2021-05-22 Looking to buy a synthesizer

This is me thinking about buying something. Perhaps writing things down helps me make a decision. Feel free to comment.

Recently, I ended up wondering about the Theremin. It’s an electronic instrument from 1928 and it looks like a little bread sized blob with two antennas. The hands of the performer influence the electrical fields around the antennas, with one hand controlling the pitch and the other the amplitude or volume. The Moog Theremini just adds more electronics to that. I wondered: would I like to play such an instrument? I think I might!

Then I started wondering. I’m not much of a music maker. I dabble a bit with a micro sampler (the PO‑33 by teenage engineering), a small synthesiser (OP‑1 by teenage engineering), and some programs. The ones I like best are PixiTracker, Synth One, and a bunch of related programs by the people making the Synth One, Retro Piano, Bass 808, 909 Drums, FM Piano 2, Digital D1, as well as some other emulators: iVCS3, Animoog, Model D; and the world instruments in GarageBand, the Erhu in particular.

The programs that I didn’t get into were emulations of modular synthesis like Model 15, VCV Rack, Klankwelle, as well as various programming environments such as Orca, Sonic Pi and Overtone.

So now I’m thinking: I’d like a physical device, something that allows the aimless dabbling, the dilettante sound exploration that I love to do late at night when I should be going to bed. So, what should it be? I don’t have a talent for handicrafts and tinkering. I don’t want to solder stuff. That’s why I think I don’t actually want to get into modular synthesis. I do love turning knobs and pressing buttons, so perhaps a little bit of modular synthesis is fine, and perhaps hooking two or three things together can be fun. In fact, the Model D emulator by Moog is something I’m enjoying a lot, and I love playing stuff on the Animoog emulator. I don’t really understand the Animoog and it’s gazillion presets and timbres, so I’d say I need something simpler than that. I just love the ethereal quality of actually playing on it. I guess something on the Model D level of complexity would be fine, a little bit more options for growth would be great.

So here’s what I’m thinking: the programs by Moog have made me like the company. I know their products are expensive, but that isn’t much of an issue if I can avoid setting up a hodge podge of things. I’d rather have a few modules sold to me as well integrated packages so that I don’t have to think about these details.

This makes me think:

The Moog Subsequent 25 looks like just the thing I need in terms of complexity, but the gazillion presets make me think I might find myself trapped by them, unwilling to go beyond them. Also, if I ever wanted to move to some modular synthesis, I’m stuck. Or am I? It also seems to me that I’d appreciate aftertouch and a sequencer.

The Moog Grandmother looks like the next best thing. It has a sequencer but no aftertouch. It has no presets so it might all about the exploration of sound.

Well, for more than twice the price, there’s an alternative: the Moog Matriarch. The features are definitely more than what I need. Is it room for growth, or confusing? I guess it depends. The OP‑1 confuses me because the systems are so different and underdocumented it’s hard for me to explore them. Everything is a mystery. Whereas I’d say that once I understand a thing such as oscilators and filters, adding more oscilators and filters doesn’t add the same kind of complexity.

Somewhere inbetween is something else that I find fascinating: the Moog Subharmonicon. The polyrythm idea reminds me of Music for Airports, where Brian Eno uses loops to create complex patterns from simple pieces of music. I think I’d love something like that for evening musical meditation. Probably paired with a DFAM at first, maybe with the addition of a Mother‑32 later.

Oh, and since I’m collecting reviews… I wonder whether people hook up the Theremini to the other elements?

I guess the main reason I stuck to looking at Moog products was that I was feeling comfortable with the Model D emulator and the Animoog program, having spent many an evening dabbling with them. It seems like making these programs available is paying off as a marketing strategy as far as I am concerned! At the same time, I’m already overwhelmed with all the choices I have. Do I need even more alternatives? I don’t think so. I already feel terrible.

I also had a long and difficult discussion with my wife: do I “need” such an expensive musical instrument? Of course not. Nobody “needs” the things one needs for a hobby, unless one loves a hobby. And many hobbies sadly require equipment you have to rent or buy before you get to see whether you have it in you. So yes, I had the tendency to buy more computer games than I played, and to buy more books than I read, but that doesn’t mean I’m on my way to buy more musical instruments than I play. At the same time, I cannot promise that I will make good use of them! I cannot know the future. It’s tricky.

Something to add for sure. A book about patching the synthesizers. And perhaps reading the book will help me make the next decision.


Grandmother is definetily a majestic beast, but dif you consider a Korg Prologue (or any of the “logue” series)? To me top quality : potential : price ratio. VCO + digital osc which can add ‘mods’ to the base syth.

Also on a €2k price tag you could check the Novation Summit, and the Sequential Pro 3.

DFAM is more hostile than you might think. Hard to tame if you don’t go with a beatstep pro or similar. No preset saving and monophonic. Requires a certain mind frame.

– Ton 2021-05-23 10:28 UTC

Thanks for the warning regarding DFAM! It did look weird in the videos I looked at. I wonder how I’d figure out whether I have the right mindset? I need a friend who has them all and let’s me borrow the equipment! 😄

I did see some recommendations for the Minilogue and Friends. I think my main problem would be that the hundred presets would lead down the road of trying them all, and installing more of them, playing a few lines, trying to figure out which one I liked best, all of that instead of turning the actual knobs and exploring the sound by myself.

The Novation Summit looks great but perhaps there just too many options in addition to what I said above. I think what I can comfortably explore right now is in the complexity range of the VCS3, or the Model D. Maybe a bit more, but all the other stuff, multiple filters, combining patches, I don’t know.

– Alex 2021-05-23 10:50 UTC

I think it’s pretty much decided, now. It’s going to be a Moog Matriarch. I’m still interested in DFAM, Mother-32, Subharmonicon, and Theremini, but they’ll have to wait. First things first. And who knows. Soon I’ll be unhappy with the headphones and I’ll be digging up the old stereo from the cellar where it’s been lying for seven years and then we’ll see. 😄

– Alex 2021-05-23

If you’re fine with the emulators, stay with them. They are more powerful and flexible than any synth. I get you want some tactile feedback so you can buy a midi controller (or many, for the price of any Moog device) like Akai MIDImix, full of knobs and faders. Your wife will thank me 😄

edkalrio 2021-05-25 18:13 UTC

Haha! 😀 Good point, actually!

– Alex 2021-05-25 20:40 UTC

On IRC, rnkn recommended Making Music, 74 Creative Strategies for Electronic Music Producers, by Dennis DeSantis. Electronic formats available for free.

– Alex 2021-06-07 08:09 UTC

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