Just because you use a synthesizer, doesn’t mean you’re limited to putting out electronic-inspired, Eighties-esque tracks.
“Synthesizers are electronic music instruments that create a wide variety of sounds, from real instrument emulations to extraterrestrial galactic space noise,” says Ryan Andrew Roth, a marketing specialist at electronics brand, Pioneer, whose TORAIZ setup is used by artists like Balearic house DJ Kiko Navarro and the ambient jazz and electronica band, Submotion Orchestra. “A synthesizer’s job is to generate audio signals through various synthesis techniques that can then be controlled via keyboard, sequencer, MIDI and more,” Roth says.
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In short: The best synthesizers can mimic everything from guitar licks and piano tones, to something straight out of Blade Runner. And they’re the pathway to mixing and producing full tracks, no matter your preferred genre of music.
While synth-pop really came to prominence in the seventies and eighties, synthesizers themselves have been around since the 1960s. You may not know it, but synthesizers are still used today on many of your favorite pop records or movie scores.
“Early records used vintage analog synths, FM synths, and drum machines to name a few,” Roth explains, “while more recent productions may also add software synths or sampling to the mix. With the advancement of technology, old and new styles are merging and being reinvented.”
What should you look for when buying a synthesizer? For starters, consider what you’re using a synthesizer for, the amount of space you have, and the features you are looking for. “In general,” Roth says, “the gear should help solve a problem, inspire you to create, or contribute to a collection.”
The best synthesizers for beginners will have a ton of on-board effects, built-in presets, and knobs that let you make changes to the tone of your music. Portable synthesizers also let you take your music-making on the go, rather than being bogged down in a studio.
According to Roth, a few features to consider include hardware vs. software, analog vs. digital, FM synthesis vs. subtractive synthesis, and I/O (inputs/outputs). In general, hardware refers to an actual physical synthesizer, while soft synths live inside a computer. FM (frequency modulation) synths are known for creating sparkling, digital sounds, though many musicians prefer subtractive synths, which give off a warmer, more natural sound when replicating real instruments.
At the end of the day, “most people who buy a synthesizer should feel an inspirational connection with the instrument,” Roth says. And while non-professional musicians or hobbyists don’t often record their synth jams, Roth says many “will often tweak knobs or create patches to generate experimental sounds for fun.”
What you create is entirely up to you, but a good synthesizer will help take your ideas and transform them into something full of different sounds, full of dazzling effects and full of life.
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1. Pioneer DJ TORAIZ AS-1 (TAS-1)
Pioneer’s TORAIZ AS-1 was developed alongside Dave Smith Instruments, whose founder is known as one of the pioneers in synthesizers, sequencers and the development of MIDI. This synth is monophonic (one voice) and similar in sound characteristic to Smith’s 1980’s Pro-One, or 2015’s Prophet 6 (sold under his original company name, Sequential). The TORAIZ also inherits seven on-board effects from the Prophet-6 synth as well as a brand new digital distortion.
According to Roth, the TORAIZ AS-1 is used most commonly for bass lines, but with proper sound design, it can be used for leads, plucks, pads, FX, and much more.
Pioneer says intuitive controls include parameter knobs that let you make both subtle and dramatic changes to the tone of your music. While there isn’t a traditional keyboard like in some synths, the touchpad-style keyboard (laid out in the shape of a single octave) is easy to use and lets you manipulate sounds during performances.
The unit comes with 495 preset programs. You can also save up to 495 of your own programs in the five user banks.
PROS: Rich, punchy sounds and a solid range of on-board effects.
CONS: Limited editing capabilities. No tactile keys.
2. Teenage Engineering OP-1 Mini Synthesizer Pack
Whether you’re just getting started with music production or need an accessible, easy-to-use setup, this popular unit packs a synthesizer, sampler, and controller into one simple and fast interface. This deck features eight built-in synthesizer engines with eight quick sound selection keys, and three exchangeable sequencers.
A built-in 24-voice instant live sampler lets you sample from onboard music, FM radio, the four-track tape recorder and more. The four-track gets you up to 24 minutes of recording time on both sides of the recorder.
Other features include a mix with EQ, a dedicated VU meter for displaying sound levels, and easy file transfer via USB for sending data between your synthesizer and computer.
PROS: Easy to use with a ton of built-in features. At 13 x 5 inches, it’s about the size of a computer keyboard and super portable.
CONS: Audiophiles may find the sound to be a little chunky and cluttered, and some reported occasional distortion from the speakers.
3. Yamaha MX49 Music Production Synthesizer
Yamaha is known for its electronic keyboards and digital recording equipment, and this plug and play synthesizer combines easy connectivity with 49 keys for an analog and digital experience.
Part of Yamaha’s popular Motif line of workstation synthesizers, the MX49 offers a ton of features to boost your sound quality and recording capabilities.
Among them: more than 1000 voices, from acoustic pianos and strings, to woodwinds and drums. Layering the voices is super easy, with the “split” and “layer” buttons. Use the Motif Sound Engine to layer, zone, switch, cycle, randomize and control up to eight elements within a single voice. Users say sound is rich and warm.
The MX49 acts as hardware and software, with MIDI USB connectivity, DAW and VST controller features and a suite of powerful music production software.
PROS: Get analog and digital connectivity in one device. This synthesizer is available in blue, black or white.
CONS: No sequencer. Keys are not weighted, so you won’t get as realistic of a playing experience.