Best Synthesizer & Workstation Keyboards in 2020



Korg Monologue Monophonic Analog Synthesizer with Presets-Red (MONOLOGUERD) Review:


My 1st synthesizer was a Univox -Mini Korg. That was back in '75, in high school. It was a heavy beast of wood and metal, with a beautiful sound. I also had a Univox echo chamber, that ran on a tiny 8-track tape. In the late '80s, I had a Mini Korg 2. (2 oscilators). That was a great one! I noted that Korg pretty much ignored standard synth set ups, and did things their way. The results were sturdy, well made instruments that had a dense and unique sound. They were well laid out, and easy to program. I haven't owned a synth for 20 years, after an Ensoniq TS-10 made me so frustrated, I gave it up. I happened to see this little jewel on a youtube video, and fell in love with it.It has the same unique way of doing things as the old Mini Korgs. The shortcuts to the envelope generator a great idea. The shape function on the waveforms is actually what sold me.That and the interesting LFO functions. The controls seem like they are limited, (they are, to an extent) but having to work past said limitations gives rise to better creativity. Solid build and fantastic sound. I hate to use the word "cute" in describing a synth, but it totally is!



Behringer Synthesizer (NEUTRON/BEH) Review:


You wanna make big ceiling-shaking basslines? Piercing leads? Generative labcoat beeps? Maybe some of that good constantly-evolving drone music? Maybe you just wanna move on from simpler synths and get a taste of what modular systems can do, or get better at synthesis? This thing's got you.

Oh, and it's a eurorack module if you want it to be. Comes with a eurorack power cable, just undo a few screws and drop it in a eurorack system. Make sure your power supply is up to the task, uses a fair bit of power. That should be expected from all its features, though.

It does not have a keyboard or sequencer. If you wanna do more than generative patches, you'll need either a midi controller, a computer, or a cv/gate controller to play this thing. This is absolutely fine for $300, just get a keystep or something (or just a usb cable and your DAW) to go with it and you're still looking at a system that hits way above its price.

I have a few minor gripes about it, all of which can be solved by expanding on it with eurorack modules. The delay is kinda janky sounding (has a certain lo-fi charm to it, though), the envelopes have too short a release, and it could _really_ do with a second VCA and LFO. Again though, $300, this is insanely cheap for the functionality. I don't think I could even DIY something like this for $300. Just a couple years ago you'd spend four figures for a system with comparable features.



Teenage Engineering 002.AS.001 OP-1 Mini Synthesizer Pack Review:


Over time composing, arranging and producing using a DAW has become something of a chore. The OP1 has breathed new life into my songwriting process. It costs nearly $1,000 because it is worth nearly $1,000. Is there ever price limit on creativity?

Here are my favorite things about it:

- Full end to end music production. Is it a synth, a step-sequencer, a 4-track or a production workstation? It's all of the above! There's very little competition in terms of anything else so complete yet portable at the same time (except for possibly an iPad).
- Portability. I can compose and arrange from just about anywhere. So far: on the bus, on the subway, on a plane, in a doctor's waiting room and in a train station concourse.
- The synth engines. They produce a great "low-fi" sound, if that is an aesthetic that you like.
- Sampling / Line-In capabilities. If the synth engines aren't what you are looking for, you can sample or record from the line-in (or the onboard microphone, but I recommend the line-in option)
- Versatility with external hardware/instruments. You can place the OP-1 just about anywhere in the music production cycle depending on your work flow. You can use this as a midi controller, or you can use it for its synth engines sent as an audio signal to an external DAW, or you can use it as your main work station, with external instruments recorded to the 4-track as line-ins for mixdown and mastering on the OP1.
- The cow...

Many reviews of the OP1 break its features down into individual "modules", and then compare those modules to other products. For example, its synth engines aren't on the level of other good soft synths on the market, its mixing capabilities aren't as good as a full DAW, etc. However, each of these criticisms misses the point of the OP1. It is deliberately designed to have relatively few bells and whistles to get your creative juices flowing and make music, all while being able to fit in your pants pocket!

I'm barely scratching the surface of what the OP1 is capable of, and I could go on for several more paragraphs, but I'll end by saying that I have never purchased an instrument that has brought quite as much joy as this one.

****

EDIT (September 2018)

6 months after writing this review, I am still having so much fun with my OP1, and its capabilities continue to amaze me. Here are some "hidden" features that allow you to keep as much production / mixing on the OP1 as possible without "giving up" and finishing the tracks on a DAW:

- You can use the built-in gyroscope to "wobble" the pitch of the note (similar to a Roli seaboard)- because "wobbling" the note causes the whole OP1 unit to physically move!
- You can achieve sidechain compression using an external drum beat as the sidechain signal through the line input
- If you pan one tape track all the way L, and another tape track all the way R, by recording identical parts into each and altering the relative volumes between L and R, you can place an instrument anywhere you like within the stereo field.

I'm pretty sure i'll discover even more "hidden" features as i continue to use my OP1.

***

EDIT (November 2018)

I can see a lot of price gouging on Amazon. DO NOT BUY THIS UNIT FOR MORE THAN 900 BUCKS. Wait and they'll come back in stock.

P.s. I'm still having **so** much fun with the OP-1. As I write this, the OP-Z has been released, and many people on social media are (1) complaining about the OP-Z's battery life (3 hrs max at the moment) and (2) regretting not buying an OP-1 instead.

***

EDIT (December 2018)

I take back the disparaging things i said about the OP-Z. I own one now, and it's a joy to play.

If anyone is considering the OP-Z instead of the OP-1, i now have the knowledge to distinguish them here (in case you are interested):

- The OP-Z is a sequencer, not a 4-track tape recorder. It has fewer synth engines and tweakable synth parameters than the OP-1.

- The OP-Z does contain 8 tracks, and many people think this is "better" than the OP-1. However, the truth is that 4 of those tracks are separate percussive elements (kick, snare, cymbal and sfx), 1 of those tracks is a monophonic bass, 1 is a chord track with 4-note polyphony per step, 1 is a lead track with 3-note polyphony per step, and the last one is an "arpeggiator" track, which is highly annoying and a bit useless. With the OP-1, you can layer an infinite amount of polyphony onto any track you desire, the OP-Z is definitely much more limited in what you can do (even though it has more "tracks" on the surface)

- The OP-Z is definitely a lot more portable than the OP-1. Don't get me wrong-- the OP-1 is highly portable, but the OP-Z just blows it out of the water with how tiny it is

- The OP-Z does not contain a sampler, or a line-in, limiting its role as a "full production work station".

- The OP-Z does not allow you to export the finished songs as a .wav file.

In conclusion -- if you're looking for an all-in-one portable workstation, the OP-1 is your best bet. Furthermore, I believe that the OP-1 will hold up far better over time as a unique instrument. The OP-Z is great, but it's a portable groove box that you're unlikely to actually finish a track on.

***

EDIT (September 2019)

The OP-Z now has line-in and microphone sampling capabilities in the latest firmware.



Teenage Engineering PO-35 Pocket Operator Speak Vocal Sampler/Sequencer Review:


The first time I saw a demo of the Pocket Operators - a YouTube video of the PO-12 Rhythm shot in some dreary, overcast field in Scandinavia - I was blown away. I assumed what I was looking at was just a prototype (nope) and they would rehouse this fragile-looking computer chip...thing in some actual protective case for sale (nope again). But still, it sounded incredible into a powered speaker, seemed legimiately fun to tweak and program, and cost only $60!

We've reached a total of nine Pocket Operator units now (as of August 2018), and while the various models have had their ups and downs, it wasn't until I saw demos of the PO-33 K.O. Sampler that I was "blown away" by this series the way in the way that I was when I first saw that YouTube demo and was introduced to the whole concept. Until now, each Pocket Operator seemed planted in its own little niche, but the K.O. Sampler seemed almost limitless. A credit card-sized sampler that can actually sample 40 seconds of audio via on-board microphone OR 3.5mm line in? Powered by 2 AAA batteries?!? For less than $100?!!?

Of course, you can't triangulate affordability, quality, and depth of features without making some compromises, and there are important limitations you should know about the PO-33. But I find it to be that rare case with music gear where an affordable piece of hardware with notable shortcomings on paper turns out to be much more powerful and enjoyable once you actually get it in your hands.

SAMPLING ENGINE & SOUND QUALITY:
There really are quite a large number of ways to get sound onto the PO-33 and then move them around and edit them once there, so I will try to keep this short. The PO-33 is an 8-bit sampler, which basically means that it has a fraction of the digital "information" contained in a note from a 12-bit sampler or a 16-bit Compact Disc, for example. While I found it to be entirely capable of clear, detailed notes, it does reveal a gritty, raw character on many sounds, particularly when you turn it up. This may come across as "bitcrushed" or even "chiptune", depending on the type of sound involved, but this is consistent with the character of the overall Pocket Operator series. In some cases, the 8-bit audio engine creates a cool, driven effect, but I do have to admit I've struggled with it trying to sample a lot of sounds with the Line In jack - particularly bassy sounds like an 808 Bass Drum, which becomes fizzy and almost unrecognizable. Crisper or higher pitched sound better, and you can work with filter/resonance control to try and improve this further.

The face of the PO-33 has 16 numbered buttons. These represent both the 16 steps of the sequencer, as well as the 16 "banks" for sampled content. Banks 1-8 are "Melodic" samples. By selecting one of these 8 banks, you get control over 16 notes, representing two octaves of a "harmonic minor plus one" scale. (The original sample/root note is located at the "5" key, and one octave lower on the "13" key, so the scales mirror each other on the upper and lower halves, which is nice). This is a bit of a strange decision by Teenage Engineering, as many of their other melodic Pocket Operators were locked in a C Major scale, presumably so those new to music could just mash in notes and play things in key with multiple devices. More on that in the "Workarounds" section later.

Sound banks 9-16 are for "Drum" samples, but here's where it gets a little weird. The default way that "Drum" banks handle samples are to listen for transients and "slice" up 16 samples of different sounds to be laid out as buttons 1-16. So if you sampled a 3-second clip of an "Amen Break", or whatever, it would (in theory) grab different kicks, snares, and hats, and lay them out as 16 triggerable samples. That's potentially very cool, and you CAN adjust the start point and length of each slice, but it isn't a very repeatable or dependable way to set up a new kit. What you can do as an alternative is to copy and paste individual hits recorded as melodic samples into the slots of a "Drum" kit, though that takes a bit of doing.

The way that you sample is to hold down the red "record" button and then either make a noise into the microphone OR play a sound through the left side 3.5mm audio jack. The quality of the resulting 8-bit audio is a mixed bag. Some of the synth notes I tried to sample into the K.O. had a noise floor going on that made them almost unusable. At the same time, I was amazed how clear and dynamic the extremely small on-board microphone picked up noises. As an example, I banged an empty soda can on the table, figured out that the note I made with that was close to a C#, and then made a whole melodic loop out of...banging a can on a table. That's an absurd example of what you could do much more effectively with your voice or an actual instrument.

One minor annoyance is that while the sample doesn't record until it senses a certain noise level, you do have to hold down two buttons at one time, which then makes it hard to produce whatever noise you are making with your one free hand.

SEQUENCER:
I won't say too much about the sequencer because if you are familiar with Pocket Operators, it is very similar to how the other units work. I also think the sequencer is the glue that holds these units together and converts them from "adorable music toy" to "surprisingly deep sub-$100 musical instrument". Although each pattern is only one bar (16 steps in 4/4 time), you can program 16 of them and then chain them to repeat in any order over 100 times. It's almost embarrassing how much more powerful the sequencer is on Pocket Operators versus some "serious" music gear costing 5 times as much. And it's full of hidden tricks, such as the ability to set up to 8 note re-triggers per step. (Start playing a sequence, program a note, and then hold the button for that step while pressing the BPM button to cycle through re-trigger options).

EFFECTS:
The effects options in the PO-33 K.O. aren't as memorable as some of the other units in this series (notably the PO-20 Arcade and especially the PO-32 Tonic), but they cover the basic needs of a sampler and get the job done. You have low- and high-pass filters and resonance control for each sample. There are 15 different effects (plus an "erase" key on "16"), though most of these are variations of stutters and loops. It's still a lot of fun for live performance, and you automate different effects and control parameters within a sequence.

LIMITATIONS & WORKAROUNDS:
In researching the PO-33, I came across a few pretty major limitations that I feared might sink the device. However, thanks to the overall depth of features, and some clever workarounds to defeat these weaknesses, I find that the K.O. Sampler overcomes them.

Probably the most major limitations is that each SAMPLE slot (of which there are 16) is monophonic, while the overall polyphony of the device is limited to four samples played per step. What this means is that if you load "Drum" Bank 9, you can't play a snare and a hi-hat from that bank on the same step. You also can't layer different pitched notes from a single "Melodic" sample on the same step to make chords. I believe the PO-33 prioritizes "Melodic" hits over "Drum" hits. However, you can play multiple "Melodic" samples from different banks at the same time, or individual drum hits from different banks, provided the total number of sounds does not exceed four. You can also copy instruments from the "Drum" banks as individual melodic samples, and the K.O. functions much more like an actual drum machine in that way.

The limitations on the scale are another annoyance, but there's an ingenious workaround I came across online that should allow you to play in any major or minor scale:

Minor scale: The note you sample becomes the root note of the scale, playable with the "13" button. The remaining notes of the Minor scale can be played in this order: 13-14-15-16-9-10-11-5

Major scale: Sample a note that is 3 half-steps or "semitones" lower than your intended root note. So, if you want a C Major scale, sample an "A" note, and then the root "C" will be on the "15" key. The remaining notes of the Major scale will be on these buttons: 15-16-9-10-11-5-6-7.

It sounds convoluted, but try it and match it up to a piano or other instrument for reference, and you'll immediately hear the notes of your scale!

SUMMARY:
I'm leaving out a ton of features, but the bottom line is that this is a very full-featured sampler that's just a lot of fun to use, and extremely affordable. By comparison, the Korg Volca Sample is nearly twice the price, holds just a bit more sample data (65 seconds vs. 40 seconds on the PO-33), and you cannot load any samples onto it without a computer data transfer. It's really the ability to sample anything, anywhere with such a small (albeit fragile) device that propels the PO-33 K.O. to new heights. Its limitations of a piece of hardware are noteworthy, but the musical possibilities with it are endless.



Yamaha REFACE CS Portable Analog Modeling Synthesizer Review:


Honestly, really amazing keyboard in my opinion. Having bought the Reface CS, I'm loving the versatility and portability of it. It's very easy to just pick up and play, especially if you consider buying it with the Yamaha Keytar Attachment (which I did). In which if you do, gives you the ability to walk around and stilll play. One thing I really enjoy most about it though, is the aux port. Pair this up with an iPod/mp3 player of some sort, and you're good to go. Personally what I did, is grabbed just a bit of white velcro, and attached a small mp3 player on the very left side. This way, you have an option of keeping things like backing tracks/songs to jam to easily accessible to your Reface.

In general, I'm very new to Piano/Keyboard/Synths and was previously messing around with a Rockband keyboard, using a 5Pin MIDI to USB connection to access VST's (sounds) from a couple demo's of DAWs (Ableton/Bitwig Studio). But if some people are saying "this" is a toy? I'd highly disagree haha. The Reface does not at all feel like a flimsy piece of plastic, with mushy keys. Unlike the Rockband Keyboard..

I can understand how some people might not like the minikeys, but as a newcomer. I really do not see any reason why they would be such an issue. Maybe for someone with much larger hands? But then again, not really because the keys are definitely still wide enough to fit most fingers. I think generally, most people are just way too used to full size keys and are frustrated in adjusting which shows in their reviews. To that, I don't think I'd call that a "fair" review at all, because if you did adjust I don't think it would have even been an issue. Aside from all of that, a plus side to mini keys I'd say, is you can stretch farther to reach other keys. I can see how with some practice, having that extra reach can really benefit your playing. Also, if they did actually decide to fit full size keys onto this, there would most definitely be less range, or the Reface would just end up being larger. Which wouldnt be cool in my opinion, because the fact you can even still play this on the plane if you wanted is pretty amazing.

Other features/things to keep in mind:
- Battery Operated (6AA Batteries, which last around 5hours. Better to use Rechargables. I use Amazon's High Capacity Batteries, paired with a Panasonic BQ-CC55. You definitely wanna make sure you have a good charger, so you can help preserve the life of your batteries.)
- Comes with an AC Adapter (if you do not want to use batteries.)
- SPEAKERS (They can be very loud, and the bass response is incredible for how small they are. I'd still be cautious about "blowing" them though. Since every speaker does still have a chance to break, the more you push them to their limits.)
- Soundmondo (Works best with iOS devices. But is also bleeding edge technology so it may be a bit buggy sometimes, just keep that in mind. Also make sure to use a printer cable if connecting using Windows/Android, you'll have the most luck with that.)
- Yamaha's MD-BT01 (Bluetooth connection for iOS apps/soundmondo.)
- Headphone jack (Pretty standard, just make sure you have a 1/4" plug/adapter for your headphones of choice.)
- The CS is the only one without velocity sensitive keys (Not sure why this is, but it is velocity sensitive over MIDI.)
- The CS has no onboard patch memory (Soundmondo allows you to save patches on the app/website, so not a huge deal. Plus, if you wish to perform live I personally feel like it's much more entertaining to see someone who knows exactly how to create a sound all from memory, on the fly. You also learn more about Synthesis as a whole i'd say.)
- They can all be paired with an expression pedal (The Yamaha FC7 I believe)

Obviously each Reface has some varying degrees of features, but one common theme between all of the Refaces, is being able to fine tune the sound, and play around with it anywhere you go.

Basically, whichever Reface you choose I really don't think you can go wrong. $300, is also honestly the best price you could probably ever ask for in something like this. There is absolutely nothing out there like this. Would be cool to see more of these in the future.



Otamatone "Deluxe" [English Edition] Electronic Musical Instrument Portable Synthesizer from Japan by Cube / Maywa Denki, Black Review:


THIS THING IS MASSIVE HAHAHAHA

I recently got the original edition as a birthday gift, and instantly fell in love with it. It is tiny and adorable and fun to mess around with, but then I saw that theres this beast, and I was just like "well if I want to be the very best at annoyance with odd instruments, then I gotta have this"

The package took in all four days from ordering it to arrive, and I was surprised by how well packaged it was. There was no way this could be damaged unless it was tossed from the empire state building, and all the objects it could hit in the way down.

And size? Dang this thing is huge. I was actually not expecting it to be this thing, but its the size at which I can wear it like a damn saxophone. A beautifully annoying saxophone that belongs in an episode of Spongebob.
It hits all the notes perfectly, and has a much better volume slider than its younger version, not to mention an aux jack. Now that, that is going to allow for me to be the true demon of Odd Instrumental Annoyance

For the price I've paid, I feel I definitely got my money's worth.



Stylophone Retro Pocket Synth Review:


This instrument is indeed entertaining and will serve its purpose. The shipping was earlier than I anticipated for which I applaud. The condition and durability however, is quite vulnerable in terms of cosmetics. Upon opening, I discovered that the metal board was already slightly pre-scratched which doesn't bother me as much but the board will accumulate more scratches regardless of how delicately the stylus is used. The Stlophone logo covered by the film will lose its chrome finish upon moist abrasion such as sweat leaving black marks where the letters are. The switch for the three different sounds requires more force to move than the power or vibrato switches. Be careful not to bring electronics such as phones near the Stylophone when it is in operation for it will generate static. The tuning peg at the back is easy to access and offers smooth turning. The MP3 and headphone jacks allow more ease of access and private use as well. Sound is not an issue because the device has an integrated speaker which can reach very loud sounds. The device is also constructed of a durable plastic disregarding the flexible speaker cover but is also prone to scratches. Voice modulation one is also flatter than the other modulations. Some overall modifications I would like to see is the vibrato switch replaced with a button of some sort and the voice option switch to be easier to move. Overall, the purpose of the instrument is well served and at an appealing cost as well. I look forward to doing more business in the future.



Yamaha REFACE CP Portable Electric Piano and Vintage Keyboard Sound Engine, Synthesizer Review:


I held back on buying this for quite some time, wanting an electric piano like a Wurli or Rhodes, but not having the space for it, nor the available funds for expensive auctions. I had thought about going all DAW (Arturia and NI have great emulations as well as Logic X); I had thought about going with a higher end electric piano, but size is a big issue for me, as I only have a home studio and that's constrained to a small space in my apartment.

This keyboard has the tones I wanted, in a physical device that fit my space. I know that in my DAW I can get the tones I wanted, but the form factor here makes this portable enough so I can sit away from my studio (say on my couch) and jam out. I am planning on taking this to work and playing when I need a break. It was easy to drop into the mix, it kind of cuts through the mix out of the box without much from the mixer or DAW.

What took me by a pleasant surprise was how decent the speakers are. After hearing volcas and roland boutique speakers, I just assumed I'd need headphones (which this sounds quite gorgeous with btw) - the speaker sound is a bonus treat for the player. But for couch-surfing piano playing, the speakers do great. I think it'd be hard to hear them if you had a gig with other musicians and it'd be hard to hear if the person was in the back of a place... but it has flexible routing for i/o that makes it easy to adapt for the space you're playing in.

The stomp-box style effects are good - although I think the drive could be a bit more crunchy. The wah only sounds good to me in the Clav setting. The tremolo was great, kind of giving me a bit of control over the attack. The chorus is lush, i prefer the phaser. Both the delays were above expectation. The reverb is nice, adding richness, but don't expect the best from the reverb. I'll probably stick a reverb pedal at the tail of this to get a really rich shimmer.

The CP's got a good high and low tone, but i'd keep the tone set more to the middle, where it really sings. In my "sea" of analog and digital synths, drum and groove boxes. The keys are small, like any mini keyboard, and work as a midi controller. but vice versa the minijack midi has a splitter, so you can also hook in your midi controller of choice if you have stubby fingers or the muscle memory that makes using this harder.

Overall - i'd go with it as is. That's what made me buy it - out of the box, with nothing added just by itself - it is a great electric piano.



Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol A49 Controller Keyboard Review:


I've looked a lot online for reviews about the Komplete A25, and because it's an entry/mobile level for NI keyboards many reviewers were talking about the basic stuff like the click sound of its buttons and the build quality.

What really surprised me is how integrated this midi keyboard is with Maschine MK3 and Maschine software. I expected and seen a lot of reviews about the SW compatibility, but owning this device with the MK3 is a totally different level of integration! I'm able to control the MK3 screens for browsing, plugin selection, and manipulating sounds all from the keyboard. Clicking record or play on one will light the same feature on the other and so on.

So, in short, if you have a Maschine MK3 or similar, buying Native Instruments keyboard will make all the difference in terms of compatibility and ability to control multi-devices from any hardware.

Very glad I bought this one!



Stylophone Beatbox Review:


Great beatbox. Unfortuately, mine came with stuff on the metal keys and this product supposedly is inspected before being shipped out?! Stylus length is good, but feels tight at times. Sometimes it won't stay in and I have to fiddle with it. However, this is a great buy. Has nice samples. Makes jams on the go for easy fun. Buy it if you want something a little more classic especially when paired with the original stylophone. Being able to loop it is one of the best things ever with this thing and is good for layering beats. Simple design makes it very east to use for a beginner or someone that just wants to focus on their melodies and beats without all the hassle of effects.