Synthesizers come in many different forms, so choosing the best synth for beginners can be a tricky task. To shortlist our top 10, we have set a budget; we are looking for the best beginner synth under $500. Not only have we selected the best budget synths available in 2020, but these are some of the best overall. Every synth on our list could potentially change your approach to making music. So, let’s get into our top 10.
Here are the best cheap (under $500) synths for beginners:
- Arturia MicroFreak
- Behringer MS-1
- Korg MS-20 mini
- Arturia MicroBrute
- Korg microKorg
- Korg minilogue
- Novation Bass Station II
- Roland TB-03
- Roland JD-Xi
- IK Multimedia UNO Synth
1. Arturia MicroFreak
A synth from the future
At first sight, the futuristic look of the MicroFreak will take a minute to get your head around, it’s lovely! But, it’s not just superficial; this little beginner-friendly synth is bursting with high-quality features.
It’s a hybrid synth with wavetable/digital oscillators and analog filters. The MicroFreak features the Plaits wavetable oscillator from Eurorack manufacturer, Mutable Instruments. As you get more and more into synths and modular gear, you’ll learn that just about anything from Mutable Instruments brings vast creative potential.
The digital oscillators are extremely powerful yet easy to navigate as a beginner, thanks to function modes like Texturer, Harmonic OSC, and Superwave. The sound design potential is off the charts, and there are 64 user sound slots with 128 factory presets.
One of the most visually striking features is the two-octave touch plate. At a glance, it might appear to be 25 mini-keys, but it’s a flat surface. The touch plate has polyphonic aftertouch, and it’s so expressive once you get used to how it feels.
There are a built-in 64-step sequencer and a very performable arpeggiator. If that wasn’t enough, it has a 5 x 7 modulation matrix, paraphonic mode, and a lovely OLED screen; not expected in such a cheap synth.
Despite having a quirky, futuristic design, all of the controls are beautifully laid out. That’s why this is one of the best cheap synths for beginners.
|Image credit: Arturia Check Price on Amazon||
Arturia are innovators, they always have been, and the MicroFreak shows what they do best. To make a synth at this price with so many high-quality features is quite remarkable. The oscillators and modulation matrix provide endless sound design options. The analog filter adds that gorgeous warmth and punch when you need it. Arturia’s MicroFreak can sound like the sweetest synth or absolute chaos.
The best thing about the MicroFreak is that it has the high-end functionality that modular fanatics crave, but it makes it accessible to complete newbies. Overall, this is our best synth for beginners.
2. Behringer MS-1
A fitting tribute to an all-time great
Behringer has been one of the most prolific synth manufacturers recently, seemingly taking pages straight out of Roland’s back catalog. What I mean by that is that Behringer is making some stunning synths, that just happen to look suspiciously like some Roland classics, but that’s not our problem.
The Behringer MS-1 looks every bit the 1980s analog synth; it comes in a few colors, all of which are retro-cool. It’s a 32-key monophonic synth, and those are semi-weighted, full-size keys we might add! It does look like the surface is rather busy, with 57 knobs, sliders, and switch, but it’s all mapped out clearly, so that ticks the suitable for beginner synthesizer box.
Like any analog synth, the heart of the MS-1 is its VCF (Voltage Controlled Filter). The MS-1’s VCF is a beast, with five faders controlling frequency, resonance, envelope, modulation depth, and keyboard follow. Behringer stayed true to the classic analog synth, giving the MS-1 a single 3340 analog oscillator. From a single oscillator, you can run four simultaneous waveforms, creating ridiculously fat sounds.
There is an abundance of filter effects like the six NovaMod FM sources, all controllable via the bender or attachable mod wheel hand grip. The onboard 32-step sequencer has 64 slots to save custom sequences, which gives you more than enough for live performance. To spice up performance further, there’s a built-in noise generator for distortion and a very flexible arpeggiator.
Connectivity is fantastic with the MS-1, the expected USB/MIDI/CV ports are present, and it also has an external audio input. That means you can process external synths, drum machines, and so on via your MS-1.
|Image credit: Behringer Check Price on Amazon||
The MS-1 is an excellent synth; it’s so retro, it even comes with a strap for keytar-style playing. We don’t have anything bad to say about it; it’s an affordable way to get into vintage mono synths. The analog filter is lovely; it has so much to offer with complete hands-on control that makes it a great learning tool for beginners.
If there is any downside, there will be purists who say it’s just a cheap emulation of Roland’s iconic SH-101. Maybe that’s true, but it looks great, sounds fat, and it’s affordable, so as long as Behringer keeps putting out these synths, we’ll keep loving them.
3. Korg MS-20 mini
Sophisticated synthesis in a mini package
Technically, the Korg MS-20 mini shouldn’t be on our list; it’s around $30 over our $500 limit. But, it’s so good that we had to give it a mention, even if it stretches the budget.
If you know Korg, you’ll know the MS-20 is a legendary synth; the MS-20 mini brings it back to life in a smaller package. The MS-20 mini has 37 mini-keys that have a really nice action for lead playing. There are two oscillators with ring modulation that generate a broad range of os sounds. The envelope generators have delay and hold functions that add interesting motion to your patches.
Korg’s first-generation filter design helps shape growling bass tones or soaring leads, and it’s capable of self-oscillation. External sound processing allows you to use the pitch or volume of an external audio source/instrument to control the synth.
To save space, Korg has changed the patch bay from 1/4-inch inputs to 1/8-inch, and maintained the same core functionality. The MS-20 mini is the perfect synth to use with your DAW, with MIDI, and USB connectivity.
|Image credit: Korg Check Price on Amazon||
If you can stretch to the top of the $500 budget, then an extra $30 probably won’t put you off. That’s why we had to include the MS-20 mini, and it’s definitely worth considering. It does everything, from deep bass to moogish leads, as clean or dirty as you want them.
If you play in a band, Korg’s MS-20 mini is a fantastic choice. Despite being slightly over budget, we would still consider the MS-20 mini a low-cost, affordable synth.
4. Arturia MicroBrute
The unassuming powerhouse
Arturia’s Brute series of instruments has been going strong for some time and showing no signs of slowing down.
The MicroBrute is a monster, despite its unassuming looks. At this price, you shouldn’t always expect a fully analog signal path, but with the MicroBrute, that’s precisely what you get. It’s a single-oscillator synth with three waveforms, which are saw, triangle, and square waves.
That gives you a pretty wide range of sounds to play with, and they can be tweaked/animated further by the oscillator waveshapers. Arturia also added a lovely overtone generator that brings out some amazing harmonics, an octave down to a fifth up.
We were glad to see that the smallest synth is the Brute series still had the Steiner-Parker filter. This filter does have a distinct character that won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s unique, and that’s what we like. It comes with 25 velocity-sensitive mini-keys, again it’s a personal preference, but we find Arturia keybeds are very responsive.
There are some other features inherited from the bigger Brute synths, like the Brute Factor that brings outrageous distortion. Then there’s the mod matrix that provides semi-modular flexibility, and the built-in step sequencer inspires creativity.
|Image credit: Arturia Check Price on Amazon||
The MicroBrute is one of the biggest sounding single-oscillator synths you will ever hear. It has a simple layout that makes it easy for beginners to see and understand everything that is going on, too. It’s arguably one of the best analog synthesizers under $500.
Our verdict is that your choice will depend on what you think of the Steiner-Parker filter, and its unique sound. If you love it, then the MicroBrute is for you; if not, then something like the MS-1 will suit you better.
5. Korg microKorg
The little legend
It’s hard to have any synth list without mentioning the microKorg, but when it comes to entry-level beginner synths, it’s a no brainer.
The microKorg is a go-to synth for thousands of beginners and professionals because it’s so easy to use. It comes with 37 velocity-sensitive mini keys that are responsive but could feel better. The microKorg is an analog modeling synth, and that’s an area that Korg knows very well.
The sound comes from two oscillators and a noise generator. It has the same DSP synth engine found in the iconic Korg MS2000 and offers more waveforms than most modeled synths in its class. On top of that, there are 64 exclusive waveforms from the DW-8000 that let you recreate some classic patches like west coast hip-hop leads or funk bass tones.
The reason many people choose the microKorg is that it has an 8-band vocoder. It also comes with its own microphone, so it’s ready to go straight out of the box. Having a powerful vocoder gives the microKorg something that most synths in the same price range can’t offer.
As well as the onboard sound design options and 128 voice presets, there are two external audio inputs, so you can run other instruments or devices through the microKorg filter and effects.
|Image credit: Korg Check Price on Amazon||
Some people may prefer a cheap analog synth to analog modeling, but it’s easy to see why so many people love the microKorg. If it was purely about sound design, there are better options, but as a gig-ready synth, the microKorg is outstanding. The presets mimic some of the most loved synths from multiple hit records, and the vocoder adds a new dimension.
6. Korg minilogue
A stylish synth with a serious sound
The Korg minilogue polyphonic synth is right on the limit of our $500 budget, but it still represents great value for money.
Unlike the microKorg, the minilogue boasts a redesigned, fully-analog signal path. You can see, at first sight, the styling and build quality is that of a sophisticated synth. It comes with 37 velocity-sensitive slim-keys, so they are slimmer than full-size, but they are full-length.
The minilogue has a pair of extremely shapable oscillators with plenty of filter and modulation options. The scope for sound design is massive with this synth, and you can store up to 200 settings. If you want to dive straight into playing, there are 100 stunning presets. An OLED oscilloscope display lets you monitor your waveform as you shape it.
There are eight unique voice modes, which are poly, duo, unison, mono, chord, delay, arp, and sidechain. Most are self-explanatory, but modes like sidechain are pretty unique, and great for performance. Sidechain mode is a multi-voice mode where each time you play a new note, the volume of the previous note drops. As you can imagine, for basses or leads, this mode is awesome for live a smooth performance.
As well as all of the sound design options and performance modes, there is a 16-step sequencer with real-time motion recording.
|Image credit: Korg Check Price on Amazon||
The minilogue is one of the most stylish polyphonic synths under $500 on the market. There is no real reason not to buy it other than the budget. The one thing we would suggest is that if you’re a beginner, it might take longer to master this synth, but the rewards are worth the effort! If you want something that you can navigate faster, maybe try another synth and work your way up to the minilogue.
7. Novation Bass Station II
The key bass beast
The Bass Station II is already a cult classic amongst key bass players. It’s a monophonic analog synth that delivers a huge tone, whether its an EDM thump or smooth hip-hop sound.
Two oscillators can be hard-synced to provide a tighter and punchier bass sound. Two filter designs give you the option of two very distinct tonal characters. As well as the two main oscillators, there is a sub-oscillator with square, sine, and narrow pulse waveforms that delivers a rich and full low end.
As a performance tool, the reason the Bass Station II is so popular is that it’s incredibly expressive. Dedicated faders, knobs, and aftertouch make it so intuitive and musical to play. Out of the box, it comes with 64 preset voices, and 64 slots for user presets. We should say, the Bass Station II produces killer lead sounds, too, it’s not all about the bass.
It’s not just about conventional playing either; it has a built-in step-sequencer and arpeggiator with 32 rhythmic patterns. So, there are plenty of performance and production tools. Novation, surprisingly, added an external audio input for processing external audio signals.
|Image credit: Novation Check Price on Amazon||
The Bass Station II is a very popular cheap keyboard synth, and with good reason. If you have a soft spot for west coast hip-hop, you will absolutely love the Bass Station II. Of course, it offers much more than just some funky basslines, but that is definitely its main appeal.
If you want more of an all-rounder, look elsewhere, but if you want to add some funky synth bass to your live or studio setup, look no further.
8. Roland TB-03
The ultimate bass sequencer
Roland’s TB-03 gives you the iconic sound of the TB-303 bass synth, but in a more compact package. The original TB-303 might cost a small fortune these days, but this affordable synthesizer makes vintage bass tones more accessible than ever.
The TB-03 isn’t just smaller; it’s an overall enhanced version of the classic 80’s sequencer. Although it doesn’t have keys as such, it does have an octave of buttons in a keyboard layout. So, if you are a keyboard player of any level, it won’t take long to get used to the TB-03.
The TB-03 is powered by Roland’s innovative Analog Circuit Behavior technology. It works in two modes, pattern play mode, and pattern write mode. In pattern play mode, you are essentially tweaking existing patterns. But, that doesn’t mean you will have the same bass patterns as everyone else who uses the TB-03. There are so many ways to manipulate patterns by adding accents, changing pitch, tempo, etc. In pattern play mode, you can use the note buttons to program your own bassline before tweaking it further.
You can switch between modes without stopping playback, which is great for a speedy workflow. Upgrades from the original TB-303 include an OLED display, fine tempo control, overdrive and delay effects, and MIDI/USB connectivity. You also have CV/Gate outputs for controlling external modular gear.
It also serves as a 24-bit/96 kHz stereo in/out USB audio interface, which is a feature that not all similar synths offer. You can literally work anywhere, too, thanks to the built-in mini speaker.
|Image credit: Roland Check Price on Amazon||
The Roland TB-03 is incredibly intuitive to use; you can come up with some fantastic bass lines instantly. It’s the kind of synth that encourages experimentation, so you often come up with ideas that you wouldn’t on a regular keyboard synth.
However, not having a keyboard is also the reason it’s not higher on our list, too. Generally speaking, a synth with conventional keys is more natural for a beginner to understand. If that doesn’t bother you, then it’s worth the investment, especially with the built-in speaker, so that you can work anywhere.
9. Roland JD-Xi
Versatility is king
Roland’s JD-Xi is one of the most feature-packed synths you will ever find under $500. It’s a hybrid analog/digital crossover synth with a built-in vocoder. The analog section generates authentic synth bass and lead tones. Roland’s SuperNATURAL sound engine powers the two digital sections.
The JD-Xi has 37 mini keys with 128-note polyphony and lots of built-in effects. The built-in effects include distortion, fuzz, compression, delay, and much more, all of which are high-quality.
The analog tones are warm, fat, and surprisingly good, especially the lead sounds. As for the digital sections, it’s hard to complain about the SuperNATURAL sound engine.
The JD-Xi’s small stature doesn’t limit performance; it has an onboard 4-track sequencer, so you can perform full compositions. It comes with a gooseneck microphone for use with the vocoder, and other vocal effects like AutoPitch, and Auto Note function.
This synth is great for studio use if you like to make beats without using a lot of gear. Along with the vast selection of preset voices, it also has some pro drum kit sounds that are production-ready. New sounds can be downloaded via USB from Roland’s Axial website.
|Image credit: Roland Check Price on Amazon||
It may seem like we are slightly unfair on Roland by placing this synth so low on our list. The truth is, if it weren’t a beginners list, then we would place it higher. We feel that the layout could be more beginner-friendly, and wouldn’t allow a newbie to work as fast as they’d like.
However, it’s such a versatile, powerful instrument, and it offers everything you want in a good budget synth. Our only slight negative is that there are better analog synth options on our list, but the digital sections do make up for that.
10. IK Multimedia UNO Synth
The cheap synth that can hang with big boys
The UNO Synth monophonic synthesizer has an all-analog audio path, which isn’t something you’d expect under $200. It’s a two-oscillator synth with continuously variable waveshapes.
The thing that makes the UNO Synth great is that it provides an analog signal path with all of the shortcuts of digital. For example, you can save and recall presets instantly. Another nice feature is that it’s also self-tuning, which means you’ll never drift out of tune from the rest of your instruments.
The oscillator section includes pulse width modulation and white noise. A 2-pole multimode filter offers low pass, high pass, and band pass modes.
Like a groove box, you can record in step-sequencer mode or in real-time using the 27-note keyboard. The keyboard isn’t traditional keys, it’s made up of 27 touch buttons, but much to our surprise, they are nice and responsive. The keyboard has 13 preset scale modes, so even if you don’t know your theory, you can always find the right notes for your track.
It also has a powerful 10-mode arpeggiator that is perfect for generating basslines, grooves, and arp sequences. Controlling everything is easy with four encoders, and plenty of dedicated function buttons. You can go even more in-depth with the software editor on your laptop or desktop computer via USB.
|Image credit: IK Multimedia Check Price on Amazon||
Whether the UNO Synth is your first buy or it’s in addition to others in your setup, you can’t go wrong with it. Pound for pound, it’s probably the best cheap synth you will ever buy.
For beginners, it’s a great introduction to synthesizers and hands-on control. If you decide to daisy-chain it with more modular gear, the UNO Synth more than holds its own. For EDM, techno, house producers/artists, the UNO Synth from IK Multimedia is a must-buy at this price.
Things to consider when buying your first synth
As you can see, all of the synths on our list are under $500 (except the Korg MS-20 mini), and that’s a pretty good place to start. Learning to get the most out of a synth is more than just knowing some scales and chords, so don’t spend too much until you know what you’re doing.
The synths on our list are all portable; in fact, you’d struggle to find a synth under $500 that isn’t portable. But, there’s portable, then there is fit in your backpack portable. Make sure you choose something that fits with your needs. Think about how it will fit into your current setup, whether it’s for studio or live use. Is it essential that you can use it anywhere? If so, then you might need something with battery power, and a built-in speaker.
Analog, digital, or both?
If you are new to synths, then this probably isn’t a question you can answer alone. It’s a fairly common opinion that analog synths sound warmer than digital synths. However, it’s not just the sound that you have to consider. People tend to buy these synths for two reasons; they want to learn more about sound design, or they just want the end product, a great sound.
If you just want a great sound, then any synth with good presets will do. If you are serious about sound design, then you need to be prepared for a learning curve, how steep the curve depends on your choice of synth.
Analog synths, especially at this price, tend to be easier to navigate for beginners. There is usually less going on at the entry-level, and controls are clearly labeled with robust knobs/faders.
Digital synthesis can get more complicated, and even if it’s not, sometimes the appearance is enough to make it seem more complicated. Control panels are often far busier, making it appear like a million things are going on.
Some digital synths have analog modeling technology or are a hybrid of digital and analog. That would seem to be the best of both worlds, sonically at least, but again it depends on how easy it is to operate.
Every synth in our top 10 is worth owning; they all have something to offer. Some are better than others in certain areas, but remember it’s not just about what the synth does; it’s about what you want to get out of it.
We structured our list based on what we consider to be the best synth for beginners under $500, not necessarily the best overall. Once you get into synths and sound design, it’s a never-ending journey and one that will enhance your understanding of music creation and production dramatically.
Choose your first synth wisely, get it right, and before you know it, you won’t be able to move for modular gear and patch cables – it’s a good thing, don’t worry, enjoy!
James is a writer and musician with a passion for audio production. He is a lover of all things tech, especially the latest keyboards, synths, DAW’s, virtual instruments, and effects plugins. Musical interests include jazz, funk, hip hop, blues, and rock.