We are taking a look at the best synthesizer keyboards available in 2020. The best synth keyboard will be the one that feels best to play on stage, so we will make our choices with performers in mind. Areas that we will focus on are a great feeling keyboard and an intuitive workflow; a great sound goes without saying. If you spend more time on stage than in the studio, this list should be your go-to guide. Now, let’s check out some amazing synths.
Here are the best synthesizer keyboards 2020:
- Sequential Prophet X
- Novation Summit
- Roland JD-XA
- Korg KingKORG
- Moog Grandmother
- Nord Lead A1
- Arturia MicroFreak
1. Sequential Prophet X
The one that does everything
The Prophet range from legendary high-end synthesizer builder Dave Smith has been a front runner in this market forever, it seems. Admittedly, we are starting at the deep end here; the Prophet X is a high-end, professional synth, and expectedly expensive.
The Prophet X combines analog with sample-based synthesis in collaboration with 8Dio. 8Dio is a company known to be experts in what they call deep sampling. At the heart of the Prophet X, you have a 61-key, semi-weighted, 32-note polyphony synth with two high-resolution digital oscillators. Although being digitally controlled, everything runs through analog filters for a truly authentic experience.
The synth engine provides the classic sine, saw, or pulse waveforms that you expect from a Prophet, this time with even more flexibility. You can manually change the width of any waveform or use one of four LFOs, four loopable envelope generators, or the 16-slot mod matrix to add texture. The sample engine runs on 150 GB of sample content from 8Dio with an additional 50 GB of space to upload your samples.
The Prophet X also comes with a poly step sequencer, which lets you record six notes per step for up to 64 steps. A dual effects engine provides two effects per layer, and there are some stunning phase, flang, distortion effects, and much more. As far as connectivity goes, you name it; it’s got it along with three OLED displays making it great for keeping an eye on everything while performing.
|Image credit: Sequential Check Sweetwater||
The Prophet X isn’t the most intuitive, so you might wonder why it’s our top-rated synthesizer keyboard. Well, it’s the combination of sound, creative potential, and ease of use. While it might not be the most intuitive on our list, it’s still surprisingly easy to navigate once you get used to it.
As sound design potential goes, the Prophet X competes with the very best, and the partnership with 8Dio sees the Prophet X outdo some competitors with more traditional voices like pianos, etc.
There is a 76-key version (Prophet XL) available that might be the best synth with weighted keys around. But, a weighted key synthesizer isn’t always the way to go when you want to play synth bass, leads, or even pads. Our advice is if you can afford the cash layout, go for the 61-key Prophet X.
2. Novation Summit
The best synth around $2000
Novation had lots of success with its Peak desktop synthesizer; The Summit comes with two Peak Synth engines. At a little $2000, it’s not quite as expensive as Sequential’s Prophet X, but it’s still a top-end synth in every way.
It’s a semi-weighted 61-key, 2-part, 16 voice synth with some amazing analog credentials. Novation went with a true stereo analog signal path with dual analog multimode filters, analog VCAs, and analog distortion. The Summit is a modern synth that purists should love, too.
It uses three digital oscillators per voice, along with a noise generator. The Summit also offers two LFOs per voice with an amp envelope and two mod envelopes. The state variable filter allows pre-filter overdrive and post-filter distortion. There are 16 modulation slots per patch and an abundance of mod sources. The onboard effects are per part and include analog distortion, three chorus types, and 16 types of delay. As you can see, there is no shortage of modulation options, and that’s why the Summit is already a very popular synth.
The Summit has in common with the Prophet X that it’s still intuitive, despite doing very complex things. It feels great to play, not just the keybed, but also the keybed and simple hands-on control.
|Image credit: Novation Check Sweetwater||
The Summit could arguably be number one on our list. It’s significantly cheaper than the Prophet X, and just as intuitive, if not more so. It drops to number two because the Prophet X has more to offer in sheer sound design potential. However, the Summit provides vast sound design potential in its own right and could be more than you’ll ever need. If that’s the case, then save yourself some cash and go for the Summit. It feels great to play, it’s easy to get around, and it’s exceptionally well built.
3. Roland JD-XA
The best 49-key synth
The JD-XA is for performers looking for something a little more portable. So, we will say right off the bat; the JD-XA is the best 49-key synth for the stage.
It’s an analog/digital hybrid synthesizer; max polyphony is 4 voices for analog and 64 voices for digital. The keys are velocity-sensitive with aftertouch that can create some great effects if used correctly. Roland is widely regarded amongst the best when it comes to getting the feel of a keyboard right.
The Roland JD-XA features a sophisticated 16-track sequencer, that’s incredibly powerful when performing solo or as part of a duo. It’s worth noting that not all synths of this size offer a sequencer, and more rarely, one of this high-quality. The onboard effects include two TFX processors and one MFX processor that delivers over 125 effects types combined. Effects can be applied globally or per part, and the reverbs and delays are particularly nice.
The analog and digital sounds come from independent sound engines, but everything can be routed through the analog filters. You get that beautiful analog warmth, but you also get some unique hybrid sounds. It also comes with lots of connectivity, USB for MIDI functions, CV/gate outputs, an analog dry output jack, a click output jack, foot pedal jacks, and of course, the main output jacks.
A potential flaw in the JD-XA is that some menu-diving is required, which affects the workflow, but it’s nothing too alarming. Also, for the money, the plastic body isn’t overly impressive.
|Image credit: Roland Check Sweetwater||
The Roland JD-XA is a modern synthesizer keyboard that delivers beautiful analog and digital performance. One of the best things about this synth is that it brings out the players’ creativity because there are so many effects to shape the sound. The 16-track sequencer also inspires creativity when writing parts for your live performance.
On appearance, it gives a similar impression (size aside) as the RD-2000 (check out our review) with lots of lights and moving parts. It’s easy to assume that it’s overcomplicated in design, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s that ease of use that makes it one of the best Roland synths, unlike the over-complicated Jupiter 8 (FYI the Jupiter 8 sounds amazing, it’s just not fun to use).
If there is a downside, it could be that it’s not that much cheaper than the larger Novation Summit. But, 49-keys isn’t a downgrade if that’s what fits your setup best. The JD-XA is out top-rated synth keyboard under $2000.
4. Korg KingKORG
The over-delivering underdog
The KingKORG is one of my personal favorites and criminally underrated, it’s one of the best Korg synths available. It’s a semi-weighted 61-key analog modeling powerhouse.
Compared to some 61-key synths, the layout of the KingKORG’s panel is quite bare. The simplicity of the top panel is one of its biggest assets. It’s an analog modeling synth built on Korg’s XMT technology (Xpanded Modeling Technology). From left to right, you will see the analog vacuum tube driver circuit, which lights up red when in use. The tube circuit adds a real analog grittiness to your voice that can be adjusted with a variable drive. Next is the effects section that includes a 2-band EQ, Pre-effects (amps, ring mod), Modulation effects, and reverbs/delays. Each are of the effects section has a simple set of knob controls.
The center of the KingKORG focuses on sound selection. It sports an LCD screen, master push encoder, and large sound type selection buttons. Lastly, you move on to the oscillators (three per voice), filters, and amp settings. Again, each section is intuitively laid out for simple interaction. The Oscillator and filter sections each have dedicated screens to save reverting back to the central display.
Another great feature of the KingKORG is that it comes with a powerful built-in vocoder. Beyond the layout, the keybed feels very good, not quite Roland JD-XA, but very good, indeed.
|Image credit: Korg Check Sweetwater||
The KingKORG is the best synth for beginners on our list, but don’t assume that means that it’s limited. It may not offer the extreme depth of our top picks, but it has plenty to offer professional musicians. For performers who don’t want to spend a great deal of time creating sound from scratch, the presets available are awesome. Even if the presets aren’t quite what you need, it doesn’t take much to alter them just enough to be unique.
If you gig often, you’d be glad to hear the KingKORG is significantly lighter than many 61-key synths. Korg has made an instrument here that is probably the best synthesizer keyboard for around $1000.
5. Moog Grandmother
The best semi-modular synth
The Moog Grandmother is a relative newcomer from the synth masters at Moog. Many synths on our list, or indeed the sub $1000 price range, will be a digital/analog hybrid. The Grandmother is a fully analog semi-modular synth with a 32-key Fatar keyboard.
If semi-modular sounds like it’s venturing into more complex territory, the colorful panel layout takes care of that. Two analog oscillators offer the standard triangle, saw, and square waveshapes. Each oscillator has patch points for wave out, pitch in, while oscillator one offers PWM in, oscillator two offers Linear FM in. They also come with sync-possible frequency control.
A bipolar attenuator and a patchable 1-pole high-pass filter are available via the utility section. Some aspects of the Grandmother might be new, but there are still signs of the classic Moog architecture. That can be seen in the 4-pole ladder filter with key tracking and oversized controls. Modulation options come from the fully analog LFO and standard ADSR envelope sections. The only new thing in this area is the dedicated envelope sustain, which isn’t standard in all Moog’s.
One of the best surprises about the Moog Grandmother is the addition of a real spring reverb. This built-in reverb isn’t an emulation, it’s the real deal, and it’s gorgeous. In total, there are 41 patch points available, so if you have some more modular/eurorack gear, the options are endless. Remember, it’s semi-modular, so you can use it without any patching, it would just be a shame not to. Further connectivity comes from DIN MIDI in/out/thru ports along with USB MIDI.
|Image credit: Moog Check Sweetwater||
The Moog Grandmother is still fairly new, and it might take some time for people to catch on. But, we think it’s going to be a very popular keyboard synth for performers. At 32-keys, you don’t get an enormous range to play with, but that’s kind of the norm with Moogs. Furthermore, anything you need to do with a Moog can be done with 32-keys or less.
What’s great about the Grandmother is that it has all the potential of a semi-modular synth, but it’s also very user-friendly. The layout is intuitive, so it’s easy to jump right in, and the keyboard feels great. If you do use modular gear in your setup, the Moog Grandmother could be the best portable synthesizer keyboard to bring it all together.
6. Nord Lead A1
The fastest workflow
Nord put out some of the best synthesizers for live performance year after year. The Nord Lead A1 continues that trend, and perhaps offers a more intuitive experience than previous models. It’s a 49-key analog modeling synth that offers convincing analog warmth with the convenience of a digital machine.
One of the instantly impressive things about the Lead A1 is the 24-note max polyphony that makes it incredibly playable. Adding to that playability is a lovely synth-style Fatar keyboard – as someone who doesn’ always love Nord keybeds, I really like this one.
The Lead A1 is all about providing a speedy workflow for live performance. Whether you are selecting presets or designing your sounds from scratch, everything is quick and easy. Any sounds that you use most often (presets or custom) can be stored in the liked list, which is a shortlist of your favorite sounds.
Nord has created a unique eight configuration oscillator block that provides lots of modulation options while remaining easy to use. The top-quality sound that comes with every Nord instrument is as impressive as ever here. There are vintage and modern sounds, from synth bass and brass to pads and leads.
It’s easy to split the keyboard, and you can also create stunning layered patches thanks to the Lead A1 being 4-part multi-timbral. The onboard effects include all of the usual suspects (reverbs, delays, etc) and are available per voice. Perhaps the best of the effects are the unison and extra fat unison modes, which can turn any sound into an absolute monster. Further modulation comes from a 5-waveform LFO and both high and low-pass filters.
The filter section continues with transistor and diode ladder filter emulations of Mini and TB-303. There is a handy mutator function that will modulate specific aspects of your voice by a set percentage. It’s an excellent way to create a random sound when you are stuck for inspiration.
|Image credit: Nord Check Sweetwater||
At a glance, the Nord Lead A1 might look like a budget version of the A4, but that’s not the case. It’s a streamlined version, but it’s not about the cost, it’s about offering performers easier access to their most-used functions and sounds.
The Lead A1 doesn’t have too many hidden gems (other than unison modes), you get exactly what you pay for, an awesome performers synth. It lacks in certain areas compared to the KingKORG, JD-XA, or Moog Grandmother, but if you want a ready-to-go stage synth with no hassle, few will be better than the Nord Lead A1.
7. Arturia MicroFreak
The best portable synth
The Arturia MicroFreak is the smallest synth on our list, and it edges out the much-loved MircoKORG. We know not all performers use a synth as the central part of their setup, and the MicroFreak fills that gap perfectly.
The MicroFreak is an algorithmic synth with a rather unusual look. It doesn’t have a conventional keyboard; instead, it has a flat 25-key keybed. Initially, the instrument’s feel might take some getting used to, but it’s not long before it’s second-nature. The max polyphony is 4-notes with the Paraphonic button engaged, which is fine for a compact synth.
It comes with a 12-mode single oscillator that can emulate a range of classic digital or analog oscillators. The great thing about the 12 oscillator modes is that they offer fantastic variation from one to the next. So, quite often, you can find lots of versatility within a single preset sound.
The filter is analog, but digitally controlled and offers low, high, and band-pass modes. There are cutoff and resonance knobs to fine-tune the filter further. A single LFO is available, albeit less impressive than some other features of the MicroFreak.
The MicroFreak delivers all sorts of sounds, from organic pads to glitchy leads, and most things in between. It also offers some stranger, almost robotic sounds, and that’s part of the reason we love it.
|Image credit: Arturia Check Sweetwater||
The MicroFreak kept MicroKORG off our list because it’s something different and exciting. Yes, it has a strange design and a flat keybed, but that doesn’t mean it’s not easy to use. Once you get the hang of the flat keys, it’s such a versatile synth for something so small. The fact that it offers so much, and can be a secondary part of your live setup is fantastic.
As of right now, it’s our best portable synthesizer keyboard. It’s also the best budget synth keyboard under $500; you can’t go wrong.
When you play digital pianos, you don’t need to think about LFOs or analog signal paths, etc. It’s just about playing, and let’s be honest, learning your instrument properly is a never-ending journey as it is. When you start to add synthesizers to the mix, it opens up a whole new world with endless sonic possibilities.
Our advice would be to keep it simple and walk before you run. If you are still getting to grips with the basics of the keyboard, don’t dive headfirst into a stupidly expensive synth. Start simple and learn properly; that way, you will develop a stronger understanding of how different modules work, waveforms, envelopes, and so on.
If you feel like your grasp of the basic keyboard is strong enough, then don’t be put off by the look of a complex synth. Your prior knowledge and enthusiasm will see you over the learning curve just fine. Once you get started, it will change how you make music, and you won’t stop!