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 5 excellent synthesizers that can be had for $500 or less. In the last few years, there’s been a renaissance in the synth world, and many manufacturers are offering a wide variety of options. As such, we’re keeping it at 1 instrument per manufacturer; otherwise, this list would be much longer.
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Price: $500 (Sweetwater)
We’re starting our list off with the Korg Minilogue. Partly because it’s the newest, partly because it’s the shiniest, mostly because it’s a technological marvel.
Right off the bat, 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. This is the first at the $500-or-less mark to offer true polyphony, which is an incredible feat. 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.
As much as we’d love to talk more about this incredible synth, there’s still 4 more we need to get to on this list. Instead, here’s a video of Tatsuya Takahashi, the brains behind the Minilogue, showing even more of its features.
PRICE: $400 (Amazon)
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. Want to sequence some weird old drum machine that only has CV in from Ableton Live? You can do that, because this converts MIDI and USB-MIDI to CV/Gate. Deep breaths.
Here’s a glowing review of the Minibrute from Portishead member Adrian Utley. Is there any higher praise?
The Arturia Microbrute is an even more budget 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.
novation bass station II
PRICE: $500 (Amazon)
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.
Check out this current deal on Amazon which includes a free 1 year warranty.
Here’s Nick Batt of Sonic State (we love you, Nick!) putting the Bass Station 2 through its paces:
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.
The fine folks at Waldorf have created a tutorial video to help introduce some of the basic features of this synth:
Roland system 1
PRICE: $500 New (Sweetwater), $450 Used (Reverb)
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.
Author: Constantin Roman