Classic Gear on a Budget – 10 Overlooked Gems: Roland, Ensoniq, Korg, Alesis, Oberheim +

Dubspot NYC tech and Brooklyn Bass co-founder Dan Snider offers some advice on getting some quality, vintage sound into your setup without breaking the bank.


Classic Gear on a Budget: 10 Overlooked Gems

As electronic musicians, we all can be affected by GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) sometimes. You probably don’t need that shiny new synth or expensive drum machine to make great music, sometimes a vintage item from the past is really the way to go. They are often cheaper, have more character, and give you a more unique sound than the latest technology on the block. That being said, the en vogue vintage gear of the moment often goes for insanely high prices online. To help you on your quest, we have rounded up ten great overlooked secondhand pieces that haven’t (yet) fallen prey to inflated prices on the used marketplace.

Roland Alpha Juno

ROLAND ALPHA JUNO 1 The Alpha Juno series from the mid 80s are interesting analog synths that can still be found for cheap when compared to their older Juno siblings. The main differences between the Alpha Juno 1 and 2 are the keyboard size and the inclusion velocity and aftertouch on the 2, the sound is nearly identical. The Alpha Juno series ticks all the right Juno boxes; warm evolving pads, classic Juno bass and one of the presets was responsible for the “hoover” sound of early rave tracks. It also has that a built-in chorus which makes it a great go-to pad machine. There is a bit of menu diving when programming Alpha Junos so make sure to check out a computer-based patch editor such as Alpha Juno Control to save time and spare yourself a bit of frustration. The Alpha Juno 2 sells second-hand for around $250 with the Alpha Juno 1 going for a bit less.

Ensoniq ESQ-1

Ensoniq ESQ-1 Another late-80s gem that can still be found for cheap is Ensoniq’s ESQ-1. The ESQ-1 features 3 wavetable oscillators with an analog filter and a wealth of modulation options. The 4 lfos and 4 envelopes can be routed to control any number of parameters which will lead to interesting and unique sounds with a bit of experimentation. The ESQ-1 also features an on-board sequencer, ring modulator, and oscillator sync, features usually found only in analog synths. It’s also surprisingly easy to edit for a digital synth. The ESQ-1 is a cult classic alternative synthesizer and can be found for less than $200 second-hand.

Yamaha TX81Z

Yamaha TX81Z The TX81Z is a small rack-mounted FM synthesizer that can handle all of your cold digital synthesis needs. The TX81Z differed from the other 80s FM synthesizers in that it utilized a range of oscillator types in addition to the sine wave which opened up the sonic capabilities of FM technology. R&B producer Babyface apparently kept two detuned TX81Zs in his studio set to the infamous “LatelyBass” patch, the sound the TX81Z became famous for. While they can be a bit difficult to edit (the tiny screen is not going to do your eyes any favors), the presets are worth the price of admission alone. You can often find these on eBay and Craigslist in the sub-$100 range.

Alesis 3630

Alesis 3630 While it’s not necessarily overlooked, the Alesis 3630 is a very functional dynamics processor and can still be found for cheap, sometimes less than $50! Daft Punk notoriously used this budget compressor on their classic albums Homework and Discovery to get the infamous side-chaining sound, a defining characteristic of French House. The 3630 can be used in moderation for a slightly compressed sound or pushed hard for a gritty aggressive effect. There’s also a sizable online DIY community out there dedicated to modifying the bargain bin compressor into something legitimately professional-sounding. It’s definitely worth the rack space.

Roland JV-2080

Roland JV-2080 More modern than the other gear on the list, the JV-2080 is a rackmount synth with a sample + synthesis architecture and a range of built-in effects from the late 90s. That basically means the 2080 produces sound through sample playback but you can alter these samples with filters, envelopes and LFOs like a synthesizer which are easy to edit due to the large screen. The 2080 is expandable with 8 sound module slots that add new patches. The expansion cards are mostly late-90s cheese (check out the “World” expansion card for proof) but there are some gems out there like the “Vintage Synths” and “Techno” cards. The 2080 can also recreate organic sounds like pianos and strings realistically due to the sample-based architecture. You can find them second-hand for around $250.

Korg Electribe SX

Korg Electribe SX Before the hype surrounding the Roland Aira TR-8, there was the Electribe. The Electribe is an all-in-one sequencer, sampler, synthesizer, effects unit and live performance tool that comes pre-loaded with drum sounds and hits. In many ways, it’s the precursor to Elektron’s Octatrack. The Electribe SX is the last generation of the series and features a Smart Media slot to load samples, a metal chassis, a larger screen and vacuum tubes! The two tubes can be used to create an analog tube circuit to give a bit more warmth and body to your samples. The Electribes are also great MIDI sequencers and can be the “brain” of a live electronic setup, controlling your other hardware. You can find them second hand for around $300.

Alesis Quadraverb

Alesis Quadraverb The Alesis Quadraverb was the ubiquitous budget effects unit in home studios in the late 80s and well into the 90s. It’s very flexible and controllable with EQ, reverb, delay, resonator, flanger, phaser and ring modulation effects to name a few. The unit is known to be a bit noisy and lo-fi (in a good way) and the gritty reverb became part of the sound of artists like Aphex Twin, Autechre, and My Bloody Valentine. It’s not a realistic reverb per se, but it sounds really cool in an unnatural digital kind of way. They range in price depending on the specific model, but they can usually be found for about $150. Also check out the leaner version, the MidiVerb, for an even cheaper alternative.

Oberheim Matrix 1000

Oberheim Matrix 1000 The Oberheim Matrix 1000 is a small analog MIDI rackmount synth that features 1,000 Matrix 6 patches. There aren’t any controls on the face of the unit except to dial in the varied preset patches which means the only way to edit the synth is through an external MIDI editor. Software like MOTU’s Unisyn or a compatible MIDI controller such as the Novation SL MK2 series will work, but may require some custom mapping. The Matrix 1000 is a good, cheap (an unobtrusive) way to get the sound of the Matrix 6 if you don’t mind the editing limitations. You can find them online for around $350.

Roland TR-505

Roland TR-505Roland “Rhythm Composers” are well known for their punch, galloping swing, and character. They are also among the most expensive vintage instruments, with the TR-808 and TR-909 fetching into the thousands of dollars these days. One exception to that rule, and a true diamond in the rough, is the TR-505 Rhythm Composer. This device isn’t analog and it’s very limited in control (you can’t edit the sounds very much). But it has that Roland character, some fantastic (and classic) sounds, extensive MIDI control, and you can find one for around $100 on the used market.

Casio CZ-101

Casio CZ-101 Although it may look like one, the Casio CZ-101 is by no means a toy. You can get some serious sounds from this piece and it has a small footprint for your already-crowded studio. The CZ-101 uses Phase Distortion synthesis which is a type of digital synthesis that uses one modulator waveform to dynamically change the harmonic content of a main waveform. Think of it like FM synthesis but instead of using 4 or 6 operators like Yamaha’s DX series, the CZ-101 only had one digital waveform as a modulator. The CZ-101 also can sound pretty similar to the DX series because of their similarities in sound creation and modulation. Like the DX series, the CZ-101 is pretty difficult to edit if you’re not familiar with waveform synthesis.  It’s a good option for someone looking to experiment with a digital synth and makes a great first synth. You can find them for around $275 online.