Best VST Plug-ins 2020
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Best VST Plugins (2020)

By Robin Vincent

Date: 30 December, 2019


Robin Vincent is a UK-based veteran of the music technology industry. When he’s not designing and building computers for audio and music production he’s writing about it and producing video reviews and tutorials.

Software virtual instruments continue to evolve beyond our expectations. They have become extraordinary playgrounds of sonic possibility, from the breathtakingly realistic and authentic sound of live instruments to all the squelchiness and control of hardware synthesizers.

Software virtual instruments continue to evolve beyond our expectations. They have become extraordinary playgrounds of sonic possibility, from the 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 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.

Here’s our quick list of the best VST plugins available in 2020:

  1. Native Instruments Massive X
  2. Arturia Pigments 2
  3. Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2.6
  4. Kilohearts Phase Plant
  5. Spectrasonics Keyscape
  6. Xfer Records Serum
  7. Spitfire Audio BBC Symphony Orchestra
  8. Native Instruments Reaktor 6

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.

Native Instruments Massive X

Street Price: $199 (at time of writing)

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 an 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.

Link to Website: www.native-instruments.com

Arturia Pigments 2

Street Price: $199 (at time of writing)

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 an awesome architecture and workflow that’s easy to use and fun to stumble through.

Link to Website: www.arturia.com

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.

Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2.6

Street Price: $479 (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, 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 with 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.

Link to Website: spectrasonics.net

Kilohearts Phase Plant

Street Price: $199 (at time of writing)

Phase Plant is an expandable modular synthesis engine that lets you build sound from the ground up combining multiple instances of oscillators, samplers, and wavetables along with noise generators, filters, and modulation.

Each generator can be a virtual analog wave, a wavetable, a sample or a source of noise. Phase Plant comes loaded with samples and wavetables to browse through or you can import your own samples and even design your own wavetables. You can have as many as you like combined in any way you like to craft together that perfect tone or texture. You can route them into one another, modulate from one to another or set one as the FM input to another. Within the generator section, you can also add a distortion module that you can wrap around parts of the sound and add a filter through which your sounds can go if you choose.

Once you’ve created your synthesizer voice of combined generators you can then route them together or separately through the modular effects section. It uses a format called “Snapin” which gives you access to a whole expanding library of possible effects and processes that simply “snap-in” to the effects section.

Then you can go to town on the modulation, applying multiple types of envelope and LFO, waveshaping, randomization, and audio rate modulation. You can push Phase Plant further than any place you’d want to go.

Phase Plant is a Sound Designer’s paradise where you can craft a huge array of different sounds and possibilities. It can get complicated but the interface keeps everything together and the workflow really shines when you get into the depths of tonal discoveries.

Link to Website: kilohearts.com

Spectrasonics Keyscape

Street Price: $399 (at time of writing)

An extraordinary collection of keyboards, organs, and electric pianos put together over the course of 10 years, these are deeply multisampled and then reconstructed to produce the most authentic sound possible.

The instruments within Keyscape 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. So you can start with an authentic replication of a classic instrument and then start to develop it, push it and sculpt new sounds from the organic to the unreal and find yourself somewhere unexpected. There are custom controls in every patch dealing with timbre and effects that help showcase the range of these remarkable keyboards.

There are 36 classic instruments in here that would appeal to any keyboard player. These cover Grand Pianos, uprights, classic Rhodes and Wurlitzer electrics, Pianets, Clavinets, and Harpsichord. You’ll find Toy Pianos, Harmochords, Basset and even a couple of digital favorites. And if you don’t find what you need with one keyboard you can duet it up with another to generate a hybrid machine.

You can lose yourself in Keyscape simply for the joy of playing these amazing instruments.

Link to Website: spectrasonics.net

Xfer Records Serum

Street Price: $189 (at time of writing)

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 has 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.

Link to Website: xferrecords.com

Phase Plant is a Sound Designer’s paradise where you can craft a huge array of different sounds and possibilities. It can get complicated but the interface keeps everything together and the workflow really shines when you get into the depths of tonal discoveries.

Spitfire Audio BBC Symphony Orchestra

Street Price: $999 (at time of writing)

Spitfire Audio crafts extraordinary sample library instruments. One of their most recent is the sublime and world-famous BBC Symphony Orchestra which captures 99 players, 55 instruments, 418 techniques, and 20 signals. This is an orchestra recorded on their home turf where they are most creative with some of the greatest players in their 90-year history. It’s the sort of sound that will define a generation of computer-based Composers.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra comprises of over 200 hours of recording, over 1,000,000 samples and takes up 568GB of space. You can buy it on a 1TB SSD drive ready to go if you wish. The idea was to capture a truly cohesive sound with an orchestra that plays together and feels together.

The Spitfire Audio instrument interface is breathtakingly simple with essentially two sliders and one dial to bring in the dynamics, the space and the excitement of these instruments. There’s a lot more going on behind the scenes but it’s refreshingly uncomplicated and lets you focus on being creative rather than engineering. Although you can do that, too, by mixing and balancing the signals from 20 sources, including 11 microphone positions.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra is a truly epic orchestral instrument that’s the new standard for computer-based composition.

Link to Website: spitfireaudio.com

Native Instruments Reaktor 6

Street Price: $199 (at time of writing)

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 within 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.

Link to Website: native-instruments.com

Image via Spitfire Audio BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this article, you'll enjoy last year's post covering the best VST plugins of 2019.

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