The Best Hardware Synths – A Beginner’s Guide

Best Hardware Synths - The Best Synthesizers for Beginners

So you’ve decided to take the plunge and buy your first synthesizer? Great! There’s a whole sonic world out there to discover and create. Here we present to you some of the best synthesizers for beginners to get you started.


Table of Contents
  1. Our Top Choices from this Guide
  2. Full List of Best Synths Reviews
  3. Buying Guide – Choosing Your First Synth

Our Top Choices from this Guide

Best Affordable Synth

Behringer Neutron Semi-Modular

Behringer Neutron

Price @ Sweetwater

Pros: The Neutron is perhaps the best bang-for-your-buck synth in our list, as it has everything from analog oscillators, digital effects, to a full-on modular component.

Cons: Like most devices that try to be a jack-of-all-trades, users may feel a bit shorthanded when they finally come across the Neutron’s limits.

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Monophonic Synth

Novation Bass Station II

Novation Bass Station II

Price @ Amazon | Sweetwater

Pros: The Bass Station is a specialist synth. It is specially made to craft the most ground-breaking bass sounds you can ever imagine.

Cons: Monophonic synths have limited applications, and so does the Bass Station II, when compared to most synths in its price range.

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Polyphonic Synth

Moog Subharmonicon

Moog Subharmonicon

Price @ Sweetwater

Pros: The Moog Subharmonicon has a unique approach to polyphony and making the most out of its multiple oscillators.

Cons: The Subharmonicon can be a bit intimidating for beginners because of its intricate signal flow.

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Analog Synth

Behringer PRO-1

Behringer PRO-1

Price @ Amazon | Sweetwater

Pros: Behringer PRO-1 is a full-fledged analog synth. Blessed with oscillators that religiously mimicked Sequential Circuits’ Pro-One, Behringer’s recreation packs all of its analog goodness into a pretty Eurorack-compatible box.

Cons: Some may not like the fact that Behringer copies vintage synths down to the smallest detail.

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Digital Synth

Teenage Engineering OP-1

Teenage Engineering OP-1

Price @ Amazon | BH Photovideo

Pros: OP-1 has found phenomenal success in the synth community for obvious reasons which we will discuss below. Bubbling with features that the latest innovations in digital technology have to offer, OP-1 is a synthesizer slam dunk.

Cons: Operating OP-1 requires a bit of menu-diving which some users may find too tedious.

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Keyboard Synth

Behringer Poly D

Behringer Poly D

Price @ Amazon | Sweetwater

Pros: We choose Poly D because it is the only synth in our list that has a real keyboard aftertouch. Not a lot of manufacturers, especially analog ones, put aftertouch functionality into their products, so the aftertouch in the Poly D comes off as a pleasant surprise.

Cons: The Poly D only has four voices, which means keyboard players can only do four-note chords. If you’re looking for a synth where you can do extended chord voicings, you have to look elsewhere.

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Synth Module

Roland SE-02

Roland SE-02

Price @ Amazon | Sweetwater

Pros: This “Designer Boutique” synth from Roland is the result of a collaboration with analog veterans, Studio Electronics. This resulted in a synth with a smart signal architecture and easy integration with bigger synth ecosystems such as the Eurorack.

Cons: The SE-02 is monophonic, and that may leave some users looking for more voices under their fingers.

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Semi-Modular Synth

Korg Volca Semi-modular

Korg Volca Modular

Price @ Amazon | Sweetwater

Pros: Korg’s Volca Semi-Modular is technically semi-modular, but everything about it, from the sound to signal architecture, screams modular. Newbies will enjoy patching and conjuring the strangest sounds from this tiny machine.

Cons: The Volca Semi-modular is not as powerful as most of the other synths, and its small size may not please those who want something that looks more ‘serious.’

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The Best Synthesizers for Beginners

Korg Minilogue XD

Korg Minilogue XD

Price @ Amazon | Sweetwater

First up is Korg’s Minilogue XD which is part of their celebrated ‘Logue range of digital multi-engine analog synths. Based on the earlier Minilogue design, Minilogue XD sports a 4-voice architecture which can be stacked on top of each other. It also has a 3-octave slim-keyboard.

The multi-engine design beefs up the XD’s sound design capabilities with an FM/wavetable oscillator. Also included are high-quality effects that use 32-bit floating-point processing.

Best Features & Specs

Minilogue XD’s biggest asset is its digital multi-Engine capabilities. Aside from FM/wavetable oscillators, it has noise generators, variable phase modulation, and 16 slots for user oscillators. Considering how active the Prologue’s third-party community of fans and creators is, users of the Minilogue XD will certainly benefit from a wide variety of oscillators available. 16 slots for these oscillators are more than enough for any user.

Another important feature is the 16-step sequencer which can be used not only for sequencing but also for parameter locking and pattern-chaining. This enables users to perform long and complex sessions without needing a DAW. Other sequencing features include the ability to sequence voice modes, change gate length, swing, and sequence length parameters, among many others.

Minilogue XD’s built-in effects which include delay, mod, and reverb effects are incredibly detailed. Each of the effects also has stereo outputs, a nifty feature that was not included in the earlier Minilogue.

Bottom-line

Minilogue XD’s multi-engine format makes it a powerful hybrid synth that can deliver everything from nasty bass sounds to ethereal pads. Its 16-step sequencer enables users to put all of these sounds into practical use. But what really makes Minilogue XD special is its versatility and user-friendly architecture. Most of the features can be accessed with minimal menu-diving. This is thanks for its analog-based design which was intelligently synchronized to its digital capabilities.


Novation MiniNova

Novation MiniNova

Price @ Amazon | Sweetwater

Novations Mininova is more than the sum of its 256 preset patches. This little monster utilizes 14 waveforms, 36 wavetables, 20 digital waveforms, 14 filter types, six envelope generators. On top of that, users can create a chain of synth engine modules of up to 20 modules.

It has three octaves of mini-keys, some knobs, and eight “Animate” buttons which can be used to trigger instant modulations in the patches. Users of the Microkorg XL might notice the uncanny similarities in design.

Best Features & Specs

All of these features are packed inside Mininova’s lightweight body. These also include four performance knobs, pitch and mod wheels, and back-lit buttons.

Mininova was obviously designed for performance purposes. Its factory presets are arranged according to musical genres. These presets can be tweaked through the 24 cherry-picked parameters. Eight of these parameters can be accessed readily from the top of the interface. If you want to get into the nitty-gritty details, you have to dive into the Menu.

The arpeggiator has eight steps which can be engaged with using its eight buttons, one for each step. Users can use Ultranova sound packs available on Novation’s site to spice up their sets since the two synths are compatible.

Nonetheless, Mininova’s vocoder remains its selling point. Its vocoder presets use 12 bands which can be tweaked to create choir sounds, futuristic voices, and other goodies. Worth noting is the Auto-tune-esque Vocal Tune capability which offers three primary effects: Scale Correction, Keyboard Control and Pitch Shift. All of these enable users to mangle their voices beyond recognition.

Bottom-line

Novation’s Mininova is a performance beast. It boasts powerful sounds and a beginner-friendly architecture. While most advanced users have to dive deep into the menu, beginner synth users will appreciate Mininova’s accessibility.


Arturia Microbrute

Arturia Microbrute

Price @ Amazon | Sweetwater

After releasing the tiny Minibrute, Arturia zoomed in further with the Microbrute, an even smaller monophonic synth. Equipped with a single oscillator, a cherry-picked ensemble of filters and modulation matrices, knobs, semi-modular capabilities, and 25-mini-keys, the Microbrute is a stripped-down, no-nonsense tool.

Best Features & Specs

As we have already said, the Microbrute’s sound comes from a single voltage-controlled. oscillator. This VCO can produce three waveforms (saw, triangle, and square waves). These waveforms can be further shaped with three waveshapers called Ultrasaw, Pulse Width, and Metalizer.

Down the signal line, we have a Steiner-Parker filter which has lowpass, bandpass, and highpass modes. The Steiner-Parker filter is a diode ladder filter first used in the Synthacon synthesizer. This lends the Microbrute a classic and warm sound.

With only one ADSR envelope generator, the Microbrute also has a simple modulation matrix. Fortunately, the patch bay supports some complicated routing, especially with external devices. It provides 3.5mm CV outputs for most of the parameters, including the pitch, filter cutoff frequency, and even the effects.

Also included is a step sequencer. The built-in step sequencer is pretty basic, but its functionalities can be extended with MIDI if you choose to do so.

Last but not the least is Arturia’s Brute Factor which is some sort of overdrive. It can add thickness, overdrive, and distortion to the sound.

Despite the rustic set-up, the Microbrute’s versatile connectivity makes it an awesome option for manipulating external audio and interacting with other devices. This opens it up to playful experimentation, especially when connected to complementing instruments with high-quality cables.

Bottom-line

Because it doesn’t have a fast/slow VCF contour options, your Attack, Decay, and Release stages are limited to 2.5 seconds. That means you won’t be able to conjure long brooding pads and sweeps (longer than 2.5 seconds) from the Microbrute. But the Microbrute’s semi-modular build and portability make it a great introduction to analog and modular synthesis. If you want to dig digger into this territory, the Microbrute is an awesome option.


Roland GAIA SH-01 Virtual Analog Synthesizer

Roland GAIA SH-01

Price @ Amazon | Sweetwater

Using three virtual analog engines, Roland’s GAIA SH-01 synthesizer can deliver rich sounds that maximize its hybrid capabilities. Despite its humble appearance, it can deliver earth-shaking sounds. This 64-polyphonic synth is also great for live performances.

Best Features & Specs

Each of the three engines has a filter, oscillator, envelope, amplifier, and LFO. That practically makes the GAIA-SH-01 a combination of three synths.

Despite the lack of a menu, the GAIA-SH-01’s intuitive design brings it closer to synth newbies. The signal flow, for instance, is arranged in a linear left-to-right flow. Users simply have to choose the basic tones from the Tone selection buttons on the far left and then further shape the sound through the LFOs, filters, and so on, as one goes to the right.

Having three separate signal flows makes this synth massive enough, but Roland didn’t let up in the sound-shaping tools either. The LFO section, for example, has six waveforms. There is also a Modulation lever that can further modulate any LFO parameter.

At the end of the signal flow are a bunch of effects, including reverbs, bit crushers, and delays. There is also an on-board “phrase recorder” for recording patches and performances, making recall and performance a lot easier.

Bottom-line

Roland did a great job here by introducing analog features to a simplified digital system. Its architecture is never confusing despite there being three different tone generators and a whole bunch of tweaking options.

The lack of a menu adds to the GAIA SH-01’s authentic analog feel. If anything, it adds a tactile element to sound building that makes it a lot more fun to use.


Behringer Model D Analog Synthesizer

Behringer Model D

Price @ Amazon | Sweetwater

Behringer’s Model D Analog Synthesizer is a Eurorack-sized monophonic synthesizer. Sporting a classic (read: Moog-like) modular look and functionality, Behringer’s Model D is no vintage gimmick. It has three powerful voltage-controlled oscillators which are tamed by Behringer’s famous voltage-controlled filter. While many expressed disapproval over its almost identical look to the older Moog Model D, Behringer delivers with its solid sound and surprising versatility.

Best Features & Specs

At the heart of Behringer’s Model D are three oscillators capable of producing six waveforms (triangle, shark’s tooth, ramp, and three different kinds of pulse). The third oscillator can be used as a modulation source via the keyboard CV or a patch. Add to that a noise generator that can render either white or pink noise for that extra crunch.

An interesting feature is an overdrive circuit that users can control through the Ext In jack and volume potentiometer in the Mixer. This can instantly transform a mild drone into a loud squeal that can be further tamed and shaped.

Behringer’s Model D is also Eurorack-compatible. Moreover, up to 16 Model D’s can be poly-chained to create a polyphonic polysynth.

This synth’s keyboard, however, lacks both velocity and aftertouch. Nonetheless, it has MIDI modulation capabilities which makes it MIDI-playable.

Bottom-line

While the Behringer’s Model D’s similarity to Moog’s Model D is too close to be ignored, don’t think that this is a mere rip-off. Behringer’s powerful oscillators, filters, and LFOs, and its impressively durable build makes it a respectable portrait of Moog’s masterpiece. If you’ve just started venturing into modular land and you don’t have a budget for Moog’s Model D, Behringer’s offering is not a bad alternative.


Korg Monologue

Korg Monologue

Price @ Amazon | Sweetwater

After the success of the Minilogue, Korg decided to scale it down and release a monophonic synth. Made for monophonic leads and bass sounds, this analog synth packs a bite-sized punch for those looking for a user-friendly monosynth.

Best Features & Specs

The Korg Monologue has two oscillators, each with three waveforms. Only Osc2 has Pitch and Octave parameters. Noise generation is available, also in the Osc2. All of these waveforms can be shaped and modulated.

A mixer section allows independent controls for each oscillator as well as the injection of third-party effects. The signal then passes through a two-pole filter.

The Monologue uses a Motion Sequencing Technology which allows users to take full advantage of the 16-step sequencer. Up to four lanes of parameter automation can be used to add some interest to the sequences and make it more performance-ready.

One nifty feature is the OLED oscilloscope which visualizes how the signal is shaped by the filters, modulation, and so on. This added visual feedback makes it easier to ‘draw’ specific sounds.

There is also a built-in Drive circuit for punch distortion and punch. A key Korg feature, this Drive circuit works best to give the signal more percussive texture, much like in the Volcas.

One surprisingly missing component though is an arpeggiator. Given how powerful the Motion Sequencing technology can be, even a simple arpeggiator would have been appreciated. Fortunately, the Monologue allows for MIDI interfacing which makes arpeggiation possible within a DAW environment.

Bottom-line

Korg’s Monologue has sparse features, but it utilizes Korg’s signature oscillators and Drive circuit. Fairly easy to use, the Monologue is perfect for producing acid basslines and razor-sharp leads. It’s a great analog machine that has specific uses and thus merits its place among the best synthesizers for beginners.


Behringer PRO-1 Tabletop Synthesizer

Behringer PRO-1

Price @ Amazon | Sweetwater

Behringer went all-in into the analog synth market recently. This brave entry is marked by the release of several tabletop machines, including the Behringer PRO-1 Tabletop Synth. This classic-looking semi-modular synth boasts a purely analog signal path, a four-pole analog filter, and Eurorack compatibility.

Best Features & Specs

Behringer’s PRO-1, like most of their synth products, looks similar. Yes, they drew inspiration from Sequential Circuits’ Pro-One analog mono-synth this time. This synth, however, came out in 1981, so Behringer’s ‘reimagination’ is more of like a modernized reproduction.

PRO-1 has two oscillators which produce sawtooth and square waves. A variable pulse which modulates from 50% to 100% is also available. The second oscillator has a triangle wave capability. Both oscillators have a white noise generator.

The signal then goes through a four-pole filter which can self-resonate and become some sort of a sine wave oscillator. We also have ADSR envelopes for the filter and the amplitude envelope. PRO-1 is technically duophonic although the oscillators pass through the same filters and envelopes. Finally, it sports an arpeggiator and a step sequencer

It has a Drone mode which can be massaged through its complex path modulation matrix. Three patch sources can be routed to five destinations.

That being said, the PRO-1 can be used with MIDI. It can also be polychained into a 16-part polysynth and even integrated into a Eurorack setup.

Bottom-line

Behringer PRO-1’s biggest appeal is its pure analog architecture which may please modular purists. It being a budget option also makes it accessible to those new to modular synthesis. But despite its intimidating facade, PRO-1 is a powerful synth especially for making rich drones and soundscapes.


Moog Subharmonicon Semi-Modular Polyrhythmic Analog Synthesizer

Moog Subharmonicon

Price @ Sweetwater

During the 2018 Moogfest, Moog, known for creating the best hardware synths, unveiled the device which will eventually become the Subharmonicon. Fans were intrigued by its novel sound generation design. But this semi-modular analog synth’s most striking feature is its ability to create polyrhythms.

Best Features & Specs

The Subharmonicon has two oscillators with two sub-signals each, making a total of six signals. The levels of each of these signals can be mixed before the filter stage. This architecture, along with the capacity to accept external LFO via the patchbay, enables the Subharmonicon to create rich PWM timbres.

As for the filter, the Subharmonicon has 24dB/octave low-pass ladder filter. Controls are available for cutoff frequency and resonance.

There’s also two stacks of sequencers with a total of eight steps on the left side of the synth, taking up about a third of the interface. This tells you that the meat of the Subharmonicon is in its sequencing and rhythmic features. It must be said, though, that it’s a bit difficult to be precise when using the sequencer by just tweaking with the potentiometers, especially when you choose the +/- 5 octave option.

This synth’s most innovative feature is the polyrhythm section. This section allows the user to shape the sequencer steps using four primary ‘rhythm’ knobs. Like the oscillators, the rhythms are to be manipulated based on mathematical proportions of f/n (f is the master clock while n is any integer from 1 to 16, corresponding to musical time). This allows users to craft wild rhythms (and microrhythms!) that can bring some funk into a lackluster sequence.

The Subharmonicon has a third of its interface dedicated to the patchbay, making almost every parameter reroutable. On top of that, it is compatible with the Moog Mother 32 and the Moog DFAM. It can even be pulled out of the box for a Eurorack set-up.

Bottom-line

Moog never fails to amaze its fans. The same can be said with the public’s reaction to the Moog Subharmonicon. Everything about the Subharmonicon shows why this is so. Everything from the visuals, the subharmonic oscillators, and the polyrhythmic features, make the Subharmonicon a modern synthesizer gem.


Teenage Engineering OP-1 Portable Synthesizer

Teenage Engineering OP-1

Price @ Amazon | BH Photovideo

Don’t be fooled by the bubbly colors and its toy-like size. Teenage Engineering’s OP-1 is a heavyweight among featherweights. Weaving together eight synthesizer engines, a sampler, three sequencers, a bunch of effects, a vintage tape-era recorder, some mastering tools, and even a motion sensor, it’s mind-boggling how Teenage Engineering managed to cram all of that into one benign-looking machine.

Best Features & Specs

Sound-wise, OP-1 has eight synth engines (which practically means eight separate synths): Cluster, Digital, Dr Wave, FM, Phase, Pulse, Sampler, and String. Each of these engines has six-note polyphony.

But what takes the cake is the Tape Recorder feature. Eerily realistic, this recording feature allows you to capture any performance from any source (thanks for OP-1’s versatile connectivity). The four available mono tracks can be processed through a 3-band mixer (which includes a compressor), a mastering effect, and a drive section to push the volume to professional-sounding levels. It’s an entire studio in a piece of equipment no bigger than a tablet.

OP-1 has a unique ensemble of effects aside from the usual fare of delays and reverb. For instance, there is the Grid effect which sounds like a rusty analog flanger. There’s also something called ‘hacked telephone system’ effect which sounds like something you’d hear from an old sci-fi flick.

Another interesting feature is the FM radio. No, this FM radio is not just for listening to your favorite DJs. The signal from the FM radio, in fact, can be used to modulate any signal. The OP-1 also allows you to modulate the signal using the line input or the microphone.

Needless to say, the creative possibilities that OP-1 opened up are endless and it deserves its spot in everybody’s list of the best synthesizers for beginners.

Bottom-line

Teenage Engineering’s OP-1 is among the most expensive synths in our list, but this is for many good reasons. It is jam-packed up with features, from synthesis, recording, sampling, and even performance capabilities that goes beyond any expectation.


Korg MicroKORG Synthesizer/Vocoder

Korg MicroKORG

Price @ Amazon | Sweetwater

Considered by many as one of the classic synths, Korg’s MicroKORG’s Synth/ Vocoder is a dual-oscillator DSP synthesizer with a vocoder. It was considered revolutionary during the time of its release in 2002 for the realism of its 64 DWGS waveforms and is still in production today.

Best Features & Specs

Right off the bat, the MicroKorg offers 128 preset programs which can be easily accessed using two knobs. The presets are arranged roughly by genre (Hip-hop, Electro, Trance, etc), which tells you that Korg targets a consumer audience with this product. Nonetheless, each of these programs can be easily modified and overwritten for feature recall.

The MicroKorg’s 8-band vocoder is its most prominent feature. One nifty feature of MicroKorg’s vocoder is the ability to capture formants of the user’s voice. The captured sample can then be played and modified further using four filter modes, modulation effects, and delay effects.

It has 37 velocity-sensitive mini-keys. Unfortunately, it has no aftertouch sensitivity.

The MicroKorg is also limited in terms of voices as it only has 4-voice polyphony. Two timbres can be played in Poly Mode (if you want to play bass on the left and a lead on the right), further dividing the polyphony into two. Finally, in Unison mode, you can layer all four voices to create a thicker sound, but that ultimately turns the MicroKorg into a monophonic synth.

This 4-voice polyphony shows its charm in the vocoder. Users can use their voices as modulators to shape the four timbres dynamically. Other inputs can be used for this purpose through two Audio Input slots.

Bottom-line

The MicroKorg is a solid entry-level synth that can lend itself to performance quite easily. The vocoder feature also opens up many possibilities of shaping the Microkorg’s sound.


Novation Bass Station II Analogue Mono-Synth

Novation Bass Station II

Price @ Amazon | Sweetwater

A progeny of Novation’s classic Bass Station, this 25-key monophonic synth is powered by two oscillators working alongside a sub-oscillator. This makes the Bass Station II a full-fledged bass synth equipped with all the tools for creating the biggest bass sounds.

Best Features & Specs

Some may be surprised that the Bass Station II, like its predecessor, is monophonic and mono-timbral. Indeed, it harks back to the original’s analog design. But a significant departure is the digital sophistication that happens under the box.

The Bass Station II has two oscillators, a sub, and three other generators including a noise generator, a ring modulator, and an optional external input. These are already quite a handful. A pre-filter mixer section allows you to mix these sounds to your liking.

Users have two choices for filters, Classic and Acid. Classic is an adjustable filter with low, band, and high pass options. The Acid filter, on the other hand, is a throwback to the Roland TB-303 with the squealing and growling that it introduces into the sound.

A strong modern feature is an arpeggiator that boasts 32 arp patterns. The on-board sequencer also allows storing up to four banks of 32 notes.

Finally, the Bass Station II has an overdrive circuit that comes in pre-filter. If that is not enough dirt for you, you can activate the Distortion rotary. Use both effects at your own discretion (or pleasure).

Bottom-line

The Bass Station II’s appeal lies mostly in its analog look, but it has enough functionality to justify its existence. Worth noting are the Acid filter and the Overcuit functions which adds an edge to the Bass Station’s powerful sounds.


Korg MS-20 Mini

Korg MS-20 Mini

Price @ Amazon | Sweetwater

The relaunched version of the Korg MS-20 may be smaller but it packs the same punch that its older and chunkier version has become known for. Aside from being almost identical to the original, it introduces USB and MIDI connectivity to satisfy the needs of modern producers.

Best Features & Specs

The MS-20 isa veritable recreation of the original. It has two oscillators with ring modulation. Osc1 has tri, saw, variable square/pulse, and white noise, while Osc2 has saw, square, pulse, and the aforementioned ring modulation.

Korg, however, decided to include digital stabilization. It doesn’t influence the sound too much though, and the stabilization ensures that the machine is always in tune.

In terms of the filters, MS-20 Mini sounds like the original’s Korg 35 filter. One subtle difference, however, is that the Mini seems a bit cleaner. While the original gives the sound a gentle fuzz, there is less of this overdriven grit in the Mini. This may be a deliberate choice as this distorted artifact can become unwieldy when the signal flow becomes too hot.

Another significant deviation is the replacement of the ¼ inch jack inputs with ⅛ patching jacks. This makes the MS-20 compatible with most contemporary analog set-ups, including Euro-rack configurations.

Bottom-line

The MS-20 Mini retains almost all of the original’s sound and features while adding some modern conveniences such as MIDI and USB connectivity. It has a lower noise floor than the original. More obviously, it is 14% smaller than the original, making it easier to carry around for performances.


Roland JD-Xi Interactive Crossover Synthesizer

Roland JD-Xi

Price @ BH Photovideo | Sweetwater

Roland’s çrossover synth is a total synth package. Packing four independently programmable parts, users will be satisfied with the equal mix of digital, analog, and sequencing capabilities available in this budget synth. The icing on the cake is a competent vocoder.

Best Features & Specs

The JD-Xi brings together two digital synth engines, a digital percussion machine, and a pure analog synth machine.

The two digital synths use Roland’s Supernatural synthesis engine which utilizes Supersaw and PCM–based sources alongside the usual virtual analog waves. These sounds can be further shaped with seven filter types.

As for the digital percussion machine, Roland included 33 factory kits from their classic drum machines such as the TR606 up to the TR909. Each kit has 26 voices, and each of these voices has been constructed from four wave generators. Roland did not hold back on this department.

Finally, we have a pure analog machine that can generate saw, triangle, and square waveforms. The inclusion of this analog portion may seem unnecessary, but it adds to the value of the synth.

It’s also surprising that they even added a sub-oscillator (although it is set at a fixed volume). However, as expected, there is not a lot of space for knob tweaking on the analog front, and users must do a bit of menu-diving to give the analog signal some pulse-width modulation, for example.

There’s also a fairly competent sequencer for creating full-song users the four given parts. Like most of the greatest hardware sequencers out there, JD-Xi’s sequencer allows users to modify sequences and parameters on the fly.

Slap on top of all of that the arpeggiator which has 128 presets, and a surprisingly beautiful-sounding vocoder. Roland JX-Di is a total bargain.

Bottom-line

All in all, JD-Xi is jam-packed with features. It almost feels like an overkill considering that it is not at all an expensive synth. It may come across as toy-like because of the plastic casing, but it is a solid synth that can be used for any kind of project.


Korg Volca Keys Analogue Loop Synth

Korg Volca Keys Analogue Loop Synth

Price @ Amazon | Sweetwater

Korg’s Volca Keys may easily fit into a pouch bag, but there is a world of sounds inside this portable analog synth. Equipped with 3-voice polyphony which can be stacked as chords or combined into layered timbres, Volca Keys packs the elegance of an analog synth to something only a little bit bigger than a foot pedal.

Best Features & Specs

Although the Volca Keys has a full analog signal path, control management is done digitally. This effectively makes the Volca Keys a hybrid synth, as expected from a synth of this size. This enables users to control the Volca Keys via MIDI not only in terms of notes but also parametrically. The MIDI-controllable parameters include filter cut-off, delay time, and sequencing.

As for the sequencer, Volca Keys has one 16-step sequencing function. Recording is also possible. Up to eight sequences can be recorded.

Now for the sound. For something than you can buy under $150, Volca Keys sounds like absolute gold. Each of the three voices can be tweaked with carefully-picked parameters.

Although it demands more amplification because of its low gain levels, it has a self-tuning function that addresses tuning problems prevalent among analog synths.

Bottom-line

Korg’s Volca Keys has a straightforward architecture, an unassuming visual look, and a tiny frame, but its triple synthesis engines can produce mammoth sounds. Equally impressive is its sequencer which can be controlled by MIDI.


Behringer Poly D Polyphonic Analog Synthesizer

Behringer Poly D

Price @ Amazon | Sweetwater

Framed in a stylish wooden box is Behringer’s reboot of the classic Model D analog synth, the Poly D. This 4-voiced polyphonic analog machine is a faithful recreation of the Model D with some extra features to keep it in tune with the demands of the modern world.

Best Features & Specs

As an accurate recreation, the Poly D utilizes the same all-analog signal path and sound generation model. It has four oscillators, three of which capable of producing triangular, hybrid triangular/saw; saw, square, wide pulse, and narrow pulse waveforms. The fourth, a surprising addition, can also generate a reverse saw wave.

The synth has three modes: monophonic, polyphonic, and unison. When in monophonic mode, users can choose which oscillator to use. They can play four-note chords in polyphonic mode (time to brush up on those sweet maj7 chords!). Lastly, unison allows users to layer multiple oscillators and create rich, layered timbres.

While the Poly-D only users one filter, its 24dB Ladder Filter is strong enough to control the four VCOs. Users can manipulate Cutoff Frequency, Emphasis, and Contour through this filter.

At the other end of the signal path are two effects, the J60-modeled BBD Stereo analog chorus and an overdrive circuit based on the DS1 distortion.

Behringer added some other goodies which the original Model-D lacked. This includes keyboard aftertouch and MIDI and USB connectivity for external modulation source input. The arpeggiator and the 32-step sequencer are also beefed up compared to the original model.

Bottom-line

Despite its smaller size, Behringer’s budget-friendly Model-D reimagination is a powerful machine that goes beyond what the original was capable of. While it is a faithful reconstruction of the best hardware synths, it gives the Model D a breath of fresh air.


Korg Volca Modular Semi-Modular Synthesizer with Sequencer

Korg Volca Modular

Price @ Amazon | Sweetwater

This entry into the Volca platform is a fully patchable semi-modular. May it be as a beginner synth or as an addition to an existing Eurorack rig, Korg’s Volca Modular is a legit machine for those looking to get into ‘West Coast-style’ synthesis.

Best Features & Specs

Like most Korg synths, the Volca Modular has two oscillators with an analog FM (frequency modulation) component. This FM component is a bit unexpected but very much welcome especially for those who wish to get into ‘West Coast-style’ synthesis.

‘West Coast-style’ synthesis is the process of adding harmonics to a sound rather than removing frequencies as in subtractive synthesis. In the Volca Modular, this process is done via FM which makes the signal flow less linear.

Speaking of signal flow, the Volca Modular has 50 patch points. Korg even provides 20 patch cables in the package.

Other interesting goodies that Korg included in this charming synth options to introduce different musical modes, micro-tuning, and even custom musical scales. Used in tandem with the Volca Modular arpeggiator and 16-step sequencer, it can produce unusual melodies and harmonic patterns.

Even the sequencer has its own quirks such as the bounce mode where it plays through a sequence forward and backward, and the stochastic mode where it goes through the sequence while also randomly bouncing forward and backward.

On top of all that, it has a built-in spatial reverb. It is perfect for smoothing out that the harsh tones that the Volca is capable of producing.

Bottom-line

The Korg Volca Modular is a perfect introduction to modular synthesis, definitely among the best synthesizers for beginners, because of its pure analog signal flow and patchability. The FM component also sets it apart from most synths of its size.


Behringer Neutron Semi-Modular Analog Synth

Behringer Neutron

Price @ Sweetwater

Continuing their entry into the modular synth territory, Behringer released another semi-modular synth with extensive patching capability. But rather than ripping off another classic synth, they decided to dig dipper into their bag of tricks and come up with an original device. Sporting a 90s-style facade in raging red, the Behringer Neutron Semi-modular is another awesome addition to the company’s fast-growing inventory.

Best Features & Specs

At the very heart of the Neutron are two oscillators based on the Curtis CEM3340 chip, a classic chip that has serviced the best hardware synths such as the Jupiter6, and Prophet5. The oscillators can generate sine, saw, tri, and square waves, but it can also go into Tone Mode which allows you to add some harmonics through the Width and Shape controls. These two oscillators rub shoulders with a white noise oscillator. An external audio source can also be patched via the rear audio input or the patch bay.

These oscillators can mesh together through Oscillator sync. After this, it goes through a 12db/octave filter which is equipped with the usual lowpass, highpass, and bandpass design. More filtering options can be patched in via the patch bay.

Speaking of patch bays, patchability is one of the Neutron’s strongest suits. It has 56-patch points on the far right side of the front panel. This patch bay allows total control over the signal flow and even a bit of inter-device connectivity. As expected, Neutron can be integrated into a Eurorack set-up.

A bonus is a BBD (Bucket Brigade Device) delay and a built-in overdrive unit.

Bottom-line

Considering that this is Behringer’s few ‘original’ synth designs, we’d have to say that it is not bad at all. The design may be a bit too square-ish, and the huge patch bay may be a bit overwhelming for newbies, but the Neutron is a great semi-modular synth.


Behringer CAT Desktop Duophonic Analog Synthesizer Module

Behringer CAT

Price @ BH Photovideo | Sweetwater

Let’s keep the Behringer combo going and head to the CAT Desktop, a duo-phonic analog synth based on the classic Octave Cat. The Octave Cat is famous for producing the sounds of the Chemical Brothers, OMD, Rod Argent, and others. Behringer’s duophonic version doesn’t stray away from the Octave Cat’s sound aside from doing away with the original’s keyboard.

Best Features & Specs

The CAT has two oscillators, the first of which can produce saw, tri, modulated pulse, and sub-octave square waves. The second oscillator can do the same except the tri wave. Both oscillators can take six modulation sources through the modulation level attenuators and other switches. These sources, namely, are the LFO waves, a sample and hold signal, the ADSR envelope, ASR envelope, and the oscillators (for self-oscillation).

This synth has the same VCF as that of the Octave Cat. Interestingly, the filter can be modulated with the same six modulation sources as the oscillator.

One interesting feature here is an attack/release transient generator which can generate the Octave Cat’s definitive attack character. If you’ve heard of the Chemical Brothers’ addictive punchy drums, you may already know what we mean.

Another powerful feature is the sample and hold. When set to noise, it can produce some wild other-worldly purrs and snarls, not unlike some of the best hardware samplers in the market today.

The best synthesizers for beginners prioritize connectivity. Naturally, the Behringer CAT is Eurorack and poly-chaining compatible.

Bottom-line

While the CAT’s duophony (two voices only) may seem a bit limiting, you’ll soon learn that it’s more than enough to handle for such a flexible synth. The patching option extends the CAT’s signal flow and opens up many sound design possibilities.


Roland SE-02 Analog Synthesizer Module

Roland SE-02

Price @ Amazon | Sweetwater

Roland already has a respectable position in the audio electronics market, so when it decided to collaborate with Studio Electronics, everybody was all ears. This collaboration gave birth to the first of the Roland’s “Designer Boutique” synthesizers, the Roland SE-02. This monophonic analog synth has three voltage-controlled oscillators, a 24dB lowpass filter, and a dual-gain stage amplifier.

Best Features & Specs

Straight out of the box, users can dive into the 384 presets. There are 128 slots available for user-made presets. This makes preset recall very easy which is unusual among analog monosynths.

The SE-02 has three oscillators, each capable of producing MiniMoog-esque waveforms. Osc2 and Osc3 can be used to modulate Osc1. Each oscillator also has an intriguing Lo function which is sort of like another LFO apart from the main LFO. All these can create subtly-textured and even polyrhythmic timbres. On top of all that, there is a temperature stabilization that prevents the synth from falling out of tune.

Roland decided to pack in some digital features too, such as cross-modulation, an LFO with nine waveforms, envelope sweeping and inverting, and a digital delay.

A highlight in the SE-02 is the 16-step sequencer. Users can lock one parameter each to every step in the sequencer which allows almost limitless variations. It is also possible to change the first and last step of the sequence, to add shuffles, change direction (forward, backward, random, mute notes, and many other features. The SE-02 allows total performance which makes it an enjoyable live instrument as well as a studio synth.

Bottom-line

Roland SE-02 is brimming with features, thanks to its intelligent architecture. The parameters in the SE-02 can be easily re-routed without the need for patch bays and menu-diving. More importantly, it is capable of generating powerful monophonic sounds that can be sequenced in more than a few interesting ways.


Yamaha Reface CS Virtual Analog Synthesizer

Yamaha Reface CS

Price @ Sweetwater

Last on our list is a unique virtual analog synth from Yamaha’s Reface range. Inspired by the classic CS-80 polyphonic synth, CS’s engine is a reconstructed Analog Physical Modelling engine. This means that although its architecture is analog, the sound is produced digitally. This enables the CS to pack more than a few features within this wholesome-looking machine.

Best Features & Specs

Make no mistake about it – the CS is fundamentally analog. This is why despite it being ‘virtual’, the CS does not have any presets. This gives the synth a vintage feel that pushes users to make their sounds from scratch.

Users can use five different types of synthesis. Each of these synthesis types has its respective Texture and Mod sliders. The exact parameters that these slides are in charge of vary according to the synthesis type being used.

Further changes can be enacted with the LFO, the filter and resonance sliders, the amplitude envelope, and others. More dramatic changes can be done with the effects module with four effects, each with Depth and Rate sliders.

The Yamaha Reface CS thus streamlines the synthesis process, making the CS very easy to use. Moreover, it gives the users a lot of freedom in terms of sound which make it on par with the best hardware synths out there.

Bottom-line

Yamaha’s Reface CS stands out in this list for its user-friendly interface and strong synthesis features. With neither a menu nor a patch bay, the CS puts its physically-modeled engine to full use by mapping the most important parameters intuitively.


How to Choose Your First Synth

The market today is overflowing with synths of all shapes and sizes. This is why it is important to first decide for yourself what kind of machine you need. There are some pertinent factors that you need to consider when choosing the synth that best suits your needs.

What is a Synthesizer?

But first, what’s a synthesizer, exactly?

A synthesizer is a machine that can generate audio signals. The process of creating audio signals is called synthesis. Today, there are many ways to do synthesis, including digital means which have become the norm in music production today.

Synthesizers are generally divided between analog synths and digital synths. Analog synths make sounds from pure electricity while digital synths use computer chips. Today, most synths use a mix of both technologies.

How Synthesizers Generate Sound?

So how do synthesizers create sound?

Well, there are many ways. For instance, there is something called subtractive synthesis which is considered as the most basic form of synthesis. In subtractive synthesis, the base sound is produced by a component called an oscillator. This oscillator creates basic waveforms such as sine waves, square waves, and others. These waveforms are the basic ingredients of all sounds we hear in music and as well as in nature.

To shape these basic waves, the signal must pass through a filter. A filter, simply put, takes away certain frequencies from the base waveform to modify the sound – hence, the ‘subtractive’ aspect of the process.

After the filter, the sound is further modified by a variety of components. For instance, the sound can be modified by an envelope. The envelope dictates how the sound changes through time. One common envelope is the volume envelope which dictates how loud or soft a signal can be. Other kinds of envelopes can modify the sound’s pitch or some other parameter.

The sound can also pass through a low-frequency oscillator or an LFO. An LFO is a frequency that is below 20Hz that can change the sound by giving it some sort of pulse. This adds texture to the sound so it doesn’t just sound like a steady beep.

More advanced synths use more complicated filters, envelopes, and LFOs. Some even modify the path of the signal and modulate one part of the signal into another. To give you an example, it is possible to send the LFO’s signal to the filter. This way, the filter does not just block certain frequencies like an on and off switch. Rather, the filter can turn on and off according to the rhythm of the LFO’s pulse. These kinds of changes can be enacted manually by connecting modules through patch cables.

Finally, the synthesizer can also process external signals (for example, audio from another source) to modify the signal. For instance, the audio signal can be sent to the LFO so that the LFO’s behavior corresponds to that of the audio signal. This is called modulation. Modulation can enhance a sound in a lot of interesting ways.

Each synthesizer has its own approach to this basic process. No two synthesizers can be totally alike. Even the smallest changes such as temperature, voltage, the age of the synthesizer, etc, subtly affect the sound of the synthesizer.

All of these make synthesis a really interesting part of audio production. It is like conjuring a magical spell or cooking soup. Far from being a dry intellectual exercise or a random fiddling with knobs, synthesis is a very subtle art. Every synth is a unique portal to this new territories.


How to Choose

Now here are some factors to consider when choosing your first synth.

Polyphonic vs Monophonic

Polyphonic means that a synth is capable of producing more than one (monophonic) sound. If you’re looking for a bass synth, a monophonic synth may be enough for you. But if you want to create multi-layered soundscapes or if you want to play some chords, you have to get a polyphonic synth. Naturally, polyphonic synths are more generally expensive because they use more than one oscillator.

Analog vs Digital

Digital synths are usually smaller, lighter, cheaper, and a lot more powerful than analog. So why do people still buy analog? Well, some people want analog simply because of IT IS analog. All of the sounds that come from an analog sound come from pure electricity, rather than computerized code relayed out of the speakers. However, they are also more difficult to use.

Choosing between analog and digital is a matter of taste, convenience, and budget. It must be noted, though, that most synths nowadays, even supposedly analog ones, have some sort of digital component. It is because pure analog synths can be finicky, unwieldy, and massive.

Keyboard vs Module

Some synths have a keyboard so that users can send musical commands to the synth. However, some synths focus on the architecture of the sound itself, so they do away with the keyboard altogether. Most modern modules accept MIDI data and thus can be played with an external keyboard controller if you choose to do so.

If you’re doing a lot of jazz live performances, you should probably get a synth with a keyboard. On the other hand, if you do a lot of drones and slow, evolving landscapes, a module with a lot of knobs and patching possibilities can be more fun to play with.

Modular vs Semi-modular vs Non-modular

When we say that a synth is modular, it means that it can be a part of a bigger ensemble. That also means it is just a ‘module’ in a larger synth.

Today, there is a trend among synth makers to create smaller, vintage-style dedicated modules (for example, a single oscillator or a single filter) that users can mix and match to create their own sound. Modular synths are significantly more difficult to use and carry around and are also a lot more expensive.

Most synths are non-modular, which means that they are complete and self-sustaining sound generating machines. Most users who know nothing about synths can plug a non-modular synth and make it sound okay. In short, they are easier to use and perform with.

Finally, there are hybrids that have modular and semi-modular components. An example of this is the Roland JD-Xi which is a digital synth with an analog patching bay.

Choosing between the three depends on your creative process and, well, your budget.

Built-in Effects

Some synths have built-in effects for some extra sweetening. These are totally optional, and you may not even need it if you have your own effects modules. Nonetheless, they may sometimes be part of the package and may even be crucial to the synth’s sound. A good example is the Korg Volca Modular’s reverb which has a unique character that perfectly complement’s the synth’s sounds.

Multi-Timbral

Timbre refers to the character of the sound. Timbre is what differentiates a violin sound from a guitar sound even if a musician plays identical notes. Some synths are capable of producing multiple layers of timbres to create new timbres. Some synths, such as the Korg MicroKorg, can even play two timbres at the same (one at the bass notes and the other at the higher notes). If you need to play multiple sounds at the same time, you’ll obviously need a multi-timbral synth.

Purpose

The biggest factor that will determine what synth you have to buy is what do you envision to do with the synth. Remember that all of these synths are awesome, but you don’t need all of them. Thinking about your immediate creative needs and priorities is crucial.

One way to approach this is by thinking about what immediate needs. For example, if you already have a polyphonic synth or an electric guitar, you can go for something like the Roland SE-02 to make some sweet drum patterns to jam with. Try to avoid redundancies in your studio, or else you’ll have too much on your plate.

Also, try to think more practically. For example, if you’re in a band, you may need a synth that you can easily use to jam with your bandmates. A modular kit may look good on stage, but transporting a giant box from one venue to the next may pose some serious logistical problems down the line.

Connections (in/outs)

Most modern synths can be connected to MIDI and USB connections but you still have to check just in case. Older synths such as the MicroKorg, for example, may have trouble interacting with newer computers and machines, so always consult the manual to ensure that the synth you will buy has all the necessary connections.

You may also want to verify whether a synth can be connected to other devices such as Euro racks or other external audio devices. For instance, you may need ¼ connections which some of the smaller synths do not have. You may also check if a synth can be polychained to create a bigger polyphonic synth from a couple of monophonic modules.

Budget

Of course, the most important factor to consider is your budget. There is a wild difference in prices among synths, but generally speaking, analog and modular synths will take bigger bites on your wallet than do-it-all synth such as the Roland JD-Xi.

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