If you've recently embarked on the exciting journey of making music with hardware instruments you might be feeling a little overwhelmed with so many options at your disposal. Going from thousands of VSTs that were all controlled with a single MIDI keyboard to a world where each piece has its own individual purpose can be flabbergasting. Here are a few things to keep in mind when choosing your first Synthesizer.
Jumping in head first into a new hobby without knowing if this is for sure where you want your hard earned money to go is a bad idea. Going in with a plan will prevent you from getting side tracked and stop you from wasting hours of your life drooling over synths that you can’t afford. Spending more than you have will cause you stress in the long run, so knowing from the get-go how much you want to spend on your first piece of gear will help you narrow things down quite a bit. You don't want to find yourself in a situation where you've spent too much money on your first synthesizer and it has left you with no money to add anything else to your setup. A few synths to consider if you’re on a tight budget could be something like the Korg Volcas, Roland Boutiques or Pocket Operators.
Something else to keep in mind is in what direction you want your studio to go after obtaining your first piece of gear. Are you planning on adding more gear? Of course your synth is going to need friends. It's not a matter of when but a matter of preparation. When choosing your first synthesizer you want to think about things like: Does it have MIDI IN, OUT and THRU? Does it have audio in? Is it battery powered? I'm not suggesting that you need these functionalities to make music, but you do want to think about the future and how each of those things will affect your future jamming area.
Some companies give you the option to get the same synthesizer without a keyboard for less, and these are called desktop modules. A keyboard version of a synth isn't necessarily better; it all depends on your needs. Modules are good for people who don't have much studio space or who like to travel light. Modules usually have fewer knobs than the keyboard version which sometimes can result in more menu diving, but besides that they are identical to each other.
First let’s talk about the difference between the two. Monophonic means that a synth can only play one note at a time. Polyphonic means that it can play more than one note at a time, making it more in resemblance to what we find when we walk in a music store. If you consider yourself a decent piano player, getting a mono synth as your first synthesizer might make you feel limited. It’s a lot more expensive to get a polyphonic analog synth than it is to get a digital one. It’s hard to appreciate a monophonic synth when you know nothing else. If you don’t consider yourself a piano player but more of a knob twiddler, then a monophonic synthesizer might be a good start for you. I do believe having one good monophonic synthesizer is essential in the long run, but it’s up to you if you want it to be your first.
An analog synthesizer is one who uses analog signals and analog circuitry to generate sound. This results in beautiful sound waves that you’ve probably never heard in person before: I feel a bit unworthy in the presence of an analog synth myself. The sounds they produce are beautiful and nothing else comes close to it. A Digital synthesizer is one which plays back acoustic, or electronic recordings using digital signal processing. So a digital synth would be able to easily recreate familiar sounds like guitar, piano, violin, etc. The fight over analog vs digital is never ending and with analog purists spending thousands on monophonic synths it might make you feel daunted and give you a false sense that you “need” to spend thousands to make good music. There’s things that digital synths can’t do and vise versa. I’m a keyboard player so I really enjoy my digital synths, I believe there’s a place for everything.
A sequencer is a device that arranges musical notes and structures them for playback. If you have a monophonic synth and you make a sequence with it you will not be able to play that synth live any more because it only plays back one note at a time and since a sequence is running, a note is already being activated. Keep this is in mind if you’re going for a mono synth as your first synth so you don’t run into any surprises. I think having a built-in sequencer in your first synth is important, because if you don’t you’ll need to buy an external one, and that’s another expense.
After owning several synths, you will begin to feel like you don’t have enough hands to change all of your sequences on different synths at different times. This is where a standalone sequencer shines. These can be expensive, but they essentially can become the hub of your setup. That can be something to worry about farther along the line, so don’t think too hard about it, you’ll need some synths to sequence first anyway.
A lot of affordable entry level synths have at least one built-in effect. Maybe delay, reverb, distortion etc. Effects are great at enhancing your sound and can really add atmosphere to your music. Adding an FX pedal to your synth can transform its sound in a magical way. Getting a synth with built in effects is smart because it’s a cheap way to get your feet wet: hardware effects can range from $50-$500, so its wise to take advantage of synths with built-in effects.
Multi-Timbral means that this synth is capable of playing different sounds on different MIDI channels, resulting in a synthesizer that can create a lead on one channel, a bass line on another, an fx on the other and so on. This is useful when using a standalone sequencer that can handle sequencing multiple channels. Apart from being able to play different sounds on different channels you can also stack up the sounds, playing different sounds on top of each other with a single key press.
I hope these tips were beneficial in help you choose your first Synthesizer! For a more visual representation of these tips, check out the video below: