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Vintage analog synthesizers from the first golden age of electronic music technology have become coveted collector’s items. Ranging from monophonic oddities of the 1960s to polyphonic digital marvels of the 1980s, the rarest, most innovative synths of this pioneering era can now fetch thousands on the vintage instrument market.
For artists and producers, original vintage synthesizers offer the warm, organic sound qualities that are so difficult to replicate with modern digital modeling. And for collectors, acquiring a landmark piece of music history that shaped the sound of everything that followed offers serious cool factor bragging rights.
In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the most important, influential and hard-to-find vintage synthesizers from the 1960s to the 1980s. We will cover the history, sound highlights and valuation of genre-defining instruments like the Minimoog, Yamaha CS-80 and Fairlight CMI. Whether you are a collector seeking to invest or just fascinated by synth history, read on for the stories behind the world’s most coveted analog and digital classics.
- Rare 1960s modular Moogs command high prices due to their historic status and association with pioneers.
- Minimoogs remain popular despite large production, given their significance in synth history.
- The Yamaha CS-80 is an elite Japanese analog poly with huge value for its layered sound.
- Synths like the E-MU Modular offer wild, futuristic designs from the late 70s.
- Early sampling synths like the Fairlight CMI created novel sounds in the 1980s.
- Digital FM synths by Yamaha like the DX7 were mass-produced but hold value.
- Condition, accessories and provenance determine the value of any vintage synthesizer.
The 1960s: Modular Systems Lead the Way
The synthesizers that most command the imagination of collectors are those dating back to the very origins of electronic music. In the early 1960s, modular systems by pioneering companies like Moog, Buchla and EMS offered the very first commercially available tools for synthesizing and shaping electronic sound.
These monumental modular instruments came in multiple sections containing distinct modules and components. They had to be manually “patched” together with cables to route signals and combine elements to generate tones. Modules could include oscillators, filters, sequencers, mixers and more – the building blocks of synthesis.
While far from portable, modular synths offered unmatched versatility compared to previous monophonic keyboards. In the hands of early electronic music composers, they created freakish, otherworldly passages never before heard in music.
Today, a vintage 1960s modular synthesizer in working condition is the ultimate trophy for collectors. High-dollar rare synths from this decade include:
Moog Modular Systems
- Moog 900 Series – First Moog modular system, $10,000+
- Moog System 55 – Large-scale touring system for Keith Emerson, $20,000+
- Buchla 100 Series – Early transistorized system from 1963, $10,000+
- Buchla 200 Series Electric Music Box – Featured in Bob Moog doc, $15,000+
EMS Synthi AKS
- Portable analog suitcase module used by Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk and more, $6000+
Owning any piece of this modular history is the crown jewel for vintage synth collectors. But prices for these museum pieces start in the five digits – when they come up for auction at all.
The 1970s: Minimoog, ARP & More
Following the modular breakthroughs of the 1960s came wider adoption of electronic sounds in rock and pop music. This was enabled by smaller, self-contained synthesizers like the Minimoog Model D – the first synthesizer accessible to musicians other than pure academics.
Portable monophonic synths from the 1970s included instruments from Moog, ARP, Oberheim and other pioneers. Their classic designs and simple interfaces inspired a generation of keyboard players. Prices today depend on rarity, condition and notoriety.
Highly valued instruments from this era include:
Minimoog Model D
- The most famous synth of all time, $3000+ in good condition
- Compact duophonic analog synth, $2000+
- Patchable monosynth with huge sound, $1500+
- Seminal polyphonic analog, $4000+
Sequential Circuits Prophet-5
- First fully programmable polyphonic synth, $4000+
- Elite Japanese polyphonic analog, over $15,000
Affordable synths of the 70s like the Minimoog were mass-produced, keeping prices relatively lower. But certain special models like Yamaha’s CS-80 maintain astronomical value on today’s market.
The Late 1970s: Futuristic Prototypes
As synthesizers grew in sophistication, some wildly unconventional designs surfaced in the late 1970s. Major synth manufacturers experimented with prototypes featuring novel layouts and user interfaces for the time.
While these innovative synths were rarely mass-produced, their cutting-edge concepts make them intriguing collector’s items today. Two prime examples are:
E-MU Modular System
- Made up of horizontal modules with matrix patching, lighting effects, ribbon controller and more
- One of the most strikingly futuristic synth designs, under 100 made
- $10,000+ today
- The original sampling workstation that started a musical revolution
- Included CRT monitor, graphics tablet and light pen for sample manipulation
- Only around 300 made – Peter Gabriel and Jan Hammer among early adopters
- $15,000+ in present market
These landmark instruments made sampling and synthesis visual as well as just sonic. Their hefty five-figure price tags today reflect their ahead-of-their-time innovation.
Digital Dominance: Yamaha DX and Synclavier
By the early 1980s, digital synthesizers began overtaking analog circuits as the dominant synthesis method. Digital waveforms and sampling offered new worlds of precisely programmable sounds at a lower cost.
In 1983, Yamaha’s mass-produced DX7 brought affordable FM digital synthesis to the masses and changed pop music forever. But today, pristine condition vintage DX7s can still fetch over $1000 due to their historical significance.
On the high-end, the New England Digital Synclavier was the last word in digital sampling and synthesis before the Mac and PC-based studio era. These elite instruments remain coveted:
- First commercially successful digital synth
- Used on innumerable 80s pop hits – gated pads, bells, basses
- $1200+ for impeccable models with case today
New England Digital Synclavier
- Ultimate professional sampling workstation
- Far ahead of its time, with a library of digital sampled sounds
- Extremely rare today, often sold privately for $10,000+
While produced in larger numbers than analog forebearers, these pioneering instruments still hold historic cachet and value. Their endless sonic potential presaged the infinite flexibility of software synthesizers to come.
Factors That Determine Value
The prices described reflect values for vintage instruments in excellent working order with original parts. But the actual resale value of any vintage synthesizer depends heavily on:
- Condition – Whether it functions properly and was well-maintained
- Completeness – If it has all original knobs, panels, and components
- Rarity – How many were produced overall
- Notoriety – Use by famous groups and on hit recordings
- Documentation – Whether manuals and other docs come with it
- Packaging – If it retains original retail packaging and branding
- Provenance – If its ownership history can be formally proven
For highly valuable synths, collectors seek out “mint” or “collector grade” instruments showing minimal signs of wear. Even small repairs, replaced parts or modifications can significantly reduce value compared to all-original synths. Proven ownership by legendary artists also boosts value enormously.
The above factors determine how vintage synths are appraised and priced on auction marketplaces like Reverb. But a rare synth’s value ultimately comes down to how much someone is willing to pay to own a tangible piece of music history.
Notable Vintage Synth Manufacturers
Here is an overview of additional influential vintage synth makers not mentioned above, and some of their notable models:
- ARP – 2600, Omni, Quadra, Axxe
- Roland – SH-101, Jupiter-4, Juno-6, JX-3P
- Korg – MS-10, MS-20, Mono/Poly, Polysix, Trident
- Sequential – Prophet-5, Prophet-600, Prophet-T8
- Ensoniq – Mirage, ESQ-1, SQ-80
- Dave Smith – Prophet 5 and 10, Poly Evolver
- Moog – Micromoog, Polymoog, Rogue, Taurus Pedals
- Oberheim – OB-X, OB-Xa, OB-8, Matrix 1000
- Rhodes – Chroma Polaris, Chroma Guitar Polaris
- Alesis – Andromeda A6
- PPG – Wave, Wave 2.2, Wave 2.3
Synthesizers from all of the above brands hold collectible value today. But condition, accessories, and rarity remain the ultimate determinants of price.
Modern Hardware vs. Software Reproductions
For synthesists today, a question arises – invest in vintage hardware, or use modern software emulations? each option has pros and cons:
- Provides actual analog circuitry or digital chips for more accurate, natural sound
- Has collectible value that often appreciates over time
- Hands-on control flow and layout as originally designed
- Requires maintenance; components deteriorate over time
- Offer convenience of using synths in-the-box for recordings
- Provide modern features like expanded polyphony limits
- Get constant updates and improvements from developers
- Lack tangibility, analog imperfections and realtime control of hardware
Of course, the two options need not be mutually exclusive. Many producers use both hardware synths and software reproductions together to utilize the best of both worlds. But for vintage purists, original 70s and 80s hardware remains atop the summit.
Notable Users of Vintage Synths
The most coveted vintage synthesizers often achieve their elite status from being used on classic recordings by top artists. Here are some famous musicians closely associated with rare vintage synths:
- Keith Emerson – Modular Moogs
- Wendy Carlos – Moog Modular
- Isao Tomita – EMS Sythi AKS
- Kraftwerk – EMS Synthi AKS, Fairlight CMI
- Jean-Michel Jarre – EMS Synthi AKS, ARP 2600
- Stevie Wonder – ARP 2500, Yamaha GX-1
- Herbie Hancock – Fairlight CMI
- Jan Hammer – Fairlight CMI
- Vangelis – Yamaha CS-80, Polymoog
- Prince – Oberheim OB-Xa
- Rush – Minimoog, Oberheim OB-Xa
- Tangerine Dream – Moog Modular
- Klaus Schulze – Moog Modular, ARP 2600
- Depeche Mode – E-MU Modular System
Owning an actual machine used by music pioneers carries a unique prestige. But even without a legendary pedigree, vintage synths still provide creative inspiration.
Vintage Synths as Smart Investments
With certain vintage synthesizers regularly selling for upwards of $10,000, it begs the question – are they reasonable financial investments beyond just novelty items?
In some cases, yes – vintage synths can be considered a type of alternative asset class similar to fine art, wine or antique cars. As synthesizer production becomes more and more digitized, the surviving analog keyboards from past golden ages increase in rarity and value.
Specific instruments like the Yamaha CS-80, Minimoog, and key modular Moogs have consistently trended upward in value over time. Mint condition units can sell for double their price from just 5-10 years ago.
Of course, not all vintage synths appreciate equally. Mass-produced digital synths from the 1980s often sell for less today than their original retail cost. And buyers must account for maintenance, repairs and restoration when acquiring 40-50 year old equipment.
But the high risk-reward proposition of buying that rare gem before it becomes unattainable is all part of the vintage synth collector’s allure. Getting in early on cult favorites that come to define an era offers serious future returns.
Restoring Vintage Synths
Part of properly maintaining any vintage synthesizer is being able to repair or restore worn components and features. Here are some key parts of the synth restoration process:
- Deep cleaning – Scrubbing residue and debris that builds up over decades of use
- Replacing potentiometers – Worn knobs and sliders cause crackling/issues
- Circuit board maintenance – Fixing old solder joints and connections
- Calibrating/tuning – Ensuring accurate pitch across the frequency range
- Refinishing – Sanding and re-painting/coating exterior bodies
- Fabrication – Recreating unsalvageable plastic or metal parts using specs
- Testing patches/banks – Verifying all original functions and programs work properly
- Upgrade mods – Optional added MIDI, CV, or flash storage mods
Accomplishing the above requires expertise in electronics, welding/painting for exteriors, and machining plastic/metal replacement parts as needed. The synth community has exploded with DIY repair guides and aftermarket part suppliers to support restoration of classics.
Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about rare and vintage synthesizers:
What makes vintage synthesizers so valuable?
Their original analog circuitry, historic significance as music pioneers, scarcity, and iconic association with famous albums/artists.
What are the most expensive vintage synthesizers?
Modular Moogs, Yamaha CS-80, EMS Synthi, early Fairlights, and Synclaviers command the highest prices.
How much does a Minimoog sell for today?
An original Minimoog D in great condition sells for $3000+, but can go higher with verified celebrity use.
What condition factors lower a vintage synth’s value?
Missing knobs, modded circuits, rusty components, scratched metal/wood, and improper tuning due to age.
How can you verify if a vintage synth is all original?
Check model numbers on boards and modules against schematics, ask for service history docs, and examine wear patterns closely.
Why were digital synths like the DX7 so revolutionary?
They brought affordable digital sounds like expertly sampled acoustic instruments to the mass consumer market.
How were early samplers like the Fairlight CMI operated?
They used CRT monitors, graphics tablets, light pens and early GUI interfaces to “paint” and loop samples by hand.
What was the last major vintage analog synth?
The Oberheim Matrix-12 released in 1985 stands as one of the final prestige analogs before cheap digital prevailed.
How durable are vintage plastics on old synths?
Certain components like knobs and battery covers have high risk of cracking over decades. Replacement parts may be needed.
The pioneering electronic keyboards invented between the 1960s and 1980s will likely never be surpassed in terms of sheer innovation. The original modular Moogs, Yamaha CS-80s, and Fairlights blazed new trails in music synthesis that all subsequent instruments followed.
Owning and experiencing any of these vintage instruments provides a direct link to the history and visceral sensation of electronic music’s earliest days. The collector’s market pays premiums of thousands of dollars for this transportive experience.
And yet, no modern software instrument or clones can quite capture the full magic. Be it the warmth of analog filters, the shifts of aging components, or the authentic exterior industrial designs, vintage synths offer something wonderfully imperfect that digital perfection lacks. A singular tone and spirit that producers eternally chase.
So as virtual instruments become ever more capable and convenient, the rarity and innovation of original electronic music machines grows exponentially. The towering value assigned to vintage synths today reflects far more than dollars and cents – but a fundamental human desire to directly connect with history, and shape the future.
Here are some additional frequently asked questions about vintage synthesizers:
How were early modular systems programmed/played?
Via manual patching of cables between various signal generating and processing modules. There was no keyboard, only control knobs.
What is CV/Gate and how did early synths use it?
CV (control voltage) electronically controlled pitch and timbre. Gate signals triggered notes on/off. It was an early form of synth automation.
What is the difference between analog and digital synthesizers?
Analog synths generated sound through actual electronic circuitry. Digital synths mathematically model waveforms using code and DSP.
What do terms like duophonic, polyphonic and monophonic mean?
Duophonic synths like the ARP Odyssey can play two notes simultaneously. Polyphonic synths can play multiple notes together. Monophonic ones can only play one note at a time.
What synthesizers used tape-based samples as a sound source?
The Mellotron played back short tape loops when keys were pressed. The Optigan used optical discs with pre-recorded tracks.
What is a patch in the context of vintage synths?
Here are some additional answers to questions about vintage synthesizers:
What is a patch in the context of vintage synths?
A patch refers to a specific setting of a synth’s parameters (filter cutoff, envelope times etc.) that creates a particular sound. Early synths had patch bays to “patch” modules together.
What is MIDI and why was it revolutionary for synths?
MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) allowed synths and other instruments to communicate and synchronize with each other using digital data, replacing CV/Gate.
What is a VCO in analog synthesizers?
VCO stands for voltage-controlled oscillator. It is the module that generates the raw waveforms and frequencies that get shaped into sounds.
Which artists used synthesizers most extensively in the 1970s and 1980s?
Pioneering electronic artists include Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis, and Isao Tomita among others.
How did keyboards and controllers evolve from early synths to the 80s?
Early synths lacked keys, then added small keyboards. Polyphonic synths enabled larger 5+ octave keyboards. MIDI let any controller connect.
What are examples of additive, subtractive, and FM synthesis?
Additive synths like the Synclavier added sine wave harmonics. Subtractive analogs like Moog filtered harmonics. FM digital synths modulated frequencies.
What is a synth “voice” and what is polyphony?
A voice is one distinct note that can be played simultaneously. For example, an 8-voice polyphonic synth can play 8 notes at once, while a monophonic has 1 voice.
How did sampling change music technology?
Sampling allowed any recorded sound to be played on a keyboard, manipulated, and integrated into compositions seamlessly alongside synthesizers.
I hope these additional details help answer some common vintage synthesizer questions! Let me know if you need any other synth history clarified.