thinking aloud: synth edition

With the cash from my Amiga sale still burning a hole in my bank account, and the prospect of a $950 Tricky Dick Fun Bill in my future, I’ve been taking a good look at the small hardware synth market. So far, it’s looking like one of three options:

Novation X-Station:

The X-Station is a bit of an all-in-one — it connects to a PC via USB and provides an audio input, virtual-analogue synth, and an excellent set of controls. The keyboard’s semi-weighted and sends aftertouch, and the knobs and sliders can be reprogrammed to control any external synth you like, as well as its internal synth. The synth engine isn’t super-powerful, though — it’s farily typical virtual-analogue stuff, and it’s monotimbral.

Dave Smith Instruments Evolver:

The Evolver’s a weird blend of analogue and digital synthesis, with real analogue oscillators and filters combined with digital wavetable oscillators and digital effects. It’s monophonic (that is, it can only play one sound at once), but it’s capable of all sorts of crazy crap, and the built-in step sequencer makes it perfect for creating sounds that change dramatically over time. Apart from just making crazy sounds, it’s a very interesting effects processor, too — you can run audio in to it and through the filters and effects, even triggering envelopes based on the incoming input level.

Waldorf Blofeld:

The Blofeld is almost like a “best-of” model, combining the virtual-analogue synthesis of the Waldorf microQ and the wavetable synthesis of the Waldorf Microwave XT. In this case, the wavetables refer not to individual wave samples, but collections of them, grouped in to tables. You can sweep through a table in real-time while a sound is playing, which can create all sorts of sound morphing effects, and that’s before you get to the filters. It’s also 16-part multitimbral, and has up to 25-note polyphony, so it should have enough power to handle entire compositions.

I considered some others, too, like the Alesis Micron and the Dave Smith Mopho. The Mopho is a pure-analogue monophonic synth, but for the money, I’d rather the Evolver — it’s much more capable, and I’m not hung up on the analogue/digital thing. The Micron can make some great sounds, and it’s cheapish on eBay, but it’s real-time editing features are very limited. I thought about an older second-hand synth, too, but the real analogues are too big and bulky, and too prone to problems. An old virtual-analogue synth like a Nord Lead or Access Virus would be great (almost all of Empires was done on a Virus), but they’re still in the $1k+ region.

At the moment, the Blofeld is my front-runner. The X-Station would be awesome to have as a controller, but it’s limited as a synth, and there’s no point having a great controller if I don’t have much to control. I could always sell my big synth and get the 49- or 61-key X-Station later on, though. The Evolver has character no software synth will ever match thanks to its real analogue components, but being monophonic just makes it too limiting for me right now.

I want a workhorse synth that I can throw a bunch of parts at simultaneously, but I also want something that’ll make some interesting and unique sounds, and the Blofeld seems like it would fit the bill nicely.

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