The 20 best VST plug-in synths in the world today
22nd Nov 2011 | 15:33
MusicRadar asked, you answered
VST plug-in synths (and AU/RTAS ones too, for that matter) are now part of the furniture when it comes to hi-tech music making, but it wasn’t always this way. In fact, in 1999 they didn’t even exist, which makes it all the more remarkable that the past decade has seen them become the dominant force in sound-making technology.
We all use plug-in synths, then, but which are the best? MusicRadar wanted to know, so we once again asked you to pick from the hundreds that are available and tell us about the ones that have impressed you most. Based on your votes, we’ve been able to compile this countdown, which is an updated version of the one that was originally published in 2010.
A couple of things to bear in mind before we dive in: we’re dealing with synths only here (so you won’t find any drum machines or samplers) and only paid-for instruments are included. If you're looking for freebies, check out the 13 best free VST plug-ins in the world today.
Got that? Good. Let’s get started.
NEXT: Audio Damage Phosphor
Audio Damage Phosphor
Off-the-wall plug-ins are par for the course for Audio Damage, so it's hardly surprising that their very first 'proper' synth is based on the Apple II-based alphaSyntauri, a vintage model that was pretty peculiar in its day and only seems more so nowadays.
Like the alphaSyntauri, Phosphor uses additive synthesis as its sound source. In a nutshell, we're talking two oscillators, each with 16 partials.
There are plenty of clever additional features, too, and although it doesn’t have the most flexible architecture, Phosphor boasts bags of personality. Whether it's being used for fake bass guitar plucks, FM bells, gnarly bass noises, sci-fi pads, 'poorly computer' FX or wonky leads, it's unmistakable - and we love it for that.
FULL REVIEW: Audio Damage Phosphor
GForce, along with Arturia, has become synonymous with high-quality emulations of vintage analogue synths, and the Oddity is a long-standing favourite.
It takes its lead from the ARP Odyssey, which was produced between 1971 and 1976 and played by the likes of Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, Herbie Hancock and, latterly, Portishead. As well as being an authentic emulation, the Oddity also adds the ability to morph between presets, enabling you to create truly unique sounds.
FIND OUT MORE:GForce Oddity
When you’re emulating a classic synth, you’ve got two choices. You can either create a totally authentic version that mirrors the original exactly, or throw caution to the wind - and risk alienating the purists - by adding some new features of your own devising.
With Minimonsta, GForce took the second option. At its heart, it’s a Minimoog, but if you activate Monsta mode, it becomes possible to assign an LFO to practically any parameter. And thanks to Ohm Force’s Melohman technology, you can morph between up to 12 patches in a Meta-Patch.
So, it’s a vintage sound married to the versatility of contemporary software: a winning combination.
FIND OUT MORE:GForce Minimonsta
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.
FULL REVIEW:Spectrasonics Trilian
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.
FULL REVIEW: FabFilter Twin 2
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.
FULL REVIEW:Native Instruments FM8
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.
FULL REVIEW:Sonic Charge Synplant
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.
FULL REVIEW: Cakewalk Z3TA+2
Rob Papen Albino 3
A semi-modular synth, Albino 3 was constructed by LinPlug according to the specifications of acclaimed sound designer Rob Papen. This means that its features and sounds are totally in tune with each other, and this consistency makes a real difference.
You’ll find four oscillators onboard, while each patch can have up to four layers. This means you can create big and evolving sounds. There’s also a brutal filter, and the modulation options are extensive.
Albino 3 is a cracking all-rounder that any producer will benefit from owning. The 2,100-plus Rob Papen presets are of excellent quality, but you’ll be even more richly rewarded if you program your own.
FIND OUT MORE: Rob Papen Albino 3
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.
FULL REVIEW:FXpansion DCAM: Synth Squad
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.
FULL REVIEW:Native Instruments Absynth 5
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.
FULL REVIEW: GForce ImpOSCar 2
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.
FULL REVIEW:ReFX Nexus2
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.
FULL REVIEW:u-he ACE
Camel Audio Alchemy
Alchemy might initially fool you into thinking that it’s a by-the-numbers ROMpler, for it does come with a lot of sample-based patches that can be tweaked with the built-in synthesis engine and effects.
However, its big sell is that it also enables you to import your own samples - these can be processed with Additive, Spectral, Additive and Spectral or Granular engines.
The sound design options on offer here are huge, though some of the presets don’t show them off quite as well as they should. That said, there are plenty of useful pre-rolled patches too, and the main thing is that you can have great fun creating your own.
FULL REVIEW:Camel Audio Alchemy
Native Instruments Reaktor 5
Where to start with Reaktor? It’s best described as a cross-platform audio construction kit that enables you to create your own synths, samplers and effects by connecting modules in a graphical interface.
Useful module combinations can be saved as Macros; finished devices are known as Instruments; and combinations of instruments and effects can be racked together as Ensembles.
So, Reaktor is great for anyone who wants to build their own synths, but because there are so many high-quality user instruments available, it’s also appealing to anyone who just wants a source of high-quality sounds.
FULL REVIEW: Native Instruments Reaktor 5.5
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.
FULL REVIEW:Native Instruments Massive
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.
FULL REVIEW:LennarDigital Sylenth1
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.
FULL REVIEW:u-he Zebra 2
How to describe Omnisphere? Spectrasonics say simply that it’s a ‘power synth’, and we think that’s a pretty good description. Based on the company’s STEAM engine, Omnisphere ships with a whopping 50GB sound library based on samples that were captured in all manner of different situations. We’re not talking just common-or-garden stuff here: everything from light bulb filaments to a burning piano was recorded.
This means that Omnisphere’s blistering presets are quite unlike anything you’ve heard before, while the level of synthesis options and other features on offer (effects, arpeggiators and more) is staggering.
The end result is a synth that really pushes the boundaries and, although you’ll need a fast computer and plenty of RAM to get the most out of it, it’s well worth paying a premium for.
FULL REVIEW:Spectrasonics Omnisphere
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