When it comes to finding the right piece of hardware for a home music studio, “vintage” and “affordable” are descriptors rarely occupying the same spaces. This is particularly true for vintage synthesizers, which have enjoyed a triumphant resurgence over the last decade, as producers of all tiers and disciplines increasingly opt for the tools that were used in the songs they would otherwise sample. Who could blame them? Mike Dean and Kevin Parker have made it painfully clear what the right configuration of IRL analog synthesizers can do for your career. And prior to their arrival, entire genres were built out of single machines (see/hear: Ensoniq’s Mirage and Roland’s Juno 60.)
As you can imagine, the renewed demand for those pieces, despite the vast array of very capable midi keyboards and controllers currently on the market, has pushed price points to ungodly levels in some cases, leaving musicians with shallower pockets only a handful of accessible options. More often than not, what’s left of the bunch is a batch of consumer-grade toys culled from a range of Salvation Army and Goodwill lobbies. And frankly, many of them sound like absolute shit.
But that doesn’t put a quality machine entirely out of reach. In fact, for the very same money you might spend on an entry-level synth — or even the always-just-short, plugins, virtual instruments, and sound packs, that have entered the market — you can pick up authentic staples of late-’70s funk, early-’80s boogie, and Chicago house, workflows. With the holidays on the horizon, we combed through demos, auctions, and listings, to find vintage synthesizers that are genuinely attainable, uniquely qualified as self-contained starter packs in any studio setup, and most importantly, actually sound good.
Producers on a budget take heed and scroll on for some worthy (and affordable) additions to your arsenal.
Made between 1985 and 1988, Casio’s CZ-101 polyphonic synthesizer is the company’s response to some of the more sophisticated machines hitting the market at the height of the ’80s synth craze. Billed as “the first digital synthesizer you don’t have to have a PhD in electronics to play,” the CZ-101 has the plug-and-play appeal of some of Casio’s cheaper models. But it shouldn’t be dismissed as a toy. The CZ-101 is fairly compact, programmable, and brimming with dreamy pre-loaded sounds for fledgling or fully-formed synth enthusiasts in search of swirling pads, zapped pianos, and thick bass tones.
A scaled-back version of a best-selling digital synthesizer, Yamaha’s DX21 (and the DX line at large,) isn’t just a solid budget buy. It’s the unsung circuit system of sprawling synth-scapes heard in the scores of classic ’80s cinema (particularly those of the dystopian sci-fi sort) and the source code for Japan’s cult electric funk offshoot, City Pop. With 128 voices loaded onto its internal memory and an early MIDI interface, the 61-key DX21 is well suited for a wide array of studio configurations. And as one of the only quality mid-’80s synthesizers that you can still cop for less than $300, it’s a perfect workflow hack.
The digital synth with analog flare, Ensoniq’s ESQ-1 wave synthesizer sits squarely between dueling worlds of sonic texture. It can emulate the warm fuzz of late-’70s Parliament anthems or, conversely, the dry and perforated pads of an ambient Brian Eno suite. Doubling as a workstation (though, in the DAW era of music production, that may be more trouble than its worth) the ESQ-1 can basically do it all. And at a very reasonable sub-$400 price point, it’s one of the best-equipped vintage synthesizers on this list.
In the early ’80s, Yamaha (via the DX series) and Roland (with their Juno line) had cornered the market for ultra-accessible digital synthesizers. Korg entered the race with their own polyphonic system in 1982, releasing the Poly-800, which boasted a number of comparable functions and a fun joystick controller for pitch bending and sustain. In 1985, the company released the beefed-up MKII, focusing on customization and modularity. Fast forward to the 2020s, a point at which all three companies are pretty evenly matched in the range of hardware offered, and the Poly-800s are still a great buy with sounds that have been employed by synth score maestro Vangelis, power pop hitmakers Duran Duran, and electronic experimentalists like Depeche Mode. Another machine that clocks in well below the $400 mark, the Poly-800 MKII is an absolute steal, no matter your area of specialization or level of ability.
Finally, a monophonic machine that’s deceptively handy, especially if you’re looking for a buzzing low end. Released in 1982 as an entry point for those with newfound synthesizing interests, Yamaha’s CS-01 has remained in rotation and developed a cult-ish backing in the 40-years since it dropped. A small and mighty two-and-a-half-octave keyboard that’s been a piece of the late Chick Corea’s onstage rig and can run on batteries, the CS-01 is perfect for sketching out lead melodies or thumping bass lines at home or on the move. It’s even compatible with breath controllers for those with Zapp & Roger ambitions.
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