While much has been made in recent months and years of the resurgence of interest in analog synthesizers – and for good reason! – it bears mentioning that synths of all stripes represent a consistently strong segment of MI.
Constant innovation means not only that the boundaries are pushed to heretofore unimagined limits at the upper-tier, but also that the functionality available at the lower end of the price spectrum for these instruments continues to expand. Much as the processing power in your smartphone drastically exceeds that of NASA’s 1960s and ‘70s room-sized guidance computers, the “entry level” synths of 2017 are capable of sounds, editing, and interaction unimaginable even on the priciest consoles of the ‘80s.
MMR recently checked in with four representatives of key (no pun intended, but it stays!) purveyors of synths to get a bead on what advancements and trends are driving sales in today’s market.
If you had to pick just one specific model, what synthesizer is the “breakout hit” for your brand so far in 2017?
Nate Tschetter: MONTAGE would be our hit so far this year and for last year.
James Sajeva: Korg started off 2017 with a bang with the release of our $299 analog mono synth, monologue. We knew we had a hit when we heard how unique it sounded and saw everything that it offered – and the fact that it comes in five colors doesn’t hurt either! It was amazing to see so many people crowding the multi-synth display at NAMM 2017 to experience one at the onset, and it’s been in full swing ever since.
Mike Martin: Our most successful model in 2017 is the Privia PX-560. This type of dual purpose piano plus synthesizer combination has been very successful for Casio beginning with the PX-5S and now also with the PX-560. The HexLayer synthesis technology that is in the PX-560 debuted in Casio’s XW-P1 and extremely expressive and powerful for a wide range of sounds.
Duane McDonald: Though it is classified as a stage piano more than a synth, the RD-2000 has been a tremendous hit for us this year. Customers are drawn to the combination of high quality sound, feel, and control. The ability to control software such as Apple MainStage via a single USB cable has proven very popular. On the true synth side, the System-8 has been very well received. People love the knob-per-function control and the ability to combine multiple PLUG-OUT synth engines, including the new Jupiter-8 and JUNO-106 engines.
Is there a typical customer for your synths and, if so, can you describe the demographic?
JS: I’d say there isn’t, no. Korg’s design philosophy is very much about making their synths accessible; both from a functionality and cost standpoints. As such, we regularly encounter people of all ages, backgrounds, levels of musicianship, financial status and so on using our synths, and being quite passionate about them. microKORG is another great example. With so many sold over its incredible 15 year history, it’s easy to see why so many types of players – even those who don’t consider keyboard their first instrument – embracing them. Tying this back to monologue, there are clear nods to the guitar/bass player in the first-ever E-to-E keyboard, which is sure to expand the reach and usability of this synth for years to come. That’s why “Analog for All” remains a mantra and a direction for Korg.
DM: Most of our customers have more than 10 years of experience playing keyboards. Interestingly, our next largest customer group has been playing for less than a year, indicating that there is a growing user base of new synth players. While we have many professional artists playing our gear, the majority of our customers identify themselves as hobbyists that use our products equally in live and studio environments.
MM: Casio customers cover a wide range of demographics. For years we were known as the beginner brand, but in the last decade this has changed dramatically and we now have professional tour musicians using Casio instruments on stage. The value of Casio instruments attracts those beginners, but the performance and quality of our products is embraced by professionals.
NT: It’s varied. We have a pretty high percentage of people using our synths for professional use so their skill level tends to be high. We also have a pretty large segment of people who don’t have live performance aspirations but they are skilled musicians and/or sound designers.
For dealers who you recognize to be particularly successful with synthesizer sales, what methods have you noticed those operations employing in terms of promotion, display, customer outreach, et cetera?
DM: For online dealers, I think the key is content. The common thread of successful synth dealers is their investment in creating product-related content such as demo videos and articles that engage synth customers. Successful storefronts engage customers in a different way, through meet-ups and user groups. Synth enthusiasts are passionate about gear and how it relates to making music. I think they enjoy events that bring them together to share that experience with other musicians.
MM: Display is very important in the retail space. Many Casio productshave built-in speakers but our most successful dealers are also using studio monitors or other speakers to highlight how remarkable our instruments sound in a live or studio environment. Casio also provides retail displays for a wide variety of our products so they look great in the retail store. Dealers that are also making an effort online with custom-created product videos are even more successful by creating not only awareness about the product but, by showing how their store has the expert staff.
NT: We find the greatest success when dealers create an experience for the customer. For example, dealers that are good at selling studio and recording gear have been successful by pairing our synths with stereo monitoring, speaker stands, all the foot pedals, et cetera. Dealers catering to a live audience will setup our synths in stereo with powered monitors, maybe a small mixer, etc. This gives a customer the complete experience of the environment they’ll be in when they get the instrument home. For online dealers, we find those who create application-specific video content tend to find success. It’s really the online version of the experience. In both cases, we do our best to partner with dealers to help them create these experiences and content.
JS: Straightforward is best when it comes to synth sales. In-store, highlighting a synth with its own set of speakers out on the floor is always best. Sometimes, creatively connecting a couple of items, like a volcakick with a monologue, which can literally create the foundation any style of electronic of music for less than $500 out the door, generates wins. Online retailers are also doing a great job creating their own engaging content in addition to official videos, using a communal approach (reviews) to put their most popular products right at the top of searches gets the customer what they need as fast as they want it.
Are there any significant trends you’ve been noticing of late with respect to the synth market?
MM: Software instruments continue to be very popular, so hardware instruments that integrate easily into the computer music environment are important. Since the introduction of the XW-series synthesizers Casio has embraced this type of integration with iOS and computer environments. Both our XW-series and our PX-5S have the ability to independently control standard MIDI and USB-MIDI ports separately making them the ideal cornerstone of any computer music setup.
JS: The median price for synths seems to be coming down a bit. More and more highly capable and popular entries have been breaching the $500 ceiling over the years.
NT: It’s the single largest growth segment in keyboards over the past three years. People are into synthesizers.
DM: I think we are seeing a trend towards new ways of interacting with the great sounds that synthesizers have been producing for many years. Products that rethink the user interface and focus on helping musicians in the creative process are the most exciting to me.
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