What Should I Buy For First Synthesizer?

A list of considerations and recommendations for getting your first synth.


What Synth Should I Purchase? - 2019 Guide

This is a common question that arises in synth forums, and social media posts.   There are now dozens of large synth manufacturers, and hundreds of boutique synth modules available, and it can be difficult to determine what the best option is for getting into synthesizers.

1. Monophonic or Polyphonic?
Polyphony is the total number of voices (total number of keys) that you can press down at one time, and get a different pitch out of each one.   If you want to be able to play harmonies of chords of two, three or more notes, then you need a synth with Polyphony (multiple voices).   If you are just looking to play melodies / lead parts or basslines, then you can look at Monophonic synths.   Monophonic means 1-Voice - You only one key you strike will play at a time, until a different note is struck.   Most early synths from the 1960s and 1970s were monophonic, and were used for bass or lead sections in many classic songs.   

Generally, for a first (or only) synthesizer, its best to get a polyphonic synth, so you can play both harmonies (chords) and melodies (leads/bass lines)   Note that virtually all polyphonic synths can run in unison/monophonic mode as well as their native polyphonic mode, giving you the best of both worlds.    

With digital synths and software synths / VSTs, most have a high amount of polyphony.    But with analog, hardware gear, polyphony has a direct relationship to cost, so you should keep an eye on what polyphony each synth you are looking at offers.  It will be listed as Polyphony:  Number or Voices: Number.  

 

2. Digital vs Analog vs Hybrid
There is a few different types of synthesizer available, and each has it's own sound and character.   Digital and software synths are generally cheaper to produce, and can offer more cutting edge sound shaping techniques, like oscillator waveshaping, precision FM (frequency modulation), and other newer innovations.   If you're looking to produce electronica/dubstep/dance music, there are many sounds that digital synths can produce that are not available on analog synths.   On the other side, analog synths are generally considered to be "warmer and fatter sounding", free of digital artifacts that may be produces when digitally approximating analog sounds.   All of the classic synthesizer sounds up until the 1980s were analog.   In the 80s, digital and hybrid analog/digital synths started to come on the scene.   

If you want a synth that can produce the warmer/fatter analog style sounds without any digital artifacts / aliasing, then you should look for synths that have an analog topology - specifically, analog oscillators (either VCOs or DCOs), analog filters (VCFs), and analog amplifier sections (VCAs).    If a synth is advertisted as a VCO or DCO oscillator synth, it will have VCF filters and VCA amplifier sections.   

You'll pay a premium for VCO > VCF > VCA signal path, however you'll get the classic analog sound that is widely sought after.   If you look at the DCO > VCF > VCA signal path, there are some additional synths available that are still "analog", but with some digital control in the oscillator circuits.   The tradeoff of using DCO analog oscillators is that the synth will have better tuning performance.   There are several more articles on this site that discuss differences of each type of oscillator, if you're interested in getting into the nitty gritty. 

There are some hybrid synths on the market that feature digital oscillators, into analog filters and amplifier sections.    It's generally accepted that having analog filters is the most important analog component.   There are some modern digital oscillators that use FPGA technology to produce anti-aliased oscillator sound sources without the digital artifacts associated with some older/cheaper digital oscillator configurations.   Companies like Novation and Waldorf are leading the market currently with hybrid synths using FPGA digital oscillators into analog filters and amps.   
 

3. Patch Memory / Preset Memory vs Direct Panel Edit
Many of the less expensive analog synthesizers offer great sounds and capabilites, but without the ability to Save Patches/Presets to memory that can be recalled later.    This means that every time you fiddle with the dials and create a new sound, you lose access to your old sound that you dialed in.   You have to write down on paper or take a photograph of dial settings to remember how to recreate your favorite sounds again later.    For synth newbies, this can be both good and bad.   

The good thing about not having patch memory is that it forces you to create new synth sounds "from scratch" every time, and forces you to really learns the interactions between the oscillators, filters, envelopes and modulators.   Creating sounds from scratch over and over will help you learn the fundamentals of synthesis.

The bad thing about not having patch memory is that you have no way of quickly switching to other synth sounds that your device is capable of, and you can't load in synth patches from other people to learn from their programming.   You can learn a lot by finding sounds that you like and they diving into the various sections of the synth to learn how they were created.   

In general, having patch memory is preferred, as you can get the best of both worlds - you can dial in your own sounds by starting with an initialized/basic patch, or you can quickly jump to a variety of other synth sounds that your synth is capable of creating.    Patch memory first became avalable in synths in the late 1970s / early 1980s, and it does add cost to the synthesizers.   As an example, there are two very popular inexpensive analog monosynths on the market right now - the Behringer Model D, and the Roland SE-02.  Both of these synths are inspired by classic Moog mono synths, and can produce the same type of sounds.    The Behringer Model D does not have patch memory and is more of a one-to-one copy of the classic Moog monosynth it was modeled after, whereas the Roland SE-02 using the same type of architecture, but adds patch memory so you can instantly recall hundreds of different patches.   The SE-02 is about $400, whereas the Model D is about $300.  (the SE-02 does offer some additional effects as well)

 

4. Budget
If you have an unlimited budget and simply want the best, then you can just pick up an $8,000 Moog One Synthesizer and call it a day.   But if you're like most people, you have a specific budget, and it most likely isn't $8k... at least not for your first synthesizer.   Below, we'll break down a few budget ranges, and what you can get for each range:

Under $100:   

If you're on a very tight budget, then you'll most likely be limited to software / digital synths that can run on your laptop or desktop computer.  You can get an inexpensive MIDI keyboard controller to use as an input device via USB.   A MIDI controller doesn't produce any sound on its own - it just sends note data to your computer or other MIDI devices.   (MIDI is the standard communication protocol for musical instrument data)    So for under a $100, consider picking up a cheap MIDI controller, and some synth software that you can run on your computer.   Most likely, you'll want to get a DAW software (Digital Audio Workstation), and then you can purchase one of hundreds of available VST software synth instruments.   You can get a cheap, or free DAW included with many MIDI controllers.  Look for something that includes a lite version of Ableton Live, Reason, FL Studio, Protools, Logic, or Bitwig, and you'll be able to run any VST synth software.   There are many great VSTs available for great prices on sites like PlugInBoutique.com.   

Top recommendations under $100:   
Novation Launchkey with Ableton Live
Arturia MicroLab 25 with software bundle.

 

Under $300:

Entry Level Polyphonic Digital:

If you have a medium/low budget (under $300), you can either go the software route, as outlined above, or there are some hardware synthesizers available.   There are many inexpensive digital synthesizers from Casio and Yamaha that will give you a wide variety of piano and synth sounds.    These inexpensive digital synths offer lots of polyphony / voices, and can cover a lot of musical ground, however when it comes to raw and complex synth sounds, they are pretty basic and not really going to pull off great synth sounds.   Your options are limited when it comes to polyphonic synths under $300.

Good Quality Analog Monosynths:
In the Under $300 budget range, there are many great Monophonic analog synthesizers now on the market.  Behringer offers several high quality analog units including the Model D, Crave, and Neutron.  Arturia offers the MicroBrute.  Korg has the Monologue and their Volca series synths.   Several other manufacturers offer interesting analog mono-synths in this price range.   You can expect to get fat, raw sounding tones from these all-analog synth units.    Note that some of these options are just desktop/rack units that require a separate MIDI controller keyboard to trigger the notes.  

Top Recommendations Under $300:  
Arturia MicroBrute Analog Monosynth
Korg Monologue Analog Monosynth

Under $800:

Basic Polyphonic Analog:
In this price range, your options for polyphonic analog synthesizers starts to open up.   If you want the warm/fat sound of analog and multiple voices, Behringer offers the best value for price with their Deepmind synthesizers.   The Deepmind-6 features six voices of analog polyphony, and the Deepmind-12 offers twelve voices of analog polyphony.  The Deepmind synths include a wide variety of features, program memory to store patches, a deep effects section built in, and lots of modulation capabilties for advanced sound design.   The Deepmind synths have a DCO > VCF > VCA topology.   

In addition to the Behringer Deepmind offerings, Korg offers four voice Minilogue and Minilogue XD synthesizers.  (note "Mini" and not "Mono" - logue)   The Minilogue and Minilogue XD synths give you enough polyphony for some standard chord harmonies, and feature a fully analog VCO > VCF > VCA topology.   The newer XD model also includes an innovative, programmable digital oscillator, plus onboard effects. 

Mid Level Monophonic Analog:
Several additional analog monosynths are available from between $300 and $800.   

These include the versatile Roland SE-O2 mono synth with patch memory and effects.  We highly recommend the SE-02 as it features classic fully analog signal path, but with some modern upgrades and functionality.  

Behringer MS-1, Pro-1, K2, VC340 and Odyssey Analog Monosynths are modern replicas of legendary classic mono synths from Moog, Sequential, Korg and Arp.   They feature high quality, fully analog signal paths, but lack patch memory, like the synths they are modeled after.

Moog Mother-32, Sirin and Sub Phatty are high quality genuine Moog analog synths.   The Mother-32 is semi modular for people wanting to get into modular patch wiring.   Sirin offer fat leads and basses similar to the legendary Taurus and more recent Minitaur architecture.   The Sub Phatty is a great sounding synth for monophonic leads and basses.  

The Waldorf Pulse 2 features analog signal chain and has built in patch memory.  

The Novation Bass Station II is a very versatile offering featuring DCO > VCF > VCA architecture, and includes built in arpegiator, patch memory, and many thoughtful and interesting innovations based on collaboration with Aphex Twin.

Mid Level Polyphonic Digital Synths:
In this price range there are several high quality digital synths available.  All digital synths have patch memory / patch storage.  

Roland offers the JUNO-DS61 and GAIA synthesizers which offer Virtual Analog sound engine.  The Roland System-1 features their high end virtual analog modeling system, and delivers many classic sounds.    Roland also offers several boutique units modeling behavior of their classic synths from the 80s, including the TB-03, JU-06A, SH-01A and others.   

Yamaha offers their MX49 and MX61 synth based on the Motif sound engine, with Virtual Analog modeling, patch memory and built in effects.  

Waldorf offers the Blofeld digital desktop synthesizer with patch memory and many advanced sound design and modulation capabilties.   

Top Recommendation Under $800:
Behringer Deepmind 12-Voice Analog Polyphonic Synth
Roland SE-02 Monosynth + MIDI controller keyboard

Under $1500:

High Quality Polyphonic Analog Synths under $1500
From Sequential Circuits / Dave Smith, you've got the Prophet Rev2 synthesizer.  The 8-Voice version comes in at right around $1500 retail, and gives you a bi-timbral synth engine that can be split on the keyboard to create dual part patches, or stacked layers that can give you very advanced sounds, wide binaural stereo fields, or huge, fat 4-oscillator stacks, with or without unison.    The Rev2 features one of the stongest modulation engines in the market as well, allowing for some very advanced sound design.

The Korg Prologue is also a well featured analog 8-voice poly synth in this price range.   It's not quite as well featured as the Prophet Rev2, but is a bit cheaper for its given voice options. 

Hybrid Digital / Analog Poly Synths under $1500
The Novation Peak synthesizer is a hybrid, using high end FPGA digital oscillators into an analog filter and amp section.   The Peak is a very versatile synth with extensive modulation options, and some unique digital oscillator options.   It is consistantly reviewed with high ratings, and offers a great platform for sound design.    Just add a separate MIDI keyboard controller.   

Digital Synthesizers / Virtual Analog Poly Synths under $1500
There are many great digital / VA synths in this price range.

The newly announced ASM Hydra synth is an intriguing option that features some very advanced oscillator options and sound shaping options not seen on other synths in the price range.    It also includes a keybed with polyphonic aftertouch, which means you can apply pressure to each individual key and get different levels of modulation on that key.   (this feature is somewhat of a "unicorn feature" in the synth industry)  Poly aftertouch is extremely rare, and this synth will most likely sell a lot of units once its released.

From Roland, you've got the full 88-key size of their Juno DS synthesizer, the Roland System-8 Plug out synthesizer, and the newly announced Jupiter-Xm synthesizer - which all use Rolands cutting edge Virtual Analog technologies to model analog circuitry, while giving you the precision and sound design capabilities of digital synthesis.  

The Yamaha ModX6 is a high polyphonic digital synth workstation that can cover a huge range of sounds from pianos and stringed instruments to drums, to orchestra to modern and classic synth sounds.   It's a very versatile board and would make a great first synth as it covers such a wide range of territory.  

Elektron offers the Analog Four and Digitone Synthesizers which give you unique boutique options and offer a lot of flexibility for people doing live looping or one-man shows with sequencing.   

High End Analog Monosynths under $1500
There are two great offerings by Moog in this price range:   The Moog Sub37, which offers rock solid performance and classic Moog synth sounds for great leads and bass parts, and the Sub37 includes patch memory.   The Sub37 is a staple on many recordings and with touring musicians.   The Moog Grandmother is a panel edit only synth built like a modular configuration of some of Moog's most popular modules.   

Under $3000:

Professional Polyphonic Analog Synths under $3000
From Sequential Circuits / Dave Smith, there are a few high end analog poly synths.   Firstly is the Prophet Rev2, which for the 16-voice version comes in at around $2k.   For the price, its a top value, with a great set of features for advanced sound design.    In addition, sequential offer the Prophet 6, which is a fully analog VCO > VCF > VCA architecture, and is heavily inspired by the legendary Prophet 5 from the 1980s which has been used on countless records.    Also, you have a collaboration between Dave Smith and Tom Oberheim:  The OB-6 synthesizer.  This baby of two Mount Rushmore synth designers is a modern re-imagining of the classic Oberheim OBX / OBXA dynasty.   The OB-6 gives you true analog VCO > VCF > VCA architecture, and great sounding analog filters to reproduce those classic 80s synth sounds as well as new, modern tones. 

Hybrid Digital / Analog Poly Synths under $3000
The forthcoming Novation Summit synthesizer looks to be one of the best options in this price point.   The Summit builds upon Novation's popular Peak Synthesizer, with its high quality FPGA digital oscillators into an analog filtering and amp section.   The Summit is basically like having two Peak Synthesizer that can be split or stacked for a huge range of sound design options.   It also includes the keybed, built in effects, a powerful modulation matrix and many other high end features.   This synth will be one of the hottest selling synths in the market once it is officially released.   

Dave Smith Instruments / Sequential offers the Prophet 12 synthesizer, which features high quality digital oscillators into analog filters and amplifier section.   It offers an extremely flexible and well featured modulation matrix for advanced sound design. 

Roland's JD-XA is a hybrid synthesizer which merges some of Roland's most high tech digital synth features, with great sounding analog filtering.   

The Waldorf Kyra is another FPGA desktop synth similar to the Novation Peak, with advanced modulation options.  

Digital Synthesizers / Virtual Analog Poly Synths under $3000
This is the high end price range for professional digital synths / Virtual Analog synthesizers.

Clavia offers its Nord Lead 4 virtual analog synth, and Nord Lead A1 modeling synthesizers.

Yamaha has the Montage and ModX7 and ModX8 synths in this price range, which are extremely capabale and versatile synths.

Access offers the Virus TI2 Keyboard and TI2 Dark Star - popular virtual analog synthesizers.  

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