Something Old, Something New...
Secondhand Polysynth Guide
Whether you can't afford to indulge yourself in this month's Polysynth Checklist or simply prefer something that's now out of production, E&MM's guide to things secondhand could save you a lot of time and trouble.
For those of you on a limited budget, we present a much-requested guide to buying secondhand polysynths. So read on for the thoughts and experiences of the E&MM collective...
All the excitement of reading about a new polysynth and all its groundbreaking facilities is more often than not quickly tempered by discovering its cost and subsequent unavailability. Undeterred, keyboard players worldwide continue to beg, steal or borrow (frequently from record companies) the necessary cash to continue to exploit hi-technology regardless of the consequences.
But there's more to technology than the industry's latest feat. Machines that are years out of date, technologically speaking, don't immediately cease producing good noises simply because their day of media attention has drawn to a close. Indeed, some long-since obsolete instruments are still in common use and a few are even more sought after now than they were in their heyday. Even if this is not the case, there's often a lot of mileage left in a synth if the user is prepared to take a little care over its use.
Yes, we're talking secondhand. There's no shame in buying secondhand and, with a little care, no disappointment either. An older instrument is a less unknown quantity than a brand new one that may subsequently prove to be hopelessly unreliable or greatly bettered in facilities and price one month later (with corresponding effect on morale and resale value).
So how do you go about finding such a bargain? Firstly, as with any new synth, it helps if you know what you want from your intended purchase. Knowing what's available and what it will do for you is also of paramount importance. What's available can be ascertained from a number of good sources: E&MM's own 'free ads' along with local newspapers and the weekly music press are a good start. From these it's not too hard to judge typical selling prices for the majority of items. Additionally there is Julian Colbeck's KEYFAX Guide to Electronic Keyboards which lists exhaustively mono and polysynths, remote keyboards, samplers, sequencers and computers along with their facilities.
Here, along with a subjective opinion of its present-day worth, is a selection of the more popular instruments on the secondhand polysynth market, along with the issue in which it was reviewed, where applicable.
Never gained the recognition due to it. Versatile and flexible with two DCOs, a lowpass VCF, HPF, VCA, two EGs and no less than four LFOs. Touch responsive and with features such as EG rate scaling and a unique visual display of programmed parameters using very attractive fluorescent bargraphs enabling you to see exactly what is going on in a patch. The AX80 doesn't have a particularly characteristic sound but is very versatile, producing a gamut of sounds from fruity brass and bass to some very convincing PPG impersonations. It lacks a chorus unit which would do something to rectify its inability to be as lush as other synths, but this is nothing a chorus pedal won't sort out. A nice looking, nice sounding synth with a stunning piano sound that can be quite convincing if used properly, and at a secondhand price of £500-£600 it is certainly worth a look - you may well be pleasantly surprised. Reviewed December '84.
A curious hybrid from the now sadly defunct ARP operation. It was their first attempt to break into the polysynth market and was actually based on their wonderful string synth, the raw, unprocessed waveforms of which could then be processed by an onboard VCF, VCA, EG section. Non-programmable and limited in that the processing section comprised only one VCF, VCA and EG for the whole keyboard, but that didn't stop it producing some well impressive sounds. Worth investigating, especially at its current secondhand price of £200 or so.
Another ARP hybrid in that it contained the aforementioned string synth and processing filters and envelope shapers. Additionally, it had a monophonic bass synth and a lead line synth section. Also featured is a stereo phase shifter/ensemble section and an onboard arpeggiator - a first for ARP. Beloved by Tony Banks for his 'wash of sound' backing chords - also a fave of Joe Zawinul - so it comes highly recommended by them. Worth giving a good going over though before buying, as you may become disappointed later.
Bloody silly price for a synth of this calibre even when new. Secondhand there are 101s for as little as £200 or so. Incredible sounds from the tinkly digital (à la PPG), to fat, analogue sounds. Easy to use and program and with an amazing MIDI implementation, whereby in the Mono mode you can have four separate sounds at once with each voice assigned to a separate MIDI channel. It also has Tone Mix facilities for layering sounds monophonically - including two separate sections for polyphonic layering of sounds. All CZ synths feature the same voice architecture and sound exactly the same, and this innocuous looking beast comes highly recommended. CZ101/1000 reviewed January '85. CZ5000 reviewed June '85. CZ3000 reviewed February '86.
Great sound, full and warm, with more than a passing resemblance to that of an Oberheim. Sadly, the MIDI is not up to much but, with its extensive touch sensitivity, it makes a good 'players' synth. Two VCOs, a gutsy lowpass filter, VCA and two EGs, plus two individually assignable LFOs not to mention touch-sensitivity control over tone and level, pulse width and EG attack times make it an excellent proposition. Reviewed November '84.
Souped up version of the Bit One. Improved MIDI, and programmable noise level but basically the same synth. Also available as an expander in the form of the Chase Bit 01. Reviewed October '85.
One of our team here (no names, no pack drill) still maintains that this was the best polysynth ever made. Not a lot were sold at the original price of £3,299, but as the price came down and MIDI became available, more people took advantage of its fat analogue strings and brass and its neo-digital sounds, created through it's fascinating Ring Mod, Sync and PWM capabilities. Many big names (Geoff Downes, Jean-Michel Jarre, Keith Emerson) were not put off by the Elka name: nor should you be!
Obtainable now for under a grand, you should definitely check it out if you get the chance.
Horrendous colour scheme, unimpressive sound. Totally polyphonic with one VCF. Lousy keyboard and little to commend it. No wonder it failed. Not often seen - perhaps that's just as well.
A six-note six-voice analogue, the Polysix is programmable, and easy to use thanks to good old-fashioned knobs and switches. On a par with the Junos, the Polysix suffered by being born just before MIDI was introduced, and a retrofit never came to its rescue. Though lacking a Noise Generator and with only 32 memories, the inbuilt Chorus, Phase and Ensemble effects will help you create some great sounds - could easily fool someone that you have a Prophet or something. Current silly prices make it worth your attention. A nice one. Reviewed August '82.
Although this had two DCOs (the Polysix only had one) per voice, it doesn't sound as good to my ears as the Polysix or any of the other synths in this range. Has parameter access with a very low resolution for some important parameters. Check it out to avoid disappointment - who knows, you may not like it. MIDI available as a retrofit or as standard on the POLY61M. Reviewed March '83.
Cheap, cheerful and loved by many but one VCF for the whole keyboard is rather limiting on a synth nowadays, although the EGs are very good. Handy built-in sequencer which, unlike the JX3P, transmits over MIDI making it possible to 'drive' other MIDI synths which is useful. At around £300, worth investigation if your budget is severely limited. Reviewed February '84.
Moog's initial venture into polyphony. Each voice contains two VCOs and a VCA/EG combination and is totally polyphonic and velocity sensitive. Sadly, only one VCF, but it does have an impressive on-board parametric EQ section. Non-programmable except that you can store one edit of an existing preset, but even that is lost on powerdown. Lots of outputs from each separate section making it good for layered effects. They currently sell for around £600 or less so check it out.
A preset version of the above, the Polymoog Keyboard, had some nice sounds even if a bit limited. Instant Gary Numan for £350 or so.
No less than three VCOs per voice, the famous Moog filter, two punchy EGs with key scaling and a very versatile modulation section giving it the fattest sound you can imagine. Likened to six MiniMoogs but somehow lacking in some respects. MemoryMoog Plus has MIDI and inbuilt sequencer making it more flexible in a MIDI set-up. Sadly, it's rather an unstable and unreliable beast but, at £800 or so, this has to be a real bargain for anyone handy with an oscilloscope. Look out particularly for one of the few MemoryMoog Pluses which made it to this country; their MIDI/sequencer update also made the instrument more reliable. Reviewed February '83.
THE original. Four (or eight) independent synths in one rather cumbersome package. Its main advantage over its counterparts was that each voice was a totally separate entity allowing full multi-timbrality. Also, each voice had total access to the CV and Gate inputs allowing control by some sequencer or other (an Oberheim and an old Roland MC4 would be a vicious combination). But all these features would be useless if the sound itself was lacking but, thankfully, the Oberheim voice module is probably one of the best synthesisers ever built and the sound of this machine is fat and a half. Available for as little as £300 - buy one!
Hot on the heels of the Prophet 5, the OBx offered a fully programmable 8-voice synth with two VCOs, a VCF, VCA and two EGs per voice and it had the famous fat Oberheim sound. Lush strings, rude brass and nasty bass sounds to be had amongst many others. Nowadays, it might appear a bit limited in terms of real synth facilities but nothing can really compete with the sheer quality of sound it makes which is lush and warm and suitable for any musical style.
A preset version of the OBX with the same fat sound. It was non-programmable but you could program it from an OBX but, as those are in short supply, you might find that the sounds you have are not to your taste and you may be stuck with a duffer.
A split/layer version of the OBX in the new blue livery. More features, same sound. Speak to Tom Bailey in The Thompson Twins about them - he uses one all the time - the famous Twins bass sound is all OBXa as are most of their other sounds (excepting the Fairlight noises, of course). Highly recommended especially at the going rate of £800 or so.
Further updates brought us this little gem. Basically, it had an extra 'page' which turned the control panel into another control panel full of interesting modulation and performance facilities. Also highly recommended. Reviewed January '84.
Unique and original. Each voice has digital oscillators capable of producing over 1000 incredible waveforms via its wavetables. These can be then further processed by standard VCF and VCA sections. The digital clarity of the waveforms makes it cut like a knife even at a Motorhead gig. Expensive (prices start at about £1700) but worth it for a classic original. Available in three forms, the Wave 2 which has one oscillator per voice, the Wave 2.2 which has two plus the ability to be used with a Waveterm, and the Wave 2.3 which is a multi-timbral version of the 2.2 and with more capabilities with the Waveterm. Wave 2 reviewed July '81. Wave 2.3 & Waveterm reviewed May '84.
A four-voice job with one VCO per voice. Not unlike the Juno 6 but with two EGs instead of the Juno's one. Powerful sound and a nice arpeggiator with a wonderful 'random' setting for some bizarre effects. Looks odd and has only eight user-programmable memories, but has a nice full sound thanks to its VCOs instead of the more 'clinical' DCOs. Good secondhand price makes it worth having a look at.
Roland's answer to the OBX and Prophet 5. An 8-voice synth with keyboard split and layering facilities and versatile arpeggiator (including the random feature of the Jupiter 4). Two VCOs, a VCF, an HPF, VCA and two EGs, keyboard scaling, oscillator sync plus LFO. Capable of a lot of great sounds, especially strings and bass, and it seems to be holding a good price around the £1000 mark which is a testament to its capabilities. Versatile and reliable. Can't go wrong at the right price.
A MIDI version of the Jupiter 8 though lacking in some of the finer points. Very nice indeed. Lush, versatile sounds with lots of facilities including two LFOs, EG rate scaling, multi-mode filter and FM facilities. Looks good too. Unfortunately, the LEDs have a habit of packing up and the MIDI is limited. At £850 or thereabouts, a good buy if your MIDI needs are not extensive. Reviewed April '84.
A classic, budget polysynth with a sound that quite belies the fact that it is a very basic synth with a voice architecture similar to the old SH09 mono-synth. Six-voice, onboard chorus, integral arpeggiator and the 60 is programmable. So, all in all, a good sounding machine, ideal for novices and more experienced players. At the going rate of £300, they are definitely a bargain. Juno 6 reviewed July '82, Juno 60 reviewed December '82.
Another Roland classic. Strange they've discontinued it as it's appeared on so many hit singles and has probably helped a lot of bands get that elusive record deal. Versatile with plenty of character and warmth, and with a neat sequencer that is easy to use (if a bit limited in its note storage). Easily programmed, even without the optional PG200 programmer. The MIDI is not ideal being OMNI reception and transmitting on Channel 1 only, so be careful if you wish to incorporate it into an extensive MIDI system. Considering the price, one of the best little synths ever made. Silly prices at the moment. Reviewed August '83.
Not really a true polysynth but worth inclusion. Amazing choir sound and healthy strings, as well as an unmatched vocoder - quite highly sought after by those who have used them and so they retain their price quite well. Expect to pay around £500 if you can catch one, which is not a lot less than their original selling price many years ago.
The original programmable polysynth, which many top artists still swear by, viz. Peter Gabriel. Poly-mod section makes it very flexible and versatile. Full sounding yet capable of some impressive clangs and other FM-type noises. Early models had some tuning problems (as well as limited portamento/glissando facilities), but this is generally deemed to give a more characteristic sound than the later revisions. At £800 they are certainly worth having, especially for an original.
Supposedly a MIDIfied version of the 5 but, to be honest, it doesn't have the same quality sound or features - but don't ignore if the price is right. Similar voice architecture plus an onboard sequencer (which is practically useless as it doesn't sync to anything - although Argent's have a software update to add MIDI sync). Reviewed April '83.
The first 'budget' synth from the makers of the Prophets. Sadly, only one VCO per voice made its sound capabilities considerably more limited than its predecessors but it was multi-timbral (but not with individual voice outputs, I'm afraid, though you can get it modified) and had an onboard sequencer that was actually quite good. Limited but nice for writing with. Reviewed March '84.
A funny creature. Looks like a piece of G-Plan furniture. Sounds OK but not a world beater.
A scaled down version of the CS80 (see later). Nice sound, very distinctive. Limited touch sensitivity but, at the right price (around £300) they are certainly worth investigation. Major difference between the two is that the CS60 is eight voice, the CS50 four voice. Looks nice but a little bulky.
A truly original piece of gear. Fully touch sensitive, both velocity and pressure, with individual control for each voice. Basically two synths in one, each one comprising a VCO, a lowpass VCF, a highpass VCF, two EGs, VCA plus a ring modulator and chorus unit. Big, impressive and very distinctive sounding. Sadly, non-programmable although you could set four banks of mini sliders underneath the control panel for a sort of quasi-programmability. A 'real' instrument thanks to its stunning weighted keyboard and takes some application to learn to actually 'play' it. Currently going for as little as £600 (it was originally over £4000) and so has got to be a bargain. The only drawback is that its a big bugger and needs a few hefty roadies - but it looks great resident in your studio. Probably the only rival with the Prophet 5 for the affections of the majority of stars. A truly amazing synth - just check out any work by Vangelis or Eddie Jobson.
Scaled down DX7. Fewer operators and algorithms and no touch sensitivity but, when all is said and done, it does sound equally as good as a 7 so worth a look if you're short of the readies and can't quite stretch to the big brother. Its main advantage is that whilst it sounds as good, it is even easier to program and has cassette storage of sounds which is a hell of a lot cheaper than RAM cartridges. A classy sounding synth for quite silly prices at the moment. Reviewed July '84.
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