cheap synth module for rock
May 3, 2005 7:05 PM   Subscribe

I'm in a band. Two guitars, bass, drums. We're looking at maybe throwing in touches of synth -- touches of atmosphere, maybe an occaisional lead line. I have a keyboard/controller (an M-Audio Oxygen8), so I'm just looking for advice vis-a-vis a cheap-but-usable synth module.

I figure, hey, probably a half-rack just for portability, but a full 19" would be fine. I'm seeing things for $5-600 street new, and I'd like to do less than than that by at least a couple hundred. (Ideally, the $2-300 range). Used is fine. I don't know this market at all, though -- what little I've said (if anything) that sound like functional knowledge is based on some Google and USENET plumbing.

Not so worried about realistic acoustics (piano, orchestral sounds). Something more in the line of analog synths. Again, in the territory of adding a little occasional synthy flavor to a not-hard rock band.

And to be clear, in the long run (12+ months) I vaguely plan to buy a laptop to run Reason (or equivilant) off of, for home and for shows, so this is a cut-rate stop-gap for fun an experimentation in the mean time.

Hope me! What should I look for? What should I expect?
posted by cortex to Media & Arts (6 answers total)
If you have a laptop, you could use a softsynth. There are some free ones out there. I've had good luck with those.
posted by sourwookie at 7:27 PM on May 3, 2005

Response by poster: I agree totally with respect to the laptop notion, but! As I said in the penultimate para, I expect to have a laptop inside a year. I don't now, though, and won't soon. For now, I'm looking for a self-contained solution.

(also, that should be "for fun and experimentation" in that same paragraph)
posted by cortex at 7:43 PM on May 3, 2005

What about an all-in-one keyboard that you'd just run into your (or the house's) board?

While deciding which synth gear to pursue, we got by with a unit from, of all places, Radio Shack. The thing isn't anywhere near as crummy as you'd expect! It's the MD-1210 if you want to investigate. Shouldn't run more than $100 and it has a number of convincing and passable sounds. Now, you're not going to fool anyone into thinking you have an Oberheim or a Moog in your arsenal, but like you said, it's a stop-gap measure.
posted by peewee at 8:13 PM on May 3, 2005

Do you want to program this thing, or do you just want a box o' sounds? Poke around at Vintage Synth Explorer, which is a lot more far-reaching than its name suggests; they have a little "help me find the synth I want" widget that might suggest a few options.

Off the top of my head, maybe check out the Yamaha TX81z. It's an FM synth from the mid-'80s, so you can get them for a hundred bucks or so. The stock patches aren't necessarily great, but it's a true synthesizer, not like the generation of ROM-sampler based machines that followed it, so it sounds unapologetically synthetic, and you can program in some pretty weird/cool sounds if you want. Also, it does include some decent string pads and a few good basses, and if you play it through some effects it can sound pretty damn good. I used to play the piano patches through a guitar amp to get warm, punchy, overdriven leads.
posted by Mars Saxman at 8:44 PM on May 3, 2005

Now, you're not going to fool anyone into thinking you have an Oberheim or a Moog in your arsenal, but like you said, it's a stop-gap measure.

or you could just buy an oberheim matrix 1000.

i've owned one for over 7 years now, and I still love it.

after you buy a computer you'll be able to edit the sounds, too.

looks like they've actually come down about $100 in price too, so now is a great time to buy.


the ob1000 is NOT a lead synth -- sure, its got great leads (there's 1000 patches in there, dude!*). I'd think about picking up a peavey spectrum synth (yep, peavey made synths), if you want more lead sounds (it's full of analog samples but sounds nice because 1) analog filter and 2) stereo, dude! YEEEAH). They had one on ebay for $99. That's a total steal (again, down about $100 from a year ago).

Now, if you want something multi-timbral, that's gonna be a different matter.

the yamaha tx81z ain't a bad suggestion, but if you go that route you owe it to yourself to just buy a DX7, 'cause then you'll have the total look AND the sound. i still regret trading my dx (for a DAT machine that saw little use. I am lame).

anyways. blah blah blah. there's a million options you could get. i think the tx81z, ob, and peavey will all prove to be useful even after you buy a laptop (though you SHOULDN'T -- things should be about gear again, because gear is inherently more performative; more spectacular). the dx7 would probably be more of a white elephant to you after you have your laptop (but they're friggin cool, and near impossible to program).

* and maybe like 2-300 of them are actually cool, but I digress -- hey, wait, this is a footnote, so i'm allowed to do that, right? there's a lot of sounds in the matrix 1000 that people might've thought were dope and useful in the way early nineties (like weird noise/drum hits), but aren't really too awesome today.
posted by fishfucker at 9:52 PM on May 3, 2005

Response by poster: fishfucker: tho, alas, I recognize the concept of The Look, it falls short when I draw my line in the sand. I've got too many hobbies and interests to devote extra cash to the non-utilitarian aesthetics of any one path. I just want it to sound good, neh?

Mars: thanks for the pointer to VSE. That should pretty much kill my workday.

peewee: the MD-1210 looks like sort of a tangent from what I came in here imagining, but I'm definitely filing that away for future reference should the electronic dorkery on my part continue to fester.

Thanks all of you for the pointers and opinions. At this point I'll probably keep my eyes out for a Tx81z as a starting point. Now if Matt would just ressurrect music.mefi...
posted by cortex at 8:00 AM on May 5, 2005

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