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Best Synths for Beginners

How to Choose Your First Synthesizer

Ryan Gaston · 10/09/20

As a shop that focuses on synthesizers, we're frequently asked—what is the best synthesizer for beginners? Of course, the answer changes based on your needs...but when talking with newcomers, we find ourselves returning to the same handful of instruments. So if you want a direct answer? The best synthesizers for beginners are the Korg Minilogue, Arturia Microfreak, Arturia Minibrute 2, Novation Bass Station, Moog Mother-32, Make Noise 0-Coast, and the Korg Volca Series.

Of course, taste is subjective, and different musical instruments suit different people. And of course, there are way more instruments out there than just these. For the purposes of this article, we chose to focus on affordable instruments (mostly under $500 USD) which all suit slightly different purposes/different types of music. So if you don't see your favorite synth on here, don't worry—this is just here to help newcomers understand what kind of options are available to them without having to break the bank.

If you're just getting into synthesis, you might be starting to realize that not every synth is created equal. Consider this article a guide that outlines a few basic types of synthesizers and makes a suggestion in each category—but of course, you can dive deeper into your research from here and find a whole world of instruments. Once you know how to navigate some basic terminology and have a rough idea of what synth is right for you, it'll become much easier to make a final decision, and to determine what makes one synth different from the next. So all that said, let's start simple and take a look at each of these categories to find the best first synth for you.

Best Analog Polysynth for Beginners : Korg Minilogue

The lush sound of synth pop pads...the edgy textures of John Carpenter film scores...the chord stabs from countless dance classics; polyphonic synthesizers have defined the sound of so much music from the late '70s onward. Of course, not every synthesizer is capable of playing chords—in fact, a lot of synthesizers are monophonic, which means that they can only play one note at a time. In fact, a lot of keyboard-based synthesizers in an affordable price range are monophonic, simply because in an analog synth, more voices means more internal components, which means a higher production cost.

The Korg Minilogue is a glowing exception. With four voices of polyphony and a selection of ways to stack and layer these voices, the Minilogue is great for all sorts of chords/pads—but it also can function in monophonic modes for creating biting leads and huge bass sounds. It even includes a built-in sequencer and arpeggiator, meaning that you don't have to be a keyboard whiz to get it to make musically useful sounds. So no matter what type of role you're looking for, the Minilogue can definitely fit into your mix.

What's also great is that the Minilogue features a classic analog synth signal path—two oscillators, noise, a filter, and amplifier, two envelopes, and an LFO. It even has a built in delay/echo effect for adding some space to your sound. This signal flow is probably the most common layout you'll find in synthesizers altogether (even in synthesizers five times the Minilogue's price!), so it's a great way to learn about analog synth signal flow. And of course, there are plenty of presets to get you up and running. Odds are that the things you learn on a Minilogue will translate to basically every other synth out there...so it's a great way to find what types of sounds and techniques work well for you. This will translate to soft synths, other hardware, and even to modular synthesis—so if you ever decide to dive deeper into the world of synths, you'll be well-equipped to decide what the right next step is.

Korg's Minilogue XD is a bit more expensive, but expands on some of the Minilogue's capabilities by adding an extra digital oscillator and a more flexible effect section, giving it access to a somewhat more extensive sound palette than the classic Minilogue...but if you're just getting started out, both models have plenty of features to keep you busy and inspired. If you're looking for a fully-featured analog polysynth with a great sound at a great price, the Minilogue is still one of the best deals out there.

Best Digital Synth for Beginners: Arturia Microfreak

If an all-analog sound path isn't necessary for you, take a look at Arturia's Microfreak—a synth that packs an astonishing range of sounds into a small and surprisingly affordable package. The Microfreak isn't a strictly digital synthesizer...in fact, it's a hybrid synth, which means that it combines some analog and some digital elements together. In the case of the Microfreak, the sound generation itself is digital, but it includes an analog filter.

Now, you might have seen debates in which people proudly and loudly exclaim that analog synthesizers are better than digital synthesizers. This, as they say where I'm from, is hogwash. Frankly, there are very few things these days that an analog synth can do that digital synths cannot, and it's much better (and more interesting) to make personal judgments on an instrument-by-instrument basis rather than establishing some blanket categories that could risk you missing out on some awesome, powerful instruments.

The strengths of digital synthesis are front and center in the Microfreak's design. Its strongest suit is that its oscillator features different modes which provide access to completely different synthesis methods. As such, it can generate typical analog-style sounds—but it can also make chords, can do speech synthesis, and can even produce digital models of plucked strings or struck physical objects. It can do everything from soft, gentle tones to aggressive glitches and monstrous basslines...so if you're looking for a lot of sonic variety, the Microfreak is a top pick. Note, though, that it isn't truly polyphonic...it's paraphonic, which means that it can play several notes at once but can't necessarily articulate them all separately. However, given the way many of its synthesis modes work, this isn't necessarily that big a deal.

One of this synth's most visually striking aspects is its keyboard. Rather than using a typical black-and-white mechanical keyboard, it uses a series of touch plates which can sense the presence of your skin, making for a peculiar yet expressive performance experience. Additionally, it includes an integrated arpeggiator/sequencer for performance control, as well as a deep modulation matrix, which makes it easy to control the way sounds change over time in a variety of ways. With tons of options for introducing randomness or taking precise hands-on control of your sounds, the Microfreak is astonishingly powerful for the price.

Best Monosynth for Beginners : Bass Station + Minibrute 2

Sometimes, though, what you need is a classic monosynth—which, unlike polyphonic synthesizers, is designed to play just one note at a time. While you're not going to get chords or rich pads out of these, they can be just the right thing for making leads, bass sounds, drones, and wild sound effects. What's great about monophonic synths is that they often have a lot more options for sound manipulation when compared to polysynths in the same price range. So while you don't get as many notes, what you do typically get is a much more customizable sound.

Novation's Bass Station II is an excellent example of a feature-packed analog monosynth. This synth was originally introduced in 2013, so it doesn't always get a lot of spotlight these days...but even now, it is well worth a look. You can think of the Bass Station II as a modern-day Roland SH-101 or TB-303; it is perfect for heavy leads and squelchy, acid basslines. It includes two oscillators and one sub oscillator, two multi mode filters, and a wide range of modulation, sequencing, and arpeggiation options...as well as a pretty gnarly distortion and filter modulation option. Compared to the Minilogue, for instance, the Bass Station II has a much more flexible synthesis architecture—with the trade-off being that it is not polyphonic. So if you want sonic flexibility more than you want polyphony, this could be a great place to look.

Of course, Novation's post-release firmware updates have provided plenty of reasons to keep your eye on this unassuming synth. New firmware updates have led to paraphonic operation (meaning that you can use it to play chords or multiple melodic lines), as well as the mind-bending AFX mode, in which you can assign a different group of panel settings to each key on the keyboard. This makes it such that each key could have a completely different sound—perhaps something percussive like a kick or snare sound, or a squelchy bass sound, or an outrageous sound effect—and you can then switch sounds rapidly in performance either by using the keyboard itself or the sequencer. This leads to sequences that switch rapidly from one sound to the next, making it possible to create entire tracks of spastic program changes. Developed in collaboration with Aphex Twin, this mode is completely unique to the Bass Station, and it gives it an edge all its own.

Another great monosynth to check out is Arturia's Minibrute 2, available both in keyboard and sequencer-based versions. These have a different set of strengths than the Bass Station, though they definitely follow the tradition of packing a ton of tone-shaping features into a single monophonic voice. The synth features two oscillators, a unique-sounding multi-mode filter, and plenty of modulation options. Perhaps the most interesting part of the Minibrute 2 is its oscillator section—the second oscillator is a fairly typical VCO with standard wave shapes, but VCO1 offers a huge range of sounds, even offering the option to create a mix of saw, square, and triangle shapes. What's even more interesting is that each of these waveforms has its own special tone-shaping parameter, allowing for swarmy "ultrasaw," pulse width modulation, and wavefolded "metalizer" sounds. The Bass Station features fairly typical sound sources, but the Minibrute packs a few more options in its oscillator section.

The Minibrute also features a sequencer/arpeggiator, with the keyboard version offering a somewhat simpler set of options than the 2S, which allows for more complex sequence-based workflows. One of the most obvious features common to each is the patch bay in the upper right hand corner, which allows you to take advantage of its semi-modular signal flow. While using patch cables isn't necessary to get a wide range of sounds out of a Minibrute, it definitely allows you to discover much more complex and knotted means of interacting with sound...which can make it a great gateway into the world of modular synths. All the patch points are fully compatible with Eurorack modular synths as well, so if you ever decide to head that direction, the Minibrute already contains several useful utilities for interacting with modular synths.

Between the two? I'd make a decision based on how you want to go about making music. One thing to note—the semi-modular nature of the Minibrute means that it doesn't include preset memory...so you need to change settings in order to get to new sounds. The Bass Station, on the other hand, does have presets, and the ability to store your own sounds...which itself could be a deciding factor. Aside from that, if you're looking for a great-sounding monosynth and are simultaneously curious about modular synthesis, then the Minibrute is a solid choice. If you're more concerned with producing heavy, classic analog bass lines or exploring the potential of AFX mode, scope out the Bass Station II.

Getting into Modular: 0-Coast + Mother-32

All of the synths we've discussed so far in one way or another assume the use of a keyboard as part of your workflow—but of course, many people interested in exploring sound and synthesis aren't keyboardists. This, among other things, is one of the reasons for the current popularity of modular synthesizers, which don't necessarily require a keyboard or traditional "musical" knowledge to use for making sound and music. Of course, building a modular synthesizer can be expensive, and it generally takes a long time to get up and running in a way that feels right to you—and that can make the entire prospect seem pretty intimidating. This is why, when people are first thinking about getting into modular synths, we commonly recommend checking out semi-modular synthesizers...and more often than not, our recommendations include the Moog Mother-32 and Make Noise 0-Coast.

Semi-modular synths don't require patch cables for use—but they also provide plenty of opportunities for exploring the weird world of patching. Most have an internal "normalled" signal path that makes it easy to get them making sound, and all of the included patch points mean that you can experiment with re-routing signals as you please. Moreover, semi-modular synths are self-contained, so you don't need to worry about buying a case or power supply...they generally come with everything you need to get started using them.

Moog's Mother-32 is a great place to start if you want to explore modular synthesis through the lens of "classic" synth sounds. It has an internal workflow similar to most typical synthesizers, complete with an oscillator, classic Moog filter, VCA, envelope, and LFO. If you've worked with synths in other contexts, its default signal flow should seem fairly familiar to you, which may be helpful once you start exploring the possibilities its patch panel provides. Additionally, it includes a built-in sequencer which can be great for getting musical phrases set up quickly.

The Make Noise 0-Coast is a great way to get started with modular synths if you're looking for a somewhat more experimental approach. While the 0-Coast does have a more-or-less typical signal path, it borrows from workflows from both Buchla and Moog-style synthesizers, meaning that it has some features you wouldn't necessarily find in every synth out there—like a wavefolder, voltage processor, random voltage generator, looping envelope, and a lowpass gate. In my experience, it overall encourages a more experimental, exploratory patching style...so while you're not going to get big resonant filter sweeps out of it, it can be a very rewarding way of dipping your toes into modular synthesis.

Between the two? Well, it's worth noting that both offer MIDI input—but only the Moog features a built-in sequencer, meaning that for some, it will be a bit more usable as a self-sufficient thing...though of course, there are plenty of ways to play a 0-Coast without an external controller. Overall, I'd make the decision based on the types of sounds you want to hear: if traditional synth bass lines and leads are your thing, the Moog is much better-suited to these, but if you're more interested in exploring the experimental end of modular synthesis, check out the 0-Coast. Also, it's worth noting that the Mother-32 does fall outside the $500 budget we outlined at the beginning of this article...it's an amazing instrument and can be a great place to start, but it does cost a bit more than some of its alternatives.

Best Synths on a Budget: Korg Volca Series

So far, the synths we've discussed have been ~$300 and up. For some, this is a manageable budget—and it's certainly far less than many high-end synthesizers—but in reality, you don't even need to spend $300 to get a very capable synthesizer. For that reason, we must mention Korg's Volca series, which is comprised of synthesizers and drum machines that all fall below a $200 price point. Truthfully, most Volcas have a somewhat stripped-back feature set, and instead focus on a more limited set of sonic possibilities than some of our other recommendations, but for the price, they're all an astounding value. They all include a built-in touch keyboard, a sequencer, speaker, headphone output, and can even be battery powered—making them the ultimate in affordable, portable, go-anywhere music-making devices.

We're not going to cover every Volca here, but there are definitely a few worth recommending to newcomers to synthesis. The Volca Keys and Volca FM are great choices if you're looking for a polyphonic synthesizer: each offers three voices of polyphony via MIDI or the built-in touch keyboard. The Volca Keys uses a classic analog synth-style signal path, whereas the Volca FM is modeled on the Yamaha DX7, using a classic digital synthesis method with a distinctly 1980s-style sound. The Volca Bass and Volca Nubass are monophonic analog synths, great for producing sequenced bass lines. The Volca Bass specializes at acid-style sequences, whereas the Nubass uses an integrated tube distortion for creating more aggressive sounds.

We'd also strongly recommend checking out Korg's Volca Modular—another excellent way to see how you get along with modular synths. The Volca Modular takes an approach similar to the 0-Coast, using a Buchla-inspired experimental synthesis signal path capable of a wide range of gnarly sounds. Again, this isn't going to provide you the typical analog filter sweep sound, but it will give you a taste for what working with "West Coast" modular techniques is like, and will introduce you to a whole range of sounds not possible with most synthesizers. Like most semi-modular synths, the Volca Modular doesn't require any patching to get sound going—and like the rest of the Volca series, it includes a built-in keyboard/sequencer. You can use the included breadboard-style jumper wires to create connections between the synth's internal modules, though, making for everything from extended monosynth sounds all the way to self-playing random patches.

Of course, the Volca Drum, Volca Beats, and Volca Kick are great ways to get started making sound too, offering a wide range of options for creating rhythmic grooves and drum sounds. Maybe we'll come back to these in a future article! In any case, the Volca series is a rich and growing series of instruments which makes portable, affordable music-making easy.

Which Synth is Right for You?

Again, there are plenty of other synths within this price range which could make excellent starting points for learning synthesis: this list has just been a quick guide to some of our favorite and most frequently recommended options. However, Arturia's Microbrute, Korg's Monologue, Behringer's Crave or Neutron, and plenty of others could make for great places to start looking too—so if nothing here feels quite right, don't be discouraged...the synth for you is probably still out there.

Hopefully you've gained some insight into how to find your ideal synthesizer—and if you still have any lingering questions, feel free to reach out to tell us what you're looking for, and check out our article about the different types of synthesizers to keep learning about what makes each synth different from the next. Odds are that we have something that could fit perfectly into your musical goals, and that will keep you entertained as you start to learn about how synthesis could suit your music-making.