Any musician brought up to learn how to play traditional instruments can soon see their limitations. Sure, writing an original piano score takes some real craft and artistry yet there are so many sonic possibilities out there.
So many different controls, so many ways of manipulating sound to the nth degree.
If you have been playing the grand piano or a keyboard since a young age then you may wonder how far you can go. Going analog is fine but it can come with constraints.
You can look at technology and wonder how far you can push sound and music if you plugged into the digital age.
Synthesizers have been around for four decades and opened up a new world for sound creation even back then.
With vocoders, oscillators, a huge range of controls, and MIDI compatibility you can create truly unique sounds then record them too. In this guide, we will look at the best synthesizers.
Best For Vintage Design
You may be concerned by the decrepit-sounding name but only the design is vintage in this versatile piece of modern musical kit. The Moog Grandmother is a synthesizer that has learned from its large range of predecessors.
Thankfully, the vintage look has remained and you can choose from all-black though the original multicolored front panel can make quite an impression, which we liked in our testing.
The semi-modular design means no patching is necessary so anyone can play around with whatever sounds they produce. And there is so much playing to do.
Both the sound and modulation engines are totally analog, along with the onboard spring reverb tank, which you may expect from Moog. Then again, if you really want to become truly inspired then patch away, override those internal connections, and explore.
- Vintage Look – Choose from the all-dark Dark Series edition or go for a multicolored front panel, both are notably classic designs
- Semi-Modular – No need for patching so you can easily explore and play around with the sounds you create
- Totally Analog – The spring reverb and both sound and modulation engines are analog which means a wild and unrestricted musical vocabulary
- Bewildering Possibilities – With so many options, this is probably not an ideal synthesizer for beginners
Also available directly from Moog
Best For Vocoding
Synthesizers can bring some serious experimentation to your sound yet how about playing with your voice too? The Korg microKorg 37-Key Analog Modeling Synthesizer has bountiful functionality with a distinctive built-in vocoder.
The design is a blast from the past by Korg with a beige-gold body and wooden side panels that looks retro but is packed with modern technology.
There is a formidably huge waveform range with 64 exclusive DWGS waveforms offering so much versatility, which we liked in our testing. With 37 mini-keys and an easy-to-use interface, you can play around with electronic sound creation.
With so many imitative sounds you can reproduce, you could easily lose yourself with the sheer number of possibilities.
- Vocoder Functionality – Connect a microphone to the audio jack and a powerful vocoder comes to life
- Retro Design – A beige-gold color for the body with wooden side panels really make this a design to take you back
- Huge Waveform Range – Oscillator 1 features 71 waveforms alone and there are 64 exclusive Digital Waveform Generator System (DWGS) waveforms
- Cheap Feeling Keys – Some users have commented that the keys feel cheap and excessively plastic feeling
Also available directly from Korg
Best For Compact Design
Mighty sounds can come from tiny synthesizers. The Arturia MicroBrute Analog Synthesizer is no exception with just 25 keys and huge potential. A voltage-controlled oscillator contains unique modifiers for pure experimentation and big sounds.
Then there is the sequencer which runs up to eight sequences, each containing up to 64 steps for complex musical phrases.
That is already a lot to pack into such a compact design yet this is a synthesizer that is easy to use too. With a USB connection for use as a master keyboard or from your Digital Audio Workstation, which we liked in our testing.
There is affordability too which makes this ideal for beginners.
- 25 Keys – With just 25 keys, you can still find a big range but with a portable design
- Voltage-Controlled Oscillator Design – Includes an Overtone Sub-Osc for huge sounds and an Oscillator Mixer to experiment with
- Easy-To-Use Interface – The compact size still has versatility but with controls that you can pick up quickly
- Versatile Sequencer – Eight sequences containing up to 64 steps each for a variety of musical phrases
- Small Keys – Though the design has admirably fitted 25 keys in, they are rather small
Also available directly from Arturia
Best For Beginners
There are several original synthesizer producers still going in the market to this day and one that has stood the test of time is Roland.
Their SYSTEM-8 PLUG-OUT Synthesizer follows four decades of development so you know it should have everything you need. A polyphonic sequencer that comes with motion recording and a vast array of high-resolution controls for huge sound manipulation.
With 49 fully-responsive keys and rows upon rows of knobs, sliders, and buttons, you should be able to tweak your sound however you like.
There is versatility for a beginner but also those traditional synth emulations you should expect from a company that was there from the start, which we liked in our testing.
- Huge Range Of Controls – Several knobs, sliders, buttons, and controls to tweak and manipulate your sounds
- Traditional Synth Emulations – A modern synthesizer with all the classic emulations you would expect from a leading audio production company
- 49 Keys – Each key is blissfully responsive and full-size
- Green Glow – For intimate performances, the green glow may be off-putting
Also available directly from Roland
Best For Portability
For a portable yet hugely versatile synthesizer, consider the Korg Digital FM Synthesizer.
If you want to take yourself back in time then try the volca interface which reproduces the sound engine of a traditional synthesizer with six operators then 32 algorithms for huge compatibility.
There is so much potential here with effortless sound editing that is easy to understand which we liked in our testing.
You can even add some extra depth to your electronic sound with the Onboard Chorus Effect which is great for experimentation. The real feature is just how portable this synthesizer proves to be.
From its compact size which contains a wealth of sonic possibilities to the built-in speaker and battery operation. Play with it in the studio then take it with you wherever you need to play it.
- Portability – The compact size, built-in-speaker and battery operation make this synthesizer ideal for transport
- Volca Interface – Easy and simple to manipulate and edit those distinctive FM sounds
- Great Compatibility – Choose from six operators and a huge range of 32 algorithms
- Onboard Chorus Effect – Add some depth to your sound and expand it as far as you want
- Just Three Voices – You should be able to find more in a range of synthesizers
Also available directly from Korg
With so much sonic possibility, you can be spoiled for choice when it comes to synthesizers. Though the technology has developed since they first arrived in the Eighties, you can still find designs that evoke that time.
Retro designs are great for nostalgia but the number of keys, controls, knobs, buttons, and sliders can be something to behold too.
There are compact designs too that are lightweight with battery-powered capabilities. If you are looking for portability then you may have to compromise on the number of keys.
Not so much the functionality or versatility of your synthesizer as there is a lot you can achieve with just a 16-step sequencer, even more so with 32.
The higher up a budget you go, the more functionality, features, and flexibility becomes available. This could be in the form of more effects, voices, or just the sequencing skills.
Those seemingly endless possibilities may be great for an expert synth player yet for a beginner that may seem bewildering.
The experimentation can be the fun side of playing though which is something to consider. Learning what each control does and how turning one knob can dramatically alter your sound can make for some playful playing.
For those who are curious about the synth, having more knobs, sliders, and buttons is akin to enlarging the playground with more adventurous toys.
This increased flexibility of sound can be found in both frequency modulation synthesizers and digital synths. For the latter, you can expect wavetable functionality for a huge expansion of sonic possibilities.
However, true analog synths can still deliver and do so in a more reliable way.
Number Of Keys
Believe it or not, the number of keys can vary wildly on a synthesizer. That is if you have found one that includes them. In more compact designs, you can expect 25 mini-keys whereas some fuller designs can fit in 88.
You should note that slim keys or the mini-keys you can find are not ideal for those with chunkier fingers.
The number of keys is associated with the number of octaves. Some go across two octaves while others can use up to seven.
For instance, a keyboard with 25 keys will have a range of two octaves, 37 keys features octaves, 49 keys mean four octaves, and so on. Trained musicians may want to play orchestrated sound so require a larger amount of keys.
However, for a singer who uses a keyboard on a small synthesizer then only 25 may be necessary.
The Keyboard Action
Not only is the number of keys important, but their action is too. The keybed refers to the number of keys in a keyboard and there are three actions to consider.
For a synth-action, the keybed will have an unweighted design and will be resistance-free when finger pressure is applied. Simply press them as lightly as possible to make a noise.
The next action is semi-weighted for playing the keys at various dynamic levels. There should be a slight resistance to each key and this will be from the springs like you have in a piano.
Finally, there is the weighted-action keyboard which has added resistance. These keys also feature a pivot action, rather like the one you can expect in a piano. For trained pianists, the graded action hammer should be familiar.
There are some truly eye-catching displays to feast your eyes upon. You may want a smaller size for portability yet you can still pack in a vast array of controls.
There are also retro designs from manufacturers such as Korg and Roland who were there when synthesizers first hit the market four decades ago. Expect similar platinum finishes and wood panels that look like they were made in the Eighties.
The sequencing ability of your synthesizer can indicate how far you want to go with it. Different modes and controls can come with a huge combination of possible sounds and ways to go with them.
With a 16-step sequencer, you can create some beats or even map out some tracks. You may even want a 32-step sequencer for more complex tracks.
If you do not mind the slim keys, then portability is a real option. Some synthesizers are specially made for portability with an easy setup, compact and lightweight design.
Having the capability to be battery-powered is also helpful yet these synthesizers should also come with an AC adapter too.
MIDI, or the Musical Instrument Digital Interface to give it its full title, is how you can record sound digitally. This is for both traditional musical instruments like a guitar or drums, and electronic (digital) instruments such as synthesizers.
You should look out for MIDI compatibility in a synthesizer to record sounds as well as import and export them. Not only can you get tracks down but increase those sounds and tones too.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is The Difference Between A Synthesizer And A Keyboard?
Synthesizers do have keys but that does not make them keyboards. The main difference is not creating the sound but editing it. For instance, keyboards include built-in speakers so you can hit the keys to play sounds that you would expect from a piano.
With various settings, you can even play different instruments like the guitar, organ, strings, and synthetic sounds.
Synthesizers are also musical instruments in their own right but come with a vast array of controls and buttons. This adaptability means that you can create truly original sounds and tracks. You can also add in and edit for depth and various sound detailing.
What Connectivity Should I Look For In A Synthesizer?
There are two interfaces you should consider for connectivity. The first is USB connectivity which means you can hook up your synthesizer to a laptop or computer with a USB cable.
The second interface is MIDI connectivity which can be used with a sound card, as long as it has MIDI inputs.
For musicians that are fixed to their laptops, having both options provides some welcome versatility. Having both MIDI and USB connectivity should mean storing all your synth sounds in one place.
You can also record your own tracks easily yet you should look out for a large enough memory.
How Easy Is It To Learn How To Play The Synthesizer?
Any musical instrument can be difficult to learn how to play at first but we all have to start somewhere. Unlike a lot of analog instruments, you can learn how to play the synthesizer by having fun and experimenting with it.
There are so many controls, buttons, and sliders that there really is a vast array of possibilities.
For those who have slowly learned how to play the grand piano, it can be difficult to use the synthesizer to compose scores or even play music. That is largely down to the hardware or software that you have to use in order to lay down tracks.
If you wanted some basic teaching on how to play the synthesizer then there are several online resources out there.
There are also online learning courses to enroll in and apps that can tutor you. For the more academic learners, the synthesizer has been around for four decades so books and manuals have been written.
You may even find a manual included with your synthesizer where you can quickly learn the controls.
Try not to be dismayed if it seemingly takes an age to learn how to play the synthesizer. Some synths players barely know what all the controls mean but can still confidently play onstage.
Just remember to have fun with your playing and be consistent with your practice.