Lee Coombs guide to hardware for under $500!
Owning and using hardware is never going to be a really cheap and easy thing to do. It can be more hassle than just using plugins and you really need to learn the basics of audio and midi signal flow etc. BUT the benefits can be enormous and you will stand out from the crowd with organic sounds that you created yourself AND have lots of fun in the process!
This is a beginners guide to setting yourself up with some really good and very useable pieces of hardware on a budget. We’ll cover all aspects of what you need to get a complete setup to be able to write killer tracks full of the fattest sounds and effects. From various drums machines to all kinds of Synths, cool FX units and Controllers to sync it all together. I chose a limit of $500 max for each piece as this will get us into some very tasty gear that frankly sounds like it costs much more. This is a small selection of what is currently available out there. If you look further you’ll find a huge world of this stuff, prices can go up as well as down and you generally get what you pay for quality wise. Explore it, it’s fun and you’ll probably get totally addicted like me…
In no particular order –
- Roland Aria TR-8 – We’ll start with the drums. If your writing any type of electronic music, then this drum machine should be in your collection. The Roland Aria TR-8 is the best way of getting those classic drum sounds into your productions without spending the huge $$$ on the original machines from the 80’s. It comes loaded with incredible sounding 808 and 909 sounds plus if you get the expansion pack it then comes with 707, 727 and 606 sounds. Where this machine really wins is the fact that all the sounds are so easily editable and it is so quick to get awesome sounding drums patterns going. There are great sounding reverb and delay FX built in and it even turns into a good quality audio interface which can be the center of your setup if you wish. I use mine as an interface when i do a temporary setup outside of my studio and i want to play and record other synths along with my drums. Price $499 new + $110 for the expansion pack. This puts it a little over our budget but you can pick up second hand Tr-8’s with the expansion pack already included for well under $500. http://www.roland.com/global/aira/categories/drum_machine.html
- Arturia MicroBrute – This is a true analog mono synth that sounds amazing. It’s great for Bass sounds, Lead sounds, FX, and more. It has a step sequencer built in which makes it very cool for playing alongside other pieces of hardware in a live setting. It also has multiple ways of communicating with USB, Midi, and CV, Gate, so you can control other machines from this device with ease. One of the drawbacks is that there are no presets available which could be one of the reasons it is cheaper but the sound quality is definitely not cheap. Price $299 – $350 new https://www.arturia.com/products/hardware-synths/microbrute/overview
- Roland Boutique series TB-3 – The Boutique series remakes some of Roland’s most revered classics into small dedicated handheld devices. The TB-3 is the most realistic remake of the legendary TB-303 Bassline machine to come into our hands yet, many people over the years have tried to remake the little silver box and some have come very close but this new version seems to tick all the right boxes straight away. All the controls are the same as the original box, which goes a long way to making it respond and feel the same. It sounds very similar to the original TB machine which considering its a digital machine is pretty damn good! Price $349 new https://www.roland.com/global/products/tb-03/
- Korg Minilogue – This one of Korg’s new analog machines. It’s a four voice analog poly synth with an onboard sequencer. Korg, like Roland have a deep history in releasing amazing sounding synths. They are currently riding a wave of producing lots of affordable and great sounding machines, an all-rounder that would work well in any studio. http://www.korg.com/us/products/synthesizers/minilogue/
- Korg Volca Beats – Korg’s Volca beats series is a lot of fun. They make various small boxes of which some are true analog. They include Drums, a Bassline Machine, Various Synths, a Sampler and a cool Kick Generating synth which are all amazing for the price! They all have sequencers built in and you can jam away on any of these boxes on their own or incorporate as many as you like into your studio setup. Owning the whole Volca beats set of machines on their own will give you a killer setup that pretty much covers everything you need to get going to write tunes. Price $159 per unit new. http://www.korg.com/us/products/dj/
- Roland Aria System 1 – This makes a great companion for the TR-8. It’s a polyphonic synth that allows you to load in Roland’s ‘plug out’ synth range if you want to. It’s not analog but it does sound great and is capable of making a huge range of noises. Good for just about any kind of synth sound, it’s a great all-rounder. Price $499 new but you can get them second hand for around $350-$400. https://www.roland.com/global/products/system-1/
- Roland Alpha Juno – This has to be one of the best bargains around at the moment. In an age where classic analog machine prices are going through the roof, you can realistically get your hands on a real Roland Alpha Juno for $200+. This is a beautiful sounding polyphonic machine with 6 oscillators from 1985. The only drawback is editing the sounds is not so easy. This was the keyboard that they took away most of the controls and made it so you had to menu dive to change most of the parameters. BUT there are plenty of midi controllers out there that will turn it back into a one knob per function synth. I actually did this recently when I found an Alpha Juno 1 on craigslist for $200 and then hooked up my Novation SLMkII controller which has a built in preset for the Alpha Juno. Now i have another killer analog synth that I can easy edit the sounds in real time. Price secondhand around $200+ Get one while they are available for cheap! There is also a rack mount module of the Alpha Juno called the MKS-50 which is also available at bargain prices http://www.vintagesynth.com/roland/ajuno1.php
- Arturia Keystep – This is a very cool keyboard controller/sequencer that lets you control multiple machines at once using just about any kind of signal. USB, MIDI, CV, Gate, Sync. There is a ton of flexibility and you can send out multiples of different signals at once which means that you can control and sync up lots of different devices like the ones in this list. Also the Chord Memory function allows you to play really intricate chord progressions using one key at a time. Price $119 new https://www.arturia.com/products/keystep/overview
- Roland Demora – This is a very cool little delay effect unit that is actually a full on modular synth if you want it to be. It comes with an app for either your iPad or your computer where you can select ready-made patches or build your own setups out of software modules. The possibilities are endless and you can make the wildest FX chains or keep it simple as you wish. You can even use it as a synth if you want to configure it that way. If you are looking to get into the Eurorack modular scene this is a great place to start as it pretty much is a self-contained modular synth. As with all of Roland’s new pieces it can be used as an audio interface which is really handy if you’re traveling and want to set up quickly somewhere. There are other effect units in this series that are all just as capable and fun, check them out. Price $299 new http://www.roland.com/global/aira/categories/effector.html
- Moog Slim Phatty – I am a serious Moog fan and I have to admit that i do own quite a few of their synths and pedals. The Slim Phatty is the rack mount version of the Little Phatty keyboard which is a fully analog 2 oscillator mono synth. This machine has a beautiful sound and is very closely related to its cousin, the legendary MiniMoog. Superb for Bass, Leads, FX and just about everything else, these days they can be picked up for around $450 -$500 second hand if you look hard enough. This is a lot of synth for the money and will do just about anything you ask of it. https://www.moogmusic.com/products/phattys/slim-phatty