Three Entry-Level Hardware Synths

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Software synths may sound better than they ever have, but hardware synthesizers still have a character all of their own. If you want to start experimenting with hardware synthesizers without investing in a high-end model, check out these three small, inexpensive synths for a great introduction to the world of hardware synthesis.

Atari Punk Console

The Atari Punk Console is as bare-bones as it gets while still qualifying as a synth: it has one pulse-wave oscillator, with control knobs for the oscillator’s frequency and the width of the pulse. It comes as an unassembled kit that you’ll need to put together yourself (sets of parts are available online for under $30, or you can put together your own with parts from an electronics store), making this a great synth for anyone who wants to learn more about how synthesis works. One of the neatest aspects of the Atari Punk Console is that its simple design and small form factor allows you to use almost anything as an enclosure: you can build one inside an Altoids tin, a toy robot, even an old Atari game system. The line-out jack on the synth lets you run the audio into your DAW; from there, you can add effects to the sound or capture it in a sampler (it also has a small built-in speaker).

Gakken SX-150

The Gakken SX-150 is a step up from the Atari Punk Console, both in price (around $60) and in complexity: it includes a simple LFO, attack and decay controls, and a low-pass filter. Like the APC, it comes as an unassembled kit; all of the components are already wired to the main circuit board, however, so it’s actually easier to assemble than the APC if you don’t have experience working with electronics. The Gakken SX-150 features a simple ribbon controller interface; by playing the ribbon with the included electrode stick, you can alter the pitch of the sound to play simple melodies (the synth can also be modified to accept MIDI input).

Korg Monotron

If you’re not into building your own synth, and just want to dive into creating sounds, check out the Korg Monotron (around $60). This tiny one-oscillator synth has a minimal set of controls: pitch, LFO, and filter are about it. The filter, though, is the same module used in Korg’s vintage MS20 synthesizer, giving the Monotron the same rich tone as its high-end sibling. Because the Monotron has both input and output jacks, you can even loop audio from your DAW through it, and use it just as a filter. The ribbon controller has piano-key markings to make playing the synth (a little) more precise; it’s also possible to modify the Monotron so that it accepts MIDI input from a keyboard.