GEAR ROUNDUP: The Best Synthesizers Under $1000

1. BEST OVERALL SYNTH UNDER $1000: The Moog Sub Phatty

WHY WE LOVE THE MOOG SUB PHATTY

Moog Sub Phatty Editor's Pick Performer Magazine

Moog Sub Phatty Editor’s Pick For Best Overall Synth Under $1000

Well, to be blunt, we think the Moog Sub Phatty is the best damn synth you can buy for under a thousand bucks. How’s that? Hands down, when you put everything together and add it up (sound, features, feel, usability, flexibility, price) we can’t find another synth, especially an analog synth, that can touch it in this price range.

Here are a few things we love, after testing out the Moog Sub Phatty for several weeks. For starters, the variable wave form selector on both oscillators is fantastic, allowing you to continuously sweep from triangle all the way to pulse width, and everything in between. And it’s smooth as butter, allowing you to accurately dial in the exact waveform(s) you desire, detuning them ever so slightly using the frequency knob, and then adjusting the amazing 4-pole ladder filter Moog is so famous for to make the final sound mega-beefy. Toss in a sub-oscillator an octave below oscillator one, and you find out pretty quickly where the “sub” in Sub Phatty comes from.

Do you even self-oscillate, bro? #Moog

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Everything about the Sub Phatty feels high-end – from the tank-like construction, to the heavy-duty pitch and mod wheels, down to the front panel buttons and knobs, and the excellent semi-weighted keybed. In fact, we loved the feel of the Sub Phatty so much it became our go-to MIDI controller for a while (and that’s not even really what it’s meant for). Speaking of MIDI, every knob you see (while providing real-time panel controls) can also transmit MIDI CC data, making this a pretty kick-ass MIDI machine on top of its status as a pretty kick-ass analog synth.

WHY YOU SHOULD BUY THE MOOG SUB PHATTY

If you’re looking for the flat-out best sounding synth, and your budget is under $1000, then look no further. If money is even tighter, you can get almost all the way there with a MIDI keyboard controller and the Moog Minitaur, but trust us, once you fall for the Sub Phatty, you’ll be hooked.

Have you grabbed your copy of our special synth issue yet? #moog4life #moog

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PROS:

Every single thing about it is amazing.

CONS:

Yeah, right.

PRICE:

$789

Moog Sub Phatty Preset Bank

Moog Sub Phatty Preset Bank

MOOG SUB PHATTY SPECS:

Sound Engine: Analog
Number of Keys: 25
Type of Keys: Semi-Weighted
Other Controllers: Pitch Bend, Mod Wheel
Polyphony: Monophonic
Sound Sources: 2 Variable Waveshape Oscillators, 1 Square Wave Sub Oscillator, 1 Noise Generator
Mod Sources: Triangle, Square, Saw, Ramp, SH, Filter Envelope
Mod Destinations: Pitch, Osc 2 Pitch Only, Filter, Waveshape
CV/Gate Inputs: Filter CV, Pitch CV, Volume CV, KB Gate
LFO: 0.1Hz-100Hz

2. BEST BOTTOM END SYNTH UNDER $1000: Novation Bass Station II

WHY WE LOVE THE NOVATION BASS STATION II

To start, what’s not to love about an analog synth under 400 bucks? The Novation Bass Station II is the spiritual successor to the original Bass Station that came out in the ’90s. While we dug the old black and blue box back in the day, we love this one even more. Controls are simply laid out, which is great, and the preset bank is thankfully not only usable, but also easy to program. The real meat, though, is in the oscillator section. While we loved the Moog Sub Phatty for its beefy sound, we went absolutely bananas for the sub-oscillator on the Bass Station II. Why? Simple – you can choose between one octave below or TWO octaves below, resulting in bass lines so deep you would swear Deadmau5 just showed up at your home studio to put on a private show.

In all seriousness, though, the Bass Station II provides a lot of unique features, considering many units at this price point try their best to be Moog clones or one-trick ponies. One touch we really dug in our hands-on test was the filter section. You’ve got a classic filter, which can be set up just how most of us like it: 4-pole 24dB low pass. But if you want to get adventurous, we recommend flipping the switch to the Acid Filter, and letting your ears dig the subtle timbral changes you can affect by making the filter high pass or band pass, and experimenting by going between the 24dB and 12dB settings.

Novation Bass Station II top view

Novation Bass Station II top view

Besides the unique filter options, the pretty decent oscillators and the nice aftertouch on the keybed itself, we were pleasantly surprised to find a board in this range that had a useful arpeggiator and simple step sequencer on board. If we had to lodge a complaint, it would be the same thing that held us back from absolutely falling head-over-heels for the original Bass Station, and that is that the construction leaves a bit to be desired. It’s not flimsy, per se, but it’s definitely not as rugged as we would have liked. The overall feel is a tad plastic-y, and there’s a bit of wobble to the knobs and switches. Not a major gripe, but worth noting if you plan on making this a road warrior.

WHY YOU SHOULD BUY THE NOVATION BASS STATION II

If you want to jump into the world of analog synths, but don’t want to spend a fortune, the Novation Bass Station II might be perfect for you. Or if you want a dedicated bass-line machine with the flexibility to be a solo lead monster. Great for electronic music production and live electro sets.

Novation Bass Station II rear view

Novation Bass Station II rear view

PROS:

Unique filter section, great presets, fantastic sub oscillator, tons of modulation options, great price.

CONS:

Feels about as rugged as its predecessor, which is to say not very.

PRICE:

$399

Bass, anyone? Thanks to @wearenovation for the hookup.

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NOVATION BASS STATION II SPECS:

–Analog synth: brand new version of the classic Bass Station
–Two distinct analog filters: brand new “Acid” filter joins the “Classic” original Bass Station filter
–Ships with 64 factory patches and a further 64 user slots
–Pattern-based Step Sequencer and Arpeggiator
–Layout includes dedicated controls for all major parameters
–Two Oscillators plus an additional Sub Oscillator
–Flexible modulation featuring 2 Envelopes and 2 LFOs
–MIDI I/O and USB connectivity

3. MOST VERSATILE SYNTH UNDER $1000: KORG Minilogue Analog Synthesizer

WHY WE LOVE THE KORG MINILOGUE

To say we were impressed with the Minilogue at NAMM would be a bit of an understatement. And after playing with our own hands-on, we were left scratching our heads. All this, and it’s under $500? Analog engine? Check. Polyphonic, up to four voices? Check.  Built in 16-step sequencer? You got it, dude. Wood paneling? Now you’re speaking my language!

But really, what you get with the Minilogue is nothing short of amazing. You have instant access to a few really cool modes, starting with true 4-voice polyphonic, duophonic for the Odyssey heads (worth noting that KORG also makes the new ARP re-issues), a neat unison mode, monophonic mode for the Moog junkies, chord mode for…well, duh, arpeggiator mode and something we’ve never encountered before: side chain mode, whereby the amplitude of the previous note you’ve played goes down when you strike a new note. It’s actually pretty cool, and each mode allows layering so that you can really fine-tune your patches to the nth degree.

KORG Minilogue

KORG Minilogue

Build quality was great – no wobbly knobs to speak of, and the unit itself is substantially constructed. The metal face plate looks futuristic, but still employs an easy-to-follow panel configuration. Those looking for a standard pitch/mod wheel set up will have to get used to a little “wiggle stick” (our term, not theirs), but since it’s located in such a good place on the panel, it actually lends itself to being used in a musical way, unlike the proportional pitch pads KORG has to use on the Odyssey re-issues (which never really worked all that great on the originals, anyway).

New synths from @korgofficial at #namm2016

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All that said, we dug the two oscillators on the Minilogue; each provided a unique set of selectable waveforms that were great for solos, bass lines as well as pads, and the LFO and modulation routing options were actually a bit more flexible than we imagined they would be, offering a pretty wide range of mod options that are intelligently presented and can add a real sense of depth and texture to boring old waves. To top it off, you have a little display which sort of acts like a mini oscilloscope when you’re playing, allowing you to “see” the waveforms you’re dialing in – actually, this was really cool and a nice bonus to the board we weren’t expecting.

WHY YOU SHOULD BUY THE KORG MINILOGUE

If you want to do just about everything you could possibly imagine, and you want the circuitry to be all analog, AND you absolutely refuse to spend more than $500. Well, then. Here you go. Enjoy.

PROS

Feels great, looks super-cool, offers an amazing range of features, and sounds fantastic in all modes.

CONS

None.

PRICE

$499

KORG Minilogue rear panel

KORG Minilogue rear panel

KORG MINILOGUE SPECS

Keyboard: 37-keys (Slim-key, velocity sensitive)
Sound Generation: Analog synthesis
Maximum Polyphony: 4 voices
Sequencer: 16-step polyphonic sequencer

4. BEST RE-ISSUE SYNTH UNDER $1000: ARP Odyssey by KORG

WHY WE LOVE  THE ARP ODYSSEY

For all its quirks, and for everything it did in the exact opposite fashion of the Minimoog, the ARP Odyssey became a classic synth of the 1970s because of that instantly recognizable sound (and let’s face it, it’s cool look). Some called it a “punk synth,” and others hailed its unique, wet funk bass sound (cough Herbie Hancock cough), but the Odyssey defies categorization and belongs in a class all its own. Where the Minimoog had knobs, the Odyssey had sliders. Where the Moog was monophonic, the Odyssey was duophonic. Where Moog had wheels, the Odyssey had pads. Where Moog designed its instruments to be easily accessible even to those new to synthesis, the Odyssey looked like a keyboard hooked up to a mixing console that you’d need an engineering degree to figure out — but the effort in learning the machine (especially the great re-issue we were able to play around with) pays off huge in the unlimited sounds you’re able to coax from its engine.

New arrival at the office. Time to play.

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Bringing it back over 40 years after its initial introduction, we were a bit skeptical as to what KORG’s re-issue (sometimes referred to as the KARP Odyssey) would have in store. But all worries were immediately alleviated once we sat down, plugged it in, and started playing. The sound is spot-on. Close your eyes and you’re there, back in time, it’s that damn accurate. Some things have changed, though, but all for the better. The entire casing is about 15% smaller, which is great because the original Odyssey never fit right on any desk I’ve ever used. You also have a new headphone jack, plus a selector switch for all three classic Odyssey filter revisions (an amazingly welcome feature). The keys are smaller, which might turn off some purists, but they’ve got a fast action, and there’s now a piece of casing underneath the keybed that wasn’t on the originals (a nice touch, because that lack of protection is precisely why you see so many of the old ones with broken keys).

We love almost every addition except one. MIDI implementation is pretty weak. You’ve got note on/note off and as far as we could tell (trust us, we dug around hoping this wasn’t the case), that’s it. So as a MIDI controller, it’s a bit of a dud. But really, that’s not why you’re buying it, is it? Nah, you want that Odyssey look (our re-issue is in the Rev 3 case, the classic orange/black combo) and sound without breaking the bank. And on that front, KORG delivers in a big, bad way. Color us impressed.

Arp Odyssey reissue by Korg - top view

Arp Odyssey reissue by Korg – top view

WHY YOU SHOULD BUY THE ARP ODYSSEY REISSUE

If you want that classic ARP Odyssey sound (and can live with its quirks), but can’t stomach the prices the originals are fetching on the used market, KORG’s reissue is a dream come true. The sound is dead-on compared to the original, and its smaller form factor is actually a big check in the plus column.

PROS:

The ARP Odyssey reissue from KORG improves upon a classic in every way imaginable.

CONS:

MIDI implementation is pretty weak.

PRICE:

$799

Arp Odyssey reissue by Korg - rear panel

Arp Odyssey reissue by Korg – rear panel

ARP ODYSSEY SPECS:

-Keyboard: 37-note (Slimkey, No velocity sensitivity, No aftertouch)
-Maximum Polyphony: 2 voices for duophonic; normally monophonic
-VCO Waveforms: Sawtooth, Square, Pulse (Dynamic Pulse)
-VCF (Voltage Controlled Filter) Types: Low pass (I: 12 dB/oct., II III: 24 dB/oct.)

5. BEST VIRTUAL ANALOG SYNTH: The Studiologic Sledge 2.0 

Studiologic Sledge 2.0

Studiologic Sledge 2.0

WHY WE LOVE THE STUDIOLOGIC SLEDGE 2.0

Can we start with how amazingly awesome (and how very Italian) the orange case is on the new Studiologic Sledge 2.0? Some call it school bus orange, which is what we’ll stick to, as well. In the world of synthesizers, you’ve got your analog purists, your digital enthusiasts and your “I’ll take whatever I can get as long as it’s nice to play and sounds good.” I fall into that camp, which is precisely why I wanted to get my hands on the Sledge 2.0. I don’t care that it’s technically a “virtual analog” synth (a most bizarre category if I’ve ever heard one). I just wanted to know how it sounded ever since I saw it demo’d at NAMM. And compared to some of the other VA boards I’ve used in this price range, the Sledge 2.0 simply kills the competition.

Studiologic Sledge 2.0 Sound Samples:

If anything, it’s one of the most “analog” feeling digital boards I’ve ever played. In fact, the panel is laid out in a very Moog-like fashion, which makes you feel instantly at home and at ease. You can select from like a thousand patches, which is great, but you can also go into panel mode and play the Sledge like a true analog synth. We loved the feel, and as you may or may not know, Studiologic makes a great majority of the keybeds you’ve probably played, so this one was certainly no slouch. Aftertouch? You got it! And the full-size keys and 5-octave range means that traditional pianists will favor something like this over, say, a two-octave monophonic Sub Phatty (which is our pick for the best overall synth under a grand).

Studiologic Sledge 2.0 side view

Studiologic Sledge 2.0 side view

If you want to know what’s new compared to its predecessor (the Sledge 1.0, if you will), the first thing you’ll notice is a much-needed bump in polyphony, up to 24 voices now. Add that to the fantastic Waldorf sound engine the synth runs on, and you’ll never been at a loss for a great patch. Also new are the simultaneous reverb and delay effects. Good, not great, but definitely usable. What are totally useable, however, are the filter sections, the surprisingly nice envelopes (both filter and amp ADSR’s) and the unique wavetable you can select from in oscillator one. With three oscillators in total, each with its own separate tuning capabilities, you can really stack, tune and layer waveforms to concoct ultra-thick, lush sounds very quickly and easily. With a multitude of modulation effects and routing options, you can imagine why we stayed up until the wee hours some nights just dialing in new pads and lead patches on this bad boy.

Don’t let editors touch the gear.

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WHY YOU SHOULD BUY THE STUDIOLOGIC SLEDGE 2.0:

If you simply want a full range of octaves for more traditional playing, dig the orange casing and need a ridiculously versatile digital engine to power your stage show and studio work, the Sledge 2.0 might be just the ticket. While the casing was just a tad plastic-y for our tastes, the great sound engine and easy-to-use panel put this unit over the edge, and made the newly reduced $999 price tag much easier to swallow over the more expensive Sledge 1.0. MIDI implementation was great, too, allowing you to use most of the front panel knobs and buttons to control data to and from your DAW, which makes this machine not only a great standalone synthesizer, but also a fantastic MIDI controller.

PROS:

Sounds great, layout is very analog-like, great MIDI implementation, large keyboard is a welcome addition in this price range, lots of improvements over the original Sledge.

CONS:

User sample memory is weak, some noticeable zipper noise when making quick adjustments (but not too bad).

PRICE:

$999

Who wins in a fight?

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Studiologic Sledge 2.0 Specs:

-61 key polyphonic synthesizer with Aftertouch
-Enhanced polyphony, up to 24 voices
-Split or Layer mode, play two sounds at the same time
-Up to 999 programmable Sounds
-Fast and efficient sound selection via numeric keypad
-Enable Pitch and the Hold separately for the Lower and Upper sounds
-Enhanced Reverb and Delay effects with blend control

What do you think of our picks for the Top 5 Synths Under $1000? Let us know in the comments below or drop a line on the Performer Magazine Facebook page or on Twitter @Performermag. And be sure to read more from the special Synth Issue of Performer Magazine.

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2 Comments

  1. Steve Ward

    August 9, 2016 at 1:17 pm

    Dave Smith Instruments MoPho?

    • Benjamin Ricci

      August 10, 2016 at 6:49 am

      Great instrument, but we chose models currently in production. I believe the MoPho has been discontinued, right?

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