Drummer needs portable stu-stu-studio
October 10, 2017 12:57 PM   Subscribe

I am a drummer who writes songs. I need recommendations for a synth that will help me demo my songs to my bandmates!

TLDR: I need a portable no-keyboard or small-keyboard synth with a large and versatile voice selection. Not looking for fidelity, just recognizability. USB is best, old-school 5-pin MIDI is doable. Soft synths are fine, but see below. Not looking for vintage phat analog sounds -- I adore analog synths but that's not the use case here.

Since I'm just an idiot drummer and can't play anything melodic like a guitar or a piano, I'm using tools like Hookpad and Chordbot to experiment with chord progressions. Once I find something I like, I sequence a "full-band" demo with bass, guitar, keys, basic drum machine drums and overdubbed vocals. Then I play this for the band and we take it from there.

Currently I'm using a Linux laptop (a Lenovo x230) with the Rosegarden sequencer to drive a cheesy Yamaha consumer keyboard (PSR-E423) thru usb-midi. I record the audio out from the synth and make an MP3 for playing and sharing.

This works out fine for the most part. Rosegarden has been solid and usable and the Yammie has a great diversity of recognizable instrument and drum sounds. The trouble is that the MIDI stuff in the Yamaha is really flaky -- sometimes have to power-cycle it a few times to make the drum channel respond. And worse, it's a full-sized instrument that eats up my entire little office and it's not very portable.

The portability requirement seems to naturally suggest a soft synth. I also have access to some old Android phone and Windows laptops / VMs that could maybe serve a hosts for these, or I could even dual-boot my laptop into Windows. I don't have any Mac or iOS devices, but would consider getting a cheap old one if that's where the goodness lies.

I've looked at Linuxsynths and there's a lot of stuff there, but it's a gnarly combination of some-assembly-required and analog, aimed at sound designers who wanna turn dials.

So, any recommendations? Feel free to recommend an entirely new toolchain if you've got something that's portable and cheap and works for you. The linux -> yamaha thing is just what I had lying around to start with.
posted by Sauce Trough to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Check out Novation Circuit. Portable, easy to use, physical knobs, wide range of sounds.

iPad is a great platform for sure, but not so sure about "old cheap" ones. They can do some stuff but it really depends on the load you put on it.
posted by SaltySalticid at 1:11 PM on October 10

You might find the Roland JD-Xi a decent thing for sketching out ideas on. It leans a bit dance/electronic oriented (as does the Circuit mentioned above) but there's no reason you couldn't use it for other things. The JDXi is a bit more money than the Circuit, but it's got a "proper" keyboard (if that's important).

Alternatively, for a bit (ok, quite a bit) more money the Teenage Engineering OP-1, which is like a teeny studio (complete with tape recorders and everything) in a box.

A more left-field option is to try and dig up something like a JV-1080 (or XV-3080 or other similar incarnations) on eBay - they're old but have a massive range of sounds and might be ideal for the sort of thing you're looking for, if you're happy to delegate the sequencing and record to your laptop. Couple with a cheap USB MIDI controller if you want a keyboard and that'd probably be a decent option too.
posted by parm at 1:44 PM on October 10

microKORG is the generic standard small-keyboard synth in the world these days. Used deals are cheap.
posted by ovvl at 6:15 PM on October 10

Most of the suggestions so far are very "synthy" which it sounds like you don't want. I am not familiar with your sequencer but if you can somehow host VSTs you could do a whole lot worse than the Korg M1.
posted by STFUDonnie at 7:15 PM on October 10

It sounds like your requirements are:

* Synthesis (and you presumably need polyphony)
* Sequencing, since you're not a keyboardist
* Sampling, unless you want to synthesize drum sounds
* Portability

This puts you in the "groovebox" genre. The Novation Circuit and the Korg Electribe are contenders. You could get an older Electribe for cheap. An OP-1 would also fit the bill. All of the above can be battery powered.

I recently purchased an Elektron Digitakt and I love the thing. However, it's not battery powered and has no synth voices -- but it does have 8 channels of (mono) sample sequencing and another 8 of (4-note poly) MIDI sequencing, so maybe it could work for you.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:59 PM on October 10

While I haven't used it a ton, "making quick & dirty demos" is pretty solidly in the Garageband wheelhouse. A variety of instrument sounds & synths, a sequencer/multitrack recorder, a variety of ways to input & manipulate your tracks, all on an iPad or iPod touch. Of course, this requires you to buy another device and enter the World of Apple, but if you know someone who uses it you might want to take a poke at it, see if it works for you.

Your biggest catch there would be finding a cheap/old iOS device and getting a version of Garageband that works on that device.
posted by soundguy99 at 10:09 PM on October 10

I like Akai's XR20 "beat production center" for this kind of thing. It looks like a drum machine (which it is) but it's also got synth and bass sounds (with a dedicated "synth" button for selecting the dedicated synth track), standard effects (reverb etc) and is pretty easy to figure out. I also find working with the velocity-sensitive pads way easier than a regular keyboard. It can also run on batteries if you want to noodle around on the bus. I got mine from eBay.
posted by bigbigdog at 11:43 PM on October 10

Okay, maybe I'm wrong but you just seem to need a keyboard with general midi. If you want something cheap and cheerful maybe check Casio or other Yamaha keyboards with general midi specs. That would do the trick and probably cost you less than $100 if you go for older models.

If you can do without the keyboard there's a lot of general midi modules that are great. Roland, Korg and Yamaha have great choices. Again, if you want to go cheap, stuff from the nineties will do fine (Yamaha MU, Roland soundcanvas).
posted by Kosmob0t at 12:57 AM on October 11

Hi gang--

Thanks for your responses! There's a world of hardware out there that I don't know about. The Novation Circuit looks like a ton of fun just on blinkenlights value alone.

A friend of mine has an OP-1 and you can always tell when he switches to it when he's playing, the sound suddenly gets all wooooom. But yoikks, that price tag! If I had one, I'd want a wallet chain for it.

To answer my own question and close the loop: last night I discovered fluid-synth, a mature Linux soundfont soft synth. The included soundfont supports General Midi and has that wide diversity of sounds that I'm looking for. It runs on my laptop alongside my sequencer, so it's ultimately portable. And best of all, it's free software!

That said, I was surprised at how affordable the Korg M1 software is, and VST hosting on Linux is apparently doable, so that might be a fun upgrade path from fluid-synth.
posted by Sauce Trough at 9:34 AM on October 11

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