+ Ryan Lott (of Son Lux) teaches how to build custom virtual instruments for sound design and scoring in Soundfly’s new course, Designing Sample-Based Instruments.
Every musician needs a little synth in their life.
… Now that that terrible joke is out of the way, let’s actually talk about portable synthesizers for a bit.
Tiny synths are great for creating music in locations and situations where accessing your full drum kit, guitar (plus amp, cables, accessories), or even expensive concert instruments like cellos and bassoons, might not be possible or smart. You can’t just pull out your instrument in the middle of the subway and start writing (unless you have the deep desire to be hated by strangers). But you absolutely can whip out a tiny synth, plug in your headphones, and go to town.
The same goes for musicians who regularly tour and want to create music consistently on the road and in hotels and green rooms.
So we’ve handpicked seven of our favorite portable synthesizers, and well, you can’t go wrong with any of these options. Check out our list below! 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.
1. Make Noise 0-Coast
Measuring at an impressively tiny 5.5 x 9 x .75 inches, Make Noise’s 0-Coast is a chic, well-designed single-voice patchable synth. Drawing from both Moog and Buchla paradigms, this mono-synth operates via circuit to circuit, and therefore can be operated without patch cables through a single MIDI controller.
2. Korg NTS-1: Tekt
This versatile synth and multi-effects engine built by Korg packs a lot into a small, portable package. If you choose this synth, you’ll be required to assemble it yourself, but no soldering is required; putting it together is an easy, fun project to take on that’ll help you appreciate its engineering. The Nu:Tekt NTS-1 digital oscillator produces sawtooth, triangle, square, and VPM waveforms, and the customizable nature of the synth gives you the power to shape sounds to make them your own.
3. Roland Boutique JP-08
The Roland Boutique JP-08 is an excellent synth delivering the sound and functionality of the legendary Jupiter 8 into a device the size of a book. Unlike some compact synths, this model comes with a small MIDI keyboard that makes spontaneous music creation easy. This device retains the iconic sound-building functions of its predecessor with a couple of new extra waveforms and an expanded VCO range at a fraction of the size and weight.
Unfortunately, this model has been discontinued, so if you want to get your hands on this tiny synth, you’ll have to track down a used model.
4. Arturia MicroFreak
This nifty little synth features digital oscillators with analog filtering, and an interesting flat keyboard design that has no moving parts, and is therefore easy to carry around without it getting damaged. The Arturia MicroFreak boasts customizable modes like Wavetable, KarplusStrong, Harmonic OSC, and Superwave that allow creators to tweak sounds exactly to their liking.
5. Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators
One of these various video-gamey devices can literally fit inside your pocket and they’re all quite affordable, so if you’re new to the music creation game and looking for your first synth — or even just a fun, productive toy to play around with — picking up one of these bad boys is highly recommended.
Unlike other portable synths, each Pocket Operator boasts a different sound capability ranging from bass to drum machine to lead synths. They’re designed to work great as standalone instruments, with one another, or other instruments. Plus, they’re downright adorable, aren’t they?
6. Doepfer Dark Energy MK3
The Dark Energy III is a 100% analog standalone synth, aside from its USB/MIDI interface. With polished wooden side panels, this synth looks a bit more stylish and durable compared to its tiny contemporaries, and delivers sounds built from a classic VCO / VCF / VCA structure with an ADSR envelope and two LFOs.
7. Waldorf Blofeld Desktop Synth
Packed with over 1,000 sounds, the Waldorf Blofeld Desktop Synth features a graphic display to help you navigate its massive sound and effect library. You’ll find less synth-shaping options here as other portable models, but you may not mind with so many instruments to choose from. Plus, this model comes with a programmable arpeggiation pattern per sound with up to 16 steps.
One of these tiny synth options might not fill all your music creation needs, but with smaller sizes and price tags than conventional instruments, you can always pick up more than one.
Don’t stop here!
Continue learning with hundreds of lessons on songwriting, mixing, recording and production, composing, beat making, and more on Soundfly, with in-depth artist-led courses by Kimbra, Ryan Lott, Jlin, RJD2, and the newly released Com Truise: Mid-Fi Synthwave Slow-Motion Funk.