Russell is a sound producer and songwriter. He deals with digital pianos and MIDI controllers on a regular basis so no wonder he knows everything about them.
Last updated: February 21, 2021
Play Piano Tips is reader-supported. We may earn a commission through products purchased using links on this page. Learn more about our process here
Play Piano Tips is reader-supported. We may earn a commission through products purchased using links on this page. Learn more about our process here
Do you love ambient music? Well, one of the instruments that play a crucial role in making these magnificent tracks is a synth. There are many different synths on the market, which makes it hard to find the best one, especially if you are not familiar with those instruments. Fortunately, our team is here to help you to make an informed decision!
What makes the best synth for ambient? When making this list of top-rated picks, we considered multiple vital features. These include the signal and max polyphony number that tell you how it sounds, as well as the type of keyboard to ensure that it provides you with the required response and is comfortable to play. Additionally, you will want to check the sequencer, oscillators, and connectivity that offer flexibility and give you more room for your creativity. Do you like to learn more? Read on to find our top picks!
"This is a portable option that manages to still come with almost everything that you might want in a synth. It has a proper control panel and gives excellent sound.37 keys with swift action and aftertouch.Selectable monophonic or paraphonic.256 presets."
"This synth offers impressive tones and is very easy to use. If you are looking for something to use for live performances, then you will enjoy this model.37 keys with velocity.18-note polyphony.256 onboard sounds."
"This unit combines the high-quality nature of products from the manufacturer with a tight and modern look to be one of the best synths for ambient.49 semi-weighted keys with velocity and channel aftertouch.6-note polyphony.500 permanent and 500 rewritable user programs."
"If you thought an FM synth was hard to use, then you haven’t tried this model. It is built for convenience and gives you a warm, nice sound.37-note semi-weighted Fatar keybed with aftertouch.8-note polyphony.128 projects, 2048 patches storage capacity."
"This is an affordable workstation that integrates a powerful sound engine and comes with expandable memory.88 graded-hammer full-size keys with velocity.128-note polyphony.16 different instrument categories."
"The depth and quality of this unit are the absolute best at this price. It is available in a compact and lightweight design.49 weighted keys with aftertouch.25-note polyphony.1024 onboard sounds, 128 multi-programs."
The Moog brand is undoubtedly one of the most popular and revered brands in the industry. Right from the start, it is clear that this is a magnificent model that will be very difficult to defeat in terms of performance. It is a superb unit, with Moog not sparing any expense in making this the crowning jewel in the brand’s collection.
The first thing to notice is its reasonably small design. Therefore, you will find it easy to carry around with you if you need something to use on the go. Despite the portable size, though, this is a full-fledge synth. It comes with almost all the features that you might want in a synth.
Apart from the nice design, it comes as a high-quality paraphonic model. Also, it has an impressive keyboard with swift action and aftertouch.
Another nice thing here is the control panel because it is easy to use and understand. And the sound is simply fabulous.
What we liked: This is a portable option that manages to still come with almost everything that you might want in a synth. It has a proper control panel and gives excellent sound.
What could be better: You must keep in mind that a few users reported receiving a damaged product. Thus, it’s recommended to check it as soon as you get it.
Up next is yet another unit from a notable brand. The Novation brand is one of the more popular brands on the market and is the major maker of compact synths that still give plenty of power.
Right out of the box, it is easy to fall in love with this unit. It comes in a lightweight, compact form, which is excellent for anyone looking for higher portability. Although the keys feel small, you will get used to them.
You get a variety of ports on this unit, ranging from the MIDI in/out to stereo jack and AUX, among others.
The core of the synth is the powerful Synth star. Part of what this will give you are 256 in-built sounds. Also, you get wonderful sound performance. The control panel is easy to use, and you can change sounds rather quickly and easily.
What we liked: This synth offers you excellent sounds and is very easy to use. If you are looking for something to use for live performances, then you will enjoy this model.
What could be better: Unfortunately, some musicians say that it has limited USB MIDI functions.
There is a lot to like here. This is one of the best synths for the ambient sound that you can buy. While the brand isn’t as popular as some of the others on this list, there is no denying that it is a high-quality product. Many aficionados recall reliable products from the manufacturer, and this is what you will find here.
The Dave Smith Instruments OB-6 comes at a higher price than several others on the market, but it is certainly worth the cost. Out of the box, you can see that this is a high-end option. It comes with a blue line accent and large knobs that are pretty easy to handle and feel great on the fingers. It also has red LED buttons and an overall beautiful, professional appearance.
Along with the appearance, the performance is quite impressive. It comes with a pair of oscillators that you can sync together. It comes with several sections that give you excellent control. Whether you are making heavy sounds or soft sounds, you will have this to be a top-notch alternative to other synths.
What we liked: This unit combines the high-quality nature of products from the manufacturer with a tight and modern look to be one of the best synths for ambient.
What could be better: The design looks really nice, but the potentiometer knobs could be sturdier.
This synth is a semi-modular option that we found to be an excellent alternative to almost any synth that you might have used. It comes with excellent playability and can be played right out of the box. Along with a retro design, you will find quite a lot of power in this synth.
It is no surprise really that this is such a high-quality model as Moog is one of the oldest manufacturers of synth music. The product uses a pair of main oscillators that can make different waves. Next, it offers a really good filter, and if this is your first synth, then this is just the right way to get introduced to the brand.
Another good thing about this synth for ambient is that it comes with arguably the best envelope generator functions.
What we liked: This retro-looking synth packs quite a punch under its hood thanks to its functions. It is a high-quality model that offers you near-limitless options.
What could be better: One of the downsides of this model is that the power connector is flimsy.
With an FM digital engine and nice effects, the Elektron Digitone is an impressive FM synth that offers quite a number of great features.
The Digitone brand is known for its frequent use of 4-operator FM synthesis. Therefore, you will discover that the waves work to modulate each other. This feature is found in almost all models from the manufacturer, but the Elektron Digitone has some tricks up its sleeves.
For example, it is an 8-note polyphonic model that gives up to 4 dedicated tracks that are easy to access. You will also find that there are multiple onboard effects that prove to be useful for ambient. Apart from that, you can connect it to mixers and pedals to take your experience to the next level.
What we liked: If you thought an FM synth was hard to use, then you haven’t tried this model. It is built for convenience and gives you a warm, nice sound.
What could be better: The synth itself is easy to use, but the sequencer can be a pain to learn.
The Korg brand is one that you are likely very familiar with. It makes different musical instruments and is praised for the quality of these. Well, you get the same excellent quality with this unit. There are larger synths from the brand, but the Korg microKorg is one of the most compact and portable models from the manufacturer.
It is designed with plenty of useful features, including an 8-band vocoder that can create classic sounds. It also comes with up to 128 preset sounds, which will make it easier for you to create ambient music.
Another thing that users have remarked on is the ease of use. This unit comes with controls that are pretty straightforward to understand, and even in low-light conditions, it is comfortable to adjust everything thanks to the backlit controls.
It is a beloved option, mainly due to its impressive versatility. The knobs are easy to reach, and you will also love that it can connect to other instruments via plenty of inputs.
What we liked: This unit is very versatile. It connects with several instruments as it has plenty of input jacks and inputs.
What could be better: Although connectivity is great, it doesn’t have a USB port. The keys are also bland and not velocity-sensitive.
Several brands have tried to create and release modern versions of synths from the past, but very few of them have managed to pull that off. The Korg MS20 Mini comes as an example of a company that has gotten it right. This model is the modern version of the MS-20 from Korg. This time, it comes with the specifications of the older model, giving you the remarkable sound of the older model but in a smaller and more compact form.
It comes with the same powerful filter that made the MS-20 stand out from the others. This model makes things better by coming with less noise and featuring high-pass and low-pass filters with exceptional performance.
As we have pointed out, the obvious difference between this and the previous model is the smaller size. It also comes with MIDI and USB ports that increase the functionality and versatility of this model.
What we liked: This is a compact, lightweight, and portable synth for ambient. It comes with MIDI and USB ports.
What could be better: The only downside here is the small and wobbly dials.
The playability of the Roland GAIA SH-01 is second to none. It comes in a nice retro design that looks great and is a pleasure to play.
The design is one of the best things about this unit because no space is wasted. While there is no LCD screen, the synth has a knob or button for everything. Moreover, the playing instructions are pretty easy to follow. The design is smart, and the buttons and keys evoke memories of older Roland synths.
Like all synths, the oscillators are really important. Thankfully, Roland has taken the time to make oscillators that provide excellent performance. This instrument is a comprehensive option that doesn’t drown the user in functions. Instead, it is simple and easy to navigate.
Effects are also fantastic on this model. You get four effect blocks in this unit, and the performance controls offer you all you need to create your music.
What we liked: This model is a flexible, great-sounding synth that comes at a reasonable price. It also has a USB 2.0 port.
What could be better: White its functionality is wonderful, the product lacks vocoder and aftertouch to make it more flexible.
The workstation series from Yamaha have taken the category by storm, and the Yamaha MOXF8 is the best of the models from the brand.
This model comes with a neat interface. You get an LCD display, a pair of faders, a knob for volume adjustment, and several other buttons and knobs. When combined, all of these results in a model that is really easy to use. The buttons are assignable, and this comes in very handy for live performances.
Under the hood, you’ll find a powerful sound engine that comes with 128-note polyphony, VCM, and the ability to add voices. It also comes with the ability to expand the ROM.
What we liked: This is an affordable workstation that integrates a powerful sound engine and comes with expandable memory.
What could be better: The interface is going to be a challenge for beginners. The keys are also not very durable.
This is a serious synth that offers remarkable performance considering the price. It is a durable unit as it has a metal front panel and a lovely display. Next, the interface is one of the best things about it as it comes with an intuitive design. Therefore, beginners will have an easy time with the model.
It is one of the rare models on this list that features countless oscillator and filter modulations. This should enhance your creativity, allowing you to compose something truly unique.
What we liked: The depth and quality of this unit are the absolute best at this price. It is available in a compact and lightweight design.
What could be better: Although the interface is excellent, you do not have a vocoder here. This might be somewhat limiting for some genres.
Things to Consider
As you have likely seen from the section above, there are many synthesizers available on the market today. We think the models that we have reviewed here are the best options that you can buy right now. Still, you might not be completely convinced about any of the options. You might be looking to make an independent decision. To that end, we have provided this buying guide. In this section, we look at all the important features that you have to consider if you will indeed choose the synth that best meets your needs.
Why you should get a synth
If you do not have a synth for ambient or for any other genre, there are things that you are missing out on. In this section, we delve into the advantages of owning a synth.
Fun to use
If you haven’t played a synth before, you might not know what you are missing in terms of fun. It is one of the most fun things that you can do. It is challenging and interesting to create music. Synths are magical and make you feel like a child again. The fun isn’t just in the pressing of the buttons and turning of the knobs – most of it comes from making music and fiddling with the sounds to create something new.
There are software and hardware synths, but we focus on the hardware synths in this post. The biggest reason, apart from the social fun, is that hardware synths give you a direct connection to the music. As such, these come with physical buttons and knobs that make it so much easier for you to create your music.
With the hardware synth, you have to record each part individually before you bring the sounds together. The advantage is that you will have more creativity. You will pay even more attention to your music creation.
It is good for the brain
The synth is an instrument in its own right, although it combines several instruments. And it has been shown by studies and research, that playing an instrument and mastering it is good for your brain. Learning to play the synth will help to open new pathways in the brain and will make you gain better brain functioning. There are several ways to exercise the brain, and getting a synth and playing it is one of the ways you can do this.
Compared with software synths, hardware synths might come in at a very affordable price. Some of the models that we have reviewed, like the Novation MiniNova Analog Modeling Synthesizer, come at a really good price and offer excellent value for the money.
In addition, hardware synths come with features and components that you will not find in the software models.
Things to consider before getting a synth for ambient
We have considered why you should get a synth. Now, what features should you concern with when making a buying choice? We will see some of the crucial and the not-so-important features to consider before you buy your next synth.
Analog signal type
This is the first type of synths. They rely on specialized circuits that create and modify the sound. In this type of synth, the sound is made with voltage-controlled oscillators and filters. There are several advantages to this type of synth:
The sound is often warm;
Some of these types have zero limitations on sample rate or bit depth;
The controls have an infinite resolution;
They have knobs to control every function, which makes them easy to use.
As with these advantages, there are also downsides. Some of the disadvantages of these types of synths are:
This type of synth is a result of the innovations in technology. These are specialized computers that use code to create data streams that are translated into sound. Next, there are several types of digital synthesis ranging from FM to additive synthesis, physical modelling, and so on.
Advantages of these synths are:
They create more sounds than their analog counterparts;
These are special synths. They are digital synths that imitate the workflow of analog synths, so they are something of a hybrid of the two types of synths. Also, these use digital models of amps, etc., to create an experience similar to what you’ll find in the analog synth.
Some of the advantages of this type of synth are:
They imitate the excellent workflow of the modular synth;
They have preset memory;
There are an impressive MIDI connection and flexibility.
Another feature that you must consider before making a buying choice is the ability in terms of maximum voices. To that end, there are three main voices. These are monophonic, paraphonic, and polyphonic.
Let’s see what each of these means for you.
The monophonic synth has the ability to play just one note at a time. The Moog Grandmother is an example of this type of synth.
This type of synth might have several oscillators that require independent tuning. The thing about these types of synths is that you cannot play more than one note at a time.
The next type of synth comes with the ability to play several notes at a go. But the notes that you play have the same envelope. What does this mean for you? This implies that you can’t play multiple notes using different filters at the same time. The Moog Subsequent comes with the ability to switch to this mode or the monophonic mode.
This type is one that can easily play multiple notes at a go. Each of the notes plays with its own voice. The Roland GAIA and the Yamaha MOXF8 are the most impressive examples of this type of synth.
Another thing to consider when choosing your synth for ambient is the effects that you will get. The effects that the synth gives you will affect the type of music that you can make with the synth.
With the right model, you will get the effects that will add character to your songs. Check for a variety of effects in your synth to enjoy a high-quality output.
Another vital factor to consider when you are thinking of the synth to buy is the sound source. This section primarily concerns the oscillators of the unit, and there are two main types of oscillators: analog and digital.
The analog oscillator is also known as the Voltage Controlled Oscillator. It creates waveforms based on input voltage or current. Just like in analog synths, these oscillators create a richer, warmer sound.
The digitally controlled oscillator generates sound via the set characteristics. Where the analog options are not very stable, the digital oscillators are more reliable. They also last for a longer time than their analog counterparts.
If you are a producer that makes music on the go, then you certainly are looking for a model that is portable and easy to carry around with you. Well, you can find that both analog and digital models can be quite compact. As for the home studios or similar places, you can stick to a larger option.
Some might believe that more expensive units will give better performance, but that isn’t always the case. There surely are some models that come at a low price but still manage to sound as good or even better than more expensive models, such as seen with the Novation MiniNova Analog Modeling Synthesizer that costs only about $400.
Also, you can get premium options like the Dave Smith Instruments OB-6 at $3000 if you are looking to take your experience to the next level.
If the synth has the sounds you want, the price isn’t very important. It doesn’t matter if you bought it for $400 or even under as long as it gives the sound you require.
There are hundreds of effects available, but you only need a few to make your music sound great. Ambient music should be pleasant but not distracting. Therefore, the reverb effect is one of the most recommended effects. Also, professionals use delay, pitch-corrector, create rhythms and drum loops, add guitar sounds, octavers, modulation, filters, phasers, and more!
Yes, you can, but the ability to add sounds to your synth depends on the memory of the synth and the model of the synth. Some of the best synths come with the ability to download sounds from the brands website and upload it to the synth.
Just like with any product, you can expect to get a warranty from the manufacturer here. The warranty period depends on the model and the brand. Look for lengthy warranties so that you can get the best service and value.
Getting a synth for ambient can be a hard task if you don’t know what to look out for. If we are to pick a winner, our number one option is the Moog Subsequent 37 Analog Synthesizer due to its versatility and ease of use.