How to choose a synthesizer?

You are considering buying a synthesizer but you have no idea how much it will cost and what you need to take into account to be satisfied over the long term with your purchase.
This guide is designed to provide you with clear and precise answers, while highlighting the mistakes you should not make and the points not to be overlooked. After reading our explanations, you will be able to choose between two or three models that perfectly suit you. Your purchase will thus give you complete satisfaction.
Why take the time to choose the right synthesizer? This musical instrument gives a very special sound and adapts to almost all musical genres. By opting for a quality keyboard, you will be able to progress quickly and enjoy playing.
Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced musician, this guide to choosing a synthesizer will help you in your selection by covering the essential criteria one by one: the number of keys, technology, sounds, budget, etc.
By following each step, as in this guide, you will be sure to select the ideal instrument for you.

The different types of synthesiser

There are two categories of synthesizers: electronic models and analog models. Both create original sounds or reproduce the sounds of other musical instruments, which is why these instruments are widely used by composers. Adapted to different uses, synthesizers are used both at home to learn to play and in the studio to make recordings. The sound can also be adjusted with potentiometers and faders. In the case of workstations, a virtual mixing desk, samples and speakers are integrated: it is possible to produce hundreds of sounds and play several sounds at the same time (multitimbral technology).

The analog synthesizer

Thanks to its Voltage Control Filters (VCF), the analogue synthesiser returns electronic sounds. Voltage controllers will help to modify this sound and give it more amplitude. The main difference with the digital piano here is that the sounds produced are quite similar to those produced by acoustic instruments. Many electronic elements will work simultaneously to create the electrical voltages necessary to modify the sounds. With an electronic synthesizer, the sound remains more balanced, however, since the signal is not affected by voltage differences.
This category is more for experienced musicians with a good musical ear.

The electronic synthesizer

The electronic synthesizer should not be confused with the digital piano. This type of synthesizer appeared in the years 1995 – 1996.
The instrument does indeed use digital technologies but its mechanism remains simpler than that of the digital piano or the analogue synthesizer. Indeed, a simple binary code will make it possible to establish the signal and to stabilize it. The sounds thus created will be reminiscent of those of string or wind instruments or will be more creative. They will always be the same: no tension will change them.
There are also synthesizers that combine analogue and digital technology to give the musician even more fun and possibilities.

How many keys does a synthesiser need to have?

While pianists naturally go for the large 88-key models, also known as full keyboards (since scores require this criterion to be met), synthesiser enthusiasts will select their instrument according to their desired use and habits.
Certain disciplines, such as Computer Assisted Music (CAM) or computer music, do not require the use of a large number of keys: 4 octaves are sufficient and a 49-key model is preferred.
As far as the size of the keys is concerned, comfort is always the priority. Many musicians are looking for the standard or midi size. Only a few enthusiasts prefer the small keys of the mini « master » keyboard.
A point on the importance of touch : The touch of the most advanced and high-end synthesizers is similar to that of acoustic pianos. Several types of touch (more or less heavy) are perceived:

  • light touch: useful on a master keyboard for MAO use;
  • the heavy touch: quite similar to the pressure to be exerted on grand piano keys;
  • the hammer system built into each key (or ballasted) that hits a digital sensor;
  • the semi-weighted version which makes the synthesizer less heavy;
  • the weighted system which makes it more difficult to press certain keys as on an acoustic piano;
  • the system with aftertouch which allows you to change the pressure on the key and thus modulate the sound.

What technology for a contemporary synth?

More or less well equipped, synthesizers integrate modules and functionalities that modify the quality of the sound and generate different effects. Many applications are possible. Here are some interesting technologies:

The LFO: Low Frequency Oscillator on software, analog or digital
This very low frequency device acts on the sound signal to control slow modulations which return regularly. Several settings parameters are available. Whereas it was perceived in the 1960s as a generator of low frequencies, the LFO is today an integrated component of the synth, often used to design chorus, phaser and vibrato effects. It is sometimes confused with the envelope generator.

The VCF: Voltage Control Filter
This filter (and sometimes the resonance of this filter) is voltage controlled: the cut-off frequency depends on the voltage. For modular synthesizers, the voltage comes from the keys used and is fed back to the filter control system.

The VCA: Voltage Control Amplifier
This module is used to amplify the sound at the output of the VCFs. The rendering is different depending on the model, the brand but also on the quality of the VCOs (Voltage Control oscillators), the number of which varies but is never less than 2.

The MIDI : Musical instrument digital interface file
This file is in fact a communication protocol between electronic instruments, dedicated software, sequencers and controllers. It was first presented at the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants Show) in 1983. The main interest is to be able to both control the instruments and record at the same time.

The best synthesizer brands

Selecting the best synthesizer is like searching through the major brands of today. With the latest technology, these musical instruments offer both quality and performance. Among the most famous brands: Yamaha, Casio, Novation, Korg (including its Triton), Dsp, Akai, Native instruments, Yamaha motif, Musical instrument digital interface, kawai, Dave smith instruments and Yamaha clavinova.

Korg: the Japanese brand

Specialising in the manufacture of electronic musical instruments, korg has been in existence since 1962. Recognised as one of the most innovative companies in the field, the Japanese company began by exporting mini synthesizers, with an exceptional sound and rather affordable. Its success grew with the release of the Dual Voice Maxi 800DV and the Ensemble Polyphonic range in 1976. Numerous series were released in the following years: TRIDENT, Prophet, poly, etc.
In 2020, synthesizers and digital pianos have a large number of features.

  • The Electribe Sampler 2 is a music production station for composing the way you like, with particularly interesting effects and synthesis solutions.
  • The Korg monologue, a monophonic analogue synthesiser, creates unique sounds thanks to monophonic synthesis. This synthesizer has a screen with an oscilloscope.
  • The Korg minilogue XD has only 37 keys but allows access to a large number of parameters for a very pure sound and new effects.
  • The Korg Triton USB with its 512 sounds is the world’s best-selling workstation. Compact and lightweight, it is easy to take it everywhere.

Yamaha : the world reference

The first Yamaha synthesizer was marketed in 1974. It is the SY-1 monophonic synthesizer which allows an evolution of the sound thanks to the envelope generator. This was followed by the GX-1 and CS series with high-tech circuitry and a sound storage solution that was unheard of in the 1980s. Lightweight and can be worn over the shoulder, the CS01 allowed musicians to move freely on stage. A revolution! The Yamaha Pattern Series is the successor to the SY-1 and continues to evolve: the best technologies are used, including an integrated sampler to create rhythms and melodies intuitively.
The Yamaha clavinova brand presents more specifically digital pianos with cabinet such as the CLP-735: this model allows as much precision as a grand piano, while offering the possibility of playing with rhythms or using headphones.
On Amazon or Google, the most recent articles are described in detail.
Well represented on worldwide platforms such as Amazon Yamaha is for beginners as well as experienced musicians. Electronic synths are associated with specific, adapted and ergonomic music stands and benches.

Casio: the inventions of Tadao Kashio

Tadao Kashio is the inventor of the mini digital synthesizer. The technology then used is that of « vowel-consonant synthesis ». Invented in the 1980s, the Casiotone 201 represents a major evolution for the world of music since it is based on sound banks. The synthetic sound is transformed thanks in particular to the analogue resonance filter and the noise generator.
Today Casio offers a range of compact and ultra-compact digital pianos and portable synthesizers with a safe design like the Casiotone CT-S200, inspired by the very first Casiotone to play the sounds of many different instruments. Some models are comparable to toys, while others are popular with experienced musicians.

Novation Digital Music System: British synths

Founded in 1992, the Novation brand creates instruments for use with Ableton Live software. Analogue synthesizers and Midi controllers allow a multitude of sound combinations to be created. Several launchpads are proposed by the brand in basic, pro, mini and XL versions. Concerning the synthesizers, the most famous ranges are the Bass Station II, the miniNova and UltraNova, the Peaks. Excellent synthesizers for beginners are proposed by this brand.

Dsp: specialist in virtual technologies

Created in 2014, the Swedish company DSP Synthetisers produces high quality battery modules: the Euroracks have specific inputs and integrated chips for variable sampling frequency sound. These devices are perfect for recreating sounds from the 80s and allowing different approaches.
DSP synthesizers perform analogue modeling thanks to the latest innovations. As a good example, the Clone DR55 Drum offers many possibilities to create a new rhythm and adapt its sounds. The Rolland TR-909 uses plug-ins and allows recording on USB key.

Akai Professional: audio technology

Akaï supplies musicians from all over the world and creates electronic instruments for stage and studio recording. This company is part of the internationally known inMusic group. Among the new products, the MPKs in mini version: MK3, Mini Play and MKll are compact and powerful, featuring a USB input, a MIDI controller with integrated speakers or a pad controller.
Essential in the studio, the Avance 25, 49 and 61 production controllers link virtual instruments to the premium controller for VIPs and act as classic plug-ins for digital audio workstations.

Native Instruments: software and hardware manufacturer

Intended mainly for experienced musicians and professionals, Native Instruments synthesizers respond to very specific problems: the Komplete Kontrol range offers simplified intelligent master keyboards and controllers with Smart Play functionalities and integrating the NKS file for storing OGG audio samples. The Komplete Control S61, for example, is equipped with a high-end mechanism and high-resolution screens for unlimited and simple composing.

Kawai: the Japanese company ahead of its time

Kawai Musical Instruments Manufacturing creates digital pianos, master keyboards and arrangers, stage pianos as well as uprights and grand pianos. The Kawai ES-110 B, for example, has 88 weighted keys and allows all registers to be played with the same sensitive touch as on a traditional piano. 192 polyphonic notes and 100 different styles are available.
Developed by Koichi kawai, founder of Kawai and former employee of Yamaha, the patented technologies have enabled the rapid evolution of Japanese synthesizers.

Dave Smith Instruments: the American reference brand

The Dave Smith Instruments brand is behind the Prophet range of synthesizers, hybrid synthesizers that first appeared on the market in 2007. Inspired by the first models, the Prophet 8 is an 8-voice polyphonic synthesizer and the Prophet 12 is a 12-voice hybrid synthesizer. This range will stand out in 2016 with the creation of an analogue polyphonic synthesiser: the Sequential OB-6, for 6 voices, with 49 semi-weighted, velocity-sensitive keys. Its other advantage is that it has inputs for pedals and foot switches. Perfect for beginners and those who simply want to have fun playing!

What are the prices depending on the model chosen?

The price of a synthesizer will vary greatly depending on the chosen concept, technology, brand and model. A large number of options are also available. Of course, buying a recognised brand guarantees good value for money and long life. You will only change it when its technology is outdated.
On Google Chrome, you’ll have no trouble finding descriptions of the synthesizers currently on the market. You’ll even be able to obtain photographs from all angles.
On Amazon, synthesizers, samplers, workstations, sequencers and controllers are listed by price and category.
For a digital piano, the price will range from 45 euros for a little-known branded instrument with basic functions to over 3000 euros for a best-seller with motion sensors on the hammers and the possibility of connection to an MP3 or CD player. A good electric piano is highly sought-after and costs at least 900 euros.
For a master or electronic keyboard for a beginner, the average price is 200 €. Count 30 to 40 euros extra for the purchase of a double-legged stand or a stool with a good height in imitation leather. An instrument of this type intended for a professional, such as the Yamaha PSR-S670, costs just over €1000. It is offered for just under €1100 with a stand equipped with straps and an adjustable bench.
Concerning samplers and music production stations, the price will vary according to the brand, the performance but also the equipment delivered with it. It is common for the console to be delivered with software, studio headphones and even monitoring speakers. The whole thing costs a minimum of 900 € if it is Akai or Yamaha equipment.