Best VST Plugins 2019
Looking for this year’s list? Be sure to read Best VST Plugins (2020).
Software virtual instruments continue to evolve beyond our expectations. They have become extraordinary playgrounds of sonic possibility, from breathtakingly realistic and authentic sound of live instruments to all the squelchiness and control of hardware synthesizers. But that also sells them short. VST Instruments are more than emulations of hardware or real-world instruments, they can also be immense landscapes of their own unique forms of sound and tonal exploration. They can push the boundaries of synthesis, harness the power of powerful processors and visualize the parameters and controls in ways not plausible in hardware. For in-the-box music production, these are the virtual instruments you should have at your disposal.
Note: “VST Instruments”, “VSTi’s” or “virtual software synthesizers” are all terms that describe software sound sources that run on your desktop or laptop computer usually running MacOS or Windows. They “plug into” music production software and provide the sounds you can play with a keyboard or controller, or sequence, arrange or compose with.
Here’s our quick list of the best VST plugins available in 2019:
- Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2.5
- Native Instruments Komplete 12
- Fxpansion CYPHER 2
- IK Multimedia SampleTank 4
- Spitfire Labs
- Spectrasonics Keyscape
- Native Instruments Massive X
- Gothic Instruments Dronar Master Edition
The Best VST Instruments of 2019
1. Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2.5
*At time of writing
Omnisphere is a hugely expansive synthesizer. Originally designed for pads, it has evolved to become a versatile playground of sound, landscapes, synthesis, 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 and 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 support 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.
2. Native Instruments Komplete 12
*At time of writing
There is no collection of plugins and VST Instruments anywhere like Komplete. Native Instruments takes all their work across multiple genres and flavors of sound generation and processing and drops it into an enormously coherent whole. There are a number of versions and the top one, Komplete 12 Ultimate Collector’s Edition, features over 150 products, more than 90,000 sounds and over 900GB of content. But let’s focus on the standard edition which has a more modest 60 products, 25,000 sounds and 220GB of content.
Within Komplete you’ll find a range of legacy instruments such as the FM synth FM8, the weird Absynth 5, and the drum powerhouse Battery 4, along with many cutting-edge synths like the modular Reaktor 6 Blocks, Kontour phase modulation, and Monark, the king of monosynths. Using the Kontakt 6 sampler, you have stacks of sample-based instruments included strummed acoustic guitar, pianos, electric Rhodes, orchestra strings, horns, and eastern instruments. Moving into percussion, there are the Polyplex drum sampler, Drum Lab percussion layering and a Studio Drummer with over 3,300 groove patterns. Plus, there is some of the most contemporary and performance-ready content you’ll find anywhere.
The effects collection is comprehensive, simple and perfectly versatile with guitar amp and effect modeling, mixing and channel strip modules, delays and reverbs to die for.
You can use all these instruments, synths and plugins individually within your DAW software or you can browse through the sounds all together using the Komplete Kontrol software. This comes alive when using Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol hardware controllers with ready-mapped controls and simple knobs and controls to browse and load instruments. You save a ridiculous amount of money buying Komplete over buying individual products and it has become a studio staple.
Omnisphere is a hugely expansive synthesizer. Originally designed for pads, it has evolved to become a versatile playground of sound, landscapes, synthesis and rhythms that can reflect hardware but also take you off to planets you’ve never explored before.
3. Fxpansion CYPHER 2
*At time of writing
CYPHER 2 is designed for the multidimensional expressive control of MIDI Polyphonic Expression (MPE) compatible controller keyboards. You can use it without owning an MPE keyboard like the ROLI Seaboard but it definitely gets interesting when you do. MPE keyboards are all about pushing parameters into interesting places polyphonically per note. You can bring in not just velocity but aftertouch, bend and vibrato, pressure and glide all mapped to individual parameters. It can give an amazingly expressive mode of performance.
CYPHER 2 is a complex synthesizer exploring virtual analog modeled oscillators, waveshaping and thru-zero FM. There are 3 oscillators with FM and audio-rate modulation. Twin filters bring the tone with 6 different circuit models to choose from. But it’s in the TransMod modulation system that things get interesting. It turns the whole experience into a sound design adventure. You can push modulators into modulators and pump the results into multiple parameters and watch as your sounds break themselves apart and reform as something else.
Adding the final element of expressive control elevates CYPHER 2 to a previously undiscovered responsive level. The modulation system and the sequencer/arpeggiator now works in 5 dimensions. As you play and work with your MPE controller the sounds will modulation, twist and turn, embrace rhythms and then be devoured in the battle between hungry tones. It really is a lot of fun.
It’s a complex and rather monotone interface which might turn off the casual synth fan but to the more adventurous it invites you into the possibility of exciting sonic places.
4. IK Multimedia SampleTank 4
*At time of writing
SampleTank has been around so long I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t. It’s the original workstation software synthesizer and by “workstation,” I mean that it comes with a range of useful sounds from across multiple genres and categories. Whatever sort of musical work you’re doing you’ll find suitable sounds in SampleTank. But with version 4 it reinvents itself as an arsenal of sound with a depth and range that’s almost impossible to find the bottom of.
SampleTank 4 is 5 times the size of the previous version. It will take up 250GB of your storage, offering over 8,000 instrument presets covering every style and genre you can possibly imagine. It’s a sample-based instrument and for this new version, they put together dozens of custom recording sessions to painstakingly record every nuance in multiple articulations of hundreds of acoustic instruments. There are pianos, keyboards, guitars, bass, drums, strings, brass, synths, vocals, percussion — and these are just the real instruments. There are GBs of synths, electronic noises, beats, rhythms, soundscapes, and impossibly blended sounds.
But the massive library is just the sound source. Add to that a new sound design interface where you can dig into envelopes, modulations, filters, layers and splits and control all aspects of the sounds. There are performance elements such as an arpeggiator, strummer, phrase and loop manager. And there’s a mixer for blending all the layers and articulations together and shaping the sound with 70 effects and audio processors.
You could spend the rest of your life exploring the content in SampleTank 4 but thanks to a comprehensive browser and search interface you can also quickly find exactly the sort of sound you’re looking for and then tweak it to perfection.
SampleTank 4 is a bit of a monster, but an incredibly useful one.
5. Spitfire Labs
Street Price: Free (at time of writing)
Spitfire Audio produce some of the most innovative and exciting orchestral libraries on the scene. All of their sampled instruments come with multiple articulations but can also be manipulated into being so much more than simply cinematic. Spitfire’s “Labs” series is a number of completely free sample libraries tied up in a simple but effective interface that offers a surprisingly useful range of sounds.
The series begins with a “Soft Piano,” which is a specially prepared piano dampened by thin strips of felt between the hammers and the strings. Then there are some Strings recorded through vintage BBC equipment and played by masters of their crafts. Then comes an Amplified Cello Quarter, which takes the mellow cello and pushes it to 11 through some seriously overdriven amplification. Drums is simply an awesome kit with such amazing space and placement. There’s an Electric Piano that’s simply lovely. The unexpected Charango is apparently the Andean guitar-like instrument that inspired the creation of Spitfire Audio in the first place. Then there’s Choir, which is a sampling of the Eric Whitacre Singers recorded at Air Studios. And then we have a range of Pads taken from a bunch of vintage synthesizers and processed through some fabulously vintage gear. There’s plenty more to come in this evolving and intriguing series.
Spitfire Audio know how to sample, they use some very interesting gear and manage to mix and produce some of the most expressive and characterful sound libraries in the business. The libraries in the Labs series are no different and are completely free for you to use.
Link to Website: www.spitfireaudio.com
Dronar has become synonymous with wonderfully weird evolutions in cinematic sound and texture. The libraries find themselves all over scoring-to-picture, sound design and scaring the life out of people in video games.
There is such a broad variety of VST instruments that it’s impossible to touch on all areas or genres of plugin. There are some wonderful collections of classic synthesizers, innovative individual synthesizers, and fabulously cinematic and emotive sound libraries. I have taken my top 5 from different areas in the hope of covering something that resonates with you. In forthcoming articles, I will dig deeper into more focused and individual categories.
Here are 3 other honorable mentions that are definitely worth checking out.
6. Spectrasonics Keyscape
An extraordinary collection of keyboards, organs and electric pianos, deeply multi-sampled and then reconstructed to produce the most authentic sound possible. They are compelling and highly expressive to play. You have control over the mix of microphones, character and effects and the ability to combine a couple together to forge completely new tonal ideas. There are 36 classic instruments in here that would appeal to any keyboard player.
*At time of writing
7. Native Instruments Massive X
The long-awaited successor to the original Massive virtual synthesizer Massive X will redefine one of the most popular and iconic software synthesizers of all time. 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 but is a really exciting place to play.
Link to Website: www.native-instruments.com
$TBA but also comes as part of Komplete 12 (at time of writing)
8. Gothic Instruments Dronar Master Edition
Dronar has become synonymous with wonderfully weird evolutions in cinematic sound and texture. The libraries find themselves all over scoring-to-picture, sound design and scaring the life out of people in video games. There are a series of 9 different instruments that are pulled together for the Master Edition and each one is based upon a different set of core samples. But they all benefit from the Dronar modulation engine that pulls and mixes different elements together in sumptuous and often alarming ways. The Master Edition blends all the different libraries and gives you the opportunity to find soundscapes you never would have discovered using them individually. It’s vast and intense and atmospheric to the point that you could lose yourself completely.
Link to Website: timespace.com
$349(at time of writing)
Photo Credit: Native Instruments
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