Good compact synth for pads/ambient music?


I´m looking for a new synth (compact, I don´t have any space anymore in my bedroom! :slight_smile: for pads and ambient music. I already have my loved OP-1, a Korg R3 (that I never really liked and is borrowed to my father) and a Doepfer Dark Energy (and Ableton Live 9).

My first option was the Analog Four. However, right now it´s extremely expensive for me (I live in Brazil and our currency is in a devaluation process) and I´ve read some reviews and users pointing that the sound isn´t impressive. I´ve also read amazing reviews about it and frankly, as I´m fucking impressed by the Octatrack and I do believe that the A4 is great, but I think that I shall not take the risk right now (returning it isn´t an option, as I´ll buy it in Europe).

Looking for other synths, I thought about the Microbrute, but the sound is too…brute :slight_smile: (Hmmm, maybe with some of the Octatrack effects…). Then I found the Waldorf Blofeld and watched some impressive Youtube vdeos (Creating a complex FM soundscape on Waldorf Blofeld - YouTube). But I´ll need a Kenton USB Midi Host to play it with the OP-1, think that sampling expansion thing is a steal and, most important, it appears that I need some advanced synthesis knowledge to really tweak the machine.

So, what do you think about/recommend with a reasonable price range (not superior to the Analog 4) and compact enough? :slight_smile:

I want to stay away from the computer as much as possible, so VSTs are out; however, I´m open to iPad apps and even more experimental approaches, like guitar pedals (which I only got a Moogerfooger Ring Modulator) which could help me get that sounds from the synths that I already own.

Initially the Blofeld didn’t exactly light a fire under my bushel, but long after I’d part exchanged it for a Juno 106, I did find myself missing the little white villain. That became especially true when I listened to some of the more weird and ambient sonic textures I’d made with it. The comb filter is an often overlooked filter mode and yet it allows for such weird, powerful and evocative sonic textures - anything from Karplus-Strong string-type sounds to pure sonic decadence. The Blofeld has an expansive modulation matrix, fantastic filter options, a simple and brilliant to use matrix editing system and for the most part good build quality. The caveat being that you have to watch the pots - they’re, unfortunately prone to failure, although I had no problems with mine and you could always use a cheap midi controller instead of the cheapo blofeld pots.

If you’re not trying to emulate anologue sounds and wish to make textures and pads, then the Blofeld could represent great value. But I wouldn’t write off the Microbrute altogether. Yes it can be very agressive but when tamed it can sound truly beautiful - so it’s versatile but admittedly has limited architecture compared to modern digital/VA.

I wonder if you’ve heard any examples of the Brute running through a Moog MF-101? They can be obtained pretty cheaply second hand and they really are a combo made in heaven!

Here’s a demo of the Brute’s softer side. It’s a mini, not a micro - but perhaps over time you could expand a micro with a small eurorack or some other semi modular synth?

Link here - sorry it just gave a 404 when I tried to embed

I tried finding a Mircro/101 demo I head a while ago but didn’t have any luck. If I find it again I’ll post it here though :slight_smile:

On another note, have you considered Waldorf’s more recent offering - the Streichfett? I know it’s not to everyone’s taste and it could get a little samey, but it might be worth a look once they start going cheap on ebay. I bet a lot of impulse buyers will be selling them on before long.

Here’s a Streichfett demo courtesy of Don Solaris…

Waldorf Streichfett - Don Solaris demo (HD) - YouTube

I’m not sure analog synths are very good for ambient music and soundscapes. I have Analog Four and I never managed to get anything particularly ambient out of it. Usually I need high polyphony, and several timbres to make ambient stuff interesting.

The demo you linked to is very impressive. I doubt a lot of synthesizers could compete with Blofeld in this form factor and price range.There is Virus TI snow, but it’s more expensive. Hm… Rack version of Korg Wavestation, perhaps? Or K5000R if there is one sold cheaply on Ebay?

Yamaha TX81Z? TX802? Reviews say they are super-hard to edit, though.

For more money, maybe V-Synth XT.

My JP-8080 can be used to build soundscapes, but all of the boxes above would give you much more power.

Another thought is the mutable instruments polysynth with the juno filter (Ambika?) Also you might want to get the Mutable Instruments midipal over the Kenton. It’s battery powered and has a ton of cool features.

@Gambler - That’s funny because the only sounds I managed to get out of my A4 that I actually like were poly-string type pads. I can have a go at dumping the patches later this week if you like, I’d be more than happy to email them to you.

@HelloOperator That would be much appreciated.

I like the Blofeld and feel that it does a good job of emulating analogue as well as providing more esoteric, complex ambient sounds. Very versatile and a great sonic toolbox especially given the price.

Is an ipad out of the question. You could buy one for the price of a Blofeld or less and load it with all kinds of apps ranging from analogue emulation to decidedly digital and granular. The Waldorf nave app is almost a Blofeld app, and things like mitosynth, propellerhead thor, iprophet, and animoog are available fo different sonic styles. You can also use things like stroke machine or korg gadget to do full compositions. It’s also a great op1 companion as it can be used on the go.

I suppose the ipad also does things like check email and let you post about synths while not using them. Just a thought.

Electribe 2?

First of all, thanks a lot for the help, folks! :slight_smile: This forum is amazing.

@HelloOperator do you think that the patches programming in the Blofeld is intuitive (or empirical) enough or I need to have a “synthesis plan”? I was really impressed by the Youtube video that I posted, but the guy appears to have made some rational choices, isn´t just tweaking the knobs in a more generic frame (ADSR, filtering, etc). I fear that it will just take a hell of time to program nice sounds on the synth.

Amazing video of the Microbrute! It´s astonishing that it can do that kind of sounds being monophonic. Maybe I should give it a try (and it fits really well on my restricted space, having also the keys and the step sequencer, which can relieve me from using the OP-1 to play/sequence it).

I´m fascinated with the Streichfett since it was released, but I fear that the sounds are in general a little cheesy and the cool ones limited (however, I´ve watched a lot of videos showing great stuff - that one you posted is really nice, and I was impressed by this one Ambient Exploration 002 - Live Streichfett & Beatstep performance - YouTube - and also with the Beatstep possibilities!). Also, the sound design capabilities of the Blofeld are naturally more complex - which can also be a paradox, if it´s harder to get nice timbres/sounds (and …What do you think?

Thanks a lot for the Midipal suggestion! It looks amazing (and I´m lurking Mutable Instruments for some time…specially the modular stuff. Indeed, I was thinking about a modular setup, but with our currency devaluation I´ll have to postpone my plans). However, although I´m not specially excited about the Kenton I need to make my OP-1 talk with other gear without my MIDI interface, and the Midipal don´t have an USB connection (right?). Indeed, thinking about the Kenton price (which I think is a little expensive for what it is) and the recent comment of Jon here that the OP-1 works better as the Master device in MIDI mode (which reduces it´s possibilites with my Octatrack), maybe I should give up and get the Beatstep.

@Gambler I thank you a lot for the A4 feedback. It looks great, but right now I´m really searching for something more accessible - if you didn´t managed to get ambient sounds there, for sure I´ll also fail in short term.

@Lymtronics what do you think about the patches programming learning curve/deepness access of the Blofeld? It will be hard to get more intricated ambient sounds or will just get it with some use and knob turnin´? And the iPad is absolutely viable! Indeed, I own one and I´m using it a lot with the OP-1 (specially Borderlands and Samplr). However, as I like the iPad and truly feels in an ambient independent from the computer I still feel that the sound lacks some character. But maybe It´s just my impression…talking about the Nave, do you think that it will fulfil my ambient needs? :slight_smile: And comparing with the Blofeld, do you think that the differences between them are not enough to justify buying the harware synth?

@Kites well, I always wanted to try an Electribe and I like Korg. The Electribe looks deep and the Ableton integration shows a lot of potential. However, I don´t know exactly what´s happening with their distribution (is out of stock in Thomann, for example) and I was far from impressed by the presets that I heard (I´m not really into that comercial EDM thing…) or the Youtube videos.

I´m pretty sure that It can do amazing things, but it didn´t yet grabbed my attention properly (which is a shame, because it have all the elements that I´m looking for: compact, nice price range, great sequencing capabilities and potential ambient/pads qualities).

Not sure if you can watch my little viddy here, but I don’t do much EDM myself either. There’s quite a few non EDM demos out there. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this forum, it’s trying the gear out for yourself. For me, everything is just a bunch of tools. :slight_smile:

This is the non dance Demos thread

@Kites thanks a lot for the Demo thread!!! This will definitely helps me figuring more about the Electribe 2 (I´m listening to the first beats in the topic and, to be honest, I still think that they sounds thin and “iPaddish” - but I´m sure that I´ll find interesting stuff there, as I advance the months and people get more confortable with the gear).

About trying out gear by myself, I totally agree. However, I don´t live in USA/Europe/Japan, so hardware is expensive (and it´s getting worse right now) and worse, returning things after 30 days (or even selling in eBay) is not a viable option. Because of this, I have to be very precise with the gear I get, specially after crossing the 400 euros/500 dollars line.

@aeoner Hmm I was almost reluctant to suggest the Streichfett but perhaps that says more about my taste than anything else. In my opinion it can do a certain thing quite well (although honestly I’d rather have an old string machine) But the problem with the fett is that I strongly suspect that it would get very samey, very quickly - and it really sounds like you need to get a lot more bang for your buck. While I think there’d be a lot of tracks that you could squeeze the Streichfett into - a bit like Nick Rhodes and his trusty Crumar - I just worry that you’d ultimately find it somewhat limited.

In the video, I think Don was basically finding sweet spots and then playing with the animate function and possibly a sustain pedal - I can’t quite remember, but I’d just bare in mind that what you heard in the Don Solaris video is probably virtually everything the Streichfett has to offer. It certainly doesn’t offer “deep synthesis”, it’s barely even synthesis really.

Regarding your question about the Blofeld and its complexity… Hmm, while it’s often rewarding to just tweak away, it’s also best to have a good idea of how the signal flow works and what each portion of the synth actually does to the resultant sound. With something like the Blofeld you don’t have anything remotely resembling a knob-per-function, so it’s definitely a bit more important to have some idea of what you’re doing.

I don’t know what you already know about synthesis, but regardless of that, the basics of subtractive synthesis never change and knowledge of those fundamentals will serve you well, forever more. [The majority of synths are subtractive after all]

If your knowledge is a little lacking, then I wouldn’t let that put you off anything too much, but if the Blofeld is a little intimidating in its complexity (heck even if it’s not) a synth with something closer to a pot per function, is always going to be the more ideal learning platform. Like I said, it’s best to put some effort into learning the fundementals (it’s really not too complicted) and with the right synth, you’d just pick things up naturally… And that takes us right back to the Microbrute :slight_smile:

No menus on the Brute and a very logical/classic layout. You wiggle a muff and the muff wiggles!

PS sorry to hear about how costly everything is getting over there. I’m sure I heard something about weird taxation on electronic products in Brazil, so that can’t be helping. Ugh, that really sucks; do you think it would be worth traveling to North America for a synth buying holiday?

I had a Streichfett and sold it within a fortnight. The sounds were great, if a little samey, but there was some rather nasty digital distortion associate with the phaser. Dealbreaker and really unfortunate. Might get fixed in an update.

For pads I turn to either the OP-1 or one of my VAs, Micron and KS4. KS4 is particularly great given all the hands on control. IMHO the Electribe 2 is no good for pads, good for sequenced ambient bleeps and other textures though. I have always lusted after a Blofeld - think they sound great. Had a Waldrorf Micro Q a few years back and it was great although wasn't so keen on having rack gear back then.

Your R3 should be up the task with a bit of programming.

@HelloOperator That would be much appreciated.

Noted! Now I just need to discover where the 2 pronged kettle lead for the A4’s power supply has vanished to -_-


Blofeld was the first thing that came to mind when I saw the title of this, kind of regret selling mine, actually...

Of course the Octatrack is ambient in a box if you're into sample manipulation and can afford it.

there's someone on YouTube by the name of Xen Multigrin that does ambienty stuff with a MicroBrute and fx processors.

Personally I've run my MicroBrute through a delay and reverb (AUFX Dub and Space on iPad) and it sounded heavenly, lush, spacey, etc. Just sat there for hours tweaking knobs and letting the delay and reverb do a lot of the talking. It's pretty easy to tame the 'Brutes just use the low pass filter and you'll be on your way. Sadly the EG is a little fast for my tastes even with Attack maxed, but that's ok.

Pretty much any analog poly or VA will work if you want analog type pads, if run through a nice delay and reverb. Quality effects will take you further, imo, than sweating what's making the initial sound.

Now if you want very digital sounding stuff then the Blofeld is very hard to beat, though the Novation Mininova and Ultranova should be considered, too.

I've also used the OP-1 and its own Spring and Delay for ambienty stuff, it can definitely work especially well if you dig the OP-1 vibe.

If I could only have one piece of hardware for ambient music, though, it'd have to be the Octatrack. I just does too much too well. The reverb (or chorus) isn't up to the A4's quality (and it simply can't, the A4's DSP is dedicated to three FX and the sequencer, the OT has to do everything with its DSP), but the Dark Reverb is definitely good enough to get the job done. And unlike the A4 it can actually sequence the rest of your gear.

On the iPad, Gadget is pretty deep and can sound quite nice, though it's more of a DAW than a synth. I used it on the last Ambient Online compilation album and got some compliments on the song :)

Alternatively, you could invest in effects instead of another synth :) Though for the really nice stuff you'll wind up paying as much as an A4 anyway >.> Or perhaps a multifx like the Line6 M13 or smaller M9? I find the fx in my POD HD500X quite usable and nice even, and there are stereo inputs available.

TL;DR - Lots of options to get what you're after, Octatrack is ambient-in-a-box, and FX are +1 for getting more mileage out of your existing synths.

Seeing as how this is devolving into a Blofeld love-in, here’s that chaotic Blofeld comb filter noise that I mentioned…

Clean Bug Powder by HelloOperator | Hello Operator | Free Listening on SoundCloud


I will not be held liable for any loss of sanity resulting from listening all the way through. It was actually intended as a sound-bed for a techno track. What actually happened was a load of timpani, orchestral strings, horns and some samples from Naked Lunch; although I can’t find that version atm.

PS still not found that kettle lead :frowning:

@HelloOperator well, my synthesis knowledge are fairly basic: I understand the workings of my Doepfer Dark Energy (so I know how the oscillators work, filters and ADSR enveloping and can do a simple signals path map). However, it lacks me an “schematic mind” for more complex patching, internal oscillations and more deep tweaking that I´ve seem in the Blofeld´s videos. However, I can learn and study (do you recommend a text/book/Youtube video about subtractive synthesis?), and I´m really impressed that everyone here is just missing their Blofeld and praising it´s pads/ambient qualities. Also, loved the comb filter song you posted. Digital as hell, but with a fucking stylish coldness.

However, the Microbrute appears to be a solid option. Do you and @KrisM thinks that the Micro is enough or I should take the Mini? Both are in my price range. However, I know the Mini and it´s big for my desktop; i´ll need to manage some gears (and when it get off your sight line, some stuff starts to disappear - like my Kaoss Pad 3, that I hardly use because it´s too far from OP-1 and drum machines).

@ghostly606 thanks a lot for the Streichfett feedback!! Will wait for a system update or a cheap deal in eBay! Talking about the Korg R3, the screen is so fucking small, and programming the patches in the computer is a hell for me. I need something to stay away from the computer :slight_smile:

@KrisM actually, I got an Octatrack last year, after a lot of praising here :slight_smile: Amazing box. Studied it for some months and the crossfader + effects is really amazing for ambient stuff (with all those feedbacks - and I even didn´t started messing with the LFOs and real time sampling/looping tricks). However I´m really into an OP-1 mood right now (after 2 years, finally got it in all it´s splendor). Great to know about your song for the Ambient Comp. Could you share with us?

@HelloOperator yeah, we got extremely high taxes for electronic stuff here. Because of this, I always buy more expensive hardware (higher than 250-300 USD) when I travel to Europe (which happens like one time per year). Indeed, right now my mother is going to Portugal and suggested that she can get something for me (so I created this topic) but I´m going to Paris in June. After all, thinking about those possibilities, maybe I should just take a Minifooger Delay pedal, mess around with the OP-1 and Octatrack Thru Machine and think better about the Microbrute/Minibrute/Blofeld options for June…? What do you folks think?

For lush pads and ambient stuff I love the Audiothingies P6. It’s a poly VA with plenty of modulation and some cool stereo FX.

@aeoner Sounds to me like you understand the basics - so I don’t think you’d need to do any supplementary study to figure out the Blofeld’s deeper modulation options - you’d just pick that up over time, I’m sure.

EDIT: If I read you correctly, then it sounds to me that you have no problems visualising the signal flow of a basic patch (Osc/Filter/ADSR/LFO) but perhaps that your visual map maybe struggles when it comes to more complex modulation matrices. Whether that’s true or not, it certainly applies to me, but I guess the trick is to just be OK about not fully grasping the complex interactions caused by intermodulating modulations. Once you’ve programmed in a certain level of complexity I guess you just have to relinquish some of that cerebral, fore-brained comprehension and just trust your ears. I know I struggle back and forth with that stuff though. Sometimes I’m cool not knowing, sometimes it bugs me and sometimes I just manage to hold it all in my head and have a reasonable model of what’s happening and why.

If you’re interested in the more general technicalities of synthesis and sound design though - a good starting place might be a series of articles published in Sound on Sound. They cover a whole host of different timbres and the technical whys and wherefores regarding the designs of the patches. The sort of stuff you’d get into if you were doing a degree in sound design or something.

Anyway, here’s the link Synth Secrets