Starting out in synth-land
If you, like many people, started out your musical journey playing the piano or keyboard you may be wondering where you can go from there. After all, despite the piano being one of the most expressive instruments you could ever play, it is also limited somewhat to certain genres of music. It may be that you have a natural propensity to ‘tinker’ too, or experiment, or just play around.
If any of this sounds like you, we would urge you to take a look at synthesizers. Despite sharing the same keyboard-style layout as a piano, these are really very different beasts. It comes down to control. With a piano, for example, you have the basic action of a hammer striking a string. You have control over the speed and force (velocity) with which the hammer strikes, but not a great deal else.
Synthesis, on the other hand, offers myriad possibilities for sound creation. It all starts with the oscillators. These devices use an electrical signal – either real (analogue) or artificial (digital) – to create a specific frequency you use as your base sound. You can choose different types of sound, from a smooth sine wave to a harsh sawtooth.
This sound is then fed through various stages of a signal path. You can affect how long the tone stays at peak volume, how long it lingers around, whether you mix/stack multiple oscillated sounds on top of each other and plenty more. That’s before we start getting into effects, LFOs and other such fun. Synths really do offer infinite creative possibility. Here’s a look at some of the best synthesizers for beginners.
Korg Minilogue XD
The Korg Minilogue XD is an absolute beast that offers so much at what is frankly a steal at this price.
Its 37 mini keys offer a decent range for you to play with, and an incredible number of different sounds, waveforms and effects to get stuck into.
The Minilogue xD boasts a vast range of presets and user programs to play with, and a vast range of effects performing flawlessly thanks the 32-bit floating point DSP processing. Add to that the ability to produce up to 4 voices of polyphony and you can cultivate everything from fat basslines to sumptuous lead lines. Using Korg’s SDK (Software Development Kit), you can create your own programs with ease for total control.
A built-in 16-step sequencer supports real-time recording and step-recording, enabling you to create and layer patterns on the fly. As we’d expect from the Minilogue xD, that control layout is intuitive and very easy to use. If you’re dipping your toes into the world of synths for the first time, you can’t really go wrong with this absolute beauty.
For more information on Korg’s other NAMM 2019 releases including some awesome additions to the much-loved “Volca” range, check out our related article here.
Often seen as the strongest alternative to the Microkorg, the Novation MiniNova is an excellent choice for a beginner. It boasts a similar line-up and functionality – both have 37 keys, both have vocoder capability – but where the MiniNova shines is in its high quality sounds.
Synths often appeal due to elements other than their sounds; the Microkorg, for example, has a certain lo-fi charm that some people love. The MiniNova, however, has real, big, powerful sounds which are accessible quickly and easily.
Our first fully analogue synth in the round-up. The Arturia Microbrute’s excellence is a corollary of its simplicity. It doesn’t have tonnes and tonnes of features. It has one single analogue oscillator. It has limited effects. But when you fire this bad-boy up…wow.
Our old friends, the synth purists, will say you simply cannot replicate the sound of an analogue synth using digital methods. There’s truth in that, no doubt. While not everybody wants or needs that raw analogue sound, those who do will find it here in spades with the Microbrute. It does one thing, and does it very, very well.
We’ll finish this list with a real treasure of a synth. The Korg Monologue is a gift from the synth gods for fans of huge, vintage sounding tones. It includes a 16 step sequencer for programming (as opposed ‘playing’) parts, and the included oscilloscope gives a real-time visualisation of the tones being produced by this glorious machine.
Despite its vintage looks, it has modern-day smarts though, including USB Midi capability so you can integrate it into an existing DAW setup and, the icing on the cake, it can be battery powered so you can lay down some velvety synth goodness from where ever you may be.
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Delve deeper into the subject and check out our article “What is analogue synthesis?“
Jon is a multi-instrumentalist with a passion for inspiring others to get involved in making music. After spending many years playing venues here, there and – pretty much – everywhere, he joined the Dawsons’ Music Web Team before progressing into his current role managing the Dawsons Blog.