Bringing the thread back from the dead with an OP I had drafted last year. There have been some recent releases that would be included in the price range covered below, so I may add those at some point:
I mainly have experience with standalone hardware/software synths, videosynthesis, theremins, & the weirder side of DIY, so I won’t be talking about Eurorack/Frac/Buchla/5U too much (unless something earthshatteringly neat is announced).
If you’re interested in getting a synthesizer of your own, but aren’t sure where to start, I’ve written up a little buyer’s guide for the $50-400 price range below. I’ll be adding links to it for easy searching, and some basic feature info at some point.
Synthesizers come in all shapes, sizes, & prices, and it’s very easy to drop a decent amount of money on something that sounds like it’ll fulfill your wildest fantasies. The first question you need to ask yourself is: Am I okay with spending that much on something that I might be disappointed with, or even outright hate?
If your answer is “lmao nope”:
The easiest and cheapest option is not to go with a physical instrument at all, but instead, try a VST or iOS/Android app. KORG has wonderful recreations of their more popular synths for $20-50, available on iOS, PC, and 3DS (wait for a sale, they frequently drop to half-price on each of these platforms). You’ll find on-screen keyboards, sequencers, effects, and all sorts of other bells and whistles built into these apps, making them extremely flexible to suit your needs. Most of the iOS versions of these apps are also AudioBus/InterAppAudio compatible, so they can be used with a wide variety of other apps.
If you have an audio interface with MIDI ports, and nearly any keyboard with a MIDI-OUT port (or a USB MIDI controller/keyboard), you have a decent-to-great version of that synth, ready to be used with a DAW of your choice, for a fraction of the price.
If your answer is “heck yeah”:
Think about your price range. If you’re just testing the waters, something in the $150-300 range is where you might want to be. If you decide you don’t like it, you’ll easily find someone who will take it off your hands for close to what you paid for it. Here are a few recommendations. Keep in mind that the majority of the following are NOT polyphonic. If that’s what you want, check out the Volca Keys/FM or MiniNova as your starting point.
First, a recommendation: NEVER BUY NEW (unless you can get a good [read: 20% off or more] discount).
Take a look around Craigslist or Reverb. You’ll be able to find pretty much anything for at least 20% off base retail price unless it’s in-demand vintage gear. Just as a quick example, here’s a Microbrute for $100 off retail.
If you do want/have to buy new, go to Guitar Center if you have one nearby, and try their demo units multiple times. See how the keys and knobs handle stress over time (and see if they can give you a sweet discount [they usually can]). Test every last thing you can think of. It’s okay to be “That Guy at Guitar Center”, no one really cares.
KORG’s Monotron synths are about as cheap as it gets, topping out at $50. The two currently-available units are extremely easy to use as standalone devices, and also double as effect units through the use of their aux-in jacks. The Monotron Delay is my favorite, with a lo-fi delay effect and a gritty lowpass filter based on the MS-20’s. They are pretty limited in functionality, though.
Teenage Engineering’s Pocket Operator series ranges from $50-90 and includes many different styles of sounds. Each unit has a built-in sequencer and speaker, and like the KORG Volca series detailed below, can sync with other PO units to keep tempo with one another. Their interface takes a bit of time to get used to, but they’re pretty darn neat! Also available are silicone cases made for each style, with unit-specific button markings to match.
KORG’s Volca units may look cheap at first, and in some ways, they are. Get yourself an external speaker for these, maybe some rechargeable AAs. BUT, they’re portable, they’re relatively easy to use, and they’re an excellent bang for your buck. They come in a few flavors, and they do pretty much exactly what you’d think:
Keys: lead synth, has a built-in delay effect and a hidden MIDI-OUT spot on the PCB that you can wire up for use as a MIDI controller
Bass: bassline synth, kinda-sorta like a TB-303
FM: FM synth, similar to the extremely popular Yamaha DX7, and is able to load Sysex patches from a program like DEXED
Beats: drum machine (can’t recommend this one without some reservations)
Kick: kick drum synth, pretty useful for gabber/hardcore if you run it through some nasty distortion, but kind of one-note otherwise
Sample: sample playback machine, and my favorite of the bunch. Tons of parameters to warp your samples, the process for uploading new samples is pretty painless (though the amount of available memory is… not what it should be for something that came out in 2015)
These little boxes top out at $170 new, but frequently go for far less secondhand. Standard features include sequencers with pattern memory, MIDI-IN, and Sync-In-Out jacks to link multiple Volcas together to keep a tempo with each other.
Mutable Instruments’ Shruthi is a DIY kit with multiple configurations available. The Shruthi is made from two boards: the control board, with encoders, buttons, & an LCD screen, and the filter board, of which many different types are available. This thing has a ridiculous number of parameters and kinda-hidden options for creating some super cool sounds. You’ll need a MIDI controller or audio interface with MIDI-OUT for this one. The “standard” filter board, and the one with the most documentation, is the SMR4 mkII. My favorite, however, is the Polivoks filter board, a clone of the filter used in the 1980s Soviet Polivoks synth. Gritty and growly, with a fancy little overdrive mode that you won’t find on any of the other filters. If you’re interested in giving DIY a try, the Shruthi is a GREAT kit, and the satisfaction I felt when I first fired mine up with no problems after 6 solid hours of soldering was immense. Mutable Instruments themselves no longer manufacture the Shruthi, but the schematics were released under a creative commons license, so companies like TubeOhm and Laurentide Synthworks (who, sadly, left the synth business last year, but the remaining stock of his PCBs are available on ModularAddict) have taken over manufacture and sale of kits. A full kit (containing a control board and one filter board along with every necessary component aside from a power adapter) from TubeOhm is roughly €200, and worth every bit.
Arturia’s Microbrute is easily the first synthesizer I would recommend to someone who doesn’t want to spend a ton of money and would like a nice, sturdy, hands-on analog synth. This thing is a BEAST, with raw, gritty bass and grinding, squealing metallic tones being its strongest points. A small patchbay allows for some basic modulation, and is also compatible with other semimodular/modular synths. Not especially great for the more mellow side of the spectrum at first glance, but if you’re willing to put some effort into really exploring its capabilities it’s pretty flexible. It does a lot for the price, and it does it WELL. It has CV/Gate in-out, MIDI-IN, and is frequently available on the secondhand market for around $250 or $300 new.
Novation’s MiniNova is an analog modeling synth that has a massive variety of sounds, deep parameter editing capabilities, sturdy build, larger keyboard (37 compared to the Microbrute’s 25), arpeggiator, and vocoder. I owned one for a few months and had a blast with it. Honestly, out of every piece of gear I’ve tried I wish I would’ve kept it. It’s more expensive than the Microbrute at $400 new, and it isn’t analog (if you wanna be a purist), but it’s one you have to try.
KORG’s MicroKORG and recently-released MicroKORG S have a similar featureset as the MiniNova, but I found the user interface to be a bit less friendly. Not a favorite of mine, but I admittedly haven’t spent a lot of time with it.
Dreadbox’s Hades is a semimodular bass synth. Not a lot of bells and whistles on this little guy, but it is POWERFUL. Excellent filter with good squelchy resonance, two sub-oscillators for fattening up the already beefy sound this thing puts out, MIDI-IN, and a little patchbay for use with any other V/Oct modular/semimodular synth.
From here, you start brushing up against pricepoints of $450+, which is beyond the scope of this guide.