The 10 Best Software Synths of all Time
Believe it or not, software synths have now been around for over 25 years! Discover ten of the best software synths of all time in our buyer’s guide.
It all started in 1996 under DOS. The first software synthesizer in history is said to have been Audiosim, which was programmed for specific sound cards. However, software synths really took off when Steinberg added MIDI control to the VST protocol in 1999. Steinberg Neon was the first plugin synth that was able to run in any DAW that supported the VSTi protocol.
This list of the best software synths isn’t a top 10 ranking – it can’t be. One synth for everything simply doesn’t exist. But if you have a few of the synths from this list on your computer, your sound variety will be hard to beat.
Arturia Pigments – the sound designer’s synth
Arturia is famous for hardware synthesizers, controllers like the Beatstep Pro, and, of course, the V Collection, which emulates just about every legendary synthesizer in history. But the French company also makes Pigments, one of the best and most powerful software synths on the market. With its excellent GUI and workflow, Pigments is a joy to use if you find Serum too dark, Massive too monochrome, and Omnisphere 2 too convoluted.
At its core are four synth engines: one for virtual analog oscillators, one for wavetable synthesis, one for sampling and granular synthesis, and, finally, the Harmonic Engine, which brings additive synthesis into the mix. In addition, Pigments boasts a variety of filters in two slots and an outstanding modulation matrix. In contrast to many other synths where you can quickly get lost, Pigments’ GUI makes it easy to keep track of modulations.
U-he Diva – the “analog” monster
Picking an u-he synth for this list wasn’t easy – ALL of the Berlin-based developer’s software synths are among the best in the industry in terms of sound. When it comes to raw analog power and the sheer amount of presets available, however, Diva still reigns supreme. If the product name made you think u-he is a bit aloof, that disappears into thin air when you realize that it stands for “Dinosaur Impersonating Virtual Analogue”.
The level of authenticity of Diva’s emulations of the classic synthesizer “dinosaurs” makes you wonder if you really still need their hardware counterparts. This realism comes at the expense of an engine that likes to help itself to a serious chunk of your CPU power. But as computers are steadily becoming more powerful, this isn’t really an issue anymore.
Xfer Inc Serum – an EDM favorite
Serum has been around for over eight years and is still actively supported with regular updates and new features. The software synth is the brainchild of Steve Duda, known for his collaborations with deadmau5. Consequently, Serum is especially popular in the EDM and techno genres. The synth’s basic structure is fairly standard: two oscillators, one filter, one noise generator, one sub-oscillator, seven modulators, and ten effects are nothing to get excited about anymore.
But in terms of how it sounds and how easy it is to modulate everything, Serum is still unmatched. Another plus is the astonishing amount of preset packs and GUI skins available. If analog realism is what you’re after, Serum is probably the wrong choice (at least it takes a bit longer to make it sound like a Minimoog), but for many other things, it’s still hard to beat.
NI Komplete 14 – best software synth bundle
When it comes to Native Instruments Komplete 14, picking the single best software synth to put on this list is impossible. From Monark’s basses and Razor’s leads to FM8’s groundbreaking FM workflow to the organic power of Massive X, the Berlin-based industry giant has consistently set standards with its software synthesizers over the past 15 years.
These days, the developer seems to focus on the MASCHINE hardware, sample-based instruments for Kontakt 6, and a never-ending stream of expansions. New synthesizers or major updates have become rare. While Komplete is still a must-have for most producers, we’d love to see NI go back to being the innovative force it once was.
Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2 – presets, presets, presets!
Seeing Omnisphere purely as an emulation of other synths doesn’t do it justice! On the one hand, the regular updates always come with additional presets, many of which feature extremely creative sound design. Omnisphere 2 has 58 effects, a very good arpeggiator, and “The Orb”, the Circular Motion Interface, which randomly modulates parameters and can even be remote-controlled via an app. You can also import your own audio files. And on the other hand, there simply isn’t any other software synth that even comes close in terms of the number of sound packs available from third-party providers.
Omnisphere 2 is a must-have for anyone who needs quick access to an abundance of sounds, for example in film and game scoring. The total number of presets now exceeds 14,000 – a staggering number that leaves nothing to be desired.
Kilohearts Phase Plant – Modular but direct
Phase Plant by Kilohearts has a growing fan base thanks to its modular, multi-layered approach. The ability to apply effects and modulations to each individual synthesizer voice is just one of the countless ways to build extremely complex sounds.
While beginners may face a bit of a learning curve due to Phase Plant’s modular workflow, fans of modular synthesis will thoroughly enjoy it for precisely that reason. This software synth is best for anyone who likes to experiment with creative modulations, but believes that full-on modularity is one step too far away from actually making music.
Plugin Alliance DS Audio Thorn – Trap and EDM galore
Sometimes it doesn’t have to be more, bigger, louder. Sometimes it’s enough to simply get the basics right and improve upon the things that bother you about the competition. Synth A sounds great, but is a nightmare to use. Synth B has a complex engine with endless routing and modulation possibilities, but the effects sound like they’re falling asleep.
Thorn by Dmitry Sches, which is now distributed under the umbrella of Plugin Alliance, doesn’t reinvent the wheel. But it sounds great and is a blast to use. It’s also CPU-friendly, suitable for beginners as well as experienced sound designers, and already enjoys a cult following in the EDM/Trap genres. Rightly so.
Sugar Bytes Aparillo – FM with Orbiter
Sugar Bytes’ software synthesizers have always been quite exotic. Aparillo is no different. A standard modulation matrix simply didn’t cut it for this 16-voice polyphonic FM synth, so they came up with the “orbiter”. The complexity of the sounds that Aparillo creates from just a single MIDI note is hard to beat. This makes it great for things like cinematic pads and mysterious horror movie soundtracks.
Newfangled Audio Generate – Chaos oscillator and Buchla vibes
First came Pendulate, then Generate. The interface, sound, and workflow of this software synthesizer (which is distributed by Eventide) are rather unusual compared to most other synths on this list. Generate does a lot of things differently. The developers looked at the Buchla approach to modular synthesis for inspiration, with a “chaotic generator” and a low pass gate for sound shaping.
Fans of Generate keep coming back to it precisely because it sounds different and extraordinary. In addition, the MPE implementation is brilliant. With a compatible controller and DAW, many presets reveal additional secrets, even with subtle controller movements.
Vital Audio Vital – one of the best free software synths
First things first: Vital is free. Sure, there are paid versions that offer additional wavetables and presets, but all features are available in the free version. Moreover, Vital is simply outstanding in terms of an intuitive workflow and a wide variety of sounds. There’s also a very active user community with its own Discord server, where you can find answers to your questions and exchange sounds. Vital’s developer Matt Helm also actively communicates with users.
In terms of the sound engine, Vital offers a bunch of interesting features that aren’t available in major competitors like Serum and Pigments, e.g. stereo LFOs, spectral warping mode, and mouse-over modulation previews.
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Note: This article was originally published in German on bonedo.de.
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- Arturia Pigments: Bonedo
- Diva: Bonedo
- Serum: Bonedo
- Komplete: Native Instruments
- Omnisphere: Bonedo
- Phase Plant: Kilohearts
- Thorn: Plugin Alliance
- Aparillo: Sugar Bytes
- Generate: Eventide
- Vital: Matt Tytel
Great choices! I love Arturia Pigments and definitely recommend it.
UVI falcon should be on this list. It does literally everything and more
ha! you beat me to the punch. its terrifying how much Falcon can do. and the sequencer/arpeggio features practically makes it a mini-daw like Machine
Some others I would have considered for the list:
massive x and massive are part of the native instrument Komplete collection they featured in the list, so it’s implied. however I agree 1000% about Zebra 2+
I would not have picked Aparillo (The default preset is one of the best tones ever) or Generate (Interesting and great for certain things but otherwise limited) Although good they are not GOAT. I would replace with Falcon and Msoundfactory. Synthmaster 2 is also up there, especially for the price.
I agree about UVI Falcon! It has so much to offer
Glad to see everyone else mention UVI Falcon. Its criminally underrated it seems.
Ableton Operator deserves a nod, as do TAL U-No, Synth1 and the never-ever-talked-about Aalto