We will discuss the 12 Best Hardware Synths for Sound Design in 2023, both analog and digital synthesizers, along with providing a brief overview of each synth.
With the gift of modern technology, we have become dependent on software synths & VTS plugins, which provide a huge range and convenience with just clicks of a few buttons. However, hardware synths are still pretty relevant when it comes to sound design, because it’s hard to imitate the same process and sound with software, sampler, or a VST. We have seen some renowned musicians like Mike Dean, Hans Zimmer, Charlie Puth, etc., using them.
We have considered factors like ease of use, proficiency in quality & design, versatility, and pricing to handpick the best physical synthesizers for sound design. An in-depth review of each of these tools, their pros and cons, pricing, and key features will also be provided, so you can make the best purchasing decision.
Discussion about everything from specifications to the signal flow of these electronic instruments to bring more transparency to this topic will be done. We have also given two special mentions to synths that couldn’t make it to this list but are high-functioning. So let’s dive right into it.
Top 12 Hardware Synths For Sound Design 2023 (Analog & Digital)
1. Moog One
Moog launched its first polyphonic Moog synthesizer in thirty years, called Moog One, a tri-timbral analog synth with great capabilities in terms of the richness & punch of the sound, and state-of-the-art design that took years to develop. Physically, it’s a large machine that requires a lot of space.
The front panel features single-function knobs like oscillators, filters, envelopes, and LFOs together by module. We can also add digital effects to our sounds, but for the purists and the fans of analog sounds, we also have the option to bypass the digital effects, if we want it to be 100% analog.
Packed with up to 48 voices, digital synth effects, a 20-slot modulation matrix, various input/output and control options, an arpeggiator, and a 64-step polyphonic sequencer, this is a highly ambitious piece of equipment. However, the central control section with a large screen to search and browse presets and its laid out knobs & buttons make the workflow easier.
The analog circuits of Moog are known for their richness of sound, harmonic nature, and natural quality, due to which Moog has been one of the primary instruments of acts like George Harrison, Beastie Boys, The Doors, etc. This synthesizer carries that nature of sound, along with its elaborate programming capabilities, and polyphonic & multitimbral character, which gives you a good combination of classic analog sound and modern tech to manipulate and shape the sound.
- Cutting-edge Sound Design capabilities
Moog one comes in 8- and 16-voice versions and three Voltage Controlled Oscillators (VCOs), that is, up to 48 voices at once, and also packs two independent analog filters- Variable State filter and Moog Ladder filter, four LFOs, and three DAHDSR Envelope Generators that can be applied in series or parallel to each voice.
- Rich Waveforms & Premium Modulation Options
The 3 oscillators could output a user-defined blend of triangle/saw and square/pulse oscillators, giving it a harmonically rich texture. To that, digital modulations like Ring Modulation, Frequency Modulation, Hard Sync, etc., can be applied. There’s an option to add a dual-source noise (pink, white, red, purple, etc.) generator with its own envelope shaper, which can give you a sound with full-spectrum and transient capabilities. Also, you could apply two different types of envelopes- DAHDSR and ADSR, to your sounds.
- Ease of Creation
With more than 73 knobs and 144 buttons, and 61 keys, the Moog synthesizer is designed to spark creativity. It’s a great technology due to its innovative design and ease of use. You can save tens of thousands of presets and can also recall a time-stamped snapshot of a preset using an LCD center panel, in which you can browse and control different presets and settings.
- Analog-Digital features
You can also use digital effects on your synths and master output, for example, the eventide reverb (Room, Shimmer, Hall, Blackhole, and Plate) and other high-quality effects like delay, phaser, flanger, etc., are available to expand your sonic horizon.
- Easy connectivity
There are 2 x 1/4″ stereo headphone outputs, 1 x ¼” external audio input (line-level), 4 x ¼” hardware inserts (TRS), 1 XLR + ¼” TRS combo external audio input, 9 assignable CV/GATE I/O (5-in/4-out), a LAN port, and USB drive support for saving and backing up system settings and presets.
The tone generators, filters, and modulators in this machine are high quality and the best you would find. On top of that, it’s tri-timbral, which essentially makes it a three-in-one synthesizer, along with which its interface is intuitive and well-thought-out, with very few hidden features.
It has a great sound design workflow and the ease of applying modulations, filters, and effects make it stand out. The Moog one is a reliable gadget with a rich & vast sonic universe, owing to its classic Moog circuitry, which gives this machine a sweet, warm, and unique analog tonality. Lastly, you have vast freedom to do experiments with features like three Envelopes and four LFOs per voice.
Film & Music studios, sound designers, and engineers who are looking for a machine with uncompromising abilities, who do not have any constraints on the budget, and who have a good know-how of how analog synthesis works are the ideal customers for the Moog One. We can create innovative vintage sounds, fat & gritty basslines, lush ambient sounds, and a versatile & rich palette of sounds using this instrument.
Priced at $8,999, many bedroom music producers cannot afford to buy such an expensive machine. However, it’s only designed for premium music and film studios. Apart from being pricy, this is a heavy machine and weighs about 45 lbs, making it quite challenging to carry around.
The Moog One is also huge in size, with an area of 7 x 42 square inches. Lastly, it’s complex and not easy to use and it could take a while to get used to its workflow, especially for beginner sound designers & music producers. Unfortunately, it’s ahead of its time and may not be the best product-market-fit.
2. Roland SYSTEM-8
Roland SYSTEM-8 is an ABC-based polyphonic digital synthesizer that combines the best of worlds: classic and modern, together to produce a sonically diverse universe of vintage and futuristic sounds, owing to Roland’s tried and tested analog circuit behavior is at the core of its engine. which has proven itself over decades.
Historically, this derives from the digital synths revolution of the 1980s, which evolved from the multi-oscillator modulator synthesizers revolution in the 1970s, a golden period for analog music machines. After forty years of technological development at Roland, they have released the Roland System-8.
They have tried to capture the essence of the famous JUNO-6, JUPITER-8, and JX-3P, with their down-to-circuit recreations. This extension of the Roland S-1 uses an 8-voice polyphony, split & layered synths, an integrated vocoder, and three PLUG-OUT slots.
- PLUG-OUT Expansion
You get three expansion slots for connecting and controlling plug-out synths, by which you can load up a different sound engine, by which the Roland S-8 can be transformed into a different instrument. We can connect with many synthesizers and create interesting fused sounds using layered voices and custom splits.
- Easy Connectivity
In terms of connectivity, we can connect our rig using MIDI/USB and CV/Gate, can input and output audios using 2 1/4″ I/O slots, and can monitor the audio using the 1/4″ headphones slot. This makes it a great instrument for both LIVE and Music Studios.
- Advanced Sound Engine & Digital FX
Based on the architecture of S-1, this digital instrument is packed with the ABC Sound Engine by Roland, 3-variable oscillators with eight notes of polyphony, 25 & 49 keys, an arpeggiator to enhance your musical performance, a step-sequencer, an SD Card Slot, and effects like Delay, Chorus, Phaser, Overdrive, Flanger, Reverb, etc., by which you could extensively morph your sonic palette.
- Great sound-shaping capabilities
Apart from that, dozens of knobs, buttons, and sliders are available, giving us good intuitive real-time control over the sound design process. There are lots of modulation & filter options also available to shape the sound as per your taste. You can change between 6 unique waveforms (saw, square, triangle, super saw, super square, super triangle) using the WAVE knob and blend these waveforms using the modulations.
Character & Sound:
Versatility is a huge plus for this synth, with a good variety of waveforms, a NOISE SAW, modulations like Frequency Modulation, SYNC, Vowel, Cowbell, Ring Modulation, Pulse Width Modulation, Cross Modulation, Detuning option, and a lot of other programming options like AMP Envelopes (Strings, Organ, Mallet, etc.), LFO of 6 different wave shapes, an arpeggiator, and a sequencer.
You can also add interesting effects like delay, reverb, chorus, flanger, etc., to improve your sounds. All the options mentioned above allow you to shape and enhance your sounds per your taste and create a wide range of sonics, letting you create sounds that are both vintage and modern.
Regarding connectivity, we can connect our rig using MIDI/USB and CV/Gate. That makes it easy to work with, carrying it around while traveling, and the plug-out option helps you expand your instrument further. That is a great plus for both touring and studio musicians. Using the MIDI connectivity, you can work with it on a computer or laptop too, and program & record music on your DAWs.
Small size, with only 13 lbs of weight, makes the Roland S-8 a portable tool. Moreover, it does a remarkable job sonically emulating classic synths: the Juno-6, Jupiter-8 & JX-3P. Hence, you need not spend a tonne of money on buying analog synths when you can buy a digital synthesizer with such capabilities and functionalities.
The biggest drawback of the S-8 is that it has very few patches, which are uneditable during performance, and that it does not have much performance memory. Along with that, the performance mode does not save edits. In addition, its documentation is below average, and the hardware is made of plastic and has an external power supply.
There’s no option to connect an XLR mic input, and it is not great for keyboard players as it has few octaves. Lastly, the arpeggiator doesn’t have a gate or swing mode, only one global LFO, and the sequencer doesn’t have a metronome track.
3. Access Virus Ti2 Keyboard
Access improved the Virus Ti’s calculating power by 25%, countering its criticism for latency and real-time performance issues, and launched the Virus Ti2 with better power & performance, lighter weight, robust design, and more effects to enhance the character of its sound.
It’s a wavetable synth with a distinctive characteristic sound and great capabilities. The Ti2 also has a software version, which we can use within a digital sequencer on a computer. It’s a 61 keys velocity-sensitive keyboard with good quality knobs, buttons, and solid construction. Next, let’s dive into the other aspects of this synthesizer.
- Powerful effects section
In addition to a bunch of time-based effects like phaser, chorus, flanger, and frequency-based effects like Ring Modulation, ring shifter, and EQ, the Ti2 lets you add studio-quality effects like Tap Delay, frequency shifter, and distortion effects for harmonic enhancement. In addition, there are new “character” effects, which lets you adjust the timbral characteristics of sounds using Analog Boost, Bass enhancer, Lead enhancer, Vintage 1/2/3, and Stereo widening. In total, there are 129 parallel effects that you could choose from.
- Virus control plug-in for more control
You can enhance the control over Virus Ti2 using its plug-in version in your preferred DAW, in which you can also access a wider range of presets that you could also sort, edit and search. You can also use the dedicated remote mode to turn this keyboard into a universal remote control for VST/AU plug-ins.
- Efficient sound design capabilities
The Ti2 contains three LFOs (with 64 different waveshapes) and two ADSTR envelopes. It also has two fully independent filters (High pass, low pass, band pass) and a MoniMoog cascade filter-inspired Analog Filter. Further, there are three main oscillators and one sub-oscillator available per voice, in which you can access Wavetable oscillators and HyperSaw oscillators, capable of using up to 9 sawtooths. In addition to that, it also contains a 2-dimensional mod matrix.
Character & Sound
The color in the sound is added primarily by the hypersaw and wavetable synthesis, along with a wide variety of effects that this machine offers, which is perfect for creating 80s synth-pop music. A lot of renowned acts like Madona, Nine Inch Nails, Stevie Wonder, Tiesto, Armin Van Buuren, etc., have used this synth and its presets in a lot of hit songs because of its massive and anthemic lead and sub sounds, which cut through the mix with a lot of punch and impact.
It is equally capable of creating ambient soundscapes and hence is widely used in house & trance music and is perfect for creating fat analog-sounding digital sounds. Moreover, we have long ADSRs, which translates into creating lush sounds. With that, Virus has developed a trademark sound.
The Ti2 is a very reliable and heavy-duty piece of gear, made for the rigors of touring due to its high build quality which is usable even in temperature changes and dust and is rock-solid. Built on the virus synth engine, it has a unique flavor, which is hard to emulate by any other synthesizer.
It uses the best of both software and hardware worlds and also comes as a plug-in that we can use inside our DAW. It can also be used as a soundcard, hence the name TI, which stands for total integration. We can control the plug-in synth via the hardware synth, and can Ti2 can also act like a MIDI device and record musical information from it.
It doesn’t sound as analogous as other synths in the list, as it is a digital synthesizer. It is not the best device for creating heavy and hard-hitting percussive sounds, which makes this a not-so-versatile instrument because of its one-of-a-kind sonic scape. Also, any of its customers and users have complained about bugs and software issues.
4. Waldorf Quantum (Hybrid – Analog/Digital)
Replaced with Quantum MK2
The quantum by Waldorf is a bi-timbral polyphonic (8 voices) synthesizer with high-quality stereo oscillators that can route through two sets of filters, multiple LFOs, and envelopes. We can do layering and splitting of the sounds with a flexible allotment of voices in oscillators.
It’s a futuristic hybrid synthesizer of both digital and analog characteristics, which is based on four synthesis programming; on top of that, you can do complex modulations and apply effects. This instrument has been elegantly, uniquely, and efficiently designed by Axel Hartmann, with great simplification and ease of use.
- Signal Flow
Apart from the three oscillators per voice, dual analog and single digital filters are available per voice. Therefore, modulation can be easily performed and applied using six envelopes and six LFOs (each with Sine / Triangle / Square / Sawtooth Down /Sawtooth Up / Sample & Hold). Lastly, the signal flow is flexible and could route anywhere between the oscillator, filter, digital, former, amplifier, etc. You can connect up to five different effects units and use its extensive modulation matrix and compressor.
- Multi-synthesis algorithm
Four algorithms are available for synthesis: wavetable synthesis, waveform synthesis, granular synthesis, and sampling/resonator. Wavetable synthesis gives you a lot of flexibility in changing the core waveform of the sound. You can experiment with the timbre of a sound using the granular synthesis algorithm, its time scaling options, and playing around with the sample’s phase, speed, and volume. Resonator synthesis is based on manipulating your samples using cross-coupled filters.
- High-functioning performance tools
Many tools like a pitch-modulation wheel, modulation pad, sequencer, arpeggiator, etc., are available for real-time performance and modulations of sounds. In addition, there are functions like glide, hold, chord, mono, and unison available for better shaping your sounds, along with 61 velocity-sensitive piano keys, microtonal pitch configuration, and an oscilloscope.
Character & Sound:
The sounds are wide, warm, and huge-sounding due to multiple laying of voices, stereophony, ear-candy wavetables, and multiple effects. It’s a great synth for creating all types of sonics, ranging from plucky danceable sounds to warm, spread-out, and lush ambient sounds to groovy arpeggios and time-sequenced tunes. In addition, the granular synth allows you to create futuristic and digital experimental music, like eight-bit music. It’s also great for creating pads and atmospheric sounds.
The Quantum is a versatile digital synthesizer that store up to 10,000 patches, which could quickly recall using the Favourites list. Furthermore, Wavetables, samples, and presets can be exported and loaded using an SD Card. Hence, the sound design aspect of this synth is flexible because of the availability of different synthesis methods.
Visually it’s a stunning instrument with a touch screen display for controlling it. The knobs are high quality, the touch screen is smooth, and the overall design is intuitive and simple.
The overall sound is not as analog as one would like. Hence, it’s not a one-in-all synthesizer, and you may need more tools in your arsenal to cover the analog spectrum of sounds. Another huge con is that the filters are monophonic while the oscillator is stereo, which means that once the waveform passes through the filter, a mono filter is applied. One cannot connect a USB to it to load up patches, wavetables, and other data.
5. Sequential Prophet-6
The Sequential Prophet 6, a successor of the much renowned Prophet 5, is a 6-voice analog synthesizer that comes with two voltage-controlled oscillators (VCOs) per voice, giving us an option to use up to twelve oscillators at a time. Known for its authentic and warm vintage tone, we can smoothly transition the oscillators of this synth from triangle to pulse.
It also has a slop knob that emulates the inconsistencies between oscillators in old analog synthesizers, outputting a fat synth sound from detuning and dephasing the voices. Created by Dave Smith, the creator of the Prophet 5, this machine exceeds all expectations with its classic sequential circuit, which gives it its analog characteristics.
This synth has its fan base and a great reputation in the market for its trademark sound, which is loved by almost anyone who uses it, and its legacy. It has four octaves of piano keys and a button to shift octaves.
- Studio Quality Effects
The Prophet 6 packs a dual effects section with studio-grade digital effects like reverb, phase shifter, chorus, delay., etc., which are bypassable to maintain the analog nature of the synth. There’s also a stereo distortion effect which is completely analog.
- Poly Modulation & Step Sequencer
A filter envelope and the second oscillator act like modulation sources, targeting various parameters of oscillator one that could be used for modulation purposes. It has a polyphonic step sequencer with up to steps and up to 6 notes on each step, which allows polyphonic sequencing. There are two filters per voice and a multimode arpeggiator available as well.
- Ease of use
Five hundred factory and 500 user programs are available as patches, which can be easily manipulated and played around to create interesting sounds. Apart from that, there’s a MIDI output, a USB slot, two audio outputs of 1/4″ each, and a headphones output.
Character & Sound:
You can expect to create sounds with a lot of movement, depth, punch, and fullness when you work with this synth, giving you a great analog-natured vintage palette. The factory presets have a huge variety of sounds ranging from plucks to percussions to spread-out ambient sounds, proving the versatility and capabilities of the Prophet 6. In addition, things like the Slop dial and effects range are created for us to shape the sounds as per our taste.
The semi-weighted keyboard of this synth feels very smooth to play, with an accurate velocity-sensitive and aftertouch response to the finger pressure. The VCOs, VCFs, and VCAs are perfect for the aesthetic vintage sound. The user interface is simplified and easily usable, and the performance is more ear-dependent than giving you fancy visual cues about what you’re doing.
Since the Prophet 5 and the Prophet 600 had a five-octave keyboard, many fans were disappointed when the Prophet 6 was announced as a four-octave keyboard synth. This makes it portable & compact, but it’s not the best fit for performing musicians & sound designers who play with both hands. It’s also expensive and not easily affordable. Finally, it uses digitally sourced LFOs and ADSR contours that technically make this machine a bit digital, which may put off analog purists and old Prophet fans.
6. Korg Opsix
Korg Opsix is often compared with the well-known and industry favorite Yamaha DX7, and it’s even claimed that the Opsix is a recreation of the DX7. However, if we look beyond that, this machine has many more capabilities. Primarily, it is a 37 keys FM synthesizer with six operators.
It has five internal sound engines: Subtractive/Filter, FM with forty different algorithms, Filter FM, RM, and Wave (21 waveforms including white noise) folder, which can do expansive digital synthesis. It has six oscillators that can work in any of these synthesis engines. The subtractive mode has extensive filter types like the MS-20 and Poly-6.
Forty algorithms organize each of the six operators in different structures, giving you feedback loops and interactions you could work around. As an FM synth, this allows us to set any operator as the carrier or the modulator waveform.
- Futuristic approach to FM Synthesis
We get a decent number of hardware controls on the Korg Opsix, which gives us a good hands-on approach to sound synthesis. By using the screen, we can also see the envelopes, parameter values, algorithms, and presets we are choosing. Each operator has its slider and a dedicated envelope generator. We can select a waveform, out of 21 different waveforms, for each operator and set algorithms in which these operators modulate each other. We can easily do data entry using the rotary encoders.
- Extensive sound engines and programming capabilities
The five different synth algorithms give us the option to shape our sound to create tonal variations from the operators feeding from and into each other. There are three envelope generators for modulations, 3 LFOs with 23 LFO waveforms, 12 virtual automation patches, and one multimode filter. The arpeggiator comes with seven different patterns, and there are 30 effect types that you can apply to your sounds.
Character & Sound:
The Opsix is great for creating gritty and glitchy percussive sounds for the cyberpunk music era. It’s also great for creating lush and soothing ambient sounds that sound full and can easily fill up any space. The digital characteristic is at the core of the sound. This synth is versatile due to an intuitive hands-on interface being like an upgraded version of the DX7, just with more capabilities.
The biggest pro of this instrument is that it makes FM easier and offers immense flexibility and control. Due to the control it offers, along with a room of randomness, it gives us a scope to innovate and create & discover new sounds.
Five hundred in-built patches and an interactive interface make it easily usable and programmable. With a lightweight of fewer than three kilograms, it’s easy to carry around and is one of the best synths to design 80s sounds.
The sequencer has up to 16-tracks only, within which one has to stay limited to 16 steps and hence 16 lanes of automation. It responds to aftertouch only as a MIDI device and not otherwise, and the keys are narrow, making it hard to play.
7. Novation Peak
The Novation Peak is an 8-voice polyphonic virtual analog synthesizer with analog waveform– and digital wavetable oscillators, built to work with computers, bridging the worlds of analog and digital. This synth is perfect for sound design in the modern electronic music era.
Therefore, it could be well utilized by bedroom producers, performing DJs, and even high-end studios. Furthermore, you can easily utilize it for more complicated modulations and routings, as, for example, the modulation matrix can have up to 17 sources and 40 destinations. But first, let’s look deeper into the main features of this machine.
- Oxford Oscillators
Oxford Oscillators are based on FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array), which creates less aliasing, hence adding more analog characteristics to the sounds. In addition, there are three oscillators with multiple analog waveshapes like sine, sawtooth, triangle, and pulse width, and 60 digital wavetables from which we could choose multiple waveforms.
- Limitless Modulation
There are 16 direct modulation assignments and a 16-slot modulation matrix that you can assign to introduce more movement to your sounds. Moreover, using the FX Modulation matrix, you can apply modulations to any effects. You can modulate almost anything on the Novation Peak with these many options.
- Wavetable Editor
The wavetable oscillator in this instrument comes with an editor which allows you to edit and even draw waveforms and oscillator shapes. You can even create waveforms from external audio samples with the Audio Import function.
Character & Sound:
Direct control of all onboard effects gives you a lot of scope for sonic shaping. For example, using effects like delay and reverb to make ambient sounds and modulation controls to create metallic texture, harsher tones, musical overtones, and dynamic movements.
Being a virtual analog synth with much more control and knobs & sliders for effects & modulations, one can create smooth and warm classic sounds and dirty & granular underground sounds. One can also use the noise generators and modulate them to create soothing windy sounds.
As a digital-analog hybrid synth, Peak offers features you will not find in a traditional analog synth, including various wavetables. Further, it’s a versatile and all-in-one synthesizer and offers a good ROI for its price. Lastly, it has high-quality oscillators, a friendly laid-out structure to sound design, and analog multi-mode filters and effects.
The biggest con of the Novation Peak is that you cannot use and load your wavetables in it. Instead, you get a wavetable editor, which makes the matter more complex and time-consuming, given that the in-built wavetables are slightly underwhelming. Further, it does not have a keyboard and is not rackmountable.
8. Behringer Deepmind 12
The Deepmind 12 by Behringer is an analog synth with digital effects section that comes in keyboard and desktop versions, with either six or twelve voices, an extensive modulation matrix, arpeggiators, sequencers, VCOs, and a variety of effects.
Audiophiles compare it with the Juno-106. However, it’s like an upgraded version, as it has way more new features and a polyphony of up to 12 unison voices. It has a strong build and is packed as a wooden box with a metallic covering. Built on Behringer’s classic analog synth engine, it has a characteristic sound that hugely impacted the music of a wide range of genres in the 70s and 80s.
It contains two analog oscillators, which are digitally controlled, an effective 8-bus modulation matrix, four digital FX engines, a 32-steps step sequencer, and many more features that we will look into further in this article.
- Absolute Control
The Deepmind 12 has built-in Wi-fi by which you can command it remotely using an iPad or a computer. Apart from that, it has a USB slot and can also connect as a MIDI device. In addition, it has an interactive LCD screen on which you can navigate all buttons and sliders, giving you full control over the sound design process.
- Lexicon FX and EMT Plate
Onboard effects like vintage reverb are based on the EMT250 plate, and other reverb algorithms like Hall, Chamber, Ambient, etc., are modeled by the famous Lexicon 480L, a high-quality industry-standard digital reverb unit. Apart from that, there are TC Electronic Reverbs also present.
- Extensive sound design features
With two oscillators per voice and a noise generator, more than a thousand patch memory locations arranged in 8 banks, three analog envelopes, an independent LFO for every voice, detune future on unison voices, and an arpeggiator with gate time control, there’s an immense scope to create and innovate new sounds.
Character & Sound:
There are some high-resolution patches of sounds present in the machine with a huge range and variety of tones and textures, from granular & glassy characteristics to wonderful lush pads, huge sounding ensembles, orchestral sounds, electric pianos, etc. Using the arpeggiator and control sequencer; one can design sounds for the EDM category. In addition, the detune option, unison voices, LFOs, etc., give you a huge range of options to explore your sounds.
There are a lot of under-the-hood features and possibilities that the Deepmind 12 offers, which may not be apparent. It has a comfortably playable velocity-sensitive keyboard, an internal power supply, and an in-built WiFi, which accounts for a well-thought design. Lastly, it looks attractive, is priced under $1000, and is more affordable than other machines on this list.
There is a problem with the design of this instrument, as there isn’t much space for a lot of knobs, sliders, and other physical controls, so many basic features are available only via the screen. In addition, it has a 49 keys keyboard and hence is not the best option for pianists & keyboardists for live performances.
9. Yamaha MODX6
Yamaha MODX6 is a 61 keys keyboard workstation that combines the capabilities of a keyboard (with the traditional sound of pianos, organs, etc.) and a synthesizer (oscillators, sequencers, modulators, etc.). It has semi-weighted keys and is based on Yamaha’s flagship montage range of keyboards.
It has an AWM engine that is fully programmable and features accurate controls over the pitch, amplitude, envelopes, etc. Additionally, there are Yamaha’s Motion Sequences features that you could utilize to create interesting rhythmic patterns in your synth parameters in real-time. An envelope follower is also present that could control parameters based on the envelope shape to receive from another audio, along with a unique vocoder effect.
- Versatile Sounds & Patches
The patches in the keyboard, both acoustic and digital, are realistic and of high quality, with various options to choose from like drums, bass, piano, guitars, and various orchestral instruments. You could also create sounds from scratch using its AWM2 and FM-X sound engines, along with immense modulation and effects options.
- Sound Engine
The FM-X is an 8-operator FM synthesizer known for its dynamics and sonic capabilities. The AWM2 has a great data compression algorithm that doesn’t compromise sound quality, delivering high-quality sounds without any lags or delays. MODX6 has in total 192-note polyphony: 128-note stereo AWM2 + 64-note FM-X. For modulations, there are 9 LFOs, a three-band equalization, and 18 types of filters to choose from.
- Interactive Interface
The menus are intuitive and easy to navigate, thanks to its large colored touch screen and interactive and robustly-built multi-function knobs and sliders.
Character & Sound:
Virtual Circuitry Modeling (VCM) re-models the sound and behavior of vintage effects and signal processors, and the sound engine gives you the scope to create high-quality and dynamic sounds. The presets & patches are universal and editable. Compared to real analog polysynths, it has a polyphony of remarkable standards.
The MODX is a synthesizer for the masses, with its price, versatility, multi-purpose functionality, and ease of use. It has 5.67 GBs of samples as presets and 1 GB of user memory. It’s an attractive hybrid of the sample-based subtractive and FM synthesis. It has much potential to layer sounds and creates and utilize sounds from varying genres. Its 61 keys make it a great instrument for keyboard players and performing musicians & sound designers.
A huge problem with MODX is that it’s not sound design focused, and hence programming from scratch could be a lot of hard work, as direct knobs are missing, and the onboard sequencer doesn’t have as many features making the process even more tedious.
10. Waldorf Iridium
The Waldorf Iridium is a sixteen-voice polyphonic bi-timbral stereo digital hardware synth; and is the desktop version of Waldorf Quantum and includes Quantum’s analog filters for a lower price tag, more voices, smaller footprint, and a few more features. In addition, it includes five synth engines: wavetable, waveform, sampler/granular, resonator, and kernels.
- Sharp & interactive touch screen
It has a seven-inch color touch screen that is sharp, viewable from any angle, and has a good response rate to touches, whether light or hard. You could use this to access and save presets, select effects, oscillators, and modulators, analyze waveforms using its oscilloscope, decide the signal flow, etc. In addition, the touch screen allows you to cycle through different waveforms in the wavetable.
- Solid built
The synth is heavy and well-built, the encoders and knobs are solid and responsive, and the pads are good quality. It doesn’t have a built-in keyboard, but you can use its pads, arranged chromatically, to play or record any chords or notes. Chords can be customized to single pads as well in chord mode.
- Limitless sound design capabilities
Packed with powerful modulators, the Iridium has a 40-slot modulation matrix, dual filter, six envelope generators, 4×4 pad matrix, six LFOs, and a KOMPLEX modulator which offers highly accurate and precise sound shaping options. As a sound designer, you can utilize comb filtering, bit crushing, Ring Modulation, and many other modulation & effect tools.
Character & Sound:
With 16-voice polyphony and dual-timbral mode, the Iridium can produce highly dense and filled sounds. Given its five different synth engines, the range of sounds one can produce is huge. There’s no limit to what can be done with this machine, as we can utilize it equally well for different genres of music, game sound design, and film scoring.
For example, wavetable synthesis can be used to create morphing sounds with interesting movements and attitudes, resonator synthesis can manipulate the overtones & harmonic structure of any given sound, and waveform synthesis could be utilized to create sounds of more analog nature. The oscillators and modulation tools are high quality, clean and modern, and can be used to create a wide variety of sounds.
It’s an all-in-one machine that blends lots of features well together, creating a seamless user interface, given the number of knobs, buttons, and touch screens we can use to control thousands of parameters. Further, we can conveniently do many things with the touch screen, like sequencing, arpeggiating, and scrolling around through different waveforms and presets.
Lastly, the screen animations are useful and interactive for visualizing the wavetables, LFOs, modulations, etc. Physically, it looks stunning and compactly packs all features & capabilities of the Waldorf Quantum.
Only 600 MB of memory is available for loading up samples or wavetables, which could be expanded to 2.5 GB if you clear the factory presets. Further, the pads are really small and have no pressure after-touch sensitivity. Further, it does not have an SD card or USB stick slot to use or expert external data. Lastly, there are no macro controls, which, if included, could enhance this machine’s performance.
11. Arturia Microfreak
The Arturia Microfreak blends wavetables and digital oscillators with digitally-controlled analog filters and a lot more sound design capabilities in a very compact and unique packaging. For example, it has a one-of-a-kind poly aftertouch flat keyboard with only two octaves, 16 different oscillator modes, five switchable sound engines, and Noise engineering-based oscillator modes.
Arturia offers companion software for preset management and more control on the device. One can also connect a larger LED/LCD screen to visually monitor the sound design process.
- Futuristic design
Microfreak features a useful and visually pleasing OLED screen that provides good visual feedback for the selected parameter, preset names, waveshape changes, etc. In addition, it has a matrix knob that lets you assign the target and source for modulations (like Envelope, LFO, CycEnv, Press, Key/Arp, etc.). Similarly, it has many knobs and buttons for various functions built in unconventional styles.
- 12 Oscillator Engines
Arturia has packed twelve sound design engines, including wavetable, virtual analog, FM, Waveshaper, Formant, Additive, Modal, Chords, Speech, Karplus, Formant Engine, and Modal resonator. Furthermore, for each of these, the timbre, shape, and other characteristics of sounds can be edited.
- The All New Touch Surface
The design team behind Microfreak deserves full points for innovation as they have created this sensitive touch keyboard, which you could play faster than a regular keyboard. However, it could take some time to get used to it if you have the habit of playing on a regular keyboard. Also, you cannot lay your fingers on the keyboard without triggering any note(s) on it.
Character & Sound:
Sounds coming out of this Arturia device can sound slightly harsh and digital, not warm and analog. It’s best for producing eight-but gaming sounds, cyberpunk-based sound design, and the Social Network and Tron Legacy type of OSTs, using its glide knob and other modulators. In addition, it offers various sound engines and sequencing options so that you can create sounds of varying digital characteristics.
Microfreak is priced at about $300, which is a great price point, given the value one can derive from this device. Next, the chords oscillator is an interesting feature that you can use, which gives a four-voice chord as its output, for which we can select the chord we want to output using the wave knob, and the Timbre knob could select the inversions.
With so many different sound engines, the synth serves multiple synth purposes. We can easily switch between these different sound design algorithms, which is great for the creative aspect of it to inspire new ideas, especially during creative blocks. Further, the rear of the machine offers a wide range of connectivity, including MIDI, USB, CV out, Gate out, Pressure out, and Clock in/out. Lastly, it’s light in weight and small in size, making it extremely portable.
There’s no external audio input, which is a shame because the analog filter is really good and could have been used on different samples and recordings. Moreover, the build quality is not great due to its plastic packaging and fragile keybed. Finally, it sounds too “digital” sonically, given it is primarily a digital synthesizer.
12. ASM Hydrasynth Keyboard
The Hydrasynth is a digital instrument with 8-voice polyphony that comes in two different versions. One comes with a velocity-sensitive 49-keys keyboard with polyphonic aftertouch, and another comes in a desktop version. Both are fully digital synths with virtual analog FM and wavetable oscillators, five envelopes and five LFOs per voice, and an extensive effects section.
The Hydrasynth is the debut synthesizer of Ashun Sound Machines, a Chinese company. They priced it at about $1299, which is pretty affordable, given its advanced features and innovative design.
- Next Level Virtual Analog sound design capabilities
The ASM Hydrasynth packs a 32-slot modulation matrix, three Wavescan oscillators with 219 waveforms, and four waveshaping mutators. Each of the five envelopes can sweep through exponential and logarithmic curves, which creates scope for long evolving modulations. Further, the LFOs have 11 different assignable waveforms.
- High-performance Parameters
For live sound designing and performances, the ribbon controller gives you accessibility to control pitch bend or modulation amount. PolyTouch gives you more command over the aftertouch curves, offsets, and release times, shaping your sounds in more controlled and creative ways. Lastly, it also gives you macro controls, that is, ways by which you could control multiple parameters by just a single knob.
- Hands-on control of the interface
The intuitive interface makes your sound design process simpler and easier, with plenty of knobs and buttons to tweak what you’re looking for. In addition, we can easily access each section and functionality of this synth with just a press of a button.
Character & Sound:
ASM places a lot of importance on recording the expression of the performance by packing the Hydrasynth keyboard with aftertouch, connectivity for sustain peddles, and velocity sensitivity. Hence, what you play on this instrument will truly be recorded. Moreover, sonically, it sounds fairly analog and warm for a digital synthesizer.
You can create anything from a pad to a pluck sound to percussions to fat and gritty synth bass sounds to strings with varying ADSRs to punchy and bright 80s stabs, etc., hence making it a good sound design tool for modern music producers.
Hydrasynth combines several sound design methods, like wavetable synthesis, subtractive synthesis, linear FM, Pulse Width Modulation, and more which gives it limitless functionality. Further, eight macro control presents make the sound design workflow easier, combined with a solid build and a high-quality effects section. Lastly, the Polyphonic aftertouch and Ribbon Controller are its topmost USP after its attractive price point.
The keyboard is 49 keys long, and some sound designers may have a preference for longer keyboards to be able to record their performances easily. Secondly, it has an external power supply, and the complex & overwhelming sound design workflow may take time to get used to.
Hence, Hydrasynth is not the most beginner-friendly sound design instrument. Lastly, lacking sequencers could be a huge dealbreaker for many sound designers, making its versatility questionable.
1. Roland V-Synth
The Roland V-Synth is a 61-note velocity-sensitive variable oscillator synthesizer keyboard and sampler with a twin-core sound generator and 24-voice polyphony. In addition, it contains a Pulse Code Modulation (PCM) oscillator, which is powered by VariPhase for a hundred percent sound control.
The other oscillator is the Analog Modeling type, with nine fat, warm and punchy waveforms. The third oscillator type is External Audio processing, which lets you process any external audio signals as inputs. These three different oscillators can be layered and used together in various ways.
- COSM Processing
The V-Synth uses a COSM (Composite Object Sound Modelling) for dynamic, unique sounds, and there are 15 COSM effects like overdrive, sideband filters, Lo-fi processor, frequency shifter, etc., that we can use on this machine. These effects introduce innovative ways to process sounds and create new flavors.
- Immense sampling capabilities
We can re-touch and manipulate samples to a huge extent and derive value from even mundane samples that you may find useless due to the Variphrase technology that the synth uses. Further, the different encoding algorithms make it easier to process samples of different timbers and ADSRs, to create cool robotic voices, percussions, pads, etc., without taxing the RAM too much.
- USB Connectivity
One can explore various I/O possibilities using the USB slots for sampling and resampling the input audio, which widens the scope for sound design. One can also edit patches and save different presets on an external device like a computer or laptop via the USB slot.
Character & Sound:
The synth models classic high-resolution analog waveforms, which could be processed and controlled digitally, creating a digital-analog sonic scape. Three different oscillators can be used to produce varying sounds. Overall, it’s great to produce robotic voices and vocals-based synth sounds, samples-based loops & beats, well-spread-out atmospheric sounds, upfront & punchy lead drops, bright 80s synth sounds, etc.
One big pro of the V-synth is that it has as much scope for sampling as it has for synthesis, and for sound design, both are important. Due to that, one can derive a huge range of sounds and experiment with them. Next, it has great rear panel features, making it easier for the user to input and output audio or MIDI signals to the synthesizer.
It lacks a sequencer, which makes its programming capabilities questionable, and is better suited for performers.
2. Yamaha DX-200
The DX200 stands out as a powerful machine in the Yamaha DX series, as most of them are keyboard-based synths. It is a vintage hardware FM synth that combines the old-fashioned FM synthesis with editable parameters and tweakable knobs, hence increasing the scope & possibilities of FM.
- Modulation Options
It contains LFO with six different waveforms (triangle, up/down sawtooth, square, sine, sample & hold), which we could assign to modulate the pitch, amplitude, and filter, combined with 2 ADSR envelopes to determine the graph of these parameters over time. In addition, the analog filter is available with the following slopes and bands: 24, 18, and 12dB low‑pass, band‑pass, and high‑pass. Apart from that, there’s also a portamenti knob.
- Advanced Sequencer
We can load up to four tracks with up to 16 steps on each track, on the step sequencer, with each capable of generating 3-4 events applicable to pitch, gate, and velocity. In addition, there are about 121 percussion, drums, and bass sound samples can be applied to a step. You can also set the level and pan for each pattern you create.
Character & Sound:
FM synths are among the most heard sounds in 80s music, across all genres from pop, rock, RnB, etc. The DX200 is known for its distinctive FM-based sonics of clangy bells, upfront bass, punchy sounds, metallic texture, and unrealistic horns & strings sounds, marking the unique aural signature of frequency modulation.
DX200 makes FM simpler by using editing knobs and also creates a unique stand-out sonic character that is different from other overheard synth sounds. The synth is fun to use as a hands-on sequencing workstation and can inspire creativity. Further, you can also load up, manipulate, and play around with DX7 patches.
One can apply only a few limited effects to the sound, and even the equalizer is not directly accessible on the hardware. With the changing trends in the music industry, DX200 is not a timeless and versatile machine, but it’s a decent tool to keep in your sound design arsenal.
We have included synthesizers of various algorithms, sound engines, and price ranges to cover all categories so you can make the best pick suited for your needs. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced sound designer, there are plenty of options available in the market for a hardware synth.
Lately, the synth market has exploded with many cool and innovative products. However, there’s no such thing as a perfect synthesizer at the perfect price. But you can create your list of features and specifications that you’d like in your synth, set a budget for yourself, and decide to buy the instrument that best suits your needs, depending on your genre and sound-design purpose.
For example, if you are designing sounds for video games, subtractive synthesis engines, granular synthesis, and samples-based tools more suit your need. Similarly, for a lot of film sound design, VCA & VCF-based analog oscillators are more suited.
In addition, to find the best-fit sound design tool for yourself in 2023, many online options and demos are available, but still, I suggest you try your hands on the instrument before buying it. Hope this article helps you to upgrade your sound design game and toolkit. Thank you for reading.
Shaurya Bhatia, is an Indian Music Producer, Composer, Rapper & Performer, who goes by the stage name MC SNUB, and is also 1/2 of the Indian pop music duo, called “babyface”. A certified Audio Engineer & Music Producer, and a practicing musician & rapper for more than 6 years, Shaurya has worked on projects of various genres and has also been a teaching faculty at Spin Gurus DJ Academy.