Monday, September 5, 2011

Choosing your first Synth

Korg MicroKorg

One of the questions I see most on the net about synthesizers is everyone asking what they should buy first as a beginner. After looking around, everyone pretty much turns up on one of two-- the MicroKorg and the Alesis Micron. More recently the Akai Miniak  has also become potential first synth, too, but it's supposedly the same sound engine as the Micron. After demoing the MicroKorg  and the Micron years ago to buy my first, I settled on the Micron because it had regular size keys, and I had liked the look of it. I used it for a few shows, using only the presets, and never managed to actually learn how to program it well. It now sits in my bedroom and I've hardly touched it, especially since moving on to bigger and better synths.

So what was the problem? The synth sounds great-- it's got enough polyphony for big pads. It has a ton of filters modeled after the classics like the MiniMoog and Jupiter-8, and it's got a sequencer, arpeggiator, and drum sounds, but it's missing the most important bit: knobs and sliders.

Roland Gaia SH-01

When you buy a new synth, generally, you'll find that you may like 1/20th of the patches it comes with. Most of the patches programmed in by the company are purely there to catch your eyes and ears-- they want you to walk by someone playing it or touch one key yourself and say "wow, that's cool!" and buy it. The problem is, none of these sounds really work well in a regular song-- they have too much going on, and it's a bit like trying to write a song but being forced to use some signature piece of someone else's music. For the Micron, this meant that if I wanted patches that were a little bit less heavy and more general, I had to program it myself. But the Micron doesn't have any sort of patch initialization button on it, so there's no easy way to just turn on a simple saw pad either, so you're stuck using one encoder to click through all of the parameters, endlessly clicking, until you get to the right part of the sound you want to edit. It's a terrible nuisance.

That said, if you already know what patches you want, you could somehow make a bank over the computer-- there are plugins that can control the Micron nicely. The size of the Micron makes it an excellent performance synth, and I've seen bands use it, like Ra Ra Riot. It always doubles nicely as a small midi controller, too. It's absolutely not a bad synth to play shows with, and since it's digital, you know it won't ever break down on you (hopefully).

So is the MicroKorg any better? The Microkorg has small keys, which is a bit of a deal breaker for me, but it also has a much better system of editing sounds. Instead of one knob to scroll through everything, at least the MicroKorg has a few knobs that control 4 or 5 parameters, and then one larger knob controls what each of those are set to-- it's a much better workflow than the Micron. Of course, however, it doesn't hold as many patches as the Micron. There are a ton and give and takes between these two synths.

The point I'm trying to make here, however, is that you can do way better than these two. My first piece of advice is to get something KNOBBY. A perfect example of this is the Roland Gaia, which has gotten pretty good reviews for a digital synth, but more importantly has a massive array of knobs-- you don't need to use any menu at all on that synth. It also offers enough polyphony to make pads in addition to just leads and basses. Sure, it's a couple hundred dollars more, but you will get far more use out of it knowing that you can program your own sounds easily. The Novation Ultranova is also considerably more knobby, so that could be a potential buy too.

Moog Little Phatty Tribute Edition

If polyphony isn't important to you (i.e. you don't mind only playing basses and leads) you have a couple options if you want to go analog. I'd only recommend newer analogs to a beginner because you don't run the risk of them breaking. Having only one synth that is broken is a bummer. You could buy a Dave Smith Instruments Mopho Keyboard, or a Moog Little Phatty or Slim Phatty. The Slim Phatty and Mopho Keyboard are the same price, but the Slim Phatty requires an external keyboard-- if you don't have one, that would cost you a bit more. The Mopho Keyboard has a ton of knobs which are easy to edit sounds with. The Slim and Little Phatty have fewer knobs compared to the Mopho Keyboard but still have a really easy workflow to use!

If you have any questions or would like me to address something else, feel free to shoot me an email.

1 comment:

  1. hey i wish this article had been around when i was looking into my first synth. A couple things I found tho...for people considering the micro korg but put off by the baby sized keys, the korg r3 is a great alternative in a similar price range. However, it has a similar menu driven interface that can be annoying.

    Also, if you are willing to spend the cash on a DSI Mopho, you can later drop more cash on a DSI Tetra and polychain them together for a 5 note poly synth!