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I have an electronic piano with nicely weighted keys and a midi out, but I want to play 80s music with my band and it doesn't have the right sounds.

I need a fairly cheap (sub £300) synth/synth module. It has to have a nice interface to be able to switch voices during gigs, and it has to have at least 10 voice polyphony.

Any suggestions?

  • If you could give us the model it would help, but seeing as it has midi output you can probably control a synth from it. Also, do you specifically want synth hardware or would computer software suffice? – player3 Sep 12 '14 at 5:31
  • I would prefer hardware, my laptop is very old. – Keir Lewis Sep 12 '14 at 5:48
  • I would look into rack style synth modules, they have a MIDI input you hook your keyboard into. For specifics, FM synthesis was pretty big in the 80s, so that's a good place to start. Look into it. A while back I got a used Yamaha TX81z rack-mounted synth for about $50 that does great 80s style sounds, probably because it came out in '87 (famous Lately Bass: bit.ly/1AF3w28). Look for used synths from that era, there are tons and they all usually accept MIDI input. The Roland Juno series might also fit the bill, and they have modern versions of it as well. They cost a bit more though. – Charles Sep 12 '14 at 6:56
  • What do you think of the Roland jv 1080? – Keir Lewis Sep 12 '14 at 9:09
  • If you are asking me, I don't have personal experience with the Roland, but it's got a great reputation (see link). It will be a little more expensive than the FM type rack modules I mentioned, but will probably be a lot more flexible. vintagesynth.com/roland/jv1080.php – Charles Sep 13 '14 at 3:23
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Yes you can control any synth with a MIDI input with your electronic piano. Don't worry about the range, the range of a synth (128 notes at the very least) is bigger than the keys in your keyboard (88 keys in the bigger ones).

If you want cheap 10 note polyphony, the cheapest option I can think of is the Novation MiniNova. In good quality synths you'll hardly find something cheaper, but it's still a robust system.

Another popular option from that price range is the microKorg, but it only has 4 note polyphony.

There are a lot of options from there on. Check synth listings like this one. You won't find cheap analog synths with that polyphony, so you want to search for analog modeling, virtual analog, or digital synths.

  • @KeirLewis Yes. It has 10 note polyphony, MIDI in, and you can carve an 80s sound with it (you can carve an 80s sound with pretty much any synth). If you are planning to buy it compare it first with other synths from its price range, make sure you are not missing something (a model with more oscillators, more routing options, maybe a vocoder, etc). – Lyd Sep 12 '14 at 5:57
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I am excluding from my answer new synths with built-in keyboards. That would broaden things too far into the area of product-recommendation. Suffice to say there are lots of MIDI keyboards on the market, and all of them will function as a MIDI sound module if you want to control them from a different keyboard.

Other than to say you want to play 80s music, you don't say much about what kind of sounds you want to produce -- and that's going to play the biggest part in what you want to buy. Bleepy analogue solo sounds? Warm analogue bass? Lush pads? Cheesy FM leads? Do you want high quality presets, or do you want to craft your own sounds? These are all factors that will influence your choice of synth.

In the words of a forum post I found somewhere, "software synths have pretty much taken over the low end world". £200 will get you a laptop that's more than capable of running most software synths. The cheapest Dell/etc will do. A second-hand laptop a couple of years old will also do the job.

In Windows, there is a wide range of software synths provided as VSTs - a standard plugin format. Many VSTs are free, or just a couple of pounds -- although there are also VSTs that cost hundreds of dollars.

You plug your VST into a program that can host it; and there are many. One such is VSTHost, again free, which takes a bare-bones approach to routing MIDI notes to VST sound sources.

There are similar tools for Macs.

This approach gives you lots of flexibility to try different types of synthesis. Unlike a hardware synth, which does what it does and nothing else, your laptop can be a twittery analogue synth one minute, an FM synth the next, a sampler the next, or all of them at once.

If your keyboard has a USB socket, then you're ready to go -- the sound will come out of your PC's sound card.

If your keyboard only has a DIN type MIDI out, then you'll need to buy a hardware MIDI interface, and now you have a choice -- a cheap one that just converts MIDI to USB? Or a posh sound card with MIDI as a bonus? See How necessary is an USB Audio Interface?

You can also hook up your MIDI keyboard to an iPad, in which case there's plenty of soft synth apps, including the bundled GarageBand and the excellent Sunrizer.

If you are dead set on using a hardware sound module, without a built in keyboard, you will probably find yourself restricted to high-end rackmounts that are out of your price range, or second-hand modules.

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You don't actually need another keyboard. I use a Roland JV series,which is the 'brain' of a synth, without the keyboard part - much smaller, easier to store/carry. There are cards available which fit in, to give an extra 200+ sounds each. MIDI in/out, so controllable with your existing keyboard - and cheaper, as no keys.

  • What do you think of the jv 1080? – Keir Lewis Sep 12 '14 at 9:10
  • I sometimes use XPs for gigs - love them, but need a piano feel as well, so take another board, but MIDI into JV-1080 and use its sounds too. Love the cards, don't often make my own sounds. It works well, and is rack-mountable.A few about on Ebay for around £100. – Tim Sep 12 '14 at 9:28
  • Forgot to mention, my electronic keyboard already has a nice piano sound, as well as a couple other basic ones like e. piano and strings, so I'll look into xps – Keir Lewis Sep 12 '14 at 9:32
  • XPs have been at £300-£400 for last few years. Great tools, organ type action, so I basically use decent Roland pno for well, pno, and MIDI it to XPs. Better for playing Hammond type stuff on XP, although you can put in whatever sound you like, of course. – Tim Sep 12 '14 at 10:46

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