The Best Cheap Synthesizers Under $500 - Careers in Music

The Best Cheap Synthesizers Under $500

Author: Robin Vincent

Date: January 3, 2018

Reads: 7,859

Robin Vincent is the founder of Molten Music Technology Ltd. His Molten YouTube channel has passed 3.3 million views and gathered 28,000 subscribers. He writes reviews and features for Sound On Sound magazine, the world's premier audio recording technology magazine and is a regular columnist focusing on PreSonus Studio One. He is the synthesizer correspondent for news website

We are in an age of fabulous synthesizers and sound generation machines. An awesome amount of electronic sonic power is available for a relatively small investment.

However, keeping to a budget of $500 does remove most of those big keyboard-based synths and workstations. It does leave us with a very interesting and eclectic mix of very capable devices.

If the presents you received this past holiday season were more along the lines of socks and gift cards than something truly awe-inspiring, give a gift to your home studio and treat yourself to one of these machines.

Roland Boutique

It’s very easy for Roland to tie up this entire list with their petite Boutique range of analog modeling classic reissues. From Jupiter 8s (Boutique JP-08) and Juno 106s (JU-06), through to TB-303 Basslines (TB-03) and TR-909 (TR-09) and TR-808 (TR-08) drum machines, Roland have got it covered and all of them cost between $300-$500. But for this list, I wanted to point out two (maybe three) particularly outstanding Boutique synthesizers that are new this year.

Roland SE-02

Designed in collaboration with synthesizer wizards Studio Electronics, the SE-02 is an authentic analog monophonic synthesizer. It doesn’t use analog modeling technology like the other Boutiques; this uses proper discrete analog circuitry. This gives it its own sound, its own character, not modeled on something else or even something classic. The SE-02 is its own machine.

It contains three voltage controlled oscillators with six waveforms, 24dB lowpass filter, and a dual gain-stage amplifier. Modulation comes from a tempo-synced LFO with nine waveforms feeding into three types of cross modulation, a feedback loop, and noise generator. It has some patch points for integration into a larger modular system and an external input for the filter.

Those 16 buttons across the front give you a hands-on 16-step performance sequencer. You can sequence notes, glide time and all sorts of synth parameters. Patterns can be saved and chained into a song mode. There are MIDI ports, USB-MIDI, and USB-Audio all on the back. You can even wire two together to create a polyphonic synthesizer. This is what happens when analog circuitry meets Roland’s futuristic design team.

It’s at the top of the budget at $499 but you do get that authentic analog sound. Alternatively, the Boutique SH-01a is an analog modeled classic Roland SH-101 synthesizer for quite a bit less at $349. It’s very similar to the SE-02 in that it’s a great little synthesizer with an inbuilt sequencer but it also has 4 voice polyphony. If it doesn’t have to be “authentic analog,” then this is a close as you’ll get to genuine SH-101 sound.

Street Prices:
• Roland Boutique Designer Series SE-02 – $499
• Roland Boutique SH-01a – $349

Roland SE-02
Roland SH-01a

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Roland D-05

Also new this year from Roland is the reimagining of their classic 1987 D-50 Linear Synthesizer. The Roland D-05 rediscovers all those classic keyboard sounds, mixing samples and synthesized waveforms to thrill you with instantly recognizable sounds. If you are into classic synth-pop sounds, rather than analog electronica, then this is the synth for you.

It uses Digital Circuit Behavior technology to faithfully capture every detail of the original instrument. Attach a MIDI keyboard and you’ve got proper electric pianos, sweeping pads, and lush soundscapes. It’s unabashedly digital, pulsing its sound generation through a chain of digital effects complete with joystick modulation control and morphing between upper and lower tones.

The Roland D-05 simply is the D-50 reborn — but it’s also more. It has a 64-step polyphonic sequencer built in with shuffle and gate timing. It has an arpeggiator for instant movement and pattern creation. It can run on batteries or USB power and can function as a USB audio interface. This is probably the most fully featured workstation style synthesizer on this list and while the original was almost $2,000, this will set you back only $349.

The Roland D-05 rediscovers all those classic keyboard sounds, mixing samples and synthesized waveforms to thrill you with instantly recognizable sounds. If you are into classic synth-pop sounds, rather than analog electronica, then this is the synth for you.

Street Price: $349
Roland D-05

Korg Minilogue

Not new this year, but the Korg Minilogue remains one of the most capable and affordable analog poly-synths available. Korg somehow managed to come up with a classic in all the right places. It’s really the first sub-$500 analog polyphonic synthesizer. There are plenty of monophonic analog synths or polyphonic digital ones at this price point but Korg nails it with the Minilogue being both analog and polyphonic.

The structure of the Minilogue consists of two VCO’s, a lowpass filter, two envelopes, an amplifier, and an LFO. There’s all sorts of cross modulation going on and oscillator sync and ring modulation to get into a wide range of sonic possibility. A delay effect has been included and a less common highpass filter. It can be set to a number of voice modes.

Along with the Poly mode you’ll also find Duo, which acts in two voice unison; Unison which has all four voices acting together; Mono with a sub-oscillator; Chord which produces one finger chord; Delay which is a bit like a ratchet where voices 2-4 follow voice 1 at consecutive spacing; Arp, an arpeggiator; and Side Chain, which lowers the volume of the previous voice. Suffice to say there are stacks of versatility packed into this little synth.

On performance and motion duties is a 16-step sequencer with real-time recording and overdubbing. It doesn’t have the 16 buttons of the SE-02 sequencer but the steps are very easy to find. The little screen also gives a fabulous oscilloscope style display so you can really get into understanding how the sounds are being shaped. It has a couple of advantages over the SE-02 besides the polyphony and that’s in the size and layout of the knobs.

Everything is there, accessible for immediate control and tweaking but with the SE-02 the controls are crammed into the Boutique form factor which is a little on the small side. The Minilogue also has a 3-octave keyboard. Not useful for everyone but it does make for a more complete device and is far better quality than the optional Roland K-25M mini keyboard that can fit the Boutique range.

Street Price: $499
Korg Minilogue

Novation Circuit Mono Station

This is a bit of a mashup between the Novation Circuit groovebox and their Bass Station II synthesizer. The result is a paraphonic analog synthesizer with built-in sequencer and more flashing lights than your Christmas tree. It’s easy, it’s hands-on, it’s bright, fruity, full-featured and a whole load of fun to play with.

The top half is a monophonic analog synthesizer, although it can be sequenced paraphonically. All this means is the two oscillators can be pitched independently but as both oscillators share the same amplifier and envelope they can only sound together. Check out the above video at about the 1:45 mark for a decent demonstration of what this means.

What you get in the synth is two four-waveform oscillators with a sub and a noise generator. There is a multi-mode filter with high, low and band pass options and a 12db or 24dB resonance slope. The envelope is taken care of by four ADSR sliders.

There’s a nice little six destination modulation matrix where you can route envelope, LFO, sequencer modulation track and velocity to either pitch, pulse width, amp, filter, distortion or an auxiliary CV output. And in the Distortion section, you get three types of overdrive to saturate your signal. It’s a great little synth and that’s only half the story.

The bottom half of the Circuit Mono Station is the fabulously lit sequencer and pattern generator. The 32 velocity sensitive pads can serve all sorts of functions depending on what mode you’ve selected. They are used for selecting patches, specifying scales, setting velocity and gate values, displaying tempo information and for triggering patterns.

So, you can create 16 steps for oscillator 1 in the top 16 pads and 16 steps for oscillator 2 in the second 16. A third track enables you to sequence modulation. You can save up to 16 patterns for Osc1, 8 for Osc2 and 8 for modulation in 32 songs. And if you need some variation or inspiration, then the “Mutate” button will take your pattern and twist it to new places.

There’s a lot going on in the Circuit Mono Station and it probably focuses more on the possibilities of song building than the other synths we’ve covered so far. It’s fun all the way through.

This is a bit of a mashup between the Novation Circuit groovebox and their Bass Station II synthesizer. The result is a paraphonic analog synthesizer with built-in sequencer and more flashing lights than your Christmas tree. It’s easy, it’s hands-on, it’s bright, fruity, full-featured and a whole load of fun to play with.

Street Price: $399
Novation Circuit Mono Station

Make Noise 0-Coast

One last amazing synthesizer is a little bit more left-field than what we’ve seen so far. It comes from a company that builds modular synthesizer modules; they have a flair for the esoteric and stunningly useful.

The 0-Coast is exactly that. It combines what we call “East Coast” and “West Coast” synthesis techniques. This means it borrows from both the traditional synthesis of Moog (East) and the more flamboyant synthesis of Buchla (West) to give us this synthesizer from neither coast — hence the “0 (zero or no) Coast” name.

The 0-Coast is a semi-modular synth, which means it has some hard-wired connections between the synthesizer components, but it also has plenty of patch points for wiring it up however you want. Or, if you prefer, you can wire it to and/or from other synthesizers and modular gear. It doesn’t have a built-in sequencer and so you’ll need other gear in order to start generating sound, but it does have a MIDI input.

It’s more complex than your regular oscillator-envelope-filter-amplifier synth, but it’s designed to be played and toyed with. The weird square lighting and the layout of the knobs invite adventure and reward your experimentation with uncommonly interesting sounds. This is the synth that will flip the mind of someone used to traditional synthesizers and they will be forever thankful.

Street Price: $499
Make Noise 0-Coast

In Conclusion

It’s an exciting time for synthesizers and 500 bucks is going to get you something awesome. The tendency to incorporate sequencers make them very usable as standalone synthesizers that can be played with happily on their own.

The Korg Minilogue is probably the best example of a complete synthesizer in terms of having a keyboard and obvious controls. Although the Novation Circuit Mono Station probably gives you the best overall music making workstation. It’s also the one most suitable for being taken on the train with headphones.

The Roland Boutique range is iconic and you know they are going to be fun to play with. On the other hand, the 0-Coast will take you to creative places you hadn’t considered before, especially when combined with other gear. So the best news is that you can’t lose — your only problem is where to put your money.

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