Buying Your First Synth

The most frequently asked question on EMUSIC-L and on 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.

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:

Basic checklist

A basic checklist for "pro-quality" keyboards:
  1. 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.
  2. 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 category. >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.
  3. 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, wait.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

  6. 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 voices.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
You should never buy any keyboard without trying it. Ways to do this: 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.

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 to you.

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.

Other criteria

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 enjoy playing.

(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!