There are soooooooo many synths nowadays. It’s overwhelming really. So I’m gonna help you boil it all down by telling you what does and doesn’t matter.
1. If a synth is giving you the sounds you want, it doesn’t matter how much you paid for it. Whether it’s free, $200, or $3000, if you like the way it sounds, then you’ve chosen the right tool for the job. It’s easy to get caught up in feature lists and hype, but just remember, at the end of the day it’s the actual sound that matters, not the price.
2. If you can’t hear it, it doesn’t matter. Along with the obvious differences between synths, there are relatively subtle differences as well. Analog vs Digital for example. Or different types of filters (Ladder, Curtis, Steiner Parker…). And you may hear people talk about how important these aspects are, which will make you feel the need to choose the right one, which then might make you feel dirty and shameful for not being able to hear the difference. Well wipe away your tears because YOU are going to be the one programming this synth. And each little tweak you make is motivated by what you hear. So in your world, if you can’t hear it, it doesn’t matter. Besides, trying to purchase a synth according to features that you anticipate you’ll need in the future is like buying size 13 shoes for a toddler. And, in due time, your ears will become more refined and eventually start to notice this stuff, at which point it’ll probably be time for a new axe anyway (ME WANT GEAR!!!!! FEED ME GEAR!!!!!!)
1. Sound – Above all else, sound is king. I’ll be mentioning other aspects of synthesizers in this article, but they all pale in comparison to its sound. Seems obvious, but its easy to get caught up in feature lists, fancy interfaces and hype, and forget to just close your eyes and listen to the damn thing. I find that synths generally fall into one of the following four categories:
- Bread And Butter: These synthesizers are usually subtractive and are responsible for most of the synth sounds you hear. Everyone should have one, and if you’re new to synths, you should start here. These synths started it all with the likes of the Minimoog and the Prophet, and they’ve maintained they’re head-of-the-table status in the synth world because the sounds they make are the backbone of synthesis. There are a TON of these, so I’ll just list a few. For soft synths, check out Sylenth1, Diva, and Synth1. Synth1 is not as nice as the previous ones, but it’s free, and highly underestimated. For hardware I recommend the Minibrute, Bass Station II, Prophet and Voyager. And for you iPad users, try Sunrizer. Again, I’m missing a lot here. These are just a few suggestions.
- Style Specific: Some synths are particularly good at creating certain sounds and textures. This is mostly determined by the type of synthesis used. FM synths like FM8 or Operator are great for metallic, bell-like tones as well as electric string textures. Physical Modeling synths, like Logic’s Sculpture add a realistic element, particularly in a string-like acoustic way. In some cases, a synth is set up for a specific task, or develops a reputation for a certain style. For example, Omnisphere is a gigantic evolving-atmospheric-pad creator. And Massive has become synonymous with EDM, especially Dubstep, mostly for its aggressive and modern personality.
- Beasts: Some synths come with A LOT of features. Synthmaster is a notable one. It’s got every sound manipulation you could imagine. Alchemy is another that involves multiple types of synthesis plus sampling and resynthesis bringing in a whole other element of sound design. Zebra 2 is yet another. These are the big beasts of the synth world so I’d only venture here if you’re at least somewhat experienced and truly need one synth with many capabilities. Keep in mind though that these synths tend to have multiple personalities since they can do so much, and are often used by those who want one synth that can do everything.
- Miscellaneous: These are unusual synths that don’t really fit into the previous three categories. The Swarmatron is a great example. No keys, two ribbon controllers, and 8 oscillators that can sound like the synthesis equivalent of a swarm of bees. Or Reaktor, which is a collection of synths that span all of the previous categories and more importantly, allows you to build your own synths.
Some synths can fall into multiple categories, but the general idea here is to figure out what you want. Do you need that traditional subtractive capability? Or is there a very specific task or style you’re going after? Are you ready to upgrade to a do-it-all beast? Or are you looking for something different? Once you figure that out, forums like Gearslutz, KVR and Vintage Synth are excellent places to ask people for recommendations based on what you’re looking for.
2. Features – The type of sounds a synth is capable of making is determined by two things: the guts and the controls. The synth maker decides what kind of oscillators, filters, envelopes, LFOs and effects will go into a synth. These are the guts. They then add the knobs, buttons, and sliders which will allow you to manipulate those guts. These are the controls. You can usually see a list of controls and guts on the synth maker’s website. But, if you don’t know how to program a synth, this list is meaningless. Why?
When you learn how to program a synth, you start to build up an intuitive sonic understanding of how each control truly effects sound. During this process you become attached to certain types of controls and guts, simply because you like what they do to sound. With this knowledge you can then start to understand what each synth is capable of by looking at its features, as well as whether or not it will suit your needs and make the sounds you want.
So if you can’t program a synth, its features are going to be much less relevant to you during the choosing process. In this case I would dial through a synth’s presets to get a good idea of what kinds of sounds it can make, Or, learn how to program. Here’s an article I wrote on that subject. And here are a few synths that lend themselves to learning: Synth1, Gaia, Basic, and (shameless self promotion incoming…….) Syntorial.
3. Interface – The user interface varies quite a bit from synth to synth. Yes, the sound is what truly matters, but the interface will have a big influence on how YOU interact with the synth, and thus a big influence on the resulting sound. When assessing the interface, there are two important traits to keep in mind:
- Usability: Some synths are more program-friendly than others. For example, in order to route modulation sources to their destinations (LFO to filter cutoff, mod envelope to pitch, etc) many synths use a Modulation Matrix. This is essentially a grid in which each row represents a source, destination, and amount. Think Z3TA+ 2 or Thor. This is very common in today’s more feature-heavy soft synths. While this creates an easy-to-see set of modulation routings, a much more intuitive way to present routings is with a drag-and-drop system, like the one used in Massive or Twin 2. In this scenario, you drag the modulation source onto the destination, and in Massive’s case the amount of modulation is highlighted around the destination itself. This creates a very obvious and intuitive relationship between the source and destination.
- Aesthetics: This is much more subjective. From how nice it looks, to how inviting the controls are, this superficial aspect shouldn’t be underestimated. Some instruments beg to be touched and tweaked and that extra appeal can help draw you in and make the programming experience more enjoyable. This one is unique to you, the user, and your general feelings of like/dislike will guide you here.
So, it’s important to try programming patches from scratch on a synth before you decide to buy it, as this will give you a general impression of its usability and aesthetic.
4. Digital vs Analog – As I mentioned before, this one only matters if you can tell the difference. But even then, you should still make sure that you NEED that difference before plunking down the cash.
For example, in a band I used to play in, one of my keyboardist responsibilities was synth bass, which I played on a digital synth. If I could do it again though, I would’ve bought the Sub Phatty just for that purpose, without thinking twice, because GOOD LORD THAT BASS. The analog-ness would’ve given it the balls it needed to compete with the guitarist and drummer in a live situation.
But, in the studio, everything gets recorded and mixed, and everything runs through a digital environment at some point in the process, so some of that analog benefit can get lost. Not to mention that some of the best digital synths are getting awfully close to sounding analog. And, if you can’t program the thing, you can’t really take advantage of it. Moral of the story: IF you notice the difference, AND you feel like your specific situation would really benefit from analog, AND you can program, AND you can afford it, go analog.
5. Chemistry – This is the intangible “Do I connect with this synth” quality. The only advice I can give here is that if you really like using a particular synth, it should be near the top of your list. So when you’re trying out a synth do two things: dial through its presets to get a good idea of the range of sounds and capabilities it has, and try programming some patches from scratch. During these two processes, pay attention to whether or not you’re enjoying yourself. You will naturally connect with some synths more than others.
6. Cost – Of course, how many Benjamins (or Washingtons for you working musicians) you have in your wallet plays a big role in all of this. But again, before you get that really nice synth, ask yourself if it will TRULY serve your needs more than a less expensive one, particularly if you’re new to synthesis. For you soft synth users, most of the synths I’ve mentioned in this article are under $200. For you analog hardware lovers, the new line of small analog synths like the Minibrute, Bass Station II, and MS-20 Mini, are fantastic sounding synths in the $400-$600 range.
There are hundreds of synths out there, and the ones I mentioned only begin to scratch the surface. But remember this: your tastes will change over time, so don’t feel the need to choose the PERFECT synth. Consider the previous criteria I outlined, try out several, and then go with your gut. One synth won’t be able to do everything you’ll ever need because what you need shifts over time. You’ll probably acquire at least a few synths over the years, and each one will have its unique place in your creative process.
And if you’re new to synthesis, do NOT spend a lot of money on your first synth. Your tastes are going to change a lot as you become more familiar with synth programming, and you’ll want to wait until you know yourself a little better before making the investment.
Lastly, some resources:
KVR Database. This is a fantastic plugin database that you can search by very specific criteria and includes tons of soft synths with reviews and technical info.
Vintage Synth Explorer. Library of mostly hardware synths with reviews and specs.