best synth vst

Best Modular Synth VSTs 2019

Modular is everywhere at the moment. Row upon row of knobs and lights enticing you to touch, explore and experiment. They also represent a considerable investment in terms of hardware, making it a very expensive music-making hobby. But don’t worry. The sound and experimental sonic soundscapes of modular synthesis are available in software form. Sure, it doesn’t have the touchy-feely appeal of hardware but for adventures in sound design, there’s nothing better. The value can also be extraordinary. So, grab some virtual patch cables as we check out the best modular synthesis software currently available for your computer or devices.

Here are our picks for the best modular synth VSTs available in 2019:

  1. Softube Modular
  2. VCV Rack
  3. Voltage Modular
  4. Reaktor 6 and Blocks
  5. Audulus
  6. Full Bucket Music ModulAir
  7. Propellerhead Complex-1

Formats

Just a word on the many formats of modular synthesis. In hardware, there are largely three main formats. Eurorack is the most popular, it’s small at 3U, uses 1/8″ jack patch connectors, is the least expensive and very compatible. It’s championed by German modular makers Doepfer and is the most readily adopted format. The slightly larger 4U Serge/Buchla format is far more boutique and uncommon, uses banana plugs and is associated with West Coast synthesis. Lastly, the 5U Moog format is the size used by Moog Modular synthesizers. It uses 1/4″ jacks and is still popular, although expensive. Software has no limitations in size and shape and does not have to follow any of the hardware conventions in order to be “modular.” However, in this list, I’ve largely stuck to software which is recognizably similar to the hardware and designed to emulate the same sort of sounds and workflow.

Best Modular Synth VSTs of 2019

1. Softube Modular

 Softube Modular – $89*

*At time of writing

Street Price: $89 (at time of writing)
Softube Modular should always be first on any list of software modular synthesis. It’s the most authentic solution. By “authentic,” I mean that the modules and the environment have been modeled down to a tee. It is the closest you will get to owning Eurorack modular modules in software.

It can run standalone or as a plug-in inside your DAW. Nothing is pre-patched, you start with an empty rack into which you begin adding modules. You then have to patch it together in order to achieve some kind of sound that you can route to your speakers or through your DAW. Graphically, it mirrors real-life hardware and many of the modules are direct emulations of existing hardware. There are a number of modules from Doepfer, 4ms, Mutable Instruments, Intellijel, and even Buchla mixed in with Softube’s own utility modules and sequencers.

Modular looks and feels like the real thing because it is the real thing, just in software. But it also has the advantages of software, in that you can load multiple versions of modules. For instance, most Eurorack users would have a single Mutable Instruments Clouds module, but in Software Modular you can load as many as your computer can handle. This makes it possible to produce sounds that no hardware has been able to produce. There’s also a stack of presets that instantly load up complex and engaging patches for you to play with.

Softube Modular is the real deal and starts at $89. Additional branded modules cost from around $20-$50. So, it can become the most expensive item on the list but is still a great value for the money.

Important Data

Format: Standalone, VST, AU, MacOS, Windows

2. VCV Rack

Street Price: Free (some additional modules cost extra) (at time of writing)

Next up is the extraordinary VCV Rack. This is an open source project that has set the community alight with the amazing possibilities of this evolving and developing software. First and foremost, it’s free. You can download a copy and start making noises and beeps and blips right now. It has hundreds of professional and amateur developers creating modules and coding for it. In many ways the potential is unlimited.

VCV Rack follows the Eurorack format of module sizing, connections, and the virtual rack concept but the look is stylized rather than a reflection of existing hardware. But that’s not to say that there is no connection to real-life hardware. There are a number of hardware brands that have allowed their modules to be virtualized into VCV Rack. Befaco, Grayscale and Synthesis Technology have all lent their expertise. But most notably is the input from Mutable Instruments. Mutable Instruments make the coding behind their modules open source and so anyone can build their own version of their modules. VCV Rack recreated a whole range that they call “Audible Instruments.” Mutable Instruments liked it so much that they developed a “Preview Module,” which allows VCV Rack users to run code from newer Mutable modules before they get released as open source. That’s very cool indeed.

A huge community has grown up around it with people sharing music, patches, modules, and configurations. It stays true to the concept of modular synthesis while breaking all the limitations of hardware into an almost infinite sound creation space. Your power of the computer then becomes the only limiting factor.

The only downside is that VCV Rack is built as a stand-alone application and doesn’t run as a plug-in. However, an app called VCV Bridge allows you to run audio, MIDI, transport, and clock between VCV Rack and your DAW. As VCV Rack is still in Beta it’s not always completely reliable but this should improve with time and updates.

It’s the most varied and creative space with new and stranger modules emerging all the time. And as it’s free there’s no reason not to give it a go.

Important Data

Format: MacOS, Windows and Linux. Standalone but can be run alongside a DAW with VCV Bridge.
Link to Website: vcvrack.com

Modular looks and feels like the real thing because it is the real thing, just in software. But it also has the advantages of software, in that you can load multiple versions of modules. For instance, most Eurorack users would have a single Mutable Instruments Clouds module, but in Software Modular you can load as many as your computer can handle.

3. Voltage Modular

Street Price: $99 (at time of writing)

Cherry Audio introduced the world to Voltage Modular only last year. It’s currently in Beta and the full version should be released this winter. The Beta has been shaping up nicely and should make for an interesting alternative to Softube Modular and VCV Rack. It follows the same Eurorack style format with individual modules and a virtual rack. The look is playful, colorful and casual, a bit like Propellerhead Reason, but underneath is a very capable virtual synthesis engine.

Voltage Modular claims to address some of the shortcomings of other virtual modular software. One particular feature is that each input and out has a six-way pop-up multi, meaning that you can take 6 things out or 6 things into every patch socket. One nice visual touch is that the patch cables animate the direction of data flowing through them. You can drag modules or groups of modules about easily and they will all re-patch and reroute in the most efficient way. It can also run as a plugin instrument in VST, AU, and AAX Pro Tools formats.

There’s a Modular Designer platform which, just like VCV Rack, allows software developers to build their own modules. An integrated module shop would let you sell them to other users. It’s cross-platform for Windows and MacOS in standalone and VST, AU and AAX formats making it the most versatile of the three virtual Euroracks. And you can share patches and cabinets (a saved group of modules) between platforms.

You can sign up for a seven-day demo version for free but the core version will cost $99. Voltage Modular is well thought-out and has enormous potential if they can attract enough developers. Cherry Audio is also very responsive in that during my beta testing I suggested that it would be good to have modules to route CV out as MIDI for controlling and running external gear. They said “good idea” and sent me new modules which accomplished that the next day.

Important Data

Format: MacOS and Windows on standalone and VST, AU and AAX plugin.
Link to Website: cherryaudio.com

With Audulus, you can build synthesizers, sound engines and audio effects processors. It has a smooth, fluid, vector interface that animates the interaction while only showing you what you want it to. It’s easy to create sub-patches that you can use as building blocks for larger configurations. Everything can be modulated by everything else, it doesn’t comprehend any of the limitations that hardware or even virtual Eurorack places on itself. It is effortlessly versatile.

4. Reaktor 6 and Blocks

Street Price: $199 (at time of writing)

Reaktor isn’t an emulation of Eurorack modular synthesis. It is, however, modular in nature and structure. The Reaktor Blocks element of the software does reflect much of the sort of synthesis we find in modular but it can also be far more than that. The strength of Reaktor is in its ability to build complete self-contained synthesizers. There are over 70 instruments included and thousands of sounds in the User Library and the ability to keep on drilling down into individual components to amazing levels of complexity and possibility.

But for proper modular synthesis, it’s the “Blocks” aspect that we are most interested in. Reaktor comes with over 40 blocks covering the usual suspects of oscillators, filters, modulators, sequencers, and effects. Some modules are taken from elements of their standalone software synthesizers, all inspired by real-life hardware rather than emulating them. It’s this that gives Reaktor Blocks its unique vibe. It’s able to combine all sorts of different synthesis and techniques and go to places not so easily discovered in other modular formats.

The connectivity exists behind the panels which makes it comprehensive but also less accessible and visual than the others in this list. So tackling patching, re-routing or building instruments takes a bit more thought and planning. Rumor has it that a soon to be available update will bring patching to the front panels — that would be awesome.

Reaktor is an established platform that already runs loads of instruments and effect. The Blocks element makes it far more accessible and fun to use and customize. It’s more expensive than the others but has many more things to offer.

Important Data

Format: MacOS and Windows, Standalone plus VST, AU and AAX
Link to Website: www.native-instruments.com

5. Audulus

Street Price: $19.99 iTunes Store, $49.99 Windows (at time of writing)

To the uninitiated, Audulus can look a little frightening. It doesn’t pretend to look like hardware; this is synthesis designed in a Tron-style software universe. It uses the concept of “Nodes,” where a Node is like a synthesis module or component connected to many other nodes. It has all the usual building blocks of modular synthesis, just in a more fluid and configurable format. And it’s as much at home on an iPad as it is on the desktop.

With Audulus, you can build synthesizers, sound engines and audio effects processors. It has a smooth, fluid, vector interface that animates the interaction while only showing you what you want it to. It’s easy to create sub-patches that you can use as building blocks for larger configurations. Everything can be modulated by everything else, it doesn’t comprehend any of the limitations that hardware or even virtual Eurorack places on itself. It is effortlessly versatile.

It does look complex and different and unashamedly takes you on a different journey to those that aim to emulate the hardware interface. But you can build anything, not through coding but by experimentation. It comes with countless presets to get you moving and to help you start figuring out how to manipulate sound with this software.

Important Data

Format: MacOS, iOS and Windows VST.
Link to Website: audulus.com

Conclusion

Modular synthesis is an exciting and massive space in which to explore and experiment. There’s always more to discover so if you’re enjoying your excursions into the world of virtual modular synthesis, you might want to consider adding our two honorable mentions into the mix: Full Bucket Music ModulAir and Propellerhead Complex-1.

Software removes all the limitations of the hardware format and the often-painful expense. It’s a space where sounds can flourish, and ideas can be given flight. But it does require a certain level of understanding and investment in terms of time and effort. Modular synthesis doesn’t make sound like regular synthesizers; you have to patch it together. Thankfully, in software, you have loads of presets to get you going, although you should expect a steep initial learning curve — but for this sort of versatility, the effort is worth it.

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