Synthesizers, Keyboards, Machines and Expanders

You would like to get a synth, arranger or master keyboard, but you are not so sure which does what? Actually they are quite similar, here is some details that will help you make your choice.


Even if they are widely contested by virtual instruments, the different type of machine and synthesizers are numerous and a must have in any home-studio Here is a quick peek into the different categories of instruments. If you wonder what makes a keyboard different from a synthesizer here is our guide for synthesizers.
Central part of the home studio, synthesizers are above all "sound generators". Initially sold by the Moog brand in the mid-1960s, they are primarily designed to emulate acoustic instruments. . Until the early 80's, all synths used an electrical current to produce sound : they are thus called "analog" synthesizers. In 1983 – also known for being the year zero of MIDI – appeared the first digital synthesizer, le Yamaha DX7, , opposing the previous generation by generating sounds through microprocessors.

MIDI which stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface is the communication and control protocol allowing data exchange between electronic musical instruments.

Workstation "synthesizers": emulation of acoustic sounds

Today, the traditional distinction between digital and analog synthesizers is still true, except that the digital synthesizer has become an integral part of most machines. Progress in the emulation of acoustic sounds has been considerable, making it possible to find a complete range of sounds for a few hundred pounds (the Roland Juno Di or the Korg PS60 for example). Some models intended for composition are also equipped with audio and/or MIDI sequencers. These kinds of machine are called workstations or music workstations.

The workstation synthesizer is an instrument that contains sounds and allows you to modify and create others. It is also possible to add external sounds and effects on a workstation. Allowing you to be very creative, this type of keyboard is most often used for band play or to go with a singer's voice.

If you want to get yourself a versatile keyboard with multiple functions, the workstation concept is an excellent compromise. This universal keyboard can be adapted to a wide range of musical profiles, from beginner to professional level

Analog and modeling synthesizers

Many manufacturers still offer today analog machines whose sound has the reputation (and rightly so) to be warmer than digital devices. Moog, pioneer of this technology, reissued its flagship 70's keyboard – the Minimoog Voyageur – and even went so far as to release lighter versions (the Little Phatty and its rack version, the Slim Phatty). Lately, some of the most prestigious brands in the past have taken advantage of the current craze for this type of sound to produce entirely analog machines at lower cost, such as Korg Volca machines or Teenage Engineering's Pocket Operator mini-synthesis .

At the same time, there is another range of synthesizers, this time digital, which take up the characteristics of "old-fashioned" synths. These are called modeling instruments and offer numerous functions and extensive polyphony - polyphony being the maximum number of notes that can be played simultaneously by an instrument - for a much more affordable price (Korg Microkorg, Roland Gaia SH01).

Drum machines

A drum machine is a device that replaces musical instruments and acoustic rhythms, such as drums or bass. Very popular in the electronic music of the 80's, it is a tool extremely appreciated by electro or hip-hop music producers. Drum machines offer hundreds of drum kits in a wide variety of styles that are usually pre-recorded or sampled. This is the case with the Alesis SR18, Boss DR880 and Akai XR20 drum machines, for example. There are also machines with their own synthesis engine, such as the Elektron SPS1 Machinedrum machine. Indispensable to the creation of loops and patterns, the drum machine also integrate a loop or step sequencer by step4, like the Korg EMX1 machine.


First introduced at the end of the 70s with the Fairlight CMI and then the mythical MPC AKAI series, samplers are traditionally opposed to synthesizers because of their main function: adding external sounds to the machine. Although it is possible to find this function on some high-end synthesizers (such as YAMAHA Motif, KORG Kronos...), they are generally presented in the form of a device with touch-sensitive pads and, more rarely, a keyboard.

Since these machines are generally designed as stand-alone production stations, they include a sequencer as standard equipment for multitrack projects. The size varies from 16 to 64 midi tracks depending on the machine, and sometimes even audio tracks. Here are four typical examples of the different types of samplers.

AKAI MPC 500: A classic

Featuring 12 pads, a 48-track sequencer, multi-effects and the main editing functions of the MPC series, the 500 provides a workstation designed primarily for sample or short loop editing (16 MB RAM expandable to 128 MB RAM). Go to see

ROLAND SP 404: Live sampler

With 12 pads x 10 banks, no built-in sequencer, the SP404 is clearly designed for on-the-fly, onstage or studio triggering. It is a best seller, very complete sampler with an excellent price-quality ratio. Go to see

KORG ESX1 MK2: Step-by-step sequencer type "TR"

Clearly oriented towards electronic music, Korg ESX distinguishes itself from other samplers by its step sequencer offering a quantization with sixteenth notes. Here again, this machine is intended for the triggering of short samples through an SD card.

LOOP STATION: Sampler for instrument players

It is by thinking of players with their hands full that Boss has logically developed a sampler that can be triggered with your feet. The Boss RC-300 Loop Station is a repeater sampler pedal, certainly the most accomplished on the market at the time. Go to see


Without any keyboard, an expander is a machine that integrates sounds and allows access to its parameters in a single device, often in rack format. Unlike the sampler, the expander has a bank of pre-recorded sounds (samples or synthesized sounds), but does not allow new ones to be recorded.

To control the expander, which is a MIDI processor, you can use a sequencer, a master keyboard or connect it to a computer via a MIDI or USB port according to the model.

The difference between expander models is in the number of pre-recorded sounds (up to several thousand) and their quality/encoding/recording condition, as well as the expandability of the sound bank and interfaces offered.

The KORG MP-10 Pro non-amplified expander is the ideal musical companion for touring artists, solo musicians, singers and amateur musicians. It allows full control of MP3 audio data and MIDI FILES over which you can sing. In addition, the MP-10 also features a sound generator, effects processors, mixer, professional voice harmonizer, 120GB hard drive and video output controls in one instrument.

Arranger keyboards

Also known as the electronic organ, arrangers are a particularly broad category suitable for both professionals and complete beginners. In the latter case, it is possible, for example, to select a 61-key keyboard to familiarize a child with the instrument. They usually contain several hundred sounds, rhythms (arrangements or styles) or even pre-recorded songs, clearly directing them towards a ludic use.

Another determining characteristic is the availability of velocity, i. e. sensitivity, a reactivity of the keys to the intensity of the touch of the piano player. Even if some of them do not possess this feature (Yamaha PSR E223) it is preferable to choose an instrument with velocity-sensitive keys (type Yamaha PSR E333 or higher) - because many "classical" exercises based on the key's reactivity.

Master keyboard

The master keyboard is a control keyboard commonly used with software (such as Cubase, Reason or Protools) to create music. Unlike arranger keyboards and workstations, the master keyboard has no sounds or rhythms and is only used to control compatible musical instruments, expanders, or sequencers. Connected via a MIDI or USB port. With a master keyboard, you can record MIDI sequences, write music or produce music on your PC or other MIDI-compatible devices.