Cheap Synth?
January 16, 2011 9:08 PM   Subscribe

Best synthesizer for under 400$?

I could probably find my answer with some google searching, but I like mefi for questions that take more then just keywords to understand. :D

I've been finding my way around musicproduction, most specifically techno, and I'm getting pretty sick of dealing with all of these virtual VSTS and turning knobs with a mouse. I already have a yamaha np-v80. but its not of much use outside of a midi keyboard and its sound bank of mediocre sounds. I need something that i can put a finger on, turn a knob and hear the sound change. Correct me if I'm wrong, but techno needs a bit of grit to make it sound good. just how the impurities of vinyl make it sound better then a CD. Using VSTs and quantize grids isn't going to get me anywhere.

Soo...I've been saving my money pretty good lately and I think I really want to get a synth that I can mess with. But I'm overwhelmed with all the choices. I've heard from people that you shouldn't waste money on toys, and stick to free VSTs and using my midi keyboard...but then why does everyone pro have a room loaded with synths and all the module systems? I have like $700 but I would prefer to not burn all of it on one thing. So $400 is the max that I would want to spend.

I'm leaning toward a used analog synth that I would probably buy off of ebay. But I've heard many people that say the digital vs analog synth arguments are bullshit and both are fine. Whats your opinion? Which type should get?

Any recommendations to a decent synth that I won't find myself out growing in a few years?

Thanks! D
posted by NotSoSiniSter to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have a solid suggestion for you, but the Synth Finder at Vintage Synth Explorer might help you figure out what you're looking for. It's "vintage" in the sense that it covers gear you might find on the used market - not up to the minute, then, but it has entries for synths released as recently as 2008.

I still think the Nord Lead 3 is just about the best knob-twiddler's live-messing-around synth ever made, but that is mostly to do with the way its design satisfies my aesthetic preferences.
posted by Mars Saxman at 9:19 PM on January 16, 2011

Korg Electribe EMX-1. I have one, I bought it knowing nothing about synthesizers, but I wanted to make electronic music, and it had a ton of knobs. You can very defiantly mess with it and find new sounds.
posted by hellojed at 9:37 PM on January 16, 2011

Response by poster: oo this synth finder seems super useful. :D thx :D

the emx-1 is too pricy for me. :/ even on ebay. :/ damn.
posted by NotSoSiniSter at 10:06 PM on January 16, 2011

I love my Microkorg.

Small keyboard, but absolutely massive sounds, including good emulations of classic analog synths.

Lots of knobs to turn and parameters to change.

And a vocoder that's surprisingly good, if you want to throw a little robotspeak into your mix.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 10:46 PM on January 16, 2011

P.S. Analog synths produce amazing sounds... but real analog gear is generally super-expensive and/or quite old (20-30 years) and likely to need much more TLC and maintenance than modern stuff. Also, some analog synths can actually go out of tune as you use them -- the circuits heat up after an hour or two, and process the signals differently.

The sample-based digital synths that came in during the '80s were less interesting instruments in many ways -- they played canned snippets of sound, rather than generating waveforms "from scratch" like analog models.* But they were more reliable.

Then in the '90s came virtual analog: synths that use digital chips to model analog circuits, and produce sounds which are almost indistinguishable from old analog synths, because they go thru the same types of transformations, but in software rather than hardware.

The Microkorg, which I mentioned above, is virtual analog. So is the Nord Lead, mentioned by Mars Saxman. Vintage sound, modern reliability -- what's not to like?

*I've noticed that some recent electronic music seems to be embracing the sample-based aesthetic of '80s digital synths. It's not a distinct movement, just a general tendency... but I think we'll see more of it as '80s synths become fetishized for all the qualities that people in the '90s and '00s reviled them for.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 10:57 PM on January 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

+1 for microkorg. Small enough that it is super easy to bring to gigs and stuff, but the keys are small and take some getting used to. Excellent sound and tweakablility. I was able to pick one up on craigslist for 150, just keep your eyes open.
posted by palacewalls at 10:58 PM on January 16, 2011

P.P.S. Some will disagree, but I really don't believe in buying used electronic instruments. These are very sophisticated devices, with all kinds of things that can go wrong. I did buy used, twice, and in both cases the synths had problems that the sellers didn't tell me about.

The second time I was so mad (the pitch bend wheel on the used Microkorg I bought didn't work correctly) that I made all sorts of dire legal threats against the seller (someone on eBay) until he agreed to take the unit back and refund my money.

Yes, brand new costs more, but you'll be assured that everything works as it should. And if for some reason it doesn't -- or if something goes wrong within the warranty period -- you won't pay for repairs. When my store-bought Microkorg's vocoder input stopped working, I took it to a Korg-authorized repair shop and they fixed me up in a couple of days, at no charge.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 11:05 PM on January 16, 2011

A friend of mine is a techno producer that has charted on Beatport a couple of times, using just Cubase and VST's. He just bought his first analogue synth (a moog) and did head-to-heads with his VST's and couldn't really tell the difference.

All the pros that have those studios full of synths? Most of those bought them after they got a hit on their first record that was done all digitally.

If you want knobs and dials, get a good midi mixing board. You don't really need an analog synth to get a big sound any more.
posted by empath at 1:26 AM on January 17, 2011

If you are willing to take another look at software, look at Omnisphere. It is an amazing synth that can get you pretty much any sound you want, and it is backed by one of the best companies I have ever given my money to. They provide free updates on a regular basis, and have a massive library with their products (I think Omnisphere has something like 8000 patches, and every parameter is tweakable). It is really one of the best products I have purchased in years.
posted by markblasco at 1:40 AM on January 17, 2011

This is such a tough question to answer... I own a few hardware synths, some analogue, some VA, and some Analogue with no knobs at all (Oberheim Matrix1000 for example).

And I do totally agree with your frustration on using Software Synths. I much prefer the experience of using hardware. AND I would go further to say that if you are going to go for knobs you need to get EVERY SINGLE PARAMETER to a dedicated labeled knob-switch-button.

I have an Alesis Ion, which has a lot of knobs BUT so much of the patch editing still involves navigating the little LCD screen, and menus, and finding settings etc. - Its arguably worse than using a VST / Software synth anyway. (and it sounds a bit too digital).

I have also tried setting up a MIDI knob box to control a software synth and I find that also frustrating. for a few reasons. - Different Softsynths have different controls / Midi CC numbers etc. so you can't set up a generic 'control interface' So button 3 = say Env 2 Decay on all your Softsynths and secondly without a Midi controller with 30 or so controls you can't map every parameter to a knob. and inevitably the one thing you want to change will not be mapped and you have to reach for the mouse anyway.

Whats fun about old Analogue synths (Roland Sh09, 101, Korg MS10, MS20, Yamaha CS-10, .. Moog Minimoog) is that there are no menus, no patches, nothing trickier than What You See Is What You Get... And yes I think it is fun, but these days they are quite expensive and I don't think within your budget.

So I'd say try and get something with no menus and where every parameter has it own control interface.
posted by mary8nne at 3:55 AM on January 17, 2011

I'm not sure this is a good first synth. but its cheap Open Source VA hardware synth simple controls

Analogue - but a bit funny to use but also relatively cheap: Synths
posted by mary8nne at 3:59 AM on January 17, 2011

I'll just come straight out and say that I think you're better off sticking in software. Get Ableton Live and one or two nice MIDI controllers. I think it'll be a lot more productive in the long run. Hell, have a look at Korg's really cheap Nano controllers. They're well cute. There are tons of controllers out there to give you a hardware interface, and better software will make it a lot less painful.

You might still want some hardware. Fine, it's fun! However, you're still not going to get a Bucket Full Of Knobs at this price point. You could have a bunch of MIDI knobs or a cheap synth, but not both.

In all honesty, without getting lucky at a charity shop, you're going to have a tough time in that sort of budget range. The Alesis Ion (big) Micron (small, a bit old but sounds great - I have one of these)/Akai Miniak (a Micron with a mic) are relatively cheap and have excellent sound quality once you get past the godawful patches.

The Microkorg is a bit skanky, but has a bit of a cult following at this point. The XL is a lot better, but is a bit out of your price range. The other option that comes in under that price range is the Novation Xiosynth, which I've never used.

You could look into rack-mounted modules. There are basically the synth engine without a keyboard. You'd control them with your MIDI keyboard, and they're much cheaper because you're not paying for a controller! But, in the low end, they're a lot less popular these days. You have the Dave Smith Mopho and not a lot else on the new market. But there's tons of choice on eBay.
posted by Magnakai at 4:51 AM on January 17, 2011

Personally, I would avoid the Microkorg... yeah, it's trendy, it sounds good and it's got great aesthetics - but the major (major, major) let-down for me is just how difficult it is to edit patches on the damned thing. It only has 4 knobs and it doesn't even have a proper LCD screen. It also has tiny little keys. It's fiddly as all hell.

What I'd recommend is something with a knob or slider for each function. As mentioned, the Alesis Ion is a good bet, although I haven't used it myself...

And personally, I'd also consider the Novation K-Station. I'm not sure if it's still in production, but I had one of these about 5 or 6 years ago as my first synth and it's a good little machine, even if it is kind of ugly. Full-sized keys, onboard effects and best of all, loads of knobs and sliders for almost every function. As an entry-level VA it's more flexible than the Microkorg, and probably cheaper than the Ion if you get lucky on eBay. Worth checking out anyway.
posted by Ted Maul at 6:01 AM on January 17, 2011

If you can, try and borrow a synth or two from a friend first. to see what you like. Or if you buy 2nd hand there is a good chance you can re-sell the synth 6 months later for about exactly the same price you paid (or more) if you don't like it.

You will probably have to spend a bit more that US$400 though: Id' recommend trying to get a hold of for Technoy big synth sounds. Virtual Analogue, but with lots of knobs.

Roland JP-8000
Korg MS-2000
Nord Lead 1, 2 or 3.
Acess Virus Desktop 1 or 2

I don't like my Alesis Ion. - i've been considering selling it actually as its getting rather dusty from lack of use. (i paid £300 so vaguely in your ballpark 2nd hand) I don't like the 'sound' of it and find it a pain to program. Its good at modern 'trancey-techno' sounds but not the more rounded vintage sort of sound I like.
posted by mary8nne at 6:26 AM on January 17, 2011

if the $400 price limit is firm, you'll almost certainly want to look at the microkorg and also the alesis micron; both are very similar in their functionality. however, as someone with a great many synths, i absolutely have to second the korg ms-2000. they can be found fairly readily on both craigslist and ebay and will cost you anywhere from $400 to $550, but they are so very worth the extra bit of money for the excellent analog modelling. additionally, if you're new to synthesizers, the number of knobs with dedicated functions will be of extreme convenience to you (as opposed to smaller synths like the microkorg and micron which have fewer knobs which are each manipulated in such a way that they can control several different parameters).

i also have the microkorg and micron and generally prefer the microkorg, though you'll see way more of those than microns in my experience and again, both are very comparable (and capable!) synthesizers. but i really can't stress enough the added value and functionality you'll get out of a used MS-2000. good luck!
posted by austere at 7:52 AM on January 17, 2011

The MicroKorg is probably your best bet in that price range. (Yes! You, too, can sound like The Knife!)

Vintage synths, though: The Akai AX-60 would suit your needs and your budget perfectly. It's got sliders instead of knobs, but OMG, seriously. Check Craigslist.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:30 PM on January 17, 2011

In that ballpark, I am going to echo others and say MicroKorg, or MS-2000.

If you can pony up $200 more, then I would say find yourself a used Juno-60 or SH-09 and learn some real analog synthesis.

$600 can buy you a decent (i.e. perfectly fine, but not one of the highly sought after models) vintage piece on CL, if you have persistence.
posted by kaseijin at 3:16 PM on January 17, 2011

Consider Dave Smith's Mono or Tetra. Huge analog sound, tiny analog price.

Good luck.
posted by fantasticninety at 4:13 PM on January 17, 2011

Magnakai already mentioned it - sorry. But the Tetra by Dave Smith is worth checking out as well.
posted by fantasticninety at 4:14 PM on January 17, 2011

There's a law written down somewhere that says that if you are curious about synths but are on a limited budget, then you have to start with a microKorg.

Vintage analog synths are lots of fun, but they tend to be glitchy and expensive. Like vintage cars.
posted by ovvl at 7:43 PM on January 17, 2011

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