- No need for a host, or a controller keyboard
- Hands-on sound creation with no frustrations
- Analogue revival means classic hardware’s cheap, too
Hardware’s days are doomed – or so we keep being told, but keyboard players and electronic musicians just don’t want to give up their keys and knobs just yet.
It’s not just about the physicality of playing and controlling the instrument – using hardware leaves your DAW’s processing power free for effects, recording and mixing without glitches. There’s no license key to lose, no operating system compatibility that could stop your synth working overnight and best of all, you can play anywhere with power and headphones.
Added to all those practical considerations, there’s an authenticity of sound creation that – real or imagined – feels satisfying compared to turning virtual dials on a piece of software. Whether it’s via analogue circuity (yes, you can get real analogue synths for much less than £500), DSP or the latest FPGA emulation, the filters, amplifiers and controls all play a part beyond the seed of the simple oscillator that all electronic sounds grow from.
I admit it – few plugins reach the heady heights of £500, but by the time you’ve added a keyboard and physical controls, it’s a different story – and most synths will double up as a controller, too.
1, Arturia MicroFreak, £299 – Best for sound creation and exploration
- Deeply powerful synthesis with a very accessible interface
- Doesn’t skimp on connectivity – CV, USB and MIDI
- Can be used with an external USB powerbank and headphones
- Flat keyboard may not be to everyone’s taste
Arturia’s compact and astoundingly affordable MicroFreak deserves its name – it’s freakishly good, and capable of generating sounds that put synthesizers costing four times as much to shame. It also offers control possibilities rarely found outside of obscure, specialist and vintage instruments, including polyphonic aftertouch and an extended paraphonic mode that goes far beyond the traditional behaviour of paraphonic synthesizers; each of the four voices has its own VCA envelope that can be assigned like other sources via the easy to use mod matrix.
Embracing being a freak, the Arturia looks like no other synth. Rather than keys or even an EDP Wasp-style membrane, the MicroFreak’s capacitive PCB ‘keyboard’ is robust and expressive and unlike previous flat designs, can detect pressure. This can be routed to aftertouch – polyphonic, too – or velocity.
This clever design not only allows a more nuanced performance, it’s robust and lightweight – ideal for a portable synth. You can power the MicroFreak from a USB powerbank. It also saves money – the street price for the MicroFreak has been as low as £219.
MicroFreak synthesis – a truly open-minded approach
Most affordable, portable synthesizers are very traditional in their approach – either focusing on a performance element, or emulating something more expensive. MicroFreak is different; even though Arturia themselves sell a couple of utterly traditional compact analogue synths such as the MiniBrute 2 and MicroBrute, the MicroFreak hasn’t been artificially limited to avoid competing.
In fact, it’s got a range of oscillator types rarely found on a single synth. Currently there’s a dozen – with room for future expansion – including the traditional analogue saw/square/saw types and variants, FM, wavetable, formant, speech and modelling. These are fed into an analogue SEM-style filter.
One of the advantages of not being purely analogue (like the Behringer clones) is the ability to throw a load of new features in, and that’s exactly what Arturia did with version 2.0 firmware – free to all MicroFreak users, of course. It adds a noise oscillator, the ability to hold chords in paraphonic mode, a quick pattern duplication feature and a one-touch matrix reset.
Controlling this wild concept is amazingly straightforward, with logical panel design and clearly-labelled functions backed up by a small OLED display. USB, MIDI and CV ensure the MicroFreak can fit into any studio as a controller, or if you prefer, a sound source with a more conventional keyboard. As you’d expect from Arturia, there’s a 64-step sequencer with automation tracks too.
2. Novation Mininova – £329, arguably the best value synthesizer ever made
- Insanely powerful synth engine
- Versatile performance controls
- Easy-to-use vocoder
- Complex to edit without using a VST
- Minikeys have a slightly odd feel
We’ve tried to list three pros and cons for every option here – but the Mininova really doesn’t have drawbacks given the insanely low price. Novation’s baby keyboard is the most recent incarnation of a synthesis technology that started life in the late 1990s and utterly dominated the anthemic dance, trance and techno landscape; even now, the Nova and SuperNova are cherished classics, rather than obsolete tech.
Repackaging the UltraNova into a smaller, 37-key minikey layout dominated by 8 rubber performance pads (not, as is so often the case, percussion pads) and a huge filter control underlines exactly where Novation see the MiniNova – a discrete, playable addition to a bedroom studio or sitting alongside bigger controllers, distinctive vocoder microphone at the ready.
Play the Mininova in-store and you’ll be blown away – with good reason. Some musicians would be happy with just a decent vocoder at this price; delving into the Mininova, you’ll find 3 oscillators per voice with standard, combined, wave and wavetable sources, 18-voice polyphony, six envelopes (four assignable), 14 filter types and five effect slots. It is astonishingly powerful, and capable of a huge variety of sounds.
Fine for serious electronic musicians – what about beginners?
Unlike many low-cost synthesizers, the Mininova’s preset library is broad and generous, with 384 sounds available on-board all sorted by category. A versatile arpeggiator can play basic octave progressions or pre-programmed sequences entered into the step sequencer; you can mute steps during performance with the animate keys. Novation provide even more sounds online, so out of the box your Mininova is ready with well over 500 diverse presets – including some classics from dance pioneer Giorgio Moroder.
Beginners won’t be left feeling like they’re just pressing buttons and getting sounds, as the Animate function provides 8 different modifications to the sound that can work in conjunction with each other; finding a unique character to suit your groove is surprisingly easy.
Back to that microphone – the Mininova’s vocoder includes vocal tune functions, which sound a bit artificial – more Cher than the invisible corrections of modern software; your vocals can also be filtered and fed through the on-board effects (including compression and distortion) for a surprisingly powerful combination. External instruments are also supported – plug a guitar into the instrument input, and you’ve got access to the Mininova’s sound processing.
Sounds great – but how complex is it?
You can edit the sounds from the front panel with four assignable controllers and a simple matrix – combined with the informative white-on-blue LCD display, it’s not hard to navigate. If you’ve got a computer in the studio though, life gets a lot easier. There’s a VST editor which offers an intuitive, visual workflow for creative and modifying sounds, and a quick and easy librarian to store and organise patches. The editor not only provides that quick functionality to shape sounds – it spells out just how deep, and powerful, the Mininova’s synthesis really is. Given the budget, this Novation is impressive enough if all you could do is load presets, change them a bit and play with the vocoder; nothing is held back, however – and there’s a classic, high-end synth just waiting to be discovered in this little, lightweight keyboard.
3. Roland System 1, £499 – best for retro fans who want to stay modern too
- Versatile four-voice polyphonic synth with easy programming
- Software version, plus great emulations of classic synths
- On-board USB audio interface for direct recording
- No velocity or aftertouch sensitivity
- Distortion and effects can feel a little heavy-handed
- No preset name display
When launched, the Roland System-1 introduced a new synthesis engine to Roland’s long legacy of electronic instruments – but it also made sure loyal fans weren’t left behind thanks to the concept of ‘plug-out’ virtual instruments. Using circuit-accurate modelling of classics such as the SH-101, ProMars and SH-2, the System-1 is a thoroughly modern compact 25-key synth that can take on an old soul, able to accurately replicate the sound of classics that cost hundreds, if not thousands, used.
Instantly recognisable thanks to the distinctive green-on-black motif that links it to the rest of Roland’s AIRA system, the System-1’s comprehensive control surface makes using Roland’s soft synths (via Roland Cloud) easy – and that’s not all it offers in-the-box producers, as it features an on-board USB audio interface and excellent synchronisation capabilities.
It can wear many faces – but what’s the System-1 really like?
Being distracted by beloved classics like the SH-101 means that the System-1’s own synth engine can be easily overlooked. Owing little technically, but a lot in spirit to synths like the JP-8000, SH-201 and SH-32, the four-voice, dual-oscillator synth engine is a significant step forward for Roland. Each oscillator offers 12 waveforms – including the distinctive Super-Saw that defined ‘90s EDM and industrial sounds. New character comes from the waveform-mixing ‘logic operation’ oscillator, and recognising that everyone needs more cowbell, there’s even an oscillator based on the TR-808’s distinctive percussive bell.
Traditional analogue controls make mixing the oscillators, sub-oscillator and noise sources straightforward; there’s a syncable LFO and envelopes for pitch, filter and amp alongside the switchable 12/24dB filter and a ‘Crusher’ distortion circuit. The result is an extremely versatile synth. Many native System-1 presets sound quite harsh and brittle in isolation – in the mix, they’ve got a lot of punch; programming does require subtlety.
Creating your own patches is very straightforward. You can dial the System-1’s aggression back if you want a softer sound, and for live performance the ease of matching up the clock with other AIRA devices is brilliant; bedroom producers and project studios will appreciate the ease with which modulation and effects can be integrated into a track without faff.
It’ll do powerful, stacked basslines and leads, but it’s capable of some very modern sounds now thanks to the formant-type waveforms in the latest firmware update.
Roland Cloud users benefit most from the ability to drop some classic monosynth VSTs into the hardware for performance – albeit, only one at a time. The classic synth emulations are excellent, with hardware control visually mapped to the System-1 front panel by lighting up the available knobs and sliders – and as plug-ins, you’ve got direct control from the System-1 and efficient CPU usage.
There’s even a softsynth version of the System-1 included, making programming, storing and organising your sounds easy.
3. Korg Minilogue, £499 – best for analogue sound creation
- True polyphonic analogue synthesizer
- Controls well-weighted and satisfying to use
- Light weight for gigging
- Minikeys aren’t to all tastes
- A few programming quirks
- No CV interface despite analogue cred
Korg has already dominated the affordable electronic music arena with the Volca series, but those are modules – and great as they are, you never feel like you’re playing a keyboard, which for beginners keen to learn music as well as make sounds is a bit of a downside. There’s an even-lower cost Korg keyboard worth looking at here – the Monologue – but the Minilogue came first, and introduced affordable analogue polyphony to mainstream musicians.
Even so, it needs to do something clever to get our attention, and in this case, it’s the innovative design and clever use of the OLED display to show the waveform you’re creating. This, above anything else, places the Minilogue firmly at the forefront for teaching synthesis to a new generation.
Why do people want analogue synthesis?
These days, everything is some sort of virtual. Effects in movies, paintings on iPads, voiceovers and yes, the instruments you hear on most pop music recordings – it’s the result of a computer program simulating the behaviour of something else, be it light, sound or giant transforming robots. For some artists, that feels inauthentic; for others, there’s a perception that not directly affecting the process is less satisfying. Older instruments used chains of components to take an electrical current and change how it behaved – modern ones use electricity, but inside there’s a computer calculating what the sound should be and streaming it out. Every change is the result of software.
Analogue introduces unexpected effects, and also a feeling of each performance being subtly different as temperature, input voltage and the condition of the controls can influence the resulting sound. Building something with all those individual components is expensive compared to a single powerful processor, so until instruments like the Minilogue polyphonic – multi-voiced – analogue synths were very expensive.
Minilogue offers classic sounds with a modern twist
Underneath the award-winning design of the Korg Minilogue is a thoroughly classic architecture that is closest to early 1980s pop in familiarity – though it’s quite capable of going full-on prog or ‘90s electronica. After all, that ‘90s sound was built on ‘virtual analogue’ modelling and this is the real thing.
Each voice on the Minilogue offers two oscillators for a rich, complex sound and plenty of harmonic variation; these offer the classic saw, triangle and square wave shapes. Two envelopes further sculpt the sound through filter and amp, and of course there’s an LFO (with the same shapes on offer) with multiple sources and destinations. Solid analogue synthesis basics that will make sense to anyone looking to learn how to create their own unique audio palette.
As you built a sound, the OLED display graphically illustrates the effect, including the changes made as the envelopes and LFO change the tone. It’s fascinating, seeing the basic wave shape transformed this way. An on-board tape delay effect further bolsters the lush, complex sound of the Minilogue; traditional analogue synths relied on external effects to get the sounds you hear in recordings.
Making use of those four voices is made easier through a set of easily-accessible modes. Stacked, detuned Unison combines all four for powerful leads and basses, while chord allows quick backing concepts to be put together. The on-board arpeggiator is joined by a powerful polyphonic step sequencer that also records parameter changes for preset performances.
200 voices can be stored – 100 presets and 100 user sounds – meaning that unlike old-school analogue, there’s no need to change all the controls to change a patch. The keyboard – 37 mini keys – is velocity sensitive, and USB connection allows it to be used as a MIDI controller as well as offering control of the Minilogue.
Perhaps more so than the other synths in this price bracket, the Minilogue not only takes a considered, less-is-more approach to delivering analogue, it’s also quite beautiful to look at and use, with a genuinely different look and feel from the aluminium front plate and nearly-arranged controls. No flashing LEDs or gaudy graphics here – and shaping an authentic analogue sound feels wonderful in part thanks to the build quality of this Korg.
5. Roland GAIA SH-01, £499 – best for exploring synthesis and MIDI
- Highly intuitive control panel
- Battery powered option
- USB audio interface and General MIDI
- Patch storage can be confusing
- Fewer waveforms than modern rivals
- Lacks premium feel
Another Roland? It’s easy to assume that all virtual analogue synths are going to be much the same, but the SH-01 occupies an odd space in the pantheon of 21st Century keyboards. It looks a bit toy-like, with a few obvious nods to past Roland synthesizers, and the GAIA name hints a bit at a trance/rave mindset – yet it joined the range long after rave’s heyday.
Approach the GAIA not as a typical 3-oscillator VA, but as three simple, single oscillator analogues, and it begins to make more sense. The old-school technique of layering synths to create amazing textures is super-simple here, and can generate some amazingly complex evolving sounds with far less processing power than you’d expect – which means no crackly ‘zipper’ distortion or voice-stealing – it’s got 64 voices to play with.
So the GAIA’s a really decent synthesizer, and a really powerful one too – but it’s not intimidating. There’s no on-screen labyrinth of menus to play with virtual patchbays – or as 2019’s trends show, actual patchbays, everywhere – just straightforward subtractive synthesizer basics of oscillator, LFO (low frequency oscillator), filter, and envelope. The waveforms are basic – no cowbells or wavetables – so they’re really easy to understand. Oh, and it has built in effects, too.
Exciting performance controls for kids (and adults)
At this stage, synth nerds might have understood that this is already a fantastic synth if you want some classic electronic, rock, dance and trance sounds, and want to build them like we did in the ‘70s. Parents, this synth is going to help your kids get right into the basics – and more advanced – stages of sound construction too, it’s just the right balance of immediate results and simplicity without hiding the crucial components involved in making electronic music.
However, the GAIA’s got a couple of other tricks that kids will love, and some adults too. Roland’s clever D-Beam infrared controller is present, alongside a delightfully simple phrase recorder (and of course, arpeggiator). Hit record, play with the click, and press play, and it’s just as you recorded it – including any changes made to the sound with the front panel or controllers. Let it run, wave your hand over the D-Beam to shape the sound, feed a backing track in with cancelled vocals/drums/bass, and you’ll feel like a star in no time.
Phrases and patches can be saved to USB – but the other USB port has more than just MIDI to offer. Connected to a computer, it’s an audio interface and it also offers 15 channels of General MIDI sounds – instruments, sound effects and drums – to bolster your recordings and sequenced performances as a multitimbral sound module. These are only available via MIDI (oddly, eight PCM sounds are available on the front panel – they’re pretty good presets, too) and are less intuitive to access, but consider it a freebie inside an already impressive synth.
As a controller, there are some quirks behind the 37 full-size keys, which offer velocity. Not all the front panel controls are mapped for CC, though they can provide data for automation. In terms of Roland synths over the last decade, though, the GAIA SH-01 has an immense amount of character and flexibility, and could be the one that really helps you to bond with the process of shaping electronic sounds.