I get a regular stream of questions from people asking me if they should buy Synth Workstation X or Arranger Keyboard Y. This always puzzles me because this is an “apple to orange” comparison, or more literally a “Synth to Arranger Keyboard” comparison. They are completely different instrument categories!
Therefore, there is no easy answer to the question. I get the impression that many viewers do not understand the differences, and similarities between these two instruments so let’s discuss that today.
Someone once said, in jest but it’s usually true, that synths have vertical faders for the volume control, whilst home keyboards and arrangers have round knobs. But there’s more to it than that!
It might be helpful if I mention a few examples. In the synth workstation category we have the Yamaha MODX and Montage, Korg Nautilus and the Roland FA and Fantom. Popular arrangers include the Korg PA-series, Yamaha PSR and their Tyros and Genos.
Let’s start with the obvious and not-so-obvious similarities. Both are keyboard instruments, usually with 61 keys and a control panel full of faders, knobs and buttons. These days they are usually equipped with a central large LCD, often a touchscreen, dominating the front panel.
There are many similarities in the features too. Most synthesizer workstation, just like arranger keyboards have gigabytes of high-quality multi-sampled instrument sounds onboard, ranging from acoustic instruments like piano, guitar to orchestral and ethnic sounds. Both have a wide variety of electronic sounding synth tones like pads, basses, leads. There will also be a huge variety of acoustic and electronic drum kits onboard.
Both categories of keyboards are multi-timbral meaning they can play lots of different sounds at the same time. There’s usually a MIDI sequencer onboard, and often an audio recorder for creating songs and capturing your performances.
So, what exactly does an arranger do, that a synth can’t?
The most noticeable physical difference is that the arrangers nearly always have a built-in amplifier and speakers, sounding very good on the higher-end models. This is extremely convenient when playing at home or in smaller venues.
Synthesizers very rarely have speakers, and if they do, they are just a small tinny-sounding gimmick. This might seem like a strange oversight, but the assumption is that synthesizers will be connected to a mixing desk and PA system, or to studio monitors.
The absolute main difference that you need to understand is that arrangers offer real-time accompaniment. This means that the keyboard will generate backing tracks for you whilst you play, sounding like a real band or orchestra accompanying your performance.
Sure, some synthesizers give you this illusion, by using sophisticated multi-track arpeggiators that adapt to what you are playing, but they fall way short of the functionality offered by arranger keyboards.
An arranger has a staggering number of buttons allowing you to adjust the backing tracks as you perform, such as switching between different variations for verse and chorus or triggering fills, intros and outros. It’s a huge amount of fun, and no synthesizer offers this level of control.
The very best arrangers allow you to connect a microphone and mix in your voice with effects and even apply autotune and generate harmonies.
So the synthesizer is feeling like the underdog here. What are its advantages?
Before we get into that, we need to define a workstation synth. This is a synth that is capable of playing many different sounds at the same time, with built-in effects and with a MIDI and audio sequencer for creating and arranging an entire composition onboard the synth without needing to connect to a computer.
If you purchase a professional workstation synth then you can expect a rugged and well-built instrument that is built for a life on the road. Even the high-end arrangers are much less sturdy with a lot more plastic in the construction.
The primary advantage of synthesizers is that they have much more powerful synthesis engines, with the ability to edit the sounds in much more depth. This is ideal for those who want to edit, or create their own sounds.
You’ll also find more focus on synthesizer sounds on a synth, whereas the arranger keyboard will generally put more emphasis on acoustic and orchestral sounds, which are needed to create the realistic accompaniments.
Perhaps, you could argue, that synthesizers are cooler? Synths have a more professional appearance and a better reputation amongst other musicians. The problem with arrangers is that they pack in every musical style under the sun, and many might not be to everybody’s taste and end up sounding quite cheesy.
Another interesting difference is that arranger keyboards, especially the higher-end models, tend to be incredibly expensive for what they are, costing much more than their professional synthesizer and digital piano counterparts.
So before asking me whether you should buy a synth or arranger, ask yourself the following questions to decide what’s important for you.
- Do you want or need the auto-accompaniment?
- Do you want built-in speakers?
- Do you need a rugged professional touring instrument?
- Do you want to create your own sounds?
I’ve owned dozens of synths and workstations over the decades and I love them all. But there has only been one instrument that made my family get up and dance around the living room as I played. Can you guess which?