Best Hardware Synthesizers for Beginners under $500
Best Hardware Synthesizers for Beginners under $500
Last Updated: October 5, 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 synthesizer could enhance your current music recordings.
The reasons behind choosing a synthesizer can vary and so it is a good idea to understand just how you intend to use your synthesizer keyboards. Spending no more than $500 on your first synth is recommended, so give yourself time to learn the basics and then upgrade from there.
As we mentioned above, the key to choosing the right synthesizer 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 synthesizer that meets your requirements.
Not to mention the fact that you might save yourself a lot of money by deciding against purchasing 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 is far too technical and inappropriate for a new user.
So,let’s take a look through some of the options that you should pay attention to when searching for a synthesizer for beginners. Remember, having a good understanding of how you intend to use your keyboard synthesisers will ensure the process to be 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 is a matter of preference and depends on what type of production sound you are looking to make in the area of music synthesis.
Analog synthesizers in music are the more traditional option with sounds being created via electrical currents. Digital synthesizers are now much more widely available and its modern technology gives you a wider range of sounds which 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 performance style.
Overall, starting out on analog is considered a better option for beginners as 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 product, 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 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.
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.
For first time users, you can get everything you need for under $500. Big brands such as Korg and Roland, now offer great sounding synths in this lower budget category. These mid-range versions come with all the features you need.
You don’t want to be overloaded with effects, knobs and buttons. Too many features and options to think about can stifle creativity. These pocket digital synths and other models are available for under $200 and are portable and easy to use. However, they arelimited in sound quality and features.
Keyboard vs Module
Apart from modules being keyless, you will find that both are very similar in features and functionality. Both have their advantages, so it boils down to your production intent.
If you are interested in loops and playing live, then keyboards are for you. If you’re more about tweaking with the effects and knobs and have limited studio space, then modular synths might be the way to go.
If you decide to go down the modular synthesizer path, 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 where it is layered, modulated and filtered to produce the final sound. The three most popular types of synthesis are subtractive, FM and wavetable.
Subtractive 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.
FM (Frequency Modulation) is often used 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.
Wavetable is the most flexible and experimental of the three. You essentially take a sound source of a certain length which can then be modified and enhanced. This technique produces natural sounding tones.
Chorus, Unison, Reverb and Distortion are basic effects that can quickly make your sounds bigger and more captivating. Most synths come with these built-in effects that help save power and space although lower in quality.
Purchasing a synth with a user-friendly control panel is a good entry point! As mentioned earlier, subtractive synthesis is great for beginners allowing for 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 guide you into the technical side.
The Behringer MS-1 is based on those classic monosynths from the 80s and 90s. Behringer has stayed true to the analog sound, circuitry, and the VCO, VCA, and VCF designs. This attention to detail makes the MS-1 such a popular choice for new synth users.
The MS-1 lets you shape your sound effortlessly. It makes it simple to build up huge lead lines with an array of useful effects to play around with.
The list of options on this compact synth is also something to behold. The arpeggiator and 32-step sequencer helps boost your skills, and the attachable hand grip is super convenient.
It may come as a surprise to find 32 full-size keys that are all semi-weighted. Add to this the pure analog signal, the 3340 oscillator with four mixable waveforms and flexible filters, and you quickly got yourself a simple yet powerful synth. It comes with enough options to play around at home, and the pitch modulation trigger and pitch bend wheel attachments for the live setting.
The USB, MIDI, and CV all help to enhance the MS-1 as a must try for 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.
This desktop module is capable of huge range with plenty of modern flexibility. Many beginners tend to occupy 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 semi modular PRO-1 offers the option to link together up to 16 voices in the Poly Chain mode. Simply add modules to your setup. 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 bass 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, 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. One more feature to touch on is the 3320 voltage controlled filter that goes into self oscillation.
Designed by the same team who created the legendary MS-20 in 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. MIDI in allows you to connect a full-size keyboard for easier playing and the USB connectivity means that you can integrate this unit with an existing DAW.
A popular first synth instrument choice for many new users due to its cost and size, but don’t let the size of this 25 mini-key analog synthesizer fool you. The Microbrute is very robust and capable of creating a wide-range of complex sounds.
The MicroKorg is a 37 mini-key digital synth with some interesting capabilities. It comes with a set of 128 presets and two external audio inputs. This product is well-equipped for traveling. It has its own power supply, as well as being battery operated.
Slider lever not as functional as the traditional mod wheel
Novation Bass Station II
This fully analog synth is perfect for making those big, wall-shaking bass lines. The layout is extremely organized, which is essential when you want to modify sounds in real-time, so the Bass Station II puts you in control which is perfect for beginners.