Over the years I have picked up my fair share of synthesizers, and have had the pleasure of touring with them as well. In this post, I want to break down the hardware synthesizers I have found are best for live shows.
The best synthesizer for live performance is going to be a synthesizer that is light-weight, easy to program, has a lot of presets and of course sounds good. You want to have a synth that is versatile and can cover leads as well as cover the low end. *If you’re looking to spend a little less, check out this guide on the best synthesizers under $500 here.
I have been touring for over 6 years now and I always bring a hardware synthesizer with me on tour. I have recently switched over to using MIDI controllers, but I love having a hardware synth with me as well, but for sure some synths are better in studio than on stage. You don’t want to be lugging around a super expensive synth that is built for studio use!
Now on to the list. And don’t forget to check out Soundfly’s online course, Advanced Synths and Patch Design for Producers, and learn how to move beyond presets to create a wide array of scintillating synth sounds for your productions and performances.
Best Live Performance Synthesizers
1. Korg Minilogue XD
The Korg Minilogue XD is an incredible synthesizer that is actually not that crazy expensive. It has 4 voices and it is analog, all for well under $1,000. This is really tough to do in a legit synthesizer. If you run this synth through some FX pedals, you can create some absolutely amazing sounds. Overall, I have been recommending this option for months as it is great for pretty much all genres of music. You can add this to your keyboard rig quite easily as it is quite portable.
2. Roland JD-Xi
I am a big fan of this synthesizer because it is really portable and easy to use. It is also pretty affordable compared to some synths out there. You can navigate through the its various patches very easily while performing live. This synth is comparable to the Micro-Korg, but I actually like the JD-Xi more. You can read more about the Roland JD-Xi in our post about Roland keyboards here.
It features an analog synth engine as well as a digital one. This gives you a nice variety and gives you more options ultimately. Roland makes great synths that are durable and last well on the road. I have used their keyboards for about 6 years now on the road and I have yet to have any serious malfunction problems with them. The keypads are reliable and don’t break easily (always a good sign!).
3. Moog Sub 37 Analog Synth
The Moog Sub 37 is an extremely popular synth in the professional touring level (in fact we feature it heavily in Soundfly’s free Synth Bass for Bass Players course). It is well-known for its ridiculously fat bass tones. Moog made this as a more affordable option for touring bands, because musicians don’t want to be traveling around with the Voyager due to its price and weight.
Everything on this is analog, meaning you’re going to get that warm sound in the lows and highs. Some people are very picky will not use digital oscillators because they find them harsh on the ears. It is relatively light at 16.5 pounds and it comes with 25 keys.
4. Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 12
I currently tour with this synthesizer in my keyboard rig. Versatility and durability are the first things that come to mind. I was hesitant to bring this out on the road due to it being very, very expensive. However, this synth is very common amongst touring bands that want a solid live sound with tons of dynamics and range, and it was built strongly to be able to handle the road.
There is a live mode feature with this synth that allows you to set up a live set. This to me was a lifesaver and it really saved me so much time in between songs. You can program all of your synths and save them so you can easily change to them at your liking. The oscillators are digital and the filters are analog, and as a result of this, I think the Prophet 12 sounds extremely warm.
There is a learning curve, however, if you’re not very familiar with synths, this will definitely take you a long time then to get comfortable with. I’m still learning new things every day with the Prophet 12. Overall I love this synthesizer. It has everything you need from massive low-end to crazy verbed out guitar-like leads. I will say that the original models of this synth had a few faulty key-beds that would break easily.
5. Behringer VC-340 Analog Vocoder
The Behringer VC-340 is a great look at a vintage ’80s string machine and vocoder. I recommend this synth for musicians who are heavily into the late ’70s and ’80s bands. The biggest plus of this synth is that it’s extremely easy to use. All of the buttons are quite large and are laid out right in front of you. I recently did a full on review of the Behringer VC-340 that you can read here.
Overall, I think this is Behringer’s best synth and easily one of the better ones available for its price range. If you’re into pads and human vocal sounds, this synth will give you some serious fun.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “Emulating Boards of Canada’s Classic Synth Sound Without Breaking Your Bank (or Brain).”
Polyphonic Vs Monophonic Synthesizers
These synthesizers have the ability to play multiple notes at once. The polyphony on each synth varies depending on its engine. Polyphony simply refers to how many notes you can press down at the same time.
These are synths that cannot play multiple notes at once. You typically will see people using these to lay down bass parts or play some leads. They can only play one note at a time.
In conclusion, these are some of my personal favorite go-to synths for myself and “the live musician” in general. There are, of course, a lot of different synthesizers out there, so please feel free to share your favorites in the comments; and make sure to let us know why it works in a live setting! I hope this guide gave you some insight into the synth world.
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Chris Senner is the founder of KeyboardKraze. Over the last 6 years he has toured the country playing keyboards in the band Vinyl Theatre. He’s been playing keyboards for over 20 years and this website is where he loves to share the knowledge he’s accumulated.