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music machines: your first synthesizer
your first synthesizer

by Mike Perkowitz

So, you've just gotten hooked on techno and you want to try making it yourself. You play the piano, but you have a tiny apartment. You remember how much you enjoyed watching Keith Emerson. You think the world doesn't have enough new wave technopop. In other words, you want to get an electronic keyboard and you don't know where to start.

In this article, we'll explore the question of how to start into the world of musical electronica. How to figure out what you want, what kinds of equipment to consider, what to look for, and where to find it.


    What do you want?
    Inexpensive fooling around
    What to look for
    Analogue-ish poly-synths
    Analogue monosynths
    Modern analogue(ish) machines
    Sample-based synths

What do you want?

You can't decide what to buy until you figure out what you're looking for. Do you want to make techno? Would you like to be a pop star? Do you think you're the next Jean-Michel Jarre? Do you just want to bang on a piano? Do you want to learn about synthesis? Here are some questions to ask yourself.

    What is your budget?
    Do you intend to record?
    Do you care about piano-like feel?
    Are you interested in sound creation, or just playing?
    Do you want "realistic" sounds (emulations of pianos, strings, etc) or "synthy" sounds?

If you're on a tight budget, you should probably look for used equipment rather than anything new. If you're fairly uncertain about what you want, you should also hesitate before taking an expensive plunge. If you want realistic sounds, you'll probably prefer a keyboard based on digital samples of real instruments. If you're into electronic sounds, you might prefer a classic vintage analogue, complete with knobs and sliders. If you're a pianist, you might want to invest in an 88-key weighted keyboard, even if you only get a few different kinds of sounds.

Inexpensive fooling around

A good way to try out the possibilities of keyboards without taking too big a risk (until you have a better idea what you want) is to look for an inexpensive used synth. Many music stores carry used as well as new equipment, and many pawn shops have musical instruments as well. What do you look for? Things that are recent are going to be more expensive; things that are quite old have become collector's pieces. But there are plenty of synths in that middle ground, somewhere between vintage charm and modern convenience.

With the arrival of digital synthesis in the early/mid 80s, analogue synths began to fall by the wayside. There are a number of analogue synths and analogue/digital hybrids from about that time that are still sound great and are affordable. One all-time favorite is the Roland Juno-106. It makes a good first synth -- easy to program, warm-sounding, MIDI-equipped, analogue circuitry.

What to look for

Before discussing the details of some particular synths, we'll provide a brief glossary of features. MIDI is way of communicating between synthesizers, computers, drum machines, and other musical tools. If you intend to build a studio and record someday, you'll probably use MIDI for arranging songs and controlling your sound sources. Analogue circuitry was the main way of building synths into the early 80s. Analogue sounds and synths are popular in a lot of current electronic music (techno and ambient, for example), and these classic synths have been acquiring collector status. Digital circuitry comes in many forms. Most synths today (and many made over the last decade) are based on samples (lots of brief recordings) of real pianos, strings, drums, horns, and even analogue synths, in an attempt to sound like those instruments. Prices are approximate and based on common asking prices from individuals and shops. Dealer prices may be higher, and deals can always be found. The Polyphony of a synth is how many notes it can play at a time. A Multitimbral synth will let you play a number of different kinds of sounds at one time, which is useful for trying to arrange a whole song using just one or two synths. A monotimbral synth only lets you use a single patch at a time. Some synths let you control the sound directly with lots of knobs and sliders, while others force you to use annoying buttons and navigate through lots of menus. In this article, I'll focus on synths with keyboards. However, using MIDI, it's possible to have a single keyboard and use it to control many sound modules. Many of the synths mentioned below are available as modules, as well as some things available only as modules.

Analogue-ish poly-synths.

For basic techno, for synthpop, and for learning how to make sounds on a simple, intuitive synthesizer, your best bet is an analogue-style polyphonic synthesizer. There are a number that are affordable, and ones with knobs and sliders are easy to use. Polyphony is usually in the range of 6-8 notes.

Roland Juno. Roland's Juno line was their low-cost synth line for several years, and they all make good first purchases. They all share the same basic architecture: mostly analogue circuitry, simple voice structure, good basses and pads. All but the last ones have lots of sliders. All but the first two have good MIDI implementations. Probably the best for a first-timer is the Juno-106. It's got a good, warm sound, MIDI, and a front panel full of sliders. It's exceptionally easy to program. The earlier Juno-6 and Juno-60 are both a bit fuller sounding, but without MIDI, and therefore harder to integrate into a studio with other gear. The later Alpha Juno-1 and Alpha Juno-2 are a little more digital sounding and have unpleasant buttons instead of sliders. However, with a PG-300 programmer, you get the sliders back. 106s currently sell for around $400 on the used market. 60s are a little less, and the 6 will be less still (it has no patch memory). The Juno-2 is around the same price as a 60; it offers a velocity-sensitive keyboard with aftertouch. Its little brother the Juno-1 (no velocity of aftertouch and a smaller keyboard) can be found fairly cheaply. A programmer should be around $50-$75. All the Junos are 6-note polyphonic and monotimbral.

Korg Poly-61, Poly-800, DW-6000, DW-8000. Korg's early hybrid synths also make good starting points. The Poly-61 is the most analogue, with a good sound and an arpeggiator. Not all models have MIDI. The Poly-800 (and Poly-800 mk II) is quite similar -- a bit more flexible in its voice architecture, but generally not as highly prized soundwise. The DW-6000 and DW-8000 are the same basic architecture, but instead of simple analogue-like oscillators, they offer a small set of samples to choose from, and are capable of some very different sounds. Except the early Poly-61s, all have MIDI. All of them have buttons for editing rather than knobs or sliders. Poly-61s and Poly-800s can frequently be found in the $150-$200 range. DWs will be somewhat more. The Poly-800 has a very very simple built-in sequencer (not sure about the DWs). These Korgs are 4 or 8-voice polyphonic (depending on how you construct the sounds) and monotimbral.

Ensoniq ESQ-1. The ESQ-1 is another analogue/digital hybrid, with a selection of samples and analogue filters. The ESQ is also one of the first "workstations", with a fairly full-featured sequencer and multitimbral operation. It's also greatly underrated, offering a deep and complex voice architecture which still isn't too difficult to use. No sliders, however. ESQ-1s can often be found in the $300-$400 range.

Oberheim Matrix 6. The Matrix-6 is deeper and more complex than the above synths, but tends to be found in the same price range as the Juno line. As a first synth, the Matrix's main drawback is its total lack of knobs -- in fact, all editing is done with a handful of unpleasant membrane keys. However, the Matrix's depth and complexity means that you'll never get tired of it, even after something simpler might have bored you.

Roland JX. Roland's JX line are a bit more sophisticated than the Junos, offering more complex architecture and sometimes bitimbral operation. The JX-3p is the simplest of the JXs. It's got a thinner, reedier sound of its own which is quite distinctive. No knobs, but there is a (hard-to-find) programmer, the PG-200. Though you cannot control the 3p with MIDI and the programmer at the same time. The JX-8p is a somewhat upgraded 3p with a somewhat warmer sound. The programmer for it is the PG-800, also difficult to find. Finally, the JX-10 is like two 8ps in one box with a 76-key keyboard. It also uses the PG-800. A JX-3p will probably cost $200-$250; an 8p around $350, a JX-10 $450 and up. All will be more with a programmer, and PG-800s alone sometimes fetch $200.

Kawai. Kawai put out several synthesizers which were partly analogue or structured like an analogue synth. The K-3 was, like the DW-8000, a synth with digital oscillators (with a small selection of samples) and analogue filters. The K-4 had digital filters, but still followed the basic architecture of oscillators running through filters, modulated by envelopes and LFOs.

Analogue monosynths

A monosynth is one that's only one-note polyphonic. Before the advent of MIDI and of polysynths, everything was like this. They're not the most practical as a first synthesizer, not offering MIDI or polyphony, but they're fun to use, easy to learn on, and almost de rigeur in techno.

Roland SH-101. The SH-101 looks and feels like a toy, a lightweight plastic thing that even came it bright red or blue (in addition to the more sober grey). It's a simple basic synth with good sounds and a built-in sequencer and arpeggiator. These days they go for $250-$450. Roland also had a whole line of monosynths, from the fairly basic SH-2, SH-3a, and SH-9, to the heavyweight SH-5 and SH-7.

ARP Odyssey. More complex and flexible than the SH-101, the Odyssey isn't quite as fashionable, and so the prices are comparable. It also has no sequencer or arpeggiator, but it's got a second oscillator and envelope. ARP also made the Axxe, a simpler version of the Odyssey more comparable to the SH-101 in complexity.

Sequential Pro-One. Similar to the Odyssey in sophistication, the Pro-One is a popular monosynth. It's also got a simple sequencer and arpeggiator.

Modern analogue(ish) machines Recently, the demands of the techno community as well as a reviving love for analogue sounds and analogue interfaces has driven a revival of true analogue, virtual analogue, and synths with knobs.

YamahaYamaha's CS1X and AN1X are both intended to be inexpensive, easy-to-use synths with intuitive interfaces. Both offer a handful of knobs on the front panel and some degree of analogue emulation synthesis. The AN1X in particular focuses on behaving and sounding like an analogue synth. The CS1X runs around $700 brand new.

Korg Prophecy. Korg's Prophecy is a complex, sophisticated modern monosynth. It does a certain amount of analogue emulation as well as physical modelling of strings and reeds. It offers front-panel knobs as well as several control wheels. They've steadily plunged from their original prices to well below $1000.

Novation Bass Station. The Bass Station is a MIDI analogue monosynth, a simple synth built onto a two-octave keyboard. Inspired by the TB-303 and analogue craze, the Bass Station has found a certain amount of popularity as an inexpensive source for basslines and analogue noises.

Sample-based synths

In the mid-80s, analogue synths and the early digital synths that followed began to give way to synths based entirely on samples of real instruments (or of other synths). Over the years, sampling technology has gotten better and better, and synths have started to come with larger and larger sample sets onboard. If you want realistic sounds like pianos, strings, real drums, etc., a sample-playback synth might be your best choice. Technology moves ahead so quickly on these synths that even new ones can be fairly inexpensive and still overpower last year's high-price models. This is where most of the synth market seems to be, so all the companies are always developing here.

Korg. Probably the groundbreaking synth of this type, the one to usher in the era of sample-playback and of all-in-one-box workstations, was the Korg M-1. With a collection of pretty good instrument samples as well as a built-in sequencer, the M-1 made it possible for people to build complex multitimbral arrangements all on one machine. They still fetch $600-$700. Korg followed the M-1 with their O1/W workstation, only recently discontinued. The O3 and O5 synths were scaled-down versions. More recently, their X3 and X5 line have held down the less expensive end of the market. The X5 is a basic keyboard with a fair collection of sounds that sells new for about as much as a used M-1.

Roland. Roland's JV line has been their main series of synths and workstations for several years. The JV synths are all based on large collections of instrument samples, many of them with expansion slots for adding more sounds. Currently, the keyboard versions are now called XP synths. The XP-10 is comparable to an X5 in price and capabilities. Before the JVs, Roland put out the D50, D5, D10, and D20 -- all synths with a programmable architecture with a selection of samples at the center.


In this article, I've touched on a variety of possible choices for the first synth. I haven't been able to mention everything, and I've entirely avoided certain things like sound modules and more expensive synthesizers. What you should use for your first synthesizer finally depends on your own needs and tastes. Hopefully, I've provided some guidelines, but let your ears be a guide; most importantly, try things out and spend some time with them before you commit yourself, if possible. It's difficult to know what you want before you've had some experience with the options, so you might own something for a while before you realize it isn't for you.

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This page last updated 3/6/06