9 Impressive Hardware Synths – Reviews and Buying Guide
Last updated: Apr 18, 2020
64Hours of Research
If the idea is to come up with new and original sounds while making music, then a synthesizer is the way to do it. For this reason, you could do yourself a favor by acquiring and using one of these gadgets to its fullest potential.
Our team has reviewed 32 devices in an effort to find and recommend to you which options are the best hardware synths in the market. Following those efforts, we noticed that the Arturia MatrixBrute Monophonic Synthesizer stands out the most. While it is monophonic, it possesses a full set of controls over how the notes are played, including multiple effects and three oscillators per voice. Also, the keyboard and sequencer elements are impressive. If you look through the other options listed below, you will realize that they as well made it onto our list based on merit.
Top 9 Hardware Synths Review 2020
Checking the details on all 32 products took quite a bit of time, seeing as our team had to check each of the manufacturer websites for specifications and features. This extended into checking vendor sites for customer reviews. The nine items that made it onto our table are graded according to their dimensions, keyboards, connectivity, sequencers, polyphony, effects, and also whether they are analog or digital. These specs are necessary considerations since they determine how well a device is in tune with the needs of specific individuals. As well, this information has been neatly organized in three sections so you can have an easier time choosing the best hardware synth for you. The sections include a table, in-depth reviews, and a buying guide before the verdict that summarises information on a few of our favorites.
Having taken the first place on our list, you can tell that the device is filled with a ton of features even from the outlook. Some people may be dissuaded from buying this tool by the fact that it is monophonic. However, if you put it in paraphonic mode, it can mimic the effects of a true polyphonic device. As such, you wouldn’t be losing any functionality by choosing this tool over a polyphonic one. There is as well a third operation mode known as the dual-split mode.
Also, the keyboard deserves mention. It consists of 49 keys, all of which will react to the velocity with which you press them. They are as well aftertouch sensitive. Oscillators are also fundamental in the construction of any synth. With this tool, you get three of them, which can be blended using the mixer on the synth.
Another thing that the mixer can do is to include input from external sources as well as the noise generator. Speaking of the noise generator, you get about four noise types with this purchase. They include white, pink, blue, and red noise types. The sequencer on the Arturia MatrixBrute Monophonic Synthesizer can also be a source for awe, given that it allows you to put together a 64-step music sequence without hassle. This is in line with the arpeggiator that will enable you to play notes in rapid succession. Performance controls are as well a staple in most modern synthesizers, and their presence is noted on this device. They include four encoders in addition to pitch bend and mod wheels.
This review would be incomplete without the mention of available presets, of which there are 128 of them when the device is new. This number can be extended to 256 when the empty slots are filled in.
Quality of the keys is top-notch
Possesses a 64-step sequencer
Multiple connection ports included
Comes with a few presets
Not many negatives are associated with the device apart from its high price
If the editor’s choice isn’t your preferred option, you can pick the Sequential Prophet X 61-Key Synthesizer instead. This is also another impressive tool hence why it is one of our top two recommended purchases. Of course, it is easy to notice the keyboard since it stands out with the 61 semi-weighted keys. These keys also have the added attribute of being aftertouch and velocity-sensitive, which might come in handy. Also notable is the hybrid engine. This means that the device will incorporate both the analog synth and a few properties associated with digital synths as well.
If polyphony is what you use to gauge the suitability of the tool for your needs, then you are in luck. The first option you get with this tool is the 8-voice stereo mode, which is interchangeable with the 16-voice mono or the 32-voice paraphonic option. You will thus find this tool a versatile purchase if you decide to order it from respective vendor sites. Other aspects that may help sway your opinion in favor of this hardware synth are the oscillators, which are an impressive attribute as well. As it stands, the tool comes with two high-resolution digital oscillators for each voice.
Also, if you look through the features listed above, you are bound to notice the sequencer. In comparison to other options in the synth market, this component is top-notch. Add the fact that you can squeeze in up to six notes per step, and you have with you a quality piece of equipment.
Full-size keyboard with high-quality keys
Up to 8 voices polyphonic output
The oscillators for the device are as well high quality
Multiple connectivity options
64-step sequencer is impressive
Given that it needs a lot of funds to purchase not many people have used and shared their experiences hence most of its downsides remain unknown
As well, this tool is likely to be the first pick for many users in the market who appreciate its attributes. You will find this product similar to the Sequential Prophet X 61-Key Synthesizer in the key count. Currently, both options are velocity-sensitive. Nevertheless, you are bound to find some differentiating attributes in these two options as well, with the oscillators being the first example. This device possesses three oscillators per voice.
The wide variety of effects also makes it possible to tweak and manipulate output to desired standards. They include phaser, chorus, delay, reverb, and distortion options. A review of the Korg Prologue 61-Key Analog Synthesizer would be incomplete without including the 16-voice polyphony you get with its purchase. This means you can produce all 16 voices availed by this device at the same time. Of course, most people consider this to be better than a mono synth since it provides you with more options regarding output.
You could also list the sequencer under the pros section of your pros and cons list for the device. This is because it allows you to put together an impressive 64-step sequence, which is not something that most tools can brag about. Although not noted above, the program or preset selection is also awe-inspiring with 500 easily accessible and easy to sort through options. This makes the tool even more of an attractive purchase if you add the multiple connectivity ports as well that allow you to couple this tool with pedals and other musical instruments.
Comes with presets as well as slots for you to create your own
16-voice polyphonic capabilities are some of the most impressive on our list
With regards to analog synthesizers, the Dave Smith Instruments OB-6 Analog Synthesizer is right up there with the best of them. After all, if you pay attention to the details, you will realize this is still one of the best purchases that you can make. The body is mainly made from aluminum with a few wooden accents.
Apart from the controls and keys that are visible from the top of the synth, you also find an extensive array of connection ports at the back of the device. These serve to make sure that the music you create can be played back on other devices such as speakers and headphones. They also ensure you can incorporate input from other devices as well. Speaking of input, the tool comes with a set of presets of its own so you can then build your sounds and music sequences from a ready-made base. This is not to take away from the fact that you can also make your own presets using the controls and keys available to you.
Noteworthy is that this is a polyphonic device with the capacity to produce six voices. For this to happen, the two oscillators dedicated to each voice have to work together. Also, you cannot forget the 64-step sequencer while mentioning the advantages of the device. Concerning the keyboard, 49 may not be the optimum number as compared to other full-size options. However, the keys themselves are high-quality comfortable to use, and good enough to get your desired music results.
MIDI through is included
Keys are aftertouch and velocity-sensitive
Effects selection is impressive
The availed display does not show program names hence cycling through the various options might be a tall task
Budget-friendly options aren’t that many when it comes to hardware synths. However, this mini device is an exception that is within reach for most of the population. For that reason, this is one of the starter tools that you can use to start practicing before you think about purchasing more advanced equipment. The analog engine synthesizer also has other advantages to its name. Among them is that the device is portable. If you have a bag big enough to fit this device, you can pack it in and put it over your shoulder as you move from studio to stage and back.
The impressive array of 18 voices is one that you will not even find in some of the pricier and bigger models. Nevertheless, the tool size is only possible if it incorporates mini keys instead of the full-size ones. They are as well more limited in number as compared to the 61-key and 49-key options.
VocalTune is one of this device’s most unique and impressive features. It allows you to sing or talk into the microphone of the device and get that incorporated and tuned to keyboard notes that you are currently playing. Onboard sounds that total 256 in number are another reason for you to consider this purchase. This is without including the 128 slots that you can fill up with your own presets made from scratch.
The device can produce up to 18 voices
Compact and portable
Keys are velocity-sensitive
Keys are mini-sized
Keys are limited in number as compared to other options
The Elektron Analog Keys 4-Voice Synthesizer gives away some of its attributes in the name since it provides for four voices in total. Given the fact that this is a polyphonic device, you can produce all four of these voices at the same time if you make this purchase. This tool also brags of having 37 velocity and aftertouch receptive keys. This is almost half of the Korg Prologue 61-Key Analog Synthesizer. Nevertheless, they should be enough to get the job done if you know what you are doing
With a 64-step sequencer, you can put together long strings of notes and sounds as you see fit. Also, you are probably going to appreciate the joystick located on the bottom left corner of the device. It doesn’t have any set duties, and hence you can assign it to the functions you see fit.
The effects provided for by this device are also on par with those of other high-end tools in the market. This is in addition to the three-year warranty that may serve to sway a skeptic’s opinion. All in all, this is still a dependable piece of equipment and one which other people, including professionals, have purchased before.
Through MIDI connections are available
Effects available are also impressive
Relatively inexpensive as compared to other options
If the goal is to find a digital hardware synth, then the Nord Lead A1 49-Key Analog Modeling Synthesizer may be the right piece of equipment to purchase. As such, the device’s polyphony is impressive, to say the least, given that it can produce a maximum of 26 voices. This number is higher than what you will find in most analog engine hardware synths, but is it enough for you to make the switch? Well, this all depends on the needs of the user in question, and most people will have varying opinions on the same.
The oscillator setup is as well something we haven’t seen before on our list. It is more complicated since it offers eight configurations in total. Of these, some of them are capable of traditional analog waveforms while the rest are digital. The keyboard is almost the same as that of the Dave Smith Instruments OB-6 Analog Synthesizer. There is, however, the difference that one of these has aftertouch capabilities while the other does not. The Nord Lead A1 49-Key Analog Modeling Synthesizer is the latter. Nevertheless, there are still other quality features as well, such as the effects available. Also, to have this as part of your studio setup, you might need to part with almost $1800.
26 voices polyphony
49 keys on the keyboard all of which are velocity-sensitive
The manufacturers of the device have elected not to include a keyboard in the machine. However, you can attach a keyboard using the dedicated ports available.
A copy of Ableton live lite software is included in the purchase of this device. This makes it easier to couple this tool with your computer. Also, you should note that the 26 voices on the device are made possible by the inclusion of three oscillators per voice. Other things to note and consider are the voice modes. They are five in total, and some of them even allow for an 8-voice polyphony, which is an impressive statistic. Additionally, the ADSR envelopes are also something that should fall on the pros side of your pros and cons list.
Three oscillators per voice for quality sound output
Through MIDI option is available
Compact and easy to carry
For a tool with no keyboard, most people expect it to be cheaper
The engine for this particular device is unique. With regard to a lack of keyboards, they share this feature with the Novation Peak 8-Voice Desktop Polyphonic Synthesizer. As to the features, the 8-voice polyphony is of benefit to most people and hence should be noted as a positive. Given the device doesn’t have a keyboard, you can expect the tool to be small in stature. This thus makes the movement of the appliance easier.
You will, of course, have to couple this tool with a few of your other music-making tools if you are to make the best use of it. As such, it comes with various ports that allow you this freedom. Let’s not forget the factory presets that come pre-ingrained in the setup of the machine.
Given that the hardware synthesizer would be a considerable investment on your part, you should try and get it right with the first attempt. If you take in the information in the buying guide below, the probability of you buying the best equipment for your needs is significantly increased.
Benefits of hardware synthesizers
Of course, the hardware synth has to come with some advantages; otherwise, it wouldn’t be worth the purchase. One significant advantage is the interface. If you compare the interface of a hardware synthesizer with that of a software option, you can see that the former is easier to operate due to dedicated controls. Also, they are quite reliable and will often last for many years before succumbing to age. Another pro is the fact that hardware synths are more reliable since they don’t crash as much as their software counterparts. If you are playing to an audience, it will do you a lot of good not to have to worry about device failure. These are a few of the benefits to expect with the purchase of your first hardware synth with more to reveal themselves as you get used to the device.
Features to consider when choosing a hardware synth
One area to pay a lot of intention is the list of features for each device. With enough information, you will even be able to tell if the tool is worth the price quoted. Of course, we want to assist you with this as well hence the breakdown of features listed below.
The two main types of engines are the analog and digital options.
The latter likely has a computer processor that allows it to perform digital signal processing where sequences of numbers are converted to sound variables. The analog version, however, uses sound-generating circuitry to achieve sound production.
If you know various keyboard types, then you will know that some are superior to others. The superiority can be apparent, for example, in the case of the number of keys available. Often people prefer keyboards with more keys since they are easier to play. Another difference may arise where keyboards are concerned with the type of keys included. Semi-weighted and weighted are two standard classifications, with the latter being the most preferred. However, the semi-weighted keys, as displayed by the Dave Smith Instruments OB-6 Analog Synthesizer, are not bad either and offer a bevy of benefits as well. Other extra features shown by keyboards include being sensitive to aftertouch and finger velocity.
Most devices are different in the number of voices they can produce. There are a few synths that can only create one voice at a time despite having other voices on standby. These are often known as monophonic synths. You as well have the polyphonic synths that can handle outputting multiple voices at the same time. As to the number of voices, it depends on the device, as seen in the Novation Peak 8-Voice Desktop Polyphonic Synthesizer with an 8-voice polyphony vs. the Novation MiniNova Analog Modeling Synthesizer with 18 voices.
An extra feature that is not found in a lot of the modern hardware synths is a built-in speaker. There are, however, going to be some exceptions available, and it would make playback much easier. As such, if you have the option of a built-in speaker with your purchase, you should go for it.
Most of the machines above come with various effects that can be used to tweak sounds and voices outputted by the device. Some effects like chorus, delay, reverb, and more overlap from device to device. However, every so often, you may find a machine with a unique effect, such as the overdrive in the Elektron Digitone 8-Voice Digital Synth. If you are at a store, you can test out some of these effects to see if they fit your fancy or not. You can as well choose the device with the most effects since you will have more variety.
Filters are another way in which you can tweak the sound output for your hardware synth. As such, the more filters that the device has, the better.
Most professionals in the music business will as well tell you that a musical instrument digital interface is one of the key devices that you can own. It will allow you to connect different types of hardware, including the synth and other musical instruments. This will enable you to have uniform output from all your equipment. As such most hardware synths will come with a MIDI input and output connection port. Some will even allow for a MIDI through connection with an example of the Elektron Digitone 8-voice Digital Synth. Devices like this will be able to receive a MIDI and send it out precisely as it is received.
In addition to the MIDI in, out, and through ports, the device may also have more ports that allow for a bevy of other tools to be attached. This is inclusive of computers via USB ports, microphones, pedals, and more.
Size and weight
Some machines like the Elektron Digitone 8-voice Digital Synth come in rather compact packages, which is a preference for most buyers. The small form allows the tool to fit in bags easily as well as make it lightweight enough to carry around. However, some design sacrifices need to be made to achieve this small size. Regarding the Elektron Digitone 8-voice Digital Synth, the manufacturer opted to do away with the keyboard altogether. Some users don’t mind this since they can attach other tools to fill in for the keyboard. Others would rather have keyboards on their devices and thus will not purchase such a tool.
Budgetary limitations are also often a determining factor in the tool that a person ends up purchasing. You find tools like the Novation MiniNova Analog Modeling Synthesizer that will cost you less than $500, then you have other options on the list that need more than $2000 to purchase. With bigger pockets, you have more options to choose from. Also, the more expensive options will likely come with a few extra features in comparison to their counterparts.
Most people mix up the two options because they don’t have enough information on the subject. However, some differences exist between the two. The first significant difference is that the synthesizer is capable of producing sounds on its own while the keyboard is not. Keyboards usually look like digital pianos, and their most apparent quality is that they possess black and white piano keys. Synthesizers, on the other hand, don’t even need to have keyboards, although most of them include them in their design. Also, keyboards need to be attached to a synthesizer to be capable of producing any sounds. The synthesizers in question could as well be in the form of your PC with the right software included.
A monophonic synth is a smaller and cheaper option as compared to polyphonic hardware synths. This is because these tools will only be able to produce a single note at a time. If you contrast this with their polyphonic counterparts, you will see a difference in that the latter can create several different notes at a time. Also, you will see polyphony mentioned in the product descriptions of all the devices above. It represents a numerical description of the number of notes each device can handle or produce simultaneously.
To produce a particular sound on a synthesizer, certain conditions have to be met with regards to the signal routings from the oscillators as well as parameter settings put in place beforehand. These conditions or parameters are what is referred to as the synth patch.
Having checked out the various hardware synth options available to the best of our abilities, we as well have a few items in our wishlist. The first is, of course, the editor’s choice. It is impressive in that it caters to just about all the needs of a synth user. The components are excellent quality including the oscillators and keys. Also, it has all the features necessary that a professional user would have no problem making the best use of it.
Another tool to feature in our favorites list is the Sequential Prophet X 61-Key Synthesizer. As it stands, one of the more endearing qualities of the synth is the size and number of keys. It should prove easier to get used to especially if you have had previous experience with an actual piano.
Where the first two options are not available it makes sense to go for the Korg Prologue 61-Key Analog Synthesizer instead. It seems this is yet another all-round tool that costs a lot of money. This is likely to discourage a lot of potential buyers but then again, you had better be ready to spend if you want the very best in quality. The other two top options are expensive as well. Likewise, each of the other six options provided will suit a particular target market and the trick is figuring out where you fit in all this before ordering your purchase from Amazon.