Oscillators, waveforms, sound design, filters, sequencers, semi modular designs… The world of synthesizers can prove to be quite daunting at first. In the endlessly growing market of electronic music, hardware instruments constitute popular products. We could have thought that in the heyday of virtual VSTs and DAW-compatible audio units these machines would have lost their popularity. This is not at all the case.
Demands are on the rise, musicians are ever more fascinated, and new products make their way on the market to extend already boundless creative possibilities. Indeed, nothing is more valuable than pressing a key or a button, activating a few settings and hoping for an unheard sound to come out from one of these mythical instruments. After weeks of research, we have compiled a few fundamental questions every synthesizer consumer should ask himself.
We also took the time to analyze (in depth) the 6 products which we believe are the most noteworthy and best synthesizers in today’s market.
Table of content
Review: Best Synthesizers | Top 6
Self-tuning function | overcomes pitch drift
Compact size and built-in speaker
Jack & MIDI IN connectors allow synchronized performances
Necessity to buy AA type batteries
Absence of filter automation
Inside the (7 different model) Volca-range, the analog synthesis-based “Volca Bass” presents itself as a unique synthesizer which will give you the ability to emulate the famous Kraftwerk sound. This seemingly small device is fully capable with no less than 3 analog oscillators. Filters are designed in order to evoke a crisp and bright response. Using the sequencer from its well-known, Electribe series, Korg managed to deliver a product which encapsulates the features of the aforementioned synthesizer. Indeed, the sequencer includes an elaborate step sequencer with 16 steps and 8 recording patterns with interesting slide and active-step functions.
We appreciate the all-in-one aspect of the product which offers endless possibilities on one specific element of music, bass. This product possesses all the necessary connectors of our age with a headphone audio output, sync in and sync out midi options which make it easy to incorporate it in your home studio setup. In our opinion, a flaw would be the battery life which even though it lasts an honorable 10 hours, necessitates the provisioning of two AA alkaline batteries. Other than that, the product is extremely portable and very light which makes it a great travel companion.
Unique semi-modular design
Converts USB MIDI to CV gate
External input for audio processing
No preset storage
No MIDI out
This 100% analog synth features several oscillators which generate the traditional pulse, sawtooth and triangle waves. Two uncommon functions are the Metalizer which adds complex harmonics to the different sound waves, and the brute factor which is well suited for the creation of aggressive sounds. We must say that the mono aspect of this synth limits the possibilities of the user, even though it is really appropriate for specific sound design (sub-basses and 808 kick drums). The Microbrute provides a beefy filter with a smooth transition between low pass, high pass, bandpass modes
Nonetheless, we would have liked to see this 25-note synthesizer offering more than 3 waveforms in sync with the sequencer. This is less than on most software synthesizers (i.e: Sylenth1, Spire). The available modulation matrix permits the modulation of sound produced by the Microbrute by linking modulation sources and destinations that can be external gear. Stackable patch cables give even more modulation possibilities. Overall, connectivity is good with an audio input and output as well as a midi input.
Includes a vocoder (possesses a truly unique 8-Band vocoder)
Simplicity and accessibility (Wider range of easily usable presets)
Low quality physical aspect
Inflexible patching function
The true descendant of the microKORG has been around for a couple of years. Used in live performances and in studio setups, the fame surrounding this product is justified by its quality. Its sound is huge and authentic. The analog modeling synthesis engine emulates an analog synth scarily well, although it is worth mentioning that it uses a virtual analog technology and not a truly analog one. If this synthesizer is polyphonic, it only has 4 voices which make it perform less well than other synths in the same category. This product essentially excels at the composition of riffs for solo instruments. Korg includes 128 great sounding presets covering a wide range of musical styles from Hip-Hop to Trance.
As you can understand by its name, the microKORG includes a mythical vocoder which allows the emulation of pastiche and mellow Daft Punk vocals. The handy arpeggiator contributes to the possibility of designing a whirly and dynamic sound. If the process of patching is available and allows a diversification of the somehow repetitive sounds, it is a process that is very difficult to master for a beginner. We also didn’t like the display which isn’t very intuitive. Two external audio input jacks are provided. This extends creativity since you can run other instruments or CDs through the microKORG filter and effects.
Fully analog chipset
Large sound library and memory card
Absence of multitimbrality
The permanently “key-synced” arpeggiator
The MiniNova analog modeling synthesizer from Novation (see also: the Novation Circuit Review) is probably one of the completest synthesizers on our list. It offers a powerful synth-engine that is capable of delivering 18 voices and effects. This extensive polyphony is accompanied by a built-in 12 band vocoder which can reproduce robotic vocals. Moreover, the device allows you to tweak your sounds in real time with 5 knobs (multifunctional), 6 envelope generators and 3 LFOS. They do indeed control at the same time the filter, the filter envelope, the amp envelope and the oscillator. 36 wavetables and 256 onboard sounds come with the MiniNova (with 128 storable sounds).
Furthermore, you can implement up to 5 simultaneous effects including distortion, reverb, chorus, delay, and compressor. If the manufacturing quality once again suggests a cheap physical aspect, don’t let yourself be fooled, this piece of technology is more exhaustive than a microKORG in terms of creative possibilities. Sound design is once again put in the limelight with 20 available modulation slots which allow the shaping of sound by linking modules of the synth engine together. A particularity of this product is that there are 14 filter types. 2 can be run simultaneously. Like the microKORG, this product is the descendant of the decades-old Ultranova, attempting to retain the same qualities as its predecessor.
Great sound quality
Complete sequencer (flux mode & active step function)
No standard MIDI out and no PSU
AA battery not included
The Korg Volca Keys had been an awaited product for many years and was finally released in 2013. With this 3-voice polyphonic synthesizer, Korg decided to opt for an old-school design. When it comes to synthesis dedicated knobs allow straightforward tweaking. Not only that, Korg has implemented a filter that has been used in the legendary miniKORG 700S to the Volca keys synth. This 27-key Volca has nothing to envy of higher priced synthesizers. It is also worth mentioning that this analog synth is suitable for those who are barely starting.
In terms of connectivity, it comes with a sync jack (allows to clock sync with the other Volcas) and MIDI IN connector that allows synchronized performances and control from your DAW. This product also has a built-in speaker. It has a compact size enabling you to easily travel with it. It has a lifespan of 10 hours which is impressive compared to its competitors. A dedicated potentiometer knob offers six combinations (Poly, Unison, Octave, Fifth, Unison Ring, or Poly Ring) which extend the possibilities of sound design. Additionally, this little piece of technology also provides a 16-step sequencer. The Volca keys delay effect which is more than sufficient in our opinion and delivers good results in music productions, although it might sound a bit thin at times.
Connectivity | MIDI/USB and mini-jack patchbay.
Learning curve (enjoyable first analogue synthesizer).
Great quality price ratio
Not really subtlesounding
More than 30 years after the release of the mythical Korg MS-20, the American leading synthesizer brand decided to reproduce the same synthesizer, only in a minimized version (86% of the original size!). With its flexible patching system, this product offers a vast array of possibilities to its user. The sound is aggressive, gritty and warm and the filter manages to deliver an appealing analog feel. The MS-20 mini was conceived to emulate the same synthesis as the one of the original MS-20. If the VCA* (Voltage-Controlled Amplifier) maintains the basic design of the original, it has been modified in order to produce less noise than the original.
One of the most famous characteristics of the MS20 was its self-oscillating high-pass and low/pass filters which create a well-known distinctive distortion which was removed mid-way through the production cycle. The MS-20 mini is equipped with this filter, which was considered to be superior due to a more radical sound. We really liked the fact that this device provides an ESP (external signal processor) allowing great creative possibilities through the recording of external signals. Dimensions are obviously smaller than the original MS 20-Mini, but its weight makes it difficult to transport. It is a product which should stay in your home studio. Furthermore, considering how fragile synthesizers are, its supposed sedentariness is definitely not a bad thing.
1. Is it better to go for an analog or a digital synthesizer?
It all depends on what you are looking for. From a design standpoint, digital synthesizers* require less circuitry than an analog synthesizer*. This is why they are thought to be more complex in the way they process sound. Some people say that analog synths are warmer, others can’t really tell the difference. We don’t want to pursue the never-ending debate between ‘analog’ and ‘digital’ supporters because it all depends on personal preferences.
We believe that both are just different and can be equally useful in the process of music production. In the end, it all boils down to whether you want to design your own sounds from scratch or if you just want to stick to presets. Nonetheless, some synths come with both of these features (see Novations’ Mininova). In our opinion, both “analog” and “digital synthesizers” are a good choice, the most important thing is to know what you want to achieve.
2. How many voices do I need from a synthesizer?
This one is pretty straightforward. If you are looking for a synthesizer with which you will be able to create complex harmonies and big sounding chords, you should definitely go for a polyphonic synthesizer. That is a synthesizer which can play multiple notes at once. Notwithstanding, even if monophonic synthesizers don’t possess the same amount of voices as a polyphonic synthesizer, that does not mean that they are less capable at executing what they are doing best. For example, a Korg MS-20 mini, even though being monophonic is probably better at delivering old-school bass lines and vintage leads than a limited “Korg Volca Keys” or even a more recent “Teenage Engineering OP-1“.
3. Value for possibilities
For us, this is a very important final question which can transform itself into a dilemma. In doubt, you should always go for an intermediate option that combines extensive features, good manufacturing quality and average price. If you are not new to the electronic music sphere and you are buying a second synthesizer you should know exactly for what type of product qualities you are looking for.
For example, the Korg Volca series offers a great possibility in the sense that you can pick the central musical element you want to focus on, be it bass or keys. In any case, when picking one of the products that we have listed for you, you should not make a mistake. We have thoroughly searched out the best deals on the market and believe that between all the products that are displayed below, you will find one that matches your expectations.
Above, you will find two helpful videos which go through the basics of synthesizers and the specificities to look out for when you buy your first one.
4. Are the connectivity options of a synthesizer important?
Connectivity is something you might want to consider in the contemporary era. First of all, you would like your synthesizer to be DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) – compatible to be able to record your own melodies and hooks through MIDI and incorporate them in your musical creations. Connectivity also implies the presence of microphones or microphone inputs, the possibility of routing* your synthesizer to other hardware modules like effects (delay, distortion, reverb etc…) or even another synthesizer.
Finally, it is also useful to know if you would like to use your synthesizer as an addition to an already existing home setup (see: most essential music production equipment) or if you would want to use it as a portable device. Some synthesizers come with the possibility to charge your synthesizer (see the Teenage Engineering OP-1). Others include a long battery life that
5. Why do I have to consider a synthesizer’s specifications?
Hand in hand, when we speak about connectivity, other important considerations come to our mind. Size entails at the same time available space but also weight and portability. Are you an on the road producer ? If that’s the case you should probably go for a smaller option (see the Korg Volca series or the Teenage Engineering OP-1). With today’s technology small doesn’t necessarily mean the product will be less performant. Still, for analog synths, the size often determines the amount of features that will be available to the user.
In contrast, if size, weight, portability and price aren’t a limiting factor, you can go for a bigger synthesizer which also has the advantage of providing a more extensive amount of keys (yes, we are talking to you piano players!). They make it easier to compose big chords and try out new melodies in general. That being said, very often, synthesizers with a bigger number of keys tend to be more pricey since they generally also provide a more considerable amount of features.
6. What sound styles are you looking for?
Some synths are particularly good at creating certain sounds and textures. This is mostly determined by the type of synthesis that is being used. However, most hardware synths come with a certain amount of sound banks and presets which make it easier to trigger your creativity. These encompass a considerable amount of music types. Sample libraries often offer a classification of sounds according to styles (see the Korg Microkorg).
For beginners, getting a synthesizer where you have to start every sound you create from scratch might not be the best option (i.e: Korg MS-20 mini). All the synthesizers that can be found on our list are versatile in terms of electronic music sub-genres (ranging from dance music to electronica or techno), although some of them are limited in terms of sound design. This can be due to a limited number voices or lacking creative features.
In this article, we have selected a series of different synthesizer models for all tastes and budgets. Our final verdict goes with the Novation Mininova which is, in our opinion, the most all-around synthesizer. As we explained earlier, the Mininova answers the value for possibilities dilemma at best. Its analog circuitry, appealing design, quality of manufacturing and sound features make it the finest possible option amongst all the best-value synthesizers. Furthermore, we also believe that this is a good synthesizer for beginners with an intuitive interface and easy-to-learn, yet, challenging enough characteristics to grasp.
However, if you want to learn more about the best cheapest synths, we would strongly recommend you to read a full review of this category of products. Notwithstanding, the other synths we listed are also worth looking into. For instance, the Korg Volca Keys and Korg Volca Bass make capable synthesizers that are good at delivering what they specialize in (Keys & Bass). The Korg MS 20-mini and the Arturia Microbrute are great analog and vintage synthesizers. The Korg microKORG offers the most extensive palette of quality built-in sounds with restricted tweaking possibilities. To conclude, if our article made you make your choice, we also wrote a review about some necessary accessories and equipment for synthesizers.