Best Hardware Synthesizers of 2019 – Ultimate Review

Whenever you venture into a new world, especially if it has to do with tech, you can find yourself roaming around in a daze. There is so much to learn… new terminology, how things work, and narrowing down your choices to the best option for you and your needs. So, when you are getting into the hardware synth world, you will need a little help. 

In this guide, we are going to try to make your transition into this world just a little easier by walking you through some knowledge you will need, as well as a few of the best hardware synthesizers on the market today. 

Comparison of the Best Hardware Synthesizers

Product

Rating

Price

Korg microKorg 37-Key Analog Modeling Synthesizer with Vocoder

Korg microKorg 37-Key Analog Modeling Synthesizer with Vocoder

Best Overall

Novation Bass Station II Analog Mono-Synth

Novation Bass Station II Analog Mono-Synth

Runner-up

Korg, 27-Key Sound Module (VOLCAKEYS)

Korg, 27-Key Sound Module (VOLCAKEYS)

Best for the Money

Arturia MiniBrute Analog Synthesizer

Arturia MiniBrute Analog Synthesizer

Waldorf Blofeld Synthesizer

Waldorf Blofeld Synthesizer

Korg Minilogue

Korg Minilogue 4-Voice Polyphonic Analog Synth with Presets

Roland System 1

Roland Variable Synthesizer (SYSTEM-1)

What Are Hardware Synthesizers?

So you’re looking to get a synthesizer? Maybe you’re performing live & looking to add some new textures to your sound. Or maybe you’re a bedroom producer that’s tired of using a mouse to tweak parameters. Or maybe you just really like knobs and sliders, but the price tag on a Moog Voyager leaves your wallet screaming for mercy.

Whatever your motivation might be, we’ve rounded up some excellent synthesizers. In the last few years, there’s been a renaissance in the synth world, and many manufacturers are offering a wide variety of options. 

Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to mimic sounds or create some new inventive ones from sounds that already exist? That is exactly what hardware synthesizers do. Not to be confused with a software synthesizer, the hardware synth is a keyboard powered by electric that has the capability to create or ape any sound.

Korg microKorg 37-Key Analog Modeling Synthesizer with Vocoder

It can be used to create music that sounds like traditional instruments such as piano or cello, but can also be used in sound design for movies or films. The hardware synthesizer is a versatile instrument. But to really understand what a hardware synthesizer is, we must first understand how it works.

How Does a Hardware Synthesizer Work?

An electric synthesizer or hardware synth is an instrument that is built up of many arts that work together to allow you to be able to make versatile music and sounds. Inside the synthesizer, there are sound tone generators called oscillators; each of these individually produces their own unique sound waves.

Once those waves have been generated, the synthesizer can merge the waves to create multi-faceted sounds. The instrument can alter the sound’s core qualities like decay, sustain, and many other qualities to create a similar tone as a given instrument. That is why many synthesizers come with a pre-programmed setting for a multitude of instruments.

Characteristics of Our Four Models

Now that you know what a synth is and how it works, but how do you choose the best one for you? There are of course some key considerations when trying to find that hardware synth that will meet your needs and elevate your productions. Here are the four big considerations you need to keep an eye on:

Sound

What kind of sound are you looking to create? You will need to really consider this when looking at which model you go with. Some are better for bass while others offer a flat sound. There are options that are better for strings and others that shine in sound design. Of course, there are ways to add sound capability, but that means you will want to look for a hardware synthesizer that is capable of MIDI.

Transportability

Are you setting up a home studio where your synthesizer will remain stationary? Or are you going to be using it on the road or at your shows? That means that portability is a vital consideration when choosing your synth. You will want to judge things like size and heft when thinking about the transportability.

Korg, 27-Key Sound Module (VOLCAKEYS) is small and very portable.

Personalization

Are you eager to get started and just want to plug and play? Being able to set up your own patches and create a synthesizer that is built for your own needs means looking for one that will allow you the freedom to work the way you want to. Whether that means knobs or keys or a combination of both is entirely up to your judgment. 

Price

There are a wide variety of price points on the market. Prices vary depending on features and capabilities but in the end, it all boils down to what kind of budget you are working with.

Review of the Best Hardware Synthesizers

Now that you have an idea of what you are looking for, it is time to get down to the good stuff. Let's look at some of the best hardware synthesizers. Each has its own pluses and minuses. We have looked and through evaluating the core considerations we have determined the two best options and the best option for those that have a tight budget.

Korg microKorg 37-Key Analog Modeling Synthesizer with Vocoder

PROS

  • Polyphonic synthesizer.
  • Design makes it easy to use.
  • Price point is good for the value.
  • Better control through an analog model.
  • Compact size makes it easy to transport.

CONS

  • Only has four voices.
  • Lack of ability to save music.
  • Software hasn’t been updated.
  • Some of the parts are flimsy and cheap feeling.

What Recent Buyers Report

The people that have recently purchased this synthesizer rave about the sound quality and the versatility of the instrument. Developing rich tones isn’t its only great quality; its compact nature and durable build are a great advantage. The addition of the vocoder is a nice touch that allows for better control and adjustments.

Why it Stands Out to Us

The inclusion of the vocoder and the versatility of the abilities of this model are what stand out to us. The ease of portability makes this a great option for music producers that don’t have a set studio. It is an analog polyphonic model that is capable of incredibly rich tones and will allow you to breathe inspiration into your music or sound creation.

Who Will Use This Most 

Musicians that need versatility or vocalists looking to create an in-studio sound will find great use out of this product. This could also be said of home-brewed producers or traveling producers that need a compact, easy to use hardware synthesizer, and producers who need a durable synth that can take consistent use and give studio-quality sound. 

Bottom Line

This model is a great choice, no matter what level of experience you have. Taking this mode as your go-to synthesizer is going to allow you to have a versatile range of tones that enrich your overall product. It is durable, easy to use, and thoroughly deserves the title of best overall hardware synthesizer.

Novation Bass Station II Analog Mono-Synth

PROS

  • Ability to save multiple sounds.
  • Capable of saving sound on a computer as well.
  • Multiple controls for more precise sound creation.
  • Easy to plug and play straight from the box.

CONS

  • Issues with its overall durability.
  • Software is not as efficient as others.
  • You may need additional hardware for professional sound creation.

What Recent Buyers Report

The Novation Bass Station II is a well crafted, spectacular sounding budget option for any producer or musician. You can plug and play this synth and use it to store and create some amazingly unique sounds and music. With the addition of the special filters, the value of this product is only improved.

Why it Stands Out to Us

This model is an updated version of the Novation Bass station and has been crafted in such a way that it simply makes the functionality of this synth so much better. There is better versatility and more room for inspiration, especially if you are into vibrant bass. Save all your great creations or use the preprogrammed modes; either way, you will experience superior sounds.

In case the “2” in the name isn’t a dead giveaway, the Bass Station II is Novation’s expansion of the Bass Station line. The first was released in 1993; 20 years later, Novation updated the features for a modern audience. Much like the Minibrute, the Bass Station II is also an analog monosynth. But this is where the similarities end, as this offers some very different options from the Minibrute.

The first and most notable distinction is the second oscillator. Unlike the ‘brute, the Bass Station II has two independent oscillators, each of which can generate a sine, saw, triangle, or square wave. A sub oscillator can also be blended in, which follows the first. Additionally, the two main oscillators can be tuned separately from each other; they can be assigned to different octaves, or tuned to different intervals. What this means is that one key can, essentially, trigger a simple chord. Not too shabby.

The onboard filter has two unique modes: Classic and Acid. The Classic mode is a recreation of the original Bass Station filter. In Classic mode, the filter can be switched between a 12 dB and 24 dB slope; Acid mode is fixed at 24 dB. Where the Classic filter is relatively smooth and sparkly, Acid is a squeaky, squelchy monster. As the name implies, similarities to something like the classic TB-303 would not be unwarranted.

The Overdrive knob adds additional grit to either mode, just in case the filters are too clean on their own. Further shaping and modulation can be applied via the two separate low-frequency oscillators; LFO1 can modulate oscillator pitch, and LFO2 modulates the filter cutoff frequency pitch.

Further differentiating itself from other similarly-priced monosynths, the Bass Station II also offers an onboard step sequencer and 128 preset memory banks. The step sequencer is programmed and edited via the keyboard’s 3-character display. Four 32-step sequences can be recorded, which are saved even when the keyboard is turned off. The first 64 preset banks come with Novation’s own presets, while the other 64 are blank & can be programmed freely. Presets can also be quickly changed via MIDI CC messages.

Who Would Use It the Most

The compact design and focus on bass make this perfect for that musician that moves around a lot; such performers would be well advised to make this their synth of choice. This would also be great for any traveling DJ’s (though you may need additional hardware for pro sound) or beginners who want to learn how to craft unique sounds and produce amazing music. It is easy to use straight from the box, making this a great choice for almost anyone. 

Bottom Line

This synth is by far one of the best options on the market. No hassle set-up and wide range of space to save your sound mean that you will be ready for those long creation sessions. Though there are a few drawbacks the consensus is that this hardware synth is a great choice for beginners and musicians looking to develop their talents.

Korg, 27-Key Sound Module (VOLCAKEYS)

PROS

  • Outstanding sound quality.
  • Versatility in the power source.
  • Ability to hook up multiple peripherals.
  • Layout is easy to use no matter what level of experience.
  • Built to be easily transported with a lightweight, durable build.

CONS

  • No MIDI supports.
  • Not easy to use for large hands.
  • Not easy to get used to the feeling of keys.

What Recent Buyers Report

Though there are many users that are disappointed that this model has no MIDI compatibility, the bulk of users feel that the many attributes this model brings with it far outweigh that one issue. The high-quality sound and the ease of transport are the chief benefits that all the users rave about.

Why it Stands Out to Us

Its compact design and ability to use multiple sources of power are among the major aspects that stand out. Those features combined with impressive peripheral compatibility make this model an amazing option for any burgeoning artist or sound designer. This model sets itself apart from many of its competitors.

Who Will Use This Most 

All the features and benefits of this synth make it a great choice for just about anyone. The ease of use and portability means that even musicians who travel to their studio or to a session with other musicians are covered. The fact that you can use multiple power sources makes this a highly versatile option for any experience level.

Bottom Line

The bottom line on this model is that it is a well-crafted, high-performance option that is good for budget-conscious musicians. The versatility of this machine gives it the ability to create rich tones and masterful sounds.

Arturia MiniBrute Analog Synthesizer

PROS

  • Wide versatility of controls.
  • Keys have a high-quality feel.
  • Build is constructed to be durable.
  • Designed with an old-school build.

CONS

  • No built-in screen.
  • Not as compact as other models.
  • Lack of backlighting for the controls.

What Recent Buyers Report

There is a learning curve, but once you get used to the aftertouch of the keys most users find this to be a high-quality sound creation machine. Many users praise its durability and ideally laid out board, which is easy to use once you get used to everything. There are many great effects, but some users have had issues with freezing.

Why it Stands Out to Us

The power of the synth is what stands out the most. The tactile feel of the controls allows you to have just as much control as the digital versions. Rich with effects, this model offers its user a dynamic high-quality synth that will only serve to enhance the musician's inspiration and creativity.

While this is the lowest-priced synth on this list, don’t let the price fool you! This is an incredibly powerful fully-analog monosynth, boasting some impressive features.

The single oscillator can generate 3 different wave shapes (saw, square, and triangle), each of which has its own individual modulation option. A sub-oscillator is also present, capable of generating either square- or sine-waves either 1 or 2 octaves below. All of these waves can be simultaneously blended together, along with a white noise generator, creating some incredibly complex sounds and textures. As if that wasn’t enough, the audio input can be blended with the other waves and sent through the filter, allowing for even more options.

The Steiner-Parker filter has a character all its own. Although much more aggressive than the filter on something like a Moog Minitaur, the filter can cover sounds ranging from mellow to abrasive. High-, low-, band- and notch-filter offer even more wave shaping options. The Brute Factor knob acts as a feedback loop, distorting and manipulating the filter sound even further.

One of the Brute’s most notable features is the CV/Gate output. What this means is that, as well as being a standalone synthesizer, it can act as a controller for other synthesizers that lack a MIDI input. Want to simultaneously play something like an SH-101? You can do that. Want more control over a modular setup? You can do that too. Want to sequence some weird old drum machine that only has CV in from Ableton Live? You can also do that, because this converts MIDI and USB-MIDI to CV/Gate. Deep breaths.

There’s even a glowing review of the Minibrute from Portishead member Adrian Utley. Could there possibly be any higher praise? The Arturia Microbrute is an even more budget-friendly option, but we recommend the Minibrute over the Microbrute. In addition to an audio input & more modulation options, the Minibrute also features a 2-octave, 25-key semi-weighted keyboard. The semi-weighted keys offer much more playability over the Microbrute’s mini keys, as well as aftertouch and velocity sensitivity.

Who Will Use This Most 

Anyone looking for a great performing synth that has the power of an analog and an easy to use layout that doesn’t sacrifice anything with love this one. This unit is perfect for the amateur music designer that is looking to improve their product and is working their way to the studio level performance.

Bottom Line

Power is the bottom line when we talk about the Arturia MiniBrute. Some of the best features have to do with the layout and the ability to use the versatile controls to craft that perfect sound.

Waldorf Blofeld Synthesizer

PROS

  • Rich full sound production.
  • Designed to highly intuitive.
  • Very small footprint.
  • Versatile sound-shaping array of options.

CONS

  • Connectivity is limited.
  • Vocoder is missing from the final design.

What Recent Buyers Report

Many users love the versatility and variety of capabilities that this model is designed with. The sound is rich, and the modulation capabilities are outstanding. No need for worry about organic sounds, as this model is built with a wide modulation capability due to its adjustable path mod. The basics are there but so are the frills.

Why it Stands Out to Us

This model is full of possibilities. From the enhanced modulation and extended filters, the Waldorf Biofield is an outstanding option. It has a rich sound and is crafted with a sleek design too.

We’re now moving away from the analog world & into digital synths. Although analog synths are hotly-coveted, digital synths can offer features far beyond similarly-priced analog synths. A perfect example is the Waldorf Blofeld.

The Blofeld is unique from everything on this list in two ways. First, it’s a desktop module, meaning that a keyboard isn’t included. It can be controlled by an external MIDI keyboard, sequencer, or via your favorite DAW. (Waldorf does offer a 4-octave key version, but that typically costs nearly twice as much, making it outside the scope of this archive.) 

The second and much more notable way the Blofeld differs is in how waves are generated. While the digital oscillators can generate the typical saw, square, etc., they can also act as wavetable generators. A thorough explanation of wavetable synthesis is far outside the scope of this article, but we’ll sum it up by saying it offers an incredible range of sonic exploration.

Equally impressive is the filter section. The Blofeld features 2 filters per voice, which can be run in parallel or in series. Each filter has both a 12dB and a 24dB option, and can function as a low-pass, high-pass, band-pass, and notch filter. Further, the filters can be overdriven, with some overdrive modeled after older Waldorf synths like the Q and micro Q.

Four envelope generators are included, as well as three LFOs. In addition to the standard attack-decay-sustain-release, the envelopes also feature an enhanced mode that offers “controllable attack level and two decay and sustain stages,” according to Waldorf. Envelopes can be assigned to any parameter, and can function both polyphonically or monophonically. 

Modulation routing on the Blofeld is phenomenally deep. Almost everything can be assigned to modulate something else, allowing for incredible levels of control and modulation. However, this is also the Blofeld’s biggest weakness: controlling all these parameters. Parameters are edited via 4 knobs and a small LCD screen. While this is not a deal-breaker, it does require far more “menu-diving” than something like the Minilogue, where functions are, for the most part, one-per-knob. As such, it’s not as immediately intuitive, and the learning curve is much steeper than the other synths on this list. But for those willing to take the time to learn this instrument, the payoff is incredible.

Who Will Use This Most 

Anyone and everyone. Any musician that is looking for a studio-quality sound on a budget should take a hard look at the Waldorf Blofeld.

Bottom Line

This model is a budget-friendly beast of a synth. The value and amount of capabilities housed within this small package is outstanding. The Waldorf Blofeld is a magnificent high-grade option that is easy to use and a benefit to any musician that adds it to their studio.

Korg Minilogue 4-Voice Polyphonic Analog Synth with Presets

Unlike all the other synths on this list, the Minilogue is a 4-voice analog poly synth. In the full poly mode, up to 4 different notes can be played. Although analog synthesizers have gradually gotten more affordable over the years, almost all the ones that have appeared at similar price points have been monophonic. A number of other voicing options can be selected: the synth can also be set to mono- or duophonic mode, as well as arpeggiating and chord triggering.

The Minilogue boasts two independent voltage-controlled oscillators. Each can generate a saw, square, or triangle wave, and can be assigned to one of 4 octaves. Waves can be further manipulated via the Pitch and Shape knobs. The second VCO’s pitch can be controlled via an envelope, and can also be assigned to either sync with VCO 1 or ring-modulate. The filter section offers a switchable 2-pole and 4-pole mode. Key tracking, velocity sensitivity, and envelope control are all offered as ways to modulate the filter cutoff. 

Two envelope generators are included: one for the amp and one that can be assigned to other functions, like the VCO 2 pitch mentioned above. An LFO with switchable wave shapes can be modified via the envelope generators as well, and can be assigned to modulate the filter cutoff, VCO pitch, and VCO shape. For even more time-based effects, a built-in delay is also provided. The delay is digital, but can be applied either before or after the filter. A high-pass filter can replicate vintage tape delay sounds as well.

As if 4-voice polyphony and a plethora of routing options wasn’t enough, the Minilogue includes both a 16-step sequencer and a 200-slot memory bank. The first 100 slots are occupied by factory presets, while the last 100 are left blank for users. The presets are easily navigated via the small OLED screen in the Delay section, which doubles as an oscilloscope. MIDI in & out connections are included, and the unit can send & receive MIDI over USB as well.

Oh, and the build quality is good. Really really good.

Roland Variable Synthesizer (SYSTEM-1)

Last on our list is the incredibly feature-rich System-1 from Roland. Released in 2014, this fully-digital synthesizer packs a ton of functionality into a small package, and allows a degree of flexibility rarely seen in synthesizers at this price point.

On its own, the System-1 is fairly straightforward. The two built-in oscillators, plus the sub-oscillator & LFO, are designed using Roland’s Analog Circuit Behavior. Designed to specifically mimic the imperfection of analog circuitry, the oscillators give the System-1 a character all its own.

Paired with the switchable 12/24 dB filter, the synth does a surprisingly good analog impression. 4-voice polyphony allows for big, fat chords, and the inclusion of reverb and delay adds even further depth to chords. A small 25-key keyboard keeps the real estate footprint low.

If the System-1 was just a compact digital polysynth, it’d be fine, and on par with things like the microKORG XL. “But wait,” like our resident Ron Popeil impersonator is always prone to saying, “there’s more!” The System-1’s true standout feature is the incredible “Plug-Out” mode. While other synths may offer presets designed to sound like approximations of other synths, the System-1 offers exceptionally accurate recreations from the Roland timeline. Out of the box, it comes with a free download of the legendary SH-101, with controls mapped to the System-1’s existing controls.

It works like this: you can connect it to a computer & effectively use the keyboard as a controller. Most of the controls on the System-1 correspond to controls on the SH-101 (the System-1 actually has more knobs & faders than a 101), and any controls not in use are not lit up on the keyboard. And while this is great, Roland took it a step further.

The SH-101 plugin can then be installed on the keyboard and, with the press of a button, switch to the plugin. The character of the filter changes, the character of the oscillators change… it’s essentially a completely different instrument. And, amazingly, this is functionality that doesn’t require constant tethering to a computer. For those that want to get away from DAWs and constant mouse clicks, the System-1 is a godsend.

While Roland currently offers only 4 Plug-Out synths (the SH-101, SH-2, System-100, and Promars), the inclusion of the 101 for free is an incredible value. The flexibility of the other synths is worth noting as well, and the effort spent in making them faithful reproductions of their sources is immediately evident. And even if the expansions weren’t included, it’s an excellent-sounding synth in its own right. But the combination of a powerful polysynth & a very simple way of expanding its sonic palette makes the System-1 one of the best-value synths currently on the market.

Types of Hardware Synthesizers

There are so many types of hardware synthesizers available, to choose the right one you need to understand a little about some of them. Here is a small breakdown of some of your options:

Subtractive

This is by far the most known version of the synthesizer. This is an analog version and it works by taking harmonics out of a sound that has already been created (also known as East Coast Synthesis).

Wavetable

This style of a synthesizer allows playback to use multiple waveforms through the digital oscillators. This style offers a wide variety of choices of sound creation.

FM

This is a frequency modulation synthesis. This is a digital format that uses one waveform modulating with others using a clean sine wave with another sine wave to create sound algorithms. This type creates more complex sounds.

Vector

Vector synthesis uses a two-dimensional plane to control and balance four different waveforms. Though not an incredibly popular type, it stills shows up every now and then.

Sample-Based

This is the process by which a sample of recorded sound is put into a digital format to allow for easier manipulation. There are some sample models that use both analog and digital by using both subtractive syntheses as well.

Additive

This is the opposite type of synthesis from the subtractive; it takes rich sine waves and merges them into rich sounds. If you want a precise tone and sound then additive is a great choice.

There are many other forms of synthesis found in hardware synthesizers, but these are some of the types available.

Perks of Getting a New Hardware Synthesizer

There are many reasons that you should invest in a new hardware synthesizer. Some of the perks of a hardware synthesizer are:

Sounds

If you are looking for rich tones and have more power behind it, then taking a chance on the latest hardware synth on the market will mean that you can take advantage of the many benefits and versatility of the many options available to you.

Control

Just because there are so many knobs and buttons and switches does not mean that it is hard to use. In fact, it often means that you have more control over the sounds you create. So, with the analog version of synthesizers, you have more control and ability to craft your own unique sounds.

Inspiration

The ease of using the synth exactly for what it was intended for or taking your inspiration for a ride is vastly increased with a hardware synth as opposed to a software synth. This will allow your imagination to flow and create a unique voice in your creations.

True to Its Function

Technology is constantly evolving and that means that sometimes it does not work as promoted. With a synth, you get what you buy. Each type is designed with a specific number of features, options, and processors, meaning that it is going to work exactly how it was advertised.

Conclusion

Hopefully, with the knowledge laid out above you were able to feel more easily equipped to make the right decision for your music needs. Knowing the attributes to look for, how the piece of studio equipment works, and what are the best options will allow you to find your way to that right choice.