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February 6, 2021
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The zZounds Synthesizer Buying Guide: A Synth Odyssey

It's a great time to be a synth enthusiast! Musicians and producers are experimenting with bold new sounds, and synth companies, both vintage and modern, are keeping up with artists by re-issuing classic models and designing groundbreaking new ones. Whether you're looking for compact, modular sound design tools or massive, digital workstation capability, our Synth Buying Guide is a great place to start your exploration.
Compact Analog Synths...the Pure Sound of Real Oscillators
Fueled by super-affordable models like the IK Multimedia Uno, the analog synth renaissance is in full swing. Drawing inspiration from the rich, tactile sounds of analog synthesis plus the new possibilities of digital tools, the current EDM craze is bringing those "old-school" synth sounds back in a big way. Just a few 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! Also noteworthy is the Korg Minilogue, an exciting, compact, all-analog synth for the modern era.

If you prefer full-sized keys, check out the Novation Bass Station II or the Moog Matriarch. 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.
Compact Analog-Modeling Synths...for the Budget-Minded Tone-Chaser
Analog-modeling synths -- also known as "virtual analog" -- 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, especially for polyphonic (more than one voice) sounds. Check out the microKorg-S and Novation MiniNova -- both come with vocoder microphones and mini-keys. If you need full-sized keys, the Studiologic Sledge 2 is killer, as well.

While purists may argue that virtual analog 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 Waldorf Iridium are capable of creating a huge variety of sounds, from aggressive, distorted, fuzzed-out textures to blaring horn-like leads that have their own kind of life. 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.
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 Wave -- every parameter has its own dedicated knobs, making tweaking sounds more intuitive, with the ability to layer and split up to 4 sounds across the keyboard in a Performance, or preset. And then there's the Waldorf Blofeld -- a new-school synth reintroducing you to the wonderful world of wavetable synthesis.
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 famous west coast synths, the Korg Volca Modular has a ribbon control surface you can play like a one-octave keyboard or trigger built-in arpeggiated patterns -- plus a step sequencer so you can program patterns of your own with a tiny semi-modular patch bay to create all sorts of sonic mayhem. If you want to get deep into crafting sounds on a hardware module, the Novation Peak VA synth is your new production partner. Want a true analog synth for your blips, bleeps, buzzes and basses? Try the fat-sounding Moog Minitaur. Or embrace the sounds of FM digital synthesis with the Elektron Digitone FM.

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.
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 MODX6 and Korg Krome EX 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.
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.
88-Key Weighted Hammer-Action Synths...for the Pro Performer
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, Nord Stage 3 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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