Hardware synthesizers have been around for a long time, but only during the 1960s, they were often heard in mainstream music. In the 70s and 80s, they made it to new genres at that time, such as disco, ambient, and new wave. As time went by, the invention of computers and production software later affected how manufacturers would develop synthesizers. With electronic music being prominent in both pop and underground music, there has been a surge of manufacturers developing affordable synthesizers that are great for live performances and studio use.
This guide presents a range of synthesizers for those who are interested in choosing their first hardware synth and for musicians who are looking for a unit to add to their collection.
- The Best Synthesizer Keyboards
- Things to Consider When Buying a Synthesizer
The Best Synthesizer Keyboards
The Best Analog Keyboard Synths
The Arturia MicroBrute is an even smaller version of the Minibrute with updated features including a new sub-oscillator, Mod Matrix and step sequencer. Its redesigned sub-oscillator (Overtone) provides additional harmonics that gives a classic sounding lead and a fatter bass. Its Mod Matrix allows you to reroute/patch from three modulation sources- ENV, LFO and Keyboard CV (on the rear panel)- to six modulation destinations on the panel itself. Similar to its predecessor, it has a single voltage-control oscillator with three-waveforms, and other modifiers (ultrasaw, pulse width, metalizer) for a customizable sound. It also incorporates a Steiner-Parker filter that was used on a Synthacon synthesizer back in the 1970’s.
- Polyphony: Monophonic
- Keys: 25-note mini-key keyboard
- Oscillator: 1 x Analog Voltage Controlled Oscillator
- Filter: Steiner-Parker Multimode filter
- Envelope: ADSR Envelope
- LFO: LFO with 3 waveforms (sine, sawtooth, square)
- Effects: Brute Factor™
- Additional Controllers: Pitchbend, Mod Wheel
- Step Sequencer: 8 sequences, 64-steps
- Audio Input: 1 x 1/4" Line in
- Audio Ouput: 1 x 1/4” line out, 1 x 1/8” headphone out
- Other Connectivity: USB MIDI In/Out, MIDI In with 5 pin DIN, CV Gate I/O,
- Power: 12V DC 1A power supply
- Dimensions: 12.8" x 8.7" x 2.36"
- Weight: 3.86 lbs
At an affordable price, this small unit is quite easy to figure out with its straightforward layout and controls. Users gave positive remarks for its well-built sliders, knobs and overall construction. Many of them, who were new to synthesizers, were able to effortlessly create beat patterns with its sequencer. Its BruteFactor effect gave that warmth and grit sound found in vintage analog synthesizers. The Mod Matrix impressed experienced users when it comes to patching the modulation sources within the synthesizer and to other equipment, which creates a number of different sound molding possibilities.
One limitation that has been mentioned is its inability to save patches.
This is highly recommended as an entry-level analog synthesizer.
Novation Bass Station II
The Bass Station II is a successor to the classic Bass Station launched 20 years ago. While still retaining the classic analog tone from the original, it showcases an interface with up-to-date features. In addition to the classic filter acquired from the original Bass Station, it has an Acid Filter setting with a diode ladder design that produces a darker and smoother sound. Its built-in arpeggiator lets you select up to 32 different patterns in different directions while its sequencer lets you play and recall up to four of your own patterns. The two oscillators plus sub-oscillator provide a tighter and punchier bass.
- Keys: 25 note synth-action keyboard
- Polyphony: Monophonic
- Oscillator: 1 x Osc 1, 1 x Osc 2, 3 x Sub Osc, 1 x Noise generator
- Filter: 1 x Acid type (diode ladder filter design), 1 x Classic type (derived from original Bass Station)
- Envelope: 1 x Amp Envelope, 1 x Mod Envelope
- LFO: 2 x LFO
- Presets: 64 factory presets
- Effects: Distortion, Oscillator filter mod amount (FM effect created by Oscillator 2 modulating filter freq)
- Additional Controllers: Pitchbend, Mod Wheel
- Step Sequencer: 4 Sequences
- Arpeggitator: 32 Patterns
- Audio Input: 1 x 1/4" TRS input
- Audio Output :1 x 1/4" TRS output, 1 x 1/4" TRS headphone output
- Other Connectivity :USB MIDI (for connecting & powering Bass Station II via host computer), MIDI IN / MIDI OUT ports on 5 pin din, 1/4" TS Sustain Pedal input
- Power: USB bus powered, 9V DC 300mA
- Dimensions: 18” x 10.75” x 3”
- Weight: 8.5 lbs
For a very small and light-weight unit, the Bass Station II has a large amount of parameters and controls. Reviewers mentioned this synthesizer was able to provide dynamic bass sounds because of its sub-oscillator. The two filters' overdrive and distortion were some of the functions that stood out for reviewers since it gave that aggressive and gritty sound. Even though the build is made out of plastic, the knobs, faders and unit itself feel sturdy while the keys were very responsive. Some users pointed out the lack of CV/gate inputs and outputs, which is a downside for those who want to connect other analog equipment they own.
The keyboard tracking on the filter can't be adjusted, which may be an issue for those who want to filter lower sounds to be warm and dull, but not filter out all the high sounds once played on the keyboard.
For a monophonic analog synthesizer, this is a great choice if you are looking for a unit that has enough features at a low entry price.
Moog Sub Phatty
The Sub Phatty includes an all-analog signal path that showcases Moog’s new Multidrive - a feature that delivers a warm and gritty effect and modern distortion. This synthesizer also has a sub oscillator that brings out depth and thickness in bass tones, a noise generator for sculpting analog percussion and sound effects, and its Moog Ladder Filter that gives that punchy Moog sound.
- Keys: 25 Semi-weighted keys
- Polyphony: Monophonic
- Oscillator: 2 x Variable Waveshape Oscillators, 1 x Square Wave Sub Oscillator, 1 x Noise Generator
- Filter: 1 x Moog Ladder Filter 20Hz-20Khz
- Envelope: ADSR Filter and Ampllifier
- LFO: 1 x Onboard LFO (.1Hz to100Hz)
- Presets: 4 Banks, 4 Patches Per Bank
- Effects: Multidrive
- Additional Controllers: Pitch Bend, Mod Wheel
- Audio Input: 1/4" TS Input
- Audio Output: 1/4" TS Output, 1/4" TRS Headphone out
- Other Connectivity: MIDI DIN In, Out, and MIDI over USB, CV/Gate Inputs: Filter CV, Pitch CV, Volume CV, KB Gate
- Power: 110V AC-240V AC operation
- Dimensions: 20.25" x 6.75" x 14.75"
- Weight: 16 lbs
As expected from Moog, the Sub Phatty was able to impress a lot of reviewers with its solid build quality. Its intuitive layout of controls presents a dedicated knob for each feature without having the trouble of users adjusting parameters through menus. Along with maintaining its signature warm “moog” sound, its oscillator generates precise sound from thin pulse sine waves to thick sawtooth waveforms. This is ideal for creating fat bass tones and smooth leads. A lot of reviewers were amazed with it reproducing well-defined filtered attacks, especially with stab patches and lower notes. In addition to the functions seen on the panel, its editor/librarian software offers hidden parameters as well.
The lack of display might be a bit difficult for those who are new to using synthesizers.
This is a great recommendation if you want vintage analog bass sounds heard in 70s and 80s records.
The Best Digital Keyboard Synths
The microKORG is a more portable version of the MS2000 from Korg. Along with the similar dual oscillator synthesis engine, it has an eight-band vocoder that can simulate classic sounds. The Formant Hold key, which is a part of its vocoder program, can "freeze" and capture your vocal signal for you to play it on the keyboard. This synthesizer contains 128 presets of various modern synths, classic synths and vocoder sounds. The controls are easy to figure out since the design is pretty straightforward with its large, easy- to-read and backlit controls, great to use on dimly lit stages.
- Keys: 37 Mini Semi-weighted keys
- Polyphony: 4 voices
- Display: 3 characters ×1 line with 8 segment LED
- Oscillator:2 Oscillator + Noise Generator, Virtual Patch×4
- Filter: Multi Mode Filter(-24dB/octLPF,-12dB/oct LPF/BPF/HPF)
- Envelope: 2 x EG
- LFO: 2 x LFOs
- Additional Controllers: Pitchbend, Mod Wheel
- Presets: 128
- Effects: 3 x Modulation effects, 3 x Delay,1 x Equalizer
- Arpeggiator: 6 Patterns
- Audio Input: 1 x 1/4" line input, 1 x 1/4" Level switch LINE/MIC
- Audio Output:1/4" TSR L/R, 1/4" Headphone out
- Other Connectivity:MIDI In, Out, Thru
- Power: DC 9 V (AC adapter), or six AA alkaline batteries (sold separately)
- Dimensions: 20.63" x 9.13" x 2.76"
- Weight: 4.85 lbs
Many reviewers who have owned this synthesizer for years highly recommend this because of its versatility. Apart from its vocoding capabilities, its simple controls and numerous customizable sound options appealed to many reviewers. The knobs made it easy for users to scroll and access through different presets and effects. They also liked the fact that they were able to edit preset patches and customize waveforms in real time. In addition to that, this synthesizer allows you to connect other instruments through external audio input jacks and MIDI inputs.
Some reviewers were unsatisfied with its lack of USB connectivity and velocity sensitive keys, which isn't an issue if you don't need those features, but it's a show stopper for those that do.
This synthesizer is a great option for beginners and intermediate players.
The MiniNova is a small and affordable synthesizer that includes 256 tweakable factory sounds along with 128 user patch storage in order to store your own customized sounds. Its eight animate buttons are a prominent feature used to trigger certain parameters that allow you to warp your patches in real-time. It also features Vocaltune- a vocoder function that records and tunes your vocals to the keyboard.
- Keys: 37 mini keys
- Polyphony: 18 voices
- Display: 16 character custom LCD
- Oscillator: Analog modelling
- Filter: 14 filter types: can run 2 simultaneously
- Envelope: 6 envelope generators
- LFO: 3 x LFOs
- Additional Controllers: 1 x Large detented patch select encoder, 1 x Patch sort switch, 1 x Volume dial, 1 x Detented data encoder, 5 x Navigation/utility buttons, 2 x Patch navigation buttons
- Presets: 256
- Effects: Distortion, Reverb, Compression, EQ, Chorus/Phase, Delay, Gate
- Arpeggiator: Yes
- Audio Input: 1/4” jack inputs, XLR dynamic mic input
- Audio Output: 2 x1/4” jack outputs, 1/4” jack headphone output
- Other Connectivity: 1/4” jack input Sustain pedal
- Power: USB bus powered, 9V DC power supply included
- Dimensions: 22.04” x 9.84” x 2.95”
- Weight: 6 lbs
For its price and its size, many reviewers were pleased with the effortless searching and editing the large amount of presets it offers by a twist of a knob or push of a button. Many pointed out its dedicated filter knob makes it easier to filter sweep. In his MusicRadar review, Dan Goldman mentioned its filters "sound very respectable in general, with smooth almost step-free resonance and cutoff response and, although the general tone errs more towards hard electronic rather than warm juiciness, the MiniNova is perfectly capable of warmer tones with a bit of tweaking." Its overall controls and build quality are quite sturdy even with a plastic build that makes it lightweight. Its arpeggiation and programmable 'animate' feature provides ease of modulation and lets musicians add effects in real time, which makes a great tool for a stage performance.
Some users mentioned managing advanced features, such as switching waveforms in oscillators or customizing knobs and effects, are a bit of a hassle since it takes more time to navigate through menus than using the hardware alone. The software editor that comes with the MiniNova makes it easier to edit these features.
This is great for seasoned professionals who are looking for an affordable option that provides more contemporary sounds.
Roland GAIA SH-01
The Roland GAIA SH-01 is a lightweight virtual analog synthesizer that has three synth engines each with their own dedicated oscillator, filter, amplifier, envelope, and LFO. This synthesizer can run on either AC or battery power for portability purposes. It provides 64 voices of polyphony and can layer up to five simultaneous effects for various sonic capabilities.
- Keys: 37 velocity sensitive keys
- Polyphony: 64 voices
- Display: 16 character custom LCD
- Oscillator:Virtual analog synthesizer sound generator (Number of part: 1). 3 x Oscillator + Filter + Amp + Envelopes + LFO), PCM sound generator (Number of parts: 15)
- Filter: 1 x Filter
- Envelope: 1 x EG (Attack, Decay, Envelope Depth)
- LFO: 1 x LFO
- Additional Controllers: Pitchbend, Mod Wheel, D Beam
- Presets: 64
- Effects: Reverb, Delay, Flanger, Distortion
- Arpeggiator: Preset pattern: 64
- Audio Input: 1/8" Ext In jack (Stereo miniature phone type),
- Audio Output: 1/4" L/MONO, R, 1/4" Headphone jack
- Other Connectivity: MIDI In/Out, DC IN jack, USB Computer, USB Memory
- Power: DC 9 V (AC Adaptor) or 8 x rechargeable nickel-metal hydride AA batteries (sold separately)
- Dimensions: 27.18" x 3.94" x 12.5
- Weight: 9 lbs
Professional musicians praised its responsive and tactile keybed and controls. Even with full sized keys and a wide layout, the synthesizer is fairly lightweight. Its capability to run on batteries alone contributes to its portable factor. Switching from one sound to another in real time is practical since it has a dedicated knob, button, or slider for every parameter. Its user friendly layout gives users a hands on feel without menu diving. This is also an advantage to those who are new to subtractive synthesis. Many find its effects section very comprehensive and were able to produce a tonal scope with a lot of harmonics. Aside from excellent effects, one user pointed out its ring modulator produced bright, bell-like clangorous tones. Other features include its phrase recorder and latch function, which many users found convenient convenient for saving and looping synths, and store control settings respectively.
A downside for some users would be its lack 1/4" audio input that can be for routing external audio through filters. They are still able to route external signals through MIDI and USB.
This is an exceptional subtractive synthesizer that produces modern to vintage sounds at a fair price range.
Teenage Engineering OP-1
Teenage Engineering OP-1 is a portable synthesizer, sampler and controller all in one compact unit with a futuristic design. It comes with eight different synth engines, and exchangeable effects and LFOs available on the manufacturer’s website. The color-coded interface corresponds to the color graphics on its OLED display, making it easy to read and shape sounds in a non-technical way. This synthesizer's built-in virtual 4-track tape recorder lets you change tape speeds or record in reverse in real-time. Its battery allows up to 16 hours of use on one charge.
- Keys: 24 keys
- Polyphony: 24 voices
- Display: 1 x OLED
- Sound Generator: 8 x Digital, 2 x Sampling
- Presets: Not Specified
- Effects: Delay (classic delay type), Phone (hacked phone effect), Punch (adds punch to your sound), Grid (grid based echo), Spring (spring reverb type), Cwo (rhythmic delay), Nitro (dynamic filter)
- Additional Controllers: 1 x Variable, 1 x 3-Axis Motion Sensor (G-Force)
- Step Sequencer: 1 x Pattern, 1 x Endless, 1 x Tombola Random Sequence Generator
- Audio Input: 1/8" Stereo jack
- Audio Output: 1/8" Stereo jack
- Connectivity: USB
- Power: 16-hour Battery
- Dimensions: 11.1" x 0.53" x 4.02"
- Weight: 1.5 lbs
At first glance, its size gave reviewers a deceiving impression where some thought it was a toy. They found out later on it had a wide array of sequencing and synthesis options once they started using it. While possessing a minimalist design, it has quite a sturdy build with robust controls. Most reviewers were pleased with the large number of effects, filters and drum patches, which makes it great for attaining a different approach on sound design and performance. Some of the notable features reviewers found useful was its FM radio, which has the ability to sample from any radio station and modulate those samples as well.
Some users mentioned this synthesizer takes a while to figure out at first, especially for those who are not familiar with basic synth functions.
This is a great investment if you are looking for a portable synthesizer workstation.
Things to Consider When Buying a Synthesizer
Polyphony / Number of Voices
Polyphony is defined by the number of multiple notes that can be played at once. There are two main types: monophonic and polyphonic. Monophonic synths are capable of playing one note at a time. A number synth enthusiasts tend to favor monophonic synthesizer due to their rich, full and pronounced sound compared to polyphonic synths. Polyphonic synths, on the other hand, let you play multiple notes all at once. Although they sometimes sound a bit thinner, they tend to have the essential options and are capable of letting you play leads and chords, if you plan to make the synth your main instrument. Both have affordable options to choose from.
Size and Portability
Choosing the size depends on where you will plan to use your unit. A small and compact synthesizer with less than 49 keys is recommended if you have limited space. It's also easier to carry around for live performance purposes or if you plan to jam with others in their own domain.
Controls and Interface
Synthesizers come with different interfaces and controls yet they all function the same way following the basic signal path: oscillator, filter, then an amplifier. Most synthesizers have the basic waveforms shape for built-in LFOs, envelope generator with ADSR sliders, and at least one control for effects used to enhance the sound. Some synthesizers with more than one modulator have a Mod Matrix, which is a grid that's used to intuitively route modulation sources easily to their destinations (LFO to filter cutoff, mod envelope to pitch, etc). It's highly suggested to get a synthesizer that gives you a straightforward layout of knobs, sliders and buttons without needing to look through menus, or having to do multiple combinations of buttons.
A common feature found in synthesizers includes a built-in sequencer. This is useful if you want to write and save melodies or bass lines in the synthesizer's memory bank, and loop them while tweaking other parameters. Some synthesizers also have stored percussion and drum sequencers for creating beats.
A lot of synthesizers on the market have numerous functions that may factor in your sound preference and productivity. If you need a full polyphonic synth without breaking the bank, digital synthesizers are the best option. Monophonic analog synthesizers are also great entry level and budget options if you are new to synthesis. Overall, it depends on the price to performance ratio in order to prioritize the features you need when looking for a synthesizer.
Best Synthesizer Keyboard Selection Methodology
We looked at all the keyboard synthesizers available from major online American music gear retailers that have a street price under $1000. Then we put 24 synths on our short-list for closer examination - you can see many of those in our Music Gear Database. Next we collected over 4,600 ratings and reviews from 5 star ratings, review websites, discussion forums and major music gear publications to process with the Gearank Algorithm to produce our ratings out of 100 for each synth. Finally, we selected the highest rated analog and digital synths to recommend above. For more information about this process see How Gearank Works