Our Top Pick for 2018: Roland GAIA SH-01 Synthesizer
Read our full review.
The world of electronic music is ever-changing. Passionate enthusiasts from all across the globe are always pushing sounds to the next level. Synthesizers are the most common instrument of choice in the electronic music world, and their sounds can be heard in almost every genre of modern music. If you are looking to grab a new synth it is best to do some research before committing to what can be quite an investment. Thankfully there are great instruments being produced by top-quality companies that focus on innovation, reliability and affordability. Below you will find the top picks of the best synthesizers on the market right now.
Let’s Have a Quick Look of Our Top 4 Picks:
|Roland GAIA SH-01 Synthesizer||20 Reviews||$599.99||Buy on Amazon|
|Yamaha MM8 Music Synthesizer||17 Reviews||$899.99||Buy on Amazon|
|Arturia MicroBrute Analog Synthesizer||91 Reviews||$299.00||Buy on Amazon|
|Korg 27-Key Sound Module (VOLCAKEYS)||269 Reviews||$149.88||Buy on Amazon|
#1. Roland GAIA SH-01 Synthesizer
A household name in the synthesizer world is Roland. Known for defining instruments like the TB-303, TR-808 and the TR-909 Roland has been impressing users and listeners since 1972. Every synthesizer that they produce cuts above the rest of the market, and Roland instruments can be heard on most of the major defined electronic albums since the 1980s.
A modern classic and the Gold Pick Winner is the Roland GAIA SH-01. The name is a callback to the classic Roland SH-101, a monophonic synth that is well known for its unique step sequencer and powerful low-pass filter. The SH-01 is does not use analog circuitry like its older cousin the SH-101 but features a state of the art digital motherboard.
The SH-01 also has 64 note polyphony meaning that you can hold up to 64 notes at once. The filter is a multi-mode filter and can be switched between a -12dB/-24dB low-pass, high-pass, bandpass or the unique PKG filter which boosts the resonance where the frequency is cutting off.
The SH-01 has a 36-key velocity sensitive keyboard for hitting a range of note power. You can easily set it to monophonic mode if you want to bring out old school analog mono synth glides and sequencers.
There are 3 built in oscillators each with individual filter, amp, envelopes and LFO control. Oscillator choices include Saw, Square, Pulse/PWM, Triangle, Sine, Noise and the famous Super Saw, an oscillator mode that has multiple Saw waves detuned to make a lush wave shape. You can manipulate the pitch, detune, pulse width and pulse width mod with ease with an intuitive set of knobs. There is also a Ring Modulator and Osciallator Sync which can drastically change your patch and make it much more interesting.
Amp envelopes provide you with the basic Attack, Sustain, Decay and Release that can be changed for each individual oscillator. The signal flow on the SH-01 is perfect if you want that hands-on approach to building new sounds.
The 4 different filters have the classic Roland squelch to them when overdrive is added. When the signal is left dry you will hear how sweet the filters can be. They are smooth and provide no unwanted noise. The filter envelope controls also use the basic Attack, Sustain, Decay and Release but also have Key Follow for more sound options. The Cutoff and Resonance knobs allow smooth filter frequency control.
The Envelope Depth slider can bring you acid bass lines or talking leads depending on the position. No matter your style you will love the Roland filter. There is a reason that millions recognize the Roland sound: they bring a strong and unique filter to their synths.
The SH-01 also has stackable effects built inside of it so that you do not have to worry about using external hardware or software if you choose. Five effects can be stacked at a time. Effects include:
- Bit Crush
- Pitch Shift
This synthesizer only weighs 9.3 lbs making it a lightweight instrument. Power can be supplied with 8 AA batteries or with the DC 9v adapter. Audio outputs include a stereo 1/4 inch headphone jack and L/R 1/4 outputs. The synth can be controlled with an external sequencer or laptop with the MIDI in/out and USB. There are no CV inputs or outputs so connecting this device to analog gear might require an adapter.
The final feature that sets this apart and places it as the top choice is the powerful arpeggiator and phrase recorder. You can record the modulations of knob twists and slider movements and then play it all back. This makes for powerful sequences and performance options.
If you want to include yourself among the many expert knob twiddlers that are part of the Roland family you should check out the SH-01. It retails at $600 and is guaranteed to become a lasting part of your studio.
#2. Yamaha MM8 Music Synthesizer
The Runner-Up and Silver Pick for the best synthesizer is the Yamaha MM8. The MM8 is a digital synth that features 418 different voices, plenty of knobs and 88 weighted keys for a piano feel. This keyboard is an ideal choice if you want a keyboard that focuses on expressiveness and feeling. There is a built in sequencer and arpeggiator as well for those who wish to record and playback sequences in real time.
The first major feature of the MM8 is that it includes 418 unique voices and 22 drum kits for you to work with right out of the box. Each one can be edited to suit your desired sound. Quality and realism are what you can expect to hear from this synthesizer. Sounds can be tweaked with over 25 reverbs and 30 chorus styles giving you many variations of effects.
This is a polyphonic keyboard with 32 note polyphony. This is not quite as vast as the SH-01 but it is more than enough for just about every style. The heavy weighted keys feel natural under your fingers adding the joy of playing this instrument. It is geared towards the performing musician but there are MIDI ins/outs and a USB slot for computer controlled keyboard fun.
The sequencer is used by real-time playing. Sequences can be played back at a range of tempos from 11-280 beats per minute. You can record entire tracks using only this keyboard. The arpeggiator has 213 variations making this an excellent choice if you want to create powerful and exciting sequences. Up to 400 songs can be saved on the internal storage, and there is an option for additional space through USB.
For more control there is a pitch wheel, a modulation wheel and four assignable knobs. The filter controls include filter and resonance adjustment for added expression. There are also controls for manipulating the EG release and attack. This furthers the functionality of this synth. Control is simple. You are not stuck with hundreds of knobs and sliders. This synthesizer keeps the interface minimal so that you spend more time playing than searching.
There is a built in LCD screen for quick access to the different voices and editing options. Also included is a copy of Cubase AI from Steinberg. Cubase is popular among producers from all fields and has been an innovative software company for years. Connecting the MM8 to Cubase via USB opens up a near infinite world of sound possibilities and unlimited user control. You can create complex MIDI sequences that no human hand could perform. You can also record your performance into Cubase for deeper editing.
One downside is the weight. The MM8 weighs in at 70 lbs making it more suited for keeping in your studio. Solid construction can be expect, however, and you can rest easy knowing that this keyboard will have a long life.
There is a standard 1/4 inch output for L/Mono and R channels as well as a 1/4 stereo headphone output. You are slots for plugging in a foot controller and sustain pedal making this a top choice for pianists who want that extra control. It is powered by an AC adapter.
Pricing sits around $899 and is worth every dollar if you want a beefy keyboard with lots of studio uses.
#3. Arturia MicroBrute Analog Synthesizer
The first fully analog synthesizer on this list is the 25 key Arturia MicroBrute. This is a lightweight and compact synth that boasts analog circuitry, a powerful filter and one of the most powerful step sequencers available on the market today. This is a true future classic that takes what older analog models did and expands upon those features while bringing fresh capabilities to the table.
The MicroBrute has a single oscillator with Saw, Square and Triangle waves that can be mixed together to create sounds unheard in most other modern synths. There are three waveshapers including the Ultrasaw, Pulse Width and Metalizer to further build those gripping sounds that you are looking for.
The Ultrasaw can thicken the basic single saw sound by using two saw signals that are slightly detuned from each other to produce a wider and more emotional sound. The Metalizer folds the Triangle wave giving it complex and interesting tonalities. This sets the MicrBrute into a category of its own because few other instruments have so much power in so little space.
There is a sub oscillator knob that also has an Overtone feature. This means that when the knob is maximized there will be harmonic tones that create a 5th note above the root playing in the sub. The innovative mod matrix can control this with the Envelope and LFO settings. The sub is one octave down and will make any woofers rumble with low-end goodness.
Modulating this instrument is easy with the ASDR envelope controls and the powerful LFO. There is also a modulation matrix that allows for even more voice tweaking. You can hook this matrix to external hardware and control it with patch cables. There are over 24 knobs and 4 sliders on this device. Everything is compact on the MicroBrute leading to comfortable but powerful use.
Audio can be processed through this synth. This makes it more than a typical synthesizer and might be a good choice if you want to run other sounds or instruments into your synth for exciting audio exploration.
Another unique feature of this synth is that because it is analog it has CV inputs and outputs. With this you can hook it up to other analog hardware. MIDI ins and outs are also included for software sequencing.
The final feature worth noting is that Steiner-Parker filter. This filter hearkens back to the 1970s filters found on Synthacon devices. This filter has low-pass, high-pass and bandwidth options making it highly versatile. Arturia boasts that more expensive synths “come with only a single low pass filter and many modular synth companies sell their version of this classic filter for more than the total price of the MicroBrute.” This puts the MicroBrute at an advantage if you want features without busting your bank.
All standard audio input and outputs are included. This synth weighs in at 4.4 lbs making it good for taking it with you on the go. It runs off of a 12v DC power supply.
If you want something that can be hooked up to your other analog equipment this is the synth to go with. Running at only $299 it will save you some cash as well.
#4. Korg Volca Keys Analog Synthesizer
For a great budget synthesizer you should look at the Korg Volca Keys. It is an another analog synth that has plenty of fresh features, but the design on the Volca Keys is very minimal and may not have all that you are looking for. For the price of around $159 this unit is perfect if you want to keep ballin’ on a budget.
The first thing that you notice upon looking at the Volca Keys is the size. It is tiny. It is only 10 inches long and weighs just over 2 lbs. It was developed to use in conjunction with the Volca Bass, Volca FM and Volca Beats but is sufficient on its own. That small size of this box does not mean that it is not powerful.
The step sequencer is designed after older x0x style sequencers like the ones found on the Roland TB-303. The Volca Keys sequencer is a 16 step pattern sequencer that can be edited on the fly. There are 27 keys if you want to play it live but this box really shines when it is sequenced. Think acid techno style leads.
There are three voices on this box and each tuned separately for interesting combinations. It has 3 note polyphony for simple chords making the Volca Keys a fun tool for creating lush pads and bouncy leads. You can detune them to widen the sound or change the octaves for thicker sounds. No matter what you need when it comes to a lead synth you can do it in this box.
It also features a simple VCF with cutoff and peak adjustments as well as EG INT for further shaping. The LFO has rate, pitch INT and cutoff INT knobs and will really make for some interesting sounds. This box keeps everything simple and laid out in a concise manner. There are no cheap frills or unnecessary buttons. Everything on this one are placed to serve a purpose.
The Korg Volca Keys is a great synth for the price. If you are just getting into synthesis it is an amazing place to start especially since it can be connected with the other products in the Volca line to create a strong live setup.
Synthesizers are usually not cheap. When you are picking the best one for you try to keep durability in your mind.
A quality product will be able to see many years of use without falling apart. This is more than true when considering synths. A good instrument is made to last. You do not want to spend your time and money on one that will stop functioning after a year or two of use.
Things to look for are the materials used in construction, the brand reputation and what other users are saying about the durability.
Most quality synthesizers will be made of strong plastics or light metals. Some have wood panels while others have glass screens. These are materials to look for in a lasting instrument.
The brands to look for are the ones that have a reputation among enthusiasts as being high quality. Synthesizer fans are passionate and love to follow great brands. Do some research and see what prominent users are hoarding in their studio.
Check out what reviewers are saying about the synth you are looking at. If they complain about poor design then you may want to consider doing more research into another model.
If you only need a single piece of equipment to be happy then you do not need to worry about how well your next synth will be able to work with other devices, but most producers want a variety of kit to work with.
Many synthesizer owners enjoy collecting equipment because of the infinite possibilities that come with owning many powerful devices. In that case think about how you can integrate your next synth into what you already own. If you have analog hardware without MIDI ins and outs make sure the next one has CV capabilities.
Your first synth purchase could always lead to more down the road, and it is wise to keep that in mind when selecting a new instrument. Try not to close any creative doors by grabbing a device that is limited in what it can do and integrate with.
With dozens of synthesizers on the market today you can find models ranging from almost no money to what would equate to some people’s yearly salary.
Think about what kind of uses you are expecting to get out of your next synth. Ask yourself how long you plan to keep it around. Will you just need a single device, or will you plan to add more as time goes on? Do you want something small and lightweight or something massive like a modular environment?
All of these things need to be taken into account because each route comes at different costs. In general smaller synths are more affordable while the more modular environments can really break your bank if you are not careful.
If you are a hobbyist perhaps you do not need to spend much to find fulfillment in your synth needs. For the serious electronic musician think of each purchase as an investment into your future.
The great thing about electronic music is that you can have an entire studio in your bedroom. You can also have walls upon walls of devices running in sync inside of a home studio the size of a three car garage.
Consider what sort of space that you have available to house a synthesizer. Your bedroom might be better utilized as a studio if you keep your hardware to a minimum and buy kit that can be controlled by software.
Your studio might be a large space that has plenty of room for growth. In that case you can think about adding bigger pieces of gear.
Choosing the right size synthesizer is vital to ensuring that you find maximum enjoyment in your music production. The thousands of types available make finding the right size much easier. Go with what works best with the space that you have.
Conclusion (Wrapping it up)
Finding a new synthesizer is an exciting journey that grants you with the freedom of choice. With so many excellent options available it is not hard to find yourself exploring options for days on end. Analog, digital and combinations of the two all give you different sounds and different tools to work with.
Educate yourself on the types of synthesis that most devices work with. Some are analog, digital or a combination of the two. Some boxes use granular, FM, subtractive, additive or formant synthesis. Learn what each type sounds like and go with what you find fits your style.
Research what is out there and weigh it against your needs. It is no matter whether you are a hobbyist, a synth fanatic or a budding bedroom knob twister.