The best affordable hardware synthesizers: portable, desktop and keyboard instruments

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These days, high-quality yet affordable hardware synthesizers are what we expect. Whether you’re looking for a pocket-sized instrument that can be powered by batteries, a module or a keyboard, 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 so hot right now - and well-represented at the budget end of the market - but make sure you check out the digital synthesizers that are on offer, too. In some cases, you don’t even have to choose between the two, but we'll get to that.

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.

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1. Korg Volca FM

The best portable and affordable FM synth

Launch price: $224/£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

Great FM Sound
More flexible than it first appears
Affordable
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 full review: Korg Volca FM

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2. Arturia MicroBrute

A fully-formed analogue synth at a great price

Launch price: $349/£269/€333 | Synth engine: Analogue | Polyphony: Monophonic | Keyboard: 25-note minikey | Sequencer: Yes | Effects: Brute Factor distortion | MIDI I/O: In, USB In/Out | Connectivity: 1/4-inch audio output, 1/8-inch headphones output, audio input, CV In and Out | Power: 12v DC power supply

Many connectivity options
100% analogue signal path
Flexible sequencer section
No battery power option

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

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3. Roland Boutique D-05

A classic '80s synth returns in a compact and affordable form

Launch price: $349/£349/€377 | Synth engine: Digital Linear Arithmetic | Polyphony: 16 voices | Keyboard: None | Sequencer: Yes | Effects: Reverb/delay, EQ, chorus | MIDI I/O: In/Out | Connectivity: Headphones, stereo output, mix in, USB | Power: Battery or USB bus power

Classic digital sounds
Great presets and the option to load more
Improves on the original in some respects
Fiddly to program

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

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4. Korg Minilogue

A 4-voice analogue polysynth at a killer price point

Launch price: $520/£435/€500 | Synth engine: Analogue | Polyphony: 4 voices | Keyboard: 37 slim keys, velocity-sensitive | Sequencer: Yes | Effects: Delay | MIDI I/O: In/Out | Connectivity: Headphones, stereo output, audio in, sync in, sync out, USB | Power: AC adapter

Versatile and powerful analogue synth engine
Good build quality
Intuitive control set
Keys are slim rather than full-size

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

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5. Novation Circuit Mono Station

A pad-based sequencer meets an analogue synth engine

Launch price: $499/£479/€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

Deceptively deep sequencer
Solid analogue sound engine
Good range of I/O
Lack of a screen can make editing confusing

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

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6. Arturia MiniBrute 2

A seriously competitive semi-modular monosynth

Launch price: $499/£479/€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

The patchbay adds flexibility
Plenty of analogue grit
Decent control options
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 full review: Arturia MiniBrute 2

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7. Roland System-1

Launch price: $599/£479/€630 | Synth engine: Roland ACB digital | Polyphony: 4 voices | Keyboard: 25 keys | Sequencer: No | Effects: Crusher, reverb, delay | MIDI I/O: In/Out | Connectivity: Headphones, 1/4-inch stereo outputs, hold and control pedals, USB (audio and MIDI) | Power: Power adapter

Compact, well-built and portable with plenty of modulation options
The built-in synth and Plug-Outs sound superb
No velocity or aftertouch
32-note keyboard would be better.

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

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8. Korg Monologue

More than just a monophonic Minilogue

Launch price: $299/£299/€329 | Synth engine: Analogue | Polyphony: Monophonic | Keyboard: 25 slim keys, velocity-sensitive | Sequencer: Yes | Effects: Drive | MIDI I/O: In/Out | Connectivity: Headphones, stereo output, audio in, sync in, sync out, USB | Power: Battery or AC adapter

Fun and portable
Battery powerable
Bonus of a microtuning feature
Limited envelope generator section

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

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9. Novation Circuit

A synth and drum machine in a groovebox format

Launch price: $449/£250/€349 | Synth engine: Digital | Polyphony: 6 voices per synth | Keyboard: 32 RGB-backlit velocity-sensitive button grid | Sequencer: Yes | Effects: Delay, reverb | MIDI I/O: In/Out | Connectivity: Headphones, 1/4-inch jack audio outputs, USB | Power: Battery or power adapter

Fun and inspiring
Easy to use
Quality sound palette
Not all functions are immediately obvious

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

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10. Yamaha Reface CS

A mini synth that takes inspiration from CS models of the past

Launch price: $649/£347 | Synth engine: Virtual analogue | Polyphony: 8 voices | Keyboard: 37 mini keys | Sequencer: None | Effects: Distortion, VCM Chorus/Flanger, VCM Phaser, Delay | MIDI I/O: In/Out | Connectivity: Headphones, stereo outputs, aux in, USB | Power: Battery or power adapter

Portable and playable
Lots of hands-on control
No preset memory
Only three octaves of keys

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

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11. Roland SH-01A

A Boutique version of the classic SH-101

Launch price: $349/£349/€398 | Synth engine: Digital (Roland ACB modelling) | Polyphony: 4 voices | Keyboard: None | Sequencer: Yes | Effects: None | MIDI I/O: In/Out | Connectivity: Headphones, stereo output, mix in, USB, CV Out, Gate Out | Power: Battery or USB bus power

All the controls from the original 101...
...And it sounds like one, too
Extra modes expand the sonic palette
You can't tune or pan stacked voices in Unison mode

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

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12. Roland TB-03

A great little Bass Line synth

Launch price: $349/£349/€418 | Synth engine: Digital (Roland ACB modelling) | Polyphony: Monophonic | Keyboard: None | Sequencer: Yes | Effects: Overdrive, Delay | MIDI I/O: In/Out | Connectivity: Headphones, stereo output, mix in, USB, Trigger In, CV Out, Gate Out | Power: Battery or USB bus power

The essence of a real 303
More flexible  than the original
Cheaper than the original
No real-time recording mode

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

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13. Roland SE-02

A portable and versatile analogue monosynth

Launch price: $499/£509/€595 | Synth engine: Analogue | Polyphony: Monophonic | Keyboard: None | Sequencer: Yes | Effects: Delay | MIDI I/O: In/Out | Connectivity: Headphones, stereo output, external input, USB, Trigger In/Out, VCF CV Input, CV Input, CV Out, Gate Out | Power: AC adapter

Characterful analogue sound
Plenty of connectivity
Decent onboard sequencer
Controls are pretty tight together

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

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14. IK Multimedia UNO Synth

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

Launch 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

Versatile, weighty analogue sound
Flexible arp, sequencer and scale mode
Plenty of great sounding, highly usable presets
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 full review: IK Multimedia UNO Synth