The industrial genre has always thrived on an innovative”do it yourself attitude” and using inexpensive synthesizers is one way for a rivethead on a budget to still make music without going broke.
Let’s face it-most industrial musicians aren’t rich. In fact, some of us are downright poor. However we are also very lucky, because-unlike many forms of music-industrial music is often best performed on fairly inexpensive equipment. But, for the novice rivethead just “getting into the scene”, this can be a daunting experience trying to figure out what equipment is good and what isn’t good for doing industrial music.
With little exception, such as Neubaten, most industrial music is primarily written and performed on synthesizers. Thus this article will focus exclusively on identifying which inexpensive synthesizers are best chosen for industrial music and WHY they are so good for their cost.
Without further ado, here are my picks for the best budget industrial synths:
Ensoniq ESQ-1 (1986-1988)
8 voice polyphonic synthesizer
Digital/Analog Hybrid w/ sequencer
Original cost: $1395.00
Used cost: about $200.00
The Ensoniq ESQ-1 was released in 1986 and quickly attracted attention to itself as the second product from the company that brought sampling to the masses with the Ensoniq Mirage. In 1986 the ESQ-1 was powerful, and affordable, offering a glimpse into the future to the power of a synthesizer workstation. Featuring 8 polyphonic, multi-timbral voices, MIDI, an 8 track sequencer with good editing facilities, and a crisp, deep sound (courtesy of its smartly designed digital oscillators and the real analog CEM filters) the ESQ-1 was a no-brainer for many novice and professional synth players. Simply put, the ESQ-1 was a good synth for the price in 1986 and is an insanely good synth for the price today.
But what does this have to do with industrial music, you ask?
Well, for starters the ESQ-1 has a distinguished history in industrial music courtesy of none other than Skinny Puppy-who employed the ESQ-1 prodigiously in the studio and live, as evidenced by the THREE ESQ-1′s wielded by cEvin kEy and Dwayne Rudolph Goettel in the “Ain’t It Dead Yet” video (in addition to a lone Sequential Pro-One, also covered in this article). In fact, the ESQ-1 graces many of Skinny Puppy’s albums and songs from that period including the Cleanse, Fold and Manipulate, Bites, and VIVIsectVI albums.
Okay, the ESQ-1′s industrial pedigree is certainly taken care of; but what does this mean to you as a burgeoning industrial musician? For starters, ESQ-1′s are extremely plentiful and easy to find. Secondly they are CHEAP, typically costing anywhere from 150 to 200 dollars. This price alone makes the ESQ-1 a great buy for any synth player on a budget.
But, interest in the ESQ-1 isn’t just about its cheap price. Its sounds are great, especially when run through effects such as delay or reverb-unfortunately for the ESQ-1 no onboard effects were included in its design, making the ESQ-1 lose the title of “true” workstation to the Roland D-20. The triple oscillator design allows for interesting textures to be created from its 32 onboard wavesamples. Amplitude modulation and oscillator sync (osc 2 to 1) are also available (although not both at once, unfortunately). Dozens of modulations are available from many sources that lead to just as many destinations, allowing the ESQ-1 to create odd, moving pads or clangorous and dissonant stabs with great ease. Soundwise, the ESQ-1 is surprisingly versatile in the hands of the willing programmer.
Add in its excellent MIDI specifications, multitimbralism, excellent sequencer which can actually be used for composition or live playing, and it becomes a wonder that ESQ-1′s aren’t in everyone’s synth arsenal.
Truly an inspiring instrument, even if it cost twice its current value. A budget classic that is unequaled in today’s market.
Sequential Pro-One (1981-1984)
Dual oscillator VCO analog (CEM circuits)
Original cost: $995.00
Used cost: about $450.00
Sequential Circuits synthesizers have acquired a very good name for use in industrial music for their cutting, gutsy sounds. Unfortunately, the price of most Sequential gear puts it distantly out of reach of most players unwilling to spend well over a thousand dollars on a synth 15 or more years old, and from a company that has been out of business since 1987. Fortunately, SCI did produce one monophonic synthesizer, the Pro-One, that sold in substantial enough quantities to be realistically available and cheap enough for the budget musician.
The Pro-One is essentially a single voiced Prophet 5, utilizing almost identical internal architecture and circuit layout as the revision 3 Prophet 5′s; this is good because it guarantees that the Pro-One is going to sound like a Prophet 5-which is to say that it is going to sound pretty goddamn good. However, the Pro-One expands upon the Prophet 5′s poly-modulation section by adding the ability to modulate oscillator B and A-allowing this little monophonic to, at times, outplay its big brother the Prophet 5. Other than these modulation additions, the Pro-One has all of the capabilities of a Prophet 5, albeit with but a single note available and no preset memories whatsoever.
Pro-One’s came out long before MIDI, but have excellent CV/Gate interfacing, making it fairly rudimentary to add to a modern recording setup. It also has an external audio in-allowing you to process other synthesizers or sounds by the Pro-One’s excellent, cutting low pass filter. Even without a MIDI interface, the Pro-One is a great source of samples ranging from harsh percussion, the “high-Q” sound courtesy of its over-eager to self-oscillate filter, to chunky deep bass sounds and frequency modulated squeals that would make a death metal guitarist scream in terror.
In a nutshell, the Pro-One offers more than any other monophonic, VCO analog synthesizer within its price range and sounds better as well. For industrial mavens, the dual frequency cross-modulation possibilities alone make this synth a great deal-not to mention the ability to process external sounds, the rich bass sounds and excellent percussion or lead sounds the Pro-One emits effortlessly.
Rich or poor, a Pro-One makes a valuable contribution to any industrial synth player’s rig. Period.
Korg Polysix (1982-1983)
6 voice polyphonic synthesizer
Single oscillator VCO analog (SSM circuits)
Original cost: $1095.00
Used cost: about $300.00
The Korg Polysix synthesizer is, as I term it, the “industrial Juno 60″-it is a good sounding, simple polyphonic synthesizer with a few downs, a whole hell of a lot of ups, and a price so cheap it is difficult to ignore. And it should be a good synth too, because it was designed to compete with the rampantly successful Prophet 5 released four years earlier; in fact-the Polysix contains much of the same circuitry as the revision 1 and 2 Prophet 5′s, albeit in a slightly less intriguing fashion. However, the Polysix is a strong performer and is endearing in a slightly over-the-top manner. It even has 32 onboard memory locations for saving your sounds, which is always a plus for any synthesizer of this era or earlier.
The base sounds of the Polysix are good, courtesy of the aforementioned SSM filters; not content to leave good enough alone, Korg modified the SSM filter chips to compensate for the destructive effect to low frequencies that occurs when filter resonance is grossly exaggerated-as a result, the Polysix is capable of producing extremely fat, extremely deep bass sounds almost to the filters point of self-oscillation. This is good. This is very good. What’s even better is that the Polysix is capable of triggering its oscillators in unison mode, locking all six voices onto a single note for extremely rich tones.
However, even though the Polysix’s sounds are good, the implementation of the synth is a bit lacking and simple-more similarity to the Juno 60. The Polysix is forced to share an envelope between the VCF and the VCA, cutting down on the versatility somewhat. More disappointing, the Polysix has but a single oscillator, plus a sub-oscillator square wave, to make sounds on; once again, this resembles the Juno 60 in form and function. Similar to the Juno 60′s chorus, the Polysix has a built in “effects” section consisting of a ensemble, chorus and phaser that adds some depth to the overall sound. One limitation for the Polysix, which confines it to the “bass and lead synth” role, is the LFO which is limited to a sine wave only and can only modulate pitch OR tone OR volume, not combinations. Thus, for other than simple sounds such as static pads or string/organ sounds, or its real forte’-bass-industrial musicians desiring more complex sounds had best go elsewhere (see the ESQ-1 for more details).
One major downside is MIDI and interfacing. The Polysix lacks MIDI and, very unfortunately, also lacks any for of CV control. This oversight by Korg is a bit disappointing considering the Polysix’s VCO power. It IS possible to have a Polysix MIDI’d, but the cost suggests to me that perhaps it would be better to purchase something that already had MIDI or CV onboard, such as the Polysix’s sister synth the Mono/Poly. If you are into playing your parts live, or are looking for something to sample, the omission of MIDI or CV shouldn’t disappoint you too much.
A few downsides notwithstanding (such as the well known problem with the internal battery leaking and destroying the ability of the synth to store or recall presets, or just fry the synth), the Polysix is a capable performer that produces real VCO analog sounds at a fraction of the price of any other good voltage controlled oscillator polyphonic analog. Simply put, the Polysix sounds like a 1500.00 dollar synth but only costs a fraction of the price.
It’s really that nifty.
There are many other interesting, and affordable, synthesizers perfect for industrial music. However, for a new musician looking to really score a good deal-and find an instrument that is almost indispensable for industrial music-nothing can top the ESQ-1, Pro-One and Polysix for versatility and sonic overkill. In fact, you could have a flexible, versatile synthesizer setup using ONLY those three synths. Now that’s power….
-James Meeker (2001, 12-30)