A lot of people said it: I said it some time ago, and just the other day, my buddy @scatterfilter said it:
Cheap tabletop synths are fun. #Boutique
— scatterfilter (@napadude) July 24, 2016
It’s a good time to be buying a (new) synthesizer. There’s a wide spectrum, and they’re relatively affordable.
Which immediately begs the question: what is “affordable”? What are you bound to spend on your next (or first) synthesizer?
A good question.
I did what I always do in those situations: I go window shopping on the website of a large instrument shop in the area.
This post does not contain any kind of buyer’s advice. It’s more of a top-level statistic.
First, I went through the category keyboard instruments -> synthesizers, picked all subcategories, safe for software stuff, peripherals, accessories, and modular components. I wrote down manufacturer, name, price, grouped them into categories, and put that info in a spreadsheet to play with.
First, we have the sound engine. Categories are analogue/analogue hybrid or digital.
Then, there’s the type. I differentiated between workstations, drum-oriented synths, mono synths, and “everything else” (called synthesizer for simplicity).
And finally, the package. There’s ultra-small (up to 2oct), small (up to 4oct), normal (5oct) and large (>5oct; it contains 6- or 7-octave synths) for keyboard synths, modules (which are things which don’t have things on it to play it), pad-oriented (like drum machines) and “other” (which is a catchall for a lot of stuff, including bass pedals).
No, there’s no “rack expander” package. Those things are gone for good.
A category that did define itself is the maker.
Filters (not the synth ones)
I decided to throw some things out. Firstly, colour (or other trivial) variants had to go. And furthermore, there’s no place for gold-plated limited editions, either (thus swiftly eliminating a rather trivial monosynth for nearly thirteen-thousand bucks).
The top-level data looks like this:
156 is a cardinality that allows us to make some proper observations all right.
The minimum and maximum prices of 44 vs. 5799 tell us that the most expensive one is more than 100 times more expensive than the cheapest one. That is by no means a surprise – if I look, for example, at acoustic guitars, trombones (or anything else for that matter), the range is about the same.
The average, standard deviation and median show us that it’s a rather widespread distribution with its center of gravity towards the left side.
To have a look at the spectrum, i.e. at which prices you’ll find the most synthesizers, I depicted that in a kinda-histogram display with a step size of 10, both with a bin size of 10 and a sliding window of 50.
The first major peak happens in the 130-160 range with 7 devices in total. The next bigger peaks happen between 300-320 (8), 450-500 (10, for the highest peak in any 50€ range), and 990-1000 (6, for the highest peak in a 10€ range).
Repeating peaks then decrease constantly, not dissimilar to a basic oscillator spectrum, with recognizable bins around €1500 and 2000, respectively, before we have the last recognizable peak at €4000 (which is the highest price for all but one synth in the spectrum).
Cardinality and Price Range by Categories
Now it’s time to put the categories I did define previously to use: depicted here are the price range (rounded to €200) and the number of devices in each category.
Here, I decided to mark those lone rangers, i.e. synths which are at the end of the price range and terribly far away from the next-most-expensive (or -cheapest) synth. I used it if the outlier differed by more than 20% from the next in the list, and that one in turn did differ less than 10% from the next in line.
A few things are immediately noticeable:
- The lowest range up to €200 does not offer anything for people wanting a proper (even mini-sized) keyboard, and consequently, for those who want a workstation. All other categories have something to offer in the lowest price range.
- If you want to get top models, then drums are the cheapest: the drum-oriented synth type (and no surprise here, the pad package as well) all give you their top model for below €2k.
- Those outliers immediately lead to two findings that, if phrased without the full information, may come as a surprise: Mono synths are more expensive than polysynths. And synths with a seven-octave keyboard are cheaper than those with only five (and not more expensive than those with three).
- For the lowest price in each category, there’s at least no surprise: the top-ranking categories are workstations for type, and large keyboards for package.
Considered separately, let’s look at the manufacturers’ shares (of which there are 33):
Place one goes to Korg with 27 entries; not a surprise since they compete in every type and package category. Korg is also responsible for the cheapest entry with their Monotron, and one of the highest safe for the aforementioned outlier. They obviously aim to cater to everyone’s needs here.
Place two goes to Roland with 18 entries (if we count the single Boss entry along), and they are leading the Synth category. The first surprise comes with Dave Smith Instruments in place 3: with 12 entries, they finish one entry ahead of Yamaha, and that even though they only give us analog (hybrid) synths and one drum machine. Together, the top 4 provide ca. 45% of the entries here.
There is a different picture if we look at prices above an arbitrarily set 1000 bucks: the top 4 then get shuffled with DSI leading (10), followed by Yamaha (8) and Korg/Roland tied with 5 each for third place.
Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be a critical mass for entry into the market: the largest group (with 7 entries) are manufacturers who currently only supply one synth. The smaller companies are grouped up to a top of just six entries, before there’s a jump to place 4’s eleven.
Type vs Package Matrix
If we look at the number of entries in each type-package combination, it’s also interesting to see that with the exception of two cases, all of the non-trivial (i.e. non-empty) subsets have at least three elements: meaning that in every combination that makes sense, you have a choice between at least three competitors. The trivial cases also make sense: there’s no monosynth with a large keyboard, no drum synth with a keyboard, and no workstation with a keyboard smaller than 5 octaves, or with only drum pads.
Those two exceptions deserve further attention: one, the only monosynth with a five-octave keyboard, the Moog Voyager XL, has also come to attention before, namely for being the most expensive synth here. By a margin.
The second exception is the only workstation that does not have a large keyboard: the Teenage Engineerong OP-1. This ready-to-go embedded production environment for electronic music has held a firm place in the synth community every since its release – but I believe that with the competition of mobile phones, phablets and tablets, competitors consider the market saturated (which tells us quite a lot about just how good this thing is).
Results and Conclusions
First of all, the availability of 156 different products, more than 45% of which are analogue, reinforces not only my previous statement that this is a good age for analogue synths, but maybe for synths in general.
Taking about cardinality of subsets for our categories: the smallest subset with 7 entries is that of synths with up to two octaves of keyboard (which any pianist will agree is seven too many); everything else gives you 12 or more.
Of the more than two (or almost exactly two, if we leave out those outliers) orders of magnitude in price range, most categories alone cover almost one and a half, with two noteworthy exceptions, both of which can’t be considered a surprise:
Going from 250 to 500 bucks without outliers, the ultrasmall keyboard synth has the smallest range; but you typically want a larger keyboard, anyway. If you want a large keyboard, your range is 1000 to 4000, also no surprise as those physically bigger synths also come with more inner values.
The Japanese Big Three, nonsurprisingly, hold 3 of the 4 top spots. From those, the true jack of all trades is Korg that caters to each and every demand. Interesting is DSI’s move from just a niche company just a few years ago to one that holds place 3 in total and place 1 for the above-1000-bucks range for number of entries.
More than 60% of the entrants are in the range below 1000 bucks, and more than 30% are below 430. And with the exception of traditional, large-keyboard workstations, you can get one from each category for below 1000.
The most important peaks in the spectrum are first in the 150-170 area, then at 300, then again at 500, and again at 1000. Peaks then decrease at 1500 and 2000 respectively, before we get the last big entry at 4000 for a combo of both workstation and all-analogue synth top models.
The Analogue Revival
Yes, it’s there all right. Following first the monosynths and drum synths, today we have the choice among quite a variety of polysynths. 18, to be precise, and they’re starting at a mere 280 bucks!
Is there really no buyers’ advice? – The Conclusion
First of all, no, not really. I won’t look into what you get for your money and pick a winner.
That being said, this is what I consider the main results:
- Analogue (mono)synths come in all prices and also sizes (well, not sizes – a new 12-voice poly isn’t there – yet). What’s more, decent all-analogue sound engines with potential for serious use are available for below €200.
- Yes, the things start at below €50. However, to get a decent (and by that, I mean at least five-octave) keyboard synth, you’re forced to spend at least 650 bucks.
- The big and mighty workstations still are the most expensive ones – at least when it comes to starting and average price. No surprise here.
- Drum synth/machines can, once again, be had in a huge variety. No, my personal pick is not a buyers’ advice in this context.
- Korg is the most interesting synth maker. DSI has shown tremendous growth.
And with that, why not have a look at a synth today? As someone who has bought a total of four synths in less than a year now, I can truthfully say that there’s still some interesting options around which I don’t own…yet.