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Who Is This For?

I first got into synthesizers and digital music almost 30 years ago in 1989. I purchased my first electronic synthesizer setup consisting of a Roland U-20 keyboard, an Atari ST computer, and a copy of C-Lab Notator. Now that it's 2017, I figured it was time to see how things have changed so I can get myself back up to speed. While doing so, I also took the time to look up some history and learn about technology that I was unfamiliar with.

If this sounds interesting, then this is for you.

How to get started

At the most basic level, you need something to play the music, something to make a sound, and software to record what you are playing.

The most significant changes since 1989 are

  • Everything has gone virtual
  • MIDI Keyboards have mostly replaced dedicated hardware synthesizers

Yes this is a generalization, but I would say it's true for 90% of the market. Roland, Moog, and Yamaha still make dedicated hardware synthesizers, but as a sign of the times, Roland's new System-1 Synthesizer has been sold as both a physical and a virtual device from the start.

As computing power has increased, there has been a shift from needing dedicated hardware to create sounds to using the computer to create sounds. This has led to the rise of Virtual Synthesizers or VST. (Yes, VST actually stands for Virtual Studio Technology and originally it was a description of the technology in general, but in common usage a VST is a Virtual Synth that is used to virtual recreate a synthesizer to create sounds).

Since you still want a physical keyboard that you can play, this created the market for the "MIDI keyboard". The MIDI keyboard makes no sound by itself. When you press a key, it sends a signal to your computer and the VST that a key was pressed. It is the VST that actually produces the sound.

Quick Start

If you really don't care about the why, just jump to the Recommendations section. Otherwise just follow the links in order. That way, the recommendations actually make sense.