8 musicians recommend their favourite entry-level synths
Getting into music production? Then check out these producers' tips on affordable and easy-to-use synthesisers.
For aspiring music producers, buying your first synth is a real rite of passage. But the choices are near-endless. Will you go for hardware or a soft synth? Shell out on a classic Moog or Roland model or dip a toe in the intimidating world of modular synthesis? We asked eight seasoned synth aficionados what they'd recommend as a starting point.
Recommends: Native Instruments Monark
Cost: Around £89 GBP/ €100 Euro/ $120 USD
I have quite a few favourite software synths and although some can be a little overwhelming, a lot of my favourites are also the more simple ones.
One example is the Native Instruments Monark, which is monophonic and great for bass and lead instruments. It's got a user friendly interface, with the main functions clearly split into four sections – Control, Oscillators, Mixer and Filters/Amp. It has some great presets, and this can be a fun way to get started and learn how a synth works. You can start off with a preset and tweak it to your heart's content until you end up with something that's your own unique sound.
Recommends: Roland Gaia SH-01
Cost: Around £540 GBP/ €610 Euro/ $735 USD
The first synthesiser I bought was the Roland Gaia SH-01. It's not too expensive as synths go, and the way it's designed – with all the parameter controls being very hands-on – means that it is a great synth to learn about analogue synthesis from. It has a lot of preset sounds, but I wasn't really a fan of those. However, you have the option to create and save your own sounds, and this is the fun part.
The Roland Gaia SH-01 is a great synth to learn about analogue synthesis from
There's a lot of versatility on the Gaia: it has three oscillators, and within each of those you're able to manipulate the signal flow, with almost never-ending possibilities. I also found some good online tutorials for the Gaia. I did one recently that shows you how to create a grand piano sound starting with a plain sine wave. It's pretty mad. I find this approach helps me to learn a lot about the composition of certain sounds, and the way in which filters, waveforms, EQ, amp settings work together.
The size of this synthesiser is also a plus point. It's not too small – the keys are a good size, which makes it comfortable to play. At the same time, it's not too big and I've managed to fit it into a suitcase, which makes it easier to transport, especially for gigs abroad.
Ian Cook of Chvrches
Recommends: Pocket Operator
Cost: Around £59 GBP/ €67 Euro/ $80 USD
Some of the most fun to be had with synthesisers involves plugging lots of pieces of gear into one another and trying to understand what's actually happening, and how to make interesting noises.
Getting into the nitty gritty of modular synthesis has a pretty high entry point in terms of budget, but there are other cheaper and fun ways to experiment, such as the KORG Volca series of battery-operated synths and drum machines. Or the Pocket Operator series by Teenage Engineering, which have a cute vintage LCD handheld videogame front end. If you're looking to really wrap your head around Eurorack modular, Softube makes a virtual modular sandbox that has a very convincing sound.
Recommends: Logic X Retro Synth
Costs around: £20 GBP / €23 Euro / $28 USD
I've always been drawn to analogue synths, so for me Logic X's Retro Synth – which models synths of the '80s and '90s – is an amazing starting point for a warm, expansive sound on a budget. I think that before anyone spends their cash on hardware, it's best to try out some of the software modelling versions and work out what type of sound you're after. The Retro Synth is great for its versatility, simplicity and ultimately great tone – you'd have to be a connoisseur to know it’s not a real hardware synth.
As well as analogue, you can also switch to three other engines, Sync, Table and FM synthesis, so there are tons of sonic possibilities to choose from. I ended up using this synth as the lead line on one of my tracks, with the intention of re-recording it at some point with a Prophet 6 or Juno 106. When I tried them, I found it just didn't sound the same. The Retro Synth ended up being perfect for that track.
Ross From Friends
Recommends: KORG microKORG
Cost: Around £274 GBP/ €310 Euro/ $373 USD
Although the thing can be utter hell to program, I'd have to recommend the humble microKORG as my favourite 'affordable' synthesiser. I received mine as a Christmas present from my dad's side of the family in 2011, and I've used it pretty consistently ever since. As well as featuring on so many of the tracks I've produced, it also comes away with me on tour when I play live. For the first year of touring, the synth was slung into a kit bag with a load of cables, and everything else in the bag would break, whereas the Korg would stay strong.
After figuring out how to dive into the menus of this little guy, you can produce some really interesting synth sounds, which can be saved. If not, the presets include reproductions of some real classic sounds, all pretty comically labelled under their genre affiliations: 'Trance', 'Retro' or 'House/Electronica', to name a few.
Recommends: KORG Volca Keys
Cost: Around £120 GBP/ €136 Euro/ $164 USD
Of all the Volcas, the KORG Volca Keys is the most versatile and, for me, the most fun. There's a lot you can do with this thing. It has even got a basic delay unit built-in, as well as its own little speaker and battery power. It is basically a polyphonic synth with a built-in sequencer so you can program chords and make patterns with them, but you can switch it into mono or unison mode for bass sequences – or 5ths mode for those house riffs.
Recommends: Arturia Mini-V
Cost: Around £150 GBP/ €170 Euro/ $204 USD
Before I fell in love with my boyfriend – my Sub-37 – my go-to soft synth was the Arturia Mini-V. It's a reproduction of the famous Minimoog synthesiser, and it's as good as you'll get recreating the analogue feel in the digital domain. Its filters and amplification really enhance sounds by giving them extra tonal harmonics creating warm, phat sounds. Nearly all the tracks I made before I got my own analogue equipment used this plug-in for at least one sound – it's particularly amazing for bass and synth lines.
The Arturia Mini-V is great for beginners because not only does it sound wicked, it's also easy to use and very intuitive. It's also a classic synth and one of the first that made modular synthesis available to performance artists and smaller home studios. It helped shape electronic music as we know it today, being used heavily by Giorgio Moroder, Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk, Herbie Hancock, Dr Dre and J Dilla to name but a few.
Recommends: Make Noise O-Coast
Cost: Around £449 GBP/ €510 Euro/ $610 USD
The problem with Eurorack is, although amazing when you get to where you need to be, it can be very expensive and slow to start out with. Before you even own any modules, you have to purchase a case and a means to power them, and you have to do a lot of research so you don’t end up wasting time and money buying stuff you don't need. So my top tip for someone looking to start with Eurorack would be to get a Make Noise O-Coast.
It's a small, single voice patchable all-in-one synthesiser that can be used on its own, but also integrated into a larger modular system if you feel like it's a route that you want to pursue so is a perfect way to dip your toe in. Make Noise are one of my favourite Eurorack brands. They always use interesting concepts, the units are always well made, and, most importantly, they sound beautiful!