Music-making gear is now more affordable than ever. Whether you’re making a first-time purchase or adding to your studio, there’s synths, drum machines and effects on a budget to suit your needs. Scott Wilson and John Twells pick some of the best for under $350.
As good as music software is right now (and it’s very good), there’s always going to be a market for outboard gear. Looping rhythms in Ableton Live and experimenting with effects chains is engaging and rewarding, but there’s a world of possibility and beautiful failure available when you start to look beyond the flickering screen.
Just a few years ago, getting your hands on synths, drum machines and effects units was a costly and confusing experience. New instruments were typically very expensive, and buying on the second-hand market has always been a minefield where you can get burned by rip-off merchants or faulty equipment.
Over the past few years, physical music gear has undergone a renaissance. Big companies such as Korg and Novation have reinvigorated the hardware market with reissued classics and new concepts, while boutique operations such as Bastl Instruments have proved you don’t need a huge development team to make great, affordable instruments.
Unfortunately, figuring out the best affordable gear can be a difficult process. Whether you’re looking for a synth, drum machine or effects unit as a first-time purchase or an extra toy for your existing studio, this list of new gear and reliable second-hand favourites should help guide you in the right direction.
Arturia MicroBrute ($300 new)
Arturia’s MicroBrute packs a surprising punch given its modest price tag. It’s only monophonic (meaning you can only play one note at a time) but there’s a great deal more to it than just one fully analog oscillator. As with the iconic Korg MS-20 synthesizer, there’s a convenient little patchbay that allows the user to connect the synth back into itself, or hook it up to other external gear. It makes the Microbrute a great starting point for anyone looking to start a collection, and the fact that it’s got its own step sequencer built in makes it an unbelievably good deal. If you want to get acid house-style sequences rolling, it won’t be a problem.
The best thing about the Korg Volca synths is that they’re incredibly cheap. The sound of the Volca Bass (a TB-303 clone), Volca Keys (a micro synth) and Volca FM (FM synth) is great for their tiny size, and though they lack the punch of some of their fatter competitors, Korg has made it possible for artists to create delicate pads, resonant leads and chunky bass for very little money. There’s intuitive step sequencers built into each unit, and they all have dedicated sync jacks that makes getting a whole family of Volcas to work together in time a cinch. If you want a full hardware setup on a budget, Korg’s collection of tiny synths are the way to go.
Critter and Guitari Pocket Piano ($175 new)
There’s no shortage of bleepy, noisy oscillator boxes on the market, and they’re usually fairly inexpensive. The main issue is that once you’ve used them a couple of times they lose their appeal, and there really isn’t much you can do with a box that generates a squealing tone other than use it as a perch for another piece of gear or a coffee mug. Critter and Guitari’s Pocket Piano is different. It twins the weirdo squeal of those nameless boxes with a series of keys and an arpeggiator so you can turn chaos into beauty at the press of a button.
Bastl Instruments Kastle ($65 new)
Modular synths are everywhere right now, but building up a system can cost as much as a family car. However, Czech boutique company Bastl Instruments has created the Kastle, a modular synth that runs off four AA batteries and costs under $100, allowing you to get a taste of what it’s like to create one-off sounds with tiny patch cables for a fraction of the price of even a modest Eurorack rig. If you’ve already got a modular at home, it has standard CV connections so you can cause additional sonic mayhem.
Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators ($59 new)
Teenage Engineering’s range of Pocket Operator synths look like a calculator cross-bred with a Nintendo Game & Watch machine, and they’re every bit as fun as that sounds. The six models cover everything from bass to vintage arcade game sounds, and their LCD screens offer a suitably quirky animated representation of your music. Their lo-fi sound is befitting of the modest $59 price tag, but you’re not going to get anything as unusual as the grin-inducing sounds of the PO-16 Factory and PO-28 Robot from Roland or Korg. If you need a gift for the musician in your life, look no further.
Too young to have bought a Juno-106 or JX-3P first time around? Well, thanks to Roland’s Boutique line you can buy your own version of the long-discontinued classics without having to look to eBay. These new versions take their cues from Korg’s Volca synths, reducing them to a compact module that you can plug into a bespoke keyboard dock or any MIDI controller. They’re not real analog, but once you start playing with one you’ll quickly let go of any scepticism – they’re much more practical than a Volca and their polyphonic engines sound better too. Add battery power, a step sequencer for making patterns, and you’ve got a powerful, portable instrument.
Yamaha DX-series keyboards and TX-series modules ($100+ used)
A few years ago it was all about analog, but now FM synthesis is having a bit of a revival thanks to genres such as vaporwave. While second FM synth prices have gone up, you can still pick up Yamaha’s underrated gems for far less than vintage analog synths, and you’re less likely to sound like everyone else. While Yamaha’s DX/TX series are notoriously hard to program, there’s no software that will ever accurately emulate the TX81Z’s unmistakable ‘Lately Bass’ patch. DX7s have been steadily crawling up in value over the last few years, so grab the rack-mounted TX802 if you fancy a similar sound for a fraction of the price. If you can grab a Yamaha DX200 for cheap, you’ll have really hit the jackpot – marketed poorly, it absolutely flopped when it was released, but it’s actually a brilliant (and surprisingly user-friendly) synth/sequencer combo that’s basically got a DX7 under the hood.
If you’re feeling flush: You can’t do much better than a Korg MS-20 Mini ($600) if you’re looking for a synth to totally take you down the rabbit hole. If you fancy dipping your toe into the weird, wild world of modular synthesis however, Moog’s Mother-32 ($600) is a reliable first step. If money’s no object, then take a look at Dave Smith and Tom Oberheim’s OB-6 ($2,999) and Moog’s Minimoog Model D reissue ($3,749).
Avoid: eBay overspending, cheap tone generators.
Sitting alongside Korg’s Volca synths are two devices dedicated to nothing but rhythm: the Volca Beats and the Volca Kick. Both are incredibly capable devices for their size, especially the Kick, whose analog engine packs almost as much low-end power as Roland’s classic TR-909 or TR-808. The percussive tones of the Volca beats aren’t quite as exciting as what you’ll hear on other more expensive models, but the step sequencers make it fun and easy to stitch together intricate patterns. The Kick even has swing control for adding a more human touch.
Novation Circuit ($329 new)
Novation’s Circuit isn’t just a drum machine but an all-in-one groovebox with two synths inside as well. While you can play each instrument using the 32 LED pads, their primary function is to control the Circuit’s built-in sequencer, which allows you to build a track from scratch in minutes. Some of the included sounds and effects are a little on the cheesy side, but you can add your own samples to turn it into a tiny MPC and use it as a controller for other gear. Experienced producers might struggle to get much use out of it, but the Circuit’s price and ease of use make it an ideal purchase for beginners.
Boss DR-55 ($150+ used)
Released back in 1980, the Boss DR-55 only has four sounds (snare, kick, rim shot and hi-hat) but what it lacks in variety it makes up for in punch. Boss was Roland’s budget range, so unsurprisingly the DR-55 sounds very similar to the early Roland rhythm boxes. The programming is very basic, but it’s an easy piece of gear to modify (if you’re into that sort of thing) and the clock output means it can sit side-by-side with plenty of other older gear and keep everything in check.
While its more popular bigger brothers might be totally out of most people’s price range, the humble TR-707 and its Latin twin the TR-727 can be picked up for relatively little money. The small grey and orange box isn’t a million miles away from a real TR-909 (the hats and clap are almost indistinguishable) and there’s plenty of fun to be had for a fraction of the price.
Roland R-8 ($150+ used)
The Roland R-8 might look a bit grey and dated now, but looks can be deceiving. If you want it to sound exactly like the TR-808 or 909, that’s no problem at all – there are ROM cards that will sort you out. The best feature, however, is the drum pads – and as anyone who’s used one will be able to attest, to be able to play an 808 kit on pads, relatively inexpensively, is nothing to be sniffed at.
Cheaper options: Drum machines don’t come cheap, but Bleep Labs Bleep Drum ($85) is as good as they get for less than a hundred bucks, and if you’re still sad that you can’t afford a real one, you could always console yourself with a TR-808 USB flash drive ($40).
If you’re feeling flush: If you want a Roland drum machine, the TR-8 gives you all its classic machines in one unit for $499, while the TR-09 is a 909 reissue you can fit in your pocket for $399. If you want the best, Swedish experts Elektron offer the highly prized Analog Rytm for a mere $1449, or you could take a peep at Vermona’s all-analog DRM1 Mk III ($600) for an alternative that doesn’t sound like anything else on the market.
Avoid: Zoom drum machines – they’re cheap but don’t think you’re going to be able to sound like Jeff Mills.
Moog Minifoogers ($140-200 new)
These tiny little black boxes will make an instant difference to whatever you want to blast through them – keyboard, guitar, drums, vocals, it really doesn’t matter. There’s a real analog delay for those of you desperate to re-imagine the Stars of the Lid catalogue in the safety of your own studio; a ring modulator for the wacky Mouse on Mars sounds; overdrive if you’re feeling like dropping an outsider house 12”; tremolo for the Skrillex wobblers; and a boost for those of you actually using real instruments (ugh).
Strymon El Capistan ($300 new)
There’s only one real problem with tape echo – it’s bloody expensive. We all love the way a good RE-201 Space Echo sounds, but at a corking $700 and rising, it’s not always the easiest piece of gear to acquire, never mind acquire in good working order. Far more friendly on the wallet is Strymon’s cleverly monikered El Capistan, which does a surprisingly excellent impression of the old machines. Apart from the usual depth and speed of the delay, you can set the age of the tape and even which sort of machine you want it to sound like. This is the kind of multi-tool you’ll end up using on everything, whether you like it or not.
Boss RC-202 Loop Station ($300 new)
If you have experience of making tunes on a computer, you’ll be familiar with loops. However, you don’t have to be confined to Ableton Live – a hardware looper will allow you to bolt together looped sequences on the fly, and a lot more. Boss’s RC-202 is basically an update to the industry standard RC-30, providing two loop tracks and built-in effects. It might usually be seen as an investment for the live performer, but the RC-202 is a more than capable studio tool, and it’s easy to forget how much it helps to have something sat away from the screen that you can quickly hash out ideas on.
Strymon BlueSky Reverb ($300 new)
It’s Strymon again, and while there are a lot of great rack mount reverb units available, the BlueSky is, for the price, just about the best sounding reverb you can get at pedal size. It’s rich and spacious, and the perfect addition to the studio if you’re absolutely sick to death of tinny software echo. Even the spring reverb function sounds pretty great – something you usually learn pretty early on is near impossible to emulate. A decent reverb can make all the difference whether you’re producing rap, rave or rampaging noise. Don’t be put off because it doesn’t do a little song and dance.
Boss SD-1 Super OverDrive ($50 new)
Every producer needs a good overdrive unit. It’s one of those rare sounds that’s almost impossible to fake, and the Boss SD-1 is cheap and cheerful yet fantastic sounding way of achieving it. It’s very simple to use, but you’ll instantly hear the difference between this and any software alternative. The point of overdrive is to make something sound scratchy and crap, and the binary precision of a plug-in just doesn’t cut the mustard. Using a fancy distortion pedal and routing it back into the computer can often lead to unpleasant, squealing sounds (they’re usually built with amplifiers in mind, not mixers) so plumping for an overdrive instead is usually the best option.
Cheaper options: Boss pedals are already cheap as chips, and can often be scored for even less if you hover around second-hand music shops.
If you’re feeling flush: Strymon’s Big Sky ($479) goes where other reverbs simply can’t reach and the TimeLine ($449) is about as good a digital delay as you’ll find. Otherwise get scrolling down the listings for a genuine RE-201 Space Echo ($700+) – there’s really no substitute for the real thing when tape’s concerned.
Avoid: The Boss RE-20 Space Echo clone – the only thing it’s got in common with the original is a paint job and a name.
Many thanks to Daren Ho at Brooklyn’s modular synth superstore Control for assistance.