Your sonic weapons of choice
While you could argue that large parts of the hardware synth industry are stuck in the past, with revivals of yesteryear’s instruments dominating the agenda, the software sound-making market continues to move forward.
Sure, we’re still seeing plenty of familiar-looking subtractive synths, but they’re now coming with increasingly sophisticated feature sets, and sound better than ever. Elsewhere, all manner of different synthesis types are being explored, while modular environments enable you to create the instruments of your dreams. At the opposite end of the scale, there are also preset-orientated plugins that suit those who just want to plug in and play.
In short, you’re spoilt for choice: no matter what kind of synth sound you want to make, or how you want to go about making it, there’s an instrument that will meet your requirements.
In fine MusicRadar tradition, we recently asked you to vote for your very favourite VST/AU plugin synth, and you did so in your thousands (thanks for that). Based entirely on your votes, we’ve whittled down the exhaustive list of runners and riders to the top 50, so let’s find out which instruments you’re loving most in 2016...
Sugar Bytes Obscurium
Describing Obscurium in a single sentence isn't easy, but 'hybrid virtual analogue and FM synth with 16-lane modulation sequencer, chord generator sequencer and arpeggiator' is close enough.
With the press of a single key, Obscurium can create massively complex evolving riffs and patterns. You can also disable the pitch functions and play it like a regular MIDI synth, but its real value is undoubtedly as a source of track-starting ideas.
Despite its apparent complexity, using Obscurium quickly becomes second nature. We can't think of a synth that makes it easier or quicker to create complex, unique patches, and as the selection of over 400 presets demonstrates, it's surprisingly versatile.
If you make any kind of electronic music, are involved in sound design or produce music for visual media or games, you owe it to yourself to try this remarkable instrument.
Steinberg Padshop Pro
The idea behind Padshop Pro is that sounds can be chopped into 'grains', the playback of which can be manipulated in various ways.
Padshop Pro utterly transforms samples, but it's not all about out-there sound design. The included string patches demonstrate that it can also be used to add subtle movement to otherwise static samples, while a grand piano sound is subjected to an echoing Eno-esque ambience. You can also import your own samples.
With a decent selection of effects, Padshop Pro makes granular synthesis easy and fun.
Wolfgang Palm PPG WaveGenerator
WaveGenerator takes the original PPG Wave concept and adds to it the ability to modify and create your own waveforms. It comes with a library of factory waves stored in wavetables, many of which are sourced from the original Wave synths.
These are loaded into the easy access Wave Grid on the right, which can house up to 256 waves in its 16x16 matrix. The wavetable is manipulated to generate evolving sounds, as the 'playback head' travels through it.
WaveGenerator is an incredibly powerful and - once you understand what it does and how it does it - surprisingly approachable synth. Nonetheless, we were still glad to see over 700 presets in its locker, lovingly designed by a number of producers.
Wave Generator is a stupendous synth - incredibly creative and sonically superlative. It does have its idiosyncrasies, certainly, not to mention a reasonably steep learning curve; but what you get back from it makes the effort more than worth it.
XILS-Lab XILS 4
The VCS 4 was a prototype synth from EMS which combined two VCS3s in one unit (with additional interconnectivity) and the bonus of a 256-step digital sequencer.
XILS 4 is an emulation: the two VCS3s are displayed side by side in the plugin window. Each synth has six oscillators grouped in three pairs named Osc 1-3, and features the classic pin matrix for routing.
There's no denying that XILS4 is big and complicated, presenting you with a huge number of possibilities and lots to get to grips with. However, it sounds fabulous, and the time spent learning its subtleties will be well spent..
READ: XILS-Lab XILS 4 review
GForce Software Oddity2
Released in 2002, the original Oddity perfectly captured the character of the original ARP Oddysey upon which it was based. And that must have posed a bit of a problem for GForce: how could something so on-the-nose be improved for v2?
Well, if Oddity sounded like a real Odyssey (which it did), then Oddity2 sounds almost like an entire revision history of the instrument, thanks to its greatly expanded filters, supercharged by the X-LFO and X-ADSR, which give it the ability it to produce sounds of far greater complexity than could ever be had from the original. Oh, and it's polyphonic now, too.
So, what we have here is a spot-on emulation of the classic ARP Odyssey in its various incarnations, with some very well thought-out new features as well. Essential.
BUY: GForce Software Oddity2 currently available from:
Togu Audio Line TAL-BassLine 101
The name Roland isn't mentioned anywhere on Togu Audio Line's website, but both the name and shape of its new TAL-BassLine-101 plugin (VST/AU) blatantly recall the ever-popular SH-101.
TAL-Bassline-101 appears only slightly more complex than the original - mainly because you can actually see what's going on in the sequencer/arpeggiator section. Also, as you'd expect, TAL-BassLine-101 is polyphonic, although it can also operate in mono mode if you want it to.
The sound of TAL-BassLine-101 is staggeringly similar to that of the SH-101. Even the basic default patch left us with eyes wide and mouths agape. We've used plenty of SH-101s in our time, both real and virtual, but this baby truly nails it.
FXpansion DCAM: Synth Squad
It took FXpansion a surprisingly long time to get into the commercial soft synth market, but when it finally did, it was with a collection of three instruments (plus a shell that enables you to layer them up, add effects and more).
The instruments in question are Strobe (an analogue-style subtractive model), Amber (for creating string machine sounds) and Cypher (a versatile beast that specialises in audio-rate modulation).
DCAM is full of nice touches - there’s a particularly impressive modulation system -and, taken as a whole, can produce a wide range of awesome sounds. It can be complex, but get to know it and you’ll have a synth friend for life.
FabFilter Twin 2
FabFilter Twin 2 sports three oscillators, four filters with a variety of modes, and a clever modulation routing system that gives you plenty of creative possibilities. This is all packed into a slick interface that makes the synth easy to use.
That said, Twin 2 is still relatively light on features in comparison to some of its rivals. However, what it lacks in breadth, it makes up for in depth. It’s great fun to program and play, and in terms of pure sonic beef, it even gives Sylenth1 a run for its money.
READ: FabFilter Twin 2 review
BUY: FabFilter Twin 2 currently available from:
AAS Ultra Analog VA-2
Ultra Analog's architecture is based on twin signal paths - two oscillators, two filters, two VCAs... you get the picture. Basic controls are always visible for the oscillators, while the two filter/LFO/VCA paths are selected using the big tabs in the middle.
We had to wait some seven years for version two of this synth, and its core hasn't really changed. But then, adding a swathe of new features would diminish one of Ultra Analog's selling points: its ease of use.
Is it worth the asking price? Just about, yes, although competition is fierce. VA-2's simplicity and presets make it appealing to less seasoned synthesists, though, while its sound quality will draw in the diehards.
GForce ImpOSCar 2
GForce Software released impOSCar, a software emulation of the Oxford Synthyesizer Company’s OSCar, in 2003. It was true to the original, but with the addition of polyphony and an effects section.
Thanks to a combination of feedback from impOSCar users and expert ideas of its own, GForce has come up with a logical evolution in impOSCar 2. Sonically, this is a step up from the original, and offers a massive unison mode, a great patch library and a new Aux Mod section.
This all adds up to a synth that’s not just a straight emulation, but a highly impressive instrument in its own right.
READ: GForce ImpOSCar 2 review
BUY: GForce ImpOSCar 2 currently available from:
Electra2 is the second generation of Tone2's ElectraX, a synthesiser workstation comprising four layers (each one effectively a whole synth in itself), designed to deliver synth sounds of pretty much every conceivable kind.
New features include an expanded library (1180 presets) plus a full preset browser with auditioning keyboard, expanded handling of imported samples, improved effects, five new filter types, and the addition of physical modelling synthesis.
Electra2 is a powerful synth with a lot going for it. The presets prove that it can throw heavy punches in almost any arena, adapting its synthesis style to even the broadest ambitions.
READ: Tone2 Electra2 review
Dimitry Sches Diversion
Diversion's feature list is something of a synth programmer's wet dream. It all begins with the four oscillators, and these are routed through twin buses that sport some of the most comprehensive multimode filters we've ever seen
Diversion's extended feature-set enables the sound designer to program far more detail into the patches than in the average synth, and you also get effects, an arpeggiator and a trance gate to get the creative chi flowing.
In summary, Diversion is definitely one of the best synths going for sound quality, usability and features, although you shouldn’t expect your DAW to run more than a few instances of it in real-time.
READ: Dimitry Sches Diversion
So called because it allows you to put Any Cable Anywhere, ACE is a semi-modular synth that doesn’t differentiate between audio signals and modulation sources. This gives you an enormous amount of flexibility when it comes to patch creation although, because ACE’s modules are pre-routed in a standard configuration, it’s also usable before you start playing with the cables.
ACE isn’t quite as accessible as u-he might claim - and it imposes a heavy CPU hit - but it’s still a winner. Why? Because it sounds gloriously analogue and, at just €69, comes at a fantastic price.
READ: u-he ACE review
Sonic Charge Synplant
If a prize was being awarded for the most unusual looking soft synth on the market, Synplant might very well win it. Coming from the man behind Reason’s Malström, it enables you to ‘grow’ sounds by dragging ‘branches’ from a seed that sits in the centre of the interface, and these branches can then be used as starting points themselves.
Sound design in Synplant is an organic experience in every sense of the word, though you can get more techy in the genome panel. The synth can produce a wide range of tones, and is a great alternative to have when your main instrument(s) isn’t inspiring you.
REVIEW: Sonic Charge Synplant review
With Nemesis, Tone2 claims to have invented a new form of FM synthesis in the shape of 'NeoFM'. The general thrust of this is a combination of FM/PM (Phase Modulation) synthesis, but presented in a more flexible way than has been seen before, and with a more approachable interface.
Nemesis centres on a twin-oscillator architecture, with two waveforms per oscillator. Within each oscillator, the waveforms are suitably labelled Modulator (M) and Carrier (C), but they aren't limited to sine waves, as is the case with the most basic FM synths.
The 1000+ presets have a bias towards contemporary and progressive club sounds, including tons of arps and sequences. Some of the patches are a little too processed, but underlying that is a very clean and upfront sound, and a definite sensation of your ears being plugged straight into the oscillators - in a good way!
Nemesis is an impressive feat of soft synth engineering, offering enough depth to keep serious tweakers happy and good accessibility for everyone else.
READ: Tone2 Nemesis review
Sonic Academy ANA
ANA is an acronym for 'Analogue Noise Attack', which refers to the three very different oscillator types found in Sonic Academy's 4-oscillator debut synth.
In addition to three standard ADSR envelopes (amp, filter and one assignable), ANA also offers a nifty G Envelope. Syncable, loopable and with up to 16 stages, this hand-drawn modulator can be used to create everything from rhythmic pseudo-sequences to rapid-fire trills.
Other mod sources include a couple of syncable LFOs and a pair of slots for routing external controls (and all internal modulators) to all viable targets. ANA's dual filters, meanwhile, can be run either in series or parallel.
Obviously, ANA isn't just another 'me too' virtual analogue synth, and the instrument is capable of some terrific sounds.
READ: Sonic Academy ANA review
This is the successor to Trilogy - the bass instrument that was released in 2003 - and the second product (after Omnisphere) to be powered by Spectrasonics’ Steam engine.
The 34GB library contains acoustic and electronic bass samples, and patches are built from one or two layers (up to eight patches can be layered together to create a multi). A serious number of processing options are onboard, though the simple interface means that you never feel overwhelmed.
If you own Trilian, it’s hard to imagine that you’ll ever need to look anywhere else for your bass sounds, and that’s got to go down as a high recommendation.
AudioRealism Bass Line 3
One of the most revered Roland TB-303 emulations around, the long awaited update to Swedish developer AudioRealism's Bass Line finally arrived early in 2016. and it’s a cracker.
With the essential sound-shaping controls at the top - mirroring those of the real thing - it's in the pattern editing department (and improved emulation algorithms) that ABL3 most obviously improves on its predecessor.
It was already one of the best-loved 303 emulations on the market, but ABL3 blows the competition (including ABL2) out of the water in almost every respect. It sounds better, is immeasurably easier to use and looks gorgeous.
MPowerSynth is a three-oscillator instrument (VST/VST3/AU) with a noise generator, two filters and effects. Simple enough on paper, but in typical Melda style, this one goes way beyond the basics.
At its core are three ultra-flexible aliasing-free oscillators, each operable in one of two modes: Normal or Harmonics.
Despite a rather uninspiring GUI, MPowerSynth definitely lives up to its confident name. Our only major criticism is that the CPU hit can easily head skyward as patches get complex, but other than that, this is an awesomely powerful, great-sounding synth that everyone needs to hear and try.
Included with Cubase 6.5 and also available on its own as a plugin, Retrologue is a virtual analogue synth that holds no major surprises but sounds superb.
Two oscillators (with up to eight unison voices each, PWM, hard sync and cross-modulation options) plus noise and a sub feed into a 12-mode resonant filter with onboard distortion. Two envelopes and a pair of LFOs shake the basic sound up and delay and chorus/flanger effects bring some polish.
Best of all, Retrologue sounds incredible - every bit as good as many synths costing three times as much. Basses bounce, leads scream and pads scintillate.
Madrona Labs Aalto
Inspired by analogue synth legend Don Buchla's legendary and quirky units, Aalto is brimming with features that provide an alternative to common methods of sound design, composition and performance. It's a semi-modular instrument, so it offers a fixed number of synthesis components, but these can be freely patched together.
Right from first launch, it's obvious that we're in new territory here. Aalto's GUI is divided into two sections. The top half of the interface sports most of the modulation and control sources, while the lower half provides oscillator, filter and other audio-level modules.
Madrona Labs has gone out on a limb with an instrument that can at first seem intimidating, but really isn't too hard to grasp. It sounds rich, evocative and wonderfully weird at times -if you got into synths because you wanted to explore new sonic territory, check it out.
D16 Group Lush-101
Rather than create a literal clone of Roland’s SH-101, with Lush-101 D16 has doubled the number of envelopes and LFOs, made it 32-voice polyphonic and added modern refinements and effects.
Oh, and, crucially, LuSH-101 is actually a monster stack of eight SH-101s: each is called a Layer and all are operated totally independently, brought together - along with a useful collection of effects - at the built-in final mixer stage.
This is one seriously great-sounding synth. Whether you're after basses, chords, pads or anything in between, there are simply no weak links. Even after 30 years of progress, some great ideas just don't go out of fashion.
Rob Papen Blue II
The original Blue was built around what the developer called “crossfusion” synthesis, combining familiar analogue subtractive synthesis with old-school 6-operator FM, along with a bit of phase distortion and wave shaping. It also threw in such extra niceties as step sequencing, multistage envelope generators, dual effects processors and loads of additive and digital waveforms to complement the standard analogue fare.
In Blue II, each of the six oscillators now sports even more waveforms, more than double the number of filter modes, and double the number of effects slots. There are plenty of other new features, too, but the takeaway message is that Blue II sounds at turns lush, deep, complex and alive, or biting, aggressive and modern.
A truly sophisticated synth offering endless programming possibilities, Blue II is worth every penny.
READ: Rob Papen Blue II review
Arturia Oberheim SEM V
The SEM is legendary precisely because it does things differently to most other synths. The basic synth architecture is fairly standard: the SEM is a monophonic synth with two oscillators (pulse and sawtooth waves), two ADSD envelope generators and a sine wave LFO.
Needless to say, the SEM V's architecture is an accurate recreation of the SEM's set-up. Tune the VCOs, apply some envelope modulation to the filter and you're immediately in classic SEM territory, wallowing in fat basses and warm, funky leads.
As a straight emulation the SEM V ticks all the boxes, but the software has so much more to offer when you explore it in greater depth: small but effective additions to the SEM design, advanced voice editing features and, of course, an excellent polyphonic mode.
Chipspeech is another old-school endeavour from Plogue, and recreates the sounds of a selection of primitive speech synthesis systems, turning them into musical instruments via MIDI input. This enables the user to create potentially very complex melodic or even chordal lyrical sequences in their DAW.
The software interprets English text typed into the text box using the CMU Pronouncing Dictionary, and it works brilliantly for the most part. Control, Modulation and Mix pages provide a wealth of controls for fine-tuning the sound of each engine, and there's plenty of scope for creating weird and wonderful voices, and tweaking them for maximum intelligibility.
If you’re searching for a unique new way to create your own electronic vocals, Chipspeech could fit the bill.
READ: Plogue Chipspeech review
Native Instruments Razor
Razor is based on additive synthesis, with up to 320 partials (individual sine waves). While additive synthesis has a reputation for being a tad 'scientific', Razor is very friendly, presented in the guise of a typical modern synth, with two oscillators, twin filters, and three effects sections: Dissonance, Stereo and Dynamics.
You’ll find that ripping DnB/dubstep noises are shockingly easy to dial in, but bumpin' basses and sweet pads/leads are readily had too.
We'll admit that we were initially a tad sceptical about Razor, it being 'just' a Reaktor-based affair and entirely additive. However, it actually makes additive synthesis not just palatable but downright desirable.
BUY: Native Instruments Razor currently available from:
Rob Papen Predator
On the surface, Predator's feature set looks very familiar: three oscillators are pumped through a multimode filter and a handful of modulation sources. These functions are augmented by an assortment of effects and the now-obligatory arpeggiator.
However, you shouldn't be fooled by this apparent simplicity: the devil, as they say, is in the details, and it's only when you start poking the parameters that Predator's powerful punch really becomes apparent.
It's easy to forge sounds of real depth and sophistication without getting sidetracked by arcane algorithms and impenetrable parameters. Needless to say, Predator comes packed with a plethora of presets from Papen himself.
Powerful, easy to get into and with awesome sounds, Predator is a no-brainer for dance musicians and a must-try synth for anyone else.
Togu Audio Line TAL-U-NO-LX
TAL-U-NO-LX is a beefed up variation on TAL's excellent (and free) TAL-U-NO-62, a lovingly realised clone of Roland's Juno-60. It's bigger, using up a lot more screen real estate and thus making it much easier to tweak, especially on the fly.
More importantly, though, the code has been reworked from the ground up and makes use of a zero-feedback delay filter design that makes this new version sound a lot more realistic.
TAL-U-NO-LX stays quite faithful to the spirit of the original Juno series and the sound is very good indeed. It has that Roland snap and spike, belting out sounds to set your fillings rattling.
Launched in 1977, Yamaha's CS-80 synth was a heavyweight in every conceivable way, and has since taken on classic status.
Arturia's emulation is now more than a decade old, so could almost be seen as a vintage software instrument, but with the company's TAE (True Analogue Emulation) technology at its core, the CS-80V remains a hugely popular plugin.
That, quite simply, is down to the fact that it does such a great job of emulating Yamaha's beast, nailing not only the sound of the oscillators, but also its signature ring modulator and pretty much every other aspect of its analogue tone. Sure, there are other synths out there that can produce similar results, but if you want to feel like you're playing and programming a slice of history, the CS-80V still has plenty to recommend about it.
Native Instruments Monark
Operating within NI's Reaktor or Reaktor Player, Monark emulates the classic Minimoog synth. It's faithful to the original save a few small differences, many of them behind the scenes. The Mini's selection of six waveforms are emulated (with Osc 3 getting a reverse saw that mirrors that of the other oscillators), and so are all six pitch ranges.
The filter section is the highlight of the instrument. Of course, the Mini's 24dB low-pass model is here and spotlighted, but you can also choose from two more low-pass filters (6 and 12dB) or a 12dB band-pass.
There are some other deviations from the original Minimoog architecture, too, but this is fundamentally a great emulation. Monark is in line with other modern vintage clones and sounds as good as - if not better - than, any of them.
Combining powerful digital oscillators with an analogue-style semi-modular architecture, Bazille is a sound designer's dream come true.
It's packed with an awful lot of stuff, yet still it manages to be more than the sum of its parts. Its clever architecture makes it fun and creative to program; its superb, utterly convincing 'analogue' sound marks it out as a brilliant production tool; and its broad array of features give it extraordinary flexibility and obvious longevity.
In fact, Bazille stands as a genuinely viable alternative to a hardware semi-modular system, being more powerful in some areas, and far cheaper and more convenient.
For synth connoisseurs, then, Bazille represents pure, unadulterated bliss.
Native Instruments FM8
Anyone who was using synths in the ‘80s will know all about Yamaha’s DX7, which became the FM (frequency modulation) synth that everyone wanted to own.
The FM8, which emulates said hardware, is now practically legendary too. Not only does it sound great, but it also makes the notoriously difficult process of FM programming much simpler, even going so far as to offer an Easy editing page for beginners. Those who want to get their hands dirtier can go the Expert page.
If you’ve had your fill of analogue-style synths, FM8 is a great place to go next.
REVIEW: Native Instruments FM8 review
Element is, at its most fundamental level, a two-oscillator subtractive synth. However, there's also a sub-oscillator available and an independent noise generator, so you won't have to give up either oscillator to add a little whoosh and weight to your patches.
As you'd expect, you'll also find a filter, modulation sources and an assortment of effects, and Waves has done a good job in providing a simple, one-screen interface with plenty of thoughtful touches.
It's hardly revolutionary, but Element is an excellent workaday synth (albeit quite an expensive one) that's easy to use and sounds utterly authentic, with a phat, rounded analogue tone.
READ: Waves Element review
It looked as if Z3TA+ was going nowhere (in terms of development at least), until v2 was unexpectedly released in 2011.
While the interface has had a significant functional and aesthetic makeover, the synthesis architecture hasn't changed. However, the sound quality stands up to other modern soft synths, especially since it's now more feasible to pile on lots of oscillators and leave the 2x oversampling on as standard.
Those who will get the most out of Z3TA+ 2 will be hardcore synthesists and sound designers, for whom a world of aural exploration awaits.
READ: Cakewalk Z3TA+2 review
BUY: Cakewalk Z3TA+2 currently available from:
Native Instruments Absynth 5
Absynth has traditionally had a reputation as the serious sound designer’s synth of choice (or one of them at any rate). Perhaps as a result, it’s also been perceived as slightly scary and intense.
The latest version (5) of the synth hasn’t really done much to change its image. With new effects and filter improvements, it can great even more complex tones than before but, although the Mutator effect enables you to morph a preset into something else just by choosing descriptive tags, the interface is still complex and intimidating. As always, though, the sound is first-rate.
Synapse Audio Dune 2
Dune 2 is a synth plugin that' built around Synapse Audio's eight-layer Differential Unison Engine concept.
Between its well-equipped oscillators and flexible zero-delay feedback filters, the overall sound of Dune 2 is distinctly clean and rich in character. This is definitely one of those all-rounders that can deliver most of the sounds you're ever likely to want from a synth, from lush pads to thick basses and soaring leads. As well as its extensive feature set, it also boasts impeccable sound quality and unbelievably low host system resource usage.
If the original Dune was something of an under-rated gem, the remake is surely destined for modern classic status.
iZotope Iris 2
With a slicker interface, improved effects, rejigged samples and preset library, and vastly extended modulation options, Iris 2 feels more like a synth in the conventional sense than the original Iris, which was decidedly esoteric in its presentation.
Nonetheless, the central conceit remains the same. You still have four sample layers (although all of them can now load any type of sample, rather than three sample layers and a dedicated sub oscillator), which are edited in the Spectrogram window.
The inclusion of the new classic oscillator bank and new modulation options take this plugin in new and exciting directions, building on its spectral foundations to deliver more 'music- friendly' sounds.
It can be a little demanding on the host CPU, but when a synth sounds this good, that's to be expected. Iris 2 is, without doubt, one of the finest virtual instruments ever made.
READ: iZotope Iris 2 review
With its eyes firmly set on Sylenth1's virtual analogue crown, the formidable u-he has confidently stepped into the ring with an all-new new synth boasting an extremely similar architecture, plus a few enticing extras to sweeten the deal.
The main difference between Hive and Sylenth1 are the oscillators. Whereas Sylenth1 has four oscillators, each capable of up to eight-voice unison detune, Hive has two, each running up to 16-voice unison.
In terms of its feature set, Hive represents a quantifiable improvement over Sylenth1, but when it comes to the all-important - and subjective - question of how good it sounds... Well, that's open to debate.
Sylenth1 has a duller but warmer timbre that's ideal for impersonating analogue synths, while Hive is more modern-sounding, fizzier and punchier. As such, it could easily become your most-used virtual analogue synth.
Image-Line positions Harmor as an 'additive/subtractive' synthesiser, but there's no doubt that the emphasis is on the former. Even typically subtractive elements like the filter are achieved via additive technology.
Some things are familiar, but Harmor can be a bit intimidating on first blush. However, it quickly reveals its secrets to those who persevere - we urge potential customers not to be put off by its unfamiliar look and terminology.
There is a richness in tone here that, frankly, took us by surprise, and sound designers will find a lifetime's worth of inspiration.
READ: Image-Line Harmor review
u-he Zebra 2
Originally a word-of-mouth success on the Mac, Zebra has since earned its PC stripes, too, bringing its all-round awesomeness to a much wider audience.
It’s a wireless (no patch cables) semi-modular synth that supports a variety of techniques. Its main focus is on subtractive synthesis, but the inclusion of FM and additive elements means the tones you can get from this instrument are more complex than those that can be produced by many others.
The presets do a good job of showing off what Zebra is capable of, but this is also a powerful sound design tool, and one that can prove to be seriously addictive. It isn’t strictly a beginners’ synth, but pretty much anyone should be able to get decent results with it.
READ: u-he Zebra 2 review
Nexus2 isn’t as feature-packed as some of the synths in our rundown - indeed, some purists might argue that it isn’t really a ‘proper synth’ at all - but if your priority is to have great sounds out of the box, it’s hard to fault.
This is an instrument that’s specifically designed for producers of contemporary dance music, with the supplied Dance Vol 2 preset expansion pack containing 128 patches for use in trance, electro house and hard dance styles. Presets can be tweaked with a range of sound-shaping tools, and both the arpeggiator and trancegate are impressive. The Mix screen enables you to adjust individual layers - each patch can have up to four - and there are some good effects, too.
Slick and inspiring, Nexus2 definitely stands out.
READ: ReFX Nexus2 review
Falcon expands massively on UVI’s previous UVI Workstation instrument, offering much more in the way of editing and other forms of synthesis.
Falcon's patches are constructed from Oscillators, Effects, Modulators and Events (MIDI generators), dragged into the main interface from the Browser. It launches with the central pane showing the Main view, which houses five tabbed pages - Info, Edit, Effects, Events and Mods - and switches to represent the currently selected Part.
Falcon is an ambitious, powerful instrument of a type that certainly doesn't come along every day. Two main factors turbocharge its essentially fairly straightforward architecture: the number of simultaneous Oscillators, Keygroups and Layers being limited only by the power of the host CPU; and Effects and Modulators being applicable at the Keygroup, Layer and Program levels, with Events at Layer and Program levels.
Falcon has enough flexibility to serve as your primary source for all manner of sounds - although you'll probably need to buy a few UVI Soundbanks to achieve that goal.
Reveal Sound Spire
Listening to the demos and perusing the presets and parameters, you might be inclined to classify Reveal Sound's cross-platform VST/AU synthesiser as yet another trance 'n' dance machine. And it may indeed be geared up for just that, with its fat unison oscillators and big, brash, bombastic tones.
Yet it only takes a little digging to unearth some clever and unusual features that give Spire the ability to do things you wouldn't expect from a typical virtual analogue synth.
Although it does have some quirks, ultimately, Spire sounds terrific, generating everything from huge, brassy unison timbres to crystalline digital tones.
Native Instruments Reaktor 6
For the uninitiated, Reaktor is a modular audio generation and processing environment with a graphical interface that can be run standalone or as an instrument or effect plugin.
The main thing that Reaktor 6 adds to the mix is the modular hardware-like Blocks - a sort of equivalent of Doepfer's A-100 (more commonly known as Eurorack) hardware spec. Blocks make Reaktor 6 akin to having an enormous modular analogue synth in your laptop.
The various oscillators and filters sound utterly fantastic, and if you're after analogue-style sounds in your DAW, Reaktor 6 is among the best - very possibly the best - we've heard to date, with unmatchable flexibility.
Reaktor 6 is a phenomenal update that improves on NI's already amazing software in practically every area. It’s a must-buy for any self-respecting computer musician who's able to negotiate a bit of a learning curve.
Two or three oscillators, multimode filters, dual envelope generators, a couple of LFOs and some effects. You've seen it all before - or so you might think.
Diva isn’t a clone of any specific synth; instead it provides elements from various famous instruments, all deeply analysed and meticulously recreated with excruciating attention to detail.
Diva's got everything you need to carve out any basic analogue sound, and then some. It's meat and potatoes with added spice, and digging beneath the surface, you'll find plenty of advanced features such as powerful modulation options and per-voice fine-tuning. If your computer is powerful enough you'd be crazy not to check this one out.
READ: u-he Diva review
On the face of it, you might wonder why Sylenth1 is so popular. It looks like (and is) yet another virtual analogue subtractive synth with four oscillators, a couple of filters and a pretty basic modulation section. We’ve seen dozens of synths with similar feature sets - many of them freeware - so why bother with this one?
The answer becomes obvious within a few seconds of loading it up: Sylenth1 sounds incredible. It’s rich, detailed and full of analogue-style warmth. And while we find that many of the synths we review come with presets that fail to show off the instrument’s true capabilities, Sylenth1’s default bank is superb. A wide variety of sounds is on offer, including some beautiful impersonations of classics such as the TB-303 and Minimoog.
Sylenth1 has gradually become one of the synths that everyone feels they must try - make sure you don’t miss out.
Native Instruments Massive
Massive is a hybrid synth that combines ideas and influences from all over the place. What’s more, it’s one of the most feature-packed synths we’ve ever encountered.
It comes with a massive array of wavetable oscillators (you can morph from one waveform to another using a dedicated knob), which makes it capable of producing everything from straight-ahead analogue-style tones to complex and evolving sounds. What’s more, it’s designed in such a way that it’s relatively easy to program (the clever modulation system helps in this regard, too).
The only downside is that, although some 600 presets come supplied (and are easy to navigate), not all of them show off Massive’s, er, massive potential, so you’ll need to get your hands a little bit dirty to get the best out of it.
Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2
Improving on the universally lauded Omnisphere must have felt like an impossible task, but Spectrasonics has truly outdone itself with version 2. Not only does it improve on the original, it takes it into an entirely new - ahem – sphere.
The original Omnisphere took the 'samples and synthesis' approach to sound creation dating back to 1987's Roland D-50 and reinvented it for the 21st century. With its huge audio soundbank, exciting new sound-shaping systems, easy browser and powerful virtual analogue architecture, it was a sound designer's dream come true.
However, it's always suffered from one notable limitation: you could only use the included audio material, with no way to import your own. Version 2 addresses this issue, also offering an expanded library of oscillator wavetables, bumping the original's measly five up to a jaw-dropping 400.
There are plenty of other enhancements, too, taking the synth to the next level and beyond. If being at the cutting edge of sound design appears anywhere on your list of music production priorities, it's an instrument that you simply have to own.
Xfer Records Serum
A quick glance at the feature list makes it apparent that Serum represents an earnest attempt to produce nothing less than the world's most advanced instrument of its kind.
Its oscillators sound cleaner and slightly brighter than we're used to hearing from synth plugins; you can import your own audio to create custom wavetables; there's an incredible range of modulation options; the Unison feature gives you five stacking modes; and the effects are outstanding.
And that's just the start - Serum has so many deep and advanced features in its locker that we couldn't hope to cover them all here. We're not being overdramatic when we say that this is quite possibly the most sonically versatile synth we've ever used, and certainly one of the best sounding. Your votes have put it at the top of our chart, and it should be at the top of your must-buy list, too.
SynthMaster is a semi-modular synth that seems to have been designed to do anything and everything. The interface may not be the prettiest, but it's definitely intuitive and user-friendly, which counts for a lot more in our book.
This is one of the few instruments that we can confidently say is excellent for most categories of synth sound. The additive synthesis module is perfect for organ-type sounds as well as filthy, obnoxious, tearing bass textures, while the vector synthesis module is ideal for evolving leads or pads. Plus, when you do want it to do bread-and-butter synth work, SynthMaster is more than up to the job.
In version 2.8, the most exciting changes have been made to the modulation system, while there are also four new ZDF types: the Moog-style Ladder, the 303-style Diode Ladder, the SEM-style State Variable, and the MS-20-style Bite.
All of which adds up to what can only be described as one of the very finest soft synths money can buy, and a worthy winner of our 2016 poll.