Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Stocking fillers for Christmas 2015 - Noisemakers

As I have been a fan of highlighting in the past, we live in an amazing time where there are lots of different synth and music production products out there to suit all budgets and uses. So with Christmas coming up, here's a quick look at some of the options at the lower end of the market that would suit a budget of under £100 for stocking fillers to make for a noisy Christmas morning!

Dubrek Stylophone - £10-15

Pic taken from the Amazon entry for the Stylophone
Coming in at the low end of the spectrum, the Dubrek Stylophone is a classic 70s toy that was once endorsed by disgraced antipodean personality Rolf Harris. It's a bit of a gimmick these days; a battery-powered monophonic analogue oscillator that was described as an "electronic organ" that comes with three different stock sounds (each more clangy than the last) and played with a really inflexible stylus on a short lead that makes the connection on the metal contact board. Sound output is either from the internal speaker on the top of the unit or it can be connected via 3.5mm stereo cable to your soundcard. You can add a tremelo effect to the sound as well, though don't expect to get any kind of octave select function. Instead there's a massive potentiometer underneath the machine that you can use for pitch correction. This is more or less faithful to the original: all of its limitations and no real improvements, but for a tenner it's not particularly bad value. Expect this to be fun to play up until Boxing day, or until the batteries run out: whichever happens first.

Already got a stylophone? Why not take a look at the uber-gimmicky Beatbox Stylophone, which comes with cheesy scratch samples and vocal hits. Or don't, I'm just saying...

Gakken SX-150 Mark ii - £25-28

Pic taken from the Amazon entry for the Gakken
The Gakken is a small battery powered synthesiser from Japan, originally sold as a snap together kit, as I understand it. At first glance, it looks kind of like Japan's answer to the Stylophone; a bright red plastic box (allegedly a black coloured one exists too) that houses a monophonic oscillator complete with a stylus and contact pad for playing, but with markedly more features and better control that sets this apart as a more "proper" synthesiser. This machine sounds like a saw/square combination (leaning towards a saw to my ear) and is matched with an Attack/Decay envelope, dual waveform LFO and filter with cutoff/resonance control; plenty for getting a variety of different sounds out of it. A line in connector allows you to filter any incoming signals with the filter and, like the stylophone, an internal speaker or 3.5mm jack output can be used.

This looks so good that I actually asked for one for my secret santa this year. It seems popular with modders and fairly straightforward to get into: this page here has a tonne of great information about the internals and modding instructions, which include how to add MIDI in, among other things. 

Korg Monotrons - £28~ each

Korg's battery-powered Monotron range comes in three distinct versions: the Monotron, Monotron Duo and Monotron Delay and use the gnarly MS-20 filter with strong resonance. The Monotron comes with a sawtooth LFO that can either modulate the pitch or cutoff, the Duo comes with two oscillators and an X-modulation function for creating tons of bright chiptune-esque sounds and the Delay comes with a fully fledged delay circuit and pitch modulation LFO with triangle and square waveshapes, turning the Monotron into a spaced out dub siren and Doctor Who SFX generator. All three are darn cheap and are great for sound effects, gathering inspiration and using as an external processor, using the 3.5mm in and out jacks to add a bit of spice, though as cheap units I note that signal noise is a bit of an issue as the filter cutoff is opened fully.

Naturally I have all three and cannot rate them highly enough, though as analogue machines they do tend to eat up AAA batteries quickly. Like other budget analogue machines, I have seen quite a few sites with mods, including MIDI control, in part thanks to Korg's habit of adding labels to the circuit board to help all those who are curious about opening them up.

If you only had to buy one, go for the Delay.

Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators - £40-45~ each

The Pocket Operators are the first products from Scandinavian firm Teenage Engineering that are priced at the bottom end of the spectrum. Taking cues from the Volca series, the Pocket Operators all fulfil different duties for drums, basslines and leads, with the on-chip digital samples providing a serious amount of sonic power in a charming format with a Game & Watch inspired LCD with charming (if slightly bewildering) animations based on what sounds you sequence. All can be synced together using 3.5mm jacks and can also be synced to the Korg Volcas as well, meaning these are perfect for adding to an existing setup.

All three are admittedly fairly flimsy, so for £45 it might be prudent to invest in the rubber cases that are offered. Unfortunately, this bumps the price up by another £20, putting them close to the Volcas in terms of cost. Caveat Emptor, as with all of these purchases!

Korg Volcas - £80~ each

With the recent release of the Volca Sample, the original three analogue synthesisers are now easier to get hold of and have been smartly discounted in time for the holiday season. Each machine performs a specific function: the Beats an analogue&PCM sample drum machine (with excellent booming 808 kick to counteract the weak snare snap), the Bass a three oscillator monosynth that apes the TB-303 (though the filter is not as sharp as the originator!) and the rather feature-filled Keys, a 3 voice polysynth with lots of different oscillator modes. All three can be synced together with pulses with straightforward 3.5mm jacks, meaning they can be clocked by modular gear as well as the Pocket Operators, together with internal sequencers and hands on features for live jamming. While they can be run off of batteries, I would recommend a power supply but this does up the price.

In my mind there is no "best" module, as it is all based on what you are looking for. At this price they combine lots of advantages with some distinct downsides for their size/price, but get one and I guarantee that you will want to collect the other two (or three if you want the Volca Sample as well!).