Monophonic vs Polyphonic Synth: What’s Better?
In the beginning of electronic synthesis, all synthesizers were largely the same. At that point, all sounds were analog; meaning, all of the synthesizers relied on an analog electrical signal to make a sound. This required complex circuitry, and therefore, these early synths were what we call monophonic.
What does this mean, and what is the difference compared to what is created today?
Let’s dive in and find out. And to make this a bit easier for you, please take a look at the table below where we’ve compiled a list of monophonic and polyphonic synthesizers for your viewing pleasure (some of which will be discussed in-depth in today’s article).
|Roland JUNO DS61||8-Track Pattern Sequencer w/Non-Stop Recording|
|Roland JUNO DS88||128 Note Polyphony|
|Korg Kross 2||Pro-quality EDS-i sound engine|
|Korg Minilogue||16-Step Polyphonic Step & Motion Sequencer|
|Roland JD-XI||Gooseneck mic w/built-in Vocoder & AutoPitch|
|Yamaha MX88||1,106 voices, 61 drum kits|
|Behringer Monopoly||VCF, 2 LFOs, 2 envelopes, sync and cross modulation|
|Novation Impulse 61||Semi-Weighted w/Aftertouch|
Today, we have two main types of synthesizers available to purchase. One type is monophonic, meaning only one note can be played at any given time. The other is polyphonic, meaning multiple notes can be played at once.
Modern digital synthesizers today are primarily polyphonic, due to the fact that digital synths do not require all of the advanced and complicated circuitry that their analog ancestors utilized. This means that making a synth with polyphonal capabilities is nowhere near as expensive as it once was.
In traditional analog synths, you’d have to route each individual voice through the signal chain in order to create a sound. This meant that it was very difficult to physically fit more than one voice “chain” inside the cases of classic analog synthesizers.
For this reason, they were not common in the early days of electronic music production. It wasn’t until digital synthesis became commonplace that polyphony really started to catch on.
Below, please take a moment to view some of the best-selling synthesizers currently available for sale online:
|1) Yamaha MX88|
|2) Korg Minilogue XD|
|3) Roland JUNO-DS61|
|4) Roland JUNO-DS88|
|5) Behringer Poly D|
The Rise Of Digital
Digital synthesizers represented a fundamental shift in how synthesis engines worked when they were first released to the market almost 40 years ago. One of the earliest digital synths was the Fairlight CMI, which introduced digital sampling technology to the world at large.
This early synthesizer was extremely expensive at over $20,000, however, and it wasn’t until a few years later in 1983 that a truly revolutionary product was announced. The Yamaha DX-7 became the first digital synthesizer to really explode onto the market when it was released, largely due to the much cheaper $2,000 price. The release of the DX-7 marked the beginning of the decline of analog synthesizers on the market, and today, they have all but disappeared. That being said, there is a growing resurgence movement centered around classic analog synthesis that keeps the technology alive today.
These new digital synths tended to be able to be polyphonic or monophonic, depending on the user’s preference. One might think it was at this point that monophonic synths would vanish from the market, but you’d be wrong. Why then, have these synthesizers remained popular options, even today?
The key differentiator between a polyphonic and monophonic synth lies in how the synth is played, yes. Keyboard players must approach each instrument with a different mindset, and creating melodies and progressions on each presents unique challenges and advantages.
However, many users will tell you that there is also a distinctive difference between the sounds each are capable of producing as well. For instance, many keyboardists swear that a monophonic synth is capable of producing sounds that feel much “fuller” and more pronounced than a polyphonic instrument. This theory seems to be backed up by looking at several instruments that are polyphonal in nature, like the Saxophone.
Why do we bother with this instrument if you can only play one note at a time with it? It’s simple: because that single note contains a degree of expression and character that is difficult to recreate on any other instrument.
Monophonic synth users feel the same way about their instruments of choice. To this end, a monophonic synth is actually designed differently from a polyphonic one. A monophonic synth allows the sound designer to a create a extremely large tone, seeing as it only has one note to be responsible for at a time. Polyphonic instruments, however, are capable of producing many different notes at once, and therefore have to be designed with a slightly thinner sound in mind, so as not to overwhelm the senses, or sound too “muddy” to the listener.
When trying to decide on which type of synthesizer to buy, you should take a few things into account with respect to monophonic synths versus polyphonic ones. For instance, many monophonic synthesizers are actually cheaper than their polyphonic counterparts, largely due to the much simpler construction and internal schematics involved.
You’ll need to decide if this should factor into your purchasing decision or not. Consider your intended playing style, and what you’ll be using the synth for. For instance, is this your first synthesizer purchase? Are you going to be using this for all of your music production needs, or will this serve a more supplementary role? If you plan to have this be your main keyboard, I would recommend a polyphonic instrument.
As stated, these will allow you the greatest flexibility in your music, and many of them can be played in a monophonic mode today.
If, however, you are looking for something to supplement another keyboard, or are looking to explore the analog sounds of yesterday, a monophonic option might be great for you as well! There are some truly exceptional monophonic synthesizers still out there today which have sounds that are very difficult to recreate in any other product.
Your budget should also be a concern when deciding which type to ultimately purchase. Again, monophonic synths can often be cheaper overall, especially when talking about analog synthesizers, so it’s important to keep that in mind if you’re on a strict budget. Still, there are plenty of great digital polyphonic synths out there, and if you’re looking for a first synth, these might be the best route to take.
Ultimately, you’ll have to make this choice for yourself, based on what’s best for you, your music, and your style!
To make things a bit easier for you, I’ve broken down some of my favorite monophonic and polyphonic synths below for you. Use this as a starting point for your research, to help you decide which one will be best for your needs.
Noteworthy Monophonic Synthesizers
Here are a few synths which we personally like:
The MicroBrute is one of the most unique-sounding monophonic analog synthesizers I’ve ever heard, due in no small part to it’s monophonic design and Steiner-Parker filter. There’s only two octaves worth of mini keys, and they are on the cheaper side, so if you’re looking for a bit more on that end, there’s the larger MiniBrute as well!
However, for me, this little guy captures the essence of the sound in a hyper-affordable package.
A few key specs:
- Monophonic synthesizer
- 100% Analog audio signal path
- Steiner-Parker 2-pole multimode filter (Low Pass, Band Pass, High Pass)
- Analog Voltage Controlled Oscillator
- Oscillator Mixer (Overtone, Sawtooth, Square, Triangle, audio in [on rear panel])
- 12V DC 1A power supply
Novation Bass Station II
The Bass Station II is another synth that has long held the hearts of many who have used it over the years. The original version came out in the 1990’s, right smack dab in the middle of the analog revival movement.
The new version promises much of the same features, albeit updated for the 21st century.
25 note synth-action keyboard
- Aftertouch can be assigned to modulate:
- Filter frequency
- LFO 1to Osc pitch
- Osc 2 speed
- Pitch wheel
- Modulation wheel can be assigned to:
- LFO 2 to filter frequency
- LFO 1 to Osc pitch
- Osc 2 pitch
- Octave up/ down buttons
- 64 factory presets
- 64 slots for user patches (and patch dump facility for storing more)
- Master volume dial
Korg MS-20 Mini
There’s very little left to say about this beast for those who know of it; first released in 1987, the MS-20 is one of the most legendary monosynths ever created. This version of it was released in 2013, packing all of the power, flexibility and scope of the original into an updated frame that runs off of a convenient 9V power supply.
Users of this synth have claimed that it is the be all, end all hardware synth, offering an array of modulation routing options so dizzying, you’d be unlikely to ever try everything you possibly can on the synths control surface.
- Keyboard: C – C: 37-notes (3 octaves), mini keyboard designed specifically for the MS-20 Mini
- Head phones: Head phones output (Stereo 1/8″ mini phone jack, 33 Ω 48mW),
- USB: Type B, USB-MIDI Input/Output
- MIDI: MIDI Input
- Power Supply: DC9V
- Dimensions: (W x D x H) 493 ×257 ×208 mm / 19.41 x 10.12 x 8.19 inches
- Weight: 4.8 kg / 10.58 lbs.
- Accessories: AC adaptor (9V/1.7A), Patch Cord x 10
Recommended Polyphonic Synthesizers
Here are a few Polyhonic synths worth your time.
Roland Juno Gi
The Juno Gi is a fully featured 61-key synthesizer with a ton of beautiful sounds, professional effects, and full 128 voice polyphony. This synth has some of the best sounds I’ve ever heard, and they are conveniently organized into live sets that work extremely well for those looking forward to playing live with their instrument. Just look at these specs, little else needs to be said:
- 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 Minilogue is one of the better-valued polyphonic analog synths I’ve come across in the last 10 years. It’s a polyphonic synth with up to 4 voices, and it is packed with features that should be well above it’s $500 price point. This thing looks awesome, plays amazing, and feels great to the touch. There’s not much more you can ask for, really.
- Keyboard: 37-keys (Slim-key, velocity sensitive)
- Sound Generation: Analog synthesis
- Maximum Polyphony: 4 voices
- Program: 200 programs (100 Presets / 100 Users)
- Each program includes voice mode and sequence data settings
- Up to eight favorite programs can be registered
Moog Sub Phatty
The Sub Phatty is probably the best-sounding analog synth under $1000 I’ve ever heard. Everything about this synth feels extremely high-end, from the rock-solid construction to some of the most incredible synth sounds ever constructed. There’s a lot to love here, just look at these specs:
- Sound Engine: Analog
- Number of Keys: 25
- Type of Keys: Semi-Weighted
- Other Controllers: Pitch Bend, Mod Wheel
- Polyphony: Monophonic
- Sound Sources: 2 Variable Waveshape Oscillators, 1 Square Wave Sub Oscillator, 1 Noise Generator
If you’re looking for the absolute bleeding edge of analog synthesis under $1000, you’d be hard pressed to find anything better than this. The combination of effects, sounds and aesthetics makes the Sub Phatty a no-brainer.
Hopefully, this guide has provided you some clarity on the primary differences between monophonic and polyphonic synthesizers, as well as given you some clarity on your next purchase!
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