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Synth Buying Guide: Top Synths for Every Type of Player

Are you an old-school purist with an affection for real analog synths -- or a budget-minded tone-chaser who prefers the virtual-analog equivalent? Are you a pro gigging keyboardist looking for the Ferrari of analog-modeling synthesizers, or are you a band that needs a lightweight, affordable board with the right sounds to get you through the set? You might want a tabletop synth with tons of knobs to tweak and modules to patch together -- or, on the other hand, you may want 88 fully weighted keys. Or maybe you're a producer in need of a do-everything workstation keyboard. Whatever your style is, you'll find our gear picks in this Synth Buying Guide.
Compact Analog Synths...for the Old-School Purist
Fueled by super-affordable models like the Arturia MicroBrute, the analog synth renaissance is in full swing. And although analog synthesis technology hasn't changed much since the '70s, the current EDM craze is bringing those "old-school" synth sounds back in a big way. Ten years ago, nobody could have guessed you'd be able to pick up a a brand-new Korg MS-20 Mini -- designed by the same team who made the 1978 original!

If your fingers prefer full-sized keys, check out the Novation Bass Station II or the Moog Sub Phatty. Both are great for chugging out smooth, deep synth-bass sounds, and they're also fully capable of razor-sharp leads and raspy percussive textures.

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Novation Bass Station ll Analog Synthesizer Keyboard, ...
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$329.95
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Moog Sub Phatty Analog Synthesizer Keyboard, 25-Key
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Compact Analog-Modeling Synths...for the Budget-Minded Tone-Chaser
Analog-modeling synths -- also known as "virtual analog" or VA synths -- can give you the feel of analog synthesizers' hardware, while delivering digital recreations of their sounds. And analog-modeling synths are typically more affordable than their analog counterparts. Check out the MicroKorg XL Plus and Novation MiniNova -- both come with vocoder microphones and mini-keys. If you need full-sized keys, the Novation UltraNova is a killer upgrade.

While purists may argue that VA synths can't deliver the random, unpredictable fluctuations that give true analog synths their organic sound quality, synths like Roland's GAIA SH-01 or System-1 AIRA are capable of creating a huge variety of sounds, from aggressive, distorted, fuzzed-out textures to blaring horn-like leads. Virtual-analog synths give you more versatility for your money, and since they usually come stocked with presets -- often organized by genre -- they're easy for a beginner to pick up and play.

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Korg MicroKorg XL PLUS Analog Modeling Synthesizer and ...
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$449.95
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or 6 payments of $83.34
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Roland GAIA SH-01 37-Key Synthesizer
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$539.95
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or 8 payments of $75.00
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Full-Size Analog (and Virtual-Analog) Synths...for the Pro Gigging Keyboardist
If you plan to play your keyboard with both hands, you're going to want at least 4 or 5 octaves. For the analog purists, we recommend the Sequential Prophet 6 -- Dave Smith's modern version of the Prophet analog synths that owned the '80s. For more sonic legroom, check out the Roland JD-XA -- which houses analog and digital engines in the same board.

Want to build your own sounds from scratch -- fast? Get your hands on the 49-key virtual-analog Nord Lead A1 -- its "Like" button lets you save versions of your sounds as you go, and if you tweak something too far in the wrong direction, you can step back through the list to get back to where you were minutes ago. And then there's the dangerously infectious Access Virus TI2 -- an industry-standard VA synth that's packed with thousands of tweakable preset patches, with thousands more available as free downloads.

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Sequential Prophet 6 Analog Synthesizer Keyboard, ...
or 6 payments of $466.50
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Roland JD-XA Analog/Digital Crossover Synthesizer
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$1,529.00
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or 12 payments of $150.00
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Nord Lead A1 Analog Modeling Synthesizer Keyboard
or 12 payments of $149.92
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Access Virus TI2 Keyboard Integrated Modeling ...
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$2,384.00
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or 6 payments of $485.84
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Tabletop Synth Modules...for the Knob-Tweaker
Maybe you're more of a knob-twiddler than a ivories-tickler. Luckily, you can make sweet synth sounds without a keyboard. Built to model the famous TB-303 bass synth, the virtual-analog Roland TB-3 AIRA has a ribbon control surface you can play like a one-octave keyboard or swipe like an X/Y pad to squeeze out sick acid-house sounds, or trigger built-in arpeggiated patterns -- plus a step sequencer so you can program patterns of your own. If you want to get deep into crafting sounds on a hardware module, the Waldorf Blofeld VA synth is your new production partner. Want a true analog synth for your blips, bleeps, buzzes and basses? Try the Korg Volca Bass or the fat-sounding Moog Minitaur.

Tabletop synths can all be played without keyboard experience -- just grab the knobs to start chugging out those fat and fuzzy analog monosynth sounds. Or you can plug in your MIDI keyboard controller and go to town.

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Roland TB-3 AIRA Touch Bassline Synthesizer
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$264.95
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Waldorf Blofeld Desktop Synthesizer
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Moog Minitaur Analog Synthesizer
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$439.95
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Do-It-All Digital Workstation Synths...for the Studio Producer
If you're going to drop some serious coin on a keyboard, that keyboard had better do a lot. That's why these workstation synths come loaded with huge sound libraries and the tools to compose, record and produce full tracks right within the keyboard.

Mid-level workstations like the Yamaha MOXF6 and Korg Krome-61 boast semi-weighted keybeds, MIDI sequencers, and big soundsets with plenty of sculptable sounds and gig-worthy presets. As impressive as these boards may be, they're still stripped-down, lighter-weight versions of the flagship models. Upgrade to the Montage 6 or Korg Kronos 6 to get all the bells and whistles: virtual-analog synth engines, multitrack audio recording and sampling, analog audio inputs, bigger color screens, tighter DAW integration, and ever-more-vast sound libraries with expansion slots for adding yet more voices. You're not likely to run into the limits of these synths anytime soon.

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Yamaha MOXF6 Keyboard Synthesizer, 61-Key
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$1,074.00
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or 12 payments of $100.00
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Korg Krome-61 Keyboard Workstation, 61-Key
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$899.95
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or 8 payments of $131.25
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Yamaha Montage 6 Keyboard Synthesizer, 61-Key
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$2,799.00
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or 12 payments of $250.00
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Korg Kronos 6 Music Workstation Keyboard, 61-Key
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$2,549.00
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or 8 payments of $375.00
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61-Key Live Performance Synths...for the Band on a Budget
If your band is playing shows, you'll probably want a workstation-sized soundset, but without all those complex recording/sequencing tools you'll never use. We recommend a lightweight live-performance-minded model, such as the Yamaha MX61 V2, Korg Kross2, Roland JUNO DS or Roland VR-09. These boards are lot less expensive than huge workstation synths, and at under 15 pounds, they're also much easier to schlep to shows! These lightweight boards typically have unweighted synth-action or softly semi-weighted keys.

When you're picking out your keyboard for live performance, look for features like super-fast access to your must-have sounds; knobs and sliders for tweaking your effects in real time; and buttons for quickly layering sounds and setting up keyboard splits without digging through a series of menus.

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Yamaha MX61 v2 Keyboard Synthesizer, 61-Key
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$639.95
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88-Key Weighted Hammer-Action Synths...for the Pro Pianist
If you consider yourself a pianist rather than a keyboardist, you may be in the market for a synth with weighted action that approximates an acoustic piano. There's no getting around it -- a stage piano with 88 fully weighted keys is going to be a heavy instrument. If you're going to lug seven octaves around to all your gigs, you may as well make sure your stage piano has a flexible synth engine on board, too. With a versatile 88-key synth like the Yamaha MX88, Korg Krome-88, Roland FA-08, or Yamaha Montage 8, you'll always have access to a big bank of sounds -- whether you're filling in for the horn section, or layering some string beds or synth pads under your piano.

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Yamaha MX88 Keyboard Synthesizer, 88-Key
or 12 payments of $83.34
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Korg Krome-88 Keyboard Workstation, 88-Key
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$1,399.00
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or 8 payments of $206.25
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Yamaha Montage 8 Keyboard Synthesizer, 88-Key
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$3,399.00
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or 12 payments of $333.34
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