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How to choose your synthesizer or sampler?

Do you want to get a synthesizer, arranger or master keyboard but have trouble telling them apart? To tell the truth, there is no big difference (in any case in appearance) between these three instruments but here are some details that will allow you to better situate them.


Although there is strong competition from virtual instruments, the different types of machines and synthesizers remain numerous and often essential in a home studio. Here is a brief overview of the different categories. If you're wondering what the differences are between a keyboard and a synthesizer: Find an answer in our Synth Guide.

Central part of the home studio, synthesizers are above all sound generators. Originally marketed in the mid-1960s by the Moog brand, they were first intended to emulate, with varying degrees of success, the various acoustic instruments. Until the early 1980s, all synths used electrical voltage to produce sound: they were therefore said to be analog. In 1983 – also year zero of the MIDI standard – the first digital synthesizer appeared, the Yamaha DX7, opposing the previous category with its sounds generated by microprocessors.

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

"Workstation" synthesizers: the emulation of acoustic sounds

Today the traditional distinction between digital and analog synthesizers still remains valid, except that the digital synthesizer has invested most machines. Progress in the emulation of acoustic sounds has therefore been considerable, which makes it possible to find a full range of sounds for a few hundred euros (the Roland Juno Di or the Korg PS60 for example). Some models intended for composition are also equipped with audio or/and midi sequencers2; these will then be called workstation or workstation.

The workstation synthesizer is an instrument that contains sounds and allows you to modify and therefore create other sounds. It is also possible to add external sounds and effects on a workstation. Very creative, this type of keyboard is most often intended for group play or to accompany the voice of a singer.

If you want to get a versatile keyboard with multiple features, the "workstation" concept is an excellent compromise. This universal keyboard is able to adapt to many profiles of musicians, from beginners to advanced to professional.

Analog and Modeling Synthesizers

Many manufacturers still offer analog machines today, the sound of which is rightly known to be warmer than digital devices. Moog, pioneer of this technology, for example, is reissuing its flagship keyboard from the 70s – the Minimoog Voyageur – and even goes so far as to release lighter versions (the Little Phatty and its rack version, the Slim Phatty). More recently, brands with a prestigious past are taking advantage of the current craze for this type of sound to produce low-cost all-analog machines such as the Korg Volca machines or the Pocket Operator mini-synths from Teenage Engineering.

We find in parallel another range of synths, digital this time, taking up the characteristics of "old-fashioned" synths. These are said to be modeling and offer many functions as well as extended 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).


Rhythm boxes

A drum machine is a box that can replace musical instruments and acoustic rhythms, such as drums or bass. Very popular in the electronic music of the 80s, it is a tool extremely appreciated by producers of electro or hip-hop music. Drum machines offer a few hundred 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 integrating their own synthesis engine like the Elektron SPS1 Machinedrum machine. Essential for creating loops and patterns, drum machines also include a loop or step sequencer, like the Korg EMX1 machine for example.


Appearing at the end of the 1970s with the Fairlight CMI and then the mythical MPC AKAI series, samplers or samplers are traditionally opposed to synthesizers because of their main function: the addition of external sounds to the machine. Although it is possible to find this function on certain high-end synthesizers (such as YAMAHA Motif, KORG Kronos, etc.) synths, they generally come in the form of a box incorporating touch-sensitive pads and, more rarely, with a keyboard.

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

AKAI MPC 500: a classic of the production station
Equipped with 12 pads, a 48-track sequencer, a multi-effect and the main editing functions of the MPC series, the 500 provides a workstation intended primarily for sample editing. or short loops (16 MB of RAM expandable to 128).

ROLAND SP 404: a stage sampler
With 12 pads x 10 banks, no integrated sequencer, the SP404 is clearly intended for triggering samples on the fly, on stage or in the studio. It is an extremely well sold sampler, very complete, with excellent value for money.

KORG ESX1 MK2: the "TR" type step sequencer
Clearly oriented towards electronic music, the Korg ESX is distinguished from other samplers by its step sequencer or step sequencer offering sixteenth-note quantification. Here again, this machine is intended for triggering short samples via SD card.

LOOP STATION: the sampler for instrumentalists
It is in thinking of instrumentalists with their hands full that Boss has logically developed a sampler that can be triggered using your feet. The Boss RC-300 Loop Station is a repeater sampler pedal, certainly the most successful on the market at the time of writing these lines.


Devoid of a keyboard, an expander is a machine that integrates sounds and allows access to its parameters in a box, often in rack format. Unlike the sampler, the expander has a pre-recorded sound bank (samples or synthesized sounds), but does not allow you to record new ones.

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 socket depending on the model.

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

The KORG MP-10 Pro non-amplified expander is the ideal musical companion for traveling 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 offers a sound generator, effects processors, mixer, professional voice harmonizer, 120 GB hard disk and video output controls all in one instrument.

arranger keyboards

Also called electronic organ, arrangers are a particularly broad category suitable for both the professional and the complete beginner. With this last in mind, it is possible to choose a 61-key keyboard in order to familiarize a child with the instrument, for example. They generally include several hundred sounds, rhythms (arrangements or styles) or even pre-recorded songs, clearly orienting them towards playful use.

Another determining characteristic is the presence of velocity, ie a sensitivity, a reactivity of the keys to the intensity of the strike of the budding pianist. Even if some do not have one (Yamaha PSR E223) it is preferable to choose an instrument offering velocity-sensitive keys (Yamaha PSR E333 type or higher) – number of "classic" exercises based on the reactivity of the hit.

The master keyboard

The master keyboard is a control keyboard generally used with software (like 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 drive compatible musical instruments, expanders, or sequencers. connected via MIDI or USB. With a master keyboard, you can record MIDI sequences, write music or produce music on your PC or other devices compatible with MIDI control.