The release of Steinberg’s Virtual Studio Technology (VST) software development kit in 1996 is without one of the most significant milestones on the roadmap of digital music technology - perhaps the most significant, in fact.
Enabling anyone with the requisite coding chops to create virtual effects and, a few years later, instruments for use as ’plugin’ modules within any compatible DAW, VST at last realised the dream of the entirely-software studio and kickstarted a whole new industry almost overnight.
It was quickly followed by a handful of rival plugin standards, which today comprise Apple’s Mac-only Audio Units (AU), Avid’s Pro Tools-only AAX and RTAS.
A plugin effect is a signal processing device such as a reverb, delay, compressor or EQ, while plugin instruments take in, amongst other things, synthesizers, samplers, drum machines and sample-based recreations of real-world guitars, drum kits, pianos, etc.
There are literally thousands of amazing free and paid-for examples available in both categories, from emulations of pretty much every classic hardware synth and effect unit ever made, to mind-blowing new designs that could never exist in physical form. Whether you’re after a thoroughly convincing Minimoog or Roland TR-808, a Urei 1176 compressor or a granular sample mangling effect, there’ll be at least a handful of viable options out there to suit your creative needs and budget.
These days, most virtual instruments and effects are released in VST, AU and AAX formats, with a few still arriving in the ageing RTAS, but the differences between the standards are minor and partly DAW-dependent, so a given instrument or effect will always sound exactly the same - and, largely, operate identically too - no matter which version you use. Ultimately, your choice of DAW will determine which format(s) you can use - for example, Cubase only supports VST, Logic Pro only works with Audio Units, and Ableton Live plays ball with both (on Mac).
No doubt about it, plugins sit at the very heart of the software-based studio, and in this round-up, we’ll reveal - in our opinion - the finest virtual instruments and effects money can currently buy. Our choices are spread across 12 categories, and you can consider this the best of the best.
Best analogue synth plugin
Mac/PC/Linux | VST/AU/AAX |€179
There are probably more classic analogue synthesiser emulations peppering the plugin landscape than any other type of virtual instrument, from Native Instruments’ Monark Minimoog to Arturia’s magnificent and increasingly comprehensive V Collection of vintage beauties.
However, standing proudest among them is u-he’s venerable Diva, a semi-modular faux analogue synth that draws influence from a selection of legendary hardware in its roster of oscillators, filters and envelopes, and yields a sound utterly indistinguishable from the real thing.
Released in 2012, Diva later saw the addition of a Roland JP-8000-style digital oscillator option, but for us, it’s all about those VCOs, DCOs and stunning analogue filters.
Best wavetable synth plugin
Xfer Records Serum
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | $189
Native Instruments’ genre-shaping Massive unarguably spearheaded the wavetable synth renaissance, but for the last half decade, Steve Duda’s Serum has been the go-to for producers of EDM and bass music.
There’s so much good stuff here that it’s hard to know where to start, but the headlines include dual wavetable oscillators with a variety of blending and morphing styles, spectacular unison voicing, a full-on wavetable editor, a huge menu of filter types, an intuitive but supercharged modulation system, and a rack of ten stunning effects modules. And the sound? Think punchy, animated basses; scintillating modulated pads; searing leads; and evocative FX.
An exemplar of 21st century synth design, Serum is nothing short of essential.
Best hybrid synth plugin
Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | $499
Can any synth ever really be definitively dubbed ‘the greatest of all time’? Probably not, but if one could, Spectrasonics’ software masterpiece would surely be a contender.
Not only does Omnisphere 2 offer over 500 analogue waveforms and digital wavetables, over 30 types for each of its two filters, 58 superb effects and an integrated granular synthesis engine, but it also comes with 65GB of top-notch sample-based sound sources for manipulation within its ridiculously powerful architecture – plus the ability to import your own!
Epic in scale and sound, Omnisphere 2 is a synth you could spend a lifetime with and still never tire of.
Best sampler plugin
Native Instruments Kontakt
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | $399/£359
With most DAWs including at least a basic means by which to map samples across the keyboard for pitched play, you might think there’d be little call for a dedicated plugin sampler on the computer musician’s shopping list. But Kontakt would beg to differ, not just because of the deep sound-shaping and multisample layering features it brings to the table, but also the impressive sub-industry of talented third-party sample library developers that’s sprung up around it, selling everything from lavish mutlisampled orchestras, quirky old synths and vintage drum machines, to virtual vocalists, multi-textural drone machines and much, much more.
Kontakt is currently at version 6, but that was such a minor update over the long-established Kontakt 5 that we didn’t review it separately.
Best drum machine plugin
FXpansion Geist 2
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | $187/£159
While, in historic terms, the term is associated with the synth-based likes of D16 Group’s Nepheton TR-808 emulation and Sonic Charge’s seminal Microtonic 3, the modern drum machine is generally thought of as a pad-based sample playback instrument with onboard sequencing, processing and effects.
FXpansion’s take on the concept is a self-contained ‘groove DAW’ within which entire tracks can conceivably be put together, never mind beats in isolation. Version 2 introduced the powerful TransMod modulation system, polyrhythmic sequencing and more.
Although Geist 2’s many systems and creative possibilities bring with them a considerable learning curve, it’s one that’s well worth negotiating.
Best compressor plugin
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | €24
The sheer - ahem - volume of high-quality software compressors on the market can easily overwhelm even the experienced producer looking for a solid investment, but Klanghelm’s versatile dynamics processor cuts through the noise by massively exceeding expectations in terms of both performance and budgetary requirement.
MJUC models three separate valve compressors in a single plugin - each with its own specialism, response variables and character - and sounds absolutely magnificent doing it. Whether you’re gluing a drums bus, fattening up a bassline or reining in a peaky guitar, MJUC does it in style, and at a price you just won’t believe.
Best limiter plugin
DMG Audio Limitless
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | £150
DMG Audio is one of the most revered high-end plugin developers in the industry, and its innovative dynamics plugin was summarised in our review as possibly “the best-sounding master bus limiter plugin yet”.
With a proprietary dual-stage multiband architecture that compresses transients independently of the rest of the signal, seven globally transformative Style modes, True Peak limiting, up to 64x oversampled clipping, and plenty of under-the-hood tweakability, Limitless is unrivalled when it comes to increasing loudness without compromising transparency and integrity across the frequency spectrum.
If you master your mixes in the box, this one is unmissable.
Best equaliser plugin
FabFilter Pro-Q 3
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | $179/£134/€149
We didn’t think it would be possible to improve on the forward-thinking brilliance of Pro-Q 2, but the third generation of FabFilter’s freeform equaliser plugin introduced more than enough worthwhile improvements to make it a must-have upgrade.
Already one of the most flexible and intuitive EQs around, boasting a wealth of endlessly useful features including EQ Match and Spectrum Grab (drag peaks directly in the spectrum analyser), Pro-Q reaffirmed its industry standard status with the v3 additions of Dynamic EQ mode, External Spectrum Visualization, per-band mid-side/left-right configuration, ‘brickwall’ filtering and surround processing.
We can’t wait to see how the company improves on perfection again for Pro-Q 4.
Best reverb plugin
Audio Ease Altiverb 7
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | €499
The original real-time convolution reverb plugin, and still regarded by many as the best, Altiverb uses sampled impulse responses of real spaces and studio gear to magically place your signals in a truly extraordinary array of utterly authentic spatial situations, from some of the world’s greatest studios and live performance venues, to nightclubs, cathedrals and stadiums, via industrial facilities, warehouses, tunnels, cars, classic plate reverbs and so on.
Particularly effective on guitars, pianos, strings, vocals and other acoustic sources, Audio Ease’s singular effect is classy, luxurious, supremely easy to use… and undeniably expensive.
Best delay plugin
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | $50
It might not look like much, but Sean Costello’s first full-on delay plugin - stablemate to some of the world’s favourite reverbs - strikes such a perfect balance between usability and features that it could be the only delay you ever need.
Seven delay modes let you flip between tape and BBD emulations, forward and reverse pitchshifting and others, while five delay styles govern the handling of the taps - PingPong, Single, Dual, Ratio and Quad, the last instantiating four independently adjustable taps.
With overdrive, modulation, EQ and diffusion controls also in place, ValhallaDelay can do it all, from colourful echoes to pitching effects, spatial treatments and beyond.
Best filter plugin
Soundtoys FilterFreak 2
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | $149
Available on its own or as part of the hugely acclaimed Soundtoys 5 bundle, FilterFreak’s two component plugins model single and dual (serial or parallel) analogue resonant filters with low-pass, high-pass, band-pass and notch types rolling off at up to 48dB/octave, and seven saturation algorithms serving up a wide range of colouration, distortion and compression.
Key to the whole thing, though, is its fantastic modulation system, which lets you animate the filter(s) using various mod sources, including a fully customisable LFO, the elaborate Rhythm generator, an envelope follower and a MIDI-triggered envelope.
The filter itself sounds incredible, and Soundtoys’ awesome plugin imbues everything it touches with life and groove.
Best modulation effect plugin
Native Instruments Mod Pack
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | £59
Bringing together a trio of essential modulation effects, this bargain-priced bundle deserves a place in every producer’s plugin library.
Phasis is a phenomenal phaser with up to 12 all-pass filters, and an LFO modulating both their frequency and spacing; Flair takes flanging to new musical heights with the ability to lock its four comb filters to any of 24 chord types; and Choral gives three voices of stereo chorusing in Synth (Juno-style), Ensemble (string machine-style), Dimension (Dimension-D-style) and Universal (general) modes, with the Scatter feedback setting generating wild reverb-esque effects.
Geared up to really get those signals moving, Mod Pack successfully puts ingenious new twists on three studio staples.