The Donner B1 Analog Synth is not an extraordinary piece of kit. It’s certainly not the most innovative hardware you’re going to find this year. But this small synthesizer from a company that’s never made one before is still one of the most fascinating bits of gear released in 2022. Let’s explore why.
Donner has been a mysterious company. They’re based in China, and according to some accounts the company originally emerged to manufacture and sell guitar pedals on their site, eBay and Amazon instead of wholesaling to retailers. Eventually they expanded to manufacture woodwinds and stringed instruments, including actual guitars too. Few would consider their products top of the line (of any line), but some find them adequate. With the expansion there has been frequent user reports of wildly erratic quality control, from faulty electronics or poor construction materials, and of course, some who are quite happy with the product they’ve got for what they paid for it. It’s fair to say that the reception has been “mixed.”
After their rapid expansion, the company now presides over four separate brands including Eastar, Moukey, Reditmo and Donner itself, and for the American market at least still sells a lot more on Amazon than anywhere else, shipping from several warehouses and distribution hubs located in the United States.
Since Donner is based in China, it was really a matter of time until they began to expand into synthesizers and other electronic instruments as well.
The Donner B1 is the company’s first foray into analog synthesizers (and the only one currently showing in the synth and sequencer category of its website). To start off their new product line, they picked a classic (but, one might argue, an easy to reproduce one for an electronics company) by cloning the sound of the Roland TB-303.
The Donner B1 isn’t a straight “clone,” though. It boasts an overall new and pleasing design and has a few handy developments on the original model. Visually it looks inspired more by Roland’s AIRA line than any of the many 303 hardware clones on the market — maybe closest to the AIRA Compact J-6 synthesizer in terms of layout. But even here the resemblance is in passing, more about the “aesthetic” — buttons that maybe look similar, buttons and/or knobs which may be in the same places. But some thought went into the design of the faceplate that makes it very compelling to play with.
Knobs have been moved to the top, with control delay, distortion, saturation and a function Donner calls “ratchet,” and that’s a great description for it. The B1 is a single oscillator synthesizer with a 16-step sequencer.
To the right are 15 buttons (organized 3×5) under an LED screen for saving and navigating presets. The keys are backlit, and light up to illustrate and play-along with patterns saved in memory. Donner calls this a “beginner friendly” layout. There is MIDI in and out and it can be connected to a DAW, and there is also proprietary software for those who aren’t familiar with paging and scrolling through presets. (I didn’t use this and cannot comment on how good it is. I expect it’s not very.)
Donner put some R&D into this, and when you think about how badly it could have turned out — well, that didn’t happen. It’s priced at an irresistible $200-ish (and Donner almost always has ongoing promotions so you can probably buy it for a little less than that directly from their site). From a business standpoint, this is probably targeting the market for Behringer’s TD-03 clone.
Quality is going to be a question. My B1 is like any other synthesizer of similar manufacture. I would say it’s better than what I expected (the silicon keys are nice and feel more durable to me than if they had a soft plastic material equivalent). As far as the chips and boards inside, fears here are overblown. No matter what you buy, the chips and guts of most hardware are made in China or Mexico, even if they are “assembled” somewhere else (read something about the auto industry’s chip shortfalls if you don’t believe this). It’s a bargain for the price, especially if you are new to hardware or are searching for something to shake up your sound.