Best Hardware Synthesizers for Beginners under $500
Best Hardware Synthesizers for Beginners under $500
Last Updated: February 4, 2020
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Stepping into the world of synthesizers can be daunting at first. A quick search on the internet will throw up all sorts of offers, brand names and technical terms. You’ll be overwhelmed in a matter of minutes. However, the fact that you are interested in synthesis shows that you appreciate what an exciting area of music it can be. Maybe you’ve watched videos online and you want to give it a try, or perhaps you feel that a synth could enhance your current music recordings.
The reasons behind buying a synthesizer can vary and so it’s a good idea to understand just how you intend to use yours. Spending no more than $500 on your first synth is recommended, give yourself time to learn the basics and then upgrade from there.
As we mentioned above, the key to buying the right synth is having a basic understanding of how they work and what all of the features and technical terms actually mean. A little bit of homework will put you in a much better position to buy a synth that meets your requirements.
Not to mention the fact that you might save yourself a lot money by deciding against buying the all singing and all dancing top synth. Yes, a top-of-the-line synthesizer might be popular for the producers who are using it in their hit-making studios, but it’s far too technical and inappropriate for a beginner.
So, let’s take a look through at some of the options that you should consider when searching for your first synthesizer. Remember, having a good understanding of how you intend to use your synth will make the process a lot easier.
Analog vs Digital
Deciding between analog or digital is a common dilemma for most beginners. The main reason being is that opinions can differ between all synth users, but at the end of the day it’s a matter of preference and depends on what type of sound you are looking to make.
Analog synthesizers are the more traditional option with sounds being created via electrical currents.
Digital synthesizers are now widely available and a popular choice, modern technology is used to bring a wider range of sounds that can cover multiple music genres.
If you have a good ear for music then you can argue that analog synths sound a lot warmer and natural, they do have a tendency to become unstable at certain extremes, but that just adds to their natural sounding style.
Overall, starting out on an analog synth is considered a better option for beginners, they are more hands-on and intuitive. You’ll spend less time fiddling around in the menus and more time creating music, which is the main reason why you bought the synth, to make noise!
Monophonic vs Polyphonic
There are two different types of synthesizers to choose from, monophonic (monosynth) and polyphonic (polysynth). In simple terms, monosynths allow for just one note to be played at any time whereas you can play multiple notes simultaneously on a polysynth.
Monosynths are known to give a fuller and larger sound, this is mainly because all of its power is focused and dedicated to one note at a time. A polysynth needs to process multiple notes and as a result it can sound slightly thinner and certainly less aggressive than its mono counterpart.
If you’re coming from a piano/keyboard background then you might be better off with a polysynth where multiple notes are achievable. You can always buy a monophonic synth as your second purchase, by this time you’ll be more experienced with a better idea of synth music.
Again, it all comes down to how you intend to use your synth. Many polysynths do have an option that enables you to switch over to a monophonic option, giving you the best of both worlds in one unit. However, the prices need to be considered and we will touch upon that now.
You can buy synths at all sorts of prices, but as a beginner you can get everything you need for under $500. The big companies, such as Korg and Roland, now provide great sounding synths around this price point, meaning synthesis is now more accessible to those who are interested.
These mid-range versions come with all of the necessary features that are required to get you started. You don’t want to be overloaded with effects, knobs and buttons. Too many features and options to think about can stifle creativity, you just want to be able to turn it on and play.
Pocket synths and other models are available for sub-$200, these are great for learning the basics and are small enough to carry around with you. However, they are limited in sound quality and features so you will end up wanting to upgrade if you get more serious with synths.
If your budget stretches to around the $500 mark, then you’ll have an excellent selection of monosynths and polysynths to choose from. You’re spoiled for choice really, so we’ve picked out the best of the bunch and listed them at the end of this guide for you.
Keyboard vs Module
Apart from the obvious difference of modules being keyless, you will find that both are very similar in terms of features and functionality. Both have their advantages and the right choice for you again depends on what your background is and how you plan to use your synth.
If you are looking to play keyboard style music, interested in loops and maybe thinking about taking your synth on the road to play live then keyboards are for you. They act as a great standalone instrument and are less complicated for those starting out in synth music.
Modules are convenient for musicians who have limited space as they are more compact and can actually be cheaper as well. If you’re more about tweaking with the effects and knobs and less about playing keys, then modular synths might be the way for you.
If you decide to go down the modular synthesizer path, then do remember that you will also need a controller such as a keyboard or computer to manipulate the sounds.
Type of Sound
Synthesizers produce sound by creating waveforms . The waveforms (electronic vibrations) are created by an oscillator, the signal then travels to other components in the synth where it is layered, modulated and filtered to produce the final sound.
The three most popular types of synthesis are subtractive, FM and wavetable. We’ll only scratch the surface and give a quick summary of each, we don’t want to overload you with the technical stuff too soon! We’ll start off with subtractive, the most common starting point for beginners.
Subtractive synthesis is one of the more simple types to work with. You create and develop new sounds by using filters to remove certain harmonic frequencies of your original audio signal, which is frequently one of the 3 basic waveforms. It’s a great way to get hands-on and understand the basics of synthesis.
FM (Frequency Modulation) synthesis is often used in today’s music scene to create big, distinctive sounds. A modulator is used to change the frequency in pitch that was created by the original oscillator, resulting in completely new sounds that are not possible through other types.
Wavetable synthesis is the most flexible of our three sound processing techniques, you essentially take a sound source of a certain length which can then be modified and enhanced. This technique produces natural sounding tones and gives you lots of room for experimentation.
Effects are an important part of making synth music. Chorus, Unison, Reverb and Distortion are some of the basic effects that can quickly make your sounds bigger and more captivating, you just need to understand what they do and how to use them to your advantage.
Most synths come with built-in effects that help to save on power and space, although they are sometimes not as high quality as external effects boxes and units, they are more than adequate for beginners to get their teeth into.
Buying a synth with a user-friendly control panel will allow you to get to grips with synthesis quickly and relatively pain-free! As mentioned earlier, subtractive synthesis is a great starting point for beginners and is made a lot easier with quick access to the oscillator and filter controls.
The number of effects and technical terms can easily overwhelm you. If you’ve got some time then we recommend taking a look at our glossary of synthesizer terms, it will help for when you want to take a step further into the technical side of synthesis.
Recommended Beginner Synths
The Arturia MicroFreak is a unique machine built around a hybrid design containing digital oscillators and analog filters, not to mention the modulation matrix and expressive touch plate. All these features are bundled together to create a synth with a lot of sonic potential.
It’s a four-voice paraphonic synth which means you get four voices playing simultaneously when the Paraphonic mode is active. All voices share the same VCA settings, filter and envelopes, but this four-voice setup really pushes your music potential to new heights.
The Microfreak makes it easy for beginners to jump straight in with plenty of detailed modes such as KarplusStrong, Superwave, Texturer, and Harmonic OSC. These professional modes allow you to step straight into a synth sound and modulate it from there to make it your own.
Arturia’s Microfreak is a sturdy little synth that packs a lot of surprise under its hood. It’s perfect for beginners who are looking to jump into synth music without the need for too much gear. It’s small and powerful but if we had to pick out one word, then versatile would be it.
Create smooth leads, deep bass lines, chaotic sounds, and everything else in between. Advanced features such as randomization and real-time sequence creation allows you to put music together quickly and effectively, making this little beast from Arturia very productive.
The Behringer MS-1 is based on those classic monosynths from the 80s and 90s. Behringer has stayed true to the analog sounds, circuitry, and the VCO, VCA, and VCF designs. It’s this attention to detail that makes the MS-1 such a popular choice for synth music beginners.
The MS-1 lets you shape and sound your music effortlessly. It makes it easy to build up huge bass lines and screaming leads, all with an array of useful effects to play around with as well. You’ll be back in the 80s in no time with this beginner-friendly synth from Behringer.
The list of features on this compact synth is also something to behold. The arpeggiator and 32-step sequencer helps boost your music making skills, and the attachable hand grip makes lightwork of when you want to strap up and play on the go or on the stage.
It might come as a surprise to find 32 full-size keys that are all semi-weighted. Add to this the pure analog signal, the popular 3340 oscillator with four mixable waveforms and flexible filters, and you’ve quickly got yourself an easy-to-use yet powerful synth.
There is no denying the user-friendly attributes of the MS-1 from Behringer. It comes with enough features to play around at home, and the pitch modulation trigger and pitch bend wheel attachments let you take it up on stage whenever you need.
It’s a beginner’s dream and the sound potential will take you up to those truly fat analog sounds that all synth players dream of. The USB, MIDI, and CV connectivity all help to enhance the MS-1 and we think that it’s a must-try synth for all beginners.
The PRO-1 has been inspired by those iconic analog synths of the 80s and this new reworking from Behringer certainly packs a punch. It’s a desktop module that is capable of a huge range of classic synth sounds along with plenty of modern flexibility as well.
Many beginners tend to use the PRO-1 on its own but you can easily combine it with other PRO-1 module units, or simply integrate it within a Eurorack setup. The choice is yours and that’s what makes the PRO-1 so convenient for any beginners looking to get started on their synth journey.
The PRO-1 offers the option to link together up to 16 voices in the Poly Chain mode. Simply keep adding modules to your setup and with every addition you’ll be creating even more sonic potential. Single or 16-voice, the PRO-1 is more than capable to deliver your needs.
The pure analog signal path and four-pole analog filter makes the PRO-1 sing, regardless if you are looking for either of the classic bassy tones or lead sounds straight from the 80s. An analog LFO, audio inputs, and the 64-note dual sequencer should all appeal to synth players as well.
Lastly, sometimes it’s the little things that matter the most and the Drone mode on the PRO-1 might be the feature to make you part with your money. This switchable mode allows you to easily record soundscape layers to lie under your existing sounds, bringing a new depth to your synth music.
Designed by the same team who created the legendary MS-20 in the 1978, the MS-20 mini is an analog synth that packs the same punch as the original but also comes with a handful of additions, making it a good choice for beginners to learn on.
Korg have also took full advantage of today’s technology and added some useful extras. MIDI in allows you to connect a full-size keyboard for easier playing and USB connectivity means you can integrate this unit with an existing DAW.
The MS-20 mini is capable of creating a vast range of powerful analog sounds. It has taken the same core components that made the original so popular and cleaned up a few minor issues, meaning you’re getting a well-designed, professional synth at an excellent price.
A popular synth among the electronic music crowd back in the day, so you should definitely take note of this one if that’s your preferred style. However, this synth can handle a lot more and you can push it a lot further with more complex sounds if you wanted to.
For under $500 the MS-20 mini is a powerful analog synth, it’s slightly limited in its capabilities and features but what it does do, it does really well, making it a great choice for those who want to learn synthesis.
A popular first choice for many beginner synthesizers due to its price tag and size, but don’t let the size of this 25 mini-key synth fool you because the Arturia Microbrute is very powerful and capable of creating a wide-range of complex sounds.
The Microbrute is a single-oscillator synth and simply cannot offer some of the features and effects you would find on multi-oscillator synths, but if you are looking for that raw analog sound that you can tweak and modify, then you won’t be let down with this one.
Without going into too much technical detail, the Microbrute really gets the most out if it’s single oscillator. You not only get the standard waveforms (saw, square and triangle), but you can also modify these with the unique Ultrasaw, Pulse Width Modulation and Metallizer waveshaping knobs. The Mod Matrix is a feature that lets you use CV cables to route the LFO and Envelope to different features, which is something you won’t find on any other keyboard synths in this price range.
To get a step-sequencer for this price is also a huge bonus in our eyes, allowing you to build up rhythmic patterns step-by-step and then tweak the sounds in real-time. It’s quite rare to find a quality sequencer in a synth for under $500, so we applaud Arturia for making it happen!
The MicroKorg is a 37 mini-key digital synth with some interesting features and capabilities. It comes with a set 128 presets to get you started straight out of the box, and you also have two external audio inputs which will connect with other instruments.
This synth is well-equipped for travelling. It has its own power supply, as well as being able to run on batteries. The controls are all easy accessible providing an intuitive and hands-on approach to making synth music.
The most fun part of the MicroKorg has got to be the Vocoder, a unique feature that lets you record your voice and then play and modify it to create some crazy sounds. The microphone comes with the synth as standard so you can enjoy this feature straight out of the box.
The MicroKorg is a solid option that allows you to start creating music straight away, plus it’s packed full of quality features and effects, including filters, modulation, delay and even an arpeggiator. You get all of this for around the $400 mark which is outstanding value for money.
Battery powered for use away from the house/studio
Lacking USB and MIDI inputs
Needs a lot of button tapping to reach full potential
A four-voice polyphonic synth, feature-packed, built under the Korg brand and all for under $500. The Minilogue is one of the most versatile synths in this price category and would be a wise choice to learn on, if your budget allows.
The Minilogue comes with dual analog oscillators with many modification possibilities. There are eight different Voice modes that will let your creativity run wild. The 16-step sequencer is another great addition and it also comes with 100 preset sounds for you to get started with.
If you are looking for a synth that can produce classic analog sounds then the Minilogue is for you. Its strengths are found when creating bass and lead sounds. It can handle polysynth tones as well but not as strongly as others in the market.
In summary, the Minilogue is great for beginners wanting to create those classic analog sounds. Korg have managed to pack in a lot of features for the price, it’s a well-built synth and the high-quality components also help to bring out the rich and harmonic tones, a top choice.
Slider lever not as functional as the traditional mod wheel
Novation Bass Station II
As the name implies, this fully analog synth is perfect for making those big, wall-shaking bass lines. The layout is well organized, which is essential when you want to modify sounds in real-time, the Bass Station II puts you in full control which is perfect for beginners.
The filters, sequencer and arpeggiator all inspire creativity and the range of effects allow you to build up some real distortion in your sounds. The keyboard has an aftertouch sensitivity feature which allows for added expression and feeling.
You also have two special filter designs, classic and acid, to create even more unique bass sounds. The 64 factory presets are a great way to start tweaking the dials, using these presets is a perfect starting point to creating your own unique sounds.
The Bass Station II has huge potential and is a lot of fun to play, so if you are looking for that full analog sound with the ability to create some big bass lines then this is surely the right choice for you.
The TB-03 by Roland is a mini version of their iconic TB-303 Bass Line synth, and when we say mini, we mean it because it will fit in the palm of your hand quite easily. Modern technology has allowed Roland to build on the original concept and include some extra features.
The LED display allows for accurate modification and the on-board overdrive and delay effects helps you build up some huge sound possibilities. The MIDI and USB connections also give you extra functionality with linking external equipment.
The controls and layout of the TB-03 are well designed so beginners can start playing with the features straight away. The combination of its iconic sound and usability makes this synth a popular choice and being able to take it wherever you go is also a handy bonus.