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In this guide we’ll find the best sound module for MIDI keyboard for the money.

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  2. Download Integral Sound Cards & Media Devices Driver

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There’s a few options for pros, but also for the beginner and hobbyist. So if you’re on the hunt for the top rated module, or a budget module to jam with, we’ve got you covered.

Quick answer: for general purposes, the Yamaha Motif Rack XS is our top pick for best sound module, followed by the Roland JP-08.

But if you want something cheap and quirky, take a look at the Midiplus miniEngine.

The rest of this guide goes into a few more options, as well as compare them with each other to see which one is the right one for you.

Let’s take a closer look 🙂

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Sound Modules Buying Guide

What is a Sound Module?

Sound modules are electronic musical instruments that offer a wide range of ‘real’ and synthesized sounds.

They do this by way of storing short segments of recorded audio stored in the unit’s internal read-only memory (ROM), that can be triggered by an instrument.

This system has given rise to the term “ROMpler,” which typically refers to devices that play back sampled sounds rather than synthesize different waveforms via analog or digital circuitry. (You can read more about ROMplers from this Wikipedia article).

Because sound modules generally do not have built-in keyboards, they are usually played via a connected MIDI-equipped keyboard. Some keyboards may have built-in sounds or synthesis options of their own, while others simply function as MIDI controllers, without having any sound generation capabilities.

If you’re interested in these controllers to compliment your choice of sound modules, we offer a guide on the best controllers to use.

Typical Features in a Sound Module

A large number of high-quality sounds is always good to have in a sound module.

These devices are typically called upon to replicate a wide variety of instruments–including guitars, drums, reeds, horns, strings, and more–so they will have to cover a lot of sonic ground in addition to being reasonably accurate-sounding and convincing.

Sound

On-board effects are useful additions to any sound module. Apart from enhancing the built-in sounds, the effects section may also be used to process external signals if the device supports this function.

How to Choose a Sound Module

When choosing a sound module, the most important concern is, naturally, if the module has the sounds you’re looking for. As well as how much you like them.

Keep in mind that the sounds are permanently burned into ROM, so you are stuck with them for the duration of the unit’s lifetime whether they’re useful to you or not.

You should therefore choose a sound module that has a sonic character or a palette of sounds that you could definitely use.

Top Sound Modules for MIDI Keyboards

Yamaha Motif Rack XS

See Price @ Amazon

he Yamaha Motif Rack XS is a fully-featured sound module that has a good selection of voices packed into a totally professional looking package. Its pianos are gorgeous, and the lush strings to deep authentic bass, guitars, drums, and more will have you glued to your MIDI keyboard for hours.

Specs and useful features
  • 160 x 64-dot graphic backlit LCD
  • AWM2 tone generator with Expanded Articulation
  • 128-note polyphony
  • 2,670 waveforms
  • 128 Multis
  • Reverb, chorus, EQ, and many more insert and master effects
  • 6,633 different arpeggio types
User Impressions

User reviews of the Motif XS are almost universally favorable. This model seems to have made quite an impression with a broad range of users, from hobbyists and strictly home keyboardists to intermediate players and even working pros. For most, the best features of the Motif XS are its wide range of quality sounds, straightforward user interface, and quality build. The Motif XS has been favorably compared to the full Motif keyboard.

Bottom-line

The Yamaha Motif XS is an great piece of equipment that is way more than just your average sound module. With a host of innovative features that place it close to–if not firmly in–the “pro” category, it is a classy and versatile unit that is well worth the reasonable price tag.

Sound

Roland D-05

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The Roland D-05 is a refreshed version of the classic Roland D-50 digital synth that was released in 1987. One of the classic Roland pieces that featured the now-legendary Linear Synthesis architecture, the D-50 has a new lease on life in the D-05’s updated form.

It’s more than just a rehash though, this new version combines the classic sounds you’ve probably heard on countless records with a bunch of modern performance features and connectivity options that catapult it into the 21st century.

Specs and useful features
  • Digital Circuit Behavior (DCB) modeling
  • Authentic user interface with joystick
  • Original D-50 presets included
  • Compatible with original D-50 patches
  • 64-step, polyphonic sequencer and arpeggiator
  • Battery or USB-powered
  • Built-in powered mini-speaker
User impressions

The Roland D-05 seems to be a popular choice among former users of the original Roland D-50. The addition of an arpeggiator and a sequencer is especially appreciated, due to the modern-day functionality that they provide. For many users, the D-05 sounds indistinguishable from the D-50, with only the modern features and functionalities setting the former apart.

Read the customer reviews on Amazon
Bottom-line

The Roland D-05 is an excellent recreation of a classic sound module that manages to stand on its own merits as well. As the marketing copy says, the D-05 is unabashedly digital, which perhaps explains why it is closer in sound to its predecessor than the (digital) Roland JP-08 is to its analog ancestor. In any case, the D-05 is a truly amazing sound module that provides an excellent combination of classic sounds and modern functionality at a very reasonable price.

Demonstration

Roland JP-08

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The Roland JP-08 is Roland’s own take on the legendary Jupiter 8 synthesizer that played a front and center role in numerous recordings during the 1980s. One of several synths in the celebrated Boutique Series, the JP-08 recreates the warm, rich tones of its predecessor via the much-touted Analog Circuit Behavior modeling technology.

But the Roland JP-08 is more than just a digital version of the Jupiter 8. A host of modern features have been added that make this unit capable of handling most studio or stage demands. And when hooked up to a good MIDI keyboard, the Roland JP-08 becomes a formidable instrument in its own right.

Specs and useful features
  • 36 knobs and sliders
  • More LFO waveforms
  • Increased VCO range
  • Can chain two modules together for eight-voice polyphony
  • 16-step, 16-pattern step sequencer
  • Ribbon controllers for pitch bend and modulation
  • Battery or USB-powered
  • Built-in mini speaker
  • Can be used as a 24-bit/44.1kHz USB audio interface
User impressions

Despite early misgivings about a digital recreation of a classic Roland analog, many users seem to have come around to appreciating the Roland JP-08 for what it is: a great-sounding and versatile sound module that has its own unique charm. Many users appreciate having access to such a wide variety of sounds, which range from bowel-shaking subs to brash and cutting cross-modulated mayhem.

Read the customer reviews on Amazon
Bottom-line

The Roland JP-08 is something of a wild card in this roundup, as it is a digital model of an analog synthesizer as opposed to a multi-timbral sound module with a large selection of bread-and-butter waveforms. Nonetheless, it does a bang-up job of recreating the warm and rich sounds of its analog predecessor, and it becomes a truly magnificent instrument when hooked up to a good MIDI keyboard.

Demonstration

Behringer Crave

See Price @ Amazon or Sweetwater

Behringer has been on quite a roll recently, producing variations and outright clones of classic synthesizer designs at rock-bottom prices. The Crave isn’t quite a rehash of any particular vintage instrument, but it does share many features of a fairly recent release by a legendary synth manufacturer.

In any case, Behringer claims that the Crave combines features from the most revered analog synthesizers of the 1970s. It has a semi-modular design that promises versatile sound design potential in module form.

Basic specs and useful features

At the core of Crave is a VCO that draws inspiration from the legendary Prophet synth, which is coursed through a 24dB four-pole filter based on a classic Moog design. The filter can be switched between low- and high-pass modes, giving you a bit of flexibility to shape your sounds.

Crave also has a 32-step sequencer so you can craft bass lines and sequences even without a controller keyboard hooked up. And unlike that ‘other’ synthesizer with which it shares many features, Crave has a pretty versatile arpeggiator with a suitably wide range that allows you to come up with some creative patterns.

User impressions

Even with its budget price tag, Crave consistently managed to impress users with its excellent build and convincing analog sounds. Many actually find it easier to use than the synthesizer it is often compared with, due to the larger buttons and interchangeable patch cables.

Bottom-line

Behringer Crave is an impressive-sounding analog monosynth that deserves a place in anyone’s set up. At this price, there really is no good reason not to get one.

Moog Mother-32

See Price @ Amazon or Sweetwater

The ‘Moog’ name should be recognizable to anyone that has a passing interest in synths. Responsible for some of the most coveted synthesizers in history, the company has produced some truly lust-worthy instruments whose cost has unfortunately made them out of reach to cash-strapped musicians. With the release of the Mother-32 however, classic fat and juicy Moog tones are now available to analog fans on a budget.

Basic specs and useful features

The Mother-32 is a semi-modular monosynth in Eurorack format. The oscillator section features saw and pulse waves along with noise. You also get the ability to modulate pulse width for some of the biggest and widest monosynth lines you’ve ever heard.

All these pass through the characteristic fat and juicy Moog ladder filters, which can be switched between low- and high-pass settings. There are also loads of patch points that provide abundant options for shaping sounds, and a 32-step sequencer.

User impressions

Users of the Mother-32 were initially skeptical of the ability of the single oscillator to produce big Moog sounds. These fears were quickly laid to rest once the classic raw and ripping sounds issued forth from the bowels of the beast. The filter itself was no surprise, pumping out everything from warm and smooth tones to squiggly funk lines and everything in between. For most users, the Mother-32 is every bit a modern classic.

Bottom-line

The Mother-32 holds up the Moog tradition admirably, with a distinctively warm and chunky sonic character. If you’ve been craving classic Moog tones but have never had the budget for it, the Moog Mother-32 is the ideal entry point for you.

Midiplus S-Engine

See Price @ Amazon

The Midiplus S-Engine is an affordably-priced General MIDI (GM) module that delivers surprisingly decent quality over its wide range of sounds. Ideally suited for those that simply want to plug in a MIDI keyboard and start playing immediately, the S-Engine is perfect for beginners while providing enough functionality for more demanding users as well.

Furthermore, the addition of several sounds from E-MU’s Classic Keys module makes this a surprisingly versatile and respectable-sounding unit that won’t break the bank.

Specs and useful features
  • E-MU 8030-based sound-engine
  • 128-voice polyphony
  • Over 192 sounds, with 64 custom E-MU Classic Keys programs
  • Full GM bank with drums
  • 16-part multi-timbral
  • Reverb and Chorus effects
  • 4-segment display
  • hi-Z guitar input (1/4″ jack)
User impressions

User feedback on the S-Engine frequently make mention of the surprisingly decent sound quality. Although the sounds produced by this minuscule marvel probably won’t win any awards for complexity and realism, the general consensus is that they are much better than most would have expected.

Other comments mention the unit’s solid build and hefty feel. That being said, there have been some complaints regarding poor quality control.

Read the customer reviews on Amazon
Bottom-line

The Midiplus S-Engine is a great way to have a good selection of GM voices right at your fingertips. The sound quality is surprisingly good for such a low-cost device, and the addition of 64 sounds from E-MU’s well-respected Classic Keys module is a welcome bonus. Hook this baby up to your MIDI keyboard, and you could have hours of fun.

Midiplus miniEngine

See Price @ Amazon

The Midiplus miniEngine is an even lower-priced sound module than the S-Engine, yet it packs many of the same sounds, features, and functionalities of its slightly higher-priced sibling. Although none of the 128 GM sounds onboard are likely to make it into a major label production any time soon, they are more than adequate for those times that you simply want to plug in a MIDI keyboard and jam away. A pretty decent-sounding module that costs peanuts, the Midiplus miniEngine makes for a nice stocking-stuffer for budding MIDI musicians.

Specs and useful features
  • Maximum polyphony: 64 notes
  • Instruments: 128 GM voices
  • Rechargeable internal battery
  • Class-compliant USB interface
  • Three-digit LED
User impressions

The Midiplus miniEngine firmly targets the beginner and hobbyist segments of the market, although it has managed to impress more experienced players as well. The quality of the internal sounds is generally considered acceptable–if not especially outstanding–and the fact that there is a good number of them further adds to its appeal.

User complaints about the Midiplus miniEngine range from noisy outputs to the blandness of some of the built-in sounds.

Read the customer reviews on Amazon.
Bottom-line

The Midiplus miniEngine doesn’t really have much of anything that will persuade experienced players to purchase it instead of the many other sound modules out there. Of course it is priced extremely low, which should make it appeal to budget-minded MIDI-based musicians.

Demonstration

Final Thoughts

As far as sound modules go, the Yamaha Motif XS stands well apart from all the others in this roundup.

The innovative features, the huge selection of top-quality sounds, the absolutely superb arpeggiator–all these qualities make for a truly impressive sound module. It even has an excellent effects processor that will measure up proudly against much pricier standalone units.

It has to be said that the two Roland’s reviewed here–the D-05 and the JP-08–have some intriguing qualities as well. Providing a sharp contrast to the analog flavors of the JP-08, the D-05 is perhaps closer in spirit to the other sound modules in this lineup, due to its selection of on-board waveforms.

And of course, it draws heavily on the formidable heritage of the D-50 as well. In any case, both boutique offerings are excellent sound modules that provide near-endless sonic possibilities between them.

As for the midiPlus S-Engine and the miniEngine …they really are quite the oddballs in this rodeo, with a sound quality that is more accurately described as ‘passable’ rather than ‘outstanding’.

Although they do have moments when they manage to somehow punch above their weight, they’re ideal if you’re a beginner or a hobbyist looking for something cheap and quirky.

Despite their different appearances, the Behringer Crave and the Moog Mother-32 are practically the same synths. The patch points are virtually identical, and apart from the arpeggiator in the Crave, all other features are pretty much the same.

Both the Crave and the Mother-32 are equally capable of cranking out warm and thick analog tones. If you are in the market for a huge sounding analog monosynth, you really can’t go wrong with either one. Ultimately, your choice between the two would come down to your budget and whether or not you need an onboard arpeggiator.

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This post was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect changes in the industry.

Cover image via Oleksandr_Delyk.

Download Integral Sound Cards & Media Devices Driver

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