Buying a Synthesizer: A Brief introduction for those thinking about getting one.

Moog Modular Synthesizer
Moog Modular Synthesizer

Not everything I use is DIY, so this section will be used as a place for a discussion about the commercial synthesizers I use and am familiar with.

Are you new to synthesizers and are confused on what to buy? Everyone is at first. Take everything with a grain of salt and then leave room for additional salt. The world of music and music synthesis is one of the most opinionated you will find. Even my opinions should be taken lightly. Our music tastes are going to be different and how we hear music and sound is also different. Just give it some thought and try the free stuff out when you can.

After all why build it for $2500, when you can buy it for $1000? You are entering a world that is ever changing, growing, repeating, reinventing with some plain old BS thrown in. And the best reason to buy rather than build, is that sometimes other folks make really great products.

Modular Synthesizers.

For those starting out, and thinking about getting into musical synthesizers, I implore you to give it some great thought and not jump straight into considering a modular synthesizer. Because building a modular system, is not for the faint of heart. It can be technically challenging to some, too complicated to operate for others and many just lack the patience to make a bowl of cereal. There are many unused, unloved modular systems out there because they did not deliver the desired expectations. Patience, practice and the willingness to learn is all that is required to become successful in modular synthesis.

You first have to decide on a size format. Manufacturers make modules in MU (full size Moog units or 5U rack height), Buchla (4U) , Eurorack (128mm) or even custom sizes. Once you choose a format size, you then start planning how many modules you want/need and select a case or mounting system, power supply and then purchase modules. Once you go down your selected format road, you can’t switch easily or cheaply, as modules in one format can’t really work with modules in another format, without some interfacing for mounting and power requirements.

This is the largest issue with modular synthesizers, and why they are very expensive! Just obtaining a few Oscillators, Filters, Envelopes, Amplifiers, Mixers, and modifiers will most likely cost you $10,000 – $15,000 USD, plus you will still need a pile of patch cables, interfaces, controllers or a sequencer. A decent Moog setup, suitable for a moderate studio, could be upwards of $25,000. For a decent eurorack setup about $5,000 – $12,000. Even a Buchla Music Easel starts in the $5,000 range but can exceed $45,000 rapidly!

I have built a few Buchla clone modules, but never had the extra cash to buy an original version. Besides, many eurorack modules replicate much of the Buchla line. Just one of the many reasons that eurorack is the most popular and the least expensive modular format. It has the largest number of available modules, cases, accessories and manufactures than any other synthesizer type in the world. Eurorack is huge!

Buchla System 4
Buchla System 4 for the lotto winner!

Aside from cost, modular synthesizers are limited only in workflow. In most cases, you are patching a modular synthesizer to provide one part of a composition at a time. Example if you want a bass part, you need to patch a set of modules together to form a bass voice. If you want multiple voices, you need more modules. So the basic workflow is voice patch design, voice patch build, play and record the voice. Then move to the next voice. The other issue with modulars is that they do not have the ability to save patches, unless you make a diagram of the wiring interconnects. This makes it very hard to recreate a soundscape you had previously designed. This can lead to frustration and has led to many people giving up on synths altogether. Modular synthesizers do however, excel at creating soundscapes. This is especially true for eurorack which has hundreds of different analogue and digital modules from dozens of manufacturers. Many artist use modulars for creating generative music, ambient, and industro-techno-inspired soundscapes (yes, I made that term up, but it works).


Eurorack Synthesizer
Author’s Eurorack Synthesizer

I don’t own any commercially available versions of full sized modular synthesizers, as I have built my own 5U format much cheaper than buying a used Moog. There are some other manufacturers listed over on the ModWiggler forum, that might be cheaper if you decide 5U is for right you. For my own eurorack system, I  built it over 18 months trying about 42 different modules until I settled on the overall design. Some of my modules are open source DIY, but most are commercially available. Since Eurorack is a popular format, I have dedicated an entire section that is also linked below or through the main menu.

Mono Synthesizers.

Mono Synth
2 Oscillator Mono Synth

A mono or monophonic synthesizer is a single voice electronic synthesizer, whereby it has the ability to play only one note at a time. They can be analog, digital or even a hybrid of the two. Many famous synthesizers were single voice, including most of the Moogs,  Behringer, many Korg and Arturia found on the market today. There are many more, but I am not an expert in using many of these, and I don’t own any commercial mono synths. The ones I use are all described on this site, they are all DIY and can be found here, here, here and here.

Mono synths can sound amazing and are fabulous for providing big phat leads and driving bass and usually have multiple oscillators but come with single filters, envelopes and amplifiers. They are simple to use, easy learn and are some of the least expensive synthesizers out there.  Mono synthesizers are however limited in their overall sound pallet and have a narrower ‘sweet spot’, than other types of synthesizers. But they can also be the only synth you may ever need or use. This type of synthesizer usually comes pre-wired or pre-patched so you really just need to flip some switches, turn some knobs and design the sound you need. Best of all, many newer models have the ability to save the settings so you can jump to that patch or preset sound at the push of a button.

Cross-Over synthesizers.

Arp 2600 with 1601 sequencer
Arp 2600 with 1601 sequencer

Cross-overs (or semi-modulars) are a mix between a modular and a mono. They give you the ease of use, and some even have the ability to store patches or presets. This allows you to experiment by using patch cables or switch matrixes to override the hardware patching and design new sounds. Although this feature can increase the width of the overall sound pallet, they are still monophonic in nature. They are modestly priced, but some can exceed a couple thousand (or more) depending on features. Some great examples:

Polyphonic synthesizers.

Prophet Rev 2 Desktop
Dave Smith/Sequential Prophet Rev 2 – 16 Voice

I am a huge fan of polyphonic synthesizers, and spend more playtime having fun making compositions and experimenting with sounds than any other format. Unlike monophonic single voice, one note synthesizers, polyphonic synths provide multiple voices that enable all voices to be played independently and simultaneously. Not only can they provide deep bass and huge leads, but the polyphony allows the composer to build luscious chords, complex sequences and arpeggios and long pads. Polys can also be set into unison (single) mode, assigning multiple detuned voices to a single note to get that mono sound. Some polys are bi-timbral or even multitimbral which enable multiple, independent musical sounds to be played simultaneously, with each part controlled via a separate MIDI channel.

Early attempts at poliphony using only analogue components in synthesizers was add-hock at best. The introduction of microprocessors enabled designers to keep the audio portion fully analog, while incorporating some digital elements for control signals and storing settings (patches).  Like monosynths, polys are prewired allowing for ease of use through switches, knobs, and sliders, etc. But they are also like modulars with the ability to create new patches. But instead of patch cables, polys will use a modulation matrix whereby the artist can select various sources and route them to different effects, modulators and outputs, etc. and then store patches or programmed sounds for later use.

You can choose models that are analogue, digital (virtual) or even hybrid designs that have digitally created wave tables with analogue filters and outputs. Some even come with the ability to sample audio and store it as audio snippets or waves for the oscillators. Because they are more complex, polyphonic synthesizers tend to cost considerably more than mono synths. Depending on features and architecture, prices can range from $500 for a digital desktop version to over $10,ooo for a Moog One. Like eurorack, polyphonic synthesizers are highly popular for sound artists and I have dedication an entire section that is also linked below or through the main menu. Some notable examples of polyphonic synths:

VSTs & Software Synthesizers.

Ableton Live DAW in performance mode

By far the least expensive way to get into music synthesis is through the use of Software Synthesizers. There are dozens of virtual Moogs, Arps, and Modulars that are easily downloadable to run on a PC or mobile device. Many can be found for under $50 and need nothing more, than to connect your device output directly into an audio recorder or player and you are making electronic music. Basically anything you can imagine musically can be implemented through software.

VSTs or Virtual Studio Technology are software plugins that work with Digital Audio Workstations or ‘DAWs’. There are dozens of DAW companies with prices ranging from free to $2500 or more. Common DAWs I have tried and used effectively are:

There are also dozens of music producers, many meeting fame and fortune who use nothing more than a laptop, and DAW and some plugins. I settled on Ableton live as it met all of my needs for both studio and live performances. Please don’t let folks steer you on which DAW to use either, they all have pros & cons and learning curves. Find one, try it and learn it. Many DAWs can also incorporate the use of MIDI in and out to control your hardware synthesizers as well. You can mix and match VST with a modular, drum machine or one or two polys! What if you don’t have a PC but like the workstation concept? Then….

Music Production Studio.

MPC One: portable Music Production Studio

What do you get when you mash a DAW, with a sampler, looper, beat box, drum machine, virtual synthesizer and MIDI controller? You get a portable music production studio like the Akai’s MPC line of machines. You can just get one of these machines for about $500 and you will be producing decent multitrack music in a week. But let’s not stop there as these machines can work seamlessly with other controllers, audio setups, PC’s, Laptops and basically any MIDI enabled hardware synthesizer.

or, for the ultimate composer who builds symphonies and movie scores you can drop $5000 to $8000 on an arranger workstation.

So, off you go and figure it all out, make some music, have some fun and meet some people.

Further information can be found through these links (construction zone)