Choosing A Synthesizer
Every synthesizer is different, from a classic Roland TB-303 to the Korg Wavestation, every synthesizer produces it’s own unique sound. Think of every synthesizer as its own individual instrument, that you have to learn and master.
To decide between synthesizers, you need to consider a few things:
Of course if you’re Mark Ronson, ignore this point, but for the rest of us, we have to consider our budgets. For this reason we’ve left out the iconic discontinued synthesizers and focus on the synthesizers that give you the most bang for your buck.
Type of sound:
This is pretty important when considering hardware, as not every synthesizer can produce every sound. Whilst some are extremely versatile, some synthesizers can only reproduce strings, bass lines, vox etc, so you have to know exactly what you want. You can’t replace the sounds within hardware so choose wisely.
If you want to use your synthesizer for live shows and DJ sets, then it needs to be portable. No one wants to lug around a 88-key beast of a synthesizer on planes, trains and automobiles. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a studio-ready synthesizer with more features than you can shake a keyboard at, then you’ll want a bigger, beefier synth.
If you’re using a synthesizer for live performance, not only does it need to be lightweight and easy to transport, it also needs to be strong. A superior build quality will keep your synthesizer going after all the unplanned bumps and scrapes that are bound to happen on tour. After all, you might save money on a cheaper synthesizer, but not if you have to buy two replacements!
Built in collaboration with synthesizer legends Dave Smith Instruments, the Pioneer Toraiz-AS1 (affectionately known as the TAS-1) is a fully programmable monophonic analog synthesizer. Based on the same engine as Dave Smith Instruments’ signature Prophet-6 analog synthesizer, the TAS-1 has an authentic, warm sound to it that redefines awesome.
Developed with live performance in mind, the TAS-1 is remarkably lightweight and portable considering its power. All digital controls feel responsive and fluid beneath our fingers, and the synthesizer comes with all the features you’d expect from a top of the range performance synth.
- A 64-step Sequencer
- 13-key touchpad style keyboard
- Touch-sensitive slider
- LED display
- BPM counter
- MIDI compatible
- 495 possible presets and the ability to save 495 more of your own
- A huge library of parameters to edit your sound including LFO, High-pass & Low-pass filters, Delay, Distortion and more
The touch-pad keyboard makes live performance fluid and user-friendly. The intuitive design allows you to keep a rhythm by tapping along to a beat whilst you manipulate a plethora of parameters, adding minor tweaks or full coloration of your own sounds. MIDI compatibility means that this analog synth can be smoothly integrated into your live setup and gives you even more possibilities.
The Geeky Stuff:
We can’t really explain why we’re so fond of the TAS-1 without getting down to the technicals. Based on Dave Smith’s Prophet-6, the TAS-1 has two, voltage controlled, oscillators with continuously variable triangle, sawtooth and pulse-wave shapes. Two voltage controlled filters allow you to craft your own unique sound on-the-fly: one 4-pole low-pass self-oscillating filter and one 2-pole high pass filter.
Every sound you make can be saved as a new preset, with up to 495 possible sound banks to save to, on top of 495 amazing presets. The large number of presets makes this synthesizer extremely accessible to beginners, as well as professionals. And, it’s low price sets this synth leagues ahead of other synthesizers, especially in the world of performance.
Our rating: 9.6
The Kaoss Pad KP3+ by Korg is not so much a synthesizer, as more of a sampler, but still we had to include this on our list.
One of the best and most fun effects units/samplers currently on the market, the KP3+ meets the demands of so many DJs, and whilst it doesn’t generate sounds on its own, once loaded with samples and effects, you can still use it to create melodies and sounds like any other synthesizer.
150 real time effects (42 of which are brand new to the model) make this little box of sound incredible for live performance. The only limit to what you can do is your own imagination. With enough creativity, you can create and manipulate sounds from what seems like scratch. And one of our favorite things: the KP3+ wasn’t designed with any specific genre in mind, whether you’re mixing hip-hop, taking a country song to new heights or rocking a trance crowd at Tomorrowland, the KP3+ has you covered.
The KP3+ comes with it’s own editing software that you can use to load your samples, organize effects and navigate the world of on-the-fly sampling. Some of the effects include:
- Grain Shifter
- FX Release (smoothens effects when released)
- And a whole lot more
We had a lot of fun playing with the KP3+, but we would never call it a toy. The build quality is astounding (as you’d expect from Korg), and it’s portable enough for any gig or show. This is the only product we’ve listed here that doesn’t have a keyboard, which is a definite downside for studio producers, but when it comes to live performance, you don’t necessarily need keys.
Unfortunately, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, the sound quality output by the KP3+ isn’t the best in the world, and so you’ll need to use it with a mixer that has a send/return connection for optimal sound quality, otherwise you could face problems when it’s coming out of a big sound system. Still, it’s not the end of the world.
Speaking of connections, the KP3+ is fully USD MIDI compatible, so it can also act as a controller for your MIDI instruments and integrate smoothly to your DJ setup. All in all, we find the KP3+ too much fun and far too useful not to take it on tour.
If you want to see some creative silliness with the KP3+, check out what Beardyman does with his KAOSS Pad KP3+
Our rating: 9.5
Smaller and more compact than it’s predecessor (the MiniBrute) the Microbrute has taken portability and ran with it until it’s barely recognizable. With only 30 different knobs, dials and switches, all dangerously close together, the MicroBrute packs down into an impressively small size. You can take it just about anywhere.
And don’t let the size fool you, the MicroBrute packs a monster sound, with a 100% analog voice path and a variety of outputs, including: MIDI, USB and CV/GATE, this synthesizer sounds amazing and can connect to a huge selection of old school instruments and synthesizers.
Mixable waveforms, a sub-oscillator, multimode filters, super-fast envelopes and an LFO with synchronizing capabilities make the MicroBrute as powerful at manipulating sounds as any other synthesizer on the market, and at this size and price, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better deal.
Our rating: 9.4
Producers of the famous 303, 808 and 909 synthesizers, Roland have been paving the way for drum machines and bass line synthesizers. The analog circuitry is reminiscent of the ‘80s synthesizers that put Roland on the map.
The 100% plastic build makes this synthesizer lightweight and portable enough for one person to transport, as well as retaining enough strength to be taken on tour. Green back lighting LEDs make this synthesizer ideal for playing on darkened stages.
All of the dials and knobs feel sturdy and responsive, and all 49 keys are intuitive but unfortunately don’t have after-touch. This synthesizer has a huge amount of assignable parameters, perhaps the most on this list, and when you combine these parameters with the wide range of plug out options, you can add even more voices and patches to your arsenal of sounds.
- Built-in sound engine produces analog tones and modern sounds with an analog edge.
- Three plug-out synths available (comes with Jupiter-8 and Juno-106 included).
- Advanced low-pass, high-pass and side-band filters with high resolution controls.
- A huge number of parameters for real-time manipulation of sound.
- Polyphonic step sequencer with classic TR-REC style interface.
- Arpeggio, Vocoder and Polyphonic Chord memory functions.
- USB audio/ MIDI interface and control surface mode.
- CV/Gate outputs for interfacing modular synths and vintage equipment.
All in all this is an extremely powerful synth and it’s no wonder that we see it in professional DJ setups so often. Check out this video for an example of some of the presets that come built-in to the sound engine. Unfortunately, the price is outside of most people’s budgets, but if you have the money to spare, this synth is well worth it.
Our rating: 9.3
Bigger and bulkier than the Microbrute, with more potential for manipulating and generating sounds, the MiniBrute 2 is being called one of the best entryways to the world of analog synthesizers by DJs and producers all over the internet.
One of the first points to note, is the price. The Arturia MiniBrute 2S is extremely affordable, especially for a fully analog synthesizer. You’re paying a fraction of the price of a normal synthesizer and receiving most, if not all, of the same features.
A huge number of variable parameters, combined with a highly intuitive step-sequencer make this synthesizer a powerhouse of sound. The knobs, dials and sliders are well spaced and feel sturdy with little to no wobble. The multi-pattern, triple layer step sequencer is easy to use and gives you one less thing to think about when arranging patterns. Unfortunately, the MiniBrute doesn’t come with a keyboard, so you lose that level of customization.
- 2 Analog VCOs (VCO1 & VCO2), with sound shapers: Sawtooth, Ultrasaw, Square wave, Pulse, Triangle, Metalizer and Sine waves with fine and coarse tuning.
- Steiner-Parker multi-mode filter (12dB per octave) with low-pass, high-pass, band-pass and notch modes.
- ASDR envelope generator, and extra multi-mode, CV-controllable AD filter.
- Subtle drive effects to full blown inter-modulation.
- Two LFOs with various waveforms, able to be synchronized in sequence.
- Intuitive step-sequencer and arpeggiator, syncable with MIDI and USB.
- 25-key keyboard with octave controls, assignable pitch bend, modulation and after-touch.
- Dedicated MIDI and USB connectivity.
Our rating: 9.2
6| Moog Sub 37
After Korg, Moog are one of the top synthesizer brands on the market, and the Sub 37 is no different. Based on some of Moog’s top synthesizers developed in the last decade, the Sub 37 unites top of the range build quality with versatile sound generation. The Moog Sub 37 uses both analog and digital elements. Technically it’s an analog/digital hybrid, with an analog signal path that is then manipulated by digital processors, modulators and contour generators.
This is probably the most accessible synthesizer Moog has released in years. Thanks to a heavy-duty steel frame and wooden ends, the Sub 37 feels like a “real” synthesizer under your fingers. (By “real” we mean 100% analog, old-school synthesizers).
Each of the 37 keys is velocity and pressure sensitive, with octave shift of up to 3 octaves. The keys are responsive and accurate, any keyboard player or pianist will be more than satisfied. Despite the multitude of knobs and dials, Moog have included an on-board screen that houses certain assignable parameters. Programming the Sub 37 takes no time at all, giving you a huge amount of flexibility that when you combine with both the price and the size, makes the Sub 37 an ideal touring/live synthesizer.
Our Rating: 9.1
Originally invented in 2002, the Korg MicroKorg lives up to the expectation that we hold for Korg products. Korg have been at the top of the synthesizer game since the 1980s, and the MicroKorg is no different. The MicroKorg is actually a digital synthesizer as opposed to a traditional analog one. It uses 37 keys, 4 of which can be played simultaneously. Two oscillators allow you to create up to 71 different voices. This synthesizer produces such a warm sound that it’s nearly impossible to tell it’s digital.
The synthesizer features a large number of assignable controls which you can alter depending on purpose. To use, you first need to choose a preset based on your chosen genre: trance, electronica, drum and bass, retro, hip hop, techno and sound effects. Once you set your preset, you can then alter it to your preference using various resonances, changing the cutoff, the attack and the release. You can expect this feature on just about every synthesizer, but when used in combination with the genre presets, this synthesizer becomes very powerful.
The MicroKorg comes with a volume knob, an easy to use arpeggiator, octave shifting, modulation wheels and pitch bending wheels. Two audio inputs allow you to manipulate sound via MIDI compatible devices.
Unfortunately the MicroKorg doesn’t have built-in speakers, so you’ll have to use the MicroKorg alongside speakers or headphones. Realistically, if you’re at your studio or playing live, you’ll have either of these handy, the only time we can think we’d want to use built-in speakers, would be practicing on the go.
Our final favorite feature, is the fact that the MicroKorg doubles up as a vocoder. Thanks to the versatility and intuitive presets, we rate the MicroKorg very highly for anyone new to using synthesizers live and delving further into the world of digital production.
Our Rating: 8.9
The 37 mini key synth, MiniNova, by Novation was inspired by Korg’s MicroKorg synthesizer, but uses the raw sonic generating power of the Ultranova. The MiniNova unites an extremely powerful sound engine with more polyphony, a huge number of effects, a wide variety of filters and modulation possibilities.
Based on the UltraNova, the MiniNova uses the same sound engine and so you can share patches between the two. The MiniNova does, unfortunately, lose the audio/MIDI interface from the UltraNova. This doesn’t feel like too great a loss, as the MiniNova still has MIDI in/out capability.
The mini keyboard has 37 keys and three octaves, giving you a large scope for laying down melodies, much like the MicroKorg, except it feels a little tight and not quite so responsive as the MicroKorg, which is to be expected considering the price difference. You might need nimble fingers to deal with the compact size of the MiniNova, but with this compact size comes serious portability. At only 13 pounds, no one can really complain about taking this synth to gigs. The MiniNova come with 256 preset patches with the option to add 128 of your own custom sounds to the sound bank. The preset patches are organized via genre and are easily to find and load through the rubber patch buttons.
24 various parameters are easy to select using four dials underneath the “performance” section of the synthesizer. The first two rows of these parameters are customizable, and feature most of the parameters that you would want to use live. We found that the raw sounds produced by the MiniNova are targeted towards producers and DJs that play harder electronic music, especially Dubstep, Techno, Glitch, Electro-house, etc. The presets don’t sound particularly realistic, but instead focus on heavier sounds.
The MiniNova comes with a Vocoder, 3 oscillators per patch, 1 noise generator, 2 ring modulators, every waveform you can pretty much think of, an easily customizable arpeggiator and a whole lot more parameters, LEDs, knobs and dials. As a starter hardware synth, or a touring synth for dubstep, electro, techno and house DJs, we think you’ll struggle to find a better deal. Hip-hop DJs and those looking for authentic instrument replication might be better off looking elsewhere, but all in all, this is a solid synthesizer at a solid price.
Our rating: 8.8
Novation’s premier pure analog synthesizer produces some of the fattest, warmest and dirtiest bass you can imagine. Based on the flagship Bass Station, the Bass Station 2 is bigger, beefier and more versatile. The warmth and depth of sound you get from the Bass Station II makes this a strong contender for top synthesizer on the market, and it’s size and weight make this synth perfect for performance.
Two tune-able oscillators, a sub bass oscillator, noise and ring modulation makes this synthesizer a force to be reckoned with. Two analog filter types, classic and acid, give you a huge variety over manipulating your sounds. As the name suggests, you’d think that the Bass Station 2 specifically only produced bass notes, but with the full flexibility of so many controls and parameters, you can make the Bass Station sound raw and aggressive or soft and gentle.
You can see the sheer number of parameters usable when editing your sound, including delays, distortion, a variety of filters, oscillators and more. Novation haa hired a number of top producers to create patches, with a sound bank of 64 presets and 64 empty spaces, allowing you to save your favorite sounds.
The pattern based arpeggiator and the step-sequencer allow you to easily create bass lines and unique rhythms, and quickly save them before integrating to a DAW or your chosen hardware. MIDI capability means that the Bass Station II can smoothly integrate with the rest of your live performance setup, whilst USB capability makes the Bass Station practically plug-in-and-play.
Our rating: 8.5
Korg releases so many amazing synthesizers, and the KingKorg remains one of the best. Widely regarded as one of the top-end performance synthesizers, the KingKorg features 61 velocity sensitive keys, (that’s five octaves without any octave shifting). The body is made of a lightweight plastic that makes up for the large size, reaching a total of 15 pounds. Because of the weight, you may want to be careful when taking this synthesizer out on tour, as it won’t stand up to too many bumps and knocks, but other than that, we can’t really fault it.
The KingKorg includes three effects sections (pre-FX, Mod-FX and Reverb/Delay) each with a large knob to select individual effects within the sections, as well as smaller knobs for adjusting individual parameters. The vocoder allows you to record vocals and then tweak them creating unique live performances, and everything is packaged together in an intuitive layout that your fingers won’t trip over.
Three oscillators, one filter, two ASDR envelope generators and two low frequency oscillators make this synthesizer a force to be reckoned with both at gigs and in the studio. On top of that, the KingKorg supports bi-timbral operation allowing you to split the keyboard and sequence multiple sounds. The raw synthesizing power of the Korg KingKorg has put it into top DJ setups across the world, and we understand why, you just need to listen to one.
Our rating: 8.3