The best hardware synthesizers 2018: keyboards, modules and portable synths

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Software synths are great, but there's nothing quite like the feeling of having a real hardware instrument in your studio. Right now, the market for hardware synths is as buoyant as it's been for the past 25 years, with manufacturers catering for all budgets and tastes.

At the lower end of the price scale you'll find compact synths that are capable of producing surprisingly big sounds. Some of these are inspired by classic synths from the past, but others are completely original designs.

Spend a little more and you'll get more features and flexibility, not to mention better build quality. Some of the best synths represent a pretty serious investment, but these are objects of desire that you'll treasure for years for some. What's more, if you ever decide to sell, you'll likely get a good chunk of your money back.

While many of the most popular synths right now are powered by analogue engines, which are associated with a warm sound, you can also buy virtual analogue instruments that emulate this tone using digital techniques. FM synthesis has also made something of a comeback, with its familiar crystalline, '80s-style sounds all over the radio right now.

So, which is the best hardware synth for you? Based on our reviews, below you'll find MusicRadar's pick of the best models you can buy right now. We've got keyboards, modules, desktop and rack-mountable instruments that span the price spectrum. All, though, come highly recommended.

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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. 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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3. 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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4. 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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5. 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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6. Elektron Digitone

A great FM synth that comes with some new twists

Launch price: $759/£699/€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

Clear yet fat sound
Can also be used as an FM sound module or MIDI sequencer
Sequencer and sound engine work together seamlessly
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 full review: Elektron Digitone

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7. Studiologic Sledge

A sweet virtual analogue synth that shouldn't be overlooked

Launch price: $899/£799/€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

Rich, full virtual analogue sound
Sampling capability
Lightweight but well built
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 full review: Studiologic Sledge 2.0

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8. Behringer DeepMind 12

A powerful analogue poly at a great price

Launch price: $999/£999/€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

Plenty of voices at a great price
Flexible modulation matrix
Loads of presets
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 £1,000 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 full review: Behringer DeepMind 12

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9. Novation Peak

Novation's flagship synth is a hybrid heavyweight

Launch price: $1,299/£1,249/€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

An individual sound
Multiple modulation and sound shaping options
Well built and great hands-on control
No keyboard version

Designed in consultation with Chris Hugget (Chris designed the legendary OSCar and collaborated on several other Novation synths), Peak is Novation’s current flagship synth. 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 full review: Novation Peak

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10. Roland System-8

An expandable digital synth that covers lots of sonic ground

Launch price: $1,499/£1,299/€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

Excellent and versatile synth engine
Plenty of hands-on control
Comes with classic Roland synth Plug-Outs and you can buy more
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 full review: Roland System-8

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11. Moog Sub 37

A phat Moog analogue synth that everyone can enjoy

Launch price: $1,579/£1,249/€1,599 | Synth engine: Analogue | Polyphony: Monophonic/paraphonic | Keyboard: 37-note, semi-weighted with After Pressure | Sequencer: 64-note sequencer | Effects: No | MIDI I/O: In/Out | Connectivity: Audio TS input, audio TS output, headphones, CV/Gate inputs | Power: Mains power

Classic Moog sound
Can be used in duo-paraphonic mode
Syncable arpeggiator and step sequencer
Not the cheapest

The Sub 37 is a duo/paraphonic limited edition synth based on the Sub Phatty engine. Dubbed the Tribute Edition - in honour of Bob Moog himself and his love of education - each Sub 37 sold has a portion of the proceeds donated to Asheville Area School Music Programs. While both this and the Sub Phatty have their own unique characteristics, for Moog lovers the real boon here is the inclusion of the arpeggiator, something not even featured in the massive Voyager XL, let alone other Phattys. In fact, with a richer set of features and far fewer operational hurdles than its predecessor, the Sub 37 is superb. You can also check out the Subsequent 37, a limited edition version of the synth that offers (among other things) four assignable CV outputs and two assignable Gate outputs for connectivity with modular systems, including those of the Eurorack variety.

Read full review: Moog Sub 37

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12. Roland JD-XA

An inspiring blend of analogue and digital

Launch 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

Analogue and digital engines can produce unique sounds together
Very tweakable front panel
Plenty of modulation options
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 full review: Roland JD-XA

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13. Dave Smith Instruments OB-6

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

Launch price: $3,299/£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

A great Oberheim/Dave Smith crossbreed
2-pole state-variable filter
Good modulation facilities
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 full review: Dave Smith Instruments OB-6