Best Synthesizers Under $500 (+ Budget Options for Beginners!)

Author: Tomas Morton | Updated: | This post may contain affiliate links.

When you're just starting out with music, sometimes the usual and boring route of beginning with a piano isn't really your thing. Don't get me wrong, pianos are pretty cool, but they can be a bit of a pain with all the tuning and whatnot.

On the other hand, starting with a synthesizer can be super rewarding and a whole lot of fun!

Lucky for you, there are some amazing synthesizers out there for beginners that won't break the bank. The best part is, many of these come with some pretty awesome production tools, so even more advanced musicians can get some use out of them too.

So, without further ado, here are a few of my personal favorite budget synthesizers that are great for beginners.

5 Best Budget Synthesizers for Beginners & Intermediate Musicians

1. Korg Monologue

So, when the Korg Monologue first came out, I have to admit, I was skeptical. I mean, making an affordable analog synth that still sounds good? That's a tough gig. But then, I remembered that Korg's production standards are pretty high, so I gave it a shot.

And you know what? I was blown away by the thick analog sound that this little guy produces. Seriously, it's like a Studio Electronics ATC, which is one of my favorite synths. It has a two-oscillator design that goes through an excellent analog drive circuit and has really similar waveforms to the ATC.

To me, the Korg is like a hybrid between a vintage Korg MS-20 and a Moog Source. And those are two incredible synths, so no complaints there. Plus, it's monophonic, so it's a nice blend of the two classics.

Another feature that I really dig is the excellent built-in sequencer. I've noticed that a lot of small analog synths these days have cool arpeggiators and sequencers, and the Korg is no exception. It's definitely a plus.

But here's the thing that really blew me away: the fact that it supports micro-tuning, and you can create your own scales to save as presets. That's usually something reserved for modular synths, but the Korg has it too.

A lot of those sequences you hear in Trent Reznor's film music that are slightly detuned, that's the micro-tuning from his modular synths. And when you add that to the powerful sequencer, you start getting into some serious sound design territory. It's super simple and easy too, so it's great for beginners.

My only wish is that they could have put a bigger screen on it. That would have made it perfect.


2. Modal Cobalt 5S

Modal Electronics is pretty new to the synth game, but they're coming in hot with some really cool synths like the Cobalt 8 and the Argon 8. And now they've slimmed down a bit to create the Cobalt 5S, which is a five-voice virtual analog synth.

"Virtual analog" means it's digital, but it behaves like analog. So you might be thinking, "Isn't that just a plug-in?" Well, no, because it still has some serious circuitry in the output section to give it a nice, punchy sound.

That being said, there's a super cool plug-in for the control and sound editor, which is one of the best things about using a virtual analog synth. The Cobalt has some impressive specs, like a very advanced 512-note sequencer, arpeggiator, and two different stereo effects engines.

The only thing I wish they had done differently was to add an analog filter instead of a virtual one. The sound of this synth reminds me of some of the cool early Waldorf synths like the Q and the Microwave series, but it also has the same problem that the Microwave II series had, in that they abandoned the analog filter from the first one and it made the sound much thinner.

But I gotta say, this is a great beginner synth because it's so simple to use! There's not a ton of menu-diving, and there are 16 rotary knobs for easy access, as well as a super cool X-Y keypad in the style of the Korg Kaoss Pad to do some real-time effects stuff. I can totally see this being used for a bunch of cool electronic productions!


3. Roland JD-Xi

Roland always delivers high-quality gear, and this little synth is no exception. The Roland JD-XI is a hybrid synthesizer that combines both analog and digital engines. That's what I wish Modal had done on their synthesizer.

But Roland didn't stop there. They actually added a super cool vocoder section with a mic, and even put a goose mic input on the top left. It goes through an auto pitch and FX section to do all kinds of modern vocals, like something Calvin Harris would do.

In so many ways, this is also a beginner electronic music producer's dream because they split the keyboard into modern and classic at the same time. They even have a section called TR-Rec that is very reminiscent of the TR series drum machines, like the TR 808 and 909, which are classic ‘80s hip-hop and dance machines.

I think for anyone getting into playing keyboards and synthesizers, especially on a budget, this one might be the one to get. It's just loaded with ridiculous features for such a relatively cheap synth. They added four FX processors and even a four-track pattern sequencer to build loops. So, in essence, this is almost a mini workstation.

The only thing I'm not a huge fan of with some of the latest Roland instruments is their design. It's just so neon and futuristic-looking, which is not very classy. Classic Roland synths had very cool and simple designs, but their stuff now almost looks like an Access Virus Ti or something, which I don't really love.

But, even with the funky design, this is one powerful synthesizer, especially for anyone looking to make powerful EDM or hip-hop music.


4. Yamaha Reface CS

It’s kind of funny how I can complain about one company's tacky, flashy design, but then I check out the competition's synthesizer and it has the design I actually wanted. That's exactly what happened with the Yamaha Reface CS.

The design is super cool, and retro, almost like something out of the Nintendo days, but still modern in its own way. I like that because it's a tribute to the great synths of the past. In this case, they've recreated possibly the greatest synthesizer of all time, the Yamaha CS 80.

If you're a fan of Blade Runner, you know that this is the synth that created all those dreamy textures. Both the original composer, Vangelis, and Hans Zimmer used the original CS 80 on their Blade Runner scores.

This one sounds pretty amazing though, I gotta say. It's what they call an analog physical modeling synth, which is kind of like virtual analog, but better. It's a very specific emulation in this case, that of the CS 80.

They have a lot of modern add-ons, like mono mode which lets you create really Thick bass and leads, and also a phrase looper, which wasn't on the original CS 80. This lets you capture ideas on the fly.

As a beginner getting into synths, this is by far the friendliest to operate. Everything is laid out on the top of the synth with great sliders, so it's mostly about playing and enjoying. So I would say this is probably the best synthesizer for beginners.

Ok, so the thing I don't love about the Synth is that they went with mini keys. It's hard to play full chords, so it's not the best if you're trying to learn how to play the piano.


5. Novation MiniNova

Back in the day when I was at Berklee College of Music, one of my buddies got a Novation Supernova 2. It was a virtual analog synthesizer, but man, it had the fattest and coolest sound I had ever heard at that time. The arpeggios were just out of this world. I was so jealous.

Fast forward to today, and Novation has brought that spirit back with the MiniNova. It sounds amazing, just like a real analog synth, but it also has a modern and sharp sound thanks to the awesome effects.

I love that they included a vocoder and even a gooseneck mic, which always makes it look pretty sweet. But to be honest, it's not my favorite vocoder out there.

Novation has never been big on vocoders. They don’t have the warmth of the Roland or Korg ones, so I was never too hyped about it.

Where I think Novation really shines is in the low-end basses and pads. This little guy has 20 digital waveforms plus wavetables and classic analog-style waveforms like square, sine, and sawtooth. Basically, you can do some incredible sound design with it, much like the Access Virus TI and the Waldorf Blofeld.

This not only makes it a great synth to start with, but if you're into film composing, commercials, or anything related to scoring, it's a monster sound creator. With so many waveforms to choose from, the possibilities are endless.

And if you're a DJ and need a small and compact synth to add to your set, this could be the one for you. It's got everything you need in one place, including the vocoder mic.


Choosing the Right Synthesizer While on a Budget

If you're just starting out in the world of synths, there are a few things to consider.

Firstly, you'll want to pay attention to the sound of the filters and the type of waveforms they have.

As a general rule, analog synths usually have a few waveforms, also known as "oscillators", and mostly use something called subtractive synthesis. This is the typical path of going from oscillator to filter to envelopes. Envelopes just change the attack and decay.

Digital and analog modeling synths have more oscillator options and sometimes include wavetables, as is the case with Novation MiniNova.

Personally, I think a lot of people are drawn to the retro sound of something like the Korg Monologue or Yamaha Reface, while others prefer a more modern sound like the Novation or Roland.

Now, let's take a look at some specific features that could help you make your decision.

Vintage vs Modern Sound

Even when you consider the vast world of plugins and emulations that exist, coming from companies like Arturia, Spectrasonics, Softube, and even Universal Audio now, there always seems to be a desire for the golden age of synthesizers, with all the classics like Moog, ARP, and other legends.

So, I feel like many synthesizers today offer a mixed bag of hybrid sounds. Behringer seems to be the only one that's doing pure cloning of other companies. I personally like it when companies that made great synthesizers like Roland and Yamaha reinvent their retro sound.

In the case of the Yamaha Reface and the Korg Monologue, they are obviously going for a vintage sound. You would choose them if you really want to own an expensive-sounding vintage synthesizer at a budget price. Nothing wrong with that.

Some synths like the Modal Cobalt sit somewhere in between. I also like that because it reminds me of that classic PPG 80s sound, retro yet bright and modern-ish. 

Ever since the Virus TI took over EDM and many electronic styles, that's been considered the modern sound. Now, most people use plugins to achieve that, but I feel like many companies are reviving that sound, in the case of the MiniNova and even the JDXi.

Features

Okay, so it's pretty clear that most of these companies are all about the vocoder these days. And honestly, they might be onto something - vocoders are super cool and have always been a staple of pop and electronic music.

As a newbie to the synth world, you'll want to make a list of must-have features that are total deal-breakers for you.

If you're all about that vocal processing, then you'll definitely need a synth with a vocoder or an audio input to run your vocals through the synth's effects. For others, having the most advanced sequencer is a must for creating dope arpeggios and rhythmic patterns.

At the end of the day, though, it really comes down to which synth is the best overall package of features and sound. And while that's totally subjective, I personally think that virtual analog synths will give you the most pleasing and satisfying sounds with the most useful features.

Key Size

If you're on the lookout for an instrument to practice your keyboard and piano skills, I've got some suggestions for you. While there might be better options out there, both the Roland and Korg keyboards have a really nice feel to them.

Learning to play doesn't necessarily mean you have to learn chords and full pieces. The Korg monologue is a monophonic synthesizer that could be a great option if you're looking for a keyboard to solo with. I mean, who doesn't love a good Moog lead solo, right? Plus, the Korg monologue is definitely an affordable synthesizer that sounds expensive.

And the best part? It has full-size keys! You can definitely count on that these days. So, whether you're just starting out or looking for an upgrade, the Moto and Korg keyboards are definitely worth checking out.

Final Thoughts

What's cool about today's budget options is that they're all different and offer lots of variety, but none of them feel like they skimped on quality to keep the price down.

I wish I had so many options when I started - just 10 years ago, the only way to make bigger synthesizers affordable was to buy the module or rackmount version, which was kind of a bummer.

As a keyboard player, I want to be able to turn knobs and slide sliders for instant gratification while I’m playing, not just fiddle around with some editor or have one modulation wheel or LFO that does everything.

So I'm really happy they've brought actual keyboards back into the mix.

Even the Boutique series by Roland doesn't come with a keyboard, but they made an accessory to easily mount it onto a 25-note keyboard. That’s one of the reasons it sold so well.

Everything has gone so digital that when you do get to play a physical instrument, you want to have fun. And if you're playing with a synthesizer, it's gotta have keys because your playing reacts to your knob-twiddling and vice versa.

It's pretty addictive, so be careful because all of these are very, very tempting.

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About Tomas Morton

Tomas is a record producer, engineer, and synthesizer enthusiast based in Pasadena, CA. He received training at Berklee College of Music in Boston and the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, CA. When not in his studio, he can often be found scouring garage sales or Craigslist ads for vintage gear treasures.

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