This article is current as of 2016
Let me level with you: If you need any assistance deciding what to buy, or if you’re looking for me to validate your needless synth purchase, you don’t have the talent to truly deserve what you’re planning to buy. Because, if you did have the talent, you would be sure that you needed whatever it is you are contemplating buying.
You’re better off just getting a $100 USB MIDI controller — get one with full sized keys, because mini keys result in musicians having bad habits (one good option would be a M-Audio Keystation 49) — downloading the 60-day free trial of Reaper, a a free VST synth, and a free VST drum machine, and learning that technology to discover how to make music (If you’re using a Mac, you probably have another $180 somewhere to get U-He Diva. If you’re using Linux, you probably have enough time to figure out how to set up Wine to run this software. If you’re using BSD, HaikuOs, or something else, you can install Windows on your computer. If you’re using a Sparcstation or Silicon Graphics computer, you should look at a calendar and realize we’re in the 2010s. If you don’t have a computer, it’s possible to get a good refurbished laptop for $100-$200 which will run music software just fine — or get an iPad, which also has a rich, albeit different, ecosystem of music software). If you’re still interested in making music 60 days from now, when the trial ends, spend $60 to license Reaper.
Don’t get an analog synth. You know all those people who say digital can’t sound like analog? They don’t know what they’re talking about. This is easily discovered: Just ask them where you can listen to or download their music. They will not have any music that you can listen to, because people who argue about whether the Roland TB-03 has the exact same accent behavior as a TB-303 are collectors, not musicians.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a collector, if you have the money to waste on that. But, a collector is not a musician. And, being a collector is easy, albeit expensive: Just get a Yamaha CS80, a Roland TR-808, a Roland TB-303, a Roland Jupiter-8, and a Moog Minimoog. The point of having all that vintage gear isn’t to make music; it’s to spend a lot of money for the sake of spending money.
But, if you want to buy gear to actually make music, just start with a full sized MIDI keyboard and Reaper and some free VST instruments (sure, there’s other ways to start out, but this setup has the advantage of being cheap). Learn how to play chords. Learn how to play a basic I-IV-V chord progression. Learn chord inversions. Learn how to make a basic 4/4 drum beat and bass line. Make a couple of three minute songs. Once your friends tell you your music sounds good and that you’re talented, instead of saying your music sounds “different”, you are ready to consider spending the money on a hardware setup. No sooner.
Once you’re able to make compelling music with just Reaper, some free VST instruments, and a MIDI controller, this article is a studio building guide. This guide is for people who wish to use synthesizers to make complete songs, and is geared towards making an entire recording studio that can do that without using a computer. This guide assumes a budget of $1400-$2000 to buy new gear, along with pointers for making a $800 standalone recording studio.
This guide is how I made my studio. You will probably make your studio differently. You will probably use computers more in your studio than I use them in mine. You might be one of those crazy people who spends thousands on a Eurorack modular system — but you’re an idiot if you do that with money not earned from making music. And you’re a complete moron if you buy Eurorack — or any other musical gear, for that matter — on credit.
People who are in a band, who already have some gear for making music, or who just want to noodle around without making complete songs should jump down to my list of available gear. Or go to any of the various online retailers and browse around. Trust me, these people love it when fools like you get the notion that you need to spend a bunch of money on a bunch of gear you don’t need in order to make compelling music.
This guide contains my opinions about making music. If you want to know whether my opinions are valid, I suggest you listen to my music and decide for yourself if I know what I’m talking about.
If you want to whine about how this guide isn’t perfect, doesn’t meet the needs of lazy bums who would rather smoke weed and pretend their music is decent instead of laying off the pot, taking some responsibility for their life, and making some real compelling music, or if you want to whine about the fact I think you’re a complete idiot for buying gear on credit, go ahead. You have the freedom of speech to do that. You won’t be the first bitter lazy stoner to complain about this guide and you won’t be the last one either.
And now, the guide:
Table of Contents
Are analog synthesizers the only real synthesizers?
The downside of analog
Step one: Get a programmable keyboard or a DAW
Step two: Get a digital multitrack
Step three: Get something that can play drums
Step four: Write a few songs
Step five: Know your musical intervals
Step six: Actually record some music
Step seven: Consider getting an analog synth or other gadget
That sounds like too much work!
I can’t afford to buy gadget X. Should I buy it on credit?
Should I buy gadget X or gadget Y?
Which programmable keyboard should I get?
Should I get modular?
Should I buy used?
What is MIDI?
Is there a cheaper way to build a studio?
What synthesizer should I get for $XXX?
What are some synthesizers and other gear out there?
What is reverb?
What about Roland’s gear?
No, because a talented musician can make great music with Reaper, some free VST instruments, and a $100 MIDI controller.
Most people interested enough in synthesizers to find this essay have probably heard one or more times that the only “real” synthesizers are analog synths. The reality is a little more complicated.
Right now, analog is the cool sound to have. Moog is back, after being out of business most of the 1980s and 1990s, and the big Japanese synthesizer makers (Korg, Roland) who wouldn’t touch analog in the 1990s or 2000s are making analog synthesizers again. Even Yamaha has dipped their toe in the analog synth market again with their Reface CS modeled analog synth.
It wasn’t always this way. In the mid-1980s, everyone was selling their analog synthesizers to get a digital DX7 or sampler. Only Oberheim stubbornly continued to make analog synthesizers, and ended up going bankrupt in 1988 as a result.
Just as vinyl has made a resurgence, so have analog synthesizers. An analog monophonic synthesizer I bought for $90 because it was the cheapest synth I could get my hands on is now selling on eBay for over $1000. Loud-mouth anonymous identities proclaim that the only real synthesizers are analog synthesizers. And a lot of people all of a sudden want to get an analog gadget.
Before going over the issues with analog, it has one big advantage: It’s easier to program, especially analog synthesizers which use one knob per function.
Analog has been expensive. Pure analog is either monophonic, very limited, or very expensive. There is one exception: The 2016 Korg Minilogue is an 8-VCO 4-voice fully polyphonic (Not paraphonic) analog synth which only costs $500. Analog VCOs can sometimes have a lot of tuning problems.
When people ask “do I want analog”, my first question is: What do they already have? If people already have a computer based digital audio workstation (DAW) to make music with, a programmable keyboard with a wide assortment of sounds on it, and some way of recording those sounds (a DAW or maybe a standalone recorder), then, yes, a monophonic analog synthesizer will add a bunch of interesting sounds with a lot of hands-on editing.
For people who don’t have any synthesizers at all, and want to make compelling songs, they should look beyond just analog, especially for their first keyboards. There are a number of inexpensive or free computer programs that can make some really beautiful sounds. If one would rather not have a computer in their studio, there are a number of inexpensive digital synths out there.
Here is a step by step guide to making a home recording studio that can make compelling music without needing a computer. There are a lot of approaches to making music; using a computer, for example, can be a lot more cost-effective than this approach.
Not doing any of this and getting, say, a modular synth instead is can work if the goal is not to make full songs, but instead make interesting noises.
That behind us, here is the guide
Before getting anything else, remember: A talented musician can make great music with Reaper, some free VST instruments, and a $100 MIDI controller.
Before getting an analog synth, anyone who wants to make music should get something capable of making songs first. The most inexpensive way to do this is to get a digital audio workstation (DAW) program for their computer, and a few free “VST” (a technology for adding virtual synths or effects to a digital audio workstation) programs to run in the DAW.
If one wants to make music without a computer, the best first synth to get is a programmable keyboard.
On this page, a programmable keyboard is a keyboard with 5-pin circular MIDI interfaces and an engine which allows the sounds to be edited when connected to a computer. I do not not consider low-cost preset-only keyboard which only has a USB port to be true “programmable keyboard”s.
5-pin MIDI is essential for a hardware-based synthesizer recording studio. The low cost “rompler” keyboards which only have USB MIDI can only connect to a computer; they can not connect to synth modules or drum machine that one may want to get to expand their studio.
This is a MIDI port
This is not a MIDI port
A programmable keyboard also allows full sound editing, which is very useful for starting to learn synthesis from.
Right now, the low-cost programmable keyboards include the $500 Casio XW-P1 and Yamaha MX49, and the $700 Yamaha MX61, Korg Kross 61, and Roland Juno DS-61. These critters are not entirely computer-free; these programmable keyboards need to be attached to a computer to edit their sounds.
Again, lower cost units than these are missing essential features: They do not allow sound editing, and they do not have actual MIDI ports.
One other thing: Make sure to get something with full sized keys. Many piano teachers recommend getting a programmable keyboard with 88 piano action keys. The reason is because it’s easy to develop bad habits when learning how to play if using mini keys.
Step two: Get a digital multitrack
If one already has a DAW which can record sounds, skip this step. For people who prefer to be computer free, options are limited but still there.
Digital multitracks are made by Roland (under their Boss moniker), Zoom, and Tascam. The Boss digital multitrack has only eight tracks in the $400 range. Zoom has a few models, including an 8-track and 24-track model. Zooms can work as standalone multitracks, but they also have a lot of integration with DAWs.
Tascam, as just multitracks, have the most features and value. Tascam’s $400 24-track has 12 mono tracks and 6 stereo tracks; the 32-track, for only $100 more, has 8 mono and 12 stereo tracks. Both of these units do not have MIDI; but they can be used in a MIDI studio by using a technology called tape sync, where a computer-generated shifting hi-frequency tone is placed on a track providing synchronization and timing information. I use an old Roland R8 to sync my digital multitrack to my MIDI sequencers and drum machines.
Unless one is making pure ambient music, or is in a band with a drummer, something that can make drum sounds is useful. While an analog synthesizer can make drum sounds, a dedicated unit for making drum patterns is useful.
There are plenty of VSTs out there that can make drum sounds. DAW users can skip this step.
There are a number of drum machines out there. One very flexible inexpensive unit available new is the Alesis SR-16. The Korg Volca beats is more popular, since it has analog, but I find that its snares lack “snap” (note: There is a mod that fixes the snare sound, but doing this mod will void the warranty), and it doesn’t have a MIDI out for allowing another MIDI device (such as a programmable keyboard or synth) to play drum sounds.
The main value of a drum machine is that it has a built in sequencer optimized for making drum patterns.
It’s also possible to write songs with Reaper, some free VST instruments, and a $100 MIDI controller.
With a way of making sounds, making drums, and recording everything, it’s now possible to write songs. Most songs have what is known as as a chord progression: First, decide on which chords make up a song, then work the song around the chord progression.
One common chord progression is I-IV-V in a major key. The easiest I-IV-V key to play on a guitar is G, so a lot of songs are centered around the chords of G major, C major, and D major.
Another effective chord progression is I-IV-vi-V (G major, D major, E minor, C major in the key of G), as Axis of Awesone very nicely demonstrate.
Songs do not always start with a chord progression. Some of the songs on my new album start with a riff I play on my keyboard, and I build then chords around the riff.
The songs I have written which do not center around a chord progression get less favorable responses. I have made entire songs around synthesizer drones or some other really interesting sound; while I like those songs, they do not get as much positive feedback as the songs I have written using chords.
As a general rule, a rock or pop song needs chords, it needs drums, it needs a bass line, and it needs a melody. It is, of course, possible to make music missing any or all of those elements — When Doves Cry famously hit #1 even though it has no bass line — but it’s harder to make a compelling song that breaks convention.
Since I am tending towards ambient and space music, my music, as often as not, doesn’t have drums and sometimes no bass line. However, even with ambient music, it sounds more full bodied when I add some bass to it. Even here, while the melodies can be really simple (Jonn Serrie, my favorite musician, has a great song called Starmoods which is 15 minutes of sounds revolving around a simple 4-note A-A-A-D melody), they are still good to have in a compelling song.
After buying a lot of gear and trying to make compelling songs for a few years, with at best mixed results (I got sick and tired of friends telling me “Your music sounds....different”), I finally had a friend play notes on a keyboard and tried to name them. I, of course, failed. Relatively few people have a gift called “perfect pitch”, being able to name a note after hearing it. It’s impossible to learn perfect pitch; you either have it or you don’t.
Not to worry: Many great composers, including Wagner, did not have perfect pitch.
What can be learned are musical intervals: After hearing two notes, a trained musician can tell you how far apart the notes are. I once wrote an app to train myself to learn intervals. After hours of frustrating practice, I was able to start hearing intervals and my music got better as a result.
Another skill that is useful to have is the ability to hear a note and sing that note. Like interval training, this skill can be learned, even if one does not have perfect pitch.
It’s also possible to record music with Reaper, some free VST instruments, and a $100 MIDI controller.
At this point, with some music theory down, and with a few song ideas written, it’s time to get out the gear and actually make some music. Record a few songs, let friends hear them (I strongly suggest to only let close friends hear them and to not post them online), and listen to honest feedback.
Now that this is done, the question is this: Is there something missing in the music that an analog or other dedicated synthesizer can help fix?
Finally, now that some music is being made, it’s time to consider getting an analog synthesizer or other gadget. For some kinds of music, an analog synthesizer can really enhance the sound of one’s songs. It really depends on what direction your music is going.
The reason why I got really excited with the Roland JP-08 is because I have been making music with a Roland Juno-Di programmable keyboard, a digital multitrack, a Korg ER-1, and a few other odds and ends in my tiny home studio with pretty good results.
The biggest limitation for me is that the Juno-Di, while beautiful sounding when I made my own sounds for it, forces me to hook up a computer to edit its sounds. I also found its lack of some classic analog features (PWM, hard sync, a 2-pole resonant lowpass filter) limiting.
I also wanted a better sequencer than the drum sequencer inside my Korg ER-1 drum machine.
The JP-08 works really well for my setup because it has PWM, hard sync, hands-on editing, and even has a nice (albeit basic) built in sequencer. I don’t care that it’s not “pure” analog; I once threw an analog synthesizer in the garbage because I was so frustrated with its lack of reliability.
I also like the fact it’s inexpensive and really small; I will probably end up getting two, one with the optional keyboard, so that I can have a synth to noodle on at work when taking mental breaks.
Well, then, you can just get a JP-08 and because it is, after all, the one true synth instead, but that won’t necessarily make for compelling music.
The fact is that making compelling music is a lot of work. There is no way around it.
To be fair, there is nothing wrong with getting a synthesizer with no intention of making finished songs, and using it to just relax by playing on it. If that is the goal, it doesn’t really matter what synth one gets.
Absolutely not! Getting more gear is usually not the answer or secret to making better music. Having better chord progressions, practicing scales so one can play better leads, designing a new sound with the gear one already has — these are more effective ways of making better music.
Retail therapy is not an effective way to treat depression or to make oneself happy. If inspiration is not happening with the gear one already has, or if one is not happy, maybe it’s time to take a break and clear one’s mind.
This is doubly true if buying on credit. Having debt (even 0% interest debt, which can quickly become high interest debt if one misses a payment or loses their job) is very stressful; best to rein in that GAS (get a synth) instinct.
Since people who have already bought gear on credit have reacted negatively to this: I am not making a moral judgment against people who have gone down that path. I am writing for people building up a studio for the first time.
Buy the gadget that costs less. If they have the exact same price, buy the gadget that is more heavily discounted.
Look over the various programmable keyboards, listen to them on YouTube, perform some web searches to see what people say about them, and ideally play them at a music store to get a sense of how they play.
Asking online will only get people’s opinions. Even if a given online community agrees that a given synth is the best one, the music you make may sound better using a different synth.
If you want my opinion, the one true synth is the Roland JP-08.
If you are even thinking of asking this question, the answer is no.
There a lot of anonymous identities on the internet which praise the virtues of modular. Modular and vintage are the most expensive possible ways of making electronic music. This has some appeal: There’s a certain class of people who automatically think “more expensive” means better; there’s even an economic terms for the kinds of things people buy because they are expensive: “Veblen good.”
Not only is modular expensive, but also modular synthesizers take a really long time to set up a sound on; modular synths are usually monophonic.
When I say get very expensive very fast, let’s look at Roland’s products. Let’s compare the JD-Xi from 2015 and the System-500 from 2016:
- The System-500 is modular. The JD-Xi is not.
- The System-500 has one analog voice (2xVCO, 2xVCF, 2xVCA, 1 LFO, 2xADSR). The JD-Xi also has one analog voice (1xVCO, 1xVCF, 1xVCA, 1 LFO, 2xADSR).
- The JD-Xi has 64 patch memories. The System-500 has no patch memory.
- The JD-Xi has a programmable drum machine. The System-500 does not.
- The JD-Xi has 128 digital voices, each of which can have up to three tones on a single note, seven different filter types, a number of different ways of generating voices (Saw, Square/Pulse, Triangle, Super Saw, PCM waveforms, etc.) and so on. The System-500 is completely analog, without any digital voices at all.
- Both the System-500 and the JD-Xi have knobby interfaces, but the JD-Xi needs menu diving to edit all of the possible synth parameters.
While the JD-Xi has a number of features the System-500 does not have, and has a built-in (albeit mini) keyboard, it is one fourth the cost of the System-500; the JD-Xi only sets you back $500, while the System 500 costs $2000 (without keyboard).
I am using this example to show an apples-to-apples comparison of how much more modular costs. For four times the cost, one ends up with a synthesizer with fewer voices and features.
Now, there’s a lot the System 500 can do that the JD-Xi can not: There are a lot more modulation routing options, and it’s possible to buy other modules — a large number of modules from many companies — to expand the sound which can not be done with a JD-Xi. For example, the modules from Mutable Instruments can do a lot of interesting things usually not seen in hardware synths, such as granular synthesis (a technology Bob Moog himself was very excited about in the late 1980s).
Another very interesting module is the Z-DSP, which can, via programmable carts, do a number of things (steep filters, chorus, delay, beautiful sounding reverb from Sean Costello, and, yes, granular synthesis) which hardware usually can not.
And yes, There’s really something to be said about the sound of analog modular; my favorite example of how modular can sound very nice is the beginning of So Hard by the Pet Shop Boys.
Another really nice thing about modular analog is how hands-on and knobby sound shaping is. There is no sound editing with a mouse nor menu diving.
While modular is very deep, digital can do a lot of things analog modular can not (less so these days, since a number of modular modules do include DSPs). There’s a reason why Wendy Carlos — one of the world’s most accomplished modular synthesizer virtuosos — stopped using analog modular synthesizers and started using digital as soon as digital synthesis technology was available.
These days, the best affordable way to have the most possible synthesis options is to use a computer-based digital-audio workstation and a number of different synthesizer VST programs. In addition to there being numerous free VSTs out there, Reaktor is an incredibly flexible completely modular virtual synth available for only $200 — less than the cost of a VCO module.
Only buy used from a trusted local music dealer. Do not buy used online unless one knows they can return the gear. Let me give just one example of the pitfalls of used gear: I have a DR-660 drum machine in my studio. It’s a nice drum machine, but it’s MIDI port does not work unless I shake the cable attached it it. I once had a Kawai R50e drum machine whose MIDI did not work at all.
One can save a lot of money buying used, but prices are a lot more unstable and a lot of used gear does not work. Tread carefully.
MIDI is a way of connecting synthesizers together so that control information, such as what notes are being played or how quickly to play a song, can be transferred between synthesizers. This is what a MIDI port looks like
A MIDI port can transmit all kinds of information between synths, or between a computer and a synthesizer, but MIDI does not transfer audio data.
Here’s a really cheap fully functional MIDI electronic music studio able to make finished songs without a computer, complete with analog, without buying used:
- Roland JD-Xi, $500
- Tascam DP008EX, $200 (with power supply)
- Korg Taktile 49, $150
To go significantly lower then $800 really requires some combination of buying used and/or using a computer. The general way to build a functional ultra-low-cost recording studio is to get a $200 basic keyboard with only USB, then connect that keyboard to a computer and get special DAW software for that computer. This buyer’s guide does not cover that approach.
The reason why I don’t like inexpensive USB-only keyboards is because they can’t connect to a lot of cool low-cost MIDI modules available; this setup is really inexpensive — one could make a $300 studio with it, if so inclined — but requires being tethered to a computer.
If XXX is under 160, stop spending all your money buying weed, and save up $160 to get Reaper, some free VST instruments, and a $100 MIDI controller. If XXX is above 160, get Reaper and a MIDI controller with 88 full sized piano keys (or, just get a $100 controller and put the money in a 401k).
Get a DAW or programmable keyboard. Usually, the best option is to get a cheap MIDI controller (ideally, one with full size keys, even if it has only two octaves) and digital audio workstation (DAW) software for one’s computer. If playing live, a $500-$700 programmable keyboard will probably get the job done.
For anyone who already has a DAW and/or programmable keyboard, the answer to this question is to not spend the money. If someone is not 100% sure about buying something, and needs to ask about it online, then it’s better not to buy it.
If you aren’t making compelling music right now, don’t waste your money getting anything listed here. Just spend $160 to get Reaper, some free VST instruments, and a $100 MIDI controller.
This list, last updated in 2016, is definitely not exhaustive:
- Programmable keyboards: Casio XW-P1 ($500),
61 ($700), Roland Juno DS-61 ($700), Yamaha Motif MX61 ($700).
There are also some $1000 programmable boards with 88-key piano action:
Korg Kross 88,
Roland Juno DS-88, and the
There are a couple of $500 programmable synths which do not have piano keys: The Yamaha Motif MX49 (the keys are narrow), and the Roland JD-Xi (mini keys).
Keep in mind that a “programmable keyboard” is not a $200 basic keyboard; to be called a “programmable keyboard” here, the unit needs to have a five-pin MIDI ports and the ability to edit its sounds (even if only from a computer).
All of these synths are 100% digital and use no analog electronics, nor do they sound like an analog synth.
- If not using a computer to record, Tascam has a couple of really nice
medium priced digital multitracks: The $450 DP24SD, and the $550 DP32SD.
It’s best to record in 24-bit, and be sure to get the free firmware upgrade
which removes an issues these units had recording in 24-bit. The units
include basic effects processing (reverb, chorus, delay, etc.).
If money is really tight, get a DAW setup, or get a DP008EX for $200.
These units do not have MIDI sync, but this can be worked around by using an older drum machine with tape sync, such as a Roland R8 (their 1989 flagship rhythm box) or TR-626.
- For drums, the Alesis SR16 is inexpensive, can sound like a real
drummer, and only costs $150. It can also sequence bass lines to play
on another MIDI synthesizer. With a large number of samples, albeit
more oriented towards acoustic drums than electronic ones,
it’s the most flexible drum machine
available new for under $200.
- If there’s more money to spend on drums, The Electribe Sampler from
Korg is an interesting $400 drum machine and sequencer combo.
- Korg released in 2016 the Minilogue. Before the
Minilogue, the only new analog polyphonic for $500 or less was the very
limited Timbre Wolf. With the Minilogue, $500 gives you a
four voice fully polyphonic (A VCF and VCA on each voice) synth with two VCOs
and two envelope generators per voice.
For getting a very affordable analog modular synth, there are
two interesting options in the $200-$300 range: The semi-modular Moog
and the Soundmachines NS1nanosynth. Both reduce cost by using a
“breadboard” model where raw wires on a bread-board like strip are
used to patch the various sound modules together.
The Werkstatt requires some non-soldier hand assembly, and the NS1nanosynth exposes the raw knobs and buttons. For people willing to roll up their sleves a bit, both of these units allow one to have a very basic modular synth at a very low price.
Both synths are monophonic one-oscillator deals.
- One interesting low-cost synth optimized for bass sounds
is the $140 monophonic (one note at a time)
This is only available factory-direct in a limited run of 1,000 synths but is (as of 2016) still in stock.
- Speaking of factory direct synths, a 100% digital synth which emulates
an analog synth (but with some extra features only digital can offer) is
by Audio Thingies. Very limited quantities made. Under $300, tiny synth
- For somewhat more, $450, there is the Korg MS-20 mini
monophonic (one note played
at a time) semi-modular
synthesizer. It has two voltage controlled oscillators, two filters (low
pass and high pass), and two envelope generators. Like a full modular,
it allows the signal to be patched with cables.
- While I do not recommend buying used in this guide, I will make one
exception: The Roland R8 from 1989 is a
difficult to program but very powerful drum machine. If the drum machine
has the “electronic” and “dance” cards, it can make all of the sounds
that the TR-808 and TR-909 had.
The power supply for a Roland R8 can be difficult to find, but there is a company that makes new replacement power supplies
Since it’s used, its price is quite variable; they are being sold in the $300 range right now. These units are built like a tank and should work fine if well taken care of.
One nice thing that the R8 has that newer units do not have is tape sync support.
- There’s a synthesizer/drum machine/sequencer combo from
Novation called the Novation Circuit for $330.
- One analog MIDI drum machine with a Roland 808/909/CR-78 vibe
to it is the $450 Arturia DrumBrute. 17 sounds, individual outputs,
drum sequencer with 64 patterns and song mode.
- Some other analog MIDI drum machines: The Akai Rhythm Wolf and Tom Cat, which I think are worth $100 new (when on
sale) and not their usual $200 price. The $450 Cyclone TT-606 is similar
to the DrumBrute; while it has fewer knobs, some may prefer its sound.
- The Waldorf Blofeld ($500) is the modern-day version of the classic PPG
synthesizers which Depeche Mode, Ultrabox, Tangerine Dream and others
used in the early 1980s. It’s an incredibly deep digitally modeled
virtual analog synthesizer, with a lot of options a classic analog synth
does not have.
For $130 extra (which can be bought separately from the Blofeld), there is a “SL Sample option” which allows one’s own custom samples to be loaded in to the Blofeld.
- Korg has some interesting low-cost devices called the Volca series.
Available in the $100-$200 price range, they consist of a drum machine
(Volca Beats), bass synth (Volca Bass), basic chord synth (Volca Keys),
and, released in 2016, the Volca FM, the Volca Kick, as well as
a couple other units. Low cost. With the exception of the Volca FM
and Volca Sample,
they are analog, but limited in a lot of ways. The Volca FM is
digital, can do a lot of different sounds, but it really needs a
computer to edit sounds with — and learning FM synthesis is difficult
(back in the 1980s, they joked that only Brian Eno could program a
- Roland has six different digital recreations of some of their
early 1980s synths and drum machines called the
Boutique line, ranging in price from $300 to $400.
The most interesting to me is the JP-08, but it costs
$400. For someone without a lot of experience programming
synthesizers, the $300 JU-06 is probably the best choice.
They can have a mini-keyboard attached to them for $100 more, or
just hook up an external MIDI keyboard. Supposedly limited editions,
but they are still readily available in stores a year after the 2015 models
The ACB technology that these devices has supposedly sounds more like analog than traditional VA (virtual analog), and based on reactions to the ACB-based AIRA line, there is truth to that claim.
They are knobby, have a basic sequencer, and are good at making the kinds of analog sounds digital programmable synths are weak at. I have a JP-08, which I’m really excited to be playing.
While not monophonic, the JP-08, JU-06, and JX-03 Boutique units only have four voices of polyphony, which means they can not play a five note chord (only a four note one). While it is possible to chain two Boutiques together to have eight voices of polyphony, or even three or more boutiques for more polyphony, the chaining does not stop notes with long releases from being cut off.
The Boutique TR-09 is a good recreation of the TR-909, but only has two analog outputs; its four individual outputs are only available via USB. The TB-03, like the original TB-303, is monophonic; this model has more ports and features than the old TB-303. The VP-03 is a nice little string synth and vocodor; it has six note polyphony.
- Some other low-cost polyphonic virtual analogs include the four-voice
Korg MicroKORG and the fully polyphonic Novation MiniNOVA, both available
- If real analog is needed, one of the lowest cost options
is the monophonic (no chords) Arturia Microbrute.
One oscillator, so best for bass lines, and has mini keys instead of
full sized ones, but it is analog and it is only $300.
- Similar in features to the Microbrute is Korg’s $300 Monologue synth.
It will be available in five colors. Announced in 2016, scheduled to ship in
A reverb or, as Lexicon proudly puts on the front of their units, digital reverberator, is a device that simulates the echos heard in a large room without furniture, a concrete tunnel, a large cathedral, an airport hanger, or pretty much any other place with a lot of echos.
Adding the echos of a live space does a lot to enhance musical tones. Indeed, the programmable keyboards which I mention above all have built in digital reverberators; one of the reasons I recommend an all-in-one programmable keyboard is to have a solution which makes a really good sound out of the box without needing to buy outboard gear.
That said, the majority of analog synthesizers out there do not come with digital signal processing, so an outboard reverb unit will do wonders to improve the sound of an analog synth, especially with lead and pad (ambient) sounds.
The best sounding hardware reverbs for $500 or less are guitar pedals. The Eventide Space, Strymon Big Sky, Empress reverb, and OTO BAM (which it’s available) are four different excellent sounding high-end reverb pedals available in the $500 ballpark.
There are a number of more inexpensive reverb pedals; possibly the most notable inexpensive pedal is the Zoom MS-70CDR, which has a number of different reverbs for only $120 new.
Speaking of plugins, there are a lot of free computer programs called “VST plugins” which offer reverb. To use a free VST reverb in Windows, one can get Hermann Seib’s excellent free VST host along with a good free reverb, such as Signaldust’s good Abstract Chamber reverb program.
This works best if one has what is known as a interface to connect sound making devices to one’s computer, but the setup may (or may not) work with a computer’s built-in sound card — it works on my older Thinkpad T21, albeit with some distortion because the microphone input can not really handle line level signals. The interface I use is the Focusrite 2i2, which is somewhat affordable, has reasonably low latency, and sounds really nice.
After downloading, unpacking and installing VSThost, and unpacking the Abstract Chamber plugin, do the following:
- Open up VSThost
- Choose File > New Plugin
- Select the “Abstract Chamber.dll” file (or “Abstract Chamber-x64.dll” file if using 64-bit Windows and the 64-bit FreeVST host)
- A small window with “Abstract Chamber.dll” will appear in FreeVST. Click on the chain link in the upper left hand corner of that window.
- Click on the checkbox left of “Engine Input”
- Click OK
- Click on the chain icon in the upper left corner of the “Engine Output” mini-window.
- Click on the checkbox to the left of “Signaldust Abstract...”
- Click OK
- Click on the icon shaped like a knob in the Abstract Chamber mini window.
- Adjust the reverb parameters to get the desired sound.
- By default, there is a slight delay between the time VSTHost gets a signal and it’s processed by the reverb. Reverbs sound really nice with a bit of pre-delay, but if one wants to remove it, go to Devices > Wave in VSThost and reduce the buffer size. Note that a large buffer lowers the chance that one will hear audio glitches while VSTHost + Abstract Chamber creates reverberation.
- If there are audio gitches, increase the buffer size in VSThost, and make sure to close all other programs (don’t post Facebook updates while using VSThost to add reverb to a signal)
To be honest, I have a bias towards Roland’s gear. My favorite musician has used a lot of Roland gear: A Roland S-50, a Roland D-50, JD-800, and a Jupiter-80. (He also has a Minimoog Voyager which he loves.)
Also, during the 1990s when no one was making an analog synth, Roland was the only one out there still making knobby synths; their late 1980s synths had knobby programmers and they released the JD-800 in the 1990s in an era when all the other synths out there needed menu diving to program
That in mind, here is an overview of Roland’s polyphonic synths:
In the beginning there was the Jupiter, which was — and still is — Roland’s “get a really nice polyphonic when money is no object” synth line. Then there’s the Juno, which is Roland’s “get a decent polyphonic at a good price” line.
Roland’s first Jupiter was the Jupiter-4. Then they made the really fancy, ungodly expensive, and instant hit Jupiter-8 synth. Then, for people who wanted something more cost effective, they made the Juno-6, then the Juno-60 (Juno 6 with memory) and finally the Juno-106. They also made a slightly less expensive Jupiter-6 which cost a little less than a Jupiter-8, and a couple of rackmount synths: The MKS-80 rackmount synth (8 voice Jupiter-6 in a box), a MKS-30 (JX-3P in a box), and some others.
Then they made some digital hybrids which are not nearly as expensive on the used market: The JX-3p, JX-8p, Juno Alpha (Juno Alpha 1 and Juno Alpha 2).
Then Roland made the incredibly successful, all digital D-50 and never made analog again...
Until they released the JD-Xi and JD-Xa in 2015. The JD-Xi is an all-in-one box with mini keys; it has a drum machine, a digital virtual analog synth with up to 128-voice polyphony and a lot of digital waveforms and samples which analog can’t do...and it has a simple one-oscillator analog synth, for those who need true analog.
The JD-Xa has a 64-voice virtual analog synth and an eight/four voice analog synth.
Roland also has the AIRA line: A virtual analog (but using a CPU intensive technology called ACB which is really close in sound to actual analog) synth called the System-1, a virtual analog modular called the System-1m, a mixer, drum machine, and sync box.
And, yes, they also have a nice all-digital (and somewhat bass-thin, but with a really great thick digital sparkle to it) programmable synth called the Juno DS (61 or 88 keys).
Finally, they have a limited edition (how limited, Roland won’t say, but there are rumors that they really mean it will only be available new for a few months) ACB series of three virtual analog synths called the “Boutique” line. They are small enough to be used as a child’s toy, yet do a remarkably accurate emulation of the Jupiter-8, Juno-106, or JX-3p. They can be either a standalone module, or an optional $100 keyboard can be attached to them.
My main synths right now are a Roland Juno-Di programmable keyboard and the JP-08 Boutique synth (modeled after the Jupiter-8); the complement each other quite nicely. The JP-08 can make a nice octave bass line, a resonant Acid bass line, and Vangelis-like ambient sounds.
No, I have no relationship with Roland except as a satisfied customer of their products (they sometimes retweet my gushing about how much I love the JP-08, but besides that, no connection with them).
Here are some other online resources: