Six ways to choose a synth for dance music

Back when it started out, dance-music production used to be easy – well, in terms of the synths and drum machines you needed, anyway – but with the mountain of hard and soft synths now out there, how do you choose? Here’s how…

Choosing synths for dance music

Older readers might recall the dawn of dance music – they were great days. All you needed were a couple of old bits of Roland kit and you could quite easily hit the charts with your latest rave anthem. Nowadays, that Roland kit has shot through the roof in terms of cost, but there are a thousand imitators and other dance wonders out there; you now have a huge range of gear to choose from for your synth weapon of choice.

There are so many synth options for the current dance-music producer that you could end up choosing and using too many and stifling your very own creativity with too much choice. Or you could spend thousands on one model and realise that it was designed for full-on music productions in any other genre but dance music.

Luckily, there are some fundamental routes you should take to get a great synth for dance music. Here are six of them…

1It’s all about the analogue sound

Choosing synths for dance music
Roland RBTB03

The instruments that defined dance music were hardware analogue synths from Roland, Korg and others and much of that sound is still used in today’s dance music. So your first target for a dance-music synthesizer should be a new hardware analogue, right? Well, it’s not quite as easy as that. Digital synths can pretend to be analogue and even Roland synths can now be digital… pretending to be analogue!

Even cheaper digital-hardware machines from many other companies will give you incredibly rounded and fluid analogue character. (Many will tell you that only true analogue will give you the dance sound but, in truth, they’re snobs – just ask MT synth expert Dave Gale, who has lined up many analogue and digital pretenders.) So really, the answer is to aim for ‘analogue results’ – but be aware that nowadays, both analogue and virtual analogue hardware gear will get it for you. Having said all that…

2But aim for analogue!

Choosing synths for dance music
Pioneer Toraiz

At the risk of blowing the previous advice out of the water, you can now buy true-analogue synths from the likes of Korg, Arturia, Pioneer and many more for silly money – sometimes less than digital gear. There are plenty of plastic-fantastic synths to sink your teeth into – see the end for some great, cheap analogue options.  

3Hardware or software?

Choosing synths for dance music
u-he Hive

If you consider the advice we gave in answer 1, you can easily add great soft synths to the list – those that do analogue virtually. But then consider the cheapness of option 2 and soft synths don’t seem so tactile and cool any more, do they? So it really comes down to how you produce music. Laptop producer with limited space and funds? Go software or even freeware. Bit more to spend? Bit more space? Go hybrid analogue/software setup. Money to burn? Get a Moog One.

4Modular synths are cool though, right?

Choosing synths for dance music
AJH Mini Mod

Yes… but. Getting back to the very foundation of dance music and it was all about how easy it was to sync up a Roland TB-303 Bass Line with a TR-808 Rhythm Composer, record the results, release and rave. Now you can do that with software and a mountain of cheap sync’d up hardware, and yes, you can do it with modular… But it might just take you ages simply to line up and choose the synth components. It’s a cool route, yes, but only if you have time (and money).  

5A big synth workstation?

Choosing synths for dance music
Yamaha Montage

Workstations are synths made (usually) by Roland, Yamaha and Korg that will do dance music. And they’ll do it very well. But they’ll also do jazz, country, classical, film scores, pop, rock and any other genre you can think of. They do too much, basically – masters of everything, except the very, very cutting edge of dance. Oh yes, and they also cost a fortune and don’t have enough knobs on them.

6So the bottom line is…

Choosing synths for dance music
IKM UNO

Okay, when dance music started – and we hate to keep showing our age here – it was all about abusing cheap gear in incredibly creative ways to create new sounds. Then it got expensive and then it got digital and then it got to the point where it all fitted onto a laptop. The fact is that now we’ve come full circle and  we can buy synths – hardware, software, analogue and digital – for less than they cost in real terms back in 1987, so whatever you choose (and we’ll put recommendations down below), just get back to the spirit of stretching it to the maximum, creating something repetitive and absolutely mesmerising.

MT recommends…

Thinking of buying a new synth? Consider the following

For hard synths:

For software:

Want more? Check out our guide to the best subtractive synths and our top picks for software and virtual synths.

For more tips and tricks, check out our essential guides.