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Pocket Synths: Which One Should You Choose

Pocket Synths: Which One Should You Choose

Making music anywhere and everywhere

When one thinks ‘Synthesizer’, you could be forgiven for picturing the vast modules and racks of yore decking out studios and workshops, those analogue beasts that require a degree in electronics to figure out how to get them going. Yeah, total exaggeration I know, but it got your attention. What about when you want to make music on the go, though? That’s right, Pocket Synths!

Huge potential in scaled-down form

In recent years we’ve seen manufacturer’s compact the travel-friendly synth format, offering everything from standalone sequencers and drum machines to all-in-one studios and live performance powerhouses that can even incorporate lighting/video control.

Let’s check out some pint-sized synths that allow you to create and capture ideas on the fly.

1. Teenage Engineering OP-1

Teenage Engineering OP-1

Though we’ve covered the Teenage Engineering OP-1 in several articles (because it is that good), let’s run through why we love it so.

First of all, it is an incredibly powerful piece of kit. Boasting 8 built-in synthesizer engines, a raft of effects and LFO’s, you are only bound by the limits of your imagination. At your disposal is a virtual 4-track tape that allows you to get creative with some old-school overdubbing, tape speed changes in real-time and even tape reverse for weird effects.

Whether you use it as a standalone device or connect it to your DAW of choice via USB, the OP-1 is ready when you are. Featuring an easy to read OLED display with a contrast ratio of 1000:1, you can readily see everything that you need to whether you’re at home on the couch, in the studio or flying over the ocean.

If you want to dig deeper into the OP-1 then check out the following articles:

2. Teenage Engineering OP-Z

Teenage Engineering OP-Z

I wouldn’t feel right dropping in the OP-1 without dropping in the Teenage Engineering OP-Z. Again, we covered this little beauty in an article earlier this year, so for all the info then head to that link. Suffice it to say, it’s a 16-track synthesizer that still baffles me as to how it is so mightily powerful yet fits discreetly into one’s jacket pocket. Seriously!

You’ll find buttons to control every conceivable parameter that you could think of, a built-in speaker as well as headphone-ready output, and despite its size it is exceptionally resilient. Teenage Engineering’s unique Step Components technology allows you to manipulate a vast array of function such as quantization, scale pitch shifts over six octaves, and random pattern generated to the nth degree.

Not only can you create deeply complex audio compositions, but the OP-Z is designed to control stage lighting and 3D graphics too. Rather that integrate a screen into the unit like the OP-1, Teenage Engineering coined the term BYOS (Bring Your Own Screen). Therefore, you can connect your own smartphone via the OP-Z app to seamlessly control visual effects with ease.

For producers, songwriters and performance artists who want a studio/stage management system in your pocket, then it doesn’t get much better than the OP-Z.

3. Korg Volca Range

Korg’s Volca pocket synths aren’t newbies and have plenty of skin in the game. With that experience comes a wealth of options across drum machines, samplers, sequencers and more recently, a micro Semi-Modular synth!

a. Korg Volca Kick

Korg Volca Kick

The Korg Volca Kick is a sweet little thing that produce beefy analogue kick sounds, as well as offering delightfully pitched bass lines, and percussive voices. Set out in a format that can appear somewhat daunting at first but takes next to no time to get comfortable with, you can readily create anything from subtle loops to sonically aggressive patterns. Thanks to the built-in MS-20 filter you can swing from deeply satisfying to incredibly sharp drum tones without any effort whatsoever.

The 16-step sequencer offers a generous amount of potential, affording multiple sequences to be layered up to a whopping 256-step masterpiece. Not only that, but you can save everything within the Volca Kick for later recall. Boom!

Thanks to Sync and MIDI connectivity options, you can connect readily to your DAW of choice and make this diminuitive dynamo part of a wider stage or studio setup.

b. Korg Volca Sample

Korg Volca Sample

The Korg Volca Sample features a motion sequencer that allows you to record deft knob movements, whilst enabling you to attenuate time changes to the signal output. For those who like to manipulate parameters on the fly for those ‘happy accidents’.

You can make real-time adjustments to a wide variety of parameters such as playback length, frequency, pitch attack and decay times, amp attack and decay; and stereo effects such as panning. There’s all manner of dynamic controls too, with step jump functions for carving out irregular rhythm patterns and glitchy wonderment.

c. Korg Volca Drum

Korg Volca Drum Digital Percussion Synthesiser

The Korg Volca Drum is a relatively new edition to the Volca family. Thanks to the cannily developed 6-part DSP synth engine, the Drum tones out of this little ripper sound absolute huge! The 16-step sequencer offers the same imperious tactile control we’ve come to expect from a Volca, but it’s in the sound department that it excels. Thanks to the proprietary Active Step function, you can create intricate polyrhythms by utilising a plethora of settings across short loops and irregular rhythms for expressive and realistic control.

d. Korg Volca Modular

Korg Volca Modular

The Korg Volca Modular semi-modular synth, was a crowd pleaser at this year’s Winter NAMM. Along with an all-analog sound engine, you’ll find 8 modules and a whopping 50 different patch point that allow you to get your modular synthesis groove on. Each module control operates independently, but you can start to tweak and develop your own unique sounds without any effort at all. To get you started though, Korg have included some guide cards to help you find your way. For anyone new to modular synthesis you couldn’t ask for a more convenient piece of kit to develop your skills on. If you’re already a mod synth maestro, you’ll be well underway in no time.

For more info on the Korg releases from NAMM 2019, get stuck into the article here.

Get in touch

Check out our full range of Synthesizers both portable and not quite so, over at the Dawsons website. Alternatively, head to your nearest Dawsons store where our in-store specialists are more than happy to help you out.

About The Author

Jon

Jon is a multi-instrumentalist with a passion for inspiring others to get involved in making music. After spending many years playing venues here, there and - pretty much - everywhere, he joined the Dawsons' Music Web Team before progressing into his current role managing the Dawsons Blog.