Choosing a Digital SynthBuying Guide

A Beginner's Guide to Finding the Right Digital Synth

Despite analogue purist opinion, digital synthesis is no dirty word. The world of hardware digital synthesis is varied and wondrous, even if you’re coming to it from an analogue background. New and old digital synths abound, and there are all sorts of options for every type of musician and producers.

Over the last four decades, electronic instrument makers from Yamaha and Roland to Waldorf and Novation have put out a number of great digital synths. And digital synthesis is still evolving, with established and up-and-coming synth makers releasing new ones on a regular basis.

By scrolling down this list, we hope you get a better idea of the digital synth landscape. From retro gems to the modern cutting edge, this guide has the picks to get you started.

The Best Entry-Level Digital Synths on Reverb

Types of Digital Synthesis

Many digital synthesis methods exist, each with decades of research and development to deliver powerful musical instruments to users. Some synth players will want ease-of-use, accessibility, and intuitive interfaces and signal flows. Other musicians and producers will want synths with complexity, whether it be with the sound sources themselves, or the synth’s modulation matrices and other parameters.

All digital synthesizers are united by their digital circuitry. But a lot of room exists for creativity in designing digital synth engines. What follows is a brief look at some of the major types of digital synthesis.

Frequency Modulation (FM)

FM Synths at a Glance:

  • The first popular form of digital synthesis
  • Offer a highly versatile sound palette
  • Popularized and mastered by Brian Eno

Developed by John Chowning, and popularized by Yamaha with its iconic DX series, FM synthesis is a versatile but somewhat perplexing type of synthesis. Built on the most fundamental waveform, the sine wave (from which others are built), FM synthesis is similar to how Low Frequency Oscillators (LFO) work, where one waveform’s frequency is used to modulate an oscillator.

In FM, an oscillator’s (known as the operator) frequency is modulated by another oscillator (called the modulator) with a different frequency. The sum of the operator and modulator create a new waveform. Some FM synths only have two operators, but others can feature four and eight operators. To add complexity to the sounds, operators and modulators can be tweaked with a modulation matrix.

Although FM synths like the Yamaha DX7 were popular with 1980s New Wave artists, Brian Eno quickly realized its ambient music potential. By the early 1990s, IDM artists like Aphex Twin and Autechre were using FM synthesis to create evolving sounds, as well as metallic beat elements.

FM Synths

Wavetable

Wavetable Synths at a Glance:

  • Along with FM, one of the earliest forms of digital synthesis
  • Can create highly evolving sounds from sample-based waveforms
  • Lots of old and new wavetable options

Next to FM, Wavetable technology is the next most esoteric type of synthesis. Unlike FM gear, a wavetable synthesizer won’t feature digital oscillators. Instead, it is built on the idea of sample-based waveforms as oscillators. Think of the “table” part of the name as a folder that holds a number of single-cycle waveforms.

When triggered, the synth scrolls through this table of single-cycle waveforms, creating an evolving soundscape that just isn’t possible with FM and other types of digital synthesis. The rate at which the synth scans the wavetable can be sped up or slowed down, altering the sound. Similarly, different pitches and modulation types can be added for deeper textures and timbres.

Wavetable Synths

Virtual Analog (VA)

Virtual Analog Synths at a Glance:

  • Virtually replicate the warmth and grit of true analog synths
  • Much more polyphony than true analog synths
  • Digital circuitry allowed deeper modulation and effects features

Between peak digital synthesis and the more recent analog renaissance lies Virtual Analog (VA) technology. As its name suggests, VA synths emulate the warmth and instability of analog circuitry with DSP (Digital Signal Processing) and software algorithms. DSP technology allowed synth makers to recreate the vibe of analog synths, but do so more cheaply, and with more modulation and effects options than the real thing.

Perhaps most importantly, being digital, VA synths could have far greater polyphony than true analog synths, which were limited by the size and cost of the circuits. Starting in the mid-1990s with the Nord Lead synths, and dominating the market for about a decade, VA synths were a common live and studio synth option.

VA Synths

Physical Modeling (PM)

Physical Modeling Synths at a Glance:

  • Uses mathematical models to generate sounds
  • Replicates the sounds of acoustic instruments
  • Found in modern keyboards like the Korg OASYS and Roland Fantom series

Around the time VA synthesis was being developed, some electronic instrument makers were experimenting with Physical Modeling synthesis. Instead of simulating circuitry, PM synthesis replicated the sounds of acoustic instruments using mathematical models. These synths could, for instance, simulate the sound of breath blowing over a flute or saxophone, or the initial sound of a drumstick striking the membrane of a drumhead.

PM synthesis never really took off, mostly because sample-based synthesis superceded, but it can still be found in the DNA of modern gear like the Korg OASYS and Roland V-Synth and Fantom workstations.

PM Synths

Granular

Granular Synths at a Glance:

  • Sample-based synthesis in which samples are broken down into “grains”
  • At slow sample playback speeds, a “cloud” of sound results
  • At faster playback speeds, sharper notes are heard

Granular synthesis is somewhat related to Wavetable synthesis. But, instead of sweeping through a table full of single-cycle sample-based waveforms, Granular synths break samples down into incredibly small fragments. These microsound sample fragments are called “grains,” and they can be arranged and modulated in various ways.

The new Monome Norns and Tasty Chip Electronics GR-1 are two desktop granular synths. The Waldorf Quantum, while actually a hybrid (more on this category below), also has granular functionality.

A few desktop granular synths and grooveboxes exist, but the format is surprisingly popular in the Eurorack community. Bastle Instruments, Mordax, and Mutable Instruments each make granular synths for the Eurorack category, giving synthesists diverse options for granular sounds.

Granular Synths

Hybrids

Hybrid Synths at a Glance:

  • Feature multiple synth engines
  • Arturia’s MicroFreak is the best budget hybrid option
  • Growing in popularity

Some synthesizers don’t fit neatly into any particular category. Their sonic architecture might feature several different types of synthesis, or one main synth engine with limited features of a few others. These synths are typically called Hybrids, and they give players several synths in a single instrument.

On the budget end of notable hybrid synths is the Arturia MicroFreak, which features Wavetable, Virtual analog, FM, Granular, and other engines. On the higher end is the Waldorf Quantum, which combines Wavetable, Virtual analog, and Granular synthesis.

And in the middle are instruments like the Polyend Medusa and Teenage Engineering’s OP-Z and OP-Z, although some might not necessarily call the OP series true hybrids. Unlike very types of synthesis, hybrid synths give players a ton of flexibility in designing sounds.

Hybrid Synths

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