Because there are so many of them, it’s often a difficult process to tell what the characteristics of a great synthesizer are. It might come as a surprise, but in fact the majority of synthesizer keyboards aren’t great. Not everyone can make a Moog sub phatty and call it a day. There are a few diamonds in the rough which stand out (Roland FA-08, DS61, GAIA) but they are the exception. Not every synth is meant to be great, though there are a few common traits that most above-average synthesizers all have.
How can you tell?
At first glance, there probably aren’t too many ways in which you could tell if a synthesizer is great or not. It’s always nice if the synth actually looks good, but as we all know this is not what makes a worthy instrument. There are a few physical traits that some of the best workstations can have, but a lot of the time these things are subjective. For me, a flattop synthesizer is always better than one in any other form. This is obviously my personal preference and it likely differs from yours. So what are the key factors that tell you whether it’s a great product or not?
Reputation & reliability
A general rule of thumb to stick by is that if the synth is made by a reputable and known brand such as Yamaha, then you can know that it is at the very least a functional product. Combine that with some great reviews and the chances of that synthesizer being great skyrocket. We can’t always assume that every single product that Yamaha comes out with will be great – anything can happen and even the largest companies can make flops happen. The second part of this equation is reliability. If a synthesizer is proven to be built with great materials and seems to be durable (will hold up over time), then that is sometimes a fantastic hint that the product is great.
Perks of the synth
Under this umbrella we have things like the sound quality, features, internal components, synth engines, and so on. In general, this is the biggest ‘make or break’ of a synthesizer (i.e. biggest factors when deciding if a synthesizer keyboard is worthy). Which is most important out of all of them? It’s hard to say and opinions vary from person to person. The general consensus is that the sound quality is most important with features as a very close second. If a workstation is seriously lacking in any of these categories, it is highly unlikely that it can be described as a great synthesizer. Would you purchase a synthesizer packed with features and loaded with the best engines if it sounded of poor quality?
The price of the product is very important. A synthesizer could be great for a beginner, but that doesn’t necessarily make it great across the board. A synths ‘greatness’ should more or less be correlated correctly to its price. The Yamaha Montage 6 for example is a quite expensive keyboard (especially for a 61-key) but it is worth the price so that makes it a good value synthesizer. It is instrumental that we look for the best value synthesizer that also offers the most potential and power as well.
As with nearly everything else in life, only a small portion of the total count can be defined as great when it comes to synthesizer keyboards. There are thousands of different synthesizers in the world, but realistically less than 100 can be described as being great synths. Excellent synths aren’t all the common, but when you’re able to find them you are so glad that you did.