A keyboard synthesizer is a great tool for anyone creating their own musical sound. But with a bewildering variety of options available, it can be hard to pick the right one.
The good news is, you’ve come to the right place! We’re going to look at seven of the best keyboard synthesizers out there. And we’ll review their pros and cons to help you make the best choice for your needs.
So let’s check out what’s on the market right now!
One of the least expensive keyboard synths on our list, Novation’s MiniNova nevertheless packs plenty of power. It’s the little brother to the UltraNova, and the rich, full sound comes from the same Nova engine. The compact design and 37 mini-keys will suit those with smaller spaces.
There’s a vocorder, complete with what Novation call VocalTune, a clever effect that automatically corrects pitch. You can speak into the mic, then use the keyboard to play the tune you want your voice to follow.
You can add a range of effects too, including reverb, chorus/phase, distortion, EQ and gator compression. Use them on your voice, or plug in a guitar or other instrument to give that the same treatment.
There are 14 different waveforms to choose from including sine, square, triangle, sawtooth and pulse. These are accompanied by 36 different wavetables and 20 digital waveforms.
There are no fewer than 256 different onboard voices. Each of them can be tweaked and warped using five different knobs and eight “animate” buttons. Oversized pitch and modulation wheels give you plenty of options for real time effects.
There’s space to save up to another 128 sounds of your own. And you’ll be able to download numerous sound packs from renowned sound designers.
There are three oscillators for each voice, 14 filter types, three LFOs and six envelope generators. You’ll also get 20 modulation slots, allowing you to link different synth engine modules together.
The range of options here could be overwhelming, but Novation has addressed this by including bespoke software in the package. The MiniNova Editor can plug straight into your DAW or music software.
You won’t need to use the Editor unless you want to – all the features can be accessed using the hardware. But it will make it easier to keep track of what you’re doing.
So is there anything here not to like?
The short answer is, very little. If we were being picky, we’d say the pre-sets are rather bland. And the tempo control when used as a standalone isn’t as accurate as it might be.
But set aside those niggles and this is a compact and excellent value keyboard synth, with bags of power.
Compact design with mini-keys, perfect for anywhere space is at a premium
Includes an excellent vocorder
256 onboard voices with loads of options to tweak and warp sounds
The pre-sets are rather bland
The tempo control for standalone operations isn’t perfectly accurate.
If you’ve got plenty of cash to splash, check out the memorably named Grandmother synth from Moog. The retro design harks back to the classic synths of the 1970s, but there’s nothing old-fashioned about its capabilities.
The design is semi-modular, so no patching is required. But if you want to explore different creative options, you can. Advanced users can use patches to override the internal connections, allowing them to use each section as an independent module.
The keyboard has 32 notes, and the keys are velocity-sensitive – the harder they’re hit, the louder they’ll sound. The sound quality is beautifully rich, and the bass is outstanding.
There’s a sequencer and arpeggiator, and a spring reverb tank to process external sounds. You’ll be able to store up to three different sequences, each one comprised of up to 256 notes.
Two analog oscillators feature the option to select the waveshape and hard sync. There’s a four-pole 10 hertz to 20-kilohertz ladder filter, a patchable one-pole high pass filter, and an analog ADSR envelope generator.
It can be used alone or as part of a modular system with units from Mother-32, DFAM and Euro. And there’s a ¼-inch external audio jack to allow you to plug in guitars, drum machines or other components.
Its modest footprint won’t take up a lot of room in your studio. It’s just 23 inches long, 14¼ inches from back to front, and 5½ inches high. It comes with a 12-volt power adapter.
An analog synth, this won’t be the right choice if you want lots of pre-sets straight out of the box. You’ll still be able to use the patch sheets to get great pre-sets, but it will take a bit more effort.
The retro color scheme here is something you’ll either love or hate. The yellow, green, blue and pink panels certainly stand out from the crowd.
There’s no denying that this an expensive synth – but the range and build quality here is worth every cent.
Completely analog, so no patching required
Offers huge scope for experimentation
Rich sound with superb bass
Takes a bit of fiddling out of the box to get to the pre-sets
Korg’s MicroKorg is another keyboard synth with an excellent pedigree. And it’s half the price of the Moog Grandmother.
It uses an Analog Modeling Synthesis System to generate the sound. It’s the same one you’ll find in Korg’s critically acclaimed – and considerably more expensive – MS2000.
Oscillator 1 offers an impressive 71 different waveforms. Select from traditional analog options like pulse, sine, saw and noise, or exciting new offerings like vox and cross. Oscillator 2 allows ring and sync modulation to be applied to create multiple complex timbres.
The result is a synthesizer that can produce convincing replica sounds including bells, electric pianos, basses and guitars.
There are four filter modes – two-pole low pass, high pass, bandpass and 4-pole low pass. All of these include resonance. There’s plenty of power to sculpt your sounds from the two ADSR envelope generators and two LFOs. And there are extra ports to save your own sounds.
Adding a virtual patch matrix will give you the power to control pulse width or filter cut-off with the Mod wheel. Or use an LFO to take control of the amp level or panning. You’ll get exceptional performance for a synthesizer at this price point.
The keyboard has 37 mini-keys and can be split to allow you to play different voices with each hand. Each key is velocity-sensitive too. There’s a built-in eight-band vocorder, with a gooseneck microphone that gives it a distinctive look.
There’s a built-in arpeggiator too, offering loads of flexibility. Choose from six different patterns – up, down, alt 1, alt 2, trigger and random. You can also adjust the resolution and length of the notes, and switch steps on and off.
It’s portable, easy to set up, and doesn’t require a lot of space. And this is another synth with a beautiful retro look. The wood effect sides and beige-gold body look like they’ve stepped straight out of the 70s.
There’s very little to complain about here. The keys perhaps feel a little light and plasticky. And we’d like the display to be more user-friendly. You will have to spend some time with the manual learning the codes.
But we think that’s a small price to pay for the level of functionality you get from this great little synth. And it’s excellent value for money too.
Huge range of waveforms
Built-in eight-band vocorder and arpeggiator
Great sound quality from Korg’s Analog Modeling Synthesis System
If you’re in the market for a synth with a full-sized keyboard, check out Yamaha’s MX88. It’s the most expensive option on our list, but has bags of features that make it worthy of the investment.
To start with, there’s the impressive 128-note polyphony. That means you won’t “lose” notes, even during the most dense and complex pieces.
The keyboard is graded hammer standard, so it has the feel of an acoustic piano. The keys are heavier on the lower notes and lighter on the higher ones.
But while it may play like an acoustic, the technology here is all digital. The Motif sound engine offers the ability to control up to eight different elements in each voice.
In all, you’ll be able to access over a thousand different voices. VCM – Virtual Circuitry Modelling – is used to reproduce the authentic sound of vintage synths. The pristine sound of a concert grand piano is also available.
The range and quality of patches and samples is genuinely impressive. There are four knobs for real-time pitch shifts, and a performance mode featuring an arpeggiator and drum tracks.
The connectivity opens up a world of plug-ins and software. There’s class-compliant USB audio/MIDI, so you won’t need to install any drivers before getting started. And it’s compatible with iOS applications, PC and Mac software synthesizers, and DAW software.
Note that you will need to purchase your own USB cable. There’s a port for a flash drive too, so you can tweak and save different set-ups.
Even at this price, however, there are some compromises to be made. There’s no built-in sequencer here, and there’s no option to split the keyboard or layer sounds. And while there are plenty of Yamaha patches, there aren’t many others that are compatible.
But if these aren’t deal-breakers, this is a great keyboard. And for anyone looking for a synth with acoustic piano feel, it’s well worth checking out.
88 full-size weighted keys
Over a thousand voices
Performance mode featuring arpeggiator and drum tracks
Roland’s JD-XI is less than half the price of the MX88 – and it still boasts tons of great features.
It’s a compact synth, with 37 mini-keys. It’s 28 inches long, 13 inches wide and 5 inches tall. But while it may be small, it’s mighty.
It combines Roland’s renowned SuperNATURAL sounds with an analog engine. The result is a crossover keyboard that offers the smooth warmth of analog together with the versatility of digital.
Choose from saw, square and triangle waveforms, with pulse-width modulation. There’s also an independent sub-oscillator and analog filter.
The digital synth section includes an impressive range of tones. Choose from strings, sound effects, drum pads and electric piano. The drum kits can be adjusted to your preference too, with the ability to change the filter, pitch, pan and envelope.
And if all the on-board options aren’t enough, you can download stacks of different sounds from the Roland axial site.
There’s a built-in vocorder with a gooseneck microphone and Autopitch, enabling you to control the tone and pitch. It’s a simple and effective way of generating exaggerated electronic vocals.
There’s also a built-in sequencer, offering two digital synth tracks, analog synth and drums. The selection gives you everything you need to create rich loops for any style of music. There are modes for step recording and recording in real time too.
Last but not least, there are four effects sections which can be used to enhance your sound. These include dedicated reverb and delay sections, plus processing options including Bit Crusher, Ring Mod and Slicer.
Each of the effects can be turned on and off independently for each of the three synth sections and drums. The result is a huge range of creative combinations.
There are, however, some limitations – and these are particularly worth being aware of if you want to play live.
To transpose a note, you’ll need to hold down the shift key and press the note at the same time. That makes it fiddlier than we’d like. And it’s especially tricky if you’re trying to change settings in the middle of a song.
And it isn’t able to save a pattern whilst it’s playing. To do that, you’ll need to stop playback, save the pattern, then restart the track. If you’re syncing with other hardware, that will be annoying.
Great combination of analog and digital sounds
Built-in vocorder with AutoPitch and gooseneck microphone
Built-in four-track sequencer
Transposing notes is rather fiddly
You won’t be able to save a pattern during playback.
The Reface CP is the second of Yamaha’s keyboard synthesizers to make our list. It’s also one of the most affordable options out there.
This is another model with mini-keys, and there are 37 of them. It’s designed to be easy to use on the go, and it’s powered by six AA batteries. They’ll give you a maximum of five hours of playing time.
The 128-note polyphony means you won’t find notes dropping out, no matter how fast or complex the track.
There are plenty of vintage sounds to choose from here. Reed electric piano from the late 1960s? Check. Struck string clavinet from the 70s? Check. Toy piano? Electric grand? Check and check again.
There’s also a tine electric piano from early in the 1970s and another from the end of the decade. And there are loads of effects for all of them. Reverb, chorus, drive and tremolo offer a host of creative musical pairings.
The bass reflex port generates a full, rich bass sound, and the 2-watt stereo speakers let you play anywhere. Note that the speakers aren’t particularly loud, though. And we’ve heard some complaints about the sound quality suffering when they’re turned up beyond about 90 percent.
There’s plenty of connectivity here. Two ¼-inch unbalanced line outputs allow connection to audio interfaces, mixers or DJ boxes. There’s also a 3.5-millimeter aux line input. That means you can connect up tablets and mobile devices and listen to them through the speakers.
There are a couple of things to watch out for.
If you want to switch off the internal speakers to use a MIDI output instead, the process is – quirky. You’ll have to first power down the keyboard, then switch it on again whilst holding down the lowest D key. It’s not what you’d call intuitive!
And note that you won’t get the bells and whistles of more expensive synths. There’s no built-in vocorder, arpeggiator or sequencer here. And there’s no microphone either.
But if you want a keyboard synth that can effectively replicate a host of vintage sounds, this is a great choice.
The System-1 is the most compact synth ever made by Roland. The innovative thin keyboard has only 25 keys, but they’re full-sized. All the parameters are controlled by hand with 73 sliders and knobs, so there’s no need to plug anything in.
That doesn’t, of course, mean that you can’t plug it into a computer if you want to. Use the USB jack to connect both audio and MIDI. You can use MIDI clock data to sync with other devices too. It comes with a power transformer, but you’ll need to buy the USB cable separately.
At the heart of this synth is Roland’s Analog Circuit Behavior technology. This analyses and recreates every element of classic analog circuits. The result is a synth that offers both vintage and modern tones.
There’s a built-in advanced arpeggiator with scatter function. And there are four oscillators, allowing you to change waveforms continuously from simple to complex.
But the main selling point here is what Roland calls “plug-outs”. The System 1 will host plug-in versions of classic Roland synths, without the need for a computer. The SH-101 soft synth is available already. Others will follow, providing ever wider options.
There are, however, a couple of things to watch out for here.
One is that if you want to integrate this synth with a DAW, you’ll need to buy the software separately. That adds a significant chunk to the overall price, costing almost a quarter of the price of the synth itself.
The other is that the user manual isn’t as easy to follow as we’d like. The text and diagrams are in very small print too. A downloadable tutorial on the basics of synth signal flow would make life considerably easier for beginners.
All in all, however this is a well-built and innovative synth at a great price. And if you want a compact footprint together with the comfort of full-sized keys, it’s an excellent choice.
Compact design with full-sized keys for comfort
Built-in arpeggiator with scatter function
Innovative “plug-out” design allows classic synth sounds to be hosted without a computer
You’ll need to buy separate software for DAW integration – and it’s pricey
Still not sure which is the best keyboard synthesizer to meet your needs? Here are some questions to consider before you make your final choice.
How many keys?
If you’re looking for a keyboard synthesizer, chances are the keyboard will be pretty important. So start by thinking about what you need from it.
If you want an experience that’s as close as possible to playing an acoustic piano, invest in a version with 88 keys. And look for a keyboard with graded hammer action that will mimic the heavier weight of the lower notes.
But if that’s not important, there are some excellent compact synths with much shorter keyboards. They’ll take up less room and will be more easily portable.
Note that many shorter keyboards will also have miniature keys. They’re great for saving space, but maybe awkward to play. Roland’s System-1, with its 25 full-sized keys, is a good option for those looking for a compact yet comfortable keyboard.
What built-in features do you need?
There’s a lot of variety in the features included in different synths. Take some time to consider what you need before you choose.
Do you want to be able to generate arpeggios from a single note? Do you need a built-in sequencer? Do you want to create robotic voice effects with a vocorder and microphone?
Dual and split keyboard modes are also great for giving you more sound options. Dual mode will allow you to layer sounds, while split means you can choose different voices for each hand.
Last but definitely not least, think about what other devices you want to connect your synth to. Do you want to be able to use it as a standalone bit of kit? Or is it important to connect it to a DAW or other devices?
Check the input and output ports to see what will be possible. And if you have a particular piece of software you want to use, check that it’s compatible.
Reviews are a good source of information on this. Sometimes synths that are in theory compatible with different software packages work less well with them in practice.
Time to choose!
That brings us to the end of our low-down of seven of the best keyboard synthesizers out there. We hope we’ve given you food for thought – and helped you narrow down your search!
Our top pick is the MicroKorg from Korg. It offers bags of creative options and great sound quality, all in a portable package. And it’s excellent value for money too.
But whichever keyboard synth you pick, we hope you love using it. Here’s to a successful purchase, and many hours of musical creativity!