Can't Afford a Classic Synth? Here Are 8 Affordable Alternatives

To paraphrase The Rolling Stones, you can't always get what you want, but sometimes, you get what you can afford. As the prices of vintage synthesizers climb ever higher, wouldn't it be great to be able to get largely the same feature set of a desired synth without the eye-watering price? We're here to tell you that can (sometimes) be the case.

To maximize sales and reach customers with different budgets, manufacturers often released essentially the same synth in a number of different guises. The rackmount was a popular format, although ironically what was meant to be the cheaper option (keybeds are expensive) have become expensive collectors items in their own right due to scarcity.

But in many cases, there is often a relatively unknown and thus inexpensive version of a more popular synth available, sometimes even with a better feature set. Releasing multiple versions of the same instrument was a popular sales strategy in the 1980s, so it's more prevalent in the digital realm, but analog aficionados may be in luck too.

Purists may quibble, but the sounds in these alternative models can get you awfully close to those of their more-famous siblings, at a fraction of the cost.

Roland D-10

Alternative to: Roland D-50

Released in 1988, the Roland D-50 was a very popular digital synth, coming at a time when FM's star was beginning to wane and musicians were looking for something new. With a novel new form of synthesis that combined sampled transients with early analog modeling, the D-50 was capable of everything from bread-and-butter keyboard sounds to lush, evolving soundscapes. As you might expect, it still commands a robust price tag to this day.

To capitalize on its popularity, Roland released the D-10 not long after. It had the same LA (linear arithmetic) synthesis as its big brother, but lacked some of the LFOs that helped contribute to the D-50 being known as a pad machine.

However, if you're looking for those digital bread-and-butter keyboard sounds, the D-10 will do you nicely and at a much lower price. Also worth looking into are the D-5, with its arpeggiator, the D-20 and its sequencer, and the D-110 rack unit, which is multitimbral.

Yamaha DX21

Alternative to: Yamaha DX100

In the mid-'80s, Yamaha was riding high with FM synthesis. The DX7 and its offspring consistently occupied synth bestseller lists, and if you couldn't afford the flagship model, you could be sure of finding something to fit your budget that maybe was not quite as good but still capable of FM synthesis. In 1985, Yamaha released the DX100, a diminutive four-operator synth that has recently become a collector's machine thanks to its association with Detroit techno (and Roger Troutman!).

If you're after that classic sound but don't want to lay out the bread, look to the DX21. Despite having the same sounds (including the Solid Bass preset), as well as adding chorus and the ability to layer—not to mention 61 full-size keys—it languishes in obscurity. It's just as techno for a fraction of the price.

There's also the DX27, which does away with the chorus, and even the DX27S, which has speakers.

Roland HS-60

Alternative to: Roland Juno-106

Everyone knows the Roland Juno-106. Released in 1985, this single-oscillator analog polysynth has become a must-have machine for a number of reasons, but mainly because it sounds amazing. In fact, it's seemingly incapable of sounding bad. Despite the fact that the voice chips will eventually have to be repaired (or replaced with clones), and despite the inevitable cost associated with this, prices continue to climb.

Unfortunately, there's no mythical, affordable version of the 106, but there were a few alternative versions worth keeping an eye out for. While most fall into the "rare, so expensive" category, the HS-60 home version is something of a sleeper. Although it loses the 106's good looks in favor of something you might see on top of your uncle's organ, inside it's all Juno-106.

That also means you'll have to deal with the bad chips, but at least you'll have saved a bit in the outlay. It also has speakers, so there you go.

Yamaha TX7

Alternative to: Yamaha DX7

The DX7 effectively changed the synthesizer landscape of the '80s, ushering in a new era of clean, digital sounds and sleek, knob-less synths. It also appeared around the same time as MIDI, which meant that its innards could be jammed inside a little box, sold without a keyboard, and called an expander. Enter the TX7, released in 1985.

Although it looks more like a TV-top cable box from the 1980s than a synthesizer, inside is a DX7, just like you want. Well, almost. The TX7 doesn't allow editing from the front panel, meaning all programming has to be done via external MIDI. At the time this was nigh-on impossible, but these days, thanks to the proliferation of editors, as well as softsynths like Dexed, it's easy enough to work with. Granted, it doesn't look as cool as a full DX7, but it's certainly a good deal.

Realistic ConcertMate MG-1

Alternative to: Moog Rogue

It's hard to imagine now, but there was a time when RadioShack commanded a large share of the audio and electronics market—large enough that it could sell rebranded versions of popular instruments at discount prices. It did this with Casio's consumer keyboards and also with a little synthesizer company called Moog.

Yes, in the early '80s RadioShack sold a modified Moog synthesizer under its house brand name, Realistic, and called it the Concertmate MG-1. It featured the two-oscillator monophonic analog architecture that would eventually be released by Moog as the Rogue, but also offered a polyphonic, organ-like divide-down oscillator section, plus a ring modulator.

Although a Moog inside, because it doesn't say Moog on the case it sells for less than its step brothers. Beware when buying an MG-1, though, as many units suffer from the polyurethane insulation having melted over time.

Oberheim Matrix-1000

Alternative to: Oberheim Matrix-6

It's extremely rare to see the words "Oberheim" and "budget" in the same sentence, but that's just what we're talking about. In 1987, Oberheim stubbornly released a 1-U rack version of its lovely Matrix-6, bucking the digital trend and staying with what had made it famous: analog. Dubbed the Matrix-1000, it was intended as a preset version of the former synth and so came loaded with (you guessed it) 1000 presets.

Although gorgeous in sound, due to the difficulty of programming it from the front panel it never gained the popularity of its big brother. Although thought of as a preset player, it does indeed have full programmability, including the mod matrix of the 6. And, thanks to modern editors and new hardware programmers, the full functionality of it is just waiting to be unleashed—and at an affordable price. Luscious pads, gorgeous brass, silky leads: It's all Oberheim and it's all here.

Korg DW-6000

Alternative to: Korg DW-8000

In 1984, Korg released the DW-6000, a hybrid digital/analog synthesizer. Yamaha had the patent on FM, so other manufacturers were busy trying to find a hit with their own brand of digital synthesis. Casio knocked it out of the park with PD (phase distortion) and its CZ line, while Korg put its money on a hybrid architecture (until it finally had a hit itself with the M1).

Featuring two oscillators, each capable of playing one of eight single-cycle waveforms, an analog filter and VCA, and an unusual digital delay, the DW-6000 was soon superseded by the DW-8000, which added eight more waves and velocity sensitivity.

While the DW-8000 is arguably the better machine, it also commands a higher price tag. The DW-6000 is a fine synthesizer capable of some truly unique timbres and can handle both analog- and digital-style sounds with ease. Well worth checking out.

Casio CZ-101

Alternative to: Casio CZ-1000

As I wrote above, Casio's phase distortion technology was meant to compete with Yamaha's FM synthesis, and compete it did, thanks to an almost analog-like warmth and low price. The CZ-101 was the most popular synth to feature PD, but Casio released a number of other machines in the same range, most bigger and better.

The CZ-1000, the full-size key version of the CZ-101, and the CZ-5000 had chorus, layering, and even a unique sequencer. Casio's groundbreaking synths are experiencing something of a surge in popularity these days, with rising prices to accompany it.

However, released in 1985, the original CZ-101 is still a bargain, likely because so many were made. If you've ever played with a Casio consumer keyboard, you know what to expect from the keys, but the sound is exactly the same as on the larger, more "pro" versions. The CZ-101 is still the most affordable way to get your hands on a PD machine.

Have your own favorite sleeper alternatives? Let us know in the comments.


About the Author: Adam Douglas is a musician and synthesizer fan based in Tokyo, Japan. He writes about synths on his blog, Boy Meets Synth.

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