8 Best Synth VSTs to Push the Limits of Your Sound
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Our electronic music machines have a near-infinite palette of sounds to choose from but there are some key Synth VSTs that we keep coming back to again and again.

They have a sound and a vibe that we can’t get enough of but it can be so much more than that. It can be about the interface, the way the sound and parameters react to each other. It can be the depth of possibility or speed of simplicity or just how something works that makes it the right virtual synthesizer to use in that moment.

For this article, I’ve pulled together what I believe to be the best Synth VSTs available at this time. Most of them have been around a while and others offer something new and unique but all of them will fill your computer with unparalleled synthesized sounds that can’t be beaten.

Our picks for the best synth VSTs of 2020/2021 are:

  • Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2.6
  • Xfer Records Serum
  • Native Instruments Massive X
  • Arturia Pigments 2
  • Roland Zenology
  • Arturia V Collection
  • U-He Diva
  • Native Instruments Reaktor 6

What Is a Synth VST?

A Synth VST is a software synthesizer designed to run as a “plugin” inside a piece of studio recording software also known as a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). “VST” refers to a plugin format that nearly every DAW supports.

On macOS you may see plugins referred to in the AU format and that’s essentially the same thing. Most Synth VSTs also support AU.

Once you’ve loaded the Synth VST plugin inside your DAW you’ll be able to play it from a MIDI keyboard or sequence it from the DAWs music writing ability.

Synth VSTs are also known as VST Instruments or Virtual Instruments. Many of them are emulations of hardware synthesizers but they certainly don’t have to be.

What VST Plugins Do Professionals Use?

Being professional is more about the way you use something rather than the actual product. A professional will make the best use of the available tools, plugins, and virtual instruments.

But there are also key plugins that no self-respecting professional would be without. In terms of virtual synthesizers, they would be Spectrasonics Omnisphere and Xfer Serum, both of which feature in this list.

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Is Omnisphere the Best Synth?

Omnisphere is a huge source of sound and possibility in multiple layers of finely-crafted tones and textures. Perhaps the real question is whether there’s anything better? Of course, that depends on what you’re trying to achieve and hopefully, you’ll find a few possibilities in this list.

The Best Synth VSTs 2020/2021

Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2.6

Omnisphere is a hugely expansive synthesizer. Originally designed for pads, it has evolved to become a versatile playground of sound, landscapes, and rhythms that can reflect hardware but also take you off to planets you’ve never explored before.

The secret of its huge and powerful sound comes from the layering of mixing of sounds within the engine. Each patch can have 4 layers of sound made from over 500 DSP waveforms, filtered by 34 types, modulated by 8 LFOs and 12 envelopes.

You can import your own audio and then have it pulled apart into individual grains and modulated to within an inch of its life. There’s a massive bank of 57 effects units to process and push your sounds into new zones. All of which can be modulated from the same synthesis engine. There are over 14,000 presets to play with. It has an “Orb” performance interface where you can set things in motion and spin it into sound morphing and discovery.

Omnisphere also has a unique relationship to hardware synthesizers. A growing list of over 30 hardware synths now supports a level of integration where Omnisphere becomes the synth engine of the hardware. Taking every hardware control and mapping it to parameters inside that pull our hardware-specific elements of Omnisphere. It brings that familiar layout of your favorite synth into the inner workings of Omnisphere.

Omnisphere is an extraordinarily powerful synthesizer.

Street Price: $479
spectrasonics.net

Xfer Records Serum

Regarded as one of the most vital virtual instruments for EDM and contemporary pop music, Serum is a complex wavetable synthesizer that enables you to explore intense sounds through a playful user interface. Although it’s been around a while now it can’t be beaten on how effortlessly it offers up killer sound after killer sound.

Serum comes with 450 presets and 144 wavetables and so at a basic level, you’re not going to run out of ideas very quickly. Although you can design and import your own wavetables, Serum gives you loads of ways to mess about with what’s already there. You can frequency modulate, amplitude modulate, and ring modulate. You can dial in some oscillator sync and lean heavily on the Warp to push the waveform in all sorts of directions.

Modulation works by dragging and dropping connections between modulation sources and the knob you want to modulate. It’s instantly satisfying, controllable, and editable in the waveform display. There’s a wide range of filter types from regular low pass to comb, phasers, and flangers, and all of it ripe for modulation.

An effects rack of 10 effect modules makes Serum sound huge and you can play polyphonically or stack the voices up into huge unison modes for unbelievably fat sounds.

Serum sounds fantastic for the beginner and the seasoned professional. It’s instantly awesome and has bags of depth for those who want to dive deeper.

Street Price: $189
xferrecords.com

Native Instruments Massive X

The original Massive wavetable synthesizer was one of the synths that has shaped the sound of modern music over the last decade. It was fun, immediate, edgy, and had remarkable modulation possibilities. It was the sort of synth that sounded alive. When they came to make a new version, Native Instruments pulled out all the stops and have created not only a worthy successor to a powerful synth but have taken it to completely new and unexplored places.

It has a next-generation sound engine with state-of-the-art components and a brand new range of effects and modulations. It features a dual wavetable sound engine, noise generation, analog oscillators, filters, effects, and a massive modulation section with no end of LFOs and envelope configurations. The interface is a radical departure from the original and it’s a really exciting place to play.

Choose from 170 wavetables and 10 different ways of reading them. They can be aggressive or bendy, soft or glassy, hard and unyielding. Pull in some hard sync and dial-up some phase modulation to keep everything alive. Movement can be drawn in as complex evolving patterns of automation and modulation. You can tie them to triggers, control how the sound changes from your keyboard giving a performance or playable possibilities.

And if it all gets too much you can simplify everything with the 16 assignable Macros that can take care of the heavy lifting while you stay in the creative zone.

Massive X is radical and continues to develop and evolve.

Street Prices: $199
native-instruments.com

Arturia Pigments 2

They call it a “polychrome software synthesizer” and it combines wavetable, virtual analog, granular, and sampling in one engaging and organically flowing machine. If Massive X is radical then Pigments is emotional — it’s all about movement and engaging all of our senses in the exploration of sound and synthesis.

Right from the start Pigments oozes life and visual excitement. It wears its modulation front and center with graphical representations of every wave, every curve, and every possibility. You can almost program this synth visually and know exactly what it’s going to sound like.

Getting into the details: you have 2 synth engines that can handle any of the available types of synthesis and then combine and modulate through each other. With the sampling side, you can load up to 6 slots of samples and play them like a sampler or route them through a granular engine to pull out the grains and generate new soundscapes.

There are multiple filter types including SEM and Buchla low pass gates to sculpt your sound and then you can create the most amazing amount of movement through the many-faceted modulation engine.

You can trigger automation from the keyboard, wrap it in envelopes, move it with LFOs, create mathematical functions, randomize and combine modulators to form new modulators. This is crazy town. And once things are moving you can work it all through the step sequencer with lanes of further automation and explorable randomization.

Pigments has awesome architecture and a workflow that’s easy to use and fun to stumble through.

Street Prices: $199
arturia.com

Roland Zenology

This is slightly unusual in that Zenology is a “platform,” an environment for a potentially massive source of sounds. The ZEN-Core technology is what Roland is now basing all their hardware synthesizers on. It allows for the creation and emulation of classic circuits and futuristic sound possibilities. It captures the past while looking to the future.

Over time, Roland is releasing all of their legendary legacy hardware synthesizers on this platform and you’ll be able to access authentic reproductions of synths such as the Jupiter 8, JX-8P, SH-101, ProMars, Juno 106, and so on. These are combined with new ideas and unique blends of synthesis to push the sound possibilities to completely new places.

It’s like having all the Roland synths you ever wanted in one virtual instrument that will also grow into something entirely new.

Zenology is available as part of the Roland Cloud subscription which gets you access to the back catalog of virtual sounds. There’s also a free version to try that will give you a flavor of what’s possible.

Street Prices: $29.99 to $199 yearly (subscription)
rolandcloud.com

Arturia V Collection

This is cheating and I fully embrace it. The Arturia V Collection isn’t a single virtual synthesizer; it’s a collection of all the most important and desirable classic synthesizers you could ever need. It’s an extraordinary bundle of Synth VSTs that authentically captures the legendary sounds and interfaces of 24 vintage synths.

You have the expected legends like the Minimoog and Moog Modular, SEM, Jupiter 8, and ARP 2600. But then there are more unusual machines like the Buchla Easel, Synthi, and Yamaha CS-80. And it’s not all analog as we have a Fairlight, Synclaviar, and DX-7 to play with. And going beyond synthesis into acoustic and electric pianos, string machines, and organs.

The V Collection is a stunning range of instruments, each of which would keep any synth fan happy for a long time. It also comes with a huge curated library of presets and, via the Analog Lab plugin, you can run the sounds together without loading up the individual synths.

At $499 it’s a decent investment that’s worth every cent.

Street Prices: $499
arturia.com

U-He Diva

Diva is a lovingly fat synthesizer. It encapsulates the greatest analog monophonic and polyphonic synthesizers that we’d all like to own. Diva is analog synthesis emulation done right.

It has 5 oscillator models based on all the Moog-style warmth with detuning and sync, all ready to push, thicken and wobble your basic sound sources in remarkably pleasing ways. There are 5 filter models that will sculpt your sound into all those delicious and familiar places. Modulation is provided by 3 envelope types and a pair of LFOs. It’s not supposed to be complicated — this is synthesis at its purest and best.

You can tune it, glide it, widen it to 16 voices while modulating the amplifier, and arpeggiating the melody. A couple of effects round off the signal flow with just the reverb and delay you need.

Diva is brilliant because it captures everything we love about old analog synths and presents in a clear, usable, and thoroughly rewarding way.

Street Prices: $179
u-he.com

Native Instruments Reaktor 6

Part sound design playground, part synth development platform, and part modular synth, Reaktor is endlessly fascinating and yet easier to access than ever before with its Blocks environment for exploring modular synthesis.
 
There’s a huge library of synthesizers and sound processors built-in Reaktor and uploaded by the community. It constantly develops and evolves and the range of possible sounds and instruments seems endless. From little bass synths, reverbs, and filters through to immensely complex sound generators and sequenced beats and noises, Reaktor is as versatile as you can get. The interface is never the same twice, you can build anything you want in here.

The recent addition of the Blocks engine opens Reaktor up to a whole new avenue of creative and visually splendid synthesizing. Pull together patches using the building blocks of synthesis and patch them together in any way you choose, flowing signal and control voltages from module to module. You can design whole synthesizer ideas without having to dig underneath Reaktor’s surface, you can do it all within Blocks if you prefer.

Nothing quite matches the versatility of Reaktor, it’s a unique environment of sound creation that’s not as complex as it looks and will greatly reward your investigation.

Street Prices: $199
native-instruments.com

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