It can be tempting to think that all synths sound the same. After all, a saw wave is a saw wave, right?
Wrong! Each VST synth on the market has it’s own unique character and sound, which is why it’s important to pick the best synth plugin for the music you want to make.
Here’s a helpful guide to break down some features of the vast array of virtual instruments out there!
These are the best VST synth plugins right now:
1. Serum by Xfer
The music producer’s bread and butter
Serum is basically the flagship synth for anyone who makes electronic music. EDM producers have been pushing this VST to its limits for years and have come up with the wildest sounds you’ll ever hear, but that’s not all!
It has two wavetable oscillators which allow you to import your own wavetables (or snag some from third parties, like Splice or Cymatics), a sub oscillator to add a rich bass layer to all your sounds, and a noise oscillator with a bunch of different noise presets.
The noise oscillator can even function as a sampler! Serum’s FX rack is the stuff of legend as well, featuring a multi-band compressor so popular it was made into it’s own standalone VST plugin called OTT, which stands for Over The Top. Yeah, it’s the real deal.
Looking around YouTube, you’ll also find a surplus of tutorials on Serum, which can help get you up and running quickly. It’s easy to get the basics, but mastering it might take years.
- Powerful, without being a huge file to download to your computer.
- Free updates.
- Popular, which means easy access to information.
- Somewhat heavy on CPU power.
- Limited sub oscillator capabilities; can’t modulate pitch on it’s own.
- No native sequencer or arpeggiator (but able to arpeggiate using LFO tools).
2. Omnisphere by Spectrasonics
“Oh my gosh it can do that?”
Omnisphere is on another level when it comes to options: from new granular synthesis options, to hardware integration, to 58 different FX in its rack, this synth will have you rethinking what’s possible.
It’s got an insane four layers per patch, meaning it can create four different oscillator sounds and play them all simultaneously. Each oscillator sound can be played with unison voices too, and play chords.
For those of you counting along at home, that’s a lot of sounds. Those layers can be used as subs, noise oscillators, granular synths, FM synths, samplers, wavetables, and more. It’s 100% customizable! Omnisphere even comes with a step sequencer with tons more capabilities, like MIDI importing.
- Enormous library of sounds.
- More synthesis options than you can shake a stick at.
- Hardware synth mode! It can pair with your MIDI controller and act like analog gear.
- Huge file, at 50 GB.
- More expensive than most other options.
- Uses lots of CPU power.
3. Equator2 by Roli
A sound for every grain of sand in the world
You may have heard of Roli before, as the creators of a seriously cool piece of gear called the Seaboard – a MIDI controller keyboard that can perform vibrato and pitch bends with responsive touch keys, requiring no second hand on a mod wheel.
Well, those same folks have made a synth that’s just as intuitive and expressive as their famed keyboards, called Equator2. It flexes on other synths by providing users with six oscillator slots that can be wavetables, noise generators, multi-samplers, and most noteworthy, granular synthesis engines.
Granular synthesis can almost seems like delay, but imagine that you take a short sample and want it to be longer. The synth will create “grains”, or tiny segments of the sound, and play several of them all at once, giving it a texture that moves and flows.
There’s a bunch of ways to modify it beyond that, too! This synth also features a very handy routing system that is visually simple and appealing, making it easy to shape sounds to your liking.
On top of that, it contains an impressive 1400 presets, a bank of wavetables, and a library of sampled instruments to get you started. And at only $250, it’s a steal!
- Tons of free presets and sampled instruments.
- Granular synthesis engine, with six oscillator slots.
- Big effects rack and four “Random” modules.
- Sample library is large, and is hard to move to external hard drive.
- Granular synthesis uses lots of CPU power.
4. Massive X by Native Instruments
Arguably the best wavetable synth
Massive X is much more closely related to Serum, in that it functions primarily as a wavetable synthesizer. With that said, Massive has some bells and whistles to make Serum jealous.
First off, it has built-in phase modulation modes for both of its main oscillators. Second, it comes with 600 presets and 170 wavetables! And lastly (and in our opinion, the coolest part), completely flexible routing options. That means you get to choose what sounds go to what effects, and in what order.
You can bypass different effects, loop back around, or send just the noise oscillator to an LFO or envelope, before sending them all to the filter.
Massive X also features some really unique and interesting wavetable modulation options, such as Gorilla, which is a Native Instruments original.
- Flexible, customizable routing options
- So many presets and wavetables!
- Inexpensive, with free updates.
- Can’t import custom or third-party wavetables (as of now).
- Only three oscillators, with no dedicated sub.
5. ANA 2 by Sonic Academy
New kid on the block
ANA 2 is another synth that falls in the same category as Serum and Massive X, but again with its own twist. It does wavetables, samples, synthesis and wavetable modulation, but it seems like this synth is proudest of its 64-note polyphonic sequencer.
If you’re looking for beautiful, lush arps and pads, the ANA 2 has got you covered. Its chord memory feature, called CMD, can assign entire chords to just one note, making it easier than ever to create and perform, but combined with the sequencer it can be an inspirational sensation!
ANA 2 has three synth oscillators and three sample oscillators, which let you bring in both custom samples and wavetables. You can even use wavetables created in Serum!
- Very inexpensive.
- Plenty of oscillators and samplers to give you oodles of new sounds.
- Cool and comprehensive sequencer.
- Fairly limited wavetable modulation parameters.
- New, so not many tutorials from other producers.
6. Iris 2 by iZotope
Bob-Ross your way to new horizons!
Iris 2 is a spectral synth, which is distinct from all of the other synths on this list so far. In spectral synthesis, you take a sound source, and you can add, remove, dampen, or boost harmonics in exciting ways to make your sounds come alive and stand out from the crowd.
Why the Bob Ross reference? Spectral synthesis makes use of a very artistic interface for visualizing the harmonics, and it feels like painting on the various filters. If you’re a person who likes a hands-on approach to music-making, this synth is for you.
It can load up to four user-imported samples for spectral filtering at a time, but don’t worry, it also comes with a big bank of samples for you to play around with too. In addition, there are oscillators in there that function like a typical synth, which you can combine with samples to make your dreams come true.
The sample-based utility of this synth plugin makes it one of the best VSTs for organic, dynamic sounds, and add a touch of subtlety and grace that other synths might not have.
- Unique type of synthesis among the other top synthesizers.
- Works with up to four samples at a time.
- Less focused on traditional additive synthesis oscillators and functionality.
- Spectral synthesis can feel weird, especially compared to the way most synths operate.
- Limited FX compared to other synths.
7. V Collection 8 by Arturia
Old-school vintage powerhouse
The Juno, Jupiter, Prophet, Minimoog, Wurlitzer. You name it, this collection has it. If you’re into that analog gear sound, if you want to make music like the good old days without spending a fortune on buying discontinued hardware, or if you just need a little bit of that classic character, this is the absolute best vintage synth VST plugin out there.
This entry is a little different from the ones above, since it’s more focused on achieving sounds of gear that already exists, but does it in a way still gives you total control over the end result. The instruments collected in this VST comprise the foundations of timeless hits such as Jump by Van Halen, Don’t You Want Me by The Human League, all the way up to Finesse by Bruno Mars.
Arturia does an amazing job of recreating the hardware synths in software form, and you’ll never have to worry about gear breaking, cables wearing out, or even storing them in one room! You can have access to iconic sounds, or create your own, as easily as programming any other synth on this list. What a time to be alive!
- Huge selection of vintage hardware synth sounds, as well as acoustic and electric pianos.
- Tweakability and customization options to all patches.
- Massive bank of presets to give you iconic sounds from the get-go.
- On the more expensive end of things.
- Surprisingly CPU-heavy.
- Modulation options not on par with modern synths.
8. Hybrid 3 by AIR
This isn’t really an entry for the best synth VST of all time, but rather just for a synth that personally helped me learn what synthesis was all about.
Once I had some experience with this VST, I started to understand what I was after in my sound design and workflow, and it helped me choose the next synth to buy as an informed music producer.
That said, Hybrid is an awesome synth in spite of the limitations it has. It uses a total of six different oscillators, has a wavetable bank for four of them, two noise oscillators and two sub oscillators that function in tandem with one of the oscillators on each part, A and B, and has a super fun sequencer that is separate for each part!
This means that with the press of one key, you can have two different sequencer patterns playing at the same time, with different rhythms, pitch intervals, and cycle lengths. It also features a number of onboard FX to choose from, like a talk box effect and retro chorus.
It’s a great synth to get started on, and it also holds a special place in my heart. Not to mention, it has some presets that I still use from time to time!
- Very low CPU usage.
- Awesome sequencer.
- Limited FX slots (two per part).
- No custom samples or wavetables.
- No updates, limited tutorials, and a small overall user base.
9. Phase Plant by Kilohearts
Modular to the extreme
As long as we’re on the subject of learning synthesis, newcomers to the sound design scene will love Phase Plant’s design and functionality. It uses Kilohearts’ “snap-in” feature to allow you to remove or add all of the modulation functions in the synth, as well as adding your own Kilohearts VST plugins to the synth, so that all of your modulations happen on one screen!
You can even add and subtract oscillators as you need them. Of course it wouldn’t be completely modular if you didn’t have control of the routing options of the modulations, but good news, you do! You can set the modulation sources to “poly” to have them affect all signals, or turn “poly” off and get really specific with your design.
Additionally, all of the oscillators can modulate all of the other oscillators in a plethora of ways, giving you the potential for some crazy sounds.
So you can take away all of the stuff you don’t need while you learn, but it gets even better: there’s a whole section of presets that are designed as tutorials to help you learn how to create common sounds and navigate the plugin.
This really is the best VST synth for beginners to synthesis, and a powerful one at that!
- Hugely modular.
- Low learning curve with assistance from the synth.
- Small selection of native FX.
- Limited oscillator modulation options, aside from FM modulation.
Hopefully this list helps illuminate the often-confusing world of synthesis, and you have a better idea of which synth is right for you!
They all offer something a little bit different, and depending on your skill level, it may come down to just picking the one that suits your workflow the best. One way or another, they all can help you make the music in your heart.