The 10 best synthesizers for total beginners
26.04.2021

The 10 best synthesizers for total beginners

Words by Will Brewster

Embrace the world of electronic music with these ten entry-level units.

Although the phrase ‘entry-level’ barely existed in the synth world until around 20 years ago, nowadays, budding electronic musicians are totally blessed by the amount of options available on the market.

With so many excellent products out there to choose from, we thought it’d be worth pinpointing some of the best beginner synths in today’s cluttered gear universe.

Of course, it’s important to note that buying synths can prove to be quite an addictive hobby. When I bought my first MicroKorg as an enthusiastic Flying Lotus wannabe, I thought I’d be set for life: five years later, I’ve since rotated through around a dozen different synths, and am seriously considering selling one of my vital organs to fund my burgeoning fascination with West Coast modular synthesis.

Consider that as a disclaimer when perusing the following picks, and make sure your wallet is prepared for the damage your hobby is bound to cause it in the long run.

For now, however, these ten beginner synths are more than enough to get you started on your adventures. Enjoy!

Summary

  • Modern hardware synths are cheaper and easier to learn than ever before, and prove to be a great entry into the world of electronic sounds.
  • Units like the Korg Minilogue, Behringer Crave and Arturia MicroBrute feature all-analogue signal paths and are perfect for achieving classic ’70s and ’80s synth sounds.
  • Other options, including the Korg MicroKorg, Novation MiniNova and Roland JU-06A feature virtual analogue technology and can be more versatile for some applications.

Head here for more gear columns and how-to features. 

Korg Minilogue

An undisputed titan in its field, no modern synth in this price range comes anywhere close to topping the Korg Minilogue. This two VCO, all-analogue poly-synth took the world by storm when it leaked ahead of NAMM in 2016, with its incredible feature set being complemented by a simple knob-per-function design and intuitive waveform visualisation.

There’s no better tool to learn the fundamentals of modern synthesis on than a Minilogue, and the combination of its powerful sound and compact design makes it a no-brainer for anyone looking to integrate synth sounds into their studio or stage setup.

Roland JU-06A

The JU-06A is a bit of a new kid on the block, but given that it’s a remake of one of the most famous synths of all time, we’re 100% certain you’re aware of what it’s capable of.

An update to Roland’s well-received Boutique reissue of the Juno 6, the JU-06A adds in a new arpeggiator mode, an improved sequencer and a Chord Memory function, letting you cover everything the original Juno series was so renowned for.

The JU-06A can also run on batteries and boasts a in-built speaker for portable jams, and can be purchased with Roland’s detachable K-25m mini keyboard – although we’d recommend pairing it with a bigger MIDI keyboard to make the most of what’s on offer here if you’re looking to use the JU-06A live.

Behringer CRAVE

For affordable recreations of analogue classics in today’s synth-sphere, it’s pretty hard to top what’s on offer from Behringer – from their acclaimed Moog Model-D clone through to the insanely good Neutron semi-modular synth, the German firm are currently kicking goals in all fields they’re playing in. However, for the beginner market, the CRAVE presents the best bang-for-buck solution from the Big B.

This all-analogue beast is somewhat inspired by the sounds of Sequential’s classic Prophet 5, and while it may be monophonic, the CRAVE certainly isn’t limited by any means, with a powerful 32-step sequencer, arpeggiator and Moog-inspired 24dB ladder filter allowing for fat basses, searing leads, icy arpeggios, twinkling effects and much more.

Pair it with an Arturia Keystep for instant results onstage, or chuck it in a Eurorack for use in the studio – did I mention it’s also semi-modular?

Arturia MicroBrute

If you’re looking for an instantly tactile unit to teach yourself the basics of synthesis on and aren’t skilled/invested enough to play chords, the Arturia MicroBrute is a pretty hard option to beat.

Despite its tiny dimensions, the MicroBrute is 100% analogue, and packs in a step-sequencer, arpeggiator, three LFO waveforms and a selectable oscillator mix (sub, square, triangle, saw), making it a major contender for anyone seeking authentic analogue mono-synth sounds with immediate control over every parameter.

If size matters to you, check out Arturia’s MiniBrute, which packs all the features of the Micro into a bigger chassis better suited towards those needing a synth for live performance.

Yamaha MX49II

Need a versatile workhorse to cover a myriad of keyboard sounds onstage? The Yamaha MX49II is your new best friend.

This 49 key unit presents over 1000 voices from the acclaimed Yamaha Motif series that range from classic electric pianos and strings to massive ambient pads and bass sounds, plus layer/split functionality, inbuilt VCM effects and a FM editor for making truly unique patches.

It’s a little less immediate than some of the other synths on this list, but the range of sounds offered with the MX49II makes it worth the time spent programming your desired patches. If you’re not fussy about things sounding ‘analogue’ and simply need a versatile keyboard to cover all bases onstage, the MX49II is a mighty option to consider.

Korg MicroKorg

Despite being released way back in 2002, the MicroKorg is still one of the greatest options for the first time synth buyer, and given that it’s still in production 18 years after it was first released, it might even go down as one of the most popular synthesisers of all time.

With its stylish 37 key design, practical arpeggiator and inbuilt vocoder, the virtual analogue MicroKorg is perfect for both studio and live use, while its 128 genre-specific presets prove to be a wonderful starting point for tweaking patches for your own use.

While the menu-diving nature of the MicroKorg detracts slightly from its overall tactility, once you master the basics of programming this synth, you’ll understand what all the fuss is about – plus, those faux wooden sides are still as cool as it gets.

IK Multimedia UNO Synth

The IK Multimedia UNO certainly doesn’t look like a traditional synthesiser, but don’t let that fool you: this little thing is jam-packed with everything you could ever want from a synthesiser at this price range.

Despite weighing a scant 400g and being no bigger than your average Android phone, the UNO is fully analogue, offers two VCOs (with pulse-width modulation!), a 16-step sequencer, arpeggiator, onboard effects and a super well laid-out programming matrix.

Sure, the membrane buttons are a bit funny at first and the fact that it’s monophonic is a little frustrating, but when you take into account everything else that’s on offer here, the UNO ranks pretty high up on the list.

Novation MiniNova

With its virtual analogue design, inbuilt vocoder, arpeggiator, 37 keys and limited selection of knobs, the MiniNova is essentially Novation’s take on the MicroKorg, but there’s a couple of extra tweaks that make it worthy of its own inclusion here.

For starters, the MiniNova offers a selection of inbuilt effects that go beyond what’s offered with the MicroKorg, as well as almost double the amount of patch memory for storing your own sounds, as well as downloadable sound packs for when you can’t be bothered with the onboard editor.

It’s also got a superior vocoder, and arguably has better presets than the MicroKorg – but we’ll let you be the judge. At the end of the day, it really is all apples and oranges.

Akai MPK Mini Play

The Akai MPK Mini Play is probably a little more aligned with those out there who are making beats and not looking to really perform, but nevertheless, it’s quite a formidable entry level unit.

This 25-key battery-powered unit features an onboard speaker for jamming on the go, and is packed with 128 classic synth and keyboard and 10 drum kits to make for quite a nifty little production tool.

The Akai MPK Mini Play also makes use of an inbuilt arpeggiator and eight MPC-style trigger pads, and while it may be limited by its programming, it’s still the best value-for-money mini keyboard out there today.

If you’re a little on-the-fence about whether synths are up your alley and just want something to play around with from time to time, this is the one for you.

Sonicware ELZ_1

The Sonicware ELZ_1 is a bit of a quirky option for a beginner synth, but it’s incredibly potent in the right hands.

This Japanese digital contraption offers a bunch of crazy sound shaping modes in the form of virtual analogue, FM synthesis, granular sampling, wavetable synthesis and more, as well as a powerful 64 step sequencer with 128 patterns, arpeggiator modes and direct Flash sampling via the DNA explorer mode.

Elsewhere, the ELZ_1 features an inbuilt speaker, battery power, a huge array of inbuilt effects and some very creamy filters, and while the LFO modulation options are a little limiting, you can use the onboard effects to replicate most of the sounds in your head anyway.

It may have a bit of a steep learning curve, but once you crack the ELZ_1, you’ll discover a surprisingly powerful that’s unlike anything else on the market.

Check out our thoughts on many of these units (plus more!) in our product review section