What synths make it to the top of the pile? The Minimoog and Korg MS20 are unlikely to spark any controversy. Beyond that, of course, any list will prompt debate. This enviable gear collection photographed by jo_co, via Flickr.

“This Week in Synths” by Matrix is on a short holiday; in the meantime, you can page through the archived stories. In its place, it’s worth considering two “top xx lists” for synths. Sonic State has done a Top 20 Greatest Synths List, featuring a quite nice video and rather high-end production values. The list itself is perhaps better read as a Top 20 Most Popular Synths, though, so you’ll be gratified to know our friend Matrixsynth responded with a list of the Most Underrated Synths.

Top 20 Greatest Synths at Sonic State, complete with extensive information, links, top-notch videos … good stuff.

Most Underrated Synths at Matrixsynth, complete with more of the obscure instruments we love.

As terrific as the list at Sonic State is, presumably because it’s based on voting, it skews in a certain direction. The omission of modular Moog and Buchlas, the lack of important moments in synthesis (like Yamaha first commercializing physical modeling), and the general emphasis on ROMplers tilts the list in a certain direction. There’s a decent argument for the keyboards that made the list, but I am curious what CDMers would compile.

Hard to argue with the #1 spot, though. See what you think:

1. Moog Minimoog. (Warning: pronunciation in the video rhymes with the sound cows make, instead of properly rhyming with “brogue.”)
2. ARP Odyssey
3. Sequential Circuits Prophet 5
4. Yamaha DX7
5. Korg M1
6. Roland D50
7. Korg MS20
8. Roland JV-1080
9. Access Virus
10. ARP 2600. (Interesting bit of trivia: Sonic State’s readers are right that there’s an ARP 2500, not 2600, in Close Encounters, though the 2600 is often erroneously connected to the film. But something I didn’t know — Wikipedia says in the entry on the film that “Phil Dodds, a tech from ARP Instruments Inc., is the man playing the keyboard.”)
11. Oberheim OB8
12. Roland Juno 60
13. Mellotron (Hey, do tapes count?)
14. Yamaha CS-80
15. Roland Jupiter 8
16. E-MU PROteus 1
17. Clavia Nord Lead
18. VCS3
19. Roland SH-101
20. ARP Solina

Of course, part of the reason lists have become so popular online is because they’re easy to argue with. And this list illustrates, as much as ‘boards like the Minimoog get love, how other synths just never do.

So for those unloved synths, here are Matrix’s picks (in no particular order):

1. Oberheim Matrix-6
2. Rhodes/ARP Chroma
3. Elka Synthex
4. Korg Mono/Poly
5. Crumar Performer
6. Roland JX-3P
7. Sequential Circuits MAX
8. Casio HT-700
9. Yamaha FS1R
10. Akai vx600
11. EML 101
12. Kawai SX-240
13. Alesis Andromeda
14. Sequential Six-Trak
15. Akai AX-60
16. Korg M-500 Micropreset
17. Waldorf Microwave 1
18. Yamaha VL70m
19. Korg DS8
20. Ensoniq EPS16+
21. SCI Multitrack
22. Korg DSS-1 and Technics WSA-1

You’ll have to go actually read up just to remember which these are, huh?

Surely the Buchla 100 (and Moog Modular, for crying out loud) deserve on a greatest synth list, even if they’re modulars. The Buchla has celebrity endorsements of its own, like our favorite synthesist Suzanne Ciani, seen recently on CDM showing kids how synthesis works. (A Greatest 20 Synthesists List will surely follow.) Photo by Brandon Daniel, via Flickr. And yes, Contemporary Keyboard is what is today called simply Keyboard.

I’m happy Matrix included the Yamaha VL70m, for introducing physical modeling to a mass-market. While not much of a success at the time, it did win some critical acclaim for pushing synths in a different direction. And now, years later, we’ve seen the success of Korg’s OASYS-PCI system and more recent OASYS synth flagship, Apple’s Sculpture, the whole product line from Applied Acoustics, and various other waveguide modeling implementations (some commercial, some DIY). I think it’s a synthesis technique we’ll see more of in the future.

Maybe modulars aren’t supposed to be included, but my #1 Underrated Synth of All Time is the legendary Buchla 100. It has suffered from the assumption that Moog’s modular was the superior design. I think the real reason, aside from Moog’s well-deserved reputation in design, is that Moog managed to sell to more popular artists — and went on to innovate in keyboards. Now that the history of synthesis in the 60s has been written with Moog as the hero, it’s too easy to overlook the various design innovations in the Buchla. In fact, put the two side by side, and you’re struck by the fact that nothing that the Moog does is necessarily self-evident — you realize that every design feature we now take for granted was up for grabs, and each design winds up looking more ingenious. The fact that Don Buchla and Bob Moog were each developing modular systems in relative isolation is all the more impressive. All due respect for the new Buchla 200e, though, the day I have money and room for a modular, I’d like a Buchla 100 series.

Also, UK readers are surely unhappy about the fact that EMS isn’t on the list, right?

Anyway, I list these here partly because I’d love your nominations for greatest synths of all time.

And this being a software site, I certainly wouldn’t exclude software. Which soft synths deserve to stand alongside some of the greatest hardware of all time? Reaktor? Sculpture? Reaon’s Malström? Koblo?

  • http://city-state.net daryl

    I'm no synth expert, but I love the OSCar, at least as I've gotten to know it thru the ImpOSCar plugin. I made a conscious choice not use it on my band's latest release since it got used a good bit on the prior one, but now I go back and listen to it and think, 'Gee, it could really use one of those eerie synth sounds here.'

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Matrix's list reminded me why I'm not a synth expert, either. :)

  • eric

    How about the Synclavier?

    I'm a bit biased, having developed some of the software for it, but it was certainly defining some new boundaries in it's day! 100k Sampling, fantastic audio hardware, FM Synthesis, and of course "The Tapeless Studio"! And don't forget the wonderful keyboard and all those glowing red buttons.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Heck, yeah. I'd say both the Synclavier and Fairlight CMI definitely deserve to be on this list. And the Synclavier deserves to be on both the Greatest and Underrated lists, because I think it's often unfairly upstaged by the CMI … both, really, deserve equal attention and had a profound impact on design.

    Glowing Red Buttons — that should just go on another, special list altogether!

    Incidentally, Ableton told me that their recent software design is still influenced by the design philosophies of the Synclavier.

  • eric

    Incidentally, Ableton told me that their recent software design is still influenced by the design philosophies of the Synclavier.

    Heh. Guess that partially explains why I love their software so much!

  • http://www.musiccomposer.com mediawest

    you have to add a Vox continental or Farfisa duo compact deluxe. listen to early pink floyd and you will see how this organ was really a synth.

  • http://blog.emxr.com spinmeister

    Does anyone remember the Roland MC 202? It was a two mono channel CV/gate sequencer with the funniest little rubber button keyboard? It had a SH 101 mono synth builtin, but because it had a two mono channel sequencer, you could hook up the CV and gate cables to an external real SH 101.

    I did that and then started messing with using the pitch CV output from the MC 202 sequencer to drive the filter input on my SH 101. Worked like a charm because they both used the range of 0 to 5 volts.

    What an incredible effect it produced. It was a bit like sample and hold, but you had much more control.

    And then many years later I got Reason Version 1.0, and just about jumped out of my socks – the whole thing possible in software (including the wiggling cables). And now step sequencing the filter is a very common effect.

    But I'll never forget the first time I heard that step sequenced filter sound with my little Roland MC 202.

  • http://www.theamazingrolo.net Yann Seznec


    Philip Dodds is my uncle (and parent's next door neighboor). He's full of amazing stories from his time at ARP (and then Kurzweil), from the Close Encounters to the design of the Chroma, Solus, and many others. He was even on the original commitee that worked out the MIDI standard…fascinating stuff.

  • http://SonicState Simon Power

    Hi there, thanks for your well balenced article and comments about the show.

    Samplers like the Fairlight will be featuring in a future program, Top 5 Greatest Samplers We are also currently in production on a show called Top 20 Weirdest Instruments. Thanks for watching and the Professor sends his regards!

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  • http://lucidology.com Nick

    How could you possibly leave off the 303?

  • The Gimp

    Yawn! Not another list that doesn’t include the TB-303.

    Whether you like it or not, it’s the most utilised and cloned synth of all time and spawned a genre all of its own.

    From its humble beginnings as a rejected bit of kit, it mutated into a monster whose sound is unsurpassed.

    The TB-303 demands respect and it has earned it.

    The TB-303 is the voice of God.

  • Dunbar

    “And now, years later, we’ve seen the success of Korg’s OASYS-PCI system…”.

    It was an underpowered commercial failure. I’m the proud owner of two.