A panoply of plugins
If you make music on a computer, your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) is undoubtedly the single most important piece of software that you’ll buy. However, although you could get away with using just that - it can handle recording, arranging, editing, mixing and mastering, after all - the vast majority of tech-savvy musicians choose to furnish their setups with a selection of plugin synths, too.
In many ways, these work just like the hardware synthesizers that you’ll be familiar with, but they run in software instead of coming in a physical box. Some software synths are emulations of hardware models, but others are completely original.
You’ll hear software synths being referred to by a variety of different names - virtual instruments, software instruments or just plain old VSTs - but on a basic level, they all operate in the same way.
Once installed on your PC or Mac, each plugin synth can be loaded onto its own track in your DAW, enabling you to play and record it using your MIDI keyboard or other MIDI controller. You can also program notes for it to play using your mouse, and each synth will come with its own set of controls for adjusting the sound.
Typically, you’ll find banks of presets, too: pre-programmed sounds that can simply be loaded up and played or used as starting points for further editing and sound design.
There are a variety of plugin standards out there, so before you buy any plugin synth, you need to make sure that your DAW is compatible with it. On the PC, Steinberg’s VST (Virtual Studio Technology) is by far the most popular, and supported by pretty much all the major DAWs. You can get Mac VSTs, too (though it’s worth mentioning that not all Windows VSTs run on Mac), and Apple also has its own standard called AU (Audio Units). You may also encounter standards such as AAX and RTAS, both of which are specific to Avid’s Pro Tools software.
Here at MusicRadar, we’ve been reviewing plugin synths for well over a decade, so we like to think we know a bit about them, and which are the best. However, this round-up is based on your votes: we put together a list of what we consider to be the best VST/AU plugin synths right now, and asked you to choose your favourite.
The results are in reverse order, so click though the list to discover your winner.
25. Softube Modular
Featuring official emulations of Eurorack modules from the likes of Doepfer and Intellijel, this cross-platform modular synth is designed to look, work and sound exactly like it would if it was made from hardware. It features 'circuit emulations' of all the modules concerned, and these have been authorised and approved by their original creators.
The standard Modular plugin ships with six Doepfer modules and more than 20 utility modules including a sequencer, mixer and delay (you have the option to buy more). You also get a large preset library to get you started.
It may be digital, but it sounds great, and the Aux Outputs allow you to interface directly with hardware for an interesting hybrid system. Highly recommended, wherever you stand on the digital vs analogue debate.
4.5 out of 5
READ: Softube Modular review
24. 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.
5 out of 5
READ: iZotope Iris 2 review
23. Image-Line Harmor
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.
4.5 out of 5
READ: Image-Line Harmor review
22. 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.
4 out of 5
21. Parawave Audiodesign Rapid
The first release from newcomer Parawave, Rapid (VST/AU) is clearly a direct competitor to Vengeance-Sound’s VPS Avenger, whether it means to be or not.
Chief among the similarities between the two are that both are built on extensive eight-layer architectures (although Avenger actually has nine layers if you include its Drums oscillator); both feature enormous and expandable libraries of waveforms, samples and wavetables; and both have more modulation options and effects than most users will ever need.
Rapid’s individual layers are ridiculously well furnished - 24 oscillators, 32 LFOs, envelopes and step sequencers, 56 effects slots... It’s also laced with interesting and novel touches, like the dual-wave LFOs, nifty step sequencer editing, and Master page envelopes and filter offset.
All in all, Rapid makes a welcome and worthy addition to the new generation of supersynths.
4.5 out of 5
20. u-he Hive
With its eyes firmly set on Sylenth1's virtual analogue crown, the formidable u-he confidently stepped into the ring with a synth that boasts 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.
5 out of 5
19. Propellerhead Software Europa
Untethered from the Reason 10 DAW, Propellerhead’s Europa “shapeshifting” synth is now also available in VST/AU formats.
This is the first time a Reason instrument has been ported to a plugin, which speaks volumes about the Swedish developer’s confidence in its capabilities and sound.
The “shapeshifting” bit alludes to the fact that Europa is a wavetable synth offering numerous ways to mathematically manipulate and modulate the raw oscillator waveforms before they become audio signals. 33 expertly crafted wavetables and a modelled string algorithm are onboard, along with spectral and analogue filtering, unison, copious modulation sources and a rack of effects. Reason users get the VST/ AU version free, incidentally.
Europa is a magnificent instrument, belting out enormous, wildly animated sounds of incredible depth, complexity and character, but also more than able to serve up phat, solid basslines, workhorse pads or elemental leads when required.
Rather brilliantly, there’s a fully functional web-based version of Europa on the Propellerhead site, so you can try it for yourself from right within your browser.
4.5 out of 5
18. Synapse Audio Dune 3
A three-oscillator synth with superb built-in effects, arpeggiation and sequencing, Dune’s two headline features are the ability to independently set Oscillators 1 and 2 to Virtual Analogue, Wavetable or (rather basic) FM mode, and the incredible number of unison voices it’s capable of generating: up to 8320 when running 32 stacked oscillators each in the Oscillator 1 and 2 blocks, and eight global unison voices, at 16-voice polyphony.
The oscillators feed into a zero-delay feedback filter with various onboard distortion and second-stage filtering FX, and the overall sound of the thing is big, beefy, glamorous and supremely versatile. In one sense, it’s a workhorse, delivering the full spectrum of ‘static’ and sequenced sounds, and in another, it’s a character instrument with a sound very much its own.
If we had to choose a single instrument to cover all our synthesis needs without making compromises in any of them, Dune 3 would be towards the top of the shortlist. It’s easy and enjoyable to use, up there with the very best sonically, and great value for money.
5 out of 5
READ: Synapse Audio Dune 3
17. u-he Repro-1
A sort of spiritual follow-up to the highly acclaimed Diva, Repro-1 is a component-modelled emulation of one of the most iconic monosynths of the ’80s: the Pro One, Sequential Circuits’ monophonic take on the polyphonic Prophet-5.
Being essentially a 35-year-old design, it should come as no surprise that Repro-1’s architecture is comparatively basic. In a nutshell, two monophonic oscillators and a low-pass filter are brought to life by a handful of modulation sources, an arpeggiator and a step sequencer, and processed with a quintet of newly added effects modules.
Fans of the original will be blown away by the authenticity of its sound and response, and have a ball with the integrated effects and extra modulators. Newcomers to this historic instrument, meanwhile, will love its easy programming and phat, rich, focused tones.
4.5 out of 5
16. Audio Damage Phosphor 2
Like the alphaSyntauri - the seminal Apple II-hosted additive synth from 1979 on which it’s based - Phosphor 2 is, by today’s standards, a very simple instrument that makes additive synthesis about as approachable as it gets.
It’s a two-oscillator synth, each oscillator outputting a wavetable made up of a series of sine waves at multiples of the fundamental frequency - ie, partials or harmonics. The levels of the individual partials are set using the bank of vertical sliders in the Primary and Secondary Oscillator panels, with the leftmost slider setting the volume of the fundamental and the rest dialling in increasingly high-frequency harmonics, enabling effortlessly creative signal shaping.
Like the curious system it aims to recreate, Phosphor 2 is a synth unto itself - there’s nothing else quite like it. Most importantly, the sounds it makes are absolutely stunning, particularly when it comes to leads, pads, chiptune-style noises and FX.
If you’re yet to experience the delights of this quirky, individualistic, brilliant and bargain-priced electronic instrument, we highly recommend that you do so.
4.5 out of 5
15. Arturia Pigments
A dual-engine, dual-filter instrument with plentiful effects and a built-in sequencer, on paper Pigments doesn’t appear to offer anything categorically ‘new’. As is so often the case, though, the devil is in the details, which, in this case, are all about wavetables, workflow and a truly spectacular modulation system.
Each of Pigments’ two engines can be switched between Analog and Wavetable modes. The two engines feed into a pair of independently pan-able filters, routed in any blend of series and parallel via a continuous knob. The FX section, meanwhile, houses three busses of three effects each, selected from a roster of 13 largely workaday essentials.
The Sequencer/Arpeggiator is all kinds of awesome, featuring scale snapping, a Trigger Probability lane, a powerful cyclically regenerating randomisation engine, and the best implementation of polyrhythmic sequencing we’ve seen in any synth to date.
Ambitious, expansive and oozing quality from every pixel, Pigments easily earns a place at the top table of synthesis. There’s no area of synth sound design in which it doesn’t excel, and it’s hard to imagine how Arturia could have made it any easier to use.
5 out of 5
READ: Arturia Pigments review
14. 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.
4.5 out of 5
13. ReFX Nexus2
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.
4.5 out of 5
READ: ReFX Nexus2 review
12. UVI Falcon
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.
4.5 out of 5
11. u-he Zebra 2
Zebra 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.
5 out of 5
READ: u-he Zebra 2 review
10. LennarDigital Sylenth1
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.
Now a vintage virtual instrument, Sylenth1 is still one of the synths that everyone feels they must try. Make sure you don’t miss out.
5 out of 5
9. Native Instruments Massive
Massive is a hybrid synth that combines ideas and influences from all over the place.
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.
It may be getting a little long in the synthesis tooth, but Massive still does the business. An all-new version - Massive X - should be landing later this year.
4.5 out of 5
8. Vengeance-Sound VPS Avenger
Vengeance-Sound's first ever virtual synth is nothing if not ambitious. Coded - like all its stablemates - by Keilwerth Audio, it unites analogue, sample-based and wavetable synthesis in an immense workstation-style architecture, packed with sequencers, filters, effects and modulation.
Every one of its individual elements is a powerful system in its own right, and they all come together to constitute a synthesiser of dizzying power and flexibility. Its pseudo-multitimbral, semi-modular architecture is ingeniously implemented, with only the lack of multiple outputs into the host DAW and the cramped Mod Matrix letting the side down.
Most importantly, though, it sounds absolutely incredible, with that characteristic Vengeance energy, power and richness married to the deep textural nuance that only wavetable synthesis can bring.
5 out of 5
7. 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.
5 out of 5
6. Plogue Chipspeech
Chipspeech is an 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.
5 out of 5
READ: Plogue Chipspeech review
5. u-he Diva
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.
5 out of 5
READ: u-he Diva review
4. KV331 Audio SynthMaster One
A less complicated offshoot from its flagship SynthMaster 2.8, KV331’s SynthMaster One is two-oscillator polyphonic wavetable synth with a single-screen interface that keeps (almost) everything in reach at all times.
Generally speaking, it’s about as beginner-friendly as a serious synthesiser can be - which is to say, it’s a lot more beginner-friendly than its big brother but will still be totally intimidating to anyone who’s never used one before. That’s not a criticism; it’s an inevitability with any synth that isn’t deliberately dumbed down, which SynthMaster One certainly isn’t.
This is a quintessential ‘workhorse’ instrument that’s tooled up for all kinds of patches. Basses, leads, plucks, keys and other attacking sounds are its forte, but it’s no slouch when it comes to pads, strings and FX, either. And with its unique, streamlined wavetable oscillators and that intuitive, hands-on workflow, even die-hard synthesists should be interested.
4.5 out of 5
3. 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.
5 out of 5
2. Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2
Improving on the universally lauded Omnisphere must have felt like an impossible task, but Spectrasonics truly outdid itself with version 2. Not only did it improve on the original, it took 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 always suffered from one notable limitation: you could only use the included audio material, with no way to import your own. Version 2 addressed this issue, also offering an expanded library of oscillator wavetables, bumping the original's measly five up to a jaw-dropping 400.
If being at the cutting edge of sound design appears anywhere on your list of music production priorities, Omnisphere is an instrument that you simply have to own.
5 out of 5
1. KV331 SynthMaster
A passionate and engaged online fanbase has propelled SynthMaster to the top of our chart. It's 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 were 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.
5 out of 5