Every time someone tells you “these are the best 10 …” and he/ she is talking about music gear, stop listening, or start listening with a very critical ear. We make a lot of top ten articles ourselves but I invite you to read them in with a pinch of salt.
Today we will be looking at synthesizer plug-ins. Like with all plug-ins, synthesizer plug-ins fall into two broad categories: replica’s of classic gear or innovative products. If you are a beginner in synthesis I suggest you start your journey in this vast domain by researching the hardware gear that influenced popular music in the last 50 years. It sounds like a historian’s work but I promise it will save you a great deal of confusion.
Most synth plug-ins out there are actually based on famous analog synthesizers. In fact, analog synthesizers changed the face of music so much that understanding how technology evolved into these amazing tools will really help you in your musical endeavors and in choosing/ using virtual synthesizers.
What Is A Synth?
Maybe you lived under a rock for the last 30 years and you just heard about synths. What are they anyway? A synthesizer is an electronic instrument that uses several modules of circuitry to create sound and is usually controlled with a piano-like keyboard.
You can use a synthesizer to emulate the sound of real instruments or create utterly fantastic electronic sounds. At their core, most analog synthesizers are a combination of electronic circuits/ components such as oscillators, filters, envelopes, effects such a time-based modulation, distortion, etc..
Their digital counterparts which we can instantiate in our DAW’s usually copy the electrical architecture of analog circuitry with clever algorithms – to explain it in a very simple way.
You have to understand that there are different types of sound synthesis. You can cram them all together in two big categories even though it is not really correct to do so – monophonic synthesis and polyphonic synthesis. Monophonic refers to the ability to play one note at a time while polyphonic refers to multiple notes.
I was saying that this is not entirely correct as there are a wide variety of synthesis methods out there. Additive, subtractive, sample-based, imitative, analytic synthesis are all different ways to synthesize sound. Taking a close look to each and every one of them is far beyond the scope of this article.
However, understanding that different plug-ins may employ different technologies or even switchable modes are something that might help you filter through the overly crammed virtual synth market.
Pro Tools Native
Pro Tools comes ready packed with two synth’s: Xpand! and Vacuum. If these are the first synth’s you have ever heard of, then I suggest diving head first into the manuals of both synth’s by clicking here. Per short, Vacuum is a virtual analog monophonic synth, with a focus on creating rich timbres with a lot of sonic control. It has a twin signal path with two oscillators, two filters, two envelope shapes, a mixer and an arpeggiator section. Xpand! on the other hand is a polyphonic virtual workstation synthesizer featuring a broad range of sound generation possibilities including multi-sampled instruments as well as FM, wavetable, and virtual analog synthesis. Before going any further in searching and buying virtual synth’s I strongly suggest learning these two.
It has a twin signal path with two oscillators, two filters, two envelope shapes, a mixer and an arpeggiator section. Xpand! on the other hand is a polyphonic virtual workstation synthesizer featuring a broad range of sound generation possibilities including multi-sampled instruments as well as FM, wavetable, and virtual analog synthesis. Before going any further in searching and buying virtual synth’s I strongly suggest learning these two.
Before going any further in searching and buying virtual synth’s I strongly suggest learning these two.
Top 10 Best Virtual Synth’s
There are so many options out there when it comes to virtual synth’s that it has been a real hassle to choose just ten – I tried to match my personal preferences with the most popular choices that most people make. As I underlined in the opening lines, don’t regard this as an absolute top ten but more a guide to some good software:
The first on our list is Native Instrument’s Monark virtual synthesizer. It is a monophonic, analog modeled subtractive synthesizer that is modeled on the Minimoog even though the guys from NI aren’t really keen in telling us this. Even by just looking at the UI of the Monark it is obvious that it is modeled on the Minimoog.
Out of all the models on this famous synth that are available from different manufacturers, this Kontakt instruments from NI is simply the best sounding in my opinion. It’s price doesn’t break the bank either so this is a must try synth.
Bazille is a virtual modular synthesis system combining digital oscillators with analog modeled filters and analog modeled effects. If you have ever heard about modular synthesis and are unclear about what exactly it is, this is a great tool to start with. Even if you are a seasoned producer this tool will blow you away with its patch programming capabilities and amazing sound.
This is not a synthesis engine per-say but serves as a huge library of patches that copy famous sounds of 17 famous synth’s like the Minimoog, the Moog modular, the Jupiter, the CS80, etc. This awesome plug-in lets you access 5000+ presets made by sound designers on the Arturia V collection synth’s.
You can tweak some of the most important parameters in Analog Lab and shape the tones to your needs and save them as custom patches. Overall this a great sounding unit that can serve as a ready to go tone library that is so cheap that I don’t see any good reason for not having it.
This virtual synth from TAL is a polyphonic synthesizer that emulates the famous Roland Juno 60. Zero feedback delay filters and carefully calibrated controls make this synth a pretty good copy of the original Juno. It supports portamento and different filter LFO waveforms and some more useful features. An arpeggiator with different sync modes and hold function is also included. They say that “The synth was calibrated after a hardware device that’s property of TAL”.
iZotope Iris 2
Izotope’s Iris 2 is a sample based synthesizer that combines the power of a sampler, the flexibility of a modular synth, and the fun of spectral filtering. It has a huge library of ready made patches hat you can tweak or create your own with the 11 GB sample library that comes along with it. You can use multiple samples, or just parts of them, run them through all sorts of routing scenarios and create incredibly complex synthesized sounds.
Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2
One of the most extensive sound design tool options on the market putting together multiple types of synthesis with virtual analog architecture, hundreds of DSP waveforms, the possibility of using external sound sources for synthesis and a just extraordinarily huge sound bank. It’s simple to navigate yet complicated enough to suit the needs of any sound designer, it is definitely one of the most capable tools on the market.
Native Instruments Reaktor
The second Kontakt instrument in this list and the second virtual modular system is a wonderful sound design tool. You can use what NI call “blocks” to create modular synth patches or use some of the 70 ready made patches. On top of that you can download user made patches and try them out yourself.
There are over 40 blocks in Reaktor and they are all sorts of things like oscillators, filters, modulation, step sequencers, envelope shape tools and so on.
Arturia’s V collection is a whole package of dreams come true for any synth lover out there as it is all made up of replica’s of synth’s from 60 years ago to modern times. The CS-80V is a replica of Yamaha’s highly regarded synth, the CS-80. The original was groundbreaking because it had two independent synth sound paths and the tone creation abilities were just crazy.
Arturia has tried to copy it as well as possible. + they added some creative features like additional modulation routings, multi-timbral voicing, arpeggiator, stereo delay and preset morphing.
Native Instruments Massive
Yes, this is already the third product from Native Instruments in this list and I promise this is not product placement. 🙂 I don’t even like Massive myself but it is such a popular choice, especially among EDM producers that I have to include it. And it is pretty awesome, I have to give that to NI. 1300 preset sounds and a very easy to program interface + the virtual-analog technology make it a huge deal on the synth market and it is not hard to see why.
AAS Ultra Analog VA-2
Ultra Analog VA-2 is yet another two oscillator/ two filter/ two voltage controlled amplifer, etc. synth, very similar to Vacuum. What it brings to the table for the money you pay is incredible ease of use and quite amazing sound compared to most other synth’s with similar architecture. Add a big preset library to that to start creating patches on the fly and you have a great synth on hand.
In a nice studio walk-through with Jean-Michel Jarre from October last year, he explained the need to stick to one tool and learn it so well that you can really get creative with it (He also talks about how cool the Monark is). I really recommend taking the advice and carefully pondering upon what product to buy and then sticking with it for as much possible and really learning the tool.