Top 10 Budget Synths in 2021 at a glance:
Novation Bass Station II
Behringer Model D
Korg Volca FM
Although software synths are a great option for many people, jumping into the world of hardware synthesizers can be incredibly rewarding. There is something completely different about the tactile experience you have when physically adjusting knobs and faders, that just can’t be replicated inside the box. It makes the whole creative process more interactive and this can often lead to advantageous happy accidents. Synthesizers used to be bulky, expensive and hard to learn, however advances in technology have meant that there are now more affordable, fantastic sounding synths on the market than ever before.
Monophonic vs Polyphonic Synths
A monophonic synth can only play a single note at a time. Great for phat basslines and soaring leads, monophonic synths each have a unique sound that is full of character and expression. A polyphonic synth allows multiple notes to be played at once. This means they can be used for creating melodies and chord progressions, and are generally much more versatile.
Digital vs Analogue
Analogue synths are much like traditional instruments. The electronic components that make up the synth interact to create a unique sound that is hard to replicate digitally. Digital synths use digital signal processing to create sounds. This enables them to be much more flexible, and generally much more affordable and feature rich.
Just as every Stradivari violin sounds different, so subtle imperfections in analogue synths such as tuning instabilities or idiosyncratic oscillators combine to make the instrument feel more ‘real’. This is one of the reasons why vintage analogue synths can be so expensive, as it is impossible to replicate them with 100% accuracy. Digital synths use digital signal processing (DSP) in place of electronic circuits, which makes them much cheaper to produce, and therefore you tend to get a lot more bang for your buck.
So let’s take a look at the 10 best budget synths that I’d recommend for producers in 2021.
1) Arturia Microfreak
The Microfreak from Arturia is a bit of an oddball...but in a good way. It's a paraphonic hybrid synth that combines wavetable and digital oscillators with an analogue filter, which enables it to produce a huge variety of different sounds. Instead of regular keys it has a capacitive keyboard with 'poly after-touch' which means each key can control different parameters depending upon how you touch it. The synth has a bright OLED display, tons of connectivity options, and a built in arpeggiator, sequencer and modulation matrix. The plastic casing and keys may not appeal to everyone, but considering the features you are getting at this price point it's an absolute bargain.
2) Novation Bass Station II
The Bass Station II from Novation is a powerful analogue synth with a number of great features at a very reasonable price. It has a sturdy, well built chassis containing 25 velocity sensitive keys with assignable aftertouch. The core of the unit consists of 2 oscillators plus an additional sub-oscillator, 2 analogue filter types (Classic and Acid), and 2 LFOs for modulation. It can sound soft and warm, or harsh and aggressive thanks to its inbuilt distortion effects. It comes with 64 patches which effectively showcase what the synth is capable of, and an additional 64 free slots to save your own patches. It also has great connectivity options including MIDI I/O, and can be powered by USB. Don't be fooled by the name either, the Bass Station II is not just for basses but can be used to create epic sounding leads and arps.
3) Behringer Model D
Love them or loathe them, there is no denying that Behringer make some of the most affordable good quality instruments around. The Model D is a "homage" to the iconic analogue Minimoog synthesizer, sharing a similar architecture, layout, and feature list to it's predecessor. At it's heart it consists of 3 oscillators which each can produce 5 variable waveform shapes. It's features include a classic 24dB ladder filter with resonance and low/high pass modes, envelope adjustment, an LFO, portamento and MIDI support. The sound this unit produces is simply amazing, from growling basses to lush ambient atmospheres. If you are in the market for a great sounding analogue synth for an extremely competitive price, then the Behringer Model D should definitely be near the top of your list.
4) Korg Volca FM
The Korg Volca FM is an incredibly cheap introduction to the world of FM synthesis. This battery powered synth is enclosed in a plastic chassis with an incredibly small footprint, so will not take up much room on your desktop. Loosely inspired by the Yamaha DX7 launched in 1983, this synth uses FM synthesis to allow you to create some really interesting sounds. Note that FM synthesis can seem a rather complex subject to get your head-around at first, however there are plenty of user forums and patches available online to help you out. Features include a step sequencer, 3 note polyphony, a built-in chorus effect, MIDI input, and the ability to save patches. The Korg Volca FM was actually my very first hardware synth, and to this day it still amazes me what this unit can do for so little financial outlay. Totally recommended!
5) Behringer Odyssey
Another great entry from Behringer, the Odyssey plays tribute to the legendary ARP Odyssey synth of the 1970s. This sturdy synth is an absolute beast, weighing in at around 8kg it is built like a tank. It has 37 "semi-weighted" full size keys, dual VCOs, 3-way multi-mode VCFs and some great effects including chorus, flanger, delay, pitch shifter, and reverb. It also sports an arpeggiator, and a very versatile step sequencer. With it's 100% analogue signal path, the Behringer Odyssey not only sounds great, but is very flexible in the types of sounds it can produce. You'll be creating phat basses or incredible leads in absolutely no time at all. It's simply a great synth at an incredible price point...just make sure you have space for it in your setup.
6) Roland JU-06A
Ever fancied owning a vintage JUNO but couldn't afford the price ? Well, the JU-06A from Roland combines the sounds of the JUNO-60 and JUNO-106 in one compact well-built instrument. It runs on batteries, and even has its own in-built speakers for making sounds on the go. Versatile, incredibly easy to program, and with all the classic string, bass, and lead sounds of the eighties , this 4 voice instrument comes complete with an arpeggiator, great-sounding sequencer, MIDI In/Out and effects including the original Juno chorus sound. The Roland JU-06A is a very capable synth with bags of character and personality. It would make an ideal all-rounder for anyone looking for an introduction to the world of hardware synths.
7) Elektron Digitone
Although the inclusion of the Elektron Digitone may be pushing the definition of 'budget synths' somewhat, bear with me as this instrument is truly special. This compact unit combines a powerful sequencer with an epic FM polyphonic sound engine. It's a stunning bit of kit that just oozes quality, with incredibly tactile controls and encoders, a high contrast display for that future retro vide, all housed in a sturdy yet completely portable chassis. The beautiful factory presets alone will blow your mind, and you can easily download others or make your own from scratch. In my opinion, where this box of goodness really comes into its own is when used in conjunction with a midi keyboard as you can map separate sounds to different parts of the keyboard. Having said that though, the inbuilt sequencer is super intuitive and fun to use! If you have the cash and are looking for something that is both inspiring and will bring a massive grin to your face, then this is most definitely the choice for you.
8) Moog Werkstatt-01
Want to add a genuine Moog synth to your collection for under $200? Well the Werkstatt-01 from Moog is a monophonic analogue subtractive synth with its own filter, modulation and patch bay. You do have to put it together yourself as the synth comes in kit form, however, don't be alarmed as the process is really straightforward with no soldering required. Although pretty basic in appearance, what you're really paying for here is that epic Moog sound. This synth would suit someone who wants to learn how synths work and doesn't mind a bit of tinkering.
9) Korg Monologue
The Monologue from Korg is another great choice is you're after an entry level monophonic analogue synth. It looks great, with a classic black design and real wood back panel. The velocity sensitive keyboard covers 2 octaves (25 keys) and has a nice response to it. It's portable too, and can run off batteries, so ideal for travelling. It comes with a bank of 80 great sounding presets, and another 20 slots for you to record your own patches into. Included is a fantastic step sequencer, great modulation and wave shaping capabilities options and to top it off some decent sounding effects.
10) Behringer MS-1
The MS-1 from Behringer is a homage to the classic nineties Korg MS-20 sound (think Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy). It's a monophonic synth with a pure analogue signal path, a 32-step sequencer and a full sized 32 key bed. The sounds from the re-engineered envelope and filters are nearly indistinguishable from the original, and it costs a fraction of the price. It comes in a number of stunning colours (red, blue and black), and even comes with a guitar strap included for those live performances.
So there we have it, the 10 best budget synthesizers to buy in 2021.
Whether your setup is already filled with hardware, or you're considering buying your first synth, I hope you found this list useful. Have a great day and happy producing !