Making the Best of Affordable Synthesizers

By Rob Darby on October 28, 2015


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If I had no boundaries, my keyboard collection would include a Waldorf Blofeld, a Nord Lead A1, a Yamaha MOX6, a Korg King Korg, a Moog Voyager Performer, and numerous vintage legends, such as the Yamaha CS80. But, alas, neither my wallet nor my home will allow for this, and I'm not sure it would make my wife very happy, either. So, over the past several years, I've comforted myself by researching, and purchasing a few obsolete, discontinued, and therefore relatively cheap synthesizers. I've been pleasantly surprised with the features and with the sounds that I can produce. There are some things to keep in mind if one is going “treasure hunting,” as I've done. I'm going to offer a few suggestions, and then I'll do a brief review of each of my cheap, obsolete, discontinued synthesizers.

Before you look to spend, have some idea of the features you want. Do you want in-depth programming abilities? High-quality acoustic samples? Programmable arpeggiators? An on-board sequencer. Lots of polyphony? Multi-timbrallity? Some of these features may be superfluous for you, while others may be absolute necessities. Have an idea of what your looking for. Then, visit a site like Vintage Synth Explorer (Vintagesynth.com). There you can find reviews for numerous instruments and make some comparisons. Once you've chosen a few models to consider, search out video reviews and demos for each one.

An alternate approach would be to start on ebay, or another site where non-new instruments can be found. If you're looking to buy an outdated synth, you're going to end up on such a site anyway. As you come across interesting keyboards, research them in the ways I listed above. Using Youtube, Vintage Synth Explorer, and other sites, I've learned that both the Alesis QS line and the Yamaha S30 have very decent piano sounds and enough polyphony to make it work if you plan to use piano sounds frequently. I've also learned that the Alesis QS6.1's display screen tends to burn out, necessitating a replacement. Both the keyboards I just mentioned are also very “tweakable,” though tweaking is all done with menus. No knobs on these.

If you're looking to keep the cost low, here are a couple of phrases to look for in people's ads: “Manual not included,” “No original box,” and “No power supply.” When someone puts these things in their ad, they already seem to think they don't have something that will fetch the highest price. Other sellers will simply say, “See pictures for what is included.”

Lacking a manual is no big deal. Simply search out the keyboard model and “manual.” Links to pdf files will pop up(Do this before you buy, just to be safe). The absence of an original box has never killed a sale for me, and I've never had anything damaged in shipping. As for power supplies: You might have to pay $15 for one, but you might save $50 on the keyboard.

Perhaps the most important thing is this: Don't get impatient and buy something that's “almost what I want” because you can afford what you want right now. Hold out, and save for the one you know is right.

Having offered up advice from my extensive searches and habitual “the-next-one-will-be-the-last-one-I'll-ever-need” mentality, I'll now introduce you to my synth collection, sharing the pros and cons:

First, there's my Korg X-50. It came in a Gibson guitar box, without manual or power supply. It was a STEAL compared to the other X50's for sale that day. Now, any review you read of the X50 will tell you that the keys feel “cheap.” I noticed this when I got mine, but I've gotten so used to them that I no longer think about it. Other than that, this is a wonderful instrument. You can layer up to eight performances(Korg for, “sounds”) to create a “Combination.” Each sound can be individually tweaked and assigned its keyboard range. One feature I'm just beginning to appreciate is that the X50 has two fully-programmable arpeggiators. You will not run out of sounds or ideas with this thing. It does not have an on-board sequencer (none of mine do), but it easily connects to a computer. The X50 was introduced in 2006, and I believe it was discontinued in 2009.

Next, we have my M-Audio Venom. This is my, “almost-what-I-want” keyboard. The Venom was introduced in 2011, and yes, it has already been discontinued. In fact, after much hype, it was a flop, and I think I know why. Most synths come with some decent, very useable presets. Not so with Venom. The presets are basically noise that's unusable in most music. If you have a Venom, it is absolutely essential that you download the free Vyrex Venom editor. Using the editor(for hours on end), I have been able to coax a few rather good sounds out of the Venom. My advice: Don't buy one of these unless you REALLY love programming synthesizers. By the way, the keyboard has a nice feel to it.

The latest addition to my collection is also the oldest: A Yamaha CS1X, which I recently picked up for $120. It had no manual and no original packaging, but it did come with a power cord. The CS1X was produced from 1996-1999. This is a very tweakable keyboard with quality sounds. There are a couple of cons: You cannot create your own arpeggios, and you can't turn the damper pedal off for the section running the arpeggiator. If those things don't matter much to you, this thing is great, being able to produce thick, powerful leads as well as dreamy pads. It does splits and layers, and just about anything you want it to.

 

 In closing, let me say that the bottom line, when planning to buy a cheap, obsolete, discontinued synthesizer, is that you do your research. Know what features you're looking for, and hold out for the one that has those features. Happy hunting!