I originally asked Donner to send me a review unit explaining that I was hoping to review the Donner B-1 Analog Bass Synthesiser on the SynthGroups website, but they replied saying I didn’t have enough TikTok followers! Since when was this an important factor when deciding who to partner with when promoting music hardware! Do any of you even watch synth content on TikTok or upload your own jams there? Maybe I’m getting out of touch in my old age?
Anyway, still curious to try it, I ended up buying the Donner B-1 myself direct from the company website. When it arrived I was disappointed to see that it only came with a European style power adapter so I had to purchase a third party UK adapter before I could use it. If they ship worldwide they really need to start including the relevant power adapters in the box. Not a great start!
On a side note, while waiting for a power adapter I did find that the Donner B-1 could be powered using a USB-C 9V PD adapter using a PD capable USB Power Bank (as shown in the photo). Handy if you want to take it out and about and create patterns on the go.
First impressions were that Donner B-1 looks quite nice. The housing is all plastic but the case feels solid. However, the knobs are the worst looking/feeling I’ve used on any synth. They are hard cheap plastic with no grip at all. I guess you get what you pay for!
After unboxing the synth, you’ll see there is some protective film covering the black shiny plastic underneath the knobs with a tab that says to remove before use. So I pulled on the tab and started peeling back the film, but this made the Master knob fly off across the room! I found the only way to remove the plastic was to pull off the knobs first. Really odd choice to make you remove all of the knobs to remove the protective film!
Then, when I placed the Donner B-1 on my desk I found that it sat uneven and wobbled around in use. This is when I noticed two screws were missing from underneath! I found these loose in the packaging and had to screw them back in myself which stopped the wobble. So far not a great first impression!
Once I received my power adapter I plugged in the Donner B-1 Analog Bass Synthesiser and started playing through the preset patterns and tweaking the various parameters. Honestly this thing sounds great, definitely on a par with the Behringer TD-3 – if not better. It has all the control you’d expect from a TB-303 clone and it sounds authentic. The sequencer is easy to program and fully featured, and includes the ability to set different pattern lengths (although only when first programming the pattern) as well as live transpose. You can also play accents and slides live as the pattern plays and there’s a Hold button that when held will keep retriggering the currently playing step. The included distortion and delay effects sound great too. All this makes the Donner B-1 really fun to play live. Maybe the failings with the quality of the housing/knobs are all forgiven?
Unfortunately, however, Donner have decided to cram all of the important functions (like play, record, edit, change pattern, accent, slide, hold etc.) into a weird Casio calculator-style grid of buttons. They’re all backlit but the labels are underneath in dark print so you can’t see what you’re pressing in low light. I actually had to use a torch to operate the live accent and slide features during a performance! What’s stranger is the play button is buried in the middle of the other buttons making it easy to hit the wrong one when trying to start the sequencer. Why the designers thought this button layout was a good idea is beyond me!
I was happy to see that once I’d built a few patterns I could send Program Change Messages (PCM) via MIDI from by other gear to change patterns on the Donner B-1. The sequence started on time with no delay and everything stayed in perfect sync with no glitches as I changed patterns on my Elektron boxes. Unfortunately that’s as far as the MIDI control goes as there’s no support for MIDI CCs. I’m hoping this could be added in a firmware update.
In summary, I would say the Donner B-1 is a great alternative to the Behringer TD-3. It’s cheap, sounds excellent and its sequencer is easy to program and fully featured. It is, however, let down by its poor quality case/knobs and weird button layout.
Here’s an audio demo I recorded with the Donner B-1