Synthesizers have been being used in live music ever since they were created in the 1970s. Over the years I have picked up my fair share of synths and have had the pleasure of touring with them as well. In this post, we’re going to break down the hardware synthesizer and get into which ones are best for live shows. I will break down the popular synths that bands are using as well as why they are using them.
My personal favorite synth that I’ve been using on tour for 3 years now is the Dave Smith Prophet 12. You can read more at the link above on Amazon.
The best synthesizer for live performance is going to be a synthesizer that is light-weight, easy to program, has a lot of pre-sets 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.
Best Synths For Live – Quick Overview
The Roland JDXI is a great hardware synth for hip hop music. It works for all genres, but it has been used all over hip hop hits.
The Korg Minilogue XD is a brand new synth that I am crazy about. This is the best value in my opinion.
The Moog Sub Phatty is a synth players staple. It's perfect for the low end and it is also very popular.
The Prophet 12 is the holy grail for live keyboardists. I own one and I love it, I also see it all the time while touring.
I have been touring for about 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.
The purpose of this post is to talk about synths specifically for live purpose and not for studio purpose. You don’t want to be lugging around a super expensive synth that is built for studio use.
Best Performance Synthesizers
- Warm and rich analog soundsCrytal clear digital timbresVocoder and effectsEasy programming
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 different patches very easily while performing live.
This synth is comparable to the Korg 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.
There is 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 problems with them. The key-beds are reliable and don’t break very easily.
*This synth is polyphonic
Moog Sub Phatty Analog Synth
- An authentic Moog at a ridiculously affordable price!
- 25 semi-weighted keys; 100% analog signal path
- 31 knobs and 13 switches give you direct, immediate control
- 2 ultra-stable variable-wave shape oscillators
- Square-wave Sub Oscillator in mixer section
The Moog Sub Phatty is an extremely popular synth in the professional touring level. This is known for its ridiculously fat bass tones. Moog made this as a more affordable option for touring bands. 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 low 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.
*Favorite synth for bass sounds around its price
Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 12
- Designed from 35 years of master synth buliding
- Twelve voices, highest polyphony of any instrument designed by Dave Smith
- Knob-per-function interface makes sound design easy, no need to dig through menus
- 4 Oscillators and a sub-oscilaatos per voice
- Unique character section helps shape sound
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 it being very expensive. However, this synth is very common amongst touring bands and it was built 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. 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. I actually had one of these and Dave Smith Instruments immediately sent me out a new key-bed and was very helpful.
Behringer VC-340 Analog Vocoder
- Authentic analog vocoder, human voice and strings sounds from the '80's
- Vocoder sounds that wrote musical history and inspired some of the most famous artists and bands
- Microphone input to modulate any audio signal
- Multiple-stage chorus based on legendary BBD (bucket Brigade delay) technology
- 37 semi-weighted full-size keys featuring velocity sensitivity
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 VC-340 that you can read here.
Overall, I think this is Behringers 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.
*Both Polyphonic and Monophonic options
Polyphonic Vs Monophonic Synthesizers
Polyphonic: 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.
Monophonic: 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.
If you’re a huge fan of synthesizers, but not super familiar with hardware synths, check out my guide on the best MIDI controllers here.
These are some of my favorite go-to synths for the live musician. There are a lot of different synthesizers and I hope this guide gave you some insight into the synth world.