Choosing Your Band's First Synth: 15-Plus Options for Expanding Your Sound

So the time has come to take the plunge and buy a synth for your band. Maybe you're looking to expand your sound. Maybe you're flush with cash from recent success. Or maybe you've caught the synth bug like the rest of us and just can't resist the siren's call. Whatever the reason, a synthesizer could be an incredible addition to your band's sound. But with so many options on the market now, where do you even begin?

For the purposes of this piece we're going to assume that your band is the basic guitar/bass/drums type. Perhaps you even have a keyboard player of some kind but have yet to take the synthesizer plunge. In this piece we'll look at what kinds of synths sound the best for different genres and subgenres and offer some advice on how best to integrate it into your current lineup.

Let's get this out of the way right now: No matter how enamored you are of vintage gear (we know, it's gorgeous), we can't recommend enough that you start out with a newer synth. Vintage gear looks and sounds great, but given the age, it can be unreliable. Established bands that tour with vintage gear tend to travel with backup units in tow in case of technical issues. The rigors of the road require reliability, and while vintage gear has a lot of pluses, reliability isn't one of them. Save yourself the headache and buy new first. You can always add to your studio later.

Also, you may have recently had your head turned by modular gear. All those sexy wires, all those possibilities. Unless you regularly use the word "experimental" when describing your band's sound, a modular system might not be the best way to get started with synthesizers. They're incredible, yes, but also complex. And not to mention almost entirely monophonic—that is, they can only play one note at a time. There will be plenty of time later for mad scientist experiments in the lab. For now, get something with a standard keyboard and signal path.

Lastly, if you're unfamiliar with basic synthesis, and the differences between monophonic and polyphonic synths, please check out these articles to get yourself up to speed:

Rock: Nord Stage, Nord Leads, Yamaha MX61, Casio PX-5S

Thinking about rock in its broadest terms, from earthy Americana to dark, dirty, and distorted, few synths can cover the spectrum like the Nord Stage. Aside from its signature red chassis, the Stage, like all Nords, is prized by keyboard players for its intuitive interface, rugged build-quality, and its clarity and fidelity.

If your band's music leans towards blues influences, or even crunchier modern rock sounds, the Nord Stage is an impressive all-in-one. Want to add some body to your band's midrange guitar attack? The Stage's B3 and Farfisa-style organ patches and vintage electric piano sounds can fill the space between your bass and guitars, even when just adding single-note lines.

When you want to move into more electronic territory, there's a 16-voice polyphonic analog synth section ideal for pads and texture, or cutting leads that can relieve your guitarist from taking all the solos. And when you compose the perfect intro for that ballad you've been working on, the Stage offers sublime acoustic grand and upright piano sounds that will light up every mobile phone in the audience. The Stage also offers an array of useful effects, including tremolos, wahs, flangers, delays, as well as Leslie cabinet, and a few classic amp models.

If you're looking to explore territory far from the classic rock path, consider the Nord Lead 2. The Lead series is a go-to synth for harder textures. It permeates Nine Inch Nails' landmark album The Fragile, and it was a secret weapon for mid-'90s artists like The Prodigy. If you want to get dark, crunchy, and futuristic, a Nord Lead will get you there. The Lead has been around long enough to spawn five generations, but many players swear by the Lead 2 and Lead 2X models.

The knock on Nords, of course, is that they're expensive, even on the used market. If you want to test the synth waters with similar features and less financial commitment, the Yamaha MX61 or Casio PX-5S are great alternatives.

Indie: Sequential/Dave Smith Instruments Prophet-6

Hear the Prophet-6 and other synths used to recreate Stevie Nicks' "Stand Back"

In 1978, Sequential Circuits, a small company in San Francisco, California, released the Prophet-5, a five-voice analog polyphonic synthesizer. It was a runaway success and completely changed the synthesizer landscape. It sounded great, was wonderful to play, and, most importantly, it had onboard memory, which allowed for patches to be saved.

It was a particular hit with the new generation of bands coming up at the time, like The Cars and Japan, the latter of which used it almost exclusively to craft their exquisite Tin Drum album. Modern indie bands looking to capture some of that same analog synthesizer spirit should look to the Prophet-6, a contemporary reimagining by the original synth's creator, Dave Smith, who, after operating under the Dave Smith Instruments brand from 2002–2014, now builds synths once again under the Sequential banner.

As the name suggests, the Prophet-6 is a six-voice polyphonic synth. It features the analog warmth you need and adds effects, a sequencer, arpeggiator, and more. It's also rock-solid, which means it can survive the road. Just because it bears the name of a '70s synth, don't think it's only good for vintage sounds. This is a thoroughly modern instrument with a very modern sound. It's great for pads and leads and can really help flesh out a band's mix.

There's a reason that the Prophet-6 is one of the most popular modern analog polysynths. Take a look at most any studio feature or band gear article and you're sure to spot a Prophet-6 in the racks. It's also available in a module format.

Hip-Hop: Minimoog Model D, Korg Triton, Yamaha Motif

Hip-hop history is littered with synths both notable and forgettable. This was, after all, a genre that blossomed in part because it didn't depend on a group of musicians. One or two guys in a small room with a turntable and keyboard were enough to launch the hip-hop's Book of Genesis.

The Minimoog was there at the beginning, and it's a staple if you're looking to recreate the kind of Parliament-influenced G-Funk it spawned. If you can't swallow the cost of the genuine article, look to the Behringer Model D as an excellent alternative.

Today, computers and soft synths dominate hip-hop production, but if you're looking to bring some of that turn-of-the-millennium grit into your group, look for the workstation synths that dominated every studio in the 2000s. Workstations combined synth, piano, bass, and drum sounds, along with the ability to sample and sequence tracks—truly versatile all-in-one machines.

The Korg Triton reigns supreme here. Not only was it a Swiss Army production knife, its sounds had a dirty analog character that fit right in with the hip-hop aesthetic of the day. With a Triton, you can sequence patterns that your band can play against, map samples to individual keys and trigger them in real-time, or just lay down an infectious bassline underpinned with some 808 kick drum.

And while the Triton was the go-to for many top hip-hop producers like Pharrell Williams and Timbaland, Yamaha's Motif (also available as a rack module) is remembered just as fondly, and both units still command respectful but reasonable prices.

Reggae: Korg MS-20, Behringer Model D, Yamaha DX7

When it comes to adding synth textures to your reggae band or project, it's all about one thing: bass, and lots of it. The lower, the better. You want a synth that can dive deep into bass and sub-bass zones, with still enough midrange to emulate horn and organ lines.

Already have someone playing electric bass? Great. But try sticking a monophonic Korg MS-20 in front of it and watch as that low-end blooms, then floods the room with buzzy warmth. Chances are that Fender bass ends up on the bench for half of your set. The MS-20 came out in 1978, but you can get the modern update, the MS-20 Mini, or a comparable Novation Bass Station II, for less than half the cost of the vintage issue.

Of course it all depends on what kind of reggae you're going for. Classic '70s "roots" reggae used the staples of the time—Hammonds, Wurlitzers, Clavinets—as well as newer textures like the Minimoog. If you want to nail that classic, slinky warble like you hear in the intro to Bob Marley and the Wailers' "Stir It Up," look no further than a Minimoog Model D Reissue.

But assuming you're a working reggae band lacking $3,000 in the gear fund, check out the Behringer Model D instead. It might lack the Moog's classic vibe, but it'll get you most of the way there, and it's a fun instrument in its own right. You'll need some kind of MIDI keyboard to play it though, as it doesn't have a keyboard of its own.

Players looking to cop more of reggae's digital vibe from the '80s, '90s, and present-day, need look no further than the Yamaha DX7 for classic '80s basslines and percussive piano patches, or the Korg M1 for its bright, cutting piano to complement those skanking guitar upbeats. And while we're talking digital reggae, you may as well splash out for a Casio MT-40 and its "Sleng Teng" riddim preset.

Funk: Minimoog Model D, Korg ARP Odyssey

Hear the Korg Arp Odyssey and other monosynths available for under $1,000.

While there's certainly plenty to recommend about the Moog Minimoog Model-D for a funk band (just ask Bernie Worrell) we're going to have to go with Korg's recent re-release of the ARP Odyssey. Originally released in 1972, this monophonic analog synth can cover a lot of territory, handling funky bass, G-Funk-style solos, and filter effects with ease. It has two oscillators, so it's capable of some sonic complexity.

While the original Odyssey was released in three different incarnations, each with a different filter type, Korg has included all three filters in its version (any differences in color or design are purely cosmetic). It also has sample and hold and ring modulation, two effects that can add interesting movement and color (respectively) to your sound.

The original Odyssey was used by plenty of groups, but for some funky inspiration check out the bassline in Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters' "Chameleon." Other famous users include Joe Zawinul, who knew a thing or two about funky synth soloing, and George Duke. And, although not recorded on Odysseys specifically, Ohio Players' "Funky Worm," Kool and the Gang's "Summer Madness," and the Commodores' "Machine Gun," all feature synth solos from ARP synths that have some of the same Odyssey DNA.

The Korg ARP Odyssey comes in a number of versions, including full-size, the normal 86% size unit, and a keyboardless module, the latter of which will require a separate MIDI controller. But no matter how you slice it, it is incapable of faking the funk.

Soul/R&B: Korg Prologue, Korg Minilogue

Our demo of the Korg Prologue 16.

Neo-soul and modern R&B can take many forms, from classic Motown vibes to '80s-inspired slow jams. A good, flexible, and very modern-sounding synthesizer could really bring a fresh sound to a band working in this genre. For you, we recommend the Korg Prologue, a flexible analog/digital polyphonic hybrid available in 8-voice and 16-voice iterations. Able to sound eight or 16 notes simultaneously, the Prologue's high voice count is essential if you plan to use chords more complex than basic triads (and we know you do).

Both versions of the Prologue have three oscillators; two are analog and one is digital. The latter makes this particularly intriguing, enabling not just the usual warm analog sounds but also wavetable (sampled waveforms) and FM synthesis, meaning it's perfect for '80s-style R&B and soul. It's also dual-timbral, meaning you can play two different sounds simultaneously or even split the keyboard, great for when you need to pull double duty and cover bass and lead at the same time. It has a great and comprehensive effects section too.

If you like the sound of the Prologue but don't need all the voices, look to the Minilogue XD, a four-voice version with smaller keys.

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