Novation is hoping you’ll bring their new Xiosynth mini-synth keyboard home, and to help give you an additional push, they’ve got a new online sampler keyboard plus lessons for learning synthesis techniques.

Have a listen to the patches on the Xiosynth with the Flash player below; try the z, x, and c keys on your QWERTY keyboard:

The Xiosynth mini-site has a series of synthesis “tutorial” podcasts that purport to teach you synthesis. Novation PR (who sent links along with banner ads that it apparently hopes us blogs will run in stories — fat chance) hopefully describe these thusly: “The renowned technicians from the longstanding Museum of Techno have taken up the challenge of producing a series of comprehensive tutorials on synthesis. Included in this thorough analysis is a comparison with other cutting edge products on the market, such as the RS2000, and consultation from highly acclaimed industry professionals.”

I’m hoping they’re being ironic. Let me translate: a couple of tripped-out blokes get drunk on sherry and fiddle around with a homebrew synth before calling up an international DJ/producer who tells them to just use cheezy presets instead. (What, you expected something else from a techno DJ?) Watch the amusing, if less than instructive, videos for yourself.

There’s only one problem. This video makes me far less interested in the Xiosynth as that ridiculous home-built box. I want the “most analog synth since World War I” with “one oscillator made out of fish.” It does make me wonder what sort of instructive synthesis how-tos I would make drunk.

Now that’s more like it. I can’t decide if this Museum of Techno character more nearly represents a typical CDM reader (or editor), or Music thing. (Or both.)

Back to the … ahem … synthesizer, there’s now a fair range of “starter” synths at around US$600 or less. For beginners, these could make a great first syntheszier. For the rest of us, they could be a fun addition to the studio, especially if you’re like me and have neglected the hardware side of things while focusing on software. (Yes, I still prefer the flexibility of software, but having a tweakable instrument around that doesn’t require booting the computer has a certain amount of appeal, especially if it’s portable.) Your options are:

  1. Novation Xiosynth: It’s ironic that Novation would push the Xiosynth on the basis of its presets, because some commenters have been disappointed by their somewhat generic sound. Program your own sounds, though, and this compact 8-voice polyphonic synth with arpeggiators and step sequencing and nicely laid-out controls looks tempting. It has a new synth engine descended from Novation’s excellent KS synth (as found on the X-Station), built-in arpeggiator, and a nice, portable design. Build quality on Novation has also been consistently superb (readers here have complained about the Korg MicroKorg, in contrast). The downside: no vocoder or external audio-input processing. But this is a great deal price-wise, particularly for Novation: US$329 for 25 keys, $399 for 49 keys, with an unusually powerful step sequencer not equaled elsewhere in this bunch.
  2. Roland SH-201: Team CDM liked this synth from the moment it came out at NAMM in January. James of Retro Thing took to it even when no one else did. It’s considerably larger than the other options here, but with a huge payoff: it’s one of the first major synths in years that can be programmed entirely from onboard controls. Not so much as an LED display. There’s a phrase recorder, external audio input, and arpeggiator. (The arpeggiator also doubles as a psuedo-step sequencer.) It’s big, and there’s no vocoder as on the Alesis and Korg, but if physical control is what you want, it’s undoubtedly the best choice. (I’ve got one here; you’ll hear more about it soon.)
  3. Korg MicroKorg: The Korg really launched this category, with a hugely-successful synth that sounds great and has a built-in vocoder with mic to boot. I talked to Jesse of Maroon5 about his when I interviewed him for Keyboard, and his was able to stand up to a brutal international tour and 30,000-person venues alongside a Moog Voyager. Readers here seem divided, though, between the Korg and Alesis synths. [Correction: I originally said the Korg lacked an arpeggiator/step sequencer, but it has a basic 8-step sequencer; thanks, BassTooth!]
  4. Alesis Micron: Lee Sherman fell for this compact Alesis synth when he reviewed it for CDM: it’s got all the features you could want, and sounds terrific. I’m a little disappointed by the lack of onboard controls, though, which to me is the main reason to buy hardware instead of software. But on the basis of synth engine alone, the Micron is the one to beat (and the lack of controls was specifically to give this more portability than its larger sibling, the Ion). Check out Lee’s CDM hands-on, plus the Sound on Sound review from 1/05.
  5. Korg microX: The most digitally-minded here, the microX is worth mentioning as it fits the low-cost, small-size mold of the others. The microX borrows the Triton’s HI synth engine, and includes the most sophisticated phrase-generating / polyphonic arpeggiator features of the lot here. You won’t get the emphasis on virtual analog programming or vocoders and the like, but that’s not the point; if a pattern-sequencing digital synth is more to your liking, this may be your best bet. It’s also the prettiest of these models, though weirdly Korg ships it with a construction pylon-orange carry case that looks like a cheap toolbox.

Roland’s SH-201 has a lot of competition, but it’s the one keyboard here that can be programmed entirely from physical controls: no LED display to be found.

So there’s a quick overview of your options. As you can see, it’s not necessarily a question of which is best, but which is best for you. My personal favorite at the moment is the Roland SH-201 just because all of its programming features are exposed. Even for us software lovers, the occasional hardware can be a good change of pace when our eyes get tired of looking at the screen. But the Xiosynth may be the best bargain, in terms of its step sequencer, build quality, and sounds.

As for the Xiosynth, here’s more (see discussion in comments on each):
Xiosynth First Look
More Novation Xiosynth Details: Bargain Mono Synth/Controller

And one highlighted comment, from Nikolai:

The XioSynth has the same specs Synth-wise as the X-Station and KS-Rack series. They’re still sticking by the same old system of 3 oscillators with 17 waveforms each (Sine, Saw, Triangle, Square, White Noise, BP Noise, HP Noise, HBP Noise, Organ, Harpsichord, Electric Piano, Slap Bass, Rhodes Piano, Rhodes Tine, Clavinet, Whurly EP, and Analog Bass). It is 8 notes polyphonic and monotimbral, but most of the stuff you hear on Novation’s patch player are patches made in unison rather than mono or polyphonic in an attempt to make fatter sounds. The only new features they have are the Hybrid Mode (previously mentioned – split between MIDI controller and the onboard synth) and the X-Gator (which acts as a 16 or 32 step sequencer that allows you to control the volume of each arpeggiator step). The only catch-22 is that it does not have the ability to put the signal from Audio In through effects like the X-Station did. If it could, then this thing would probably be the ultimate synth for that price range. If they wanted to they could’ve thrown in a vocoder ability like the KS-Rack and they could seriously level the competition with Korg and Alesis in the mini-keys market.

Of course, who ever said this was the only competition? You can find plenty of affordable vintage synths on eBay with good sounds and hardware controls. CDM forum regular Michael Luna of Chicago just scored a Yamaha TX-7; see that thread for advice on starting with an FM synth. (And arguably, you can spend a lot more time digging deep into FM synthesis, which isn’t really covered by the synths here.)

Which is the best way to go? Discuss. (Chat here in comments or on CDM’s hardware forum.)

Another option entirely: forget new synths, and buy a classic used synth like Yamaha’s legendary FM synth, the DX-7 (or TX-7, without keyboard).