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.
The 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.
Multi-Timbrality 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.