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Who needs a MIDI synth module?

In a World of Software, the Hardware Synth Module Fights Back

by Rich the Tweak
Modules at zZounds

How MIDI Sound Modules Evolved

Tweak's Module Rack

To really appreciate what a synth module is I have to take you back to the beginning,  So don your time travel suit and lets go back, back, back, back to 1986.  Every studio making money has a Yamaha DX7, a revolutionary all-digital synth whose realism led many to sell off their old dirty analog beasts for the clean, 80's, digital sound.  But the DX7 only boasted a 32 presets and sent and received on ONE midi channel.  No multi-timbrality yet.  If you wanted 16 instruments to play at once, you either tracked it to tape or needed, yep, 16 keyboards.  Naturally, no one wanted 16 sets of plastic ivories in their studio so the logical answer to this was a box that contained a full synthesizer that could connect to the midi thru and give you another channel of synthesizer goodness.  Enter the first MIDI module.

The TX7 was born, a wedge shaped little nightmare with 12 buttons and a tiny display, that had all the innards of the famous DX7.  It stacked right on top of the DX7 and gave you 32 more voices on channel 2.  Tweaking types bought them in sufficient number.  Yamaha smiled and within months we were at the next stage of module evolution, the Yamaha TX81Z, an 8 voice multi-timbral module which was like having 8 mono 4-op DX9s (the DX7's little brother) in one single rack space.  The idea of getting 8 instruments playing at once for about $475 street really was a significant crossroad in the new MIDI home recording industry, and within weeks it seemed there were midi modules everywhere. 

In 1988 the Roland D-110 revolutionized the game again, with Drum Kits and (gasp) a complete orchestral sound set in addition to pianos, EPs, fake guitars, and tweezy synths.  Dude, it was mind blowing!  I think I paid about $1100 for that.   By 1989, with the introduction of the 1st Proteus by E-mu, 16 bit modules had come of age with full 16 channel multi-timbral operation and the 19" rack format, which was previously the domain of digital delays, eqs, compressors and amps became the footprint of choice for the synthesizer module as well. 

The 90's were the decade of the synth module.  There were analog, FM, wavetable, LA and sample playback, at nearly every price point from $300 to $3000.  These have largely been made obsolete by the incredible variety of software synthesizers out there.  But today's module makers are fighting back by finding ways to offer value that soft synths cannot.  We'll get to that point again. 


Moog Music Minimoog Voyager Rack Mount Analog Synth  Tweak: Unlike software moog versions you get Real analog synthesis here, just like old days.  Yet it has MIDI, a display, can save your patches and has great build quality. 


Today's Modules

After 2 decades, the synth module is still with us.  In some cases, it almost looks the same.  You get a 19" rack box, a display, a few buttons, maybe a few knobs.  Lets just compare a standard module from today, a a Fantom XR, to the 1st Proteii. Both modules were in the $1200-$1300 range when they came out.  The Proteus /1XR (XR=extra ram)  had 384 presets, no resonant filters and could add one $499 expansion board that increased the sample rom from 4 megs to 8 megs.  The Fantom XR comes with 128 megs of rom standard and you can add 384 megs via 6 SRX expansion boards and a half GB of your own samples.  Compared to a Maxed out Proteus XR with 512 presets, the Fantom XR takes you the 3-4,000 range, depending which boards you have installed.  That's a huge sound palette!  The Fantom feature set includes resonant filters and more modulation and effects options than many of us will be able to explore.


Korg M3M Synth Workstation Sampler Module
Search Category:Sound Modules
Manufacturer: Korg

It should be clear what the major advantage of the synth module is:  You get the full features of the keyboard version (sometimes more, sometimes less) in a nice convenient package that fits in a studio rack and takes up little studio real estate. There has been many a classic midi synth module that is still in demand today.  As you might expect, the early analog synth modules still get premium dollars at online actions.  I am referring here to the Oberheim Matrix 12, 6r, 1000, the Roland MKS-70 and 80 as some early notables.  There plenty of classic modules still working in today's studios like the Roland D550, the Yamaha TX802, TG77, the Korg Wavestation A/D and SR.  These are still in demand because they sound great.

Today's MIDI modules are a result of 2 decades of refinements.  They totally overpower the modules of the past with memory, voices, dynamic range, signal to noise and just about any spec you want to toss at it.  The display has changed from a 16 character non backlit LCD to a large graphic display in some cases, even touch-sensitive, in the case of the recent V-Synth XT and Korg M3M.  Modules that support 128 voices  and sampling and rom expansion options line up the higher end.  While in the 80's and 90's you definitely needed 4-6 modules to make a full MIDI production, today you really only need one to do a full piece of music. 

Types of Modules Available

Massive Sound Palette Modules.   Perhaps the most attractive of the modules, these offer a truly large set of sounds with expansion options to cover nearly every musical need. The Roland Fantom XR, Korg M3M and Motif Rack all fit in here. These also include the Roland 1080, 2080, 3080, 5050, and the Triton Rack (especially if expanded). These may or may not have general MIDI capabilities, so make sure you check.  The P2000 does not, for example. The Roland's' do have GM. After all, they pretty much invented it when they released the Roland D110 module back in 1988.  The Korg Wavestation SR had 511 presets.  The Korg M1R was considered a massive sound palette in its day.  Emu made a play for the massive module with the Ultra Proteus and the Proteus 2500.  Today's Fantom XR has the capacity for a larger library than any module ever made, I think.  The Motif ES Rack will be replaced by the XS rack soon.  I recommend picking up an ES rack and filling the 2 PLG slots with expansion cards (like the analog and FM synthesis cards).  Those slots will disappear on the XS rack, I predict.  Yet the crown has to go to the Korg M3M right now. 

Super Tweak Machine Modules:  Here we have the big boys like the Roland V-Synth XT and the Korg M3M (especially when you add the Radias card) which both offer features you won't find on common synths, hardware or software.  Vocoding and the kind of pitch and time based synthesis of these synths would take a lot of computer horsepower if you did it in software.  Here, we see the module makers fighting back.   It will be quite sometime before a soft synth can do what a V Synth XT can do.  And there are some of us that don't want to tweak knobs with a mouse no matter what.  High end synthesis is back, and this time its in the form of the synth module.

Specialty Modules:  These are modules that cater to a specific class of music and do that class extremely well.  The big names here are Novation, Waldorf, Access Virus and more on the higher end.  One the lower end are the groove boxes by Korg, such as the Electribe series.  The middle is increasing getting populated with big modules like the Korg Radias, derived from Korg's earlier MS2000R. 

Hammond XM2 Drawbar Module


You will find there are two different product formats for specialty modules.  The Most common is the 19" rack module.  Many of the newer "DJ" style modules that lay flat on a desktop are often called "desktop modules".  Some desktop modules can be rack mounted and some cannot.  Specialty modules usually do not have General MIDI. 

  Tweak:  Desktop modules are making a comeback in 2008 with the Virus Snow, Roland Sonic Cell, and the Waldorf Blofeld.  The Blofeld and Snow are specialty modules.  Rather than do everything, these go after a specific type of sound and do it well.

There's a ton of discontinued specialty modules like those from Emu.  There was the Pure Phatt and Planet Phatt (hip hop) Orbit, Orbit V2 and Orbit3 (trance/techno) the Planet Earth, Carnaval (world) Morpheus (tweaker's delight) and others both in the rack and desktop module format. (The MP-7, XL-7 and PX-7).  I was sorry to see them go!  But today you can get an Emulator X2 soft sampler and buy these sound sets to bring them back to life.  Perhaps it is a sign of the time that Cakewalk's SoftSynth, Dimension Pro, now sells the old emu sample sets, like the hip hop 'Mo Phatt set, which I think was one of Emu's best. These sets are designed to faithfully emulate these older modules.  Guess that makes all my old modules  classics!

Take a look at the Access Virus TI2 below.  It's tempting to put it in the class with the super tweak machine modules, but at it's heart it is after doing one thing--faithfully emulating analog synthesis--and that it does extremely well.  Also for analog, don't forget to check out the Moog Voyager. 

Access Virus TI2 Desktop Integrated Modeling Synthesizer 

General Modules:  These are modules designed for the those needing a wide range of sounds, general midi capability and other basics that the user may need for gigs and for studio use.  This group includes the Kurzweil PC2r, the Roland XV2020, the Roland Sound Canvas, Yamaha MU50 and others. These modules have all the "standard" sounds like pianos, strings, clavs, horns that you expect.  They usually have General MIDI compatibility.  The latest incarnation of the general module is the Roland Sonic Cell.

Micro Modules:  These are small boxes that usually specialize in one class of instrument and do it well.  Examples here are the Kurzweil Micropiano, Alesis NanoBass on the low end and the Yamaha VL70M physical modeling synth on the higher end. These seem to be disappearing.

The Best Module for your Studio

The answer really depends on what else you have in your arsenal.  Putting together a complete recording studio involves taking stock in what you already have and filling the gaps of what you don't have.  If you already have a general MIDI soundset on your keyboard, do you really need a general module that covers the same territory?  Not really, unless the module does it significantly better.  Yet if you only have a general soundset on your keyboard, and you want to do advanced DnB and techno, it makes a lot of sense to get a specialty module that has the analog style sounds you want, ready to roll. 

If you already use a soft sampler, does it make sense to get a module with another sampler?  It might!  If the synth uses the samples as its sound sources you might want to load some custom samples into it.   If you already have a keyboard you like, but it's older or not very powerful with sounds, then you might want to look at some of the workstation like modules like the Korg M3M or a Fantom XR.  Variety is the true spice.  If you already have 2 Emu modules should you get a third or should you get something different, like a Motif Rack?  Go Motif.  Synths which use the same engine, though they are based on different sound sets, often have a similar "ring" in the mix.  Experienced tweaks can spot an Emu vs. a Roland vs. a Triton in the mix regardless of which model you have.  The difference in  sound engines is much like the difference between two personalities.  Forget brand loyalty.  Mix and Match.  You will sound better for it. 



Q) Tweak, Can you give me your opinions on some modules?

Tweak: Sure thing. Let me talk first, then you can ask.

Tweak's Pick for Max Sounds for the Buck! If you just want great sounds and lots of them, there is really only a few choices.  At the top of the heap, bang for the buck too, is the Roland Fantom XR.  This has all the sounds of the Fantom X workstation, sampling, and room for 6, yes six, SRX cards.  This is the descendant from the Roland XV5080 which for years was Roland's flagship module (and some argue it still is). 

Tweak's Pick for the Power User  But you know, it depends on what you want the module for.  On one hand we see multi timbral modules and on the other we see dedicated synthesizers that focus more on unique sound creation, like the V-synth, which has special tweaking features.  Now along comes the new Korg M3M that combines multi timbrality with an advanced tweak engine, touch screen display, even drum pads. With a big 256 MB Rom with sampling options, Firewire DAW connection options, Radias add-on board and 2nd generation Karma you will have the potential to build a world class sound generator that leaves the Fantom, Motif and Korg's old Triton racks back in the bush leagues.  Of course you will be paying for such advanced features and dearly if you add all the options.    Korg M3M Synth Workstation Sampler Module


  Yamaha Motif Rack ES Sound Module  A worthy module for any midi studio.  If you want quality sounds, this will more than do.  All the sounds of the Motif ES are in this rack.

For those who love hardware, and want a first class synth capable of extraordinary sound, including analog synth and voice modeling, sampling, elastic audio warping and a d50 emulator, the V-synth is the ticket.  Not for beginners, but for the die-hard tweakers and studio-pros.  Roland V-SynthXT MIDI Synth Module


Roland XV2020 64-Voice Expandable Synthesizer Module  These are discontinued now, but they are good pieces. The good thing about Roland's is the sound.  While the XV2020 is a small half-rack module, it has a similar synth architecture as the classic JV1080, 2080, XV5080 and is not that much different from the modern Fantoms.  There are plenty of sounds to choose from for all styles of music.  A good way to get started and a nice alternative to using software synths.

Access Virus TI You want Virtual analog? It does not get better.  Ask anyone who owns a virus. Go to the access site for more info and pics.  Do I want one?  Yep.


Korg Triton Rack Module    See my full review. The Triton in a rack has greater expansion possibilities than the original Triton itself.  This is one serious module with tons of features.  If you are just starting out, be prepared for a learning curve. But if you already know your way around MIDI and are ready for a no compromise general synth with powerful mix-ready sounds, onboard sampling, this is an extremely great value. You can also use scsi (optional board), hard/removable drives, cd roms,   You'll find support at If you are thinking of the Triton LE keyboard, but already have a nice keyboard, you should know you can load the LE sounds right into the Rack. There is also a SoundDiver adaptation if you own SoundDiver that will help you build a library of patches and program on the computer screen. An Oldie but goodie

Newb looks like I still have not answered his question, which means it has to be _that_question on his mind.....lesse....

"OK go ahead, ask whatever you want!"

Q) Thanks Tweak! What's the Best MIDI Module?

A) Oh gee, you guys, you know how much I like these "the best" questions.  But I will tell you what's HOT as of right now May 2007.   If you want LOTS of sounds, bang for the buck too,  the Roland Fantom XR will take the crown.  If you want to have a big pallete module AND have revolutionary synthesis possibilities there is only one right now:  The Korg M3M.

Q) Name some of your favorite modules I might find used.

A) I love midi modules.  The gold mines out there are the ones that used to have the high price tags, not the spin offs.  For example, the Roland D50 is a true find, the Roland d110 is not, even though the d110 had more bang for the buck.  The Korg Wavestation SR or AD, the Roland MKS70 or MKS80.  The Emu modules are all at least good, if you like sample playback, but some are outstanding, like the "Mo Phatt, World Expedition, Orbit3, Extreme Lead-1, Proteus 3, and the hard to find Morpheus  A nice inexpensive pure analog module is the Oberheim MX1000.  Of course I would love to find an old MC202 or TB303 module. 

Q) I only have ONE MIDI port and my keyboard is using it, do I need a midi interface to use a sound module?

A) No. You can connect the MIDI thru port from your keyboard to the MIDI in of your module. The module will still get the data your computer sends as it passes through the keyboard to the MIDI Thru.  What you have to do is turn OFF some channels on your keyboard and turn OFF some channels on your module.  You can, for example, let the keyboard have channels 1-8 and give the module 9-16.  When you start feeling limited by 16 channels then you need a new midi interface.

Q) I want to do orchestral-like scores.  Which module has the best orchestra?

I'd suggest looking into the Roland modules that can take the SRX orchestral cards.  These would be the XV2020, XV5050, 5080 or, of course the Fantom XR.   For the best possible orchestras like film composers use, you probably want to go with a sampler and some hi quality sample cd roms.  The Triton Rack, or Fantom XR, when fully decked can load many of these cdroms like a sampler, and it has a nice set of orchestral cards too.  Today you could get a Roland Sonic Cell and add the Complete Orchestra SRX card and your pick, Symphonique Strings or Brass.  You'd be happy!  Really old now, the Proteus 2 had a charm and really did a nice job for an 8 meg soundset.

Q) I only have one keyboard and it's old.  I want one module that can do everything with clean and clear sounds.

I'd nudge towards the Motif Rack on that one, though any I mentioned above would do that well. 

Q) How can I control my MIDI module with the knobs and sliders on my keyboard?

This is usually pretty easy on most synths because the knobs allow you to choose which controllers to send. For example, if your module responds to filter cutoff with controller #71 commands, you simply assign your knob to send that.  The data goes through the computer and comes back out to the module.  Often times you can set the module to respond to certain controller numbers.  In my rig, I have all my modules set to controllers 21-25 so the 4 sliders on my qs8 can control them all. 

Q) What are the advantages of multiple outs on a module?

First, keep in mind they won't do much good unless you have a mixer or audio interface that can accommodate them.  If you do, then you can separate different instruments on different mixer channels and tweak EQs. external FX.  Just putting the kick drum on a separate channel and eq-ing it can alone improve the mix.  If you record all your midi tracks to audio tracks in your sequencer, you really don't need multiple outs as you can add effects with plugins. But for those using analog mixers, multi-outs are very useful.

Q) What are the advantages of 32 midi channels in a module?  Isn't 16 enough?

First, the drawback of 32 channels is that you need to dedicate two full midi ports to access all of them.   So make sure you have that capability on your system or you will need to get a suitable midi interface. 32 channels is for the person who only has one or two modules an heavily relies on them for tracking.  Or for the person who does not want to use program change commands to switch instruments on a channel mid way through the song.  You don't absolutely have to use all 32 just because they are there.  You can just use one midi port and 16 channels if you don't have enough midi ports.

Q) I'm doing hip hop.  Which is a good module for me?

The emu Mo'Phatt has a hip-hop/RnB oriented soundset.  It will give you a good start.  Of course many producers use vinyl and and cds as their sources and put them into samplers, or take common synth and orchestral samples and tweak them hard.  An analog modeling synth, like the Korg MicroKorg will give you the deep bass you need and some synthy hip hop tones.  The Virus will also do this at a higher price tag.  Check out the less expensive Virus Snow, the Korg Radias Rack

Q) Will any keyboard work with a synth module?

Let's be real clear.  Any keyboard that sends midi data will work with a synth module.  If it has a midi out on the back, it will most likely work.  The synth module's functions and separate channels are unlocked in a sequencer.  One typically controls the parameters of the synth module right in the sequencer, where you can select different channels, instruments, volume and pan, so with many modules you never have to touch the front panel.  Of course, those with knobs may transmit midi controller data to the sequencer. 

Q) OK, my midi module has knobs and sends controllers, and my keyboard does too.  I only have one midi in on my soundcard though.  How do I get both midi outputs into the computer?

A midi interface will really help with this.  Or if you think you are not going to expand any more, midi wise, get a midi merge box.  A merge box will join the two streams of data into one.  A midi interface, for example, an 8x8 interface, will send out 8 midi data streams.  When the computer receives these, they will be merged in the sequencer.  This allows you to have 8 devices pouring in data at once, and if you had eight hands, you could tweak them all at once.  If you don't have a merge box or midi interface, you will have to swap cables when you want to switch between using your keyboard as a controller and your module as a controller. 

Q) What is 128 voice Polyphony?

A) Polyphony refers to how many internal available channels of audio, or "voices",  can be output by the synth at a given moment.  Don't confuse this with MIDI channels or sounds.  Many synths function by layering these "voices" in a single program or preset.  A simple, one layer tone uses 1 voice of polyphony when you press one key.  Press down a chord of 4 keys and you have used 4 voices.  If the preset uses 4 layers, as many do today to get a "phat" sound, then your chord uses 16 voices.  A "Performance Preset", sometimes called a "multi" or "combination" may layer several 1-4 voice presets in different "zones" on the keyboard.  Hence, you might find that by using a single performance preset, latching down an arp, kicking some drums and playing a solo you might be using 20, 30, even more voices at one time.  Typically, today's synths allocate these voices as you need them so after the sound stops those voices are available for use again.  If you run out of voices in a synth, you will hear "voice stealing" going on.  The tails of the sounds might get cut off, sometimes abruptly.  This was a huge problem in the early days of 8 voice machines.  Rule of thumb, 32 voices is usually enough for 4 or 5 tracks. It's relatively easy to run out of voices in a song. 64 voice polyphony will get you close to 8-10. At the dense parts, you may notice it.  With a 128 voice machine you can usually get 16 tracks.  Of course, if you are really careful about selecting only single voice programs and are playing only mono lines (one voice) as in the case of bass and analog sounds, as in many techno oriented pieces, even 8 voice polyphony will go a long way.  This is why virtual analog modeled synths can can be useful with only 4-8 voices.

To sum up, 128 voices is important if the synth is going to be doing lots of tracks. If it is your only module, you should consider it.  If the synth is just an "add on" to your existing rig, then your polyphony requirements are not so demanding.

Roland Fantom-XR Sampler Synth Rackmount Module
The Roland Fantom XR delivers the power of the new Fantom-X series keyboards in a convenient 1U rack. With room for over 1GB of sounds - 128MB internal wave ROM and room for six SRX expansions, this affordable module sets a new standard for expandability.

The Fantom XR has 128 voices of polyphony, so does the Motif Rack ES

Q) People talk about "layering" sounds using midi modules.  How is this done? 

It's simple and one of the best things to with your additional polyphony.  Make a track in your sequencer, say a string section.  Copy that track to another track, and set it to your module's midi port and select a channel.  Call up another string patch so the both play at the same time.  Pan one left and the other right.  Copy it again and bring up a solo viola patch and put it in the center.  Copy it one more time and this time assign it to a violin patch, but instead of leaving it the same, transpose it up a 5th.  Now you have a massive sounding string section!  Go ahead and change a note or two in the chord voicing and make it even more authentic.

You can do the same with synthy textures and make massive "pads".  In fact, this kind of layering is very CPU intensive with soft synths.  If you layered up 5 or more soft synths and played a a 10 finger chord a few bars, you will no doubt be clicking and popping like madness.  Bit in MIDI, there are no clicks and pops and your CPU will not even blink.  Modules really shine at this.

Q) Are MIDI Modules Obsolete?

A) Tweak sez: Well some of them bit it hard, like the many Emu modules.  All gone now, replaced by software versions.  Much depends on whether manufacturers continue to develop new features of convenience or not.  We can be relatively assured that computers will increase in power and that will allow soft synths to catch up to their hardware counterparts.  But they are not 100 percent there yet.  The latest modules sound awesome and because they are MIDI, they have an insignificant hit on the CPU of your computer.  Today's software synths can rival and even exceed a hardware rack mount in sound, but they will tax your CPU to get there.  That means less bandwidth for audio tracks, plugins, mastering tools, all of which also compete for CPU time.  You should consider a sound module to be a separate computer that is dedicated to one thing--making synth noises. 

The module manufacturers fight back:  We are now seeing manufacturers respond to the need to compete with software.  Just look at the pics of synth on this page.  They are huge beasts, like throwbacks to the 70's.  Just try to run a V-Synth in software.  Almost gone are the 1 unit rack jobs, except for the majors like the Fantom, Motif, etc.   We are now seeing superpowered modules that software really has a hard time dealing with.  Notice that today's modules have lots of knobs and dedicated controllers.  Software has no knobs.  Of course you could use the knobs on your controller, but you know, its never quite as good.

And there is another new game in modules.  We see the module makers coming up with their own VSTi plugins that can control their hardware from within the software sequencer.  The Motif has led the brigade here and the newer Korg M3M has got it too.    Its cool.  After all these years, the MIDI module is reinventing itself, preying on the inherent weaknesses in the software synth approach.   


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Great Links  Look up nearly any synth module ever made. 


Cool Quote:

Have you ever been up in your plane at night, alone, somewhere, 20,000 feet above the ocean?... Did you ever hear music up there?... It’s the music a man’s spirit sings to his heart, when the earth’s far away and there isn’t any more fear. 

Dalton Trumbo (1905–1976), U.S. screenwriter


More Articles by Tweak on Keyboards and Synths

Keyboards and Modules INDEX
Choosing the Right Keyboard for your Studio
Synthesizer Comparison Chart
Guide to Compact MIDI Controllers
All about Synthesizer Modules
The Roland Fantom Family
The Yamaha Motif Family
The Access Virus Family
The Korg Triton/M3 Family
Roland V-Synth GT
Yamaha Motif XS
Korg M3 Resources
Triton Rack/EXB Card Review
Novation ReMote 37 SL
How to program a Synthesizer
Proteus 2000
Keyboard Price List

Forums on Synthesizers

Which Keyboard is for Me?
Roland Synths and Modules
Korg Synths and Modules
Yamaha Synths and Modules
Emu Synths and Samplers
Alesis Synthesizers
Access Virus Synths
Vintage Synths Forum
The Moog Forum
Waldorf Synthesizers Forum
Clavia Nord Synths
Dave Smith Synths and modules
Novation Synths
Kurzweil Keys Forum



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