It wasn’t always the case, but we now live in a time where high-quality yet affordable hardware synthesizers are now commonplace. Whether you’re looking for a pocket-sized instrument that can be powered by batteries, a module or a keyboard, with any of the best cheap synthesizers in this list you can get a whole lot of instrument for your money.
You can take your pick when it comes to sound engines, too. Analogue (or analog, if you prefer) is undoubtedly fashionable - and well-represented at the budget end of the market - but digital synthesizers have a lot to offer, too. In some cases, you don’t even have to choose between the two, but we'll get to that.
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Over the past few years, MusicRadar has been reviewing as many affordable hardware synths as we’ve been able to get our hands on, and this round-up brings together the very best of them.
Whether you're a beginner looking for your first synth, or a sound design demon looking to add something new to your setup, there's an instrument out there to suit.
With Black Friday on the horizon, it could be worth holding off on picking up a new cheap synthesizer until the Black Friday music deals start emerging. We'll be reporting on the best offers right through to Black Friday itself.
What’s the best cheap synthesizer right now?
With a price point above £500/$800, it’s arguable that Korg’s Minilogue XD is pushing the boundaries of what can be considered a ‘cheap’ synth. That said, there’s no denying that it’s an excellent value in terms of the sonic flexibility you get for your money. The original Minilogue already was - and, in fact, still is - a very versatile analogue synth.
By adding a customisable digital oscillator and effects slot on top of the original’s framework the XD takes things to the next level, and has bags more character too. If you’re after one synth that can handle a variety of duties - bass, pads, percussion, FX - then this is the way to go.
For sheer value, Behringer’s semi-modular Neutron is a must-try too. Being paraphonic, rather then polyphonic, it’s not quite a do-it-all instrument, but it’s still a powerful, well-spec’d synth based on classic analogue components, made all the more enticing by its generous patch bay. You’d be hard pressed to find a more powerful analogue instrument for under £300.
How to buy the best affordable synth for you
The rise in affordable synths has made hardware instruments considerably more accessible to newer and less experienced producers. However, while the price is less daunting, some of the terminology can still make choosing a synthesizer feel quite intimidating.
One of the most common distinctions you’ll come across is that of ‘analogue’ vs ‘digital’ – meaning whether a synth is powered by ‘real’ electronic circuitry or some form of digital signal processing (DSP). While there are plenty of people out there who will claim that analogue automatically equals ‘better’, in reality this isn’t always the case.
On the whole though, it’s fair to say that synths powered by analogue engines or virtual analogue - digital tech replicating the behaviour of a real circuit - are better for classic and vintage sounds, while digital synths can often create weirder, more unusual tones. West Coast analogue synths such as the Volca Modular, below, are a bit of an exception to this rule!
Digital synths will likely sound ‘cleaner’ compared to analogue synths that often generate a certain amount of unpredictability and natural saturation – both of which qualities are a major part of their enduring popularity. Some of the best synths in this round-up take a ‘best of both’ approach, combining elements of analogue sounds with powerful digital elements.
Another term to look out for is polyphony, meaning how many notes a synth can play simultaneously. A polyphonic synth can play multiple notes via distinct synth ‘voices’, eg. a four voice synth allows you to effectively play up-to four instances of the same synth sound at once to generate a chord. A monophonic synth, on the other hand, only has one voice available.
Slightly less common are paraphonic synths, which sit somewhere in between – these allow multiple notes to be played by dividing the oscillators within a single synth voice. The result isn’t quite the same as true polyphony, as individual notes will share a filter and amp envelope.
In short, if you want to play chords or pads, a polyphonic synth is a must have. Having more voices will always mean more flexibility, although monosynths often pack more of a punch when it comes to weight and grit. For leads, basslines, percussion or FX, a mono or paraphonic synth may be the way to go.
These are the best cheap synthesizers right now
The original Minilogue is still a great buy, but if you can afford to spend a little more, we'd go for this pimped-up version that adds elements from the Monologue and Prologue synths as well. More versatile than the standard Minilogue, the XD offers a more powerful sequencer, greater versatility, a user-customisable digital Multi-Engine and effects, a joystick for real-time control, user scales/tunings and a vibe that's generally more inspiring.
The keys are of the 'slim' variety but still very playable, and the casing, which is made of metal with a wooden back panel, looks and feels great. Despite taking inspiration from elsewhere, The XD has a unique personality and is a is a hugely welcome addition to the 'logue range as a whole.
Read full review: Korg Minilogue XD
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 last year’s 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 full review: Behringer Neutron
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 full review: Korg Volca FM
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 full review: Arturia MiniBrute 2
Circuit Mono Station is, in loose terms, a hybrid of two of Novation’s best instruments: a combination of the meaty analogue synth engine of the Bass Station II, and Circuit’s excellent sequencer. Housed in a chassis similar to - but slightly taller than - Circuit, Mono Station’s interface is roughly divided in half, with the upper section housing the synth controls and the lower portion controlling the sequencer.
Mono Station is equipped with a decent array of ins and outs, while the deep, multi-channel sequencer, flexible mod matrix and automation all add up to a workflow and creative experience unlike anything else on the market, combining the best of digital flexibility with a classic analogue synth design. The end result is much more than the sum of its parts, and at this price point this is a must-try synth.
Read full review: Novation Circuit Mono Station
The Minilogue is what a lot of people have been waiting for: a 4-voice analogue polysynth priced at less than £500. The Minilogue's architecture is really versatile, which makes it stand out even against pricier competitors. The Minilogue generally produces a very high-quality sound, though it'll do dirty/hissy when you really crank the levels through the mixer, push the delay or use the cross mod/sync and ring mod.
There’s a flexible filter, snappy envelopes, a 16-step polyphonic sequencer, an arpeggiator, an audio input for processing external audio, a very tape-like delay, plus patch storage and MIDI. You have to keep reminding yourself how reasonably-priced the Minilogue is and just how much goodness it packs into its compact form factor. We can't think of another analogue synth at a similar price point that offers more.
Read full review: Korg Minilogue
There are several impressive synths in Korg’s compact Volca range all of which boast sounds and feature that punch well above their sub-£200 price point. Of the whole range though, the Volca Modular is certainly the most unique and interesting.
This patchable analogue synth takes its cues from ‘West Coast’ synthesizers such as those created by Buchla and Serge. These instruments eschew ‘traditional’ subtractive synthesis elements in favour of more esoteric features such as oscillators based around audio-rate modulation and random modulators.
Because of this, the Modular is the weirdest, and most niche instrument in the Volca range – it’s best for experimental sounds and unusual effects, meaning it won’t suit everyone. However, if you’re after something a bit different to add to your current setup, this is a great choice.
Read the full review: Korg Volca Modular
The JU-06A is an update to one of Roland’s original Boutique synths, the Juno-106-inspired JU-06. Like its predecessor, this latest synth uses digital Analog Circuit Behavior technology to replicate the components of the original Juno, and does an excellent job of capturing the feel and sound of Roland’s classic analogue poly (albeit with a voice count reduced from six to four).
The difference here is that the ‘A’ adds multiple elements of the Juno-60 into the mix too, including that synth’s well-regarded arpeggiator and a switch engaging the 60’s punchier, more percussive filter and envelope behaviour. The result is an altogether more versatile and impressive synth – the two modes add to the sonic flexibility considerably, and pairing the arp, chord mode and mono sequencer makes this a killer tool for classic Chicago and Detroit-style club sounds.
Read the full review: Roland JU-06A
Circuit is a standalone, digital instrument featuring a four-part drum machine, two six-note polyphonic synths and a deceptively deep sequencer. In the words of Novation, Circuit is "designed to inspire", with a heavy emphasis on immediacy, intuitiveness and experimentation. The device takes most of its design cues from the Launchpad Pro controller.
Its chassis features the same combination of matt-black top, rounded corners and rubberised base, while its central sequencer grid is built from slightly smaller versions of the Launchpad's backlit, velocity-sensitive pads. You'll need to scan the manual to get the hang of a few shift functions, but beyond that, Circuit is an absolute joy to compose and experiment with. It has a broad, quality sound palette, an inspiring workflow and a sequencer that bests those in instruments four times its price.
Read full review: Novation Circuit
The only analogue instrument in Roland's Boutique line-up, the SE-02 was created in collaboration with Studio Electronics, which is responsible for - among many other things - the Tonestar and Boomstar instruments. It features three VCOs, a voltage-controlled 24dB low-pass filter, and a dual gain-stage amplifier. The oscillators have six different waveforms, which promise the “warmth and complex character” that you’d hope for.
Considering there’s also a nicely-featured sequencer onboard, the SE-02 is a very impressive piece of kit for the price. Sonically, it’s high-quality, and can do everything from warm and smooth to harsh and aggressive. It’s a bit Rolandy and a bit Moogy/SE-ish… but then with all the versatile modulation and shaping onboard it has its own vibe, too, and it’s hard to make it sound bad. Recommended for anyone who wants a great-sounding, portable and versatile monosynth for the studio and stage.
Read full review: Roland SE-02
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 full review: IK Multimedia UNO Synth
UK brand Modal Electronics made their name with high-end synths boasting exceptional sound and feature sets, but with price tags putting them out of reach of the majority of music makers. In recent years, however, they’ve dipped their toes into the complete opposite end of the market with several compact digital synths landing at the affordable end of the spectrum.
Of these, Skulpt is the most powerful. It’s essentially a virtual analogue synthesizer, with a fairly straightforward subtractive synth engine housed in its compact frame. Where Skulpt becomes particularly interesting, however, is in its impressive oscillator count – there are 32 digital oscillators capable of producing four-voice polyphonic chords, duophonic patches and thick, complex unison sounds. Solid arpeggiator and sequencer sections, along with a handy compatible control app, all round off the package nicely.
Read the full review: Modal Skulpt
Out of the box, MicroFreak’s unique stylings immediately grab your attention. It’s a bold look - but we like adventurous design choices. With so many synthesis features packed into such a small box, it’s hard not to fall in love with Arturia’s quirky and affordable hardware offering.
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 full review: Arturia MicroFreak
What actually is the OP-Z? A synth? A sampler? An audio-visual sequencer? The answer is, to some extent at least, all of the above. At its core the OP-Z has a 16-track, 16-step sequencer. Of those tracks, eight generate audio while the other eight are used for effect manipulation and external control. The audio tracks are divided into two groups, with the first four set up as sample-based drum tracks and the latter as melodic instruments that can each make use of a variety of synthesis engines.
Without a screen it’s difficult to keep track of things using the hardware alone, but fortunately, TE has created a free control app (currently iOS-only, but forthcoming for Android too). This runs via Bluetooth, and gives full visualisation of the sequencer, sound engines and effects (using some great eye-catching graphics), and also acts as a screen for the visual sequencers.
A few minor bugbears aside, there’s a lot we really like about the OP-Z. It’s creative and unique, and while some might bemoan the reliance on an iOS app, we really enjoy the workflow between the two devices. The OP-Z is unlike anything else on the market right now.
Read full review: Teenage Engineering OP-Z
The D-05 offers something a little different to the majority of the Roland Boutique range. Whereas most of the models to date have used Roland’s ACB tech to emulate the electronics of vintage analogue instruments, the D-05 takes as its basis the D-50, an all-digital ‘Linear Arithmetic’ (LA) synth that was first released in 1987. In terms of the basic architecture of the synth, the D-05 is pretty much an exact replication of the D-50.
As before, patches are split into upper and lower ‘tones’ each of which comprises up to two partials. Each partial can be either a PCM sample or a synthesized sound created by the LAS engine. There are fresh features, too, most notably a 64-step polyphonic sequencer and multi-mode arpeggiator. It's not the easiest instrument to program, but we’ve fallen in love with this compact and sonically gorgeous recreation of a digital classic, and you might well do, too.
Read full review: Roland Boutique D-05
Yes, it's an even smaller version of the MiniBrute. Like its bigger sibling, it's of the single-oscillator, multi-waveform design, but there are fewer controls and mini keys rather than full-size ones. There is the bonus of a built-in sequencer, though. The MicroBrute actually includes a wider range of CV/Gate interfacing options than the Mini, and the waveform section is more flexible than you might think.
The Mod Matrix panel enables you to patch the envelope and LFO depth to different locations using the 3.5mm mini-jacks. The MicroBrute packs in far more than you'd have any right to expect for the price. It's not bargain-basement, but it definitely offers more than many of the 'pocket synths' that don't cost too much less. A fine analogue monosynth that's both compact and affordable.
Read full review: Arturia MicroBrute
This isn’t just a monophonic version of the Minilogue, though there is a family resemblance (a real wood back panel, mini keys and the same set of inputs and outputs). This time, though, we have a smaller (and lighter) footprint, with an octave taken off the keyboard and portability enhanced by the option of battery power.
The synth architecture is relatively conventional, but there are some clever functional tricks which extend its range. There's an enhanced step sequencer, which enables you to record in real or step time. 16 physical buttons are designed for quick editing and improvisation, while the movements of up to four knobs can be captured with the motion sequence function.
There's a drive circuit to add overtones and distortion and, on a more esoteric level, support for microtuning. The Monologue is great for anyone who wants a cheap and cheerful yet powerful synth, and one that offers a surprising amount of flexibility.
Read full review: Korg Monologue
Roland’s SH-101, introduced in 1982, was a small, plastic, 32-key monosynth with a simple architecture that provided direct hands-on control and no preset memories. This emulation - which goes by the name of the SH-01A and is available in the iconic red, blue and grey - uses Roland's ACB technology to deliver those classic SH bass, lead, noise and FX sounds, while adding Unison, Chord and four-voice Polyphonic modes to give you extra flexibility beyond merely monophonic operation. Improvements have also been made to the sequencer, which can now store and recall up to 64 patterns, and there’s an arpeggiator, too.
CV/Gate output enables you to control modular and vintage gear, there are multiple sync options (MIDI, MIDI over USB, LFO clock and trigger input) and you can store up to 64 presets. The SH-01A is a fun and engaging synth, and when compared to a ‘real’ SH-101 stands up very well. If you must have 100% analogue, then this isn’t for you, but if you have an open mind, you might be pleasantly surprised.
Read full review: Roland SH-01A
The TB-03 is an ACB-powered clone of Roland's classic TB-303 Bass Line synth, and borrows its inspiration's look and feel. There's a 4-digit display, and you can get hands on using the tuning, cutoff, resonance, envelope mod, decay, and accent knobs. Both saw and square waveforms are included and there are overdrive, reverb and delay effects.
The original 303's Pitch and Time write modes are joined by a new Step mode on the TB-03, and you also get fine tempo control. You can switch between modes while sequences are playing, and there's a dedicated trigger input to drive the internal sequencer. MIDI I/O, USB and CV/Gate ports are also here. The TB-03 captures the essence of the original 303 and adds a twist.
Some might argue that Roland could have gone further in updating the sequencer and interface - and others will moan that it's not analogue - but if you want an convincing and affordable 303 clone, here it is.
Read full review: Roland TB-03
Introduced in 1976, and used by everyone from Stevie Wonder to Vangelis, Yamaha's CS-80 has become one of the most desirable vintage synths of all time. In many ways, the compact and lightweight Reface CS couldn't be more different (the CS-80 weighed more than 200lbs), but its five oscillator types (multi saw, pulse, oscillator sync, ring modulation and frequency modulation) enable you to create an incredible range of sounds, and the instrument can produce both analogue-style and digital tones.
The Reface CS is powered by an 'analogue physical modelling' engine, has a simple, slider-centric control set, comes with a phrase looper and offers eight notes of polyphony. While looking simple, is actually way greater than the sum of its parts, and both addictive and inspiring to use.
Read full review: Yamaha Reface CS
Part of Roland's Aira range, the analogue-modelling System-1 not only has a native synth built into it, but can also load Roland's Plug-Out instruments. These are its trump card, but the standard synth is pretty flexible, too. You only get a 25-note keyboard, and this doesn't support velocity-sensitivity or aftertouch. There's very little travel on the keys, too.
We'd have liked to have seen dedicated pitch and mod wheels, and only eight user-writeable preset slots seems too few. The System-1 is recommended for people who value ease of use and expandability more than having a 'real' analogue synth. You'll have to get used to that keyboard, but there's plenty to like about its feature set.
Read full review: Roland System-1