A leftfield musician's "synth workstation" / "synth arranger" - does one (or should one) exist?

Or does someone else than me even dream of something as silly (and quite possibly financially unviable) as this?

There are interesting not-only-plain-subtractive synths, sequencers much more quirky and complex than of the linear step programming variety - and touch-sensitive, not-only-piano-like playing surfaces. What I haven’t been able to find, are instruments that integrate all these aspects together very smoothly, or at all. Other than in the puzzle world of computer systems and modular synth world, that is.

To give a silly and unrealistic copy-pasta example of the kind of idea space I’m thinking of, let’s imagine a multitimbral physical modeling synth editable via convenient front panel UI, combined with a Linnstrument- / Erae-like isomorphic keyboard with X/Y/Z axes mappable to any synth parameters, and an event based parameter sequencer with multiple tracks and timebases - think something akin to ER-101 / Usta or their Buchla forefathers, possibly combined with some logic and sequenceable clock multiplication / division for good measure.

That’s a pipe dream but hopefully gives an idea of what in the world I’m talking about. You may have other dreams that are as valid, I guess the crux of the matter being, is there something relatively complete in terms of synthesis, sequencing and playability on this area worth exploring?

There are many things that sort of approach this space from afar: in the sequence end, something like Elektron instruments or Deluge, which still feel like extensions on the step sequencing paradigm and well explored synthesis without being super quirky. Or, in the playability end, eg. Continuum and Osmose, which do have an interesting control surface and multi-algorithm modular synthesis engine - unfortunately so complex that it needs to be edited with a computer app, and with no performance sequencer aspect included.

If we “cheat” and use a computer, build an Eurorack system, or buy a Cirklon + Linnstrument + a wall of synths, anything is possible of course. I guess I’m wondering whether there’s anything I’ve missed that bundles nice things from some of these to a single unit that could be carried around, practised and mastered.

One thing I’ve never actually figured out are Gotharman’s devices like the new Zaturn. Are they a combination of “deep” synthesis / sampling with something other than super linear sequencing? No “playability” to speak of of course, mainly touch screen + encoder based UI, and the sound in all of the demos isn’t for me, but still…


To me, part of the allure of modular is this exact dream. You can select control surfaces, sound engines, routing modules, etc etc… To do all of this in one standalone system seems like it would require several things; at least one of which being a design abstract enough to not make too many decisions for the user, the others being how “modular” it would end up being (3rd party cards or interfaces). And then following the ‘natural’ pursuit of this it seems you might end up at or near the “Eurorack Standard” which only addresses size, signal electrical characteristics, power, etc.

To me it seems that the more you ‘aestheticize’ the format the more you impose on the possible output of such a device, making decisions for the user that will affect range of the instrument. This seems to be somewhat of a paradigm of standalone devices. They seem to pick up on relatively common, novel or standard workflows and wrap all that up into something learnable.

So I would say while it’s definitely not what I imagine reading your post, I feel like whatever started down that road would logically conclude at or near something like eurorack (or a ‘PC’) or risk being too authoritative.


Yes, the idea always gets back to my head when I think about putting together a modular system or something like Numerology / Bitwig Grid for the kind of approach I think of. I think this time it happened after hearing Suzanne Ciani live and thinking hard how I would approach playing a semi-improvised electronic live set myself (spoiler: not with a Buchla 200e although that seems like a fine modular instrument).

I guess the part that constantly irks me in the obvious solution is the inevitable disconnect between a separate controller(s), synthesizer(s), sequencer or a bunch of event generators and other pieces of the puzzle. One always ends up having a tiny piecemeal “studio” connected together with all kinds of configuration and integration woes, and a possible need to “optimize” what already works well enough - instead of just a single self-sufficient instrument with its own unified internal logic that can (at least in theory) picked up and played anywhere.

That’s so true. I suppose the thing I’m aiming at is instead, whether someone has made some of those decisions and ended up with something that is rather modern and flexible in idea and execution, without having the specific kinds of limitations that seem to be the norm - eg. analog / VA subtractive engines, widely-used / classical linear sequencing paradigms, combined with either no touch sensitive “keyboard” at all or a standard large piano one.

It doesn’t need to be open-ended and up to any kind of experimentation - that’s the realm of modular systems and PCs as you say. Just something that was pieced together in such a novel way that it would stand out, and possibly prove an inspiring instrument in its own right.

It’s hard to explain / pinpoint what I’m missing, because that description still fits a lot of instruments in some specific way. The one I’m actually thinking of a lot as sort of inspiration (not feature set but the concept) is the Music Easel. Yes, it’s old and something that has been copied and replicated dozens of times since, and you can get a very similar idea in other packages. It also has a specific limited scope / feature set compared to its fully modular brethren or electronic instruments of today. But someone at some point has decided this is what constitutes a complete “non-standard” instrument that you can perform and accompany yourself on when playing something tonal, or go completely wild with sound design, and has done it in a way that it’s joy to program and play.

Yes, every time I start thinking about these things (it’s been a recurring theme for the past couple of years) I end up using a familiar controller and a modular system or computer once again :slight_smile:

It may be that a similar realization would happen to an instrument designer - and as mentioned, I’m not sure if ideas like this are commercially viable in any way as most of people who could be interested would want to have an Eurorack system, a computer + controller based setup or perhaps a Continuum anyway. Still, one can dream…

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Quirky / leftfield instruments are always going to be polarizing, so it’s not the safest investment when it comes to (mass) producing hardware, especially seeing as they’re probably going to be more expensive to research and make than your regular keyboard / sequencer. Now multiply that risk and those expenses by however many odd features you want to fit in your workstation.

Should one exist? The more the merrier, however, it’s worth noting that mixing various devices or making your own will always make more sense as far as “leftfield” is concerned - it’s easier to take responsibility into your own hands and create the workflow you need to accommodate your quirks. Well, maybe it’s not easier, but it ends up being a lot more personal and unique to you and your workflow. E.g. say your leftfield workstation does come out and it’s reasonably successful - it’s only a matter of time before its quirks are somewhat normalized.

On that note, I’m waiting for (modular?) midi controllers that aren’t limited to encoders/faders/buttons and have screens for both values and labels. Even the best portable encoder controllers that I’m aware of (EC4 / MFT) aren’t quite there yet:(


It’s not impossible that with e.g. RNBO we witness a proliferation in projects that integrate this sort of thinking behind a more familiar UI. I mean layers of increasing depth/complexity/difficulty, but still retaining accessible “modes”.

Otherwise it’s very hard to design a marketable instrument that is easy to get into, somewhat more difficult to master, and offers the flexibility and depth and richness in control, ergonomics, and audio quality. I doubt we’ll see it from a large/established manufacturer. Using the M8 serves useful reminders of how powerful this can be when done right, and at the same time how complicated it can get. A hard design problem. I think the Cirklon demonstrates the non-triviality of the associated price point. And that’s just the sequencing…


Just reading the title, the Roland V-Synth popped into my head. Then I read your post and realized it’s not really what you are looking for. Nevertheless, I think it’s an underrated synth (workstation) that has a lot of out-there features and applications. Personally, I don’t like its looks so I never bought one, but when I used it at school back in the day I was quite inspired by some of the sounds and interactions.

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This would probably be best achieved by a raspberry pi running a puredata patch and a microcontroller for interface.

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So, basically something like Norns and a grid?


This is what most complete systems from most manufacturers have been trying to do since the very beginning. Recall that the ‘mix and match’ paradigm of modular was not always the assumption underpinning the format (it was always technically possible to treat synths this way, but not ‘the whole idea’, the way it is in euro). The system 200, music easel, etc were/are precisely this type of workstation. More contemporary examples would be the Shared System, isms, erica systems, that grey alm thing, endorphines shuttle, etc.

We’re all kind of building this sort of thing for ourselves. I’ve noticed, though, that people who spend less time chasing this idea, and more time making music, make a whole lot more music.


No real idea what any of that means but get a matrix mixer and a bunch of guitar pedals


I think I’m bad at making sense, and the term “synth workstation” is ultimately misleading. What I’m aiming for is more like… “synth arranger”? I don’t know if that’s an actual thing. Something that doesn’t need to do everything but allows multiple modes of use (programming, sequencing, playing in an “expressive” manner) all at once, complementary to each other, and in this case, does most / all of them an interesting non-standard way and relatively thoroughly (eg. not just a simple subtractive monosynth that includes row of non velocity sensitive buttons that programs a simple step sequencer).

And, to sound even thicker, “leftfield” doesn’t need to imply anything currently groundbreaking or completely novel and unfamiliar here. Just that the instrument might possibly eg. invite one to reproduce the greatest hits by well known old dad music artists like Aphex Twin or Terry Riley, instead of other old dad music artists like Rolling Stones or The Prodigy.

I guess that’s why Easel is the first thing that came to mind: it’s something you routinely see people both patch, program and play alternately, often in an improvisational manner, and it does actually invite you to do just that. It’s also simple and old technology, of course, but I couldn’t think of a better example that would feel much newer and more hi-tech, which I guess prompted this thread.

And I guess that’s why customizing a computer centric or hardware modular system is the thing that comes to mind for most people, myself included. I’m just wondering if there’s something like this that is “opinionated”, or a single object already designed by someone to do the thing it does.

I guess this is, in a nutshell, why I personally imagine there isn’t a lot of things like this - it’s much easier to both design and sell something that does one thing especially well - or a blank slate that lets one build and customize things exactly the way she wants - than an instrument that balances and integrates several different aspects brilliantly, but in a way that isn’t immediately familiar to everyone.

I like, and used to own both, but they feel more analogous to a laptop + controller or a modular system type thing where you get to build whatever the “dream” is. Which is a good way to go, just not exactly the droid I was looking for.

But what if you like chasing an idea more than making music? :wink:

Seriously though, I don’t mind using what I have or what I already know is available and in reach (even though I don’t really produce anything to show for the hours I’ve spent anymore). It’s just been a recurring thing to think about - and kind of timely for me right now.

Can’t detect if sarcasm or genuinely a good default suggestion!

i have high hopes for the Soma Terra.
The control interface looks great!


I still can’t figure out if the Terra fits this particular idea I’m chasing or not - but regardless of that, it seems super interesting and I’m kind of anxious to get to try out one if / when Vlad & co. get it ready and out in the world.

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Been searching for 10 years, havn’t found anything, hehe!

Don’t think I will find it either. There is always some hope in change.
Sometimes I wish I could just pick something and practice. But that is not how I work it seems like. I like exploring, growing and creating systems that I interact with.

I keep looking though.


I guess the search is more fun than finding anyway :slight_smile:

(At least I inspired a fellow local Lines member to think about the same subject, and contact me with some ideas!)


The discussion is actually really great because it makes you think about the techniques and not just what shiny toy to buy!

So for me what I like about the search is thinking about how stuff works and why. Then you can make stuff yourself and use those techniques in the gear you already own. Of course this is also why I end up using the computer as the brain of my instrument, and spent time learning Max etc.

As I wrote in the gas thread once:

  1. See new shiny toy
  2. Think about how to implement it in my setup
  3. Get overwhelmed about this question
  4. Open PD or Max and make something myself instead, inspired by what was cool with the gear.
  5. Repeat.

The problem nowadays is that making stuff oneself takes a lot of time, and when life gets in the way, it’s always a choice of allocating a big chunk of time between building tools for making music… or actually making music :slight_smile: Mind you, I’m not saying one hobby is better or more fun than the other, just that the dichotomy exists here.

Because of that, for the past couple of years I’ve all but reverted to buying something that seems good or close enough, instead of prototyping and building / developing something I think would be the essence of what I actually need. The third option is of course usually the most convenient and cheapest: realizing I don’t really need anything new to do something I want to.

(I guess this particular “dream” goes to the “either build it yourself, get something else that’s fun in a different way, or just give up and use a laptop for all your waking hours” sector)


Yeah I totally get this feeling. Here are some more loose ones:

  1. […]realizing I don’t really need anything new to do something I want to.

  2. Focusing on people over gear.
  3. There is never an end setup. I mean there might be, but when you are building stuff there isn’t. Therefore I feel like the music creation has to be linked with testing, prototyping and adjusting. In other words one shouldn’t wait for the setup to be finished before making music, one should be making music as part of tuning the setup.
  4. It is often smarter to make smaller things that can be combined rather than making one giant thing.

I am too lazy to find it now, but Robert Henke had I nice point in one of his talks. If you can make a tool you can use for creating lots of music, spending some time making that tools might be a good idea. But if you make something too specific so you won’t use it on many projects it is probably better to use a solution someone else have made. Something like that.



I think it summarizes what I want to say really well.

I’ve been using different analog devices to make sound and have already made a lot of different recordings. I think I can communicate with those devices quite well but my problem is using them in a live situation and being not able to morph different presets to change the whole timbre dramatically. That’s why I get bored easily. I could use some kind of a looper or sampler to play older recordings but I found this solution not that interesting.

Then I sold everything and nowadays I’m focusing on Serge which has a very broad sound palette and using it with my Octatrack. But I’ve also been trying to find a way to make it even more versatile and digitally controllable. That’s why I bought a new Macbook to use Max/MSP and learn it again to create a master control system for the panel. It is a long term project which could start with a basic lfo but I can still make some recordings by using my usual setup (serge panel + octatrack) + a new lfo + some other tools that I’ll build with Max. This way I hope I’ll stay more focused rather than having and trying different synthesizers and sequencers. It is also quite time consuming.


I feel this, and it’s one of the main reasons I’ve moved to using Elektron instruments in the last couple of years. They’re not perfect (I wish I could make the sequencer go backwards, modulate tempo with LFOs etc) but are very deep, and I can now make precise, radical shifts during a live set in a way that I never could with my Serge. I started with an Octatrack, but now I’m using the Analog Four much more. It might be the “leftfield synth workstation/arranger” for me.

Having a single, powerful, integrated, portable instrument has become more important for me due to my health. My disability means I can’t carry a lot of equipment on tour, and I have way too much fatigue to build my own hardware or software any more. So having an Easel-like box to play at shows, or in bed when I’m really sick, makes music accessible for me.