Best Synth for Hip Hop in 2021

photo of Jarrett Ziemer

by Jarrett Ziemer on October 4th, 2021 in Best Picks

In the modern age, an analog beat machine is synonymous with hip hop. But it wasn’t always that way.

In the 1980s, in the beat machines infancy, synth-pop was the vibe. Although hip hop producers like Afrika Bambaataa were dabbling with the machine, whether you were watching slick-talking Axel Foley get out of trouble to the beats of Harold Faltermeyer of or cranking Cars in your car, the sound of the synth-pop was the inescapable sound.

Thankfully for hip-hop heads, the dynamic capabilities of the synthesizer soon spilled fully over into other genres.

Today the 80’s synth-pop and your parents’ old haircuts are gone, but what started with Bambaataa and took hold with Dre has bloomed into a new wave of Hip Hop that has professional and hobby producers alike taking the sounds of the synths to new heights.

Whether you’re looking to produce that classic boom bap or give a clean piano that fades into a vocoder solo, a synth is the single most useful tool for the job.

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Best Hip Hop Synths Reviewed

The Roland Rhythm Composer TR-08 is a compact recreation of the most famous drum machine ever made, the TR-808. So if you're looking for that award-winning, ear-bending classic hip hop sound in an affordable backpackable form factor, this one is for you.

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Hip Hop heads unite. The boom-bap is back and here to stay with the Roland Rhythm Composer TR-08. In this ultra-compact replica of the classic TR-808, you’ll get the detailed classic analog sound you grew up loving in a modern digital form.

With hands-on controls for tone, level, tuning, and decay; and an added compressor, gain, tune and pan for selected instruments, this programmable monster will give detail-loving producers every tool they could ask for. This thing doesn’t just replicate a classic but adds modern features producers have grown to love.

Keep in mind when you purchase this one that it’s an updated digital replica, not an analog beat machine or the original 808. With that said, you can find the original 808 for about 10,000 dollars on eBay, so if you want the same sound and feel at a universally reasonable price, this machine is for you.

What We Like
Replica Build - This should match the classic TR-808 sound down to every detail.
Looks - This machine has the stunning classic looks of the TR-808.
Size - This machine is ultra-compact.
Sound - If you grew up on hip-hop, you grew up listening to the sounds this thing is capable of reproducing.
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DIgital - This replica is digital, not analog.
USB Out - The USB Out to your computer's DAW will take some time to figure out.
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The Behringer TD-3-SR is an affordable synth that can do it all. With an authentic analog design and a fantastic bass-forward focus, this machine will lay classic-sounding hip-hop beats with ease.

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The Behringer TD-3-SR is a ready-to-use, affordable synth for the beatmaker looking for the best bang for their buck.

Featuring analog sawtooth and square waveform VCO with transistor wave-shaping circuitry that produces classic analog sounds and incredible 4-pole low-pass resonant filter with cut-off, resonance, envelope, decay, and accent controls, this machine will let you dive as deep into the beats as you want.

We also think you’ll love the sequencer, signal routing, and focus on bass. With an onboard 16 note, 250 full pattern memory sequencer, already setup default signal routing, and complete focus and bass, this machine is capable of making and maintaining every beat your hip hop head can come up with right out of the box.

Keep in mind that the low price of this means a bit lower-end build quality. It’ll do everything you want but may feel a bit cheap.

What We Like
Ready To Use - Thanks to default signal routing out of this box, you'll be able to bump the beats with this one immediately.
Sequencer - The onboard sequencer will allow you to program up to 16 notes and save and recall up to 250 full patterns.
Bass - The TD-3-SR has a bass-forward design making it great for hip-hop tracks.
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Build Quality - The low price means this will have a lower-end feel to it in the build department.
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This digital audio workstation combines synth engines with MIDI capability and literally everything else you need for standalone music production. Record audio, hook up studio equipment, input media, do it all. With this system, you can play, perform and produce every hip-hop beat your brain can come up with.

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AKAI’s Professional Force is a hardware DAW for the serious beatmaker who is looking for control and flexibility. This machine combines a synth, a sequencer, and everything else you’d want with a full range of tactile controls, 10GB of preloaded sounds, and a multi-touch display. This thing is ready to dive you straight into your workflow from day one.

You can’t beat what you receive for the price, as this is a complete recording studio in one package, a true standalone music production machine.

Keep a couple of things in mind when you purchase this product. First, if you’re new to music-making, this one might range a little over your head. Even for a seasoned producer, there will be a bit of a learning curve. Second, at ten pounds, this one is heavy.

What We Like
Stand Alone - Going with a DAW over just a synth means you'll have the ultimate production flexibility.
Sounds - This beast comes preloaded with over 10GB of sounds.
Workflow - WIth the ability to see 64 clips simultaneously, this machine will get you in the flow.
Know Before Buying
Weight - This beast weighs 10 pounds, so find a solid place to set it up.
Learning Curve - This one isn't for the faint of heart or new to the game hip hop producer.
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The TR-8S combines the old with the new with authentic-sounding TRS drums and samples from nearly every TRS drum machine run under the umbrella of a powerful new next-generation processor. If you're looking for an active, feature forward, excellent sounding drum machine that is easy to use and capable of producing complex bangers, this is for you.

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The AIRA Rhythm TR-8S is coming in hot, looking sharp, and repping Roland hard with a clean look and one of the broadest ranges you’ll find in one package, thanks to the inclusion of nearly all of TRS’ drum machine sounds in one place.

With detailed circuit models of the 808, 606, 909, 707, the 727, and the ability to produce your own sounds, the machine will have you partying like it’s 1999 and 2021 all in the same night.

This DAW doesn’t just recreate, it flat out creates with effects including a delay on a rim shot, overdrive on a kick, filters on toms and cymbals, and precision reverb on selected instruments.

Keep in mind that although this costs a little more than an entry-level synth, that’s because it’s a standalone DAW. Of course, that will mean it’s a bit more complicated to use, but with the updated processor in this and every tool you need included, you’ll be able to produce tracks from start to finish.

What We Like
Broad Sound Range - With the incorporation of all of the TRS drum machine sounds, this thing can do it all.
Looks - Even though this is a complex machine, it manages to look clean and well organized.
Processor - A new processor gives this thing the ability to dive into detail and nuance.
Stand Alone - Going with a DAW over a straightforward synth means you'll have all the tools you need in one place.
Know Before Buying
Learning Curve - You should find this machine intuitive if you're a seasoned vet, but new producers get ready for a learning curve.
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The PreSonus Atom MIDI is the essential music maker and beat machine for beginning musicians. This system comes with a MIDI controller and Synth software and gives you total control of pro-level production in an affordable, good-looking package.

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The PreSonus Atom is a package deal for beginning producers looking to get their start in the hip-hop game. With a performance mini pad controller and included soft synth pack of Studio One Artist and Ableton Live Lite, this package has almost everything you need to get going. Pair this affordable system with your computer or laptop, and you’ll be lost in beats before you know it.

We think you’ll love the small size and portability of this machine. You can throw it in your bookbag or backpack with your laptop and take your music production anywhere, and with stunning looks, you’ll be happy to take it along.

And although this is more of a beginner setup, the included Kendrick Lamar lauded Abelton, and a completely customizable pad response will give you the freedom to grow into complex beat production.

Keep in mind that this isn’t a standalone synth. You’ll need a computer or laptop to run the software pack.

What We Like
Ableton Live - Kendrick Lamar uses Ableton. Enough said.
Size - The small size of this system means you can throw it in your bag with your laptop or keep it on your desk.
Looks - For the price, you can't beat the clean, professional looks of this thing.
Pad Response - This comes with a completely customizable pressure-sensitive pad.
Price - If you already have a computer, this is an easy way to get into music production without spending half a grand on a pro-level synth.
Know Before Buying
Computer Needed - This is a MIDI controller soft synth combination. That means you'll need to throw software on your laptop or computer to use this.
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The Korg Volca Bass is a hybrid analog/digital dream machine for producers who want large as life drum beats in the smallest package possible. With a built-in sequencer, three analog oscillators, self-tuning capabilities, sounds galore, and the ability to play anywhere, this is a pure one-stop drum machine for serious hip hop heads.

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The Korg Volca Bass is a straightforward compact drum machine with classic analog sounds and an easy to justify entry-level price.

Thanks to its included features and analog CPU with digital inputs, you should expect this machine to sound as good as more expensive synths. That all means that the 10 bit DAC will give it a nearly perfect analog sound, but when you turn the dial or tweak a note, the input will be recorded in the included sequencer.

Besides the classic analog sound, we think you’ll dig the actual usability of this machine. With onboard speakers, a sequencer, and optional battery power, you can basically use this thing anywhere.

Do keep in mind that if you plan on picking this one up, its ultra-compact size may make it difficult to use for people with bigger fingers.

What We Like
All-in-one - Built-in speakers and optional battery power make this a genuine all-in-one analog experience.
Sequencer - A built-in sequencer has 16 steps and 8 memory patches.
Self-tuning - The pitch will always be perfect with self-tuning capabilities built in.
Price - This thing is right in the sweet spot for new producers looking to get into the game.
Know Before Buying
Keys - The compact size of this machine means the keys may be difficult to use for some people.
MIDI - You'll get ⅛" in and outs on this but only a MIDI in.
Hybrid Performance - True analog purists beware; this one is a hybrid.
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What to Look for when Picking up the perfect Hip Hop Synth

Type

There are a bunch of things to consider when picking up the perfect sequencer for slapping beats together, but the biggest thing to pay attention to is the type. You’ll want to make sure you pick up a system capable of producing and reproducing the sounds and effects you’re looking for.

Analog

An analog synth is the classic, and a lot of guys go for that classic hip-hop sound. An analog system will give you a warm, sometimes quirky, and specific sound. Older Analog systems will often lack preset memory capabilities, so keep an eye on the features of your choice if that’s something you’re looking for

Digital

Digital synths are basically specialized computers that use code to produce sound. A basic digital synth will give you a broader range of tones than an analog and can remember your input. So if you’re aiming to produce Hip Hop and just getting started, a digital system is a great place to begin.

Virtual Analog

Virtual analogs were designed after the synth boom of the ’80s to emulate the sound of analog synths on a digital platform. VA systems will give you more options than an analog but will have a limited set of modulations.

Hybrid

A hybrid system uses a combination of analog and digital components. A hybrid system is capable of providing the unique sounds of an analog with the added benefits that come with a digital machine.

Modular

Modular is an indication of form when it comes to sequencers and not the sound variety or type of sound produced. A modular synthesizer can be digital or analog but uses modules connected together to mix and match sounds. A modular synth is arguably the most adaptable system on the market, with nearly every feature upgradeable or changeable.

Semi-Modular

A semi-modular system will have the same adaptability as a modular one but have fixed modules that aren’t replaceable. Semi-modular machines are excellent for Synth users ready to step their game up without committing to the intricacies of a fully modular setup.

Soft Synth

A soft synth is a music-creating application with no physical body. Soft synths lack the hand controls and are constrained by your CPU limits but are generally the most affordable way to get into music production. You’ll find most categories of synths paired down to a soft synth version.

Drum Synthesizer

A drum synthesizer or drum machine is fundamentally the same thing as a traditional synthesizer, except it focuses on synthesizing the sounds of drums exclusively.

Daw

A beginning synth owner may need to sharpen up on their keyboard skills. If you find yourself in that category or aren’t necessarily in the game to play the keys, you’ll want to go with a system that comes with a sequencer. This system is also known as a digital audio workstation.

A digital audio workstation is a hardware or software system that combines a synth with a recording function, possibly a MIDI ability, and also lets you write your melody sound by sound at the same time with a sequencer.

analog-audio-mixer

Price

Bigger isn’t always better when it comes to the price of your system. If you’re new to the game, a more expensive, more complex setup can often lead to frustration and a lack of output.

A good rule of thumb is to keep the price under a few hundred dollars if you’re just experimenting with getting into beat creation. If you’re taking it to the next level but still want something simple, add a couple hundred to that, and you’ll find a tool you can work and keep around even if you outgrow it.

Size

An oversized system might look professional, but like price, more isn’t always better. A compact machine will be one that fits in your workspace or in your backpack and doesn’t sit collecting dust in the closet. Pair a compact all in one synth with a good pair of headphones and the world becomes your workspace.

Speakers

Advanced hip hop producers will most likely already have mixers and monitors, but it doesn’t hurt to look for a system with speakers if you’re just getting started. Generally speaking, the speakers will be an afterthought and not sound the best, but they’ll allow you to check out what you’re creating without headphones or a complex setup.

Brief History of Synthesizers

Although most of the general public first met the synthesizer in the ’80s, the basic form of the tool has been around since the early 1960s in the form of the RCA Mark II. The Mark II was a large-scale complicated machine controlled by hundreds of vacuum tubes and punch cards.

Eventually, the complicated music maker would be reduced in size and gain a focus on a diversity of sounds. By the 1970s, with the introduction of accessibility in the Moog and MiniMoog, famous musicians began jumping on the wagon.

By the 1980s, the available retail technology had finally caught up with the synthesizer. This delivered the masses and everyday Joes an intensely broad range of digital sound production tools and the ability to create a unique synth based soundstage.

Although at the time generally used by pop performers, with Hip Hop taking the world by storm, the synth and new ability to sample and flip beats brought eager MCs into a new world of creation. That new world would eventually lead the already genre-bending Hip Hop down a road as wide as it is long.

person playing black and white piano with Synthesizer

Synthesizer VS Keyboard VS Midi

If you’re looking to pick up your first beat machine, getting into the game can be a bit confusing. There are a few very similar pieces of equipment, and knowing what they are and what you want, will help you get the right horse for the course.

Synthesizer VS Keyboard

A traditional digital keyboard is similar to a synthesizer, though more basic. A keyboard is designed to play songs out of the box, with a variety of preset sounds, automatic accompaniments, and samples. You’ll also find a built-in speaker on most to play what you create.

The big difference between the keyboard and beat machine is what you can then do with those sounds once you do create them. A keyboard comes with basic operations and recording ability. A sequencer, on the other hand, takes the process and recording ability to the max. A sequencer will come with a greater sound variety, and you can often create your own samples and own sounds.

To dumb it all down. If you want to learn to play the piano and have a bit of fun, grab a keyboard. If you want to create beats, make professional music, play in a live band, or really explore your creativity, you’ll want a synth.

Synthesizer VS MIDI

Although often confused for one another, a synthesizer and MIDI are very different tools.

The big difference between a synth and MIDI comes with input. Although some sequencers can act as a MIDI, a synth usually relies on pre-programmed applications to create the desired soundscape through a modulation of sound waves. So, essentially a synth will actually create a sound.

A MIDI differs here in that it doesn’t create sound. Instead, it is used as a keyboard/ controller. Thus, it relies almost entirely on a user’s input to create a precise sound in a software program or via a synthesizer or computer.

In Summary

Best Hardware DAW for Hip Hop

Finding the perfect killer synth for hip-hop can be an overwhelming journey. When you’re ready to start your search, though, above all else, look for a machine that will grow and adapt with your abilities and creative vision.

Whether you’re looking for a top-of-the-line DAW or ultra-compact drum machine, we hope this guide has been helpful.