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5 of the Best Hardware Synthesizers Under $500

January 9, 2021
by
Tristan Mendoza
Learn about budget-friendly hardware synths like the Novation MiniNova, Arturia MicroFreak, Behringer Neutron, Korg Volca series, and Korg Minilogue.

Your DAW comes with software-based synths; you can download some for free, there are subscriptions for soft-synths, and some soft-synths cost hundreds of dollars or more. However, before all of this was possible, the only way to use a synthesizer was to buy a hardware synth.

Of course, these instruments weren't cheap, so as technology advanced, the industry moved towards more affordable software options. In the last decade, hardware synths have become more affordable than ever.

You can now get your hands on quality hardware synths for less money than certain soft-synths. In this article, I’m going to introduce you to 5 of the best hardware synthesizers under $500.

5. Novation MiniNova Synthesizer With Vocoder ($399)

An image of Novation's MiniNova Synthesizer with Vocoder.
Figure 1: The Novation MiniNova Synthesizer with Vocoder.

The MiniNova by Novation isn’t a new synth, but the fact that it has stood the test of time is a testament to its quality. This digital synth includes 256 onboard presets that you can manipulate in real-time. It includes a software editor and a built-in vocoder. The MiniNova doesn’t provide intricate sound design from start to finish—that’s not what it was designed to do. Instead, it delivers a solid foundation with the functionality to get started quickly in your creative sessions.

Presets range from bass to pads, leads, and more. You can sort through sounds depending on the genre they’re associated with, which makes finding appropriate presets painless.

Many great sounds are included with this synth but you can also add a personal flair. Each sound has editable filters, modulation, and effects such as EQ, distortion, and compression. There’s also an arpeggiation mode for the synth that lets you add natural movement, along with an Animate mode that assigns performance functions to buttons 1-8.

A vital feature of the MiniNova is the built-in vocoder. With the included microphone, you can speak or sing into the synth and morph your voice with the unit’s vast sound palette. Furthermore, the MiniNova will also apply effects to your voice. Although the MiniNova comes with a microphone, you can run any instrument or audio source through the vocoder section, which opens up an entire world of creative possibilities.

An image of the MiniNova's microphone.
Figure 2: The MiniNova's microphone.

Though the MiniNova presents itself as a simple synth on the surface, there’s a lot of power under the hood. Novation makes this power easy to access via a plugin called the UltraNova Editor, which allows the MiniNova’s hardware interface to remain sleek and streamlined.

An image of Novation's UltraNova Editor.
Figure 3: Novation's UltraNova Editor.

Don't let looks fool you; the Novation MiniNova provides something for everyone. Easy-to-use controls and a built-in vocoder make this hardware synth a superb on-stage companion. The ability to run any instrument or audio source through the MiniNova vocoder section, combined with an advanced plugin workflow, brings new creative possibilities to your studio.

4. Arturia MicroFreak Hybrid Synthesizer ($299)

An image of the Arturia MicroFreak Hybrid Synthesizer.
Figure 4: The Arturia MicroFreak Hybrid Synthesizer.

The MicroFreak from Arturia demonstrates that there’s nothing wrong with embracing the flexible and weird side of modern digital synths. The MicroFreak embraces its digital nature and flexes it in ways that hardware of the past never could, with features such as speech synthesis and a 25-key touch-sensitive poly-aftertouch keybed.

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The companion to the touch-sensitive keyboard is the Icon Strip above the keys. It allows you to operate an arpeggiator, pattern generator, sequencer, and three live controls: Spice, Dice, and Bend. While the Sequencer and Arpeggiator work as expected, the Spice and Dice functions are where you get your dose of random. Meant to be used in tandem, Spice and Dice randomize gates and triggers, as opposed to the content of your patterns.

Using touch and pressure to play a synthesizer bring a new level of expression, but Arturia gives you even more flexibility in the form of the Mod Matrix. The Mod Matrix is a digital patch bay that lets you modulate any of the parameters on the MicroFreak—except for the master volume and preset selector. On top of this, you can control the amount of modulation taking place.

Outboard modulation is something Arturia never forgets to include, and on the MicroFreak you get CV/Gate outputs, clock in/out, MIDI in/out, and USB connectivity. This means you can control and sync your MicroFreak with existing synths, whether they're hardware or software synths.

An image of the MicroFreak's ins and outs.
Figure 5: The MicroFreak's ins and outs.

Internally, there’s a digital oscillator paired with an analog filter. The digital oscillator has various modes including basic waveshapes, Superwave, Wavetable, Classic Waveforms, Granular Osc, and Harmonic Osc. There’s also a Karplus physical modeling oscillator that recreates the characteristics of a stringed instrument. Arturia states that there are official, open source design elements from modular synth manufacturer, Mutable Instruments, that add a lot of sonic potential to the MicroFreak.

The MicroFreak proves that despite an industry saturated with soft-synths and hardware synths alike, there’s still plenty of room for innovation and creativity. It's small size makes it an excellent fit for any studio. The wealth of ins and outs allow it to play nicely with your existing gear, while the expressive note input means that users spoiled by software won't feel like this hardware unit is restrictive. At the impressive price point of $299, the MicroFreak is a hardware synth that delivers flexibility that’s mostly unrivaled at this price.

3. Behringer Neutron Semi-Modular Analog Synth ($299)

An image of the Behringer Neutron Semi-Modualr Analog Synth.
Figure 6: The Behringer Neutron Semi-Modualr Analog Synth.

The Behringer Neutron semi-modular synth provides the excitement and expandability of a modular synth setup in a simple and affordable package. If you want to start experimenting with modular synthesis and kickstart a modular synth collection, the Neutron is a great option.

This is an all-analog synth with two voltage-controlled oscillators that are reissues of the same circuitry found in the SH-101, Prophet 5, and other legendary synths. Top-notch components are good news for your musical compositions because starting with a quality sound often leads to excellent final results.

Next in the Neutron’s analog signal path is the filter. Behringer has given the Neutron a variable-state analog filter. Although you don't get multiple filters, you do get one true analog filter that can be used as a high-pass, low-pass, or bandpass filter. This filter comes with modulation control, envelope control, and key-tracking.

The biggest selling point of the Neutron is its semi-modular capabilities. Unlike fully modular synths, you don't need to use patch cables to produce sound with the Neutron. This means that you can power up the synth and get started with no extra fuss.

However, you can use patch cables to re-route the synth’s signal flow in unique and interesting ways. For example, you can control the filter with the shape of either of the oscillators. You can also control the oscillator mix with an envelope. There are a total of 56 jacks on the patch bay, all of which you can connect to external gear.

An image of the Behringer Neutron's patch bay.
Figure 7: The Behringer Neutron's patch bay.

For added connectivity, there’s class-compliant USB protocol found within the Neutron. This means that you don’t have to install any software or drivers for your computer to recognize the synth. Parameters such as delay and LFO speeds can sync to your host (potentially a DAW) using a USB cable.

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The Behringer Neutron might be a little more niche than other synths on this list and the feature-set might not be as flashy, but what the Neutron does, it does extremely well. Whether you have existing modular products or you’re looking to dive into modular synthesis for the first time, the Neutron will make a great addition to your studio.

2. Korg Volca Series ($149+/Each)

An image of various units from Korg's Volca series.
Figure 8: Various units from Korg's Volca series.

Korg delivers something fresh with their Volca series. Rather than putting all their eggs in one basket with a single product, Korg's Volca series tackles many tasks separately. The Volca series includes various miniature instruments such as a true analog bass synth, semi-modular synth, drum synth, FM synth, a digital sampler, and more.

You can reach for Volca Keys, Volca Modular, or Volca FM for your melodic needs. All of these units have a built-in keyboard, built-in 3.5mm jack for connection to headphones or external speakers, and transport controls like play, record, and automation record. That means you can use any of these Volca products independent of a DAW or companion products. Note input, recording, and audio output are handled directly by each Volca module.

An image of the Korg Volca FM Synthesizer with Sequencer.
Figure 9: The Korg Volca FM Synthesizer with Sequencer.

If you're looking for rhythm-based instruments, there’s Volca Drum, Volca Beats, and Volca Bass. These are mini-instruments focused on the rhythm aspect of your music that include built-in step sequencers, multiple drum parts, and pitch/decay controls. While the Volca Drum is a digital drum machine and offers flexibility, Volca Beats and Volca Bass bring you analog sound generation through a tiny form factor.

An image of the Korg Volca Beat Analog Drum Machine.
Figure 10: The Korg Volca Beat Analog Drum Machine.

There are a few outliers in the Volca family; however, they are most welcome. Volca Sample 2 is a digital sample sequencer with basic sample manipulation. There’s even an iOS app to record custom samples from your iPhone and load them onto your Volca Sample 2.

An image of the Korg Volca Sample 2.
Figure 11: The Korg Volca Sample 2.

All Volca products feature a 5-pin MIDI out, 3.5mm headphone jack, the same 9V power supply, and 3.5mm MIDI in/out sync for synchronizing all of your Volca instruments. There’s even a Korg Volca Mix that allows you to bring your suite of Volca instruments together in a way that feels cohesive. Volca Mix ties everything together with multiple inputs, outputs, filter and volume controls, tempo controls for syncing up your Volca instruments, and built-in speakers.

An image of the Korg Volca Mix.
Figure 12: The Korg Volca Mix.

Since Korg intends for people to use these Volca products with one another, controlling each unit will feel familiar, but provide you with very unique sound; you won’t feel like you’re buying the same product twice. Korg’s Volca series includes specific tools for specific tasks. Each unit stands on its own quite well, while providing exceptional processing power when combined with other Volca units.

1. Korg Minilogue 4-Voice Analog Synthesizer ($499)

An image of the Korg Minilogue 4-Voice Analog Synthesizer.
Figure 13: The Korg Minilogue 4-Voice Analog Synthesizer.

Korg is no newcomer to the synthesizer market; this titan of industry has created some of the most legendary synths out there, such as the Korg Wavestation and the Korg MS-20. However, in 2016 Korg released the Minilogue and became the face of modern, affordable hardware synths. The Minilogue is a true polyphonic 4-voice analog synthesizer that delivers tremendous value.

Two VCOs that produce saw, triangle and square waves include a Shape control that lets you manipulate the harmonic content of the oscillators by adding complexity to the simple wave shapes. For further sound manipulation, VCO 2 has a simple yet powerful modulation section that includes a pitch envelope, Sync switch, ring modulation and cross modulation option. The Minilogue also contains a low-pass filter with an adjustable cutoff frequency, resonance, and user-adjustable velocity and key tracking.

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There’s an LFO with saw, square, and triangle wave shape options. You can choose to affect the oscillator pitch, oscillator shape, or filter cutoff using the LFO. For further modulation options, you have two envelopes; one for the Minilogue’s output amplitude and one for user routing. The second envelope can be used for VCO 2 pitch modulation, envelope intensity, LFO intensity, and LFO modulation.

The Monologue also includes a Delay effect with a high-pass filter and user-assignable routing, which includes post-filter, pre-filter, and bypassing the delay and filter all together.

This synth has a keybed consisting of 37 velocity-sensitive slim-keys, which itself isn’t that unique. However, the eight built-in Voice Modes augment your note input abilities.

In total, there are eight Voice Modes, consisting of Poly, Duo, Unison, Mono, Chord, Delay, Arp, and Sidechain. These different functions will completely reshape how the Minilogue interprets your playing. For example, if you hold down a chord with Poly enabled, the Minilogue will voice every note in the chord simultaneously. Using a Voice Mode such as Arp, while holding down a chord, will result in the synth arpeggiating between each of the notes individually. Within each Voice Mode there are also alternate functions and modes

Another amazing feature on this already impressive analog synth is the built-in OLED screen that displays parameter values, modes, and presets. It also serves as an oscilloscope, which is very rare for most synths. The oscilloscope shows the output of your synth as a visible waveform. Using the built-in display you can see exactly how each parameter adjustment correlates to the changes in your sound in real-time.

An image of the Minilogue's multi-purpose OLED screen displaying a waveform.
Figure 14: The Minilogue's multi-purpose OLED screen displaying a waveform.

Korg has included a 16-step sequencer on the Minilogue that also allows for real-time overdub recording and parameter automation. This sequencer can sync with external gear such as Korg’s Volca series,.

The Minilogue holds 200 presets; 100 factory sounds for you to get started with and 100 blank slates for you to craft your own presets. A free application called Sound Librarian allows you to reorder and organize these presets using a desktop application, ensuring the presets on your Minilogue are stored exactly how you want them.

Korg’s Minilogue is the most expensive synthesizer on this list, but the features and sound quality it delivers offer tremendous value at $499. Given its analog nature, modern features, and hands-on workflow, this is one relatively affordable hardware synth that is sure to impress even the most hardcore synth enthusiasts.

To learn how synthesizers work by exploring oscillators, voicing, envelopes, LFOs, filters, effects, and more, check out "The Beginner's Guide to Audio Synthesis."

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