by Anders Johanson November 11, 2020 9 min read
I’ll be honest with you right out of the gate, the answer to "what synth should I pick for my project" isn’t nearly as cut and dry as something like “You’re making a modern pop song? Here’s the exact synth for you.” If it were that easy then the music industry and the scope of synthesizer manufacturing would look a lot different than it does now. Over the years there are synths that have ended up being used for one type of genre more than others, despite the fact that they may not have been designed with those specific genres or uses in mind. The beauty of synthesizers lies in their versatility - while one person might use a Roland Juno-106 for its soft, warm pads and ability to blend into multiple background layers, someone else might put it front and center with a lead patch that cuts right through the mix. That doesn’t make it any more or less right for either one of those applications, but the fact that it can be used for both, and be used so well and so reliably, is part of what has kept that synthesizer, released in 1984, so sought-after even decades later.
Of course it would be irresponsible of me to write about synthesizers without mentioning a certain four-letter word that has become so synonymous with that world -Moog.The Model D, a synthesizer so valuable that even the modern-day reissue is listed at $6,000, became the go-to synthesizers for funky leads and booming basslines. Check out the Model D on display in this video from Reverb where they give a brief rundown of the synthesizer’s capabilities and then demo a few of the sounds you can get from the legendary synthesizer.
While companies like Roland, Moog, and a handful of others, paved the way for the synthesizers of yesteryear, modern companies such as Behringer, Nord, Novation, Dave Smith Sequential, and Korg - to name a few - are standing center stage in today’s game. But then as the computer age started taking shape and producers trimmed down their hardware setup in favor of an in-the-box approach, synthesizer manufacturers and other third-party companies started to develop apps that replicated those vintage sounds for fractions upon fractions of the price. Moog’s iconic Model D is now an eight dollar iOS app. Pair that with a $60 AKAI MIDI controller and a USB-to-Lightning adapter and for under one hundred dollars you can have that exact same sound, and by the time it’s mixed, mastered, and released, few people would be able to tell the difference - and the ones that can are jealous you got so close for less than what they spent on their original hardware version. That’s just one example of software synthesizers (more commonly referred to as “softsynths” - creative, right?) and how they have shifted the musical landscape from bulky, thousand-dollar instruments to an app that you could have in your pocket and mess with on your lunch break at work.
All of this brings us back to the original question - how do I pick the right synthesizer for my project? Let’s take a look at a few different options and see if we can solve that riddle for you.
This will be the first in a short series of articles that break down the synthesizer world into three separate categories. First being hardware instruments, second being software instruments, and third being mobile apps. The apps and the software instruments may seem like they overlap a lot, but there are actually quite a few apps that you can get on mobile devices that you cannot find on a computer that make having a phone or tablet as a part of your studio more of an option now than it may have been even just a few short years ago.
As we saw with the price tag on the Moog Model D, this is the most expensive option out of all of them. If money is no object to you then this could be the dream playground you’ve always wanted. There are many famous pictures of synthesizer masterminds surrounded by keyboards and flashing lights, and that world could be attainable to you if you so desire, but in today’s day and age it seems like more and more people are steering away from hardware instruments if and when possible. Still, there are options that are unique in their sound, budget friendly, and in some cases even both at the same time if you’d like to add some hardware synthesizers to your home studio.
The Teenage Engineering OP-1 is hard to ignore when putting together a list of hardware synthesizers that should attract someone’s attention. When it launched in 2011 it was the most innovative and unique synthesizer out there, and depending on who you ask it might still be the most inspiring single piece of gear available. It was an absolute game-changer for me when I bought one a few years ago, and everyone who owns one will say the same. Despite its size it can push you to think of music and music creation in new ways that you may not have explored otherwise. Its few limitations are actually what makes it so great - forcing you to look at your workflow in a new way, or create in a new or different order compared to how you might typically approach a project. While it is certainly on the high end of the budget scale in this list, its ability to take you to new places creatively is unmatched in its class and justifies the price point (for some). The OP-1 has the ability to be an instrument all on its own, providing a thick bass, playful leads, or pads, all created on one of its handful of synthesizer engines. You can even program drum sounds to any of your tracks by using its drum engines or loading it up with your own samples. It has 4-track recording capabilities so it could be a traveling digital audio workstation all on its own. It can record samples and automatically map them to pitches, it has a built-in antenna to pick up radio frequencies for further manipulation, and it even has gyroscopic functionality that allows you to control any parameter you choose by tilting and rotating the entire unit for a more hands-on experience with your music. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon credits the OP-1 for a majority of the creative process behind the band’s album “22, A Million”, released in 2016. A small but powerful synth loved by many, this would be a welcome addition to any studio... but I understand if the price tag scares you a bit.
The OP-1’s integration into a live setup may prove to be a bit challenging, but it can be done. Bon Iver is certainly able to make use of them in a live setting, and other bands such as Bear’s Den, Childish Gambino, Allesandro Cortini of Nine Inch Nails, and Thom Yorke of Radiohead (just to name a few) all use them in live performances. The OP-1’s patch recall system requires a little bit of menu diving that can be hard to pull off in low-light venues, and the keyboard doesn’t exactly forgive clunky fingers. If you have a little clamp light and enough time between songs to skip ahead to the patch you need, it can be done. While it may take some trial and error to figure out exactly how to incorporate it into your live setup the sounds that it produces will more than fill the live sonic space. WIth it being one of the smallest options out there it would not take up nearly as much space as another synthesizer, but ultimately if you need the sounds and you can’t figure out a good way to bring it to a gig you may just be better off working the OP-1 tracks into your backing tracks if inputs, monitoring, and other roadblocks come into play.
One of my favorite pieces of my studio is another beloved synth that has developed somewhat of a cult following over the last handful of years - the Korg MicroKorg. YouTuber Dorian Concept has a series of videos called “Fooling around on” where he jams on a small synthesizer for two minutes or so, and one of his MicroKorg videos became a staple demonstration of the synthesizer, leading to an explosion of internet fame for Korg’s tiny synth (and also for Dorian Concept). While surprisingly small at just just a couple of clicks under 5 pounds, the MicroKorg delivers a wide array of usable stock presets and a deeply customizable engine that could rival synthesizers much larger and considerably more expensive. It also comes equipped with a full vocoder engine that has become more and more popular in recent times due to the synthesizer’s form factor allowing it to be among the most portable of all of the options available right now.
The MicroKorg can be a really funky addition to a live performance, especially if you find a way to use the vocoder. While it comes with a gooseneck microphone in the box, hooking it up to a more professional dynamic microphone such as a Shure Beta 58, or similar, only requires an XLR-to-¼” cable and you are off and running. As an example of the keyboard shining in an area where you might not expect to see it, Michael Lessard of the progressive metal band The Contortionist uses the MicroKorg’s vocoder for specific spots during tracks, but also makes use of it for background noises in some of the band’s spacey transitions between tracks. The keyboard could be set to the side or in the drawer of a road case and then be triggered via MIDI with a bigger controller if the mini keys aren’t your thing - which, actually, tends to be one of the bigger turnoffs of this synth for the majority of people. Still, without the vocoder, this synthesizer lends itself very well to pads and lead patches for live performance. Whether you’re using it live, in the studio, or just for fun, as one of the more budget-friendly options on the market right now you absolutely cannot go wrong with the Korg MicroKorg.
For my money, though, the best bang-for-your-buck hardware synthesizer on the market is without a doubt the Behringer Deepmind. Available in 6- or 12-voice models with keyboards or as a desktop module version, the Deepmind arrived on the scene in 2016 as Behringer’s first offering in the world of synthesizers and it instantly cemented its place in the synthesizer world. While the synth comes at an incredibly attractive price point it certainly is not skimping out on features. The Deepmind 6 offers six voices of polyphony (six notes being played at the same time) and the Deepmind 12 offers twelve voices, pretty self-explanatory. Go with whatever you need. But the level of programmability in this synthesizer is incredible - and the modulation matrix that allows you to map things to different locations is insane. Any patch could have well over a dozen different things happening upon manipulating the modulation wheel or an outboard expression pedal, and it’s entirely up to you. Do you want the mod wheel to increase distortion, slowly close the filter cutoff, lengthen the release of the note, increase the reverb mix, and slow down the delay time? If your heart really wanted those specific things in a patch, you could do that and have room for many more things. And that’s for each patch. I know that isn’t specific to just the Deepmind and that other synthesizers have similar features, but from what I’ve seen the Deepmind has more room for those types of things than any other synthesizer, regardless of list price.
With 49 full-size keys, if you opt for the keyboard version, the Deepmind is the one on this list that is most ready for live performance if you are in need of that sort of thing. Controlling its various parameters with footswitches, expression pedals, or the built-in modulation wheel are a breeze. It will take some time to get used to the flow of programming the synthesizer when you get deeper into menus, but everything else is controllable using the faders on the face of the unit, making for easy adjustments in a live setting or in the studio. If you need pads, leads, bass sounds, or even if you want to program something that could sound close to an acoustic piano or an electric piano and not have to worry about an additional instrument or a computer running virtual libraries, the Deepmind couldn’t be better.
These are just my suggestions based on what I have used over the years in the studio and in live performances but you are, of course, free to come to whatever conclusion fits your budget, your studio and workflow needs, and the space that you have. The world of music is so subjective from all standpoints - writing, creating, producing, consuming - and the end goal could be achieved in so many different ways. Take some time to do additional research on synthesizers, figure out what you need for what you are trying to do, and once you do finally make a decision be sure to sit and spend some time figuring out how to get the most out of your synthesizer. If you’re like me you may have a few in your closet that are more capable of certain things than you may realize.
If hardware synthesizers aren’t quite your thing then be on the lookout for the next article in this series that will shine a light on software synthesizers, sample libraries, and other things that could be the best fit for you, your budget, and what you need.
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