Build your own Sonic Frankenstein!
Due to the sheer amount of choice in synthesizers, controllers and sound modules on the market these days, no musician should ever feel that they are restricted to just one synth, sequencer or any form of EDM instrument. Thanks to technological advances in connectivity, MIDI and USB connections and a myriad of awesome software, you can link a variety of synthesizers together to create your very own DIY synth kit in seconds, sculpting your ideal sound and standing out from the crowd. So today, we’re going to look at a variety of different synthesizers and sequencers, ranging from pocket sized instruments to the type you’d need a flight case to tour with. Here’s our DIY synth kit guide featuring Roland, AIRA, KORG and Teenage Engineering which can all be easily built up and linked together.
Let’s start with Teenage Engineering shall we? Probably the most fun and (once you get the hang of it) rewarding piece of pocket sized kit available on the market today, the Teenage Engineering Pocket Operator series is essentially a “wall of sound in your pocket”. They all take inspiration from those calculators we had to use in high school but are way more fun. The Teenage Engineering PO-14, for example, features a unique animated LCD display that helps you keep track of what’s going on whilst you navigate the variety of effects that have been beautifully packaged into an easy to use, cool looking and totally unique pocket synthesizer. Be advised though, as fun as this thing is to use, it’s definitely not a toy! This is a serious piece of kit that makes the top of our DIY synth kit blog due to the sheer amount of use you can get out of such a small piece of hardware.
In terms of building your own DIY synth kit, you can connect the PO-14 to the other pocket operators in the series and sync them together thanks to the Jam Sync feature and 3.5mm jack in/out connections. If that’s not enough, you can also connect your unit via one of 5 sync modes and use stereo audio, divide the left and right signals to chain mono audio on one channel and a pulse on the other. For those musicians or producers with a variety of synths in their arsenal, you’ll be happy to know that you can connect to your computer, iPhone or even your Korg Volca as sync master or slave – so much more than meets the eye. For the touring musicians, you can get a custom soft case to protect it too, just in case the exposed look isn’t your thing.
Speaking of the KORG Volca…
Another easy to use and super user friendly system comes in the form of the Korg Volca range. This range of synthesizer can be easily linked up with other Korg Volca systems as well as pretty much any other product with a MIDI in port. The Korg Volca Keys Analog Loop Synthesizer for instance, is another pocket sized synthesizer, albeit a little larger than the Teenage Engineering range, it’s still in the realms of extremely portable kit. Whether you’re a first timer to the world of synthesizers or an experienced pro, you’ll find that the Korg Volca Keys easy to use and intuitive to your musical needs. You have a three voice polyphony and voicing function and six combinations to choose from including poly, unison, octave, fifth, unison ring, or poly ring. However, it’s the delay and loop sequencer features that really brings this synth to life
Create super spacey sounds and utilise the built in loop sequencer to its full capability by recording up to 16 steps in real time. Overdub complex loops and store them in the internal memory banks. Better yet, the motion sequence function captures knob movements adding variables to your live sound. You can also use the SyncKontrol iPhone app to wirelessly control the synth and hook it up to your existing kit via MIDI – a great instrument that will fit seamlessly into your DIY synth kit. Check out the Korg Volca Beats Analog Rhythm Machine, Volca Sample Digital Sample Sequencer and Volca Bass and create a complete live set up effortlessly.
The Aira range by Roland uses a specific ‘Aira Link’ providing an extremely useful link up capability to the entire suite of musical instruments. The range includes effects modules as well as the synths themselves which can all be seamlessly integrated into your live set up. Whether you decide to use specific Aira products from Roland or pair them with other products, you’ll find that you can create your definitive DIY synth kit easily. Two major highlights from the Roland Aira range come in the form of the Roland Aira System 1 Plug Out Synthesizer and the Roland Aira Torcido EFX Distortion Module. On one hand you have the 25 key, 4 note polyphonic synthesizer and the other a distortion module, that can be connected to each other and any other MIDI connected synth you have lying around.
Let’s discuss the System 1, first.
The cool thing about the System 1 synthesizer is the ability to control and host software recreations of classic Roland synthesizers without the use of a computer. This ‘Plug-Out’ technology allows you to seamlessly switch between the System 1 itself and the loaded plug-ins. You can connect the System 1 to a computer via the USB jack, allowing you to send and receive audio and MIDI data as well as MIDI clock data, so syncing to external devices is not a problem. Although the four oscillators will provide fat and complex synth tones and the portamento sorts your sweeping synth lines, you may need a little extra oomph with your sound. This is where the Roland Aira Torcido EFX Distortion Module comes in handy.
The Roland Aira Torcido EFX Distortion Module is there for when you want to sculpt your individual sound, both live and in the studio. As far as DIY synth kits go, you’re in good hands with the Aira suite. This distortion module can be hooked up to any item within the Aira range and completely shape your sound depending on your needs. Go from warm tube overdrive to ear splitting distortion instantly and add a bespoke aural experience to your music via an array of classic distortion sounds. The unit is re-programmable via Mac, PC, iOS, Android application and you can assign parameters to the GRF knobs via drag and drop instantly via apps. With 15 patchable submodules, which are expandable with free updates, you can grow your sound over time too, opening up a world of great sounds which in turn makes this a great addition to your complete DIY synth kit.
If you want a bespoke sound and unlimited sounds and compatibility options, the Aira suite of synths and modules can be easily built up to create an entire soundsystem. An ever growing selection of sounds, and compatible with other hardware – what’s not to like?
Remember how awesome it was when you got transformers or Lego as a kid? The ability to change or completely reshape something to the way you want it was a huge part of the fun. Well, Roland have captured the essence of what it is to build your own fun and absolutely knocked it out of the park with their DIY synth kit. No you can’t build Soundwave from the Decepticons but you can build your ideal electronic sound effortlessly. So how does it work?
You start with the Roland K-25m 25 Note Keyboard as a base and go from there – but before you think this is just a simple add on, it’s not. The velocity sensitive keys make sure you deliver real expression to your music and the professional grade construction makes sure you’re good to go if you’re on the touring circuit. The smaller, compact size and 3 position tilt means you can place it pretty much anywhere on stage or at the home studio. But this is the cool part…
The Boutique range features a host of sound modules that can be easily slotted into the K-25m including the JP-08, JU-06 and JX-03. You have a great deal of choice with these modules and I’ll briefly explain the differences between two of our favorites. The Roland JP-08 is a compact recreation of the Jupiter 8 synthesizer – in fact it’s pretty much the same size as a book, it’s THAT compact! You have 36 parameters to play with, allowing you to contort your sound as you see fit. Yes it’s a faithful recreation of the infamous Jupiter -8, but you have so much more especially with the addition of the several new waveforms including TRI and NOISE for the LFO and SIN for VCO-1. You’ve also got a 4-note polyphonic engine to make pads and swells and the USB and MIDI ports allow you to control the module from a larger keyboard too. The inclusion of a mini 0.5W speaker and optional battery power capability (4xAA) means you can create music on the go.
View a full range of synthesizers, controllers and DIY Synth kits on the Dawsons website.
Lee Glynn is a guitarist and multi-instrumentalist who lives in Liverpool, England. After moving to the UK from Perth, Australia, Lee enjoyed a successful career as guitarist in Liverpool based rock band Sound of Guns.
After releasing two albums, a myriad of EPs / singles and touring extensively around the world for 6 years including stops at Glastonbury, Latitude Festival, as well as the coveted Reading & Leeds Festivals, Lee decided it was a time for a change of scenery.
Utilising his experience in music journalism, Lee now works within the web team at Dawsons Music, where he can still relay his passion for music by producing great content for the Dawsons blog and social media. Lee is still an avid guitar player and writer.