If you're at all like me and struggle between what you need and what you want then you know all about purchasing something to find out it’s not exactly what you’re after, with that feeling of satisfaction still not filled we do this over and over again until finally we land on a winner. Over the years I've purchased many synthesizers with only a small few that I use in my daily productions, while the others are called upon every now and then for random inspiration and do a better job of collecting dust. These dust collectors are not bad bits of gear though, they are simply better suited to different workflows and produce sounds that are not conducive to what I write.
Consider these thoughts and steps if you are looking at purchasing your first synth. While it's inevitable you’ll grow bored of what you have and the desire for the latest and greatest will always rule, hopefully if you purchase right you will at least find yourself with an amazing synthesizer collection.
1. Getting Started
If you are just starting out and looking to get into the world of electronic music or even just music for that matter I suggest trying stuff for free before you start throwing cash at all the fancy toys. If you own a computer, a tablet or a phone there are alot of amazing free software synthesizers you can download to use inside your DAW or as a standalone app. This is a great way to discover all types of synthesizers and chances are if you love messing around with the software emulations then the real deal is going to be even more exciting. If the software side isn't your thing you can always go to your local music shop and ask to play around on the display models, this is why they are on the floor and a good music shop will welcome you and help you out. Alternatively if you're lucky enough to have a company like us in your city, try hiring one for a fraction of the cost.
After reading many articles on this same idea, the most common advice was to purchase a cheap synth accompanied by a list of great but affordable pieces of gear. The opinion is to not break your bank account and purchase safely. While this advice makes sense, in the long term if it’s not what you really wanted then you will eventually want to upgrade for something tastier when your passion continues to grow. My advice is simple, expensive things take longer to get but if you know it’s exactly what you want then save! Do it right to begin and avoid all the unnecessary purchases down the line but keep in mind just because it’s expensive doesn't mean it’s ‘right’. The goal is to find the synth that is best for you and something you will still love to use for years and years to come.
3. Identifying Your Sound
Before purchasing your first synth, establish what music you like to write or produce. With literally thousands of instruments out there and manufacturers filling them to the brim with features it’s very easy to convince yourself on something you don’t actually need. Certain synths are best for certain things and although a good musician or producer will make anything sound good a synthesizer that is known to be used in the genre you like is a great start. The best thing you can do is look at artists who write similar music to you, identify the sounds you love in their songs and see if you can find footage of them playing it or producing it. Narrowing down the genre of music you write and what your influences are will steer you in the right direction of what to look for yourself, you may even find multiple artists you love actually use similar synths for a reason.
One of the biggest disappointments after purchasing a synthesizer is realising it’s not compatible for you, this can be for many reasons. You may like to store your patches and settings but the synthesizer you purchased can’t do it, the bells and whistles built into the synth like sequences or effects you don’t actually use or it could just be menu heavy requiring a lot of understanding to make a patch. For example a synthesizer with built in effects like delays and reverbs is not something I’m sold on or need. It might be great for some but when I produce music I like to choose where in the chain of recording these are placed or by using return channels to process multiple instruments and when using effects built into a synthesizer I don’t have that control. I also own much nicer and sophisticated effects then most synthesizers have on board so I normally find myself never using them at all. Identifying what you actually need and what you will make use of will narrow down what synth you should purchase and what you will enjoy using the most.
If you're reading this then you are already on the right track for purchasing your first synth. Once you have an idea of what you want, research everything you can to tick the boxes for what you need. The internet has so many amazing tutorials, product demos and reviews, you can literally find anything you need to know on every bit of gear available. YouTube is a great source for video tutorials with creators like Sonicsate and Loopop doing extensive deep dives on pretty much every instrument that comes to market. While other online magazines, blogs and forums such as Gear News and Gear Space have awesome reviews and news. When you have finally come to a decision, find a local dealer and play around on it for yourself or try and hire to take home for use within your existing setup. If you have done your research chances are it won’t take you too long to realise it’s the synthesizer you need.
If you are still struggling on how to get started take a look at the lists of products below. Included are a few amazing free software instruments that have similar hardware equivalents, entry level gems and some bigger guns that I love using or have my eyes on. If you would like any more information on a synthesizer or advice on what to look for, get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll be happy to give you our thoughts.
Free Software Synthesizers
This is an amazing sounding subtractive synthesizer inspired by many popular analog polyphonic instruments. It’s a no frills synthesizer with “what you see is what you get”, great for learning the fundamentals of an analog synthesizer and a device I regularly use in my productions. The company asks you to “pay what you want” for the instrument so definitely give this a shot if an analog synthesizer is something you are considering.
Vital is a fully featured wavetable synthesizer that will keep you busy for days. It sounds great and has almost endless possibilities for what it can do. Great for almost anything but especially for those who may be interested in sound design. It comes with a great bunch of presets which can be very helpful for those starting out and needing some visual on how patches are created. Vital’s basic version is free but you can pay to upgrade if you find yourself wanting more.
If modular synthesis is something you are considering then look no further than Voltage Modular. Although modular synthesizers can be fairly daunting Cherry Audio has a great user guide to get you started in the modular world. It comes packed with all the essential modules you need to build a synthesizer and is something I personally used before I began purchasing modular equipment. It’s free on their website with the ability to purchase additional modules.
The monologue is Korg’s most affordable synthesizer in their Mono/Mini/Prologue range. It’s monophonic, analog, nob perfunction and has a lot of exciting stuff going on to get you started. You can browse and store presets, it has a built in sequencer and comes with all the connections you’d expect in a modern synthesizer. Korg’s Monologue is one of the cheapest fully featured synthesizers you can purchase if you’re wanting to keep your costs down.
Modal are still relatively new to the synthesizer game but have some amazing synthesizers already. Skulpt is one of their cheapest synthesizers but is still a powerful piece of gear. It’s 4 voice polyphonic and has a whopping 32 oscillator virtual analog soundengine. You can browse and store your own presets, it has a built in sequencer and arpeggiator, supports MPE and comes with a great software editor to use inside your DAW. It has all the connections you would expect on a modern synthesizer although the line output is a mini jack instead of the traditional ¼ inch.
Made in collaboration with Studio Electronics, Rolands SE-02 is for me the best thing that has come out of their boutique range. Resembling a layout you would see on a Minimoog the SE-02 is a monophonic analog synthesizer that sounds incredible for its price point. Although not a clone the SE-02 is a go to if you're looking at something to create big bass and rich leads. You can browse and store patches, it has a sequencer, a delay and a software editor for use inside your DAW.
Whatever you decide to purchase from this company will be a synthesizer you cherish for years to come. Starting with their Prophet Rev2 and ranging all the way up to the Prophet X, each one of these models have their own special unique sound while all remaining familiar to one another. They are complex yet simple to understand, easy to play and all sound truly amazing. They have desktop versions for most of the range to save space and cash and when paired with the software editors from Sound Tower become absolute weapons in the studio. The first synthesizer I ever purchased was a Prophet 08 and still one of my most used instruments today.
Although discontinued, the Minimoog Voyager for me is still the best synthesizer made by this company. Available still on marketplace websites if you can score yourself one you will never look back. It’s layout is simple to use but sounds massive, warm and ever so tasty. Beneath the hood you can browse presets and store your own patches unlike the original and reissue Model D. It’s all analog, monophonic but still just as contemporary as modern synthesizers made today and when paired with yet another software editor from Sound Tower the Voyager is as fun in the studio as it is on stage. If you’re not able to find one for yourself Moog also have some other great contenders today such as the Subsequent 37, Grandmother or Matriarch.
If you are looking at a digital synthesizer then look no further than the TI series from Access. 16 part multitimbral with three separate outputs you can essentially write a whole song on this device. With a huge range of oscillators, multiple filters and really useful onboard effects the virus is really one synth to rule them all. It was once upon a time able to send all MIDI and Audio over USB while being controlled by VirusControl software but the support for this has fallen out and will not be updated. Never fear though, if you have an audio interface, MIDI interface and purchase the software editor form Mystery Islands you can still use it in all its glory, if not the Virus is still amazing fun all by itself. They have multiple models ranging at different price points so pick one in your budget and you can rest assured you will have a synth that was voted best hardware synthesizer for over a decade.