The Best Synthesizers Of Today, Yesterday, And 40 Years Ago
Synths stand at the core of music production today. Whilst sequencers and DAW’s define the very profile of the music, synths give the production its specific and distinctive musical character that artists are searching for.
Artists that work in rather monochromatic genres like techno, house, and so forth, do pay lots of attention to their synths and are very often secretive about the gear they use. Every synth has personality; you’ll find that out as soon as you have the chance to get your hands on one.
How To Choose A Synthesizer
There is no one right way to choose a synth based on the genre in which you operate. Even if anyone tells you there is, don’t trust them. Music isn’t meant to be restricted to a set of instruments. Also, keep in mind that genres are not for the artist; they’re for the listener and for the critic. Thus, never try to focus on just one.
Given the above-mentioned, the most reasonable way to choose your own synthesizer is to choose whatever feels and sounds best for your particular musical endeavors. You may start exploring by watching synth demo’s on Youtube. Then eventually, when your list boils down to a certain set of preferences, you can try going to a music store and getting more in-depth information on your candidates.
Why all that fuss? Because good synths are expensive. But there are good reasons for that, which we will discuss later on.
Analog vs. Digital
Now, the analog vs. digital dichotomy is based on the type of synthesis. The people that advocate for analog equipment say that this particular type of synthesis delivers the highest quality of sound, which is of course partly true. But is it actually “sound quality” that we’re after as producers, musicians, and sound artists? I believe not. As soon as the sound satisfies some basic quality standards, it’s the character of sound that matters most.
Also, what’s important to outline is that people are very often convinced that purchasing an analog synth will guarantee entrancing musical experiences and worldwide recognition, and still leave it aside. Analog gear, besides being expensive, is very demanding technical perspective. It’s not only about the particular synth you own; it’s how you play it, too.
What Type Of Sound Are You Looking For?
Taking into account that analog is denser in terms of sound quality, we must consider the benefits of digital keyboards and modules. In one word — they’re versatile. Digital workstations and synthesizers offer a wider array of possibilities like sampling, granular synthesis, and so forth.
Also, digital instruments tend to have clearer and cleaner waveforms, whereas analog can be raw, gritty and fuzzy. It mainly depends on what sound you’re after. So as a general perspective, producers working in Deep House tend to prefer digital synths. And producers working in say, Techno, especially Outsider Techno, go for very raw analog modules.
But don’t take my word for it. Check it out for yourself. There are plenty of articles on the Internet that deconstruct the peculiar differences of different types of synthesis that will definitely come in handy.
What Is Your Budget?
Depending on the amount of money you’re willing to invest, more and more beautiful opportunities will arise and, with them, a larger spectrum of gear at your fingertips. However, note that analog is obviously more expensive than digital synths for reasons we’ll discuss in a moment.
Yet we should leave this radical duality behind, because there are numerous examples of hybrid synthesizers made by huge names in the industry, like Dave Smith.
Again, depending on the concept you’re after and the niche you’re in, you’ll always find budget gear that will deliver more than you actually need. Retro-tier hardware can either blow up in price or end up being dirt-cheap. The legendary drum machines like TR 808 and TR 909 that have basically shaped electronic music throughout the years are now sold for at least a couple thousand dollar apiece.
On the other side, pieces like Roland D50 or Yamaha DX100, which are far less “legendary,” yet they did have their moment of glory in the early-to-mid nineties, are now sold for a hundred bucks at flea markets. Price isn’t key.
New hardware is full-on expensive due to the quality of the build, the implementation of cutting-edge technologies and sound originality. If you’re after a brand new synth, don’t expect to pay anything less than a thousand dollars for gear from companies like Nord, Dave Smith, Moog and so on. But bear in mind that these can go up to four thousand dollars, so be sure to make wise financial decisions.
I’d recommend approaching the issue creatively and carefully planning and designing your sound based on synths that are rather affordable. You may also purchase them second-hand or refurbished. That will allow you to extract the most from what less popular pieces have to offer.
Why Are Quality Synths Expensive?
Well, it depends on what you mean by “expensive.” Moreover, expensive in comparison to what? If you decompose a synthesizer to its core and put a price on all of its components, you’d probably end up with a 10-20% of its market value. Maybe less in some cases. Who knows?
However, there is a lot of value to a synth which is not of immediate material or financial value. Patenting, research & development, user experience and user interaction design, and so many other aspects encompass the process of launching a product on the musical hardware market that we tend to leave out of our calculations.
Then, there are those vintage pieces that have had great commercial success and still enjoy a huge demand, like, say, the Roland Juno series. No doubt Roland would continue producing those, if only they had access to the original components, like filters and transistors, which are now no longer in commercial production.
This being the reason the Jupiter or the Juno series can both reach prices of over a thousand dollars per piece in mint condition. Plus, this type of hardware is an extremely niche product, so no wonder the prices are high.
Moreover, when speaking of modular synthesizers, they’re more available than ever — both geographically and financially. And who knows how this market will evolve in the years to come?
Now, since we’ve advanced into a relative understanding of the classification of synthesizers and their peculiarities, we’re going to look at some of the terms that are commonly used in the field.
When buying a synth for the first time, it’s easy to get scared off by all of the wild terminology used to describe its features. Below are terms that are helpful to know. There are many different terms when it comes to synths, but these are the most important.
Most Important Terms
Analog - an apparatus that relies on signals controlled by voltage.
Digital - generates a steady signal rate, and in comparison to analog synths, it ties the signal into a loop. Digital synthesis is based on the binary principle and it generates its sounds by the usage of 0 and 1.
Monophonic - simply put, it’s a source that can extract one sound at a time
Polyphonic - opposed to the monophonic synths, polyphonic hardware can emit more than one sound at the same time.
Additive Synthesis - a type of synthesis that can generate complex sounds by the means of combining the simpler waveforms of a signal (Sine, Saw, Square, Triangle and Noise).
Subtractive Synthesis - the process of signal design that involves filtering different rich waveforms into complex sounds
FM Synthesis - stands for Frequency Modulation. The underlying principle is the modulation of a stable signal in accordance with the properties of a second modulated signal. This, as well as the above-mentioned types of synthesis, allows the creation of complex waveforms.
Aftertouch - is an important instrument for expressive signal control. It allows the user to control the velocity of the sound, depending on the amount of force the player applied to the keyboard.
Arpeggiator - allows the player to generate a loop of retriggered sounds, often based on a musical progression, thus by pressing a single key, the player extracts numerous sounds, the progression of which is preprogrammed on the synthesizer.
Envelope - it is the literal progression of the generated sound in time. Its features are Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release. All of these allow to program and control the length of the sound and control the speed at which the sound will reach its apex.
LFO - Low-Frequency Oscillator. It allows the player to oscillate the generated sound. LFO’s are shaped by the depth of the oscillation and the resonance value.
Gate - a clock pulse signal that aids the external triggering of sounds, namely the moments when the sound will go on and when it will go off.
Duophonic - a synth that can play two notes at the same time.
Paraphonic - a paraphonic synth has dedicated oscillators per each voice (also known as Polyphonic).
CV (Control Voltage) - the impulse that controls an analog synthesizer, namely its generators, envelopes, and oscillators.
- DCO - Digitally Controlled Oscillator. It is a circuit that is under the control of a digital chip. This allows to shape the signal of an analog synthesizer and maintain it in tune.
Best Synths of Today
The Jupiter 80
The Jupiter 80 has had a colossal influence on electronic music over the span of multiple decades. It is widely recognized as having the warmest sounds in history; only a few synths can compete with its sound profile. However, there is a price to be paid for its warmth, namely its lack of portability due to being quite large and heavy. Thus, it’s mainly used in studios only and very rarely in live acts.
Access Virus TI v2
The Virus TI v2 is probably the flagship product of Virus and there are numerous reasons for that. First off, it features outstanding sound quality, and second, its designers have invested a lot of effort in the UX and the UI features of the piece. The Virus is highly inviting and tweakable, thus ensuring a highly satisfying musical experience.
Teenage Engineering OP-1
The Swedish OP-1 made a lot of noise when it was released back in 2011, and it continues to be one of the most bizarre, yet highly self-sufficient, standalone synthesizers ever made. Although its design and usability features make it very suitable for Hip-Hop production, it is quite a versatile product, and its features and qualities can be applied in numerous fields.
The MicroKorg is known for having an intriguing sound palette and also being financially accessible. Another interesting feature that the MicroKorg has on board is the Vocoder.
Dave Smith Instruments OB-6
The OB-6, like all Dave Smith instruments, is a masterpiece from a technical perspective. It has six voices, which go through two oscillators and one sub-oscillator (each!).
The synth features a wide array of classic crisp effects like reverb, delay, chorus and so forth, but it does also have a set of the Oberheim ring modulator and phase shifter reproductions. The pads that this synth is capable of generating have infinite complexity and stunning beauty.
MOOG Minimoog Voyager
The Minimoog is another vintage synth on this list, and it’s probably one of the few *real* monophonic analog synthesizers (and it pays to have one). There are a few limited edition series that are available commercially now and they cost around $3.500. And guess what — it’s totally worth the money.
So many legendary songs and albums have this piece used on lead or bass that it has become an all-time classic. Moog has earned its place on the musical pedestal forever.
The 008 is pretty much an eight-voice analog synthesizer, and it's equipped with two oscillators and two sub-oscillators for each voice. The all-analog signal path sounds amazingly intense and complex, and you get an incredibly wide array of modulation possibilities.
Dave Smith Instruments Mopho x4
The Mopho x4 is another Dave Smith product on this list, and overall, Dave Smith is a name you need to remember when entering the realm of synthesizers. Although the Mopho x4 is one of the rather new products on the Market, it sounds as if it’s decades old, in a good way of course. It has a very rich and intense sound that older synthesizers used to sound like.
Best Budget Synthesizers
The MS20 is a monophonic synthesizer, and it’s known for its commercial availability and very deep and crisp sound. It’s also known for the amazing vintage signals that it recreates.
It allows the user to have amazing control over envelope shapes and the envelopes themselves are equipped with delay and hold to increase to the expressivity of sound.
Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators
There are multiple types of pocket operators, destined for different sound profiles: Rhythm, Sub, Factory, Arcade, Office, and Robot. All of these are of the size and weight of a small gadget, they’re pretty much unnoticeable, yet their sound character is quite on the opposite side of the spectrum. Obviously, they’re not suitable for any producer out there, as they’re designed to have a more trashy and distorted sound. There are quite a few artists that have hopped on the OP bandwagon and have embraced its sonic character.
The entire Volca line is a fine reconceptualization of the Electribe, however, each one them having a dedicated production sector that they cover. The Volca Bass is hooked up with 3 oscillators that are able to generate quite an intriguing spectrum of basslines. The Volca Bass has an analog filter on board, by the means of which the user can achieve a crisp, authentic sound. Due to the fact that it’s highly portable, the designers decided to place a speaker on board, so you can enjoy playing with it anywhere.
The Volca Keys is a rational continuation of the Volca concept. It is as well fully analog, the sound is fueled by three analog voices and it has a delay effect on board to increase expressivity. When using the Volca Keys, you will definitely enjoy the self-tuning parameter and the Motion Sequence function, which will allow you to carefully edit your loops.
As with all of the above-mentioned Volca products, the Volca Sample is fun to play with due to its design and intuitive features. The panel board has a large set of parameters that will allow you to carefully trim or modify your sample and transform it into grooves.
The UItranova is quite a powerful virtual analog synth with souped‑up oscillators, filters, and effects. As the above-mentioned MicroKorg, the Ultranova has a Vocoder on board for a larger spectrum of sonic possibilities. Although it's not very “rich” in knobs, its producers have designed a highly intuitive machine.
Best Vintage Synths
The VSC3 is among the first commercially successful synths ever built. It was designed and created by Peter Zinovieff and David Cockerell, which are respectively two significant pioneers of the craft.
The VCS3 was incredibly popular among the Psychedelic Rock bands of the era due to its futuristic sound profile. Another reason would be the implicit desire of the genre’s representatives to experiment with anything they could come across from acoustic to electronic instruments alike.
MOOG Minimoog (The Original)
You may be wondering why you’re seeing the Minimoog on this list again. It’s because there have been numerous reissues of this legendary piece. Here, we’re speaking of the original piece, that was released in 1971.
Besides the most important part of a synth — the sound, the Minimoog encompassed a few crucial qualities that made it dive into the music industry of the era and it has never left it for good. The Minimoog was relatively portable in comparison to its contemporaries. It was relatively inexpensive, again, in comparison to the synths that were around at that point.
There is a huge number of musical geniuses that have intensely relied on this synth, a few examples would be Sun Ra, Keith Emerson, Kraftwerk and so on.
The ARP is probably the Holy Grail for any synthesizer enthusiast and collector. It is a huge machine that generates entrancing patterns and has also been used by numerous famous artists. Yet, the ARP has been incredibly popular in the Avantgarde circles.
A great example of an artist that has linked her music with this machine is Éliane Radigue. Radigue’s cold and intense ambient soundscapes are a flagship demonstration of what the ARP is capable of.
The release of the CS-80 has created a micro-revolution is the industry as this machine has almost everything you could ever expect from a synthesizer. It’s an 8-voice polyphonic synth that has velocity-sensitive keys for increased expressivity. Moreover, the aftertouch effect is assignable to individual voices and not globally.
It hooks with a ribbon controller that allows the player to play with pitch-bends and glissandos. All of the grandeur of the synth can be easily seen by simply taking a look at the list of soundtracks written to legendary movies and the list of groundbreaking artists having used this machine.
The D-50 is an iconic synth that has invaded the mainstream music scene in the late 80’s to mid-90’s. Its presence is especially palpable in the Hip Hop/R&B scene. Yet another synthesizer capable of generating highly complex pads, leads, and percussive elements.
The synth operates by the means of the above-mentioned subtractive synthesis. Oh, and this synthesizer is one of the few on the list that is digital.
Sequential Circuits PROPHET-5
One of the few actually programmable synths of its time. Its sound depth and density have made it the actual classic of the eighties. The Prophet has a five-voice polyphony, two oscillators per each voice and a separate noise generator.
Also, an amazing feature of its time is the memory storage that ensured patch recall, which couldn’t be more helpful in the eighties.
The EX5 uses 4 tone generators — AWM2, AN, FDSP, and VL. Moreover, it offers the possibility of sampling. This is quite a powerful workstation given the fact that it has a built-in 16-step sequencer and an inbuilt arpeggiator. The rather complicated aspect related to its usability is that it uses floppy disks for storage.
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