Beginners Guide to Synthesizer Keyboards: What’s The Best?
There comes a time in every would-be keyboardists life where they decide they want to get into “the craft.” It could happen after seeing a particularly electrifying act live on stage, for instance. Or maybe, you’ve been a musician for many years, but you’ve never dipped your hands into synthesis.
Whatever the situation may be, you’re here, and that’s great! The goal of this guide will be to break down the various aspects that go into making your first synthesizer keyboard purchase, as well as looking at a few fantastic options to start your search with.
And with that in mind, please take a moment to view some of the wonderful synthesizer keyboards we will be discussing in this article. You can compare them against one another by price, weight, and overall rating in our interactive table below:
|Roland JUNO DS61|
|Roland JUNO DS88|
|Korg Kross 2|
|Novation Impulse 61|
And without further ado, let’s get started.
Intro to Synthesizers
Ever since Bob Moog (an electrician, not musician!) created a device that challenged the traditional notion of what it meant to generate sounds, synthesizers have shaped and molded the way contemporary music is crafted. Chances are, if you’ve turned on a radio in the last 50 or so years, you’ve heard synths being used in a popular song, and their influence on culture in general can be seen almost everywhere.
If you’re wanting to break into this electronic world of music creation, odds are you might be feeling a tad bit overwhelmed. Don’t fret! That’s completely normal. There’s a ton of options out there, and so much information that it can make your head spin.
To streamline everything a bit for you, please take a quick moment to view some of the best-selling synthesizer keyboards currently on sale online:
|1) Yamaha MX88|
|2) Korg Minilogue XD|
|3) Roland JUNO-DS88|
And now, let’s begin discussing exactly what you should be looking for in you’re shopping for a new synth.
Understanding What You Need
If you’ve done some preliminary shopping in stores or online, you’ve likely been pretty surprised by the sheer amount of options out there for keyboard synthesizers. It seems as though there’s a million different products, and they all seem to have different features, nuances, luxuries and “must-haves.”
What is actually essential, though, and what is fluff? The answer to that question largely depends on what you’re looking to do with your new musical weapon of choice. For most users who are just starting out, it’s going to be best to stick to the basics.
For the most part, all synths come with a keybed (which houses the actual keys, fun fact!), a series of controls, and some way for the keyboard to interface with an external source, like a DAW (that’s Digital Audio Workstation), or a PA system.
Past that, there’s tons of fancy extras, like arpeggiators, step sequencers, effects suites, modulation wheels, trigger pads, knobs, faders, and many other terms that may seem more like science fiction code names than musical tools. Again, most of these features are luxuries, not necessities.
What you’ll really want to focus on is finding a synthesizer that matches your style and general sound preferences. All synths are a bit different, and different brands and models have unique sounds that can’t easily be reproduced by any other. It’s best to start exploring the type of music you’re most interested in creating.
Do you like retro, 80’s style synth rock? Perhaps a classic Roland Juno or a MiniMoog would be a great place to start.
Into hip-hop or pop? Something more modern might be good for you.
Digital Vs Analog
As you search around the web, you’re likely to come across the terms digital and analog used quite a bit in relation to different synthesizers. This refers to how the electrical signals are generated within the keyboards themselves.
With analog synths, the signals are generated by an electric current. These tend to be more “classic” sounding synths, very popular in many different genres today. Digital synthesizers, on the other hand, rely on a digitally created sound signal manipulated by a computer. The advantage there is that a computer can create a very wide range of sounds, allowing digital synthesizer keyboards to cover huge territory when it comes to genres they are used for.
Some enthusiasts will argue that analog synthesizers have a more “authentic” tone to them, but ultimately, it only matters what sound is best for you and the music you wish to create.
There is also a huge variety of “soft synths” available on the market today. These are software programs that digitally recreate the sounds of various synthesizer models, to varying degrees of success. These are typically used in conjunction with a MIDI controller, or other type of keyboard that is able to interface with a PC.
Once you’ve decided which type of signal generation you want, there’s another huge option to consider.
Monophonic Vs Polyphonic
If you come from a classical piano background, you might envision that all synthesizers operate in largely the same way as what you’re used to. This isn’t necessarily true, however.
Certain digital and analog synths are Monophonic, meaning they can only play one note at any given moment. This means you aren’t able to play chords, and can essentially only have one tone firing at a time.
Polyphonic synths, on the other hand, allow multiple tones to be played simultaneously, allowing you to play it very much like a traditional piano, for the most part.
So, why would anyone want a monophonic keyboard, you might ask? That’s a great question with a complicated answer. Many synth enthusiasts believe that monosynths have a bolder, more powerful tone to them that allows things like leads to sound extra full and powerful.
Monosynths can also be cheaper than their polysynth brethren, which can be an attractive benefit for the right player. Predictably, this will be largely dependent on how you intend to play your new synth, and what you’ll want to be able to do.
Deciding On A Price Point
So, how much should one of these things cost, anyways? Everything from a $30 pocket synth to a $29,000 monstrosity can be found online, so I don’t blame you for not knowing where to start with your budget.
As a general rule of thumb, it’s important to note that there are some great keyboard synthesizers out there for just about any price point. Below, we’ll look at the two most common budgets for beginners, the sub-$500 and sub-$1000 price brackets. These tend to be great jumping-in points because of the wide variety of products available that cover the necessities.
Let’s take a look at a few of these models, and figure out which will be the best for you.
Best Synths Under $500
In the sub-$500 bracket, you’ll mainly be looking at mini synthesizers that don’t have a full range keyboard included. Even without a full 7 octaves worth of keys at your disposal, there’s still a lot of quality to be had.
Let’s begin by examining the Korg MicroKORG XL+.
Korg MicroKORG XL+
The XL+ is a modern equivalent of one of the most beloved synths ever made; the MicroKORG XL. The reviews on this one are extremely high, and it’s been that way pretty much ever since its release. There’s 128 sounds onboard, and the keyboard itself is made up of 37 mini-keys.
Novation Bass Station II
This monophonic synth packs some of the best bass sounds ever found at this price range, and goes out of it’s way to create a genuinely massive tone that competes several weight classes above it’s own.
The Casio XWP1 synth is another monophonic offering that combines a suite of high quality string, key, organic instrument and drum sounds with a 61-key setup to create a pretty remarkable bang for your buck.
Best Synths Under $1000
Let’s begin with the Roland Juno-GI.
The Juno-Gi builds on Roland’s legendary quality, creating a mobile synth experience that very few other names in the industry dare to try and match. It features full, 128-voice polyphony, and a massive library of incredible sounds built on the back of its synthesis engine.
Here’s the lowdown:
- Over 1,300 high-quality sounds optimized for live performance
- Intuitive user interface, including dedicated Tone Category buttons and large display
- 128-voice polyphony
- Full-featured eight-track digital recorder onboard with -Guitar/Mic/Line inputs
- Plug in a guitar and play/record with built-in pro guitar effects derived from BOSS’ GT series
- High-capacity SDHC card slot for data storage and direct play
- Full computer integration via MIDI Controller mode and built-in audio/MIDI interface
- Lightweight, compact body with battery-power compatibility
- Complete mobility when used with a battery-powered PA or amp such as Roland’s BA-330 or KC-110
- Included Cakewalk Production Plus Pack makes the JUNO-Gi a complete DAW package for your PC
The Dx7 could certainly be considered a vintage synth at this point; the synth first released in 1983! This thing pretty much spearheaded the digital synthesis revolution by being the first truly affordable digital synthesizer on the market. The legendary sounds, effects and controls still hold up to competition today.
- Polyphony – 16 Voices
- Oscillators – 16 bit Digital 6 operator FM.
- Instruments – (1) Monotimbral
- LFO – Sine/Square/Tri/SAW up/SAW Down/Random
- VCA – 6 Envelope generators 8 parameters each
- Keyboard – 61 keys (w/ velocity and aftertouch)
- Memory – 32 Patches
- Control – MIDI
Moog Sub Phatty
The Sub Phatty builds on top of its predecessor, the Little Phatty in several key ways. The front panel is fantastic, allowing beginners to learn the ins and outs of synthesis in a visceral and engaging way.
The monophonic synth is capable of creating some utterly massive sounds from its 2 variable oscillators, and the 25-key keyboard is semi-weighted and feels great to play. This synth is one of the most popular ever released, and for good reason. It sports some of the best synth sounds I’ve ever heard in its price range, and the amount of flexibility that can be achieved once you get the hang of things is seriously astounding.
So, there you have it. Synthesizers have a long and storied history, embedded into the very fiber of music over the last several decades. They’ve found their way into almost every single genre of music—from rap, to jazz, to rock and roll.
Being able to understand which keyboard is right for your individual needs starts with understanding the options, as well as the primary features you should be looking out for. Reading online synthesizer keyboard reviews can help quite a bit as well.
Even so, searching for the perfect first synthesizer can feel like an impossible task. Hopefully, the information above has at least set you on the right path, arming you with the tools to go into your first purchase with confidence and clarity.
If you enjoyed this article, please “like” us on Facebook!