Whether you are interested in starting out in music production or are just passionate about electronic music and the tools that are used to make the latter genre, choosing your first synthesizer can be overwhelming. However, there are only a handful of synthesizers you should pick if you are not quite sure about what you want. Because, what’s the point in owning a synthesizer with specific features and the latest technical additions if you are not sure you want to professionalize yourself in the field? After some research, we’ve regrouped most beginner-oriented synthesizers in a synthesizer review to determine the best synthesizers for beginners.
Table of content
PO-14 synthesizerGreat for travellers
- Extremely easy to use
- The PO-14 is very functional
- Calculator-like design
Korg Volca KeysLots of possibilities
- Great-sounding analog synth
- Compact & well built
- Great external integration
Korg Volca FMgreat for its versatility
- Good sounding unit
- Accessible, fun and inspirational
- Introduction to FM Synthesis
Review: Best Synthesizers For Beginners
Good sounding unit
Accessible, fun and inspirational
A comprehensive introduction to FM Synthesis
No way to simply delete preset patches
Onboard chorus effect is unsatisfactory
The Korg Volca FM is a synthesizer that completely reproduces the sound engine of a classic FM (frequency-modulation) synthesizer. Being an entry level synth, this Korg synthesizer comprises a very complete 16-step sequencer which includes warp active step and pattern chain functions to record unique rhythmic patterns.
Korg prides itself on the motion sequence feature which is included on the Volca FM and records your knob movements, letting you add time-varying change to the sound. This Korg Synthesizer also incorporates a chorus effect which further extends your sound-design possibilities.
The Volca FM is the first of the Volca series to be equipped with an arpeggiator. With a good sound quality, the main pillar of this creative synthesizer remains its pattern chain function which makes it possible to construct large-scale developments of 32, 64, or even 256 steps by joining up to 16 sequences.
Coming in a compact size, with a built-in speaker, and with the possibility to be battery powered, the Korg Volca is a versatile and ergonomic product. Just like its Volca counterparts, the Volca FM provides a sync connector that can be easily connected to other Korg devices for extended creativity. The MIDI IN jack permits the use of the unit with your DAW and MIDI controller.
A comprehensive introduction to FM Synthesis
Quality of manufacturing
The British Brand, Dubreq released the first model of their stylophone synthesizers back in the 1960s. The design of the contemporary model makes it look like a cheap synthesizer. However, this unit remains an overall accessible, complete and portable synthesizer. Coming with an inexpensive stylus and an unusual way to approach synthesis (by drawing with the stylus on the panel), this pocket synthesizer has very powerful synthesis features.
Its originality starts with its playability. The versatility of the product is underlined by the two different ways to play it. The keyboard can be used to make distinct notes and the sound strip above the keyboard to slide between notes on a scale.
As mentioned above, the sound design possibilities of this seemingly cheap synthesizer give it a rich sound. You will get LFO with square and triangle waves, a low pass filter that includes cutoff and resonance setting and a basic envelope which comprises attack and decay. Undeniably, all of these features are crucial to understanding synthesizers even though they are not present in their most complete form.
On top of that, an analog delay is featured with delay time, feedback and level functions. Another interesting feature is the sub-octaves -1 & -2 switch, which enrich your sound by adding a second frequency below your source sound. Finally, a pulse width modulation button which can be used to create a chorus effect is also featured. All of these features make this synthesizer a great option for beginners.
Easy to use
Open processing (makes this “little synth” less resistant)
There’s much more than meets the eye with this pocket synthesizer. Coming with 15 fun and exciting bass sounds, it also includes a micro-drum machine as its 16th sound. The Swedish company incorporated 16 punch-in play styles that allow you to program sophisticated-sounding bass lines
Additionally, 16 effects which include bit crush, stutter, and delay let you spice up your sounds. With the pattern-chaining feature of this 16 step-sequencer, There is the possibility to create entire songs. Above all, the teenage engineering PO-14 is intuitive and that is perhaps the most important feature a synthesizer for beginners should include.
The unit is small and requires some time to get used to it and learn its basics. But, once you have it offers great possibilities. Sound-quality with this synthesizer is more than satisfactory as it delivers surprisingly heavy bass sounds. As a beginner, you will find it easy to get “hooked” and spend many hours exploring the various features and combinations offered by this fun and entertaining device.
Moreover, just like the Volca FM, the PO-14 can be “clock-synced” to other devices which can expand your possibilities to come up with cool beats. The two downfalls with this one are that it is only a bass synthesizer (that doesn’t mean you can’t make leads with it) and that it doesn’t include chromatic scales. Other than that, it remains one of the most powerful of the entire PO series.
Extra oscillator for cross-modulation
Lots of synthesis possibilities
No LFO (limits modulation options)
Difficult to play a melody (due to its size)
The Monotron Duo is a cool little box with plenty of fun sounds in it, making it a great synthesizer for beginners. Including two oscillators with Pitch Control and both cuts and peak controls, the Monotron Duo also features the original Korg MS-20 filter. Its X-Mod circuit is borrowed from the classic Korg Mono/Poly.
Coming with a ribbon keyboard, you can select your scale from the major, minor, chromatic and off options. It takes a while to get used to the Monotron Duo. After having tweaked the synth settings for some time you will start knowing the controls and being able to get the most amazing sounds out of it. You will discover new sounds and the versatility of this synthesizer unit.
The filter of this device sounds great and paired with its resonance settings, it will provide satisfactory subtractive synthesis possibilities.
In terms of sound, you get a real analog synth, so it sounds scarily alive and a little unpredictable. Nonetheless, the speaker you get with the Monotron isn’t the greatest, but plugging the device into some speakers is a good alternative. Another downfall is the construction. The Korg Monotron doesn’t look solid overall.
Providing a built-in speaker and battery power, this portable synthesizer is a good option for a beginner synth setup. Coming with an extensive amount of features, it is a great first synthesizer to buy. However, you should keep in mind that its manufacturing and features limit the device.
Great-sounding analog synth
Super compact & well built
Easy integration for other hardware and keyboards
Many ways to be creative and record
Knobs are small
Power supply is not included
Keys are very small (difficult to play melodies)
For those of you who are looking for a warm analog sound, and the most detailed and accessible synthesizer for beginners, the Volca Keys is a great analog synth. This polyphonic synthesizer is a simple three-voice analog synthesizer. For some, this might be insufficient to create chords and harmonies. Nonetheless, even with just these 3 notes creative possibilities are great.
Furthermore, a delay effect offers even more sonic possibilities. Nonetheless, just like with the Volca FM, it is the loop sequencer that is the most impressive. The latter lets you record phases just as you play them. Additionally, the motion sequence function can be used to craft your loops. An active step function and Flux function add dynamic change to your sequences.
We would recommend you to use speakers to use the Volca Keys at its full potential. That is not to say that it doesn’t sound good otherwise but this will give you the best audio results. Moreover, with this synthesizer, you get convenient functions such as the self-tuning function that overcomes pitch drift, the weak point of an analog synth.
As the other Volcas, this one can be clock synced and a MIDI In connector also allows you to synchronized performance with multiple units or with your DAW.
To top things off, this Korg synthesizer has a compact size and is battery-powered which makes it the perfect travel companion and seemingly the best synthesizer for beginners (better than the FM since it provides “traditional” synthesis).
What are the basics of synthesizers?
A synthesizer is an electronic musical instrument, typically operated by a keyboard, producing a wide variety of sounds by generating and combining signals of different frequencies.
It is the extensive amount of sound-generating possibilities that make electronic music such a vast and unlimited domain for original creators.
Synthesizers are the most important musical instruments in electronic music. They can greatly contribute to your overall understanding of the genre. Moreover, synthesizers can be a great way to learn music theory in an unusual and creative way by combining it with original sound designs.
There are some unmistakable principles which make synthesizers what they are. Indeed, the sounds that come out of a synthesizer are all based on the combination of a number of initially basic soundwaves, which when added tougher deliver a timbre that is rich in harmonics.
“Synthesizers are the most important musical instrument in electronic music. They can greatly contribute to your overall understanding of the genre.”
Once you have generated a sound out of your synthesizer, the possibilities of sound design are endless with built-in tools such as filters, LFO, and amp envelope modulation options without forgetting effects.
To learn more about synthesizers and their functions, here is an in-depth article about the aforementioned devices.
What are the benefits of hardware synthesizers?
This synthesizer review is about hardware synthesizers. If there has been a great debate (we don’t want to get into) between software synthesizers and hardware synthesizers, it is important to note the benefits of hardware synthesizers over software synthesizers.
The number one advantage that hardware synthesizers have over software synths is the ability to have a physical relationship with them. With a hardware synthesizer, you will build a relationship over time with the synthesizer. Something that is simply not possible with a hardware synthesizer.
Moreover, when you start mastering your first hardware synthesizer, your workflow will be enhanced. Conversely, working with a software synthesizer will be a tedious process that necessitates a mouse, display, and keyboard without counting the audio interface and other additional external devices.
Furthermore, hardware synthesizers are much more reliable than their software counterparts. Chances are high that you meet a more experienced music producer who has used a hardware synthesizer for several decades. Today, hardware still tends to be held to a higher standard than software
Latency issues are often encountered in software synthesizers because of interferences and overload. On a software platform, you really need to have a high-quality audio interface to have low latency. With hardware synthesizers, you don’t have to worry about this, as they have dedicated low-latency hardware.
While portability is less of an issue with modern laptops, it is nice to have devices to simply unpack, plug in power and audio, rather than several devices (computer, MIDI keyboard/controller, audio interface) with multiple connections.
Hardware interfaces have much more ergonomic and tactile controls than most software counterparts. If a mapping exists for software synthesizers, the process is very tedious.
Many hardware instruments are designed with performance, rather than production, as a primary design goal.
When choosing your first synthesizer you want to consider a certain amount of things. Even though this will probably be your first synthesizer, there are certain important technical aspects you should give importance to. Does the synthesizer have MIDI IN, OUT and THRU? Does it have audio in? Is it battery powered? These are all important questions for long-term use.
Software holds extremely limited value – it is practically impossible to resell. Quality hardware synthesizers hold their value extremely well. Therefore, you should consider if you want to resell the product you are buying.
What kind of sounds is important to you? Realistic piano sounds? Or electronic sounds? What kind of music do you plan on making? Analog synthesizers have the quality of permitting more creativity whereas digital synthesizers often come with built-in presets.
Some companies give you the option to get the same synthesizer without a keyboard for less, and these are called desktop modules. A keyboard version of a synth isn’t necessarily better; it all depends on your needs.
Monophonic means that a synth can only play one note at a time. Polyphonic means that it can play more than one note at a time. The equation is simple. Do you want to only compose melodies and baselines? In that case, mono is sufficient. On the other hand, if you want to create complex harmonies and chords you should go for a polyphonic synthesizer.
The debate of analog vs. hardware is a heated one. However, the bottom line is that an analog synthesizer is one that uses analog signals and analog circuitry to generate sound. A digital synthesizer, on the other hand, is one which plays back acoustic, or electronic recordings using digital signal processing. Analog gives more room for creativity and sound design. Digital synthesizers offer more developed presets.
A built-in sequencer can greatly improve creative possibilities, making the composition of melodies effortless. A built-in FX can be handy if you want to implement effects such as delay, distortion or reverb. Not all synthesizers offer these effects, especially entry-level ones.
To conclude, the first synthesizer to buy should be one that regroups most of the characteristics of the models mentioned combined with your own preferences, needs and the actually useful features mentioned in the first part of this article.
Therefore, a beginner synth setup should consist of a relatively cheap synthesizer which makes you feel at ease with the functions of hardware synthesizers. The knowledge you acquire with a synthesizer for beginners should be a stepping stone for a more advanced type of synthesizer you want to purchase in the future. If you are short on money and still want to experiment with synthesizers, you can use a MIDI keyboard paired with a software synthesizer.
That being said, in our opinion, the best synthesizer for beginners is the Korg Volca Keys for its quality of manufacturing, the versatility in the features it offers (like the other Volcas), its sound, but mostly because of the fact that it is the closest you can get the best option for a first synthesizer to buy considering its “classical” synthesizer characteristics.