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10 Reasons to Avoid Buying a New Hardware Synthesizer: A Digital Technology Expert‘s Perspective

As a passionate digital technology expert and musician, I‘ve seen countless producers and composers fall victim to the allure of expensive hardware synthesizers. While these shiny boxes can be powerful creative tools, they often represent a poor value proposition, especially for those just starting their musical journey. In this in-depth guide, we‘ll explore ten compelling reasons why you should think twice before dropping your hard-earned cash on a new hardware synth, and consider the humble digital keyboard or software studio instead.

Reason 1: The High Cost of Hardware

The most obvious downside of hardware synthesizers is their high cost relative to other options like digital pianos and software instruments. Let‘s look at some specific examples:

  • The Moog Subsequent 37, a popular analog monosynth, retails for around $1,599. For that price you could buy a fully-weighted 88-key digital piano like the Roland FP-30 ($699) and still have enough left over for a powerful software studio package like Ableton Live Suite ($749).

  • Even entry-level synths like the Arturia MicroBrute ($299) or Korg Monologue ($299) cost more than a Yamaha PSR-EW300 ($249), a 76-key portable keyboard with 574 high-quality voices, 165 accompaniment styles, onboard sampling, and USB connectivity.

  • According to a 2019 industry report by Music Trades, the average price of a new hardware synthesizer is $1,087, compared to just $511 for a digital piano.

While there are certainly affordable hardware synths on the market, in general you‘ll pay a significant premium compared to an equivalently capable digital keyboard or software instrument. For the price of a single mid-tier hardware synth, you could build a complete software studio setup with a full-size MIDI controller, DAW, and multiple top-tier virtual instruments.

Reason 2: Limited Sound Palette and Polyphony

Another key limitation of hardware synths is their finite sound palette and polyphony compared to software instruments. Most hardware synths, especially at the affordable end of the market, tend to specialize in one or a few types of synthesis and offer a limited number of oscillators, voices, and patch memory slots.

For example, the popular Korg Minilogue four-voice analog synth ($499) offers just 200 patch memories, 16-note polyphony, and a single digital effect (delay). In contrast, a software rompler like Native Instruments‘ Komplete Kontrol ($599) comes with over 13,000 presets across a huge range of sound engines, 256-note polyphony, and 24 simultaneous effects.

Essentially, you‘re paying more money for fewer sounds and less flexibility with hardware. Even top-of-the-line flagships like the Sequential Prophet X ($3,499) or Waldorf Quantum ($4,199) can feel limited compared to the infinite possibilities of software.

Reason 3: Integration and Expandability Challenges

Integrating hardware synths with your DAW and other gear can also be much more complicated and limited than with software instruments. With a hardware synth, you‘ll need to utilize MIDI cables, interface with a limited set of onboard controls, and record the synth‘s audio output separately. This makes automating parameters, syncing tempo, and doing further sound processing more difficult.

Software instruments, on the other hand, can be effortlessly loaded up as plugins right inside your DAW project, with easy access to all parameters for automation and limitless options for layering effects and processing. You‘re not limited by the number of patch cables or CV/Gate connections like you are with modular hardware.

Moreover, expandability becomes an issue with hardware. If you want to add a new oscillator or effect to your synth, you‘ll likely have to sell it and buy a more advanced model, or get into the expensive and complex world of Eurorack modular. With software, you can simply install new plugins or content packs to keep expanding your palette.

Reason 4: Maintenance and Longevity

A sometimes overlooked downside of hardware synths is the need for regular maintenance and their relatively short lifespan compared to acoustic instruments. This is especially true of vintage synths, but even modern digital designs will eventually face obsolescence as newer formats emerge and parts fail.

Servicing a synth requires specialized knowledge that most musicians lack, meaning trips to the repair shop and potentially expensive bills. Many digital synth components like screens, buttons, and internal storage are prone to failure after a few years and can be difficult to replace as the designs change.

In contrast, a well-built digital piano could easily last a decade or more with only minimal maintenance like key cleaning and occasional re-weighting. A software instrument will last as long as you keep a compatible computer to run it (and most developers offer free updates for years).

From an environmental standpoint, hardware synths also contribute more e-waste as they become obsolete and get discarded, whereas software has a much smaller ecological footprint. As technology marches on, that expensive new synth could turn into a useless brick much sooner than you‘d like.

Reason 5: Alternatives and Opportunity Costs

When considering a hardware synth purchase, it‘s also important to examine the alternatives and opportunity costs. For the same money, you could invest in more versatile and long-lasting studio essentials like:

  • A high-end MIDI controller keyboard with weighted keys, aftertouch, and tons of controls (e.g. Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S88 for $999)
  • A professional-grade audio interface with quality preamps and expandable I/O (e.g. Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 for $599)
  • Multiple top-tier software instruments that will always stay up-to-date (e.g. Omnisphere 2 for $499 or Serum for $189)
  • Other hardware formats like grooveboxes (e.g. Novation Circuit for $329) that offer more all-in-one functionality
  • Acoustic instruments like guitars, basses, or drum kits that retain value and never become obsolete
  • High-end studio monitors, microphones, and acoustic treatment for your workspace
  • Education and training to grow your production and sound design skills

Especially for beginners, your money is likely better spent building up a well-rounded software or hybrid studio than buying a big flashy synth that will only provide a fraction of what you need musically. Remember, a hardware synth is a very specialized tool, not a complete music production platform.

Reason 6: The Power of Limitations

Paradoxically, one of the greatest drawbacks of hardware synths from a creative standpoint can be their lack of limitations. When every parameter is at your fingertips and you can endlessly scroll through banks of 1000+ patches, it‘s easy to get lost and overwhelmed by the possibilities. Many electronic musicians report feeling more productive and focused when working within the confined possibilities of a basic instrument or small selection of sounds.

Embracing creative limitations, such as the finite sound set of a digital keyboard or the structure of a simple DAW template, can help you avoid option paralysis and concentrate on what really matters – the notes, rhythms, and arrangement of your music. Some professional producers even intentionally restrict themselves to a small plugin toolkit to keep their creative process streamlined.

As composer Junkie XL, who has used both analog modular and software synths, explains: "Limiting your options is a very good thing when you‘re in a creative process, because you immediately focus on the task at hand. The problem with computers and plugins is there are unlimited options, and it‘s easy to get lost."

Reason 7: The Skill-Building Benefits of Acoustic Instruments

Finally, it‘s worth remembering that the greatest electronic musicians throughout history, from Wendy Carlos to Flying Lotus, all had strong foundations in acoustic musicianship from studying piano, guitar, drums, and/or composition. Even if your ultimate goal is to be an electronic producer, developing proficiency on a versatile, expressive instrument like piano will pay huge dividends in your understanding of music theory, ear training, and manual dexterity.

As author and composer Ethan Hein puts it: "When you‘re playing the piano, every note requires a physical gesture. That visceral connection between your fingers and the sound is really useful for building your musicianship in a way that clicking a mouse can‘t duplicate."

A good 88-key weighted digital keyboard will offer far more room for growth and skill development than a synth with a small set of mini keys, no velocity sensitivity, and a singular sonic focus. If you‘re serious about becoming a well-rounded musician, it makes sense to build your fundamentals on an instrument designed for that purpose.

Conclusion and Recommendations

To summarize, while hardware synthesizers can be fun and inspiring tools for electronic musicians, they come with significant tradeoffs in cost, flexibility, longevity, and creative workflow compared to the alternatives. For most composers and producers, a quality digital keyboard combined with software instruments will deliver better value and room for growth.

If you do decide to invest in hardware, consider these more well-rounded options that offer greater longevity and creative potential compared to a dedicated synth:

  • A MIDI controller keyboard with full-size, weighted keys and a variety of controls (pads, knobs, faders, etc.)
  • A groovebox or all-in-one production station like the Elektron Digitakt, 1010music Blackbox, Novation Circuit, or Akai MPC that combines synthesis, sampling, and sequencing
  • A multi-timbral rompler keyboard like the Roland Fantom or Korg Kronos that can serve as a complete compositional platform
  • An 88-key stage piano like the Nord Grand or Kawai MP11 that delivers uncompromising keys and a selection of bread-and-butter sounds
  • A semi-modular desktop synth like the Moog Mother-32 or Arturia MiniBrute 2 that can be expanded with Eurorack modules as needed

Ultimately though, the most important investment is in yourself. Hone your musical skills, train your ears, and find your creative voice. Explore and learn whatever tools excite you and enable your artistic process. Just don‘t put the gear before the music, and avoid falling for the fantasy that an expensive hardware synth is your golden ticket to producing great work. As Quincy Jones said, "I don‘t think about the instrument. I think about the composition, the arrangement, and the sound."

Focus on those fundamentals with whatever combination of keys, software, and imagination you have at hand, and the synthesizers will come in due time as your musicianship evolves and your needs become clear. Until then, keep learning, exploring, composing, and finding your own authentic musical identity. No amount of flashing lights and dials can shortcut that journey.

Specification Hardware Synth (avg.) Keyboard Workstation Software Instrument
Price $1000+ $500-$3500 $200-$500
Polyphony 4-16 voices 64-128 voices 32-256 voices
Multitimbrality 1-4 parts 16-32 parts Unlimited
Patch Memory 128-1024 slots 1000+ slots, storage Unlimited
Keyboard 25-49 mini keys 61-88 weighted keys Depends on MIDI Controller
Effects 1-4 digital FX 10-20 FX, EQ, sends Unlimited high-quality FX
Sequencing 8-16 step, monophonic Advanced MIDI, audio Full DAW Integration
Sound Expandability Preset-dependent Sample loading, cards Unlimited plugins, samples