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By definition, a synthesizer isn’t the keyboard-looking thing with knobs and dials that makes UFO sounds. It includes that sort of thing, but in its simplest form, a synthesizer is an electronic instrument that creates, and also modifies, sounds from electronic signals. Though many popular versions of synths take the shape of a keyboard (of sorts) they don’t have to fit this form to still function as a synth. In fact, one of our picks more closely resembles your grade school calculator, than it does a traditional keyboard.
Originally created in the late 1800s in a much different form, the popular version of the synth debuted in the 1960s, thanks to a man named Moog. While the original was created by Bob Moog at the request of composer Herb Deutsch, the Moog for the masses didn’t hit until 1971 with the advent of the Moog Minimoog. Finally, in a semi-portable package, any musician could use the Moog’s many oscillators and filters to warp and crank vibrations to make all sorts of weird sounds. Nearly 50 years later, the synth can be found in popular songs from Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” to just about everything by Future Islands.
In honor of this revolutionary musical instrument and how far it’s come since the Sixties, we’ve rounded up some of the best budget synths on the market. From Teenage Engineering’s Pocket Operator to Korg’s Monotron Duo, here are our favorite synthesizers under $200.
1. Teenage Engineering PO-35 Speak Pocket Operator Bundle
Designed and built in Sweden, this synth looks more like a lo-fi cross between a gameboy and a calculator, but don’t be fooled by its simple exterior, the PO-35 packs a ton of features in its unassuming package. With 16 unique patterns, a minor drum kit, and the ability to record your voice (or other sample), the PO-35 allows for robust music making in the palm of your hand. Play live or record patterns with the built-in samples, change the pitch, BPM and use filters or record 8 second clips from your own samples (your voice or otherwise) using the built-in mic and suddenly this tiny machine is capable of anything.
Though Teenage Engineering makes a whole slew of these Pocket Operators, we like the PO-35 for its ability to record voice samples. As small and compact as they are though, they can be a little confusing, which is why we’d recommend watching a walkthrough like this one from Red Means Recording. On top of getting the PO-35, this package from Amazon also includes a 6ft headphone extension cable, as well as 2 AAA batteries, so you can start making music the moment this little synth arrives on your doorstep. Purchase: $97.99 on Amazon.
2. Korg Monotron Duo Dual Oscillator Analog Pocket Synthesizer
Another palm-sized option, this time by Japan-based Korg, the Monotron Duo Dual Pocket Synth delivers a powerful synth for an affordable price. With a surprisingly dynamic ribbon controller keypad, 5 knobs (which control VCO1 Pitch, X-MOD Int., VCO2 Pitch, VCF Cutoff and VCF Peak) and it’s own built-in speaker, you can get fairly deep with this $42 synth, creating and screwing with the strangest sounds possible. On top of the built-in sounds to play around with, the Monotron Duo comes equipped with an Aux input jack, allowing you to filter and morph an audio source of your choosing. Purchase: $41.95 on Amazon.
3. Korg Volca Keys Analogue Loop Synth Bundle
Another option from Korg, the Volca is a bit more robust than its Monotron brother listed above. The Volca offers built-in speakers for immediate use, and a decent amount of sample sounds to play around with. What’s especially nice about this Korg, when compared to the Monotron, is that the Volca allows for live looping, allowing you to make tracks on the fly.
As with the others on our list, the Volca isn’t a sample-heavy piece of machinery, but instead a fun little instrument that allows you to explore and screw around with an analog synth. And with the ability to program different sounds, record vocals and even link a few Volcas together by way of the sync in/out, and you can actually make quite a range of sounds and tracks. Purchase: $149.99 on Amazon.
4. IK Multimedia UNO Synth portable monophonic analog synthesizer
Featuring two oscillators and 100 presets, the UNO from IK Multimedia is an impressive synth for the price point. Coming in just under $200, the UNO boats two independent VCOs, an arpeggiator and real-time / step sequencer and the ability to power via USB or battery, allowing this powerful synth to be fairly mobile. What’s more, this synth features a 27-note keyboard with two octaves of sound control, allowing you to dig deep into the possibilities and get creative with your tracks.
What’s most exciting about the UNO though, is its ability to seamlessly go from stage, to studio to anywhere in between. Though you’ll need a pair of headphones before being able to play the synth, the UNO is versatile in that it can be linked with other MIDIs for live shows or used for editing thanks to IKM’s UNO Editor which comes complimentary with purchase of the device. Purchase: $199.48 on Amazon.
5. Nektar IMPACT LX25+
Rounding out our list, we have Nektar’s IMPACT LX 25+. This synth from Nektar features eight hyper-sensitive, programmable pads, 25 synth keys and on-board pitch bend and modulation wheels, allowing for a full range of customization. Unlike other options on our list that allow for immediate play anywhere you want though, the Nektar requires connecting to either a tablet or computer before starting. However, this robust synth is programmed to work with the major DAWs (FL studio, GarageBand, Logic etc), allowing you to control and edit with endless possibilities. The LX25+ features a 30mm fader, 8 pots and 4 Octave & Transpose buttons for real time editing, adjusting and manipulating. Purchase: $99.99 on Amazon.