Buying your first synth can be an exciting yet daunting task. With the price points on more advanced units, you’ll want to do your research before making a purchase.
Synthesizers vary in size and have several options to consider before choosing the right one—monophonic or polyphonic, with or without keys, and, of course, the Redditor’s dream debate: analog or digital synthesis. With so many brands boasting budget and beginner friendly options, where should you even start?
I’d like to present you with some guidelines to ensure you are excited every time you play your new instrument and keep it from collecting dust. First, I always find it important to determine the goal you are trying to achieve with your synthesizer. Are you a keyboardist looking to use it as a bass or solo instrument in your band? Perhaps you are a producer trying to get away from VST synths or plugins. Or maybe you’re a tech nerd who wants to explore sound design with eye-catching gadgets. Knowing your end goal will slim down your options and get you closer to playing with oscillators.
Let’s begin by cutting our selections in half. Do you need a keybed? Or will a keyless tabletop module cut it for you? My advice to beginners is to have some sort of hands-on pitch input, whether it be an actual keybed, ribbon strip, or sequencer. While this won’t be necessary for producers or synthesists only looking to use external control from their daw or other midi device, routing midi can be a daunting task for those with limited experience.
Keyboards are for:
• Those looking to “play” the instrument.
• Easing the gap between music making and sound design.
• The complete beginner to music production.
Module/Keyboardless is for:
• Those who already have/understand external midi control.
• Studios or rooms with limited space.
• Saving a few extra bucks.
• Focusing on the sound design.
Another important factor to consider is the number of voices, or Polyphony. Imagine the disappointment when you go to play chords from your favorite Rush tune for the first time and you only hear a single note screamed back at you. The naming convention used to determine the number of voices is simple. A Monophonic synth will only be able to output a single voice at a time. Duophonic allows for two. Anything past two voices is Polyphonic. While you might think more voices mean a better synth, mono synths offer a more advanced and deeper sound design platform.
Go Monophonic if:
• You are only looking for a bass/lead synth.
• Sound design is more important to you than musicality.
• A single note at a time is all you’ll EVER need.
Go Polyphonic if:
• Chords are a must have for you.
• Sound design takes a back seat to your musical needs.
• You have ample space for storage.
• You’d rather PLAY your synth than PROGRAM it.
Analog vs Digital
A final important option to weigh is whether to go Analog or Digital. In analog synthesis, circuitry is turning raw electrical current into tunable frequencies and sculpting them into music. Whereas newer digital synthesis uses a computer to replicate that hardware circuitry, playing prerecorded samples, or using complex frequency modulation to achieve different tones. Previously, digital synthesis was the only way to recall preset patches or noises, but now some modern analog manufacturers are implementing digital functions to save your sounds.
Analog is all about:
• Getting away from screens.
• Learning the intricacies of each knob and function.
• Staying authentic to original synthesis designs.
• Saying goodbye to presets.
Digital is all about:
• Saving some money.
• Having loads of presets at hand.
• Modern approaches to achieving classic sounds.
This quick overview should help you determine the exact needs of your future synth. If you’re still not sure about spending your hard earned money, I would suggest looking into used gear. Used synthesizers can save you money, and they often keep their resale value when the time comes to upgrade, or if you decide that perhaps synthesis isn’t for you. You can also book a tour or session at our studio, The Creative Wonderlab, in Auburn, CA – where we have a huge library of digital and analog synths, music production tools and a supportive team to guide you.