Buying Your First Synth
The most frequently asked question on EMUSIC-L and on rec.music.synth is
probably "What keyboard should I buy?"
Before you do anything else, indulge in some self-analysis:
If you plan just to play your keyboard every once in a while for
fun, you will have a different set of requirements from someone who is looking
for the first piece of equipment along the road to establishing a professional
set of gear as the nucleus of a studio.
- what do you want
- how committed are you to doing it?
- how much money do you have to spend on it?
Persons who are going to be performing
contemporary popular music or who wish to imitate traditional instruments will
probably find any number of keyboards which will fit their needs.
Experimentalists, or persons wishing to do sonic exploration, with the sound
being the primary concern, will have a harder time. In general, keyboard which
feature extensive modulation sources and routings will be more useful for such synthesis than less complex machines.
Set your musical priorities: must-have, highly-desirable, nice, don't care,
etc. Acoustic sounds? Synth sounds? Multi-timbral? Built-in sequencer?
Built-in effects (reverb, etc)? After-touch? # of keys?
You'll probably need
to get more familiar with the terminology before you can make any decisions
here. A few terms for those new to all this:
- Multi-timbrality means that the keyboard can produce more
than one different-sounding sound at a time. For most people who will be
purchasing only one synth the first time out, this is
very important. A monotimbral (one--kind-of-sound-at-a-time)
machine will require the use of multi-tracking to
simulate multi-timbrality. Commonly available used
synths which are mono-timbral are the Yamaha DX7 and the
Roland D50 and most of the older analog synths.
You will not be able to make these keyboards
sound like more than one thing at once.
- A built-in sequencer (on modern machines) means
that the keyboard has the equivalent of a built-in
multi-track recorder; it records the events that
occur and allows you to play them back. It is not an
audio device; it simply records the actions you take to
produce a piece of music and then plays them back again,
like a player-piano. If you have a computer, you may
want to purchase a MIDI interface and a
software sequencer instead.
- Most synthetic sounds are more pleasing with at least a little
bit of effects (echo, reverberation, etc.). Some keyboards
have built-in effects; others require external ones. Note that
built-in effects usually require that all voices go through the
same effect; if there is an alternative, it is usually "no effects".
This means that is you have a distorted guitar, an organ with a
rotating speaker effect, and a lead with just a touch of reverb,
you are going to have to choose which two of the three effects
you are going to be able to live without, because only one will
be available at a time.
- After-touch is a means of controlling the sound after you've
pressed the key. For most keyboards, pressing on any one
key while holding a chord will cause all of the sounding
notes to act as if they too had been pressed harder; this
is called channel aftertouch. Other let you control this
individually for each key; this is called key aftertouch
and is not seen as often.
- The number of keys varies. In general, most have 61 keys
(5 octaves), but others have more, all the way up to a full 88.
People who already play the piano will probably be more
comfortable on a larger keyboard. The feel also varies,
from weighted actions which feel very piano-like, through
mushy, unweighted ones.
- MIDI is short for "musical instrument digital interface". It
is an international standard, and almost all machines built
after the Yamaha DX7 have it. (Nit-picky note: some had MIDI
before the DX7, too, but it's a good reference point.) You can
buy a MIDI interface for your home computer and run software
to control your keyboards from there. MIDI is often used to
build a studio in much the same way that you can build a
stereo system: by choosing individual components and combining
them into a whole.
A basic checklist for "pro-quality" keyboards:
You should never buy any keyboard without trying it. Ways to do this:
- Sound quality. If it sounds lousy at the store, it'll sound
bad at home. If you're having trouble hearing because of the
57 guitar heroes flailing Strats nearby, come back later, or
see if you can take it "on approval". Most dealers are willing
to work with you on such things. If all else fails, rent one.
Spending $40 to find out that the $2500 you were going to
spend would have been a waste is a good investment.
- Usability. If the interface confuses you, if you don't like
the layout of the modulators, if you really hate that joystick
and want a wheel instead, or you think the operating system
really sucks, don't commit to such a keyboard unless you're
willing to deal with this. Small dissatisfactions can turn what
you thought was "okay" into "unusable" after repeated fighting
with them. Software that locks up or crashes falls into this
- >Feel. If you're already a keyboard player, you probably
have an ideal "good keyboard" feel in your "muscle memory".
Try playing something you already know on the keyboard to
see if it suits you. Keyboard feel ranges from organ-like,
mushier feels to weighted, piano-like actions. If the keyboard
has aftertouch, try it out and see if it's intuitive enough
for you. Try out the modulation controllers (joystick,
mod wheel, pedals, what have you) and see if they feel
sturdy enough to stand up to some abuse. Try the buttons
and sliders (and knobs and switches, if the keyboard has
them) to make sure that they feel solid and dependable.
If you're buying a used keyboard, check buttons to make
sure they all work, and check sliders and knobs to make
sure they track evenly through their full range.
- Price. I waited to mention this here because if you hate the way
it sounds, or can't stand to use it, it doesn't matter how much
how much you saved. Don't talk yourself into a keyboard that
doesn't satisfy you purely on monetary grounds. If you have to,
- Quality of manuals. Be sure to inquire if there are
third-party books on programming or using the keyboard.
You may want to buy a copy of the keyboard's documentation
to review at home before making your final decision.
- Number of voices and multitimbrality. This is essentially
the number of simultaneous noises that your keyboard can
make. In the case of a keyboard, polyphony (as interpreted by
the marketing department) means "the number of different waveforms
which can be produced at once". This is an important distinction
to remember; many current keyboards will actually use more than
one waveform simultaneously to produce the sound (usually called
a "patch", referring to how older synthesizers were programmed
with "patch cords"), which you hear when a single key is struck.
For instance, if a keyboard has 32-voice polyphony and uses four
simultaneous waveforms to produce a single note, the effective
polyphony (in the first sense, "more than one note at once") is
now only eight (eight notes * 4 waveforms/voice = 32 waveforms).
This problem can be even worse for a multitimbral keyboard; these
are commonly touted as being a complete composing and performing
solution in a single box. However, attempting to produce an entire
arrangement of a piece at once may very well exceed the effective
polyphony very quickly. Multitimbral synths may be able to play
several patches at once, but each note being played on a patch
reduces the number of waveforms left to produce another note on
any of the patches. For example, a standard drum track will
typically use at least four (and possibly more) waveforms at
some point: bass drum, snare, hi-hat, and ride cymbal. Remember
that even if they all only come together at one sixteenth note,
all of the voices will be required at once. Add in piano and
several other voices, and you will be getting close to or
exceeding the effective polyphony very quickly.
When you exceed the number of waveforms that can be produced
simultaneously, the keyboard will do one of two things: old
(already-sounding) voices will have to be silenced to get
waveforms for the new ones (this is called "voice stealing"),
or the new notes simply won't sound until the old ones are
released (this is less common). Some keyboards allow you to
assign "priorities" to voices to determine which ones
can be stolen from first. Others simply take the oldest voice
and give its waveforms to the new note.
You will have to determine the effective polyphony to decide
whether a given keyboard has enough voices for you. This can be
somewhat difficult. It is essential that you check this out
hands-on. Play the sounds available in the store with as many
fingers on the keys as you will use in normal playing for those
sounds. If you like fat two-handed minor 11ths, you'll need a lot
more polyphony than players who only play one or two notes at a time.
If your playing isn't quite up to the challenge, try choosing a
patch and paying a number of notes with the sustain pedal held
down. See how the keyboard handles it when the polyphony is
exceeded. Another good test is to hit a high note and then see
how many low notes you can play before the high note disappears.
- Many newer synths include built-in effects processing.
See if it's possible to turn this off, or to route the
signals so that they aren't processed. You may want to be
able to process the sounds differently at a later date, so
being able to not process them internally is useful. Try out
the different effects and see if you like what they do. Again,
remember that multitimbral keyboards will usually force you
to choose a single effect (or none at all) for all of the
- Built-in sequencer. If you don't have a computer at home,
or you'd prefer to spend more money on the keyboard and
less on other things, consider a keyboard with a built-in
sequencer. You should sit down and actually try to use it
before springing for a keyboard on this basis; some are
very difficult to use and fairly limited in function.
- Availability of additional sounds. This may or may not be
important to you. If you want to make your own sounds, look
into the keyboard's voice architecture and programming. Get
the salesperson to demonstrate if possible. If you find it
confusing, you may find it difficult to program. If you want
to purchase third-party sounds, talk to the dealer about what's
available, and check out the ads in Keyboard magazine.
It's better to at least see a
keyboard once before asking about it on the discussion groups (SYNTH-L
is preferred), simply because there are a lot of personal
decisions to get out of the way first.
- Talk to friends who own keyboards and get them to let you try them.
Ask as many questions as you can think of.
- If a local junior or
community college has a music lab, see what they've got and take some
- Go to a local dealer.
Stuff to watch out for
Certainly, the music store is a good place to at least try keyboards.
Try to hit the store when fewer people are likely to be there, like late
afternoon around dinnertime, or early in the morning. A good salesperson
won't be afraid to tell you that they don't have what you need, and won't
push something on you as "really hot" without justification. He or she
will also spend time talking to you about what you want to do and help
steer you toward features on different machines that will be useful
Never let yourself be stampeded into buying X as soon as you walk in.
If it's a legitimate deal, you will be able to come back later after
you check with the competition. For this reason, it's usually not a
good idea to buy a synth at a clearance sale or a "one-day-only"
special unless you're already sure that it's what you want.
Don't buy what it'll do "real soon now". Manufacturers are famous for
advertising upgrades, new patches, and lots of other things that you
can't get right now that will "make it the most powerful synth available".
Always treat any keyboard purchase as if the company were going to
vanish tomorrow. You can only count on getting what you bought today
(Metlay's Law). Sometimes you can't even count on that (Rothwell's
Observation on Metlay's Law, which reads: "Looks good on paper. Too bad
you can't play a paper synth.").
There are lots of variations on the "promise", some more subtle than others.
"Famous person X uses this," implying that you'll sound like X. Another one
is the inflated specs game: "16-bit sounds!" "32-voice polyphony!". None of
this makes the slightest bit of difference. If the sounds (or the potential)
of this keyboard right here, right now, don't make you want to sit down and
start writing music, the keyboard is worthless for you.
If your committment to keyboard playing is low, you may want to either
get a used keyboard, or to get a "consumer" multi-feature keyboard with
built-in accompaniment, etc. If you're unsure as to whether you'll want
to keep playing or not, you might want to consider purchasing a keyboard
which has been on the market for a year or so, but which is still very
popular. This will give you the chance to unload it used without taking
a complete bath on the money you spent.
If you are highly committed and motivated, and are planning to build a
studio over a period of time, you should carefully review *all* of the
synths available before making a choice. You may decide that a keyboard
which you can't currently afford would be a better long-term choice than
a different keyboard which doesn't meet your needs as well. Don't be
afraid to wait and save up some money; if for no other reason than the
heavy dependence on the music industry on them, electronic keyboards
are not likely to suddenly disappear like video games did in the '80's.
Once you've done the basic groundwork, and have narrowed the field a bit,
post a message to one of the discussion groups and ask for experiences,
and read reviews in Keyboard or Electronic Musician. Keyboard's reviews
tend to gloss over problems less. In many cases, you will get conflicting
recommendations; you will have to weigh these and your own experiences to
come to a final decision.
The final arbiter of your decision should always be you. You're the one
who'll be spending a significant piece of cash and a lot of your time on this
machine; it's to your advantage to find out as much as possible and to
make sure that the machine you're buying is really one that you want and
(Thanks to Bob Crispen, Ross C., Kraig Eno, and Alan W. Kerr for suggestions.)
--- Joe M.
In a recent note, David Roger says:
If you're going to buy something, decide if you want to play it or program it or
both. The demos and the factory patches are made to show off the synth's
capabilities, even if they sound shocking to you! If you want, useable
sounds then a sample player (e.g. EMu Proteus - not an endorsement, just
an example) might suit you, but you'll still have to program it to set up
MIDI channel assignment to sounds (or vice versa), response to certain
MIDI controllers or messages, and so on. If you're using a computer and
want to write multi-part music on a sequencer, then a multi-timbral synth
or sample player is essential.
If you want to program your own sounds, that's harder. Different synthesis
methods yield different results: FM is different to analog substractive is
different to additive is different to sample based or wavetable synthesis.
Furthermore, different manufacturers implement the same scheme in different
ways. And if the synthesis is sample or wavetable-based, the quality of
the samples will be different.
So you see, there's a lot to account for. Get some advice from someone
face to face. This e-mail stuff is harder!