The Best Tabletop SynthsBuying Guide

There are more tabletop synths on the market than ever. Here are some of the best.

Electronic instrument makers have in recent years given players a number of truly portable tabletop synthesizers. And, thanks to advances in both analog and digital circuitry, as well as industrial design, they’ve packaged them in a wide variety of inventive form factors.

What this variety means is there really is a tabletop synth for everyone. To help you find what you’re looking for, we’ve put together a guide for some of the best portable tabletop synths out there.

Entry-Level Tabletop Synths on Reverb

Types of Tabletop Synths

The tabletop synth category features different types of circuitry, synth engines, form factors, and controls. There are monophonic, paraphonic, and polyphonic tabletop synths for the analog crowd. And for digital synth enthusiasts, and FM, Wavetable, Virtual Analog, and more obscure digital synth engines.

As with larger synthesizers, there are three general types of tabletop synths—modules, keyboards, and grooveboxes. These form factors aren’t absolutely rigid. Some tabletop synths can be hybrids of these form factors. But to find what you’re looking for, it’s helpful to know these form factors.

Modules

Tabletop synth modules at a glance:

  • Analog/Digital/Hybrid
  • Onboard sequencers but not grooveboxes
  • Often quite small form factors (Waldorf Blofeld or Moog Sirin)

“Module” is essentially a term for a synthesizer that is, by definition, neither a groovebox nor keyboard. These desktop synths include the synth engine but also features like effects, arpeggiators, and sequencers.

Tabletop synth modules can be analog, digital (Waldorf Iridium), or some hybrid of the two different circuitries. Modules can be monophonic (Roland Boutique SE-02 or Moog Sirin), polyphonic (Sequential Prophet Rev2), and may even include sampling capabilities. The Elektron Rytm, for instance, is an all-analog “drum computer” but it also has digital effects (reverb and delay) and can use digital samples.

Keyboards

Tabletop keyboard synths at a glance:

  • Some type of chromatic keyboard
  • Usually a lot of polyphony
  • Highly portable, often with battery power option

Tabletop keyboard synthesizers are built for portability. That means they won’t be very big, and will often have smaller keys than full-sized keyboards.

The keyboard implementation can vary. The Arturia MicroFreak, for instance, is touch-sensitive but keys cannot be depressed. The Korg Monologue and Yamaha Reface DX, on the other hand, have traditional keyboards albeit with smaller keys. And then there is the Teenage Engineering OP-Z, with its circular button chromatic keyboards.

These synths are great for sound design and demoing. However, they likely won’t be the centerpiece of your studio, unless you travel often and like a portable keyboard synth option.

Grooveboxes

Tabletop grooveboxes at a glance:

  • Can function as synth or drum machine
  • Perfect for making full songs
  • Standalone option for studio and live performance

First appearing in the late 1980s, grooveboxes have always been a popular music-making tool for musicians and producers across genres. With a groovebox, musicians and producers can craft entire tracks from the ground up, and also play full songs live.

Most grooveboxes are digital, like the Akai MPCs or Korg Electribe, as well as newer boxes such as the Elektron Digitone and Roland MC-707. But analog grooveboxes do exist, like the Sequential Tempest and Elektron Rytm mkII.

Modular/Semi-Modular

Modular tabletop synths at a glance:

  • Patchable modular synthesis
  • Analog circuitry
  • Usable without patch cables

Modular or semi-modular tabletop synths are alternatives to the traditional rackmount modular synths. Typically, these synths are semi-modular.

In a practical sense, what this means is that the synths can be played without any modular patching. However, if users want to augment the synth’s sounds, they can make use of its onboard patchbay.

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Editorial content by DJ Pangburn

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