAW, but Korg’s Monotribe has a nifty little ribbon controller, and DSI’s Tetra has a “Push It!” button that triggers notes and latches sequences. Also, tabletop synths often feature a lot of controls, which encourages realtime tweaking.Programs/Presets
More presets are good, because even if you don’t create sounds, you’ll probably want to store variations on factory presets. This is also where digital technology complements the analog world by providing digital control over analog circuitry. Accessory Software
Some synths include software for editing parameters, or even an option to make the physical synth look like a VST, AU, or RTAS plug-in (although of course, you can insert only one instance—it’s hardware). Seeing parameters onscreen can sometimes lead to faster editing than tweaking knobs, as well as allow for storing presets in a computer, but may also allow accessing “hidden” functions.Digital I/O
USB I/O can offer options like transferring MIDI data over USB instead of using patch cords with 5-pin DIN connectors, or even streaming audio. Audio Input
Usually, this is about using the synthesizer to process external signals, like gating a guitar with the VCA or sweeping its tone with an onboard filter. However, few synths include functions to have the synthesizer respond to the input. (The Access Virus TI2’s envelope follower is an exception.) As a result, this is most effective if one person plays the synth while another plays the input source, or you can sequence synth parameters as you play.CV/Gate Inputs
Old schoolers will appreciate a tabletop synth with control voltage and gate inputs so you can play from ancient keyboards (or even a new one, like Akai’s way-cool MAX49).
But It’s About More Than Specs Specs are important if you want to accomplish specific sounds, but ultimately, this is about playing music. If you fall in love with a synth, trust your instincts; some of the best synth parts ever recorded were played on a single-voice, non-multitimbral, non-expandable Minimoog. If you’re trying out an instrument and it doesn’t inspire you, move on even if it has the most amazing spec sheet you’ve ever seen. After all, no one has yet figured out how to play a spec sheet.
Dave Smith Instruments Tetra$929 MSRP/$849 street
The Tetra analog synthesizer is basically a quad version of the monophonic Mopho synth. It offers four notes of polyphony, and two oscillators per voice with classic analog wavesforms—sawtooth, triangle, saw/triangle, or square wave with variable pulse width—as well as hard sync and a sub-oscillator for each oscillator. Each voice has three ADSR+delay envelope generators and four LFOs for modulation; the filter is a Curtis lowpass type that can self-oscillate, and switch between 12 or 24dB/octave response. The VCAs are analog.
Tetra doesn’t have effects, audio inputs, or digital audio I/O; but it has an arpeggiator, 16x4 step sequencer (with one sequence per program), and provides MIDI over USB as well as standard 5-pin DIN connectors (in and out/thru). It includes a generous 512 presets, with a free downloadable software editor for Mac OS and Windows.
One very unusual feature lets you chain multiple units together for more voices, as well as chain with some other DSI products. Another is a feedback loop for each voice, with programmable level and gain, and there are separate glide rates for each oscillator. In addition to individual outputs for each of the four notes, it includes a stereo headphones jack.
Tetra is a clever synth with a big sound, and enough goodies to keep it interesting as well as fun.
Moog Minitaur$679MSRP/$600 street
Moog’s Minitaur (based on the Taurus 3) is a straight-ahead analog bass synth with the Moog touch. Why Minitaur? It’s pretty small (8.5" x 5.25").
For I/O, it offers 1/4" analog in and 1/4" analog out, but more Moogishly, you’ll find a gate input and separate control voltage inputs for pitch, filter, and level (remappable to other parameters). It has 5-pin MIDI in as well (but no MIDI out or thru) and MIDI over USB, but Minitaur can also perform CV to MIDI conversion.
The signal path is classic: two oscillators with square and sawtooth waveforms, amplitude and filter envelopes (attack, decay, sustain, and release), Moog filter with resonance and envelope amount, VCA, and MIDI-syncable LFO with rate control and separate amount controls for oscillator pitch and VCF cutoff. A free downloadable editor is available for registered Minitaur owners, though it’s easy enough to tweak sounds from the front panel.
Moog never lost the recipe for big, badass analog bass sounds—but now you don’t need a Minimoog to get the job done.
Elektron Analog Four$1,149 MSRP/$1,100 streetelektron.se
The Elektron Analog Four blends analog and digital—four analog oscillator-based voices for sound generation and an all-analog signal path, complemented by digital control. The synth capabilities go beyond your basic Minimoog-style architecture, with variable waveshaping, hard sync, and sub-oscillators. Filtering is Virus-like, with a 4-pole Moog-style ladder filter followed by a 2-pole multimode filter, and saturation in between the two; there’s also filter feedback. There are lots of assignable envelopes and LFOs for modulation.
I/O includes a headphones-out connection, stereo outs, and two unbalanced audio inputs for processing external audio. MIDI in, out, and thru jacks are available, as is USB 2.0 interconnectivity. Unfortunately it doesn’t offer a computer editor, but the front panel is loaded with knobs, switches, and user-friendly performance functionality.
The Elektron Analog Four has a definite “production station” vibe with its six-track step sequencer that follows the drum machine paradigm—128 patterns of up to 64 steps, which can be linked into 16 songs. You can even change patches within the sequences, utilize swing, slide, accent, and transpose options, and do microtunings. Four of the tracks control the four voices, another track controls the onboard effects (chorus, delay, reverb), and the sixth track controls the two CV/Gate outputs; all tracks are variable length. Still not enough? Then check out the six arpeggiators.
The step sequencer makes it easy to integrate modular synth modules with a sequencing/sound-generating environment, and for the cognescenti, CV outs can be either 1V/octave or Hz/Volt; gates are gate or trigger types. You can also sync other analog gear (like drum machines) with DIN sync clock pulses.
There’s quite a bit more, but only so much space . . . overall, the Elektron Analog Four is a groove powerhouse that’s fun to play, but deep enough to go places most other tabletop synths don’t go.
Korg Monotribe Analog Ribbon Station$340 MSRP/$200 street
A true analog synth, the Monotribe features three parts (synth with sawtooth, square wave, and triangle wave oscillator; kick, snare, and hi-hat sounds), which run through the same filter used in the MS-10 and MS-20. Pattern creation and arpeggiation are major features—pattern sequencing is based on the Electribe’s eight-step pattern-sequencing paradigm.
Its size (HWD approximately 2-3/4" x 8-1/8" x 5-3/4"), battery power, and built-in speaker underscore the accent on portability; its small footprint also makes integration with DJ setups easy.
The Monotribe includes a ribbon controller with three modes (chromatic, unquantized, and “wide”), and a resonant filter. It also offers an 1/8" stereo audio input for signal processing, and two audio outputs (standard 1/4" instrument jack and 1/8" stereo headphone jack). As expected, it doesn’t offer digital or MIDI I/O, as there’s nothing digital about it. In fact, to update the Monotribe, you download a WAV file and play it into the sync input—sort of a 21st-century cassette interface, but without the tape dropouts. (Thankfully, some emulations aren’t perfectly accurate.)
Speaking of sync, the unit has both sync in and out jacks so a bunch of Monotribes can sync together into a . . . well, tribe. The Monotribe may look like a toy, and be as much fun as a toy, but it’s an overachieving toy with some cool features.
Waldorf Rocket$349.99 MSRP/$329.99 street
The Rocket is clearly Waldorf having fun with an inexpensive, compact synth. It’s monophonic, but for big sounds features a unison mode that stacks up to eight detuned digital oscillators with variable waveshaping and also includes hard sync (one of my favorite synth features). Although it has no pattern sequencer, it includes an arpeggiator with various patterns; you’ll find an LFO for modulation, and envelope for VCA, VCF, and sync. The multimode filter (lowpass, bandpass, and highpass) is analog, and has the usual cutoff, resonance, and envelope mod controls.
Interfacing is basic—1/8" headphones out, 1/4" audio out, MIDI in and out, and USB for both power and MIDI over USB including MIDI clock sync. The envelope is basic, too: It has one knob (for decay), as sustain and release are switched. A Launch button triggers a note without needing a controller.
There are no presets, effects, expansion options, or digital I/O—and no complications. If you want to put sounds together fast, that’s Rocket’s mission.
Roland BK-7m$1,499 MSRP/$1,000 street
The BK-7m is more like a variation on a General MIDI module that serves as a “backup band in a box.” It can play back WAV and MP3 digital audio files (with the ability to change tempo and key) and multipart arrangements from Standard MIDI Files, courtesy of the built-in General MIDI 2/GS/XG lite sound module (1,092 tones and 57 drum sets).
I/O includes a USB port for data storage and another one for your computer to do MIDI-over-USB, MIDI in and out (with V-Link), a PAL/NTSC composite video output jack, 1/4" stereo audio output jacks, stereo 1/4" input jacks, and stereo 1/4" headphone jack. It also has pedal and footswitch jacks for realtime control.
The 433 built-in musical styles for backup, each with four variations, intro, and outro, emphasize its solo-performance aspect. The BK-7m also lets you display lyrics on a standard TV display, and if you end up in karaoke-land doing WAV or MP3 playback, it includes a voice-cancel function. What’s more, an iPad app can display lyrics; another app allows for easy browsing and selection of tones, the lack of which is a limitation in the main unit itself.
The BK-7m is 16-part multitimbral with 128 voices, but also includes two sets of effects—one realtime (12 different reverbs, 6 choruses, 84 multi-effects, parametric EQ, and a multiband compressor) and a similar set of SMF section effects. Another nice touch is that you can record performances with 16-bit/44.1kHz resolution to a USB storage device.
It offers several additional tools, such as automatic chord detection for Standard MIDI Files and 999 performance memories. Overall, the BK-7m is a truly multifunction device that can provide sounds in the studio, serve as a backup band or tone module live, and record performances.
Nord Drum$599 MSRP/$500 street
This compact unit offers four analog, non-sampled drum sounds, designed for responsive triggering via six trigger options (three for electronic drum pads and three for acoustic triggers), as well as MIDI for use with sequencers and other controllers (like the pads on many MIDI keyboard controllers).
Each of the four percussion sounds incorporates three main elements—noise, tone, and click, which you can program as desired and then mix together into a final, composite drum sound. The tone waveforms are standard analog types (sine, square, sawtooth) but some complex waveforms are also available, as is a lowpass filter with sweep. Noise is what you’d expect, but with a lowpass filter and six resonant filter options. The click offers 27 complex attack transients, although the tone section also includes a Punch option that adds a short, velocity-controlled attack. The composite sound can then live in one of 99 program locations.
It has no internal sequencer or pattern generator; this is all about realtime playing and performing. Aside from the four trigger inputs, the I/O is elementary, with only a single, mono audio output, accompanied by MIDI in and out. But despite its simplicity, the Nord Drum provides those unique, programmable analog sounds that sampling can’t duplicate.
Access Virus TI2$2,495 MSRP/$2,240 street
Access has been releasing Virus variants since 1997, and they have the recipe down. The Virus TI2 is more than four years old, but so what? I have a 1966 Telecaster, and it works fine.
The TI2 is the most costly and comprehensive synthesizer in this roundup, and makes no apologies for relying on digital technology to obtain its power. It has outstanding polyphony (typically 80 voices, depending on the patch), cool effects, and computer integration; the Virus Control 3.0 cross-platform plug-in allows synth editing, but also causes the TI2 to appear as a sample-accurate AU/VST/RTAS plug-in (with delay compensation) inside your DAW. Furthermore, audio data streams directly into your DAW as three stereo channels over USB (as well as MIDI data), and the presets used in a project are stored within the plug-in—very convenient.
The programming options are deep enough that a thorough review would require all the pages devoted to this roundup. Fortunately, the reference manual is available for download for those who want to investigate the details.
In addition to standard effects like modulation, delay, and reverb, Virus includes several distortion types, ring modulator, frequency shifter, a global vocoder, and a “character” effect that provides a variety of enhancements (lead, bass, pad, vintage, stereo imaging, etc.)—not unlike “mastering” effects for synth sounds.
You’ll find plenty of presets (512 RAM, and more than 3,000 ROM sounds) so the sorting and searching options are welcome; if you hit a creative block, there’s even a random patch generator. Each preset includes its own 32-step arpeggiator with adjustable length and velocity per step. These are augmented by a global control for swing and note length, and are destinations for the modulation matrix.
The synth architecture offers three main oscillators and one sub-oscillator per voice, with 16-channel multi-timbral operation. The rich assortment of waveforms includes analog synth waves, graintable, 62 spectral waves with FM modes, 100 wavetables, formant oscillators, and a wicked Hyper Saw that stacks up to nine sawtooth wave oscillators, with nine parallel sub-oscillators and a sync oscillator, per voice. That’s pretty massive.
Two multimode filters produce lowpass, highpass, bandpass, and notch responses (one also provides a Moog-style ladder filter), and can be routed in series, parallel, or “split,” in which different signals go to two paralleled filters. A saturation module between the two filters allows for lo-fi effects. Regarding I/O, the audio and MIDI I/O can also serve as interfaces for your computer and the inputs can also feed external audio into the synth for processing.
But the bottom line is that this just scratches the surface; the Virus TI2 is a no-holds-barred power tool in a tabletop format.