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Synthesizers do not have to be expensive. Ok, all right, I know they most often are hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, but there are a handful of synths out there that won't break the bank and can still give you hours of enjoyment.

They might also make the perfect gift for the electronic music enthusiastic in your life. But one word of advice is if you were hoping for some peace and quiet over the Holidays then maybe include some headphones as well.

Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators

Any investigation into budget synths needs to start with the Pocket Operators (PO). Looking every bit like a naked pocket calculator, these phone-sized devices are packed with cool sounds, fun functionality and weird retro animations on the little LCD screens. There are seven models available, so you might want to put some thought into which to go for depending on the sort of noises you are wanting to make.

The first one, PO-12, is called “rhythm” and is purely about making beats featuring 16 synthesized and sampled drum sounds with 16 patterns and 16 effects you can punch-in to your beats. Next up is the PO-14 “sub.” It’s a deep bass line synth with a sequencer, 15 sounds plus a drum kit. The PO-16 “factory” is similar to the sub but tailored to lead sounds.

The PO-20 “arcade” heads off into a chiptune direction with crazy synthesized arcade sounds. With “office” (PO-24) you get samples of vintage office hardware and other weird noises. The PO-28 “robot” is an 8-bit synth designed for live performance. Finally, the newest addition is the PO-32 “tonic.” This is a drum and percussion synthesizer unique in that it can have access to unlimited sounds via the “microtonic” VST plug-in.

All the units feature a 16-step sequencer with 16 patterns, built-in speaker, headphone output, an animated display and a clock with alarm. You can run as many as you like together using “jam sync” to keep them in time. They fit in your pocket, run on batteries and are a blast to play with. Far more fun than those rubbish games you usually play on your phone! Prices range from $49-$89 so you could get two and still be under the $100 budget.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Stylophone was that weird little stylus-driven noise box from the 1970s, right? That’s true and you can still get them for about $20. But the Stylophone GEN X-1 is a completely different weird little stylus-driven noise box.

Street Prices:
• PO-12 Rhythm – $59
• PO-14 Sub – $49
• PO-16 Factory – $59
• PO-20 Arcade – $59
• PO-24 Office – $49
• PO-28 Robot – $59
• PO-32 Tonic – $89

Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators

Modal Electronics CRAFTsynth

British synthesizer firm Modal usually builds enormous synthesizer workstations but they surprised everyone by releasing a digital monophonic, four oscillators little mini-synth for under $100. The best part is it comes as a kit you build yourself. But don’t worry, it’s not very intense. There’s no soldering required, it just kind of clicks together and you’ll have it making sounds in just ten minutes.

The four oscillators with unison mode can let you craft some rather meaty sounds. You can mix together sine, triangle, sawtooth, PWM, noise or FM waveforms. The LFO can be routed to any of six destinations including amplitude and filter cutoff. There are delay and distortion built in and you can play it with the 5 touch-pad keyboard and even select scales. It looks like a proper synth console, all knobs and flashing lights.

There’s a CRAFTapp that gives you deeper access to all the internal parameters. You can alter the oscillators, filter, LFO and much more, bringing a wider functionality to this little box. Powered by batteries or USB, it can be both portable and a constant feature of your studio. It’s a great little monosynth that can be expanded into a polysynth simply by buying more than one. There’s also a CRAFTrhythm drum machine on the way which would partner with it nicely.

Street Price: $99
Modal Electronics CRAFTsynth

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Stylophone GEN X-1

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Stylophone was that weird little stylus-driven noise box from the 1970s, right? That’s true and you can still get them for about $20. But the Stylophone GEN X-1 is a completely different weird little stylus-driven noise box. The GEN X-1 takes the whole concept to a new level and manages to produce a pretty decent little analog synthesizer.

It’s still driven by the stylus but now you have access to all the internal parameters to shape and manipulate the sound. You can control the envelope shape, the depth and rate of LFO, and sweep the sound with the filter cutoff and resonance knobs. A delay effect gives the whole experience another depth with some crazy feedback. A sound strip set above the stylus-operated keyboard lets you get your fingers involved in the musical mayhem.

It’s battery powered with a built-in speaker so it’s completely portable. But there’s also an audio output and an input for running external sources through the box. It’s not the most elegant device but it does have some vintage charm and a sound that will knock your socks off.

You might see LittleBits all over the place at the moment with their Star Wars droid building kits — ignore those. What they’ve done is create a fully-fledged modular analog synthesizer in LittleBits’ brilliant connectable style. You plug it together however you want and start making noises.

Street Price: $70
Stylophone GEN X-1

Macchiato Mini Synth Digital Synthesizer

There are more than a few nods to the Stylophone in the design of the Macchiato Mini Synth. But this little box holds a two-voice 8-bit digital synth. Like the CRAFTsynth, the Macchiato comes as a kit, but unlike the Modal this will require a fair bit of soldering and you’ll need to fashion your own cabinet out of a cereal box.

The Macchiato has a 13-key capacitive touch keyboard built directly onto the circuit board. You can play two notes at once and start playing with the sine, triangle, saw and square waveforms it can generate. The attack and release of the envelope are adjustable and there are four different modulation waveforms. There are controls for the LFO rate, depth and the cutoff for the filter.

The synth is based on the Arduino microcontroller using the open source Mozzi Sound Synthesis Library. This means you can hack the source code. It’s not simple and requires a USB programmer but if you know someone who’s into Arduino programming then this would make for an awesome project.

Rounding it off, it’s battery-powered and you have a built-in speaker, along with the all-important headphone output. The kit includes a template for making the case from card or a cereal packet. Zeppelin Designs suggest that as a kit it’s suitable for ages as young as thirteen with supervision — soldering irons get very hot!

Street Price: $39 for the kit or $85 ready to use
Macchiato Mini Synth Digital Synthesizer

Korg LittleBits Synth Kit

This may push the budget a little bit, but I’ve seen it on offer for under $100 this season. This is a collaboration between Japanese synth makers Korg and LittleBits electronic kits. You might see LittleBits all over the place at the moment with their Star Wars droid building kits — ignore those. What they’ve done is create a fully-fledged modular analog synthesizer in LittleBits’ brilliant connectable style. You plug it together however you want and start making noises.

Within the kit, you get 2 oscillators, an envelope, a filter, a sequencer, keyboard, mixer, random generator, delay, splitter, and speaker. Stick them all in a line and you’re starting to get musical. Or experiment with how the sound changes as you connect things differently. It has an audio output so you can plug it into speakers or headphones and it can easily become part of a larger setup. Each “Bit” has its own controls and functionality and is labeled up with signal flow.

You can really make some extraordinary sounds with this kit and you can upgrade it with more individual bits or just buy additional whole kits. If you want to know what it could sound like then check out Reggie Watts in the video above. (Note: this synth kit can often be found for a reduced price on, which is why it’s included on this list. It retails for $159 via the manufacturer.)

Street Price: $90 – $159
Korg LittleBits Synth Kit

In Conclusion

These synthesizers manage to bridge the gap between toy-like curiosity and serious bits of sound generating gear. They are good enough to keep musicians of all stages entertained and inspired, while still being fun devices in themselves.

It’s a great way to introduce someone to synthesis and electronic noise making or the perfect way to indulge your own synthesizer passion. Which one would you like to find under the tree on Christmas morning?

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