15 of the best affordable hardware synthesisers

1st Oct 2013 | 14:45

15 of the best affordable hardware synthesisers
Hardware bargains?
We put the best and brightest affordable synths head-to-head.

In bygone days hardware synths were a serious investment. Proper synthesiser instruments that made real sounds and had real knobs and faders to twiddle were reserved for those with serious cash to splash, and the rest of us had to make do with virtual recreations in the form of VST plugins.

The affordable end of synth market has, however, exploded in recent years. Big brands like Korg and Moog have begun to do the unthinkable and bring out high-quality synths in compact and sensibly priced packages, and producing competitively priced hardware now seems to be the height of fashion.

Needless to say, we at MusicRadar are big fans of this ongoing trend. Over the next 15 slides, we've collected a selection of the most popular and/or impressive synthesisers - both analogue and virtual - currently available for (roughly) less than £500/$700. Read on as we run through the highs, lows and idiosyncrasies of each.

15 of the best affordable hardware synthesisers
Roland Gaia SH-01
Street price: around £499/$599

Highlights:

It may be virtual rather than genuine analogue, but the Gaia SH-01 takes the 'dive in and tweak' philosophy of compact vintage synths and allies it to three comprehensive tone-generating engines.

Versatility:

You get plenty of tone-shaping options, with each synth engine sporting its own oscillator, filter, amplifier, envelope, and LFO. On top of the 64 supplied presets you've got space for 64 more, while there's also audio/MIDI interfacing over USB.

Value for money:

Given its digital engine you might wonder whether you'll get any more out of the Gaia than you would a decent soft synth, but its intuitive control system, decent build quality and eye-catching looks certainly add value.

Drawbacks:

Some of the presets are a little cheesy, and you can't ignore the fact that what a lot of people want from Roland isn't this but a new analogue classic.

Recommended for:

Musicians who want the feel of an analogue synth but the convenience of digital.

Read the Roland Gaia SH-01 review

15 of the best affordable hardware synthesisers
Novation BassStation II
Street price: around £399/$499

Highlights:

A follow-up to 1993's BassStation, this new version is an analogue instrument that comes with two oscillators and a sub oscillator. It ups the ante by offering a revamped filter section and arpeggiator and sequencer engines.

Versatility:

This instrument might excel at producing bass tones, but the range of sounds it can create goes far beyond them. You get 64 presets and space to store 64 more, while you can integrate the BassStation II with your computer and other gear via the MIDI and USB ports.

Value for money:

The BassStation II is one of the more affordable of the new wave of analogue keyboard synths and, for the price, its feature set is impressive.

Drawbacks:

The three-digit LED display is of limited use when you're programming, but at least it encourages to rely on your ears.

Recommended for:

Anyone who wants a fun and rewarding analogue instrument that'll produce contemporary-sounding bass tones and plenty more besides.

Find out more about the BassStation II

15 of the best affordable hardware synthesisers
Korg MS-20 mini
Street price: around £499/$599

Highlights:

A fairly faithful, compact recreation of Korg’s classic MS-20 analogue monosynth, which was discontinued in 1983. The mini adds a few contemporary features to the design of the original too, including MIDI in, MIDI via USB and stabilised oscillators .

Versatility:

The MS-20 is an impressively versatile synth, capable of everything from booming sub-basslines to warm analogue pads, 808-like kicks, screeching leads and more. The addition of MIDI opens-up the mini’s studio flexibility up too.

Value for money:

The MS-mini certainly offers a lot of sonic scope for the price. It'll look great in your studio too.

Drawbacks:

The reduced size means that making precise changes via the control panel can be a bit fiddly. The three-quarter sized keyboard can be a little tricky to play.

Recommended for:

Ideal for anyone looking for a flexible bit of analogue hardware with plenty of vintage charm to it.

Read the Korg MS-20 mini review

15 of the best affordable hardware synthesisers
Dubreq Stylophone S2
Street price: £299

Highlights:

Its predecessor may have been a decidedly toy-like instrument, but the Stylophone S2 is a genuine analogue synth with dual VCOs, sub-oscillators, a 12dB/octave state-variable filter and an eight-waveform LFO.

Versatility:

There's no MIDI, sadly, but the S2 does support CV/Trigger inputs and come with a built-in speaker and a battery power option.

Value for money:

We haven't yet had chance to take an in-depth look at the S2 but, despite its all-metal construction and decent specs, to a large extent its level of appeal still depends on how keen you are on using a stylus/finger-controlled metal keyboard.

Drawbacks:

No MIDI means you can't plug your regular controller keyboard into it.

Recommended for:

Stylophone aficionados who want to feed their fetish with a synth engine that has significantly more grunt.

Find out more about Dubreq Stylophone S2

15 of the best affordable hardware synthesisers
Dave Smith Mopho
Street price: around £246/$350

Highlights:

The Mopho is, effectively, the equivalent of a single voice from Dave Smith’s excellent Prophet 08. It has a 100% analogue signal path, features two sub-oscillators for added weight and has a filter that can process external audio signals.

Versatility:

It’s a fairly versatile beast, coming packed with over 380 presets based around a broad range of classic and vintage synth sounds. The Mopho also connects to a computer via USB for deep patch editing and assigning its four parameter knobs.

Value for money:

It’s hard to fault Dave Smith quality and sounds at this price.

Drawbacks:

Realistically, you need to dig into the software editor to get the most out of it. Bright yellow design can be a little divisive.

Recommended for:

Computer-savvy musicians looking for a flexible, quality synth on a budget.

Read the Dave Smith Mopho review

15 of the best affordable hardware synthesisers
Novation MiniNova
Street price: around £299/$499

Highlights:

A portable and powerful instrument with a deep synthesizer engine. Sound selection is quick, and you you can get pretty involved with your sound design.

Versatility:

There are plenty of sounds for hard-edged electronic styles, but you won't find great acoustic/workhorse tones. What's more, the MiniNova is monotimbral, and editing can be fiddly if you don't do it in software. On the plus side there's a vocoder, and you can route external audio sources through this and the effects.

Value for money:

The MiniNova is certainly feature-packed and, at this price, its minor shortcomings can be forgiven.

Drawbacks:

The keyboard isn't the best to play, and the MiniNova can't be battery-powered.

Recommended for:

Producers of contemporary dance music (dubstep, house and techno in particular) who want a tweakable and affordable hardware synth.

Read the Novation MiniNova review

15 of the best affordable hardware synthesisers
Korg microKorg XL+
Street price: around £339/$499

Highlights:

The most recent incarnation of Korg’s hugely popular virtual analogue synth/vocoder, updated with modern genre-specific presets (i.e dubstep). Its synth engine might be virtual analogue rather than the real McCoy, but it still sounds great.

Versatility:

The microKorgs score brilliantly on the flexibility front, coming packed with a mass of varied presets. With a bit of tweaking, it’s possible to get a huge range of sounds out of the synth engine. The vocoder adds another level of potential too.

Value for money:

The build quality of the microKorg XL+ isn’t quite up to some other synths around the same price point, and you don’t get the satisfaction of real analogue. You easily get what you pay for in terms of presets and versatility though.

Drawbacks:

It’s not analogue, unlike many of the synths in this round up. Specs aside, in all honesty, we preferred the look of the original microKorgs to these more recent incarnations, but that’s a matter of personal taste.

Recommended for:

Anyone looking for an extremely flexible and instantly usable hardware synth. The microKorg range has proved popular with bands and live performers too - possibly due to its ability to hold a lot of user-saved presets.

Read the microKorg XL+ review

15 of the best affordable hardware synthesisers
Arturia MiniBrute
Street price: around £399/$499

Highlights:

A single oscillator analogue synth with a 25-note keyboard, unique and versatile filter section and flexible arpeggiator. The MiniBrute features an impressive range of oscillator shaping capabilities too.

Versatility:

The MiniBrute is a fairly ‘classic’ style synth, so it's certainly best suited to recreating vintage sounds. It does feature an impressive array of CV interfacing options though, and it can connect to a computer via USB for deeper - albeit not limitless - editing of patches and performance setup.

Value for money:

The MiniBrute certainly punches above its weight at this price point; it packs some impressive sonic clout and is fairly adaptable and flexible.

Drawbacks:

Monophonic. Some deeper parameters can't be edited via the front panel and require the software editor.

Recommended for:

Anyone looking for a vintage-style synth (SH-101 fans in particular,) but one with a few 21st Century touches and plenty of sonic character of its own.

Read the Arturia MiniBrute review

15 of the best affordable hardware synthesisers
Novation UltraNova
Street price: around £479/$699

Highlights:

This modernised version of Novation's SuperNova may be digital, but it's well-built, has an excellent aftertouch-capable keyboard and sports a deep and powerful synth engine.

Versatility:

Each of the three oscillators can access 70 waveforms, and there are modulation options aplenty. You can produce a wide range of sounds and, on a practical level, it's worth noting that the UltraNova also works as an audio interface and integrates superbly with your DAW.

Value for money:

Given its all-rounder status, the UltraNova is a very sensible buy, particularly if you don't own much other gear or plan on investing in much more in the future.

Drawbacks:

The UltraNova isn't multitimbral, and some of its patches are so heavily processed that you'd struggle to fit them into a mix.

Recommended for:

The synth fan who's more concerned with practically than genuine analogue sound.

Read the Novation UltraNova review

15 of the best affordable hardware synthesisers
Korg monotron range
Street price: from around £34/$45 (for the original monotron)

Highlights:

Cheap-as-chips analogue oscillators in pocket-sized boxes, each with a ribbon controller and built-in speaker. The original monotron features LFO and VCF controls, the monotron Duo adds a second oscillator whilst the monotron Delay adds a great - if fairly simple - delay section. They also feature a classic Korg MS-10/MS-20-style filter, which you can feed external sounds through. All three are irresistibly fun.

Versatility:

The monotrons are very basic, but you can get a surprising array of sounds out of them given the price and limited controls.

Value for money:

It’s hard to fault genuine analogue sounds for so little money, although it might be worth shelling out that little bit extra for a monotribe or one of the Volcas. That said, the filter alone is probably worth the price.

Drawbacks:

Small, fiddly and fairly limited. The output can be fairly noisy too.

Recommended for:

Those looking to dip their toe into analogue waters without spending too much money.

Read the Korg monotron review

Read the Korg monotron Delay review

Read the Korg monotron Duo review

15 of the best affordable hardware synthesisers
Korg monotribe
Street price: around £145/$199

Highlights:

The monotribe features a fleshed-out version of the analogue synth engine found in the monotrons, along with the classic filter, but it also adds a three part synth drum section and Electribe-inspired step-sequencer.

Versatility:

While the monotribe’s synth section is a lot more flexible than those found in the monotrons, the drum section is pretty limited - although it’s still a nice addition. Again, the filter can process external audio signals, which is a great touch.

Value for money:

Whether the monotribe is worth more than one of the Volcas is likely a matter of personal taste. Given that it offers analogue synth and drum sounds, a very usable filter and some nice performance features it’s definitely worth the price.

Drawbacks:

Still a little fiddly. Lacks MIDI capabilities of the Volca range.

Recommended for:

Those in the market for a fun, portable all-in-one analogue synth/groove box.

Read the Korg monotribe review

15 of the best affordable hardware synthesisers
Moog Minitaur
Street price: around £489/$599

Highlights:

A modernised, compact revival of Moog’s thunderous ‘70s Taurus bass synth. The Minitaur features two shape-able oscillators, a classic Moog filter, LFO and envelope sections.

Versatility:

It’s very much focused on powerful bass sounds, but tweaks to the oscillators - compared to the original Taurus - add to the synth’s versatility. MIDI, CV and USB connectivity, along with audio through, make the Minitaur a useful thing to have around.

Value for money:

The Minitaur isn’t the most flexible of beasts, but for massive analogue bass sounds and a Moog filter at this price, you’re unlikely to hear many complaints.

Drawbacks:

A fairly straightforward bass synth.

Recommended for:

If you're after powerful, classic Moog bass you can’t go far wrong.

Read the Moog Minitaur review

15 of the best affordable hardware synthesisers
MeeBlip
Street price: from $49.95 (for the hackable version)

Highlights:

A pocket-sized virtual analogue monophonic synth that sports eight knobs and 16 slide switches. The instrument can be bought complete or as a hackable board.

Versatility:

It may be digital, but the MeeBlip can sound gritty enough and shouldn't be taken lightly. What's more, it's open source, meaning that you're free to modify the hardware to suit your own ends. Oh, and unlike some other synths of this ilk, it has a MIDI Input on it.

Value for money:

The MeeBlip is certainly affordable - the downside is that, at the time of writing, it's also unavailable. Look out for a new version soon.

Drawbacks:

Other than its current unavailability, the lack of a proper analogue engine might put some off, but you should ask yourself how important this really is on an instrument of this type.

Recommended for:

Experimenters and anyone who wants an affordable and tweakable hardware synth that they can plug a controller keyboard into.

Find out more about MeeBlip

15 of the best affordable hardware synthesisers
Korg Volca range
Street price: £120/$150 each

Highlights:

Three distinct boxes of compact, analogue sound for the sort of price you’d expect to pay for a top-end plugin. The Volca Beats offers four analogue drum parts, four PCM percussive synth parts and a great delay section. The Volca Bass features a three-oscillator bass synth and 303-style filter. The Volca Keys, meanwhile, is a three-note polyphonic synth with built in delay. All three feature step sequencers and a variety of performance features.

Versatility:

Each Volca has a fairly specific (although very classic) sort of sound, and they aren’t hugely sonically versatile on their own. Chaining all three together (they sync via included patch cables) opens up extra possibilities. Each features MIDI-in, which really enhances their capabilities, particularly in the case of the Volca Keys. All that said, for the price each unit packs an impressive array of features, and there’s plenty to tweak and play around with.

Value for money:

The Volcas are undoubtedly great value for money, bearing in mind that you can pick up all three for around £360/$450, which is less than you’d expect to pay for the vast majority of hardware analogue synths.

Drawbacks:

The Volcas are a little short on output options, as each unit features just a single mini-jack output and built-in speaker. Power supplies are sold separately, although they run fine off AA batteries.

Recommended for:

Anyone looking for classic analogue sounds on a budget. Stylistically, they suit vintage house and techno brilliantly. The Volca Beats is great for old-school, 808-style hip hop and the Bass is an instant source of Acid basslines. They’re very hands-on too, so could work well for live performers. At the price they're hard to fault.

Read our first look review of the Korg Volcas

15 of the best affordable hardware synthesisers
Waldorf Rocket
Street price: around £185/$329

Highlights:

A unique sounding analogue monosynth in a compact and very affordable package.

Versatility:

Despite being merely a single oscillator synth on paper, the Rocket’s clever shaping options, excellent filter and Boost mode can create a deceptively broad range of sounds.

Value for money:

One of the best value synths in this round up, offering flexible and powerful sound options at a bargain price.

Drawbacks:

Monophonic. No built-in keyboard so requires a USB or MIDI input.

Recommended for:

Electronic musicians on the hunt for something a little different to experiment with at a bargain price.

Read the Waldorf Rocket review

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