5 Experts Guide You Through Your First Synth Purchase

Carl Craig, King Britt, JakoJako, Lucrecia Dalt, and Detroit Modular discuss considerations before buying your first piece of modular hardware.

So you’ve got your DAW and you’ve made some tracks that you feel pretty happy with, but somehow the music-making process doesn’t leave you feeling satisfied. One way to overcome this is to invest in a modular synthesizer — something that will allow you to take the experience outside of your DAW, expand your creative horizons, and learn more about synthesis.

However, buying your first piece of modular gear can be daunting, which is why we spoke to several experienced producers about their setup, their first synths, and what advice they would impart to a first-time buyer.

Photo: Cristian DiStefano

Carl Craig

Carl Craig is a Detroit figurehead and runs Planet-E Communications.

What gear did you first start out with?

I begged, borrowed, and stole anything I could get my hands on. I think that’s how anyone gets into new stuff. My first piece of electronic gear was a Sequential Circuits Prophet 600. There’s only so much you can do with just a synthesizer… I don’t even know what I put it through to hear it, maybe I plugged it into my stereo or something? A friend of mine had a four-track, and he loaned me that, and then I realized I needed a sequencer in order to do anything. So I got an Alesis MMT-8 Sequencer so that I had the ability to do almost everything that I wanted to do. I don’t think I knew how to sequence at all. 

How long did you stick with this setup?

I used the MMT-8 until I started using Mark of the Unicorn’s Performer when I got a Mac. I did a lot of stuff on the MMT-8; 69, BFC. Another piece I had early on was Derrick May’s Roland S-10, which is a small version of the S-50. When I was working with Derrick, he was mainly using an Ensoniq Mirage and he didn’t have any use for the S-10, so I took it and just found out every way to freak that machine I could. For the most part, I used the four-part machine to its maximum, but the only way you could do that was to drop the sample rate. And then I got as much as I could, using the limited time I had. That taught me how to economize with sounds and to use the most out of it that I could. 

Would you say there’s a track from this period that epitomizes these sounds?

There’s a Psyche track called “Neurotic Behaviour.” There are two versions of it, the one without drums is exactly what I’m talking about; me and just those three pieces of gear, overdubbing, and modulating and freaking the frequencies. “My Machines” [69] is just with the S1-0, the MMT-8, and the Roland SH-101.

If you had to give advice to someone who wanted to jump outside of the box, what would you say?

Buy one synthesizer, learn it well, and the possibilities will be endless. And then add another piece of gear after that. The problem with DAWs and doing everything in the box is that there’s always a plug-in that’s supposed to be the silver bullet. And if you’re busy buying silver bullet plug-ins all the time, you’re gonna think the exact same way when it comes to buying external stuff as well.

Photo: Colin Kerrigan

KING BRITT

Philadelphia’s King Britt has a long history in experimental, soulful and rhythmic electronic productions steeped in a fundamental understanding of modular gear.

What was the first synth you ever bought?

The first synth I bought with my own money was a MiniMoog, back in high school. I saved up all summer to get it. If you have the money, it definitely is one of the best first synths to have. The design completely makes sense to beginners and experts. It levels the difficulty and makes it fun.

For a more affordable one now, I always recommend the Korg Monologue. It’s an absolutely beautiful machine and the price range is perfect for a beginner’s first synth. The filters are great and really easy to navigate, but if you feel like menu diving you can! Also in a variety of colors. Mine is gold of course.

Below is a picture of me with my very first sampler, a circuit-bent Casio SK-1.

As a first time buyer, say, someone who only works digitally in a DAW, what do you think the most important things are to consider when looking for a particular piece of hardware?

Simplicity and quick editing with maximum results. You want to have fun but have the ability to steer toward a sound that a beginner can achieve but an expert can push further.

Photo: Camille Blake

LUCRECIA DALT

Colombian producer and Berlin native Lucrecia Dalt uses technology to create abstract, conceptual narratives that deeply layer her finely textured music. With a new LP ‘No era sólida’ — due on RVNG Intl. in September (you can hear the record’s first single ‘Disuelta’ here) — we asked the producer what she’s using at the moment, and what drove her to use this current setup.

What were the first synth and hardware pieces you bought?

After a laptop, the Moogerfooger MIDI MuRF.

What was the main influence behind the decision-making process?

Decision making regarding gear has always been rather spontaneous. A lot of the stuff that I have is through thinking about a particular piece of gear’s potential after having seen someone else using it. Or it was just accidental, like the Erbe-Verb that I acquired because someone in the local shop recommended it to me, and I bought it eyes-closed only to discover a few months after that’d become an essential piece.

What do you think is important for first-time buyers to consider before making their first purchase?

It’s difficult to say because I think that almost any tool has something I can make use of, or that I can force it to be with adequate processing. For example, I recently got myself an acoustic guitar, and it’s been such a pleasure to find joy in just trying different tunings and playing basic progressions with it. Or like when I got the Korg Monologue, I’d say it’s straight up a synth that has an aesthetic radically different to mine. Nevertheless, I realized that I could force it into my sound realm by sequencing and programming microtonal changes and portamentos. I also think that there has to be something pragmatic in acquiring gear, since I have to travel by myself, being able to pack all the pieces in a handbag is key, so a lot of gear that I use for live performance has that characteristic: compact, lightweight, versatile.

What are your main pieces of gear now?

My current setup is two Nord Keyboards, two small lunchboxes of modulars (with the Erbe Verb and a Rainmaker), the Moogerfooger, microphone, soundcard, laptop. The Erbe-Verb really blows my mind. I think I kind of misuse the reverb capabilities of it and force it to be a textural rhythmic tool. It’s extremely versatile and sounds wonderfully earthly, warm, and dirty.

What would you recommend a first-timer look into to start out with?

Just something with limited options, I think having too many options when you are exploring sounds for the first time makes things a bit frustrating and erratic, having few options forces you to explore within those few parameters and maybe discover a unique tone that can outlive and identify with your commencing intuitive aesthetics.

Photo: Uli Kaufmann

JAKOJAKO

As one of the resident experts in hardware for SchneidersLaden, Berlin’s leading authority for modular gear, JakoJako’s competence and understanding in synth gear is undisputed. Here, she breaks down her setup and shares her details about the sites and blogs she uses to help her learn more about modular.

What were the first synth and hardware pieces you bought?

My first synthesizer was a DIY kit from Conrad Electronics costing around 25 euro. There wasn’t much you could do with it, but I just felt like learning something completely new. Before that, I didn’t have anything to do with electronic music or soldering and was just a music lover. I started reading Synthesiser by Florian Anwander, then Elektronische Klänge und musikalische Entdeckungen from André Ruschkowski, and sometimes magazines like SynMAG. I saved up some money and got myself a second-hand KORG Volca Bass for 100 euro, used it for a while, then sold it and bought a second-hand Arturia MiniBrute, and at some point later an OP-1. I quickly reached the limits and realized that I needed more complex functions and a more interesting sequencer. I bought an Elektron Analog RYTM after lots of research, which is also the only piece of hardware that is still in my current setup. I quickly found out that the Eurorack is the format for me.

What are your main pieces of gear now?

Currently, my studio equipment is also my live setup. I use my Eurorack system controlled by the Elektron Octatrack MK1 and an Elektron Analog RYTM. In my Eurorack I have a complex voice and some effects and utilities. You can find my exact modules on ModularGRID. At the moment I’m enjoying creating melodies and arpeggios in Octatrack.

I’m always looking for a more compact setup, especially things that do more but take up less space. That’s why I use the modular system. If you think carefully about what you put into it, you have an enormously powerful machine. And if you need a different sound or a new function, then you just change it! You mix brands and philosophies. Every manufacturer has different approaches and different strengths. Some modules just fit perfectly in some configurations and not at all in others. That makes it all the more important to think about what exactly you want to achieve. Anyway, I am rather for “less is more”.  But I have to admit, if I was richer, I would have more equipment for example a nice polysynth.

What do you think is important for first-time buyers to consider before making their first purchase?

If using hardware is appealing, then finding your taste between all the brands and manufacturers. I did a lot of research in forums to find out which musicians I liked used what. Videos and tutorials are really helpful to see if the handling is suitable before buying. I subscribe to a few channels, such as SequencerTalk by Moogulator, and the SchneidersLaden blog Stromkult. 

Before I bought the RYTM I watched almost every relevant video on the net. I hadn’t saved all the money at that point, so I thought, at least I could learn how to use the device in the meantime. On my days off I went to musical instrument shops and tested out synths I was interested in.

DETROIT MODULAR

When looking to get advice on purchases, it’s best to go straight to the source, which is why we spoke to one of the world’s best stores for modular hardware. With an online shop that specializes in a wide variety of Eurorack modular, synthesizers, drum machines, controllers, and all sorts of technical gear, Detroit Modular has firmly established itself as one of the best proprietors for those looking to delve in the fantastical world of experimental musical sounds. Dan Keaton, one of DM’s founding fathers, shares his advice for those struggling to figure out which gear to go for first

As a start-out producer who just uses DAWs and plugins, what are the important things to consider before investing in a synth?

The most important question to ask yourself is what am I trying to do that I can’t, or isn’t fun to do, inside the computer? Are you missing some of that analog mojo that isn’t possible in the box, a more hands-on workflow, maybe some unexpected inspiration from unusual or generative sequencers, or maybe just more unique sounds that plug-ins aren’t able to produce? This is really a personal question as all people have their own style of sound and workflow, but we are firm believers (and users) of hybrid setups. All options are good to have at your disposal – it keeps things fresh.

What trends have you noticed customers are getting into?

Most people tend to gravitate straight towards the main modular systems we have in the store.  We have two 1008hp systems hooked up to a 15000 watt sound system with dual subs – so you will definitely be able to HEAR and FEEL whatever you are trying out. There are so many options, sounds, and workflows in modular systems that there is always room for something in everyone’s studio. Some people start out just with a little effects processing, filtering, distortion rig to supplement their computer setup and end up adding on sound sources and sequencing over time. Other folk are just looking to start out with something small, one-or-two sound sources, a filter, hands-on distortions, and some modulation and add on. The beauty of modular systems is you can add on slowly and figure out what you like and how you like to work with it.

What do you recommend to people who come into the shop looking for inspiration to bolster their musical ideas? 

The first thing we try to do is figure out where they are trying to go. What musical styles they like, who some of their inspirations are, and a few bits about what they have right now.  Everyone is different and everyone resonates differently. From there, the shop is their oyster. That being said, a new sound source module or synth, some new ways to abuse your sounds with grit or punishment with pedals or effects, a new hands-on sequencer, or a new high-end effects processor can help. Sometimes just rearranging how you are doing things or injecting a bit of newness can shift things back around.

What would you recommend a first-time buyer to start out with?

If someone is really just dipping their toes into the world of hardware along with MIDI and CV, a lot of times the best place to start is with a semi-modular monosynth. That gives them not only some set sound-making structure but also patch points to start experimenting with modulation and really screwing with the sound. It will do things that can’t be done in software, will expand the existing palette, and will always be useful no matter what size the system evolves into. That being said, if that is a little too daunting a good analog or hybrid mono [a synth that can only play one note at a time, for example, the popular Novation Bass Station II] or poly synth [a synth that can play multiple notes at a time, like the Korg Minilogue XD] with presets can be a very nice first step also.

What’s really hot and exciting for you at the moment? 

Complex oscillators, thru zero fm, and octature filters with multiple fm points. There really isn’t anything quite like the sounds that you can get with advanced analog fm modules designed to be abused. Instant insanity. You really feel like the first person in the universe to be hearing these sounds. Isn’t that the point?

Dan Cole is a Berlin-based music copywriter, consultant, tech and travel journalist, with bylines in XLR8R, Electronic Beats, Bandcamp Daily, and DJ Mag. He has also worked as Editor-in-Chief for DJBroadcast, and for Amsterdam Dance Event. Along with spending too much money on obscure wave records, he also has a strong passion for weird disco edits, old school rave and unfashionable hardcore. Find him on Twitter



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