Feeling synful? *insert devil and keyboard emojis* We put together a guide on how synthesizers can help you get freaky with your sound, and where to begin!
Since their origins in the mid-’60s, synthesizers have found their place in almost every realm of popular music. Their ability to conjure up a range of tones—from the chorused leads of the ’80s to wide, spacious pads of your favorite movie trailers—demonstrates the versatility of these compact machines.
“A synthesizer is an instrument that uses electronic circuits to create sounds, which are then modified and shaped by the player via the synth’s knobs, sliders, buttons, and more.” says Justin DeLay, Director of Product & Category Marketing at Reverb.
As the decades have passed, synths have become more useful and increasingly accessible in price and function. They’ve gotten smaller yet more powerful, can interact directly with digital recording software and even MIDI enabled pedals, and they’re much more likely to be found in bedroom rigs than exclusively in the studio.
“Synthesizers open up a whole new world of sound design options for a guitarist,” says DeLay. “If you are the kind of player that has built a big pedalboard and loves to tweak knobs, there’s a good chance you love’ll synthesizers—everything from classic keyboard tones to outer space soundtracks will be at your fingertips.”
But before we get in too deep, I’d like to familiarize you with some of the terminology. This should help clarify what you’re getting into, and help you decide what works best for what you’re trying to create.
How many notes a synthesizer can play at a time:
- Monophonic – one note at a time
- Duophonic – two notes at once
- Polyphonic – three to four notes sustained at a time, allowing for chords
Details of a synthesizer:
- Oscillators – sound generators in synthesizers, creating an audio signal of various adjustable types of waveforms (sawtooth, square, triangle, etc)
- Parameters – ways to control or alter the tone, tuning, and timbre of the note, usually in the form of knobs.
- Sequencer – a 16-step (or four-bar) pattern in which you can record a part you’ve played into a loop that can be adjusted and filtered however you’d like.
“If you love to experiment with sounds, then the synthesizer is the ultimate instrument for you,” says DeLay. “Synths give you maximum control over the very nature of the instrument and the sounds it generates. The amount of control you have over the instrument can be hugely exciting and inspiring, but the complexity of the instrument can also make synthesizers—and the act of choosing between them—daunting.”
With a better understanding of what all of this means, let’s talk about some awesome and affordable options to introduce you to the world of synthesis!
Hardware vs Software Synthesizers
If you’ve seen a synthesizer at a show or in a music shop, you’ve obviously encountered a physical hardware synth. These are the entire package built in; everything they offer is on board and you’re able to operate without the burden of a computer. You can also plug them into any pedal to further affect your sound. Hardware synths are excellent for beginners, and regardless of whether or not you’re a visual or auditory learner, having tangible knobs to turn and adjust is incredibly useful during the learning process. (Some of the best advice I’ve gotten is to turn every knob. By turning one knob at a time, you’ll hear exactly what you’re adding or taking away, which will help you shape the sound you’re looking for.) Synths have a signal flow, starting at the oscillators that move through filters and envelopes, not unlike how your guitar signal moves through your pedalboard.
Owning a hardware synth (or many) can get tricky if you don’t have much space to store or play them. While synths are getting smaller and more powerful, a good lot of them are still on the larger side and aren’t quite as portable. They also tend to be a bit more expensive, and over time might need maintenance or repair if they aren’t handled well.
Software synthesizers (or soft synths) are digital synth software or digitized models of analog synths that are accessible via a computer and controlled with some sort of MIDI controller. “Soft synths can be a great choice for beginners,” says DeLay. “Many are free to download, which is a great way to try things out before you commit to making a purchase.”
Engineers argue that soft synths are getting more accurate and better sounding, and I agree. I have the Arturia soft synth package and I love the way they sound. I also have a small AKAI Mini MKII MIDI keyboard that fits inside my backpack for tour, and with that I can open up all sorts of accurate sounds from a Roland JUNO, Farfisa Organ, Hammond B3, and much more. And the best part is I only have to travel with my computer and MIDI controller to access all of these sounds. I can open up whatever sound I’d like as a plugin in my recording software or DAW. The sounds and parameters can all be automated as well, and I can layer or track multiple types of synths or keys into a song and adjust any parameter I want whenever I want. While recording with analog synths, you’re committing to the effect and sound, whereas with soft synths, you’re able to change the sound without re-tracking the part.
However, if your computer is older or lacks RAM/CPU power, soft synths can be increasingly frustrating or unusable, resulting in skipping or glitches in playback, which interferes with recording or playing live as it results in crashing or frequent system overloads.
New vs Used
Depending on your budget, there are some things to keep an eye out for when purchasing synthesizers. More often than not I’m looking to buy something used to save money, but used synths come with risks, as any preowned gear does. They can vary in quality, and how that affects lifespan is important to consider. Let’s use the Teenage Engineering OP-1 for example: while they’re a high quality instrument, they’re prone to lose keys. That changes how you use it, and also affects its monetary value in the long run. However, there are some real cool bonuses in buying used: “It’s relatively easy to sell a used synthesizer for the same price you paid for it,” says DeLay. “As a bonus, a used synthesizer may include custom sounds that were designed by the previous owner. On Reverb, we’ve sold synthesizers from well-known artists that have included the sounds they used to record albums and play shows.”
When buying new, you’re going to pay more, but it’s up to you to decide whether the peace of mind of a guaranteed product is worth it. New synths purchased from dealers or the manufacturer come with sounds and settings straight from the factory, and oftentimes companion software, a manual, and other perks that might be helpful for beginners. Most times new synths will also come with a warranty, so if for any reason something isn’t working, the company can make it right instead of you having to shell out money.
Analog vs Digital
For the past few decades, analog and digital synths have been another arguing point for engineers and musicians. Analog synths boast a warmer, more vintage tone, with the sound generating from physical circuitry and modulators in real time, as opposed to digital synths, which break down the generated sound into samples. Digital synths, at their core, are computers, which means they are wildly moldable and easily altered with limitless processing, but lack a bit of that transistor warmth that analog brings. “Analog tends to create a more ‘organic’—but often more limited—sound,” says DeLay. “Digital tends to create a more “clean,” but often more complex sound. My advice: Let your ears make the decision.”
Now that we have these things in mind, here are some great synth options to get started.
Analog Synthesizers for Beginners
Korg Volca Keys
The Korg Volca Keys is a powerful and portable analog synthesizer. It uses a sawtooth waveform produced by three oscillators, and all of those oscillators can be affected and blended together to shape the sound. It can operate as monophonic or polyphonic, as well as several other settings via the voicing knob. The Volca Keys has a built in sequencer that is adjustable up to 16 bars (or 64 steps). Both the sequencer and automation can be quantized (adjusted to play in perfect time with the tempo), but can also be programmed for “flux” which repeats your loop sequence freely and won’t lock it to the tempo. On Reverb, a new Korg Volca Keys runs about $150, and used around $90.
Arturia Microbrute is the smaller, more straightforward sibling to the Minibrute. The oscillator can be any sort of amalgamation of waveforms between three variable free-moving knobs: a square, triangle, and sawtooth. You also have the option to mix in a sub octave, or a generated fifth to the notes you’re playing. The Microbrute also features a sequencer, up to 16 bars (64 steps), and the ability to store up to eight patterns into the machine.
Similar to the Volca, the Microbrute can also be used to process external signals from other instruments or synthesizers using the Mod Matrix in the top right corner. This dabbles into the world of modular synths, where you’re using patch cables (it comes with two) to route the signal from one place to another in whatever way you’d like. I’ve had the opportunity to use this synth in the studio, and it produces some very impressive sounds, from sub bass to screaming leads. Highly recommended, and at an excellent price point. New they run about $300, used on Reverb for around $150.
The Korg Minilogue is a synth I see everywhere, and for good reason. While this synth is bigger and more complex looking than the aforementioned keys, you have every parameter at your fingertips. “I’m a huge fan of the Korg Minilogue,” says DeLay. “It’s portable, but well made. It has analog sounds with 4 note polyphony, easily connects to both vintage and modern gear, and comes at a great price point—especially when you buy used. It’s one of the most popular synths on Reverb.” The Minilogue comes jam packed with awesome presets, serving as a springboard to create your own tones and sounds. You’ll also notice it has a small screen called the oscilloscope, showing you the waveform you’re working with. This is where turning knobs conveniently become a wiggly representation of the sound you’re creating, and has helped my understanding of what different waveforms sound like out of the oscillators, and what your modulation is doing to it. These synths cost quite a bit more, but it’s a staple you’ll probably own for a very long time. New they run around $500, but you can find some in very good condition on Reverb for around $350.
Digital Synthesizers for Beginners
Teenage Engineering PO-20
The Teenage Engineering PO-20 is likely a departure from what you were expecting a synth to look like. Teenage Engineering is adored for its atypical synthesizers that aren’t to be underestimated in power and versatility. “Teenage Engineering synths and drum machines are excellent entry points into the world of synthesis,” says DeLay. “The brand packs a ton of functionality and sound design into small, super affordable, and—most importantly—fun devices that are a blast to pick up and play.”
The Pocket Operator looks like a tiny calculator, but the buttons have become samples that you record into a sequencer. You’ve got drums, chords, arpeggiators, 8-bit noises, and loads of momentary/persistent FX to pitch, side chain, and can change each individual sound however you’d like.
*One thing to consider: TE products don’t always appear to be intuitive, and you can expect to tackle a bit of a learning curve and memorizing key commands before things can become intentionally creative. For a new Pocket Operator, they’re about $60. Used on Reverb in excellent condition can be around $50.
Bastl Instruments Kastle
Digital synths have evolved into the world of modular, where more often than not you swap your keys from patch cables. The tiny little synth known as the Bastl Instruments Kastle is a pocket-sized modular synth, using equally tiny control voltage cables to route the sound from the oscillator to your modulation, effects, and everywhere in between. The layout keeps it very simple and straightforward to navigate, with the outputs outlined with black lines and the inputs without. The world of modular only goes deeper when used in conjunction with other machines, so this is a great place to familiarize yourself with the literal ins and outs of modular synthesis. Brand new you can expect to pay around $90, used on Reverb around $80.
Roland AIRA TB-3
The Roland AIRA TB-3 comes loaded with classic presets, ranging from deep bass sounds to sizzling leads. It’s big, pressure sensitive touch pad controls all sorts of parameters, allowing for fluid adjustments of modulation or pitch, or the ability to chain the patterns you’ve recorded into the sequencer in any order. Your sequenced patterns are adjustable even after you’ve recorded them, so that lead riff you wrote is easily turned into a massive bass line and vice versa. These run about $300 new, and some great used options are available on Reverb for around $150-200.
I’m excited for you to explore the endless world of synthesis! The versatility in sound makes it an appropriate addition to any style of music, bolstering your thick bass line or filling in space as a harmonic pad to widen your track. I hope this helps you to access great synths without breaking the bank, and looking forward to how your sound evolves with different textures.