5 Great Beginner Analog Synths Under $500

In spite of all the amazing progress in digital audio over the past decade, when it comes to synthesizers, nothing beats analog. If you're looking for the fattest bass or the juiciest lead sound, there’s just no substitute. Unfortunately, even at the dawn of synthesis in the early '70s, analog synthesizers were prohibitively expensive, and many vintage units have only gone up in price over the decades.

Thankfully, over the past few years there has been a renaissance among synth-makers, with manufacturers turning out a bevy of brilliant new designs that pair a warm, vintage sound with modern conveniences like MIDI, presets, and USB connections—all at a previously unheard of price point.

If you’re looking to make the leap into analog synthesis, there’s never been a better time. Below, we've put together this guide with some true cream of the new crop.

Korg Volca
Classic sounds and a surprisingly full feature set packed into a tiny enclosure with a correspondingly tiny price tag.

To kick things off, we have to start with the Korg Volca Keys. Released last year, Korg’s new Volca series has set a new bar for affordability in the analog world. There are Bass and Drum Volcas as well, but for a well rounded, versatile synth, the Keys version is our top pick.

Featuring a variety of play modes including thick unison, 5th matching, and ring modulation, you can get just about any classic analog synth sound imaginable out of the Keys or venture into experimental territory. It also features a fun, dead-simple delay that adds space and context to your tone right out of the box.

While the tiny, toy-ish keyboard works for input into the excellent built-in step sequencer, there isn't quite enough space to compose on. Thankfully, the Volca Keys features full MIDI control, so you can hook it up to the rest of your studio and use it as a real analog sound module. Hackers and patchers have already taken to the Volca series, offering numerous mods and software control options. Ableton users, for instance, can utilize a Max for Live patch to control every aspect of the Volca right from their software, opening the door to complex automation and saving presets. Crazy affordable, yet still great-sounding and flexible, the Volcas have opened the door to real analog synthesis for everybody.

Arturia Microbrute
An aggressive, modern take on the monosynth that's been championed by everyone from Keith Shocklee to Maroon 5.

Arturia’s been making software versions of classic synths for about as long as that category has existed. Its V-Series, featuring all-time greats like the Minimoog and Yamaha CS-80, set the bar for analog emulation for years, but their new Brute family of synths sees them dropping the emulation in favor of real analog hardware.

The Brutes include the Microbrute and the larger Minibrute, with the Micro winning out here for packing the sound and features of its big brother into a more compact form, with a correspondingly lower price tag and a variety of eye-catching paint jobs.

As for the sounds and feature set, we recommended this unit for the modernist. Unlike Arturia’s software offerings, the Microbrute eschews vintage designs to strike out into bold new territory. In addition to the traditional saw, square, and triangle oscillators, it has further processing for each type: Ultrasaw to detune and fatten up the saw wave, Pulse Width Modulation for the square wave, and a Metallizer to conjure new timbres out of the usually mild triangle wave.

Unlike many of the synths on this list, it features a multimode filter and built-in saturation circuit (the aptly named Brute Factor) to take your sound design beyond the typical vintage analog realm. It even packs in a step sequencer capable of far more intricate patterns than the basic arpeggiator found in many synths at this price point. Lastly, and most impressively, it hosts a mini patchbay for CV control, allowing you to interface with modular gear, other synths or Moog’s Moogerfooger pedals. With a couple of extra pieces of gear, you could even convert your guitar signal to CV and start playing the synth from your axe.

For packing a wide array of features and a truly unique sound into a portable, affordable package, seeing (and hearing) the Arturia Microbrute is a must when looking for your first analog synth.

Moog Werkstatt
For those not afraid to break out the soldering iron, this is the inimitable Moog tone at an unheard of price.

The Moog Werkstatt is one for the DIY’er. Originally envisioned for an introductory synth-making course held at Moogfest 2014, this tabletop unit was designed to teach people about the inner workings of synthesizers and be easily accessibly for modding.

Thankfully, Moog later decided to make it available to the general public and released several kits and guides to allow you to hack and add new features, like MIDI, a second oscillator or even an Arduino based arpeggiator.

No mods are necessary though to get access to the thick, classic Moog monosynth sound at a never-before-seen price. Like the Volca, this features a less than ideal keyboard input (here just a push button interface), so for integration with a studio setup, plan on at least modding it for MIDI input.

If you’re interested in learning about the inner workings of analog synths as you get started with them in your music, the Werkstatt is your dream synth.

DSI Mopho
Brings the legendary Dave Smith sound, loved by everyone from Bernie Worrell and Chick Corea to modern mavericks like James Blake, within the reach of mere mortals.

The Dave Smith tone is one of the most unique in the world of analog synthesis, equal parts classic and modern, it can bring a sizzling edge to vintage sounds that will cut through any mix, and the Mopho is the most affordable way to get this coveted sound in your arsenal. As the name implies, this is a monophonic synth and that, coupled with eschewing a keyboard and most physical controls, is what brings the essential sound of the highly touted Prophet series within reach of the working man.

What it lacks in traditional inputs and interface, it makes up for in cutting edge options. Rather than the typical analog one-control-per-function layout, the Mopho only has eight knobs: four for the most used options (cutoff, resonance, attack and decay) and four user-assignable per patch.

Its real power, however, is via its USB connection. This allows the Mopho to interface with its proprietary software (available as a standalone program and VST/AU plugin) that offers easy control and automation of every single parameter from your computer. Suddenly, arduous tasks like editing complex sequencer patterns can be done quickly and efficiently, thanks to the use of a mouse and widescreen monitor.

For an in-the-box oriented producer looking to expand into their first hardware synth, the Mopho offers you the best of both worlds, with the detailed automation and preset control you’re used to with soft synths, and the inimitable warmth of Dave Smith’s analog oscillators and renowned Curtis lowpass filter. If you enjoy a computer-based workflow and want to add world-class analog sound at a killer price, then the Mopho is the pick for you.

Novation Bass Station II
Warmth, versatility and an astonishingly robust feature set packed into a compact, durable package - a modern classic in the making.

If you have a slightly bigger budget and could pick only one synth off this list, the Novation Bass Station gets our highest recommendation. Novation makes a variety of gear, from MIDI controllers to audio interfaces, and the company's understanding of the complete modern workflow shows through in this unit’s design. It takes many of the best features of the above synths and rolls them all into one—a great keyboard, analog style knob-per-function control layout, programmable arpeggiator and step sequencer, plus loads of room to save your own presets. This last feature makes the Bass Station much more flexible for making the leap from studio to stage than some of these other units.

Its sound straddles the line between vintage and modern, being very capable of classic analog leads and basses, but with a fantastic pre-filter overdrive for pushing into more aggressive sonic territory. You can even route in external audio to be processed by that overdrive or the synth’s filters and envelopes. Add in a fully bevy of I/O options, including an all-in-one USB connection, and the Bass Station II can fit into any workflow, in-the-box or out. Although it's a little more expensive than some of the other options on this list (though used ones still come in at that under $500 mark), it has the sound, versatility, and feature set of synths twice its price. For that, it's our top pick.


Honorable Mentions

There are, of course, plenty of other great options out there that will get your pretty far in your journey through synthesis. The Korg MS-20 Mini is the perfect gateway into patch based modular setups. For something even more modular than that, the Littlebits systems are endlessly fun and flexible.

If you want to learn more about the basics of audio synthesis, read our post, "How Do Synths Work".

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