When it comes to synth plugins, there's a huge amount of choice out there – an almost bewildering array of options, in fact. But, as many as there are, it always seems to be the same old synths that grab the headlines. And, yes, we might be responsible for that, bigging up the Serums and Massives of the synth world all the time (and, actually, mostly for good reason).
But it's time to redress that, and give some praise where it is due to the underdogs; the synth VSTs that deliver the goods in spades but perhaps don't get the recognition they deserve.
So without further ado, let's do just that, with seven great synths that may have flown slightly under your radar.
1. SPC Plugins ArcSyn
SPC Plugins describes ArcSyn as "unexplored sonic territory', so it's probably apt that we include it in our list of under-explored synths.
On the face of it, ArcSyn might well be just another virtual analogue synth, but SPC claims that it's anything but. And, after checking out its capabilities, we think the company might have a point.
Rather than emulating classic synths, ArcSyn forges its own path, aiming more towards the capabilities of a massive modular setup, with rich and diverse sounds from both the analogue and digital domains.
As such, yes, you can get lovely arpeggiated bass and lead lines, but there are also tearing digital and dynamic pads, evolving wavetable-like atmospheres by way of its LFO wave sequencing, and a lot more.
There are 500 such varied sounds on show to demo the synth's wide capabilities, and a nicely-structured UI that means you won't have to scratch your head as you get around the synth.
ArcSyn costs £69 of your hard-earned cash, but that's money well spent on a plugin that the masses might not have discovered yet. Well, until we publish this, that is.
More from the SPC Plugins website.
2. Surge XT
Surge XT is a synth that is so 'under the radar' that we didn't even realise we had it installed in our plugin folder. It's a 3-oscillator subtractive synth that includes both linear FM and wavetable synthesis. You can also run your audio through it as an effect, but the best bit about it is that it's completely free.
The synth uses a 'two scene' architecture so you can split and layer patches, and you get quite a few of these to start with: some 2800, with over 700 wavetables to power them.
The three oscillators have 12 algorithms each to choose from, including Classic, Wavetable, Sine, FM2, FM3, String, Modern, Window, Twist, Alias, S&H Noise and Audio Input. There are a couple of filters, too, each with eight types, and you even get 16 effects (4 inserts for each of the two scenes, 4 sends and 4 master).
That's a good set of stats in anyone's book, and means those 2800 sounds are incredibly varied.
And shall we say it again? Surge is free. So yes, it's totally underrated, and we've even convinced ourselves to actually use it.
More from the Surge XT website .
3. Sonic Charge Synplant 2
Synplant has always had a pretty bonkers concept behind it. You grow branches from a tree to make different notes and noises, and no we haven't been smoking some of the leaves from it. That really was the methodology for version 1 of the synth that we loved way back in 2009!
Synplant 2 now uses artificial intelligence – and if ever there was ever going to be a synth to adopt that tech, it was this one – to synthesise any audio you import. It then comes up with variations of that sound – with some variations being closer than others – so you can essentially design other sounds very quickly using a target source.
We've tested it and it's a bit hit and miss on more complex sounds, but is a fantastic way to come up with completely new sounds very quickly. 14 years on and this synth is 'a real grower'. (God, we're good. And available for weddings, anniversary parties, retirement dos, etc.)
Synplant 2 costs €149 and there's more info from the Sonic Charge website.
4. Dawesome Kult
We reviewed Dawesome Kult back in March and described it as 'the synth of the year' even then, so confident were we that people would be beguiled by its 'Strange Attractor' oscillators and wild sounds. The truth is they probably weren't, as Kult is an oddball synth, but still one that deserves much wider recognition.
Dawesome is programmer Peter V, who is highly regarded for both the Abyss and Novum plugins. Kult sticks to his unusual UI design ethos, but throws in those Strange Attractor oscillators, easy AM and FM synthesis, and plenty of modulation.
Really, Kult is all about making both graphical and sonic changes in real-time and is one of those synths where you'll learn how it works just by doing that. You'll also be hitting the Save button a lot while you do it, because it is such an inspiring synth.
Kult is an amazing sound design tool, then, and deserves to be used by more than those 'in the know' or, as you might say, 'in the cult of Kult'. (Yes, noted: 'could do better.')
Kult $129 costs and you can get more info from partner developer Tracktion's website.
5. UVI Falcon 3
Put this in the pile labelled 'does too much' or 'blinded by features' because UVI's Falcon – as highly rated as it actually is – could never be rated highly enough, simply because it does so much.
Falcon is a multitimbral synth workstation in software, which takes a fantastic semi-modular approach. It might not have the simplest UI, but it is certainly a lot more straightforward than it should be, given the huge feature set on offer.
The core idea is to employ around 20 different synthesis and sampling oscillators with over 100 effects, modulation and a series of 70 customisable scripted generators and processors, plus over a dozen modulators. There's even a sizeable library of content to load in, and many optional sound packs.
Basically, if you can do it in any other synth in software, you can (very probably) do it in Falcon. The only reason that it isn't more of a standard synth app, and one used by more people, is that it does almost too much.
Yes, ok, maybe the UI is a little off-putting and the whole setup can be daunting to get your head around, and yes it is a bit pricey, too (although not for what you get). But if there was one plugin you had to fly on to a desert island, it should probably be this.
Falcon costs €349 and you can get more info from the UVI website.
6. The TAL range
Yes, lazy. Now we're including whole ranges of synths, but when it comes to TAL (that's Togu Audio Line) Software, we're talking top quality plugins at pretty rock bottom prices. Patrick Kunz has been producing plugins for what seems like forever, and we've been writing about them for almost as long.
There is a semi-modular synth in TAL-Mod, and even a bunch of freebies in the form of five different effects (plus some older synths that only run on 32-bit systems).
TAL's effects tend to cost just $25 + tax, with the synths weighing in between $60 and $80 (for the Jupiter), which we think represents pretty good value.
We'd love to see Patrick apply his undoubted skills to emulate some less Roland-based classics, or even something entirely new, but in the meantime, these are some of the best value and finest-sounding plugins out there, let us Tal you.
More from the TAL website.
7. The Tone2 range
We don't mind admitting that sometimes – just sometimes – our heads are turned by a good-looking synth plugin with a fabulous name. Yes, we should be judging an instrument on how it sounds but, well, we're pretty shallow as humans go.
So imagine our joy when we stumbled across Tone2's website. With colourful synths called Icarus, Warlock, Electra, Rayblaster and Nemesis, this is basically Middle Earth or Blade Runner… with synths. We have to say, what more could you ask for?
And what synths. We reviewed RayBlaster here and loved its innovative Impulse Modeling Synthesis. Nemesis, meanwhile, delivers a new and exciting take on FM; Warlock is a well-spec'd but easy to use waveform synth; and Electra is, according to our very own Computer Music magazine, a "hugely versatile synth that can excel in any genre".
They can be expensive – typically $199, although Warlock is just $69 – but Tone2 releases many regular (and very good) updates so these could well be the tones you have been looking for.
More from the Tone2 website.