Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Vintage On The Cheap

There's no doubt that these days software is king. And why not? It costs a fraction of what hardware does, the sound quality is improving all the time, and you can literally fit your entire studio in a laptop bag. But for all its distinct advantages, there are some areas where software falls short for synth geeks. It's not really collectable. It has a far more limited lifespan than hardware given how quickly operating systems change. And, for lack of a better term, software just isn't 'sexy' in the same way hardware is. No amount of high end rendering is ever going to look as nice as the wood panels on a real Prophet-5. Even the most smoothly-animated softsynth knob isn't as satisfying as twisting the big, fat knobs on a real Moog Modular. I'll pause here while my British readers snicker at the phrase 'big, fat knobs'. Ahem.

Unfortunately, vintage hardware doesn't usually come cheap and this can be a barrier that prevents a lot of electronic musicians from giving one of these old beasts a try. Prices for vintage gear go up and down depending on the piece, how trendy it is at the moment, how rare it is, etc. But there are a number of really underrated synths that seem to go for consistently low prices. They're awesome synths, but nobody seems to know about them, which means you can get a great deal. So today, I'll share some hidden gems to keep your eye out for on Ebay or your local pawn shop.

Casio CZ-101 (typically less than $100)
Casio never really got a fair shake with the professional music market. Known primarily for making digital watches and cheesy home keyboards, by the time they attempted to enter the professional market, their name was tainted - synonymous, it seemed, with images of blue-haired old ladies playing Auld Lang Syne to bleepy rhumba rhythms. That's too bad, because the CZ synths were capable of some decent sounds. Yes, it also has a lot of cheesy, 80's-tastic sounds, but if you work with it, you can get some very cool basses and digital timbres. The CZ series uses Phase Distortion synthesis which isn't too unlike FM in both sound and application. It's also 4-part multi-timbral.

Ensoniq ESQ-1 (typically $150-$300)
I'll grant you that Ensoniq is not a name you generally associate with 'classic' synths, but for the life of me, I'll never understand why the ESQ-1 isn't more popular on the used market. Although it is a digital synth (with a selection of 32 8-bit multi-sampled waveforms), it has a very nice sounding analog filter and can do some amazingly convincing analog timbres. The sawtooth wave, although a sample, sounds GREAT and can itself form the basis for all manner of really thick sounds, thanks in part to its 3 oscillator architecture (which in itself can be layered). Lots of modulation capabilities, oscillator sync (which sounds very cool on digital waves), and AM offer the possibility to make very weird sounds. Comes with a built-in sequencer and is 8 part multi-timbral. For a little more, you can spring for the SQ-80, which ups the number of waveforms to 75 and includes a floppy drive for saving sounds and sequences.

Moog (Realistic) Concertmate MG-1 (typically $100-$500)
This one can vary a LOT in price, so it pays to shop around and wait for a deal. They seem to come up on auction sites fairly regularly, so this shouldn't be difficult. The Realistic Concertmate MG-1 was born out of a collaboration between Moog Music and Radio Shack, aimed at bringing synthesis into the home market. It's a very simple dual-oscillator monosynth, but is undeniably analog and can produce some nice bass sounds. The addition of oscillator sync and ring modulation only sweeten the deal.

Oberheim Matrix-6R (typically $150-$350+)
The price of the Oberheim Matrix-6R is another that varies quite a bit, so luck can be a factor in getting one for a good price. I got mine for $80, but I've seen them go for as much as $500 recently. The Matrix-6R is the rack-mounted version of the Matrix-6 synth. (If programming is less important to you, the cheaper Matrix-1000 offers a lot of presets in place of being able to program your own sounds... although this is possible too through a software editor or a Matrix-6/6R). While not as deep as, say, the Xpander, the Matrix-6R is a surprisingly deep synth with lots of modulation capabilities and a warm sound. Like most Oberheim synths, the envelopes aren't terribly snappy, so it isn't something I'd favor for basses on its own, but it sounds brilliant and wooly layered with a more percussive bass sound.

Roland HS-10/80 (typically $25-$100)
The HS-10 was aimed at being a consumer-level version of the company's famous Alpha Juno 1, itself generally a very inexpensive synth. (The HS-80 is the consumer version of the Alpha Juno 2). It is identical to the Alpha in every way except that it has a built-in speaker. To record it, you simply use the headphone out as your output. This is another synth that isn't the most versatile thing in the world, but it excels at warm pads and, most famously at doing rave/hoover leads.

Roland HS-60 (typically $200+)
Like the above, the HS-60 was yet another attempt by Roland to market one of their professional synths to the more causal, home user. This time, it takes Roland's famous Juno-106 and includes a built-in speaker. Otherwise, the units sound the same. As with the previous entry, plugging into the headphone jack bypasses the speakers and allows you to record or plug into a PA as normal.

Roland MKS-7 (typically $200+)
The so-called 'Super Quartet' is 4 part multi-timbral, divided into a monophonic bass part, a duophonic 'Melody' section, and a 4-note polyphonic 'Chords' section, in addition to a rhythm section with a handful of sampled drum sounds. The bass, melody, and chords sections share the architecture of the Juno-106, while the rhythm section's sounds come from the TR-707. So you essentially get a 3-part multi-timbral Juno-106 and a TR-707 for less than you'd pay for a single 106! The big downside is that you have to edit sounds via SysEx or a computer-based editor.

Yamaha CS-01 (typically $150-$250)
Although it may look like a toy, Yamaha's miniature CS-01 is actually a pretty decent little analog monosynth. It's not the most flexible synth in the world, but the PWM on it sounds really nice and can make some very warm bass sounds. The original CS-01 features a 12db filter. Later, a Mark II version of the CS-01 was released with a snappier 24db filter.

Yamaha TX81Z (typically $50-$85)
The TX81Z was one of dozens of different FM synths released by Yamaha back in the 80's. Although it only features 4 operators (the DX-7 features 6), it makes up for the more restrictive architecture by allowing you to use a selection of different waveforms instead of just sine waves. This is a ludicrously underrated synth, capable of extremely punchy, digital basses, brilliant percussive/sequence sounds, and crystal clear bells and mallets. It's not the easiest synth to program, but your efforts are usually rewarded if you spend some time getting to know it. Most of the presets are terrible and dated sounding, but the price of admission is almost worth it solely for the 'LatelyBass' preset which has been used on countless dance tracks and is still as great a sound today as it was back then. Oh, and did I mention it's multi-timbral?

So there's a handful to get you started. This is by no means a comprehensive list, though. Take the time to research stuff you've seen on Ebay that you haven't heard of before. There are a LOT of vintage synths out there that can be had for pocket change simply because they never had the name or streed cred that others did. Are there any I missed? Any unknown vintage goodies out there just waiting to be had for cheap?


Kieron said...

I bought a CZ5000 (includes a sequencer but loses velocity sensitive keyboard) because I knew Vince Clarke was using them a lot for the first Erasure album.

You can find video of him on YouTube where he's using a CZ101 to control the BBC Micro.

Anthony said...

kawai k1 II, and yamaha sy-22. one is the bastard stepcousin to the prophet vs. And the the kawai is just bizarre at times, with vector synthesis, amplitude modulation between oscillators, and some of the waves are additive...

Robert said...

it seems that 80's Digital is going to be or already is the new vintage craze.

Anonymous said...

Nice list Tom. In Europe (e. g. Germany) a Casio CZ-101 is overpriced, usually about 400-450 $. Cheers, Nox/electricmultipleunit.

Unknown said...

The Korg Poly-800 have very good filters & is great for soft pads & deep basses.

Jonathan said...

I've posted this else where but this is an expanded version and this list is in addition to as opposed to instead of Tom at Waveformless

Casio CT-410V (for cheese appeal but a real synth with an analogue filter!) avg. £30
Ensoniq SQ-R avg. £60
Evolution EVS1 (funny little thing but can produce some good sounds) avg. £40
Kawai K4 avg. £50 (for usable nostalgia or a K1 for cheap low-fi dirt, avg. £30)
Roland D-110 (if you can't afford a D50/550) avg. £35
Yamaha PS-1/2/3 (for cheese appeal but a real analogue) avg. £15
Yamaha PSS-380/390 (FM with sliders) avg. £15

Casio VZ-10m (same as FM but different) avg. £100
HOHNER HS2e (a Casio VZ-10M with a different badge) avg. £80
Quasimidi Technox avg. £70
Siel Expander 80 (like a Korg Poly) avg. £100
Yamaha SK10 or 15 (string machine) avg. £80

Cheetah MS6 (almost a copy of the Oberheim Matrix 1000 but half the price) avg. £125
Korg Wavestation SR (I know you can get a soft version but it's just not the same for noodling around on and you can get 'em cheaply) avg. £150
Novation Bass Station avg. £100
Novation Drum Station avg. £125

Some of these older synths either don't have effects or if they do they're of rudimentary quality so pick up a Lexicon MPX200 or 550 (or the TC Electronics equivalent), both of which can be bought cheaply.

Anonymous said...

I got an Oberheim Matrix 1000 some years ago for a few hundred dollars. It's got 1,000 Matrix 6 patches in it and it sounds great. But it's programmable only with a computer.

Anonymous said...

Thought you might be interested in knowing that while folks apparently know to look for CZ-101s, they don't know to keep an eye out for its older siblings! Right now there's a CZ-1000 (170406029417) on eBay with a Buy It Now price lower than the bidding on a CZ-101. Crazy!

Anonymous said...

the korg poly 61, DW-6000 come to mind.

also the sequential sixtrak or max are good and cheap too.

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Alvin said...

Got my CZ-101 for around USD45 here in the Philippines. Also a Korg PolySix for USD120, a Juno-106 for USD200. And I recently acquired a beautiful Yamaha CS-15 for about USD350. You gotta love it!

Anonymous said...

I've had a Roland D50 since it came out. Sounds amazing, but brain surgery to program the bloody thing.

Graham said...

Still have my original Esq-1 that I bought new back in the 80s. Love that synth!

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