For all the music producers and aspiring music producers out there, getting a synthesizer (or two, or more) is an incredible investment. With so many to choose from, it can be a nightmare figuring out the best one for you. We’ll go over the best synthesizers for artists of all skill levels, along with some tips on how to pick your next piece of hardware.
What to Consider Before Picking a Synthesizer
Before you go shopping for your synthesizer, it’s important to be realistic about your goals. Narrow down your limitations and set boundaries. While you may be excited to drop a thousand dollars or more for your music production, you could end up regretting it.
Work out your own budget. Making a smart investment for your wallet is always a good practice. If everyone’s talking about a certain synthesizer that’s hundreds of dollars outside of your budget, don’t let them pressure you into buying it. You may find that the hardware just isn’t for you, meaning you’ve wasted money you could have spent elsewhere.
This is especially true if music production is only a hobby you’re thinking of trying out. Picking an expensive synthesizer better suited for longtime pros will leave you overwhelmed. You can always find more affordable rigs with more welcoming learning curves. Be sure to also set some money aside for expanding your collection once you’re ready.
Be honest with yourself about your skill level. Are you a beginner with tech, but an expert with playing instruments? Or is it the other way around? The best synthesizers for tech-minded players will differ from someone who’s more comfortable having a piano keyboard at their fingertips. Beginners who aren’t used to music technology will probably feel lost with an overly complicated synthesizer. If seeing all the knobs and buttons on a synthesizer gives you anxiety, take a step back, and go for something simpler.
If it’s within your budget, think about taking some lessons before diving in. Find some free videos on YouTube if money is tight. The less you know about music and synthesizers, the more important this is. Or if you have experience, and you want to move up to the next level, check out some tutorials. Synthesizing your own beats doesn’t have to be a solo process. Take advantage of the community around music production. There’s always something valuable; you can learn from someone out there, no matter your experience level.
Image source: Pexels
Goals and Preferences
What are your goals in choosing a hardware synthesizer? There are a lot of benefits to having a synthesizer in front of you as opposed to a piece of software on your computer. Are you the hands-on type who needs a synthesizer’s physical controls at your disposal? Are you looking to bring your hardware with you while you travel? Do you enjoy playing beats for your friends or an audience outside, where you want the more powerful sound from hardware? Think about what you have to gain from buying hardware over software and decide if it’s worth the investment.
How to Choose the Best Synthesizers
The last thing you want to do is splurge on a synthesizer that isn’t suited to your needs. What works for one person won’t necessarily work for you. Look at each of these criteria and keep them in mind when browsing for your own synthesizer.
Digital or Analog
A synthesizer’s sound output changes how your music feels. Analog synthesizers are wired differently than digital synthesizers, producing smoother waves. Digital synthesizers give off a more electronic feel and are generally less expensive than their analog counterparts. Think about picking up an analog synthesizer if it has the sound you want, or get a digital synthesizer if that’s the sound you prefer instead. But some synthesizers come with both options, so if you can’t decide, be on the lookout for these hybrids.
Not every synthesizer has a piano keyboard. Depending on your strengths and weaknesses, this can be a good thing or a bad thing. Desktop modules don’t have keyboards, and they’re usually cheaper than the synthesizers with keyboards. These are much smaller and easier to port around while traveling. But, if you’re a good pianist, or you plan on becoming one, then the best synthesizers for you will have keyboards attached to them.
However, be sure to check whether the synthesizer is monophonic or polyphonic. If it’s a monophonic synthesizer, then that means it will only play one note at a time. This can be jarring for users who need to make music with multiple notes playing at once. If that’s you, going for a polyphonic synthesizer is your best bet, but they are more expensive than monophonic synthesizers. Weigh the costs and choose wisely.
Image source: Pixabay
Voices, Oscillators, and Filters
The amount of voices a synthesizer determines the range of different sounds it offers. It’s a good idea to know if a synthesizer can play multiple voices at once, or only one at a time. You get more sophistication from multiple voices, but beginners might not care too much about this. Tuning oscillators gives you the freedom to make chords with the sounds on your synthesizer, while the filters let you tweak the frequencies. This lets you arrange the sound however you want, letting your music fade in and out as necessary. This is especially fun for sculpting sound while playing live for an audience.
These jacks allow you to connect your synthesizer to other devices. With a MIDI In jack, you can move MIDI files and information to your synthesizer from your computer, for example. A MIDI Out jack lets you transfer music on your synthesizer out to your computer for backup. If you lose your synthesizer or it gets damaged, a MIDI Out jack helps you keep backup files of your music. If your hardware doesn’t have a MIDI Out jack, and you want to keep track of your files, you will need to record the sound some other way.
Best Synthesizers to Take Your Beats to the Next Level
Korg Minilogue XD
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This is a well-built, compact synthesizer with a three-octave keyboard. It’s an analog polyphonic piece that has a lot going for it. The metal case and wooden rear panel are sturdy, letting you bring the hardware with you with ease. The rig has plenty of connectors, like USB ports for connecting the hardware to your computer, MIDI In/Out, a headphone jack, two CV in jacks, and more. You can connect external modules to tweak around with your music’s sound and play length.
The 16-step sequencer lets you play the keyboard to your heart’s content and then adjust the sound as needed. You can also create your own waveforms with an SDK. You’re then able to use your own oscillators or upload third-party waveforms, making your sounds more unique from the preset ones that are available.
The knobs are a blast to use due to how sleek and responsive they are. The spring-loaded metal joystick is perfect for adjusting pitch with exacting precision. Because of the sheer amount of knobs, you need not bother with handling menus like with other synthesizers. The provided OLED screen is small and out of the way, and is only there for when you absolutely need it, like for checking the sound waves while tweaking the knobs and switches. The keys are slim to fit everything within the compact space, which can be tough for anyone with bigger hands.
You can find the Korg Minilogue XD on Amazon.
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This is an incredible semi-modular analog synthesizer with monophonic polyphony reminiscent of the ‘70s. The retro style goes well with the rich, classic Moog sound it puts out. You can play right away with no need to patch, making this wonderful for beginners who just want to get started. Though it comes with plenty of presets for you to mess around with, with each one giving you a nice, vintage sound. This is great to pair up with Eurorack, Mother-32, or DFAM systems.
The Moog Grandmother has a 32-note keyboard, MIDI In, Out and thru, headphone out, audio in, master out, CV control for the arpeggiator and sequencer, and a power adapter. The solid frame means that this is a durable synthesizer. While it comes with an owner’s manual, it’s tough to figure out everything that this hardware is capable of, as not everything is as obvious as it could be.
You can find the Moog Grandmother on Amazon.
Teenage Engineering PO-32 Tonic
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This is a pocket-sized synthesizer you can easily take with you on-the-go. It’s a drum-only synth with a wider range of sounds than its predecessors. While it comes loaded with 16 sounds already, you aren’t limited to these. The fun part is that you can tweak the sounds by overwriting its sonic palette, giving you more freedom to produce the beats you want.
But even if you use the original sounds, you have a lot to play with. Pressing each of the 16 buttons gives you a distinct, powerful sound that’s crisp and clear. The sounds choke each other when you press a different button. However, the extra effects buttons let you experiment with the sounds. Even with a pre-recorded demo, you can overwrite the effects to make each of your sounds more dynamic. This is one of the best synthesizers for creating samples and variations, and for making new beats on the fly.
The only real negative is that this has limited uses. Since it is a drum-only synthesizer, you won’t find any additional instruments here. The small size doesn’t allow for a wider range of control over the hardware. If you have your eye on another synthesizer that’s weak in the drum department, this is a fine way to bolster your available options.
You can find the Teenage Engineering PO-32 Tonic on Amazon.
Roland Boutique D-05
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This is a great sonic recreation of the original Roland D-50 synthesizer from the 1980s, with more modern additions for the current day. It’s vintage without feeling old, packed with a beautiful, digital sound reminiscent of pop hits from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. You can use the old school sound mode if you’d like, while enhancing it through a cleaner signal for modern recording. Various performing options lets you experiment with the sound, such as selecting polyphonic sequences with their own stored patches.
The metal case will last you a long while, making this ideal to port around with you. There’s a headphone jack, stereo output, mix in, and a USB port. You can power the device with batteries or through USB bus power. The synthesizer comes with all the presets from the original Roland D-50. If you have a D-50 of your own with custom sounds, you can transfer those patches to the D-05 and continue where you left off.
It can be a little tricky to program the D-05, and the device is missing some key outputs. The D-05 comes with all the nuances and issues that the original had, including the troublesome user interface. You will need to get used to D-05’s quirks, but once you do, there’s a real payoff.
You can find the Roland Boutique D-05 on Amazon.
IK Multimedia UNO Synth
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This is a battery-powered analog, monophonic synthesizer that harkens back to the retro days. The 16-step sequencer has several record modes. You can use the versatile synth editor on your PC, Mac and iOS devices. The wave-shaping oscillators allow you to morph the sound exactly as you want while automating in real-time. The multi-mode filters give you the options for low pass, band pass, and high pass, letting you have a wide range of different tones.
The small but accessible touch keyboard, along with the battery power, makes this an amazing synthesizer to bring with you wherever you go. As far as its sound and operability go, this is one of the best synthesizers for live performances. However, the hardware itself feels flimsy and lightweight, so it won’t hold up the best while traveling. If you will take this with you while on tour, be sure to take extra care when transporting this synthesizer.
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Blending digital and analog sounds, this hybrid synthesizer is powerful and versatile with a unique sound. Each of the analog sections has two oscillators, with mixers to control them separately. The pulse-width modulation, variable analog filter, and variable digital filter give you a lot of customization options. You’re able to separate the digital and analog sounds as you prefer, with analog out and digital out settings. Or you can mix them together, using either setting to tweak your sounds however you want.
It has a four-voice polyphony, 64 digital voices, a 49-note keyboard that’s velocity-sensitive with aftertouch, and a 16-track pattern sequencer. It features jacks for both MIDI In and Out, USB, a microphone jack, foot pedals, CV/gate outputs, and it’s powered by an AC adapter.
However, it’s inconvenient to press down the required buttons to tweak songs mid-performance. Those with bigger hands will have the most trouble with this, as the buttons are rather small. If you press the wrong button, you risk losing your unsaved work. The also keyboard only has four octaves, limiting your range.
You can find the Roland JD-XA on Amazon.
The best synthesizers are tough to gauge. What works for you won’t work for someone else, and vice versa. When taking into account your budget, skill level, your goals, and preferences, you may decide on a more temporary synthesizer. That’s okay, considering you can keep adding more hardware to your collection. The hardware can grow with you as you become more skilled. Or you may find that those cheaper options have a certain sound you need that a more expensive synthesizer doesn’t have.
Taking the time to do your research is critical. Finding the best synthesizers for you requires a lot of shopping around. Read over reviews of the products you’re considering before making that purchase. Check out forum posts that talk about the synthesizers you have in mind. Watch YouTube demos of experts playing the hardware you have your eye on and make sure it has the range of sounds and capabilities you’re looking for.
Getting a full picture of an item’s pros and cons keeps you from discovering its weaknesses the hard way. It would be awful for you to buy a synthesizer for performing live with your band, only to find out you have no way of backing up your files. Once you’re satisfied with your research, if the hardware is within your means, buy it! The investment will be worth it. Before you know it, you’ll be onto the next purchase and the next.
Featured Image Source: Pixabay