Open Mic: How Do You Decide What Gear To Buy?

We live in a great time for synth lovers.

There are more companies making synth gear than ever. Many classic synths continue to evolve, in great synths from companies like Dave Smith Instruments, Moog Music and Oberheim. There’s an insane variety of modular synth modules available. And software synths are getting cheaper and showing up on new platforms.

All this great gear and software, though, raises a problem: what to buy? You could go broke buying gear, and still just be scratching the surface of what’s available.

I bought gear impulsively for a few years – until I realized my music room was getting crowded and something had to go if I wanted to get anything new.

Now, I’m trying to hold out for instruments that represent the best in class for various types of synthesis. For example, a large format modular synth, with modules from MOTM,, Encore Electronics and others. Or a Yamaha DX-5, which is one of the great 80’s FM synths.

A lot of musicians look for gear that their favorite artists use – so that they can perform with those same types of sounds.

How do you decide what gear or software to buy? And what’s next on your list?

46 thoughts on “Open Mic: How Do You Decide What Gear To Buy?

  1. I choose gear based on the project I’m involved in. I look for things that follow a few basic criteria: An immediate, visceral inspiration from both the sound and the physicality of the instrument (the “interface”); Something that doesn’t have immediate “cultural connotations”, that is, something maybe less used in popular music thus far; and something with an innate set of limitations which not only gives the instrument more character but forces you to be innovative.

  2. I’ve got all the guitars/basses I’ll ever need (though I am considering repaneling some Strymon), so I’ve switched to doing mostly DIY analog stuff. Potential gear is judged by how useful it will be with my modular. That means that stuff like the Minibrute, Tetra, Mopho, Minitaur, etc.

  3. “something with an innate set of limitations”

    That’s an interesting comment. No company ever is going to advertise the limitations of their keyboards, but you can get lost in endless features and novelty and end up never learning your instrument.

  4. 1 – Do I truly need it?
    2 – Does it do anything that I can’t already do?
    3 – Is it actually worth the price?

    This simple set of purchasing filters keeps my home studio very functional and tidy.

  5. I try to be as objective as possible when thinking about which piece of equipment I want to buy next. The main questions I ask myself are:
    – What does it do that I can’t do with one of the things I already have?
    – Do I really, really need those features?
    – Are those features worth the price?
    – In which way would the device enhance my workflow?
    – What role would it have in a new song?
    – Do I have enough room for it? (i tend to overlook this one, but it’s important nevertheless)

    Of course, this questions are quite obvious, but I have made the experience that it is important to let them sink in for some days/weeks – or else I’ll just end up buying lots of equipment that I don’t really need…which I do anyway 😉

  6. I’ve found it’s always best to read the manuals on new gear before buying.
    For me the two questions are:
    1. Does it do something I need?
    2. What are it’s limitations, and what things does it do that i don’t need or don’t like?

    Usually, ‘things I don’t like’ are the stuff that is in the fine print on the manual.

  7. For the most part, I design my own instruments in Max. But when I buy physical interfaces, I often look for what will give me the most streams of input data for the most reasonable price–the Korg Nanokontrol was only $35 when I bought it, and that has probably been the most cost-effective purchase I’ve ever made–nearly 150 knobs/buttons/sliders when you take the scene configurations into account.

    With hardware, though, I try to play the instrument first and see if it will do anything more efficiently than I can do with Max. I’m starting out a modular system because I love the immediacy, but I’m only probably going to buy certain out-there specialty modules, as with a MIDI-CV converter and a CV-MIDI converter I can essentially design the modules on a computer anyway. So essentially, in hardware I look for something that can manipulate a ton of computer data at once or something that achieves an end difficult to achieve on the computer.

  8. Space and time are two important factors. You need the first for storage and the latter for learning the “new” gear. If you don’t have both then you’ll be better off with what you already have. Of course, software is a solution for the lack of space, but you can’t touch it and it looses it’s worth, unlike hardware! On the plus side, you don’t have to dust a software synth – easy maintenance – and it’ll sound as good as your DACs. Also, the available money at a given time could be a serious constraint… If I was a rich man, lalalalalalala 😀

  9. I’ve got a mostly MU-format modular. Some days I just wanna sound like Klaus Schulze, ok? 😉

    1. To be honest, all of us are probably trying to recreate some of the magic of our synth heroes.

      I working on the ultimate Berlin school modular sequencing setup. It may take me a while, but I’ll get there eventually!

    1. I’m still figuring out stuff about my Kurzweil K2500. If I’d stopped buying new gear, though, while I figured it out, Roland and Korg would probably be out of business.

      1. Yeah, there’s a gray area between “done nothing but dick around with presets” and “memorized sysex dump format”… 🙂

  10. 1) Does it duplicate anything I already have? At this point, the answer is usually Yes, as I pared things down to just a couple of hardware synths and Logic’s EXS24 sampler. My work flow gradually shaped itself, after the usual MIDI spaghetti hassles and the like, which you learn over time.
    2) If its unique, or a useful new twist, what will it cost me in floor or disk space, added heat generated and time in which to explore it enough to make it a valuable piece of my kit?
    These days, my greatest satisfaction has come from new soundsets by Camel Audio, Puremagnetik and Soundware 9. They’ve given me added vertical growth without spreading across every square inch like things did when I was wrestling 5 synths and a rolling rack. I’m still getting used to the fact that you can have a library in a bloody iPhone and play it from a controller, but the benefits are huge.

  11. 1) is it a Moog? If so buy it now
    2) is it vintage or analog?
    3) does it work?
    4) does it /need/ a computer? If so don’t buy it
    5) does it look awesome on stage? 😀

  12. Speaking of Yamaha DX5’s I just bought one and its OUTRAGEOUS! Been doing a lot production in the box and starting to branch back to more hardware and loving it. Why buy what is an endless debate that I have been struggling with for the last 30 years (bought my Mono/Poly when I was 18 cause it was the cheapest synth you could get, I think) Today is the best time ever to be a musician especially an electronic one. Endless choice. Who could complain. Check what was available and the prices in 1982.

  13. I lean towards American gear. You can’t beat the sound quality of synths from companies like Moog or Dave Smith, and they are built solidly.

    Everybody else is making plastic keyboards that are hard to use until they finally break.

  14. I choose my gear based upon:

    1- user interface. If it is a powerful synth with an unusable UI, I won’t buy it… Not worth the trouble. Also, I tend to stay away from synths that will eventually be tethered to outdated computers, or will require payed upgrades in the future… They also suck. (the only exceptions being my NI maschine and the Access virus TI.
    2 – is it fun and immediate? Do I vibe with it? Everyone has their own way of making music, and gear should facilitate that. My synths need to fit into my workflow. Personally, I prefer knobby analogs and modulars, gear with either a keyboard or sequencer attached (no sound modules), and stuff with MOJO. Synths that sound unique due to their features or limitations. For example, My mono Evolver KB has a distinct sound, 4 built in sequencers, extensive midi features for playing with other gear, and looks bad-ass. It is completely different than anything else out there, and sparks my creativity every time I use it.
    3 – Will it hold it’s value? Is it a future classic? For gear that is non-essential or expensive, I always try to keep this in mind. My Voyager XL and Shadow Hills preamps are amazing but non-essential studio pieces. If the going gets tough or I don’t vibe with them, I know I can sell for a good amount, years later.
    4 – Does it do what I need (vs. what I want)? – Everyone wants a giant monster modular, Wretch machine,, and an AKG c12 (don’t we all?) … But DO I NEED IT? Will it bring in more clients? I learned this the hard way. Sometimes that money and energy is better placed elsewhere else (like promoting your business, tweaking your website, attending functions, paying the bills, etc.) Don’t put the cart before the horse.
    5 – Do I deserve it? Have I made enough cash from music that this makes sense? Am I REALLY using what I already have to its potential? The way I see it, most people would benefit more from lessons or practice than the latest gear.

    Current gear list for me: Voyager XL and little phatty,, DSI mono Evolver KB, Virus TI2 61, NI maschine, the holy Elektron trinity, OTTO biscuit, 9u euro modular, eventide verb, E-MU MP7, Korg ER and EA1, Jomox mbase 01 and m-resonator, Roland V-synth kb, MV-8800, MPC500, Future Retro Möbius and XS, Macbeth M3x, Numark ns7fx, 2 iMacs and a MBP, Lavry BLK conversion, Manley tube mixer, SM7b, some old Oktava mics, some 500 series pres, tons of plugins, 88 note midi controller, Korg wave drum, tama rock star kit with old crappy cymbals, more…. Mini brute on the way ( future classic for sure! )

  15. My decisions are usually made around what the item does to add to what I do. If I feel it’s a ground breaking tool , then I go ahead and make the purchase. Most times I have to fight myself because I always want what’s the NEW THING. But by simplifying the tools I have I become more productive. My future purchases are more centered around controllers these days……

  16. One other thing is that I want to move away from using the computer for software synths and use it more like a tape recorder.

    There’s a lot of unproductive upgrade hassle that you get with computers and software synths. That gets old and I just want to plug in a keyboard, play it and have audio to work with.

    It’s more fun making sounds on a hardware synth, too, and it seems like it’s easier to make good sounds.

    The other thing I find is that when I’ve got midi and a software synth, I always want to tweak the track when I open it up, instead of just committing to something and getting on with it.

    1. Same here. Maybe it’s just my uncomfortable computer working place, but sitting in front of the screen somehow lacks the spontaneousness I feel when I stand in front of my hardware – or, so to say, sitting at my computer always feels more like work instead of fun.

      On the other hand, I think that working on the computer has massive advantages as soon as I have to do mixing – for this production stage I would never abandon software.

      As always: both worlds have their advantages 🙂

  17. Something else that should be considered is that my computer-based music program needs are pretty damn well satisfied. If you own NI Komplete and the East/West CCC, that covers such a huge swath of computer-based synthesis/sampling that it makes me turn my eye toward more outboard stuff. I really don’t need any more softsynths, no matter how cool the UI.

    Ok, maybe if it’s from Rob Papen.

    The same thing applies to software FX. Maybe some people have the need for 37 different compressor models. I don’t. And if I want tube saturation, I’m going to, you know, saturate a *tube*.

  18. for synths

    1 how much bang i can get for my small budget.
    2 can i do alot with it, even a casio keyboard when processed through my electribe can sound beautiful, so i dont need a virus (even though it would be awesome) to make creative sounds.
    3. is the piece of equipment inspiring and unique to add something to my workflow.

    sometimes people say that digital synths have no character, but thats not true… i ean when you spend 700 to 1500 bucks on one, no they wont but if you spend below $400 the variability in parts and qualitys make all cheap synths sound different, so sin wave is ever alike!

  19. sorry to disappoint some readers but there is no such thing as “best in class”

    roughly 80% of the music i see people on youtube making with super expensive modular systems sounds unoriginal, static, and musically inept.

    if you cant make up your mind on what to get next you are already wasting time. whats at hand is whats best (that is, if youre a musician). technology has far surpassed the point where anyone with an idea can get the cheapest piece of crap computer and be limitless. if you have a fetish for shiny metallic objects in your studio maybe just start a dildo collection.

    yea yea….just click dislike and be on your way

    1. I think that maybe you are unaware of a few things, but maybe not… 🙂

      Those super shiny expensive synths are unique (just like different plugins are, I know), but what they possess that plugins don’t are unique tactile controls, gain staging, better timing, UIs, and a sense of personal connection with the user. True, you can make awesome music on anything (if you know what you are doing), but it is much more fun/easier/fulfilling when standing in front of a purpose-built instrument.

      That said, I use TONS of plugins, AND I’d agree that the most cutting edge shit is and will continue to be software/DSP based. There aren’t a whole lot of new ideas in the realm of analog subtractive synthesis…

      “Best in class” can in fact be quantified: by features, sound quality (with digital gear like VA synths this is especially true and scientifically measurable), usefulness to a majority of targeted customers, User interface, build quality, and the concept of exclusivity. Owning a rare synth or one made by a small company in limited quantities makes the instrument more desirable for many reasons. Owning a custom purpose-built modular guarantees that your methodology and workflow are unique to you as a musician.

      As for the Youtube comment… many of those guys making unbearable noise with their modulars and 30k Buchlas do so on purpose. I know many guys like that. They approach music differently than someone making more traditional stuff. To many of them, they are more interested in making unique sounds (no matter how bizarre), slow evolving drones, subtle timbre changes, the science of sound, or for the primal/child-like connection have with their noisy toys. Many of the features we take for granted on synths nowadays came from freaks and nerds like those guys who are un-apologetically different. Different is good.

      But… yeah. Most of those guys are spoiled rich brats who think they are geniuses because they figured out how to make a LPG bongo sound. Can’t argue with that one. 😛

      But shiny is good sometimes. I own lots of “Shiny”. But I am a guy who makes the majority of his money from music. “Shiny” allows me to get more done the way I imagine it in my head. There is nothing wrong with hardware, even expensive stuff. I worked hard for it. I could have bought a boat or a new car. Instead, I bought some expensive synths that does close to the same thing as some pirated software. I don’t regret that decision, ever. Everyone needs to do what makes them happy, ya know?

    2. “anyone with an idea can get the cheapest piece of crap computer and be limitless” Bwa Ha Ha Ha Ha!
      You’re pretty funny, dud. Wait, you were SERIOUS?

  20. Well I’m looking at being the next Skrillex so I’m just gonna buy whatever he has. He’s just the best thing since nut warmers so he can’t be wrong.

  21. the setup that works for me:

    – a drum machine
    – a sampler
    – a sequencer (and a sound module to sequence, possibly the same piece of gear has both)
    – a lead (that I play over sequences, usu. a piano or synth lead)
    – a bass (to give depth, like a mopho or minitaur)
    – a vocal setup (w/ or w/out effects like vocoding, etc.)

    Some pieces of equipment cover multiple areas. I try to buy cheaply and equipment that has the most bang for it’s buck. I really like the Korg Electribe EMX-1. It does drums and synths. I use it as a sequencer for my other sound modules and I think the options for tweaking attributes leaves you with infinite possibilities.

    Lastly I buy things that look like I will have fun with. I think that’s the point, for me anyway. I bought the DSI Mopho and it’s my favorite toy at the moment.

  22. Honestly, the question of “need” disappears after a studio is equipped with a single poly synth. After that, you’re just fooling yourself into not feeling guilty about dropping the cash by rationalizing it. Do kids question the amount of toys they own? No. Neither should you! Of course, the more synths you have, the less of an impact a new one will make on your music making. However, if bringing new gear into your studio generates a new track, it’s probably worth it. I think the real, much more difficult question is knowing when to sell gear.

  23. I ask myself one simple question:
    1) Is it a CASIO CZ-1?
    If the answer to this question is “yes,” then I buy it.

  24. I have a simple rule: does this inspire me? does it make me want to press the “record” button? if the answer is yes and the price is right … 🙂

  25. For me it is about balancing sound and practicality. Inspiration can be found in even quite awkward interfaces – so long as they are unique to your standard workflow.

    Example of practicality – I bought a TX81z last year. Very cheap. I loved the way it sounded and I was excited about its design. Great! But then I plugged my interface in and I get ‘buffer overdrive error error error’ with even the slightest tweak. Impossible to use for that reason. Similar with the Oberheim Matrix 6. Great sounding synth but practically very awkward. The same with the DSI Mopho KB. Decent synth but honestly, why do I have to use a menu to sync the oscillators!

    The really big thing that I did notice was that I always gravitate towards the worst bit for kit in my studio. The one I’m getting the least joy out of – because I want to justify it being there by miraculously ‘cracking the code’ and unleashing it’s power. It never works. Sometimes you have to cut your losses and stick to a few bits of kit that you know inside and out.

  26. Well My rig has stabilised due to the following;

    I HATE bags of wires etc so i have made numerous boards what have all of my equipment permanently cabled and secured on them , these boards are sized to fit EXACTLY in a Ford Fiesta boot…no more no less 🙂
    so any gear has to either replace something on these boards , merit being part of a NEW board or possibly be a stand alone piece of equipment that will offer me portability or something that the others dont

    therefore my last two purchases were a Gibson Echoplex because it fit nicely under my mounted korg electribe, taking up no new space…and a ROM for my command station to give me better pianos when out away from my weighted one.

    next two purchases will probably be a Korg EMX and and Electron Octatrack to use initially as individual pieces before probably being grafted onto yet another permanent install board.

  27. A basic instrument teaches you to play, good instrument enables you to progress, a great instrument inspires you to create.

    I look now for synths that have “the sound”. I want an instrument that I can play in addition to program. I want knobs and tactile direct control of the sound….and it has to be clear, easy to navigate so that after some study and practice I can quickly set up patterens and presets to allow a flow of creative expression.

    I choose quality and innovative gear that errs on the side of sound, useability and expression rather than bells and whistles. Cost is a consideration but I don’t buy gear just because it’s cheap….and I don’t buy gear just because it’s expensive. It has to function and inspire me to grow as a musician and artist. I study gear carefully and play as many different instruments as possible and hear it used by others…read reviews…watch youTube demos, tours, originals and unboxings…its a process…

    price v available budget
    price v ease of use
    price v “fun factor”
    price v portability/accessibility
    price v capability

    basically, is it worth the price to do something NEW with your projects with this new piece of equipment.

    also, best places to go, music stores, sure they’re salesmen, but they’re sure going to point you in a direction you want to go, they may not give you the best thing for you, which is where the research comes in handy on your own time through blogs, and websites much like synthtopia and just google reviews on equipment, also websites like guitar center and places like that, exploring through the subcategories, you find new equipment you’ll like. and also… YOUTUBE. the related videos and performance videos and things like that are perfect to branch out to new things!

  29. This year I’ve bought, sold(or returned) the most gear I’ve ever had the chance to test drive in my life. The deciding factor has always been: Is it a pain in the neck?
    unfortunately the keyword is(sadly enough): ERGONOMIC

  30. Simple, make your choice based on the style of music you produce. Example I just chose the MFB Nano (smallest one) over their higher end ones because I want gritty mono sounds. I would have no need for a Prophet 08, I would never use the 8 voices, a Tetra for me would also be too much but I love my Doepfer Dark Energy and my x0xbox – make your choice based on what you are likely to get the most use out of.

  31. •treat the room. (can’t make music if you can’t hear.)
    •Gorgeous sound. (not necessarily a flagship item)
    •Fast workflow. (hardware: knobs instead of sysex or submenus. nice layout. software: low learning curve. minimal menus.)
    •Low latency. (Hardware: i can reach out and grab a knob. No sub-level functions. Software: zero tolerance for latency. Music is time based — no buffers to mess with!)
    •Direct connection to the hardware. Microprocessors should not get between a knob and an analog circuit. No MIDI stepping. Do it like Rudi Linhard, or go home. No memory is better than one that makes access difficult.
    •Great converters. The best hardware synths sound worse than emulators if your ADC stinks. Early digital gear sounded great!
    •How many design compromises were made in manufacture for price? Can it be fixed with a mod? Is it cost-effective to do so?
    •Will it work for a long time? Can you afford to fix it when it breaks? Are there enough knowledgeable techs still living that know the vintage item in question?
    •Do you curse yourself when you have to move it up the stairs?
    •will it hold its value?

    I’ve been chasing the moog 900 series sound, which has caused me much grief, and filled my studio with half-working instruments. Better to use what you’ve got and love the result. I’ve sold a lot of things that were more useful to buy holy grail items. I later missed the useful piece more, and cursed my greed.

    All this is for nothing if you don’t educate yourself to make great music, and discipline yourself to work consistently.

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