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The best synthesizers in 2021, featuring 24 top keyboards, modules and semi-modular synths

The best synthesizers in 2021, featuring 24 top keyboards, modules and semi-modular synths
(Image credit: Future)

It’s fair to say we’ve all, over the past decade or so, become more reliant on using soft-synths. With just a few clicks of a mouse, you can create pretty much any sound you like with full polyphony and any effect you can think of. With all this variety, you’d be forgiven for thinking the hardware synth is on its way out but, as we’ve seen, the market has never been in a better place. Wherever you look, there is innovation and fun to be had from today’s breed of hard synths, so we’ve pulled a few of our favourites together into this guide to the best synthesizers around right now. 

From simple but sweet-sounding monosynths to fully tricked out poly behemoths, there is a synth out there with your name on it, waiting to be tweaked and played with. 

We’ve listed these synths in price order to make it easier for you to find the right one for your budget. If you need more info on how to choose the right synth for you, hit the ‘buying advice’ link above. Or keep scrolling to get straight to our top choices.

Best synthesizers: Our top picks

As you’ll see in this guide, there are synths out there for all types of player, and all levels of budget. As a middle ground, however, we’re particularly drawn towards the Modal Electronics Cobalt8. The Cobalt8 has enough tricks and advanced sequencing abilities to appeal to anyone who’s been playing for years, yet is laid out in such an intuitive way that anybody, of any ability level, could start tweaking and make some wonderful sounds from it. 

A special nod also to the Arturia Microfreak; for pure bonkers creativity and experimentation, the Microfreak is a very special synth indeed.

Best synthesizers: Under $/£500

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1. IK Multimedia UNO Synth

A super-cheap, quirky analogue monosynth that delivers where it counts

Specifications
Price: $199/£210/€229
Synth engine: Analogue
Polyphony: Monophonic
Keyboard: Touch keyboard
Sequencer: Yes
Effects: Delay, Dive, Scoop, Vibrato, Wah, Tremolo
MIDI I/O: Minijack In/Out
Connectivity: 3.5mm stereo output (mono summed), 3.5mm stereo input (mono summed), Micro USB
Power: Four AA batteries
Reasons to buy
+Versatile, weighty analogue sound+Flexible arp, sequencer and scale mode+Plenty of great sounding, highly usable presets
Reasons to avoid
-Hardware feels quite lightweight and cheap

The look of Uno may prove a bit divisive. Its slanted profile and push button control panel have a retro charm, but it’s a design that brings to mind the early days of home computers more than any vintage analogue synth. The lower part of the push button interface is taken up by a 27-note ‘keyboard’ for live playing, or to input notes for the onboard sequencer or arpeggiator. Despite all of this, Uno is an excellent-sounding, versatile analogue monosynth, and you do get a lot for your money. 

The presets offer a ton of highly usable sounds, and we could certainly see this becoming a go-to instrument for classic basses and leads. The arp and sequencer are great for inspiring ideas, and a software editor adds to the allure. If you can cope with a few compromises, Uno is a great source of classic, punchy analogue sounds at a bargain price.

Read the full IK Multimedia Uno synth review

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2. Korg Volca FM

The best portable and affordable FM synth

Specifications
Price: $149/£129/€168
Synth engine: Digital FM
Polyphony: 3 voices
Keyboard: Multitouch
Sequencer: Yes
Effects: Chorus
MIDI I/O: In
Connectivity: Headphones, Sync In, Sync Out
Power: Battery or optional AC adapter
Reasons to buy
+Great FM Sound+More flexible than it first appears+Affordable
Reasons to avoid
-Only three voices

The Volca FM is a compact, battery-powerable instrument, housed in a plastic chassis with a design that gives a cheeky stylistic nod to the Yamaha DX7 from which it takes its sonic cues. It's equipped with a ribbon-style keyboard-come-sequencer, built-in speaker, MIDI input and 3.5mm sync in/out. This is easily the best of the Volca range so far. Where the other models have merely captured the general vibe of the instruments they took their inspiration from - albeit in a very fun and affordable way - the FM manages not only to nail the sound of its spiritual predecessor, but also adds an assortment of new and powerful features. 

It's not without its limitations - the lack of polyphony leaves it lagging behind the original DX7, Yamaha's Reface DX, and the various FM plugins out there - but the sound of those dark, percussive basses, icy mallets and '80s-style horns is bang on, and if you start to push the capabilities of this tweakable, hands-on little synth, you'll find it's capable of some truly unique tricks.

Read the full Korg Volca FM review

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3. Arturia MicroFreak

A great fun, innovative and affordable digital synth

Specifications
Price: $299/£279/€299
Synth engine: Digital
Polyphony: 4 voice paraphonic
Keyboard: 25-key capacitive keyboard
Sequencer: Yes
Effects: None
MIDI I/O: In/Out
Connectivity: Mono 1/4-inch output for audio, headphone output; 3.5mm CV/Gate/Pressure outputs, and 3.5mm MIDI I/O
Power: USB-powered, AC adapter
Reasons to buy
+Lots of sonic potential given the price range+Weird and wacky oscillator modes+So much fun to program
Reasons to avoid
-A 24dB/oct filter mode would be useful

With so many synthesis features packed into such a small box, it’s hard not to fall in love with this hardware offering from Arturia. The multiple oscillator modes cover a near-endless range of timbres; the filter is smooth and versatile; the Matrix invites exploratory modulation; and the performance and sequencing tools are the icing on the creative cake. 

However, the real magic lies in the combo of all these together, making this odd little beast far more than the sum of its parts. MicroFreak should be top of your ‘must try’ list. 

Read the full Arturia MicroFreak review

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4. Behringer Neutron

The best semi-modular bang for your buck

Specifications
Price: $329/£229/€345
Polyphony: Paraphonic
Synth engine: all-analogue; 2 VCO, 1 VCF (12db LPF/HPF), VCA, 2 ENV (ADSR), LFO, BBD delay, overdrive
Control: External MIDI/CV control only
Patch points: 56
Other I/O: MIDI In/Thru, USB (MIDI in), master out, audio in, headphone out
Reasons to buy
+Great value for money+3340 VCO – a clone of the legendary CEM3340 found in analogue classics of the late ’70s and early ’80s+Flexible patchbay
Reasons to avoid
-Too easy to saturate the filter section

Behringer’s synth arm might be best known for its controversy-courting ‘tributes’, but the German brand also has a couple of excellent original instruments under its belt. Following in the steps of the Deepmind, Neutron is an analogue semi-modular that packs in a lot of flexibility for its very affordable price point. 

The Neutron has a few flaws, and there are some frustrating design issues, but it does sound good, and in terms of bang-for-your-buck, you can't really beat it. While it does a very good job of creating more sensible sounds, it also excels at the weird and wonderful.

Read the full Behringer Neutron review

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Best synthesizers: IK Multimedia Uno Synth Pro

(Image credit: IK Multimedia )
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Best synthesizers: IK Multimedia Uno Synth Pro

(Image credit: IK Multimedia)
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Best synthesizers: IK Multimedia Uno Synth Pro

(Image credit: IK Multimedia)

5. IK Multimedia Uno Synth Pro

Shames more expensive synths with functions and features you’d expect to pay twice as much for

Specifications
Price: from $399/£361/€399
Synth engine: Analogue
Polyphony: Paraphonic
Keyboard: Full 37-note keyboard (or touch on the desktop)
Sequencer: 64-step sequencer
Effects: 12 effects in three slots
MIDI I/O: Minijack In/Out
Connectivity: 2 x 1/4” outs, 3.5mm headphone out and input, 2 x CV in and out, USB
Power: PSU (desktop via USB)
Reasons to buy
+Some excellent stereo effects +Very capable sequencer +Full keyboard feels good 
Reasons to avoid
-Full version much more expensive than desktop 

UNO Synth Pro is an analogue synth, very much the big brother of the UNO Synth. It is available as a full-size and much more expensive keyboard version or a desktop unit with touch keys. The keyboard version is obviously larger, sporting a heavy-duty metal enclosure, as well as physical wheels for pitch and mod. Those differences – and the keyboard version’s power socket – aside, the two are identical. 

UNO Synth Pro sports three analogue VCOs and a white noise generator, all with some great tone shaping options. Each of the three oscillators has continuous wave shape variations from saw to pulse width, with modulation. There are two analogue state variable filters, with dedicated cutoff and resonance controls. 

The potentiometers all feel smooth and firm, with a nice amount of resistance and, while the filter controls are dedicated, the function of most changes is dependent on the active menu. There is also a fantastic modulation matrix, which is a doddle to use; fast and powerful, belying its appearance.

With a great sequencer and some fantastic effects – although not many of them – this is a great synth for the money with a really simple workflow. All in all, it is a fine instrument and one that definitely punches over its weight class, in terms of sound and functionality. 

Read the full IK Multimedia Uno Synth Pro review 

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6. Arturia MiniBrute 2

A seriously competitive semi-modular monosynth

Specifications
Price: $499/£439/€539
Synth engine: Analogue
Polyphony: Paraphonic
Keyboard: 32 RGB-backlit velocity-sensitive button grid
Sequencer: Yes
Effects: Distortion (three types)
MIDI I/O: In/Out/Thru
Connectivity: Headphones. line out, audio input, analogue clock in and out, CV, gate and aux CV outputs, USB (MIDI only)
Power: Power adapter
Reasons to buy
+The patchbay adds flexibility+Plenty of analogue grit+Decent control options
Reasons to avoid
-Osc 2 pitch control is a little too close to the filter cutoff

Where the original was a fairly straightforward monosynth with a few unique touches and some CV control, the MiniBrute 2 is semi-modular, boasting a beefed- up synth engine and a comprehensive mini-jack patchbay. As before, the primary oscillator can generate saw, triangle and square waves simultaneously, the outputs of which are blended via the oscillator mixer, where they’re joined by a white noise source and external audio input. 

Filter-wise, the MiniBrute 2 keeps the Steiner-Parker-style filter of its predecessor, which offers -12dB low- and high-pass modes, plus -6dB band-pass and notch filtering. On the whole, the MiniBrute 2 is a real success. It takes everything we liked about the original - the analogue grit, interesting oscillator shaping and Brute factor control, which overdrives the signal chain using a controlled feedback loop - and expands on it considerably. A serious competitor, then, and the same can be said of the MiniBrute 2S, which swaps the keys for a pad-based step sequencer.

Read the full Arturia MiniBrute 2 review

Best synthesizer: Under $/£999

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7. Korg Minilogue XD

Prologue’s four biggest features in a compact, affordable form

Specifications
Price: $649/£499/€675
Synth engine: Hybrid
Polyphony: 4 voices
Keyboard: 37 slim keys, velocity-sensitive
Sequencer: Yes
Effects: Delay, Reverb, Chorus, Flanger, Ensemble, Phaser
MIDI I/O: In/Out
Connectivity: Headphones, stereo output, audio in, sync in, sync out, USB, 2x CV in
Power: AC adapter
Reasons to buy
+CV connectivity+Good build quality
Reasons to avoid
-Only one filter pole option onboard-No low-cut/high-pass filter switch or dial

This model slots comfortably into the 'Logue' range between the original Minilogue and the Prologue 8. If we had to choose between this and the original Minilogue, it’d be the XD due to its more powerful sequencer, extended general versatility, user-customisable Multi-Engine/effects, the joystick for real-time control, user scales/tunings, more inspiring vibe and excellent motion-sequenceable stereo effects/output. 

Along with the new damper pedal jack and dual-CV inputs (to interface with modular gear), the XD is a nicely different flavour of Minilogue, and its unique personality is a hugely welcome addition to the range as a whole. 

Read the full Korg Minilogue XD review

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Best synthesizers: Korg Wavestate

(Image credit: Korg)
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Best synthesizers: Korg Wavestate

(Image credit: Korg)
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Best synthesizers: Korg Wavestate

(Image credit: Korg)

8. Korg Wavestate

The wavetable revival is well underway

Specifications
Price: $699/£545/€649
Synth engine: Digital
Polyphony: 64 voices
Keyboard: 37 full-size, velocity sensitive
Sequencer: Yes
Effects: 14
MIDI I/O: In, Out, USB
Connectivity: USB
Power: 12V DC
Reasons to buy
+A lot to get stuck into sound-wise+Comprehensive modulation options
Reasons to avoid
-Bit of a learning curve to unlock its full potential

In the 1990s, wavetable synthesis was the fuel behind the dance and electronic music fire, delivering an intuitive way of accessing a wide variety of sounds within a single patch. For sound designers and experimental producers, it was unparalleled in its creative potential. As one of the pioneers of this method of synthesis, Korg has now reintroduced it to the world with the Wavestate. 

64 stereo voice polyphony and an insane level of sequencing potential add up to create one of the most diverse sounding modern synths on the market. Taking full advantage of that does take some effort but if you’re willing to put the work in there isn’t much the Wavestate can’t do. 

Read the full Korg Wavestate review

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Best synthesizer: Modal Electronics Cobalt8

(Image credit: Modal Electronics)
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Best synthesizer: Modal Electronics Cobalt8

(Image credit: Modal Electronics)
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Best synthesizer: Modal Electronics Cobalt8

(Image credit: Modal Electronics)

9. Modal Electronics Cobalt8

Flexible, polyphonic and stuffed with creative potential

Specifications
Price: $749/£555/€649
Synth engine: Virtual Analog
Polyphony: 8 voices
Keyboard: 37 Fatar full-size keys
Sequencer: Yes
Effects: Yes
MIDI I/O: In, Out, USB
Connectivity: USB
Power: 9V DC
Reasons to buy
+Incredible sequencer+MPE support+So many sounds
Reasons to avoid
-Not much wrong here…

If you’ve got your heart set on a fully polyphonic synth, but don’t have the means to drop second-hand car levels of money at one, then the Modal Electronics Cobalt8 might just be the perfect option. This is a lot of synth for the money. From its full eight voice polyphony, to variety of effects, to a step sequencer which can carry up to 512 notes, there is an avalanche of stuff to play with here. 

If you’re coming from a playing history that’s only ever taken in VSTs and soft-synths, then the Cobalt8 might just be the perfect option to introduce you to the world of hands-on control. We liked the MPE support, which is of particular benefit to Ableton Live 11 users, and found overall there was very little we couldn’t do with this particular synth. Put your analog snobbery to one side; the Cobalt8 is a joy to play.

Read the full Modal Electronics Cobalt8 review

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10. Elektron Digitone

A great FM synth that comes with some new twists

Specifications
Price: $799/£639/€779
Synth engine: FM digital
Polyphony: 8 voices
Keyboard: None
Sequencer: Four synth tracks and four MIDI tracks
Effects: Chorus, delay, reverb, overdrive
MIDI I/O: In/Out/Thru
Connectivity: Two 1/4-inch balanced audio outs, two 1/4-inch audio ins, headphones, USB
Power: Power adapter
Reasons to buy
+Clear yet fat sound+Can also be used as an FM sound module or MIDI sequencer+Sequencer and sound engine work together seamlessly
Reasons to avoid
-Sequencer isn't the easiest to learn

Digitone uses good old familiar four-operator FM synthesis (where waves modulate each other) but with some very welcome new twists and turns. The native FM engine is eight-note polyphonic and has four dedicated tracks (accessed directly via the sweet shop style T1-T4 buttons), along with four MIDI tracks for controlling/sequencing external MIDI gear. Once the Digitone’s FM sound engine is coupled to the Elektron’s fantastic sequencer design, the whole thing just comes alive. You’ll soon be wondering why anyone thought FM was difficult to use or old-fashioned sounding. 

Of course, you can use the Digitone as a simple sound module triggered from a MIDI controller, DAW or the onboard 16-step buttons to play simple old-skool FM impersonations, but it’s once the sequencer, modulators and filters are employed (and the excellent effects overlayed or ‘P-locked') that the Digitone shows its true and superb colours.

Read the full Elektron Digitone review

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11. Behringer DeepMind 12

A powerful analogue poly at a great price

Specifications
Price: $879/£598/€1,198
Synth engine: Analogue
Polyphony: 12 voices
Keyboard: 49 keys, velocity-sensitive and aftertouch
Sequencer: 32-step control sequencer
Effects: More than 30 algorithms including reverb, chorus, flanger, phaser, delay and multiband distortion
MIDI I/O: In/Out/Thru
Connectivity: Stereo outputs, Headphones, CV/pedal input, USB
Power: Mains adapter
Reasons to buy
+Plenty of voices at a great price+Flexible modulation matrix+Loads of presets
Reasons to avoid
-Not as 'immediate' as some

Behringer’s first analogue synth is polyphonic to the tune of 12 simultaneous voices, and with a metal case and wooden side panels, it looks like the real deal. While DeepMind is certainly interactive and powerful, it lacks the immediacy of some of the simpler classics, such as Roland’s Juno-106 or Jupiter-8. That said, this is an impressive first entry into the synth arena for Behringer. 

Unlike some of its previous products, this is not a cut-price clone, and delivers its own take on what a $900 analogue polyphonic synth should be. Throw in the free cross-platform editing software, 1,024 onboard presets and a three-year warranty, and you have an alluring package.

Read the full Behringer DeepMind 12 review

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12. Studiologic Sledge

A sweet virtual analogue synth that shouldn't be overlooked

Specifications
Price: $899/£718/€990
Synth engine: Virtual analogue
Polyphony: 24 voices
Keyboard: 61 keys with aftertouch
Sequencer: No
Effects: Chorus, phaser, flanger, delay, reverb
MIDI I/O: In/Out
Connectivity: Left and right audio outs, two headphones outs, USB (to host and MIDI), hold and expression pedal inputs
Power: AC adapter
Reasons to buy
+Rich, full virtual analogue sound+Sampling capability+Lightweight but well built
Reasons to avoid
-Yellow case won't be for everyone (though you can also get it in black)

The original Waldorf-powered Sledge launched in 2012 and, despite being pretty reasonably priced and offering a very solid synth engine, largely fell under the radar. However, v2.0 is a significant upgrade. There's no doubt that the Sledge's front panel has been largely influenced by the Minimoog with its classic three-oscillator plus filter plus dual envelope layout. It's a great choice of design as it's very familiar to most people and flows very nicely. 

Throw in wavetable and sample import options, plus FM, 24-note polyphony, split/layering facilities and aftertouch support, and Sledge starts to look like a great buy. A black version with several new features is now available, too.

Read the full Studiologic Sledge 2.0 review

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13. Moog Grandmother

A cutting-edge take on classic sounds

Specifications
Price: $999/£777/€1,099
Polyphony: Mono
Synth engine: 2 VCO, 2 VCF (24db LPF & 6db HPF), VCA, 1 ENV (ADSR), 1 LFO, spring reverb
Control: 32-note keyboard, sequencer/arp
Patch points: 41
Other I/O: MIDI in, out & thru, audio in, master out, headphone out, arp/seq CV control
Reasons to buy
+Flexible, patchable design+Loads of interconnectivity+Classic Moog modular sound!
Reasons to avoid
-Some functions are hidden and not obvious

Moog’s latest semi-modular comes equipped with a 32-note Fatar keyboard, sequencer and arp, making it more performance-focussed than its siblings in the Mother line. It has a chic multi-coloured retro design that suits its authentic vintage sound. The old-school approach is rounded off nicely with the inclusion of a spring reverb module – a rare inclusion in modern synths. 

Grandmother is a versatile performer, capable of a vast range of sounds even before patching a cable. Is it worth the asking price? Absolutely, if for no other reason than providing users with a taste of those old Moog modular circuits without having to take out a second mortgage.

Read the full Moog Grandmother review

Best synthesizers: $/£1,000+

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Best synthesizers: ASM Hydrasynth

(Image credit: ASM )
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Best synthesizers: ASM Hydrasynth

(Image credit: ASM )
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Best synthesizers: ASM Hydrasynth

(Image credit: ASM)

14. ASM Hydrasynth

Dive deep into this synth and expect some great rewards

Specifications
Price: $1,299/£1,045/€1,250
Synth engine: Digital Wave Morphing
Polyphony: 8-voice
Keyboard: Full, 49-note with polyphonic aftertouch
Sequencer: No (includes a deep arpeggiator)
Effects: Nine pre effects, delay, reverb, nine post effects
MIDI I/O: MIDI In/Out/Thru
Connectivity: 2 x 1/4" outs, 2 x headphone out, sustain and expression in, 2 x C V in, 5 x CV out, USB
Power: External (wall-wart) PSU
Reasons to buy
+Excellent build quality +Clear and intuitive interface +A unique sounding synth 
Reasons to avoid
-Steep learning curve 

Hydrasynth is an unconventional digital synth that uses ‘wave morphing’ at its core. You have eight voices of polyphony utilising three oscillators per voice which include standard waves, plus wave-scanning, an intuitive type of wavetable synthesis where you can assign eight waves and then scan through them using a dial/mod route. Add in five (looping) envelopes per-voice, an amp module, two filter modules, five LFOs, reverb and delay modules, plus pre and post effects, and you have everything you need in terms of sound design, and all directly accessible and mostly modulatable! 

The general sound quality is truly excellent. It can be precise and crisp, warm and textured, with everything from high-quality ‘bread and butter’ sounds, to something truly unique and never heard before. Once you factor in the ribbon controller, arpeggiator, macros, mod routes – and poly aftertouch – and all the very musical sounding effects/drive, you’ll be discovering new sounds in super quick time.

There is something of a learning curve but remember we are dealing with a lot of complexity – Hydrasynth is a deep synth and hugely impressive. In terms of build quality, looks, features, sound – not to mention affordability – Hydrasynth has it all. 

Read the full ASM Hydrasynth review 

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15. Novation Peak

Novation's hybrid heavyweight synth module

Specifications
Price: $1,399/£1,059/€1,399
Synth engine: Analogue/digital
Polyphony: 8 voices
Keyboard: None
Sequencer: No
Effects: Analogue distortion, chorus, delay, reverb
MIDI I/O: In/Out/Thru
Connectivity: Left and right audio outs, headphones, USB (MIDI), two pedal inputs, CV in
Power: Mains power
Reasons to buy
+An individual sound+Multiple modulation and sound shaping options+Well built and great hands-on control
Reasons to avoid
-No keyboard

Designed in consultation with Chris Hugget (Chris designed the legendary OSCar and collaborated on several other Novation synths), Peak is one of Novation’s flagship synths. Peak is an 8-voice polyphonic, 24 ‘Oxford’ oscillator, monotimbral synthesizer, utilising extremely high-resolution anti-aliasing digital oscillators (NCOs) along with wavetables as its main sound sources. 

Each of the three oscillators onboard offers up the expected analogue-style waveforms (the saw has a density mode, effectively giving you a ‘supersaw’ mode), plus 17 wavetables, giving a vast range of tonal possibilities. Peak has a lot in the way of sonic shaping options, a unique and huge tone palette that’s suitable for all styles of electronica, and plenty of hands-on control. Plus, it’s well-built and fairly priced. Kudos to Novation on an impressive machine!

Read the full Novation Peak review

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16. Roland System-8

An expandable digital synth that covers lots of sonic ground

Specifications
Price: $1,499/£1,289/€1,545
Synth engine: Digital (ACM modelling)
Polyphony: 8 voices
Keyboard: 49 keys, velocity-sensitive
Sequencer: 64-step sequencer
Effects: Overdrive, distortion, metal, fuzz, crusher, phaser, delay, chorus, flanger, reverb
MIDI I/O: In/Out
Connectivity: Left and right audio outs, left and right audio ins, headphones, CV/Gate outputs, trigger in, hold and control pedal inputs, USB (audio/MIDI)
Power: Mains power
Reasons to buy
+Excellent and versatile synth engine+Plenty of hands-on control+Comes with classic Roland synth Plug-Outs and you can buy more
Reasons to avoid
-Some sequencer and arp features are missing

Designed by the AIRA team (a separate division within Roland), the System-8 can be viewed as the System-1’s big brother and then some. It’s an eight-voice ACB-powered polysynth with its own powerful native engine, accompanied by the Plug-Out slots into which you can place your choice of any three Plug-Outs from the Roland Content Store. 

The S-8 ships with Plug-Out versions of the Jupiter-8 and Juno-106, arguably Roland’s two best-loved polys. The S-8 engine offers a versatile setup that’s capable of a huge range of tones, from future-electronic to classic vintage, and it all sounds precise yet warm and musical. Throw in audio interface/CV capabilities, a sequencer and a decent vocoder (plus audio inputs with dedicated FX) and it’s hard not to be impressed.

Read the full Roland System-8 review

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17. Dave Smith Instruments Prophet X

A true hybrid heavyweight

Specifications
Price: $1,999/£1,879/€1,999
Synth engine: Hybrid
Polyphony: 8-voice stereo (16-voice mono)
Keyboard: 61 semi-weighted keys with velocity and channel (mono) aftertouch
Sequencer: 64 step
Effects: Delay, chorus, phaser, flanger, rotary speaker, HPF, reverb and distortion
MIDI I/O: In/Out
Connectivity: Headphone output, MIDI and USB (B-type) I/O, USB (A-type), stereo audio output, output B, pedal inputs for expression/CV, volume, sustain and sequencer trigger
Reasons to buy
+Solid build, intuitive and fun+Lots of modulation routing available
Reasons to avoid
-No way to allocate voices flexibly per-layer-No way to bypass effects for just the sample or synth on a single layer

The Prophet X brings a wholly new/welcome sound to Dave Smith’s lineup. Due to its flexible and open sample-based architecture and tried and tested synth engine, it can cover practically any sonic ground. Like the Waldorf Quantum, the price is high but similarly the X is using the latest technology in a really musical/elegant way, while simultaneously pushing you into new sonic approaches/territories. 

Build quality is solid; all the switchgear and knobs feel tank-like and very roadworthy. Prophet X’s 61-note velocity/aftertouch enabled keybed also feels very high-quality and, although it’s a little more stiffly sprung than the Prophet 6, this does give you more detailed control over the acoustic instruments and velocity-switched samples If you want a synth that can quickly get you close to the sonic complexity of your DAW’s plugins (but without the fuss), then this is it!

Read the full Dave Smith Instruments Prophet X review

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Best synthesizers: Sequential Pro 3 SE

(Image credit: Sequential )
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Best synthesizers: Sequential Pro 3 SE

(Image credit: Sequential )
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Best synthesizers: Sequential Pro 3 SE

(Image credit: Sequential)

18. Sequential Pro 3 SE

A beefy monosynth with more than a few pleasant surprises up its sleeve

Specifications
Price: $2,099/£1,699/€1,695
Synth engine: Analogue + digital
Polyphony: 3-voice paraphonic
Keyboard: 37-key with velocity and aftertouch
Sequencer: 16-track
Effects: Dual digital effects (11 types)
MIDI I/O: In/Out(x2)/Thru
Connectivity: 2 x 1/4" outs, 1 x 1/4" audio in, 2 x 1/4" Pedal in, headphone, 4 x CV in and out, 1 x Gate out, USB
Power: Mains
Reasons to buy
+Warm and distinctive tone +Huge array of sound design options +Surprisingly intuitive 
Reasons to avoid
-Pretty heavy 

Alongside two analogue VCOs, each with variable saw, triangle and square waves, plus shape mod, the Pro 3 has noise, an external audio input and a fantastic wavetable oscillator that houses some truly wonderful waveshapes. Filter wise you get a Prophet 6 style 4-pole low pass, a Moog(ish) ladder with self-oscillating resonance, then an Oberheim style SEM 2-pole, with variable low and high pass.

There is a very comprehensive mod matrix, which is intuitive, and the OLED screen helps keep everything in check with its immediate feedback and simple navigation. There's also a fantastic sequencer that could easily be a product in its own right. Four tracks at 16 steps alone would be good but here there is so much more, from swing to programme change mode.   

The Pro 3 might be seen as a monosynth but it is a three-voice paraphonic synth, making it a versatile beast. The way it cycles through the voices makes it easy to get complex and creative with arpeggios and sequences, in tandem with different octave settings per voice. Pro 3 does 'pretty' and 'subtle' well but where it shines most is when you add a little grit, which is easy to do by way of the filter and Tuned Feedback sections. 

The abilities of each section combine to make Pro 3 a true powerhouse of sound design. The drive sections are outstanding and the mod matrix, in tandem with the fabulous sequencer, make this one of the most versatile synths out there. 

Read the full Sequential Pro 3 SE review 

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19. Roland JD-XA

An inspiring blend of analogue and digital

Specifications
Price: $2,499/£1,549/€2,099
Synth engine: Analogue/digital
Polyphony: Analogue, four voices; digital 64 voices
Keyboard: 49-note, velocity-sensitive with aftertouch
Sequencer: 16-track pattern sequencer
Effects: MFX: eight systems with 67 types; Part EQ: eight systems; TFX: two systems with 29 types; Delay; Reverb; Master EQ
MIDI I/O: In/Out
Connectivity: 1/4-inch main output jacks, 1/4-inch analogue dry output jac, 1/4-inch click output jack, 1/4-inch combo mic jack, foot pedal jacks, CV/gate output jacks, USB (audio/MIDI)
Power: AC adapter
Reasons to buy
+Analogue and digital engines can produce unique sounds together+Very tweakable front panel+Plenty of modulation options
Reasons to avoid
-Keyboard is only four octaves

Given Roland’s fine history of analogue polysynths, the larger of the company’s two ‘crossover’ keyboards had a lot to live up to when it was released in 2015. Happily, it delivers. The JD-XA is hugely versatile. It can act as a powerful analogue and hybrid mono/polysynth, and features one of the nicest vocoders we’ve used. 

There are plenty of modulation options onboard, the global and insert FX and new analogue filters sound great, and it’s a powerful MIDI control surface to boot. This is a great keyboard to have at the centre of any setup - either live or in the studio. Hats-off to Roland for making one of the most inspiring and unique-sounding synths of recent times.

Read the full Roland JD-XA review

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Best synthesizers: Arturia Polybrute

(Image credit: Arturia)
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Best synthesizers: Arturia Polybrute

(Image credit: Arturia )
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Best synthesizers: Arturia Polybrute

(Image credit: Arturia )

20. Arturia Polybrute

A fantastically characterful, well-designed, top-tier polysynth

Specifications
Price: $2,699/£2,199/€2,699
Synth engine: Digitally-controlled analogue
Polyphony: 6-voice
Keyboard: 61-key velocity and aftertouch keyboard
Sequencer: 64-step polyphonic
Effects: three stereo digital: modulation, delay, reverb
MIDI I/O: Minijack In/Out/Thru
Connectivity: 2 x 1/4" out, 2 x expression and pedal input, Sync in/out, USB
Power: Mains
Reasons to buy
+Morphing engine is fantastic for creating evolving, complex sounds +Hands-on modulation matrix is a great design +Excellent digital effects 
Reasons to avoid
-Only six voices of polyphony 

PolyBrute is a digitally-controlled analogue synth combining multiple VCOs and VCFs with a powerful modulation matrix, sequencer and arpeggiator. It features the same button matrix as found on the MatrixBrute which can act as a handy preset browser, a controller for the multi-lane sequencer and, most usefully, a digital patchbay for assigning and editing modulation routings. 

PolyBrute is a six-voice instrument so it’s far from the most polyphonic synth in its price range. It is multitimbral though, with the ability to set up two distinct sounds at once. In standard Morph mode you can use a rotary to gradually morph between these sounds and all their associated parameters. 

It’s the modulation and morphing tools that give the PolyBrute its character. While it’s versatile, capable of unison leads, frequency-filling basses, FX and classic analogue chords, the synth is best when using its morphing capabilities to create patches that can shift from creamy to metallic with a twist of the mod wheel. 

Overall, this is an excellently designed, characterful synthesizer deserving of a place among the top tier of polysynths.

Read the full Arturia Polybrute review 

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Best synthesizers: UDO Super 6

(Image credit: UDO)
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Best synthesizers: UDO Super 6

(Image credit: UDO )
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Best synthesizers: UDO Super 6

(Image credit: UDO )

21. UDO Super 6

Intuitive, super-versatile, sounds unique… a pleasure to get lost in!

Specifications
Price: $2,800/£2,195/€2,499
Synth engine: Binaural analogue hybrid
Polyphony: 12-voice polyphonic
Keyboard: 49-note full size with velocity and aftertouch
Sequencer: 64-step sequencer
Effects: Chorus and delay
MIDI I/O: Minijack In/Out/Thru
Connectivity: 2 x 1/4” out, 1 x 1/4” in, 2 x pedal in, headphone out, USB
Power: Mains
Reasons to buy
+Stellar build quality +Unique sound +Intuitive interface
Reasons to avoid
-No screen 

With its UI and look designed by legendary synth designer Axel Hartmann, the Super 6 is certainly beautifully laid out, with hints of Juno/Jupiter-6 and Teisco’s rare 110F. It also has a fantastic build quality and is available in two colours: blue and gun-metal grey. 

At the heart of the Super 6 are two DDS1 and DDS2 (Direct Digital Synthesis) oscillators that deliver exactly what’s needed to bridge the gap between digital and analogue oscillators, offering the best of both worlds. By default, binaural mode is selected which gives you six voices of true stereo oscillators/signal path. However if you disable the binaural function, the Super 6 switches to a monoaural signal path with 12 voices to work with. There’s also a versatile-sounding analogue 4-pole filter, lots of modulation possibilities, simple-yet-classy effects, plus a useful step-sequencer and arpeggiator. 

Performance-wise, this synth is super hands-on and everything is under direct control with very little hidden. Sonically, the analogue-style waveforms sound fat with plenty of beefy low content, great mid presence and cutting high-end and the S6 definitely has its own vibe going on. Versatility is a recurring theme and this synth is great for percussive hits and textures, or more smudgy pads, snappy synth brass, precise basses, punchy cutting leads and more.

Super 6 really is nothing short of super-impressive even more so for a debut release. Intuitive, super-versatile, sounds unique… a pleasure to get lost in!

Read the full UDO Super 6 review 

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22. Dave Smith Instruments OB-6

Synth gods Dave Smith and Tom Oberheim come together to create a classic

Specifications
Price: $2,999/£2,250/€2,999
Synth engine: Analogue
Polyphony: 6 voices
Keyboard: 49-note, velocity-sensitive with aftertouch
Sequencer: 64-step polyphonic step sequencer
Effects: Stereo analogue distortion, reverb, delay, chorus, flanger, phase shifters, ring modulator
MIDI I/O: In/Out/Thru
Connectivity: Stereo 1/4-inch audio outs, headphones, USB (MIDI), filter cutoff expression pedal input, volume expression pedal input, sustain footswitch input, sequencer start/stop footswitch input
Power: Mains power
Reasons to buy
+A great Oberheim/Dave Smith crossbreed+2-pole state-variable filter+Good modulation facilities
Reasons to avoid
-Some panel labelling obscured by dials at some viewing angles

The OB-6 is a 6-voice synth with an all-analogue signal path and discrete VCOs and filters. It was developed in collaboration with Tom Oberheim, and boasts a sound engine that's inspired by his original SEM. In fact, the OB-6 promises "true, vintage SEM tone with the stability and flexibility of modern technology". 

The architecture features two oscillators per voice, with continuously variable waveshapes (sawtooth and variable-width pulse, with triangle on oscillator 2). Each voice also has access to a SEM-inspired state-variable filter (low-pass, high-pass, band-pass, and notch). Completing the signal path are voltage-controlled amplifiers. Throw in a powerful modulation system, dual effects section and knob-per-function front panel and you've got a top-dollar synth that will keep you entertained for years to come.

Read the full Dave Smith Instruments OB-6 review

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Best synthesizers: Sequential Prophet 5

(Image credit: Sequential)
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Best synthesizers: Sequential Prophet 5

(Image credit: Sequential)
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Best synthesizers: Prophet 5

(Image credit: Sequential)

23. Sequential Prophet-5 Rev4

An updated '80s icon

Specifications
Launch price: $3499/£3199/€3700
Type: Analogue synthesizer
Polyphony: 5-Note
Keyboard: 61-note semi-weighted Fatar keyboard with velocity and aftertouch
Sound engine: Two CEM 3340 VCOs/voice; switchable low pass filter between Dave Rossum-designed 2140, and Doug Curtis-designed CEM 3320
Sequencer: N/A
Connections: mono out, headphone out, MIDI in/out/thru, USB, CV in/out, Gate in/out, 3 x footswitch
Reasons to buy
+All the features of the originals plus filter options for the various revisions+Amazing sounds and easy modulation – Poly-Mod's a classic +Velocity and aftertouch really bring the sounds alive +Fantastic build quality and updated connectivity 
Reasons to avoid
-Expensive compared to similarly-spec'd machines -You won't really want to gig with it 

The original three versions of Sequential’s Prophet-5 synth left their mark on so much music throughout the late 70s and early 80s, and were bought by luminaries including Jean-Michel Jarre, Pink Floyd, Abba and Genesis. It was a legendary synth and now it’s back, a new update from original designer Dave Smith.

This fourth revision of the Prophet-5 synth comes almost 40 years after the last. All you really need to know is that this is a classic synth updated for the 21st Century – the keyboard has aftertouch and velocity; connections include USB. Other than that, it sounds every bit as good as an original Prophet-5. It’s a beautiful synth, both in looks and sound and every bit as classic a modern piece of kit you could ask for.

Outstanding features include some excellent presets (including the original set of sounds found on the 1978 original Rev1), the brilliant Poly-Mod section that gives you instant sound design, plus a build quality that will have you drooling. It’s a serious piece of kit that perfectly updates a classic for 2021. Your only quandary should be whether you go for the extra five voices that the (also all-new) Prophet-10 gives you (for around another £6-800) or even Sequential’s own Prophet-6 which gives you more for less (but is not a Prophet-5!). This is a classic synth reborn.

Read the full Sequential Prophet-5 Rev 4 review

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24. Waldorf Quantum Synthesizer

The future of synthesizers

Specifications
Price: $4,399/£3,500/€3,995
Synth engine: Hybrid
Polyphony: 8-voice
Keyboard: 61-key fatar keybed with aftertouch
Sequencer: 64 step
Effects: Chorus, flanger, delay, reverb
MIDI I/O: In/Out/Thru
Connectivity: Headphone output, stereo audio input, MIDI and USB (B-type) I/O, USB (A-type), SD-card, stereo audio output, aux output, pedal inputs for expression and sustain
Reasons to buy
+Built like a tank, with solid controls+Clear and snappy touchscreen+Spec’d to the hilt!
Reasons to avoid
-No multimode for the analogue filter (though the Digital Former makes up for this)

At its heart, the Quantum is an 8-voice, bi-timbral (2-part) synth, using very high-resolution stereo oscillators routed through dual resonant analogue (or digital) filters. Sounds can be split and layered and voices can be allocated flexibly between layers; each layer can also have its own output for independent processing. Importantly, there are four independent synthesis engines (across the three oscillators). 

It is truly unique and capable of stunning, otherworldly, or familiar sonic results. It can sound huge, small, thin, fat, warm, epic, broken or cold and you can imprint your personality onto the sound using the available parameters, or your own samples. For ground-up, majestic sound design, SFX for lm/TV, weird evolving soundscapes, straight-up analogue synth emulation, FM-type sounds, and eery FX/atmos sounds, the Quantum is unbeatable. Yes, it’s pricey but it’s worth the investment - you’ll never get bored with this amount of depth and superb sonic results.

Read the full Waldorf Quantum review

Best synthesizers: Buying advice

Best synthesizer: buying advice

(Image credit: Future)

When you’re looking to invest in one of the best synthesizers, you’ll likely have to make a few key decisions at the start of your buying journey. Clearly budget will play a part, but as we’ll show there are amazing synths to be found right across the board, with some truly epic compact options coming in under £/$100. And, as hardware synths have grown in popularity, so too has the manufacturers’ desire to find new and exciting ways of packing in extra functionality. 

At the top end you will find synths which pack in more features and flexibility, either in the form of more voices, or effects, or with sequencing skills that can take your compositions off in all manner of strange directions. That’s part of what makes a hardware synth so much fun. You don’t always have to be ‘writing’ music, in the true sense of the word. Sometimes you can simply change a few parameters and see what happens. For creative, curious people there are few things that come close to the experience of playing a hardware synth. 

As with any genre of music, or music technology, there are trends which come and go. FM, for example, seems to have undergone a renaissance recently, while digital synths offering wavetable functionality greatly expands the tonal palette you have to play with. Don’t rule out digital or hybrid models either; while true analogue synths do still hold a special place in people’s hearts, modern hybrid synths delivering the sound of analogue with the flexibility of a digital engine offer the best of both worlds.  

Ultimately, you’ll know the sound you’re looking for but don’t rule out the possibility that a good hardware synth might just spark something and take your creativity off in a different direction completely. And that is exactly why we love them.