The 39 best VST plug-in synths in the world today
20th Mar 2013 | 17:08
MusicRadar asked, you answered
The VST plug-in synth market is now incredibly varied and ridiculously large. You’ll find hundreds of instruments out there, each billed as more authentically analogue-sounding or more boundary-pushing than the last.
So how do you know which synths have got it where it counts? Which ones deliver the best user experience, have the best features and - most importantly of all - the finest quality sound?
What follows is our guide to the XX best VST, AU and RTAS plug-in synths in the world today. Compiled over the course of several years, it’s been updated to reflect the market in 2013, and is bigger and better than ever.
The countdown is based on MusicRadar users’ nominations and votes. We’ve also included our own star ratings and links to full reviews of the synths that have made it into our prestigious list.
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 27 best free VST plug-ins in the world today.
Got that? Let’s get started then.
NEXT: Tone2 RayBlaster
Rayblaster employs a new technology called IMS (Impulse Modelling Synthesis) to - according to its inventors - generate sounds unlike anything we've ever heard before.
There are two oscillators onboard but no conventional filter section. This is because the oscillators themselves imitate the functions of a filter via the Formant knob
The best thing about RayBlaster is that it requires an almost completely new thought process to get to the end result, yet it manages to still be very immediate and easy to use. Where it really shines sonically is in producing screaming leads, futuristic FX shots and dirty bass - particularly when done in an intentionally bold and 'digital' fashion.
READ: Tone2 RayBlaster review
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.
READ:GForce Oddity review
Cableguys Curve 2
Curve is a subtractive synthesiser, but not specifically an analogue one. Yes, it can do analogue, and very well indeed, but its three oscillators aren't limited to the usual analogue waveforms. Instead, custom waves can be created by dragging (up to 40) points around in the main display to create both straight lines and curves.
Curve 2 introduced a new look for the synth, as well as a good number of new features and a ton of new sounds. It’s much more flexible than its predecessor, and one that sounds nothing short of magnificent. It's also splendidly easy to use and endlessly versatile, with a truly knock-out preset library.
Right from first listen, Oxium brings a smile to your face. It's a really good, classic-sounding synth for people who don't necessarily want to sound like Swedish House Mafia, but who still want quick and easy access to modern-style modulation performance.
It's based on a two-oscillator architecture, with each oscillator offering up to four simultaneous waveforms (saw, square, pulse and triangle) and pulse width modulation. There's also ring modulation for each pairing, and independent per-oscillator glide and portamento control.
Oxium has some great sounds, the arpeggiator is a delight, the presets are useful, the modulation is fantastic, and despite a few niggles, it's a great instrument that any synthesist will enjoy.
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.
Saurus’s architecture is conventional: a pair of oscillators (each with a corresponding sub-oscillator) is mixed and routed through a multimode filter before being plumbed through some effects. There are a few familiar modulation options immediately on tap, and many, many more possibilities hidden under the hood.
This is an instrument that's friendly and familiar, with just enough modern functionality to make it relevant to the modern studio. If you just want to get on with making music using quality analogue sounds without investing in a new computer (Unlike some products, Saurus didn't give our system any undue stress playing even the thickest of chords) Tone2 has thrown you a bone.
READ:Tone2 Saurus review
Rob Papen Blade
Although it’s an additive synth, Blade entirely sidesteps the concept of adjusting loads of individual partials (aka harmonics) in isolation. Instead, you get an oscillator section known as the Harmolator.
Once you've gotten past the Harmolator you'll find a familiar virtual analogue-style synth engine, including a fully loaded distortion section and a multimode filter with no less than 14 filter modes. The envelope generators are fairly standard five-stage models, and there’s also an arpeggiator.
This is an instrument that excels at evocative, evolving soundscapes. If you like deep, moving pads or wild wobbulating effects, this is the place to find them, and Blade will be of particular appeal to those who are growing weary of the same old virtual analogues and sample-playback instruments.
The fundamental four-generator, two-filter design is the same here as it was in CronoX 3 - LinPlug’s previous sampling synth. CrX4 offers three sample-based sources (Time Sampler, Wavetable and Loop Sampler), a flexible analogue-modelled oscillator, plus a new noise generator.
In terms of sounds CrX4 definitely leans more towards the creative. Sonically, it's more digital than analogue in flavour, and the sheer flexibility of the modulation system combined with the super-fast LFOs (up to 275Hz) only emphasises this further.
Overall, CrX4 sits somewhere between a typical sample-based instrument and a virtual analogue one, making it an excellent and affordable companion synth.
READ: LinPlug CrX4 review
Sugar Bytes Cyclop
Take three parts easily programmable synth, add one part custom modulation sequencer, blend with an LFO section that's ingeniously in tune with the way people make electronic music these days, and finish with a versatile effects set-up. That’s the Cyclop recipe.
A monophonic bass synth, Cyclop isn't a particularly analogue-sounding or versatile. We don't mean that as a criticism, though; if you want an analogue-style synth sound, get an analogue-modelling synth. If you want cutting-edge digital madness, however, Cyclop delivers.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Iris uses spectral technology to make a virtual instrument that iZotope bills as a sampling resynthesiser.
This is the sort of application that you really have to try yourself before you can grasp it fully. The interface is well-laid out and the built-in tour teaches you everything you need to know to get started.
If you've never even heard of spectral editing before, it might take some hours of trial and error in the spectrogram before you start to get consistent, predictable results, but take our word for it: the creative potential contained within this program is absolutely immense - potentially limitless, in fact.
READ:iZotope Iris review
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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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
KV331 SynthMaster 2.5
SynthMaster 2.5 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 new vector synthesis module is ideal for evolving leads or pads. Plus, when you do want it to do bread-and-butter synth work, SynthMaster 2.5 is more than up to the job.
Many developers say that they've produced the one and only synth you'll ever need, and we've always felt that was a dubious claim. This is the first time that we agree.
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.
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.