Take the free way
You'll find a multitude of free plugin synths on the internet, but it's fair to say that their quality can be variable.
Lucky for you, then, that we've cherry-picked some of the very best, and you can find out more about them and where they can be download over the course of the next 12 slides. We’ve got virtual analogues, both original and emulative, as well as purely digital offerings that have no precedent in the realm of hardware. Crucially, many of them rival even the most costly commercial offerings.
So, dive in... and happy downloading! For more on making music with freeware, check out the March 2015 issue of Computer Music (CM214), which is in sale now. Also. make sure you check out our guide to the best free VST/AU mixing plugins.
One of the best of the current crop of free virtual synths is Datsounds’ OBXD, an emulation of Oberheim’s legendary OBX and OBXa synths. It excels at the kind of awesomely thick and beefy analogue tones that made the real thing famous.
Green Oak Software Crystal
If any free plugin synth can be called a “classic”, it’s Crystal. Upon its release over a decade ago, it was compared to NI’s Absynth, due to its semi-modular hybrid engine and complex envelope generators. Updates since then have added sample support, wavesequencing and more.
u-he Triple Cheese
For developers, an attractive facet of freeware is that they can play around and experiment without worrying about whether an instrument is commercially viable. As such, there are some terrific experimental freebies out there, and u-he’s Triple Cheese is one of the very best.
Togu Audio Line TAL-NoiseMaker
Togu Audio Line is behind some of the best free and commercial synths and effects you’ll find, including TAL-BassLine-Pro and TAL‑-U-‑NO‑-LX. Choosing our favourite TAL synth is tough, but we’ve gone for TAL‑NoiseMaker. Take a listen to the presets and you'll find some stellar sounds in there, some of which seem to have a life of their own.
u-he Tyrell N6
It’s not often that the sound of a synth leaves us dumbfounded, but that’s exactly what happened when we first tried u-he’s free Tyrell N6. This is a monster of an instrument that, by rights, should be earning piles of cash for its developers - yet here it is, totally free!
Digital Suburban Dexed
FM synthesis made a big splash in 1983,when Yamaha unleashed the mighty DX7. That synth has been emulated many times since, most famously by Native Instruments with FM7/8. Now you can get the open-source Dexed, offering all of the features of the original, and a spot-on sound to boot.
Ichiro Toda Synth1
Any listing of freeware synths would be incomplete without Ichiro Toda’s Nord Lead 2-alike. A powerful homage to a classic hardware VA, Synth1 is a must-have. Dual oscillators, multimode filter, ring and frequency modulation? Sign us up!
Hermann Seib WaveSim
The grandaddy of wavetable synths, the PPG Wave 2.2 (and 2.3), is here emulated to near perfection. All the grit and grunge of the original is present, with its sweepable wavetables and analogue-style filters in full effect. However, it can be something of a head-scratcher and is only available for PC.
Siegfried Kulmann SQ8L
Another classic wavetable synthesizer, Ensoniq’s SQ‑80, has been lovingly recreated as SQ8L. Like WaveSim, it’s a 1:1 copy, and that means the same menu-driven interface as the original. Sampled waveforms are pumped through a traditional analogue signal path for a sound right out of the '80s. Windows-only, again.
Tone2 FireBird 2
Windows users have all the fun. This unusual critter was once a commercial offering, since uncaged for the masses. It combines Tone2’s Harmonic Content Morphing with subtractive synthesis and built-in effects for realistic timbres and crazy soundscapes. The arpeggiator will get your toes tapping, too.
Mark Henning Anamark
Another formerly-payware synth provided free of charge, and yet another Windows-only offering. Anamark combines additive, FM, phase modulation, subtractive synthesis and more in a three-oscillator behemoth with waveshaping and eight filter types. Effects are also included, as are hundreds of presets.
Antoine Missout's SonicBirth
A modular plugin design system. If you’re familiar with the likes of Reaktor and SynthEdit, you’ll feel right at home with SonicBirth, with which Components are wired together to build custom effects and instruments, and the results exported as VST or Audio Units effects. Powerful, but this one’s strictly for Apple users!