Help me get started making music with synths!
November 14, 2017 7:13 AM   Subscribe

I have previously made music with live instruments and would now like to learn to work with synthesizers. I want to use hardware. My goal is to have something I can use to write entire songs, not just design individual sounds. Please advise me on how to get started!

So I've played around a little with some VSTs and online toys, and the basic things I want are:
-HARDWARE. I want to touch it.
-Step sequencer.
-Cheapish, however that may be defined. My ballpark budget is $300 USD, but I can go up if needed.
-Not too complicated--something where I can learn the ropes, rather than "the first and last synth you will ever buy".
-Includes a drum machine? (Is there anything that has both? Do I need to buy a separate drum machine?)

Someone recommended me the Korg volca fm, but I feel like it is more for "I want to write one synth line at a time" rather than "I want to write an entire song on this". Is there anything hardware that I can write an entire song on, or is that more where software comes in? Should I buy a midi controller and use it to control VSTs instead if my main goal is to write entire songs?


Some synth artists I like: Grimes, Laurie Spiegel, Gavin Reyna Russom, Dan Deacon. I'm also into a lot of French Touch but I know that's mostly sampler-based, and those are a whole other ball game.
posted by capricorn to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
At that price range, and with the demand for doing relatively complete songs, you'll be looking at the "groovebox" category I think. Wall o' text incoming:

I would recommend the Novation Circuit: can do two polyphonic synth parts, four track of drums, very easy to pick up and play with, portable. Potential downsides: it is not a good tool to learn and master concepts of synthesis. It's great for fiddling with, and you can make awesome sounds with it, but unless you spend time using a computer to layout the macro knobs, it's hard to know exactly what each knob will do. It's more for fiddling with and having fun than sounds design. It is also not the best box out there for being able to spend a lot of time programming then hitting "play" and having a whole four minute song come out. You can totally make whole songs on it, but it will require you to interact with it. There is also a large, active, and friendly Facebook group.

Other big new options in that price range is the Electribe series. They have better song mode, but imo harder to learn and more annoying menu diving (Circuit has no screen, doesn't need one!). They have a devoted following, but I personally don't care for them.

Then there's older generation stuff, e.g MC-505, but honestly I don't know that I'd recommend the hassle of shopping for used gear as a first outing.

To be clear, no Volca will play "a complete song" unless you consider a short loop a song. But for $300 you could in principle get two Volcas and a pocket operator and have three little robot buddies all grooving together.

If you definitely want a keyboard, there are very few options for things that can do anything close to a full song at that price point, but you can perhaps look at older "workstation" keyboards (they go for a few grand new). Also things like Microkorg and Roland JD-Xi are failry powerful and popular first synths. If you do get something without a keyboard, I recommend keeping your eye out for the rockband keytar. You can get them for $5-10 at thrift stores and games stores, $30 for new old stock on Amazon. Great little tank, by far the most affordable controller with real 5pin MIDI DIN out (watch out for controllers with USB midi only, you'll only be able to use those with a computer, not with most hardware synths and sound modules).

Should I buy a midi controller and use it to control VSTs instead if my main goal is to write entire songs?

Maybe, that would definitely be cheaper than spending ~5k (or 10!) for an array of nice hardware (Prophets, Moogs, Elektron gear, adds up real fast). But then again, if it's not fun, you won't do it. Most people who are serious about making electronic music use software at least a little bit (multitrack recording, FX, editing, mixing, etc.), but it's also completely understandable to not feel particularly inspired by staring at a computer. Some people get into iOS as a sort of middle ground: iPad is a great platform these days.

Finally, with the usual caveats that Reddit is wretched hive of scum and villany, the synth subreddit (/r/synthesizers) is pretty decent, and even if you don't ask for recommendations there, you will find lots of comments and reviews on any particular synth you're interested in.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:45 AM on November 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

SaltySalticid covered most of it - grooveboxes like a Circuit or Electribe are basically what you're after in that price range.

Also worth noting is that the Roland JD-Xi mentioned also comes with basic multi-part sequencing and a drum machine built in too, so if you're after a "real" analogue synth with a proper keyboard that you can also do arrangements on, that would seem ideal.
posted by parm at 9:00 AM on November 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

This is SO AWESOME so far. Thank you so much and looking forward to seeing what others have to share!

no Volca will play "a complete song" unless you consider a short loop a song
One quick note re: this, when I say "a complete song" I mean in terms of tracks/instruments, not length. I'm totally comfortable with using a DAW to actually lay down a recording - I just want to be able to layer tracks and have a melody, drum, and bassline at the minimum.

(Also, somehow I managed to forget Giorgio Moroder in my list of favorite synth artists. But he's a given, right?)
posted by capricorn at 10:52 AM on November 14, 2017

Also this: You can totally make whole songs on it, but it will require you to interact with it. is good! I like doing that.
posted by capricorn at 10:54 AM on November 14, 2017

I hadn't seen that Circuit before. It looks exciting.

I have an Arturia MicroBrute that I really like. Analog mono-synth. I got it because it has dedicated knobs for every parameter, the downside is it has no ability to store settings. It has a very, very rudimentary step sequencer, but it is really more like an arpeggiator. If you want to learn about principles of synthesis and have an instrument incorporate into an existing setup instead of the ministudio feel of the groovebox, it might work for you.

The Korg Minilogue is slightly more expensive. but also a lot of fun. 4 voice, 2 vco, poly synth. It has a memory bank. It has a nice 16 step sequencer. A pretty fun instrument. I don't think it sounds as nice as the MicroBrute, but I also don't quite feel like I know what I'm doing with it yet.

Based on my experience with the Volca Beats I think the FM would be maddening to compose on. I find the Teenage Engineering drum machine (PO12) way more fun to compose on than the Volca. No menus, just a nice intuitive interface, 16 instruments with 2 parameters each. You can program 16 different patters with motion control info, AND you can chain patterns together. It can also BPM sync with the Minilogue. Unfortunately if you take the battery out it wipes the memory so it ends up being more of a fun toy than anything else. Oh, and you better not have fat fingers. For a $60 drum machine though, it's pretty hard to beat. I haven't played with any of the others in that line, but if they are set up like the PO12 they will be pretty fun to use.
posted by clockwork at 10:57 AM on November 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

There are also some funny things out there like SynprezFM which is a Yamaha DX7 emulator for Android. You can connect a USB MIDI controller and you're off to the races.
posted by clockwork at 11:01 AM on November 14, 2017

Have used it myself, but maybe the MicroBrute has what you want?
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:12 AM on November 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think getting ALL of that stuff in one, affordable unit isn't super realistic, but there are a few cool things I'd say are worth looking into:

Moog Mother 32 - analog synth with step sequencer
Roland Sh-o1a - analog modeling synth with step sequencer (the easiest sequencer ever!)
DSI Evolver - older hybrid digital/analog synth with sequencer - truly bonkers and inspiring and unique tool
Roland SE 02 - Roland's version of the Mother 32 concept (ish)

These can all do drum-ish stuff, but they're not drum machines. You could definitely do a whole track with any one of these with enough creativity- something like Warm Leatherette was done with much less! I think you'd be best suited learning the basics of analog/subtractive synthesis first, as it's hands-on, immediately sonically rewarding, and the concepts will carry you through with other gear. Most of the all-in-one boxes are not as hands on and user friendly, or as high quality as these, at least for under $500.
posted by tremspeed at 2:51 AM on November 15, 2017

I just ordered the Circuit and I am so excited. Hoping to report back soon with lots of cool music to share!
posted by capricorn at 6:25 AM on November 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

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