Buying Your First Synth

One of the music sites I read most frequently is Gearslutz. Over the last year or so, I’ve seen several people opine that someone buying their first synth should go for something simple, going so far as to say things like, “that’s not a good synth for a beginner,” and “never pay $3,000 for your first synth.”

To which I say, “poppycock!” One of the things that a beginner has in abundance is curiosity and enthusiasm. Another thing a beginner has is limitation, both in terms of knowledge and tools. These things are an absolutely fantastic combination.

My first synth was a Korg Poly 800. It is relatively simple, and learning to program it didn’t take much time. I remember coming up with my own crude bouncing method involving a boom box, cassette deck, and some RCA Y-jacks so I could do multi-tracked recordings. By the third or fourth track, it was such a hissy mess that you could barely hear the first part, but I learned a ton about the composition and recording process, as well as the rudimentary beginnings of how different sonic textures fit in a mix.

When I graduated from college, I got an Ensoniq EPS as a graduation gift. By today’s standards, it’s a relatively easy-to-use piece of gear, but it had lots of capability and a reasonable amount of depth. Multi-timbral, an 8+8 track sequencer, multiple patches per instrument, and all of the sonic potential that a sampler brings.

I dove into it with abandon and entered one of the most productive musical periods of my life. A year or two later, I was gigging in clubs with a DJ and doing live remixing. To speed up the creation of loops on the fly, I had worked out the exact loop lengthsfor all BPMs between 65 and 140 in tenth of a beat increments, and at multiple sampling rates. A well-worn three ring binder housed the output of my spreadsheet with all of these calculations and more.

If you compare my early work processes to the tools available today, you’d laugh as you fired up Garage Band or Ableton Live and had the computer do all of that for you. But that’s missing the point. The point is that my enthusiasm and desire to create were far more important than the complexity of the instrument. I learned the methods or developed workarounds to achieve everything I wanted to do.

I quickly outgrew the Poly-800, although I still find it useful for specific sounds. I never outgrew the EPS and still use it and its sibling the Ensoniq ASR-10R as my primary samplers. They’re probably the most “comfortable” synths I have in the studio.

I’ve since acquired lots of other gear with widely varying levels of complexity. Some of them I’ve never really learned, and others were just immediately accessible. But I am confident that if any of them were my only equipment, I would learn it backwards and forwards in a reasonable amount of time. Certainly in less than a year.

There’s really only one thing that I would advise against buying as a first synth, and that’s something with a really terrible user interface. I would never recommend the Yamaha FS1R as a first synth, for example, not because it’s got an amazingly complex synthesis method, but rather because it’s so difficult to program with just a few tiny buttons and a cryptic display panel. The Poly-800, for that matter, is a very simple synth, but is kind of a pain to program. Contrast these with the Kurzweil VAST synths like the K2000 and PC series or the Access Virus line – amazingly deep, but quite decent user interfaces. The Virus, in particular, has lots of knobby goodness that is inspiring and makes happy accidents a common occurrence.

Ok, there’s one other thing I’d advise against: cheap analog. I only advise against this as a first synth, and only because low polyphony counts will become frustrating very quickly. It’s obviously much easier and cheaper to do multi-tracking these days, so it’s not an absolute, but the first time you want some big lush pad, you’re going to be sorry you’ve got a mono-synth as your only option. I don’t recommend anything with less than 8-note polyphony for a starter piece of gear.

So if you’re thinking about buying your first synth, don’t shy away from more expensive or complicated equipment. If you can afford quality, buy quality – you’ll never regret it. Spend time learning it. Dig into the manual. Give yourself programming challenges. Take full advantage of your enthusiasm and revel in the contradiction of your limitations providing you with an amazing amount of creative freedom.

If I was buying my first (and, for the time being, only) synth today, these are the ones that would be on my short list in no particular order:

What’s on your list?

3 thoughts on “Buying Your First Synth

  1. Great post with two exceptions:

    1) what’s a cassette deck?

    and

    2) you’re a good writer no need for profanity. P****c*** is not appropriate on the cyberweb.

  2. @Brett, thanks for the comment. I don’t know that I would have appreciated the MiniMoog for what it is back in the mid-80s, but I always loved the Juno. Now I covet both… someday…

    @Btoler, a cassette deck is an analog backup medium for your MP3s. It uses about 18 miles of plastic wrapped around two small spindles that wil require you to keep a supply of #2 pencils handy, though a ballpoint Bic pen will also suffice.

    I apologize for the gratuitous use of “poppycock” but felt that it was less offensive than “balderdash,” which appeared three times in an earlier draft.

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