Software synthesizers — soft synths — "virtual instruments" — are diverse to the point of schizophrenia. The underlying technologies can include sample-playback, analog modeling, physical modeling, and more, with combinations thereof. The applications can range from straightforward emulations of well-known instruments (whether that’s a violin section or a Minimoog) to needing trendy sounds for film and TV scoring to tools for sound designers looking to create as-yet-unheard timbres and textures. Whatever your needs, one thing is very clear: We’re extremely lucky to live in an age where your desktop or laptop computer can be your sound-generation nerve center, in many cases surpassing the quality of hardware keyboards.

Here are this year’s top ten virtual instruments that do so, according to you, the members of Gearslutz.


FIRST PLACE


Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2

Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2



No software instrument has proven to be a more emphatic exception to the otherwise valid rule that you can’t be all things to all people. Spectrasonics founder and chief sound designer Eric Persing has gone to exhaustive lengths to build a library of sampled instruments and sound sources from the everyday to the exotic (over 60 GB worth in the current version), and could have stopped there. But Omnisphere also does analog modeling, wavetable synthesis, and granular synthesis, and combines all these sound engines with innovative tools for syncing to tempo and multi-timbral usage within a DAW. Its “Harmonia” function is unlike anything else, essentially letting you treat each component of a sound as its own independent synth voice. User audio import is supported for the basis of new sounds, and its multi-effects section rivals racks of the world’s best dedicated processors in audio quality and variety. Its modulation matrix is the deepest and most flexible of anything out there, and the “Orb” lets you morph the sound in real time, Korg Kaoss-style, and can be touch-controlled via an iOS device running the Omni TR remote control app. These features combined with the diversity of its sound set have made it a go-to for cinematic scoring, experimental and ambient electronic music, EDM production that avoids me-too clichés, and anything in between. The internal motion and animation it can produce is unparalleled, and will have listeners wondering how you got “that sound.” If you’re working mainly “in the box,” Omnisphere can literally replace a roomful of desirable analog and digital synths. All this and more makes it the desert-island choice of most composers and producers, and still the reigning soft synth to beat.



SECOND PLACE


U-He Diva

U-He Diva



Diva goes all in for virtual analog synthesis, and its strength is the warmth and authenticity with which it does so. Its main interface is reminiscent of the Minimoog, with three oscillators feeding a filter and envelope generators according to a classic subtractive signal chain—but with far more options as to what occupies each link in that chain. Waveforms are continuously variable, and you can swap out the three-“VCO” section for a couple of dual-oscillator options as well as an emulation of a DCO. Filter choices are no less generous, including a straight Moog-style ladder filter, a “Cascade” option, a multi-mode filter with selectable roll-off slopes, and a “Bite” filter that increases its drive and grunge in response to hotter input levels. Separate from all of this is a high-pass filter section, useful for (among other things) emulating Roland Juno and Jupiter-style patches. Most relevant parameters can be modulated from the full range of performance controllers (wheels, velocity, aftertouch, and the like) and the LFOs can work in the audio range for FM effects if desired. Beyond the expected waveforms, the LFOs have stepped and smooth random modes. All in all, there are enough module and modulation options to keep you exploring the sonic possibilities, but not so many that you get frozen by option anxiety—this is a synth that first and foremost keeps you playing. Again, though, if one had to say why it’s a must have in one tweet, it sounds #absolutely #authentically #analog.



THIRD PLACE


Native Instruments Reaktor 6

Native Instruments Reaktor 6



A relatively long time ago (in plugin terms!) Native Instruments was one of the first companies to bring the very concept of a software synth to market. Reaktor was initially the evolution of 'Generator,' a virtual analog synth developed in 1996. Importantly, Reaktor pioneered the idea of the virtual modular synth, wherein different modules such as oscillators, filters, and envelopes could be configured from the ground up, patched together, and inter-modulated in any way the user could dream up. To this day, Reaktor remains the development platform for many of N.I.’s more “specific” synths, such as the highly-regarded Moog emulation Monark and the EDM staple Massive. Now in its sixth version, it has evolved into a full-fledged DSP environment that is massively customizable and patchable, with how much you can do at once limited only by your computer’s horsepower. With any relatively current laptop made in the past five years or so, that amounts to one heck of a lot, surpassing the capabilities of once coveted and pricey hardware such as the Nord Modular G2 or Symbolic Sound’s Capybara/Kyma engine. The only caveat is perhaps that it’s so deep to be a bit intimidating for beginners, but that’s offset by a huge online user community that shares downloadable configurations and sounds. Now in its sixth version, Reaktor is available by itself or as part of Native’s behemoth bundle, Komplete.



4. U-he Zebra 2

U-He Zebra 2

U-He Zebra 2


What, U-he again? Indeed! Where Diva’s design appeals to musicians who are accustomed to playing hardware analogs, Zebra presents the same sound authenticity (as with Diva, this is achieved via DSP analog modeling, not sampling) - in a 'patchable' virtual modular environment. Though no slouch when it comes to flexibility, it’s fair to say that upon first opening a plug-in instance, Zebra 2 offers more instant gratification and playability. This is owed to an interface that feels a lot like working with hardware, displaying only the modules you’re currently using and eschewing graphical spiderwebs of virtual patching paths. Instead, a main grid in the center of the window lets you open, click, and drag modules to create your synthesizer. That being said, you can really go as deep as you like thanks to being able to edit waveforms (even to the point of drawing waveforms freehand) and create multi-breakpoint envelopes that go far beyond the traditional ADSR paradigm. The modulation mapping feature lets you create curves or sequences for how parameters, including morphable oscillator waves, move in real time. Spectral effects can also alter the waveshapes of oscillators according to such algorithmic processes as “turbulence” and “symmetry”—which can only be described as doing what their names imply. If you want to dive right into modular synthesis and get immediate, inspiring results—but lack the space, budget, or spousal tolerance for a Eurorack system—Zebra 2 is the animal you’re looking for.



5. Native Instruments Massive

Native Instruments Massive

Native Instruments Massive


Is Massive the synth dubstep built, or is dubstep (and its more recent evolutions such as “bass music”) the genre Massive built? It really doesn’t matter, because for basses and leads, this Reaktor-derived instrument has no rival for angular, cutting-edge sounds; of course it can pull off creamy analog-style warmth if that’s what the music calls for. Its architecture features three oscillators, and the main attraction is that each of those oscillators can not only blend multiple waveforms at once, but also scan through the waveforms in the time dimension. The this lets you achieve a great deal of harmonic motion and variation (in sync with tempo, naturally) before even getting into the rest of the signal chain, which includes a flexible modulation matrix and step sequencer. For live performance, MIDI-controllable macros allow sweeping of multiple parameters simultaneously with one gesture. Massive is one of those soft synths whose simple interface belies how much is actually going on under the hood, and the best way by far to get your head around this is to reverse-engineer your favorites from among the over 1,300 presets—or just start playing them and use them in a track. However specific your preference of EDM genre and sub-genre, Massive will have a patch that’s just right.



6. Xfer Records Serum

Xfer Records Serum

Xfer Records Serum


Xfer Records is the brainchild of synth and sound designer Steve Duda, who’s widely regarded among serious geeks as a programming genius—not to mention Deadmau5’s right hand. Xfer products such as the LFOtool modulation effect and the chord generator Cthulhu have become the go-to tools for contemporary producers of electronic dance music. Serum has a lot of die-hard fans there as well, but its applications go way beyond EDM. Serum is billed as a wavetable synth, and scanning, morphing, and frequency-modulating wavetables barely scratches the surface of how it can work with them. Audio can be imported for use as a wavetable, and modulation assignments are handled by simply dragging a source to a destination on the knob-laden interface. A major selling point is also how carefully the oscillators were coded, with the goal of eliminating any undesired sidebands, aliasing, and other artifacts—all normally a danger with this method of synthesis. To round things out, all of the time-based modulation effects from LFOtool are on hand, plus a rack-like suite of ten effects including EQ, dynamics processing, and distortion. Serum is a little like a supercharged PPG Wave that lets you get inside the sound on an almost subatomic level. It creates sounds no other soft synth can.



7. UVI Falcon

UVI Falcon

UVI Falcon


The first thing that the mention of this developer might call to mind is the ubiquitous UVI Workstation sample-playback platform— regarded as the main alternative to Kontakt — as well as the UVI Engine platform, which underlies such virtual instrument hits as MOTU MachFive, VI Labs Ravenscroft piano, and Gospel Musicians’ Neo-Soul Keys, among others! Falcon is UVI’s kitchen-sink soft synth, applying every technology they’ve developed. For starters, it can load all UVI libraries and let you edit the samples at a granular level using technology licensed from French audio research powerhouse IRCAM. Stellar time-stretching, pitch manipulation, and loop slicing tools are on hand for this purpose. In parallel to all this is DSP-based virtual analog synthesis, a physical modeling oscillator for plucked sounds, wavetable synthesis, phase distortion (think Roland D-50), and FM (think Yamaha DX-7). You can combine these engines freely in multi-timbral setups, then manage these with an internal mixer that can bus outputs to your DAW, such that you can build up an entire musical arrangement using just one plug-in instance of Falcon. Across all the souhd engines and the full suite of effects, just about anything can modulate just about anything else—we practically need a tesseract’s worth of dimensions to visualize the modulation possibilities. For all its multi-tasking and potential complexity, Falcon’s interface exhibits a great deal of the cardinal design virtue called “discoverability;” poking around intuitively will get you surprisingly far. Ultimately it may not even be fair to call Falcon a soft synth, as it’s more of a full fledged sampling, sample editing, sound design, and synthesis workstation—like a modern-day Synclavier but more powerful still.



8. Synapse Audio Dune 2

Synapse Audio Dune 2

Synapse Audio Dune 2


If the Atreides had had this, that sound-as-a-weapon combat method from the movie (but not the book) would have bested bad old Baron Harkonnen even more quickly. A subtractive virtual analog synth in its basic signal path design, Dune’s unique feature is its implementation of unison mode. This will be familiar to synth players as stacking oscillators to play one huge-sounding voice. Dune lets you to take each voice in the unison, detune it, pan it, and even treat it as its own synthesis chain, and cluster voices together for the purposes of applying different downstream processes (such as filters) to some but not others. What really stands out about Dune, though, is how many voices you can do this to at once: Given a current, powerful computer, up to 520 oscillators per note. Plus, where unison in the hardware realm tends to be monophonic, Dune has 16-note polyphony. Indeed, the spice flows. (Note: Though Dune 1 works the same way, Dune 2 is not backward-compatible; it’s a new synth.)



9. Lennar Digital Sylenth 1

Lennar Digital Sylenth1

Lennar Digital Sylenth1


No slouch on unison and unison-detuning either (eight voices per note with 16-note polyphony), Sylenth1 has been winning kudos from Gearslutz forum dwellers for about ten years now, in a large part due to its highly analog sound quality. Though it’s not meant as a knob-for-knob emulation of any particular classic synth, it’s formidable at nailing sounds identifiable as Moog-like, Prophet-like, Oberheim-like, and so on. It also excels at “big festival”-style chord stabs and swoosh leads—think of the Roland Alpha Juno’s iconic “Hoover” lead on steroids—but can be very delicate as well. It’s basic structure is relatively simple: four oscillators (divided between two multi-timbral parts) feeding two multi-mode filters, two LFOs, and two assignable modulation envelopes in addition to one dedicated to amplitude. The interface is very performance-oriented, almost achieving a one-knob-per function paradigm. Another strong suit is that it was very efficient even given the CPUs of 2007, so on today’s computers it positively smokes. The comparison isn’t perfect, but if Sylenth1’s sonic character reminds us of a hardware synth, that would be the Access Virus TI - only Sylenth1 is perceptibly warmer. A classic!



10. U-he Bazille

U-He Bazille

U-He Bazille


U-he seems to be owning this top ten list like Meryl Streep owns Oscar® season. Growing out of founder Urs Heckmann’s “Berlin modular” vision, Bazille is U-he’s 'hybrid synth', meaning that its oscillator section is unapologetically digital but feeds analog-style modeled filters. The Dave Smith Prophet-12 and Modal Electronics 002 follow similar philosophies, and here as there, straight-up virtual analog sounds are doable. In Bazille’s case, though, that would be like using a Porsche only for fetching groceries. Four oscillators are capable of phase distortion and FM (again, think D-50 and DX-7, respectively) as well as what U-he calls “fractal resonance” synthesis, which is essentially a pumped-up formant oscillator that can impart vowel- or vocal-like characteristics to the sound. U-he puts all of this into a patchable modular environment, complete with graphical patch cords in a visual style not unlike Propellerhead Reason. Other modules in Bazille include four multi-mode filters with up to six simultaneous outputs each; envelopes galore; mapping generators; “CV” signal processors such as an inverter and a sample-and-hold generator; stereo delay, distortion, phaser, and modeled spring reverb effects; and much more. A 16-step sequencer can modulate any destination you choose, and with eight “tracks” worth of sequences, Bazille is practically capable of generative music. Between the sequencer and the modulation routings, you can let it rip for hours and not hear the same thing twice. Bazille is another great “Eurorack replacement” candidate, lying somewhere between Zebra and Reaktor in terms of complexity and combining the dive-in-and-play factor of the former with the extreme flexibility of the latter.



So there you have it, a plethora (and quite a variety!) of top-shelf virtual synth plugins loved by the members of this community. With options and support for almost every platform - VST, AU, AAX and more, there's something for almost every genre here - whether you make EDM, rock, film scores, dubstep or experimental indie, these synths are certainly not pigeonholed to just one style. The best part is the hard disk space you lose will be traded off with the real estate that you'll save in your studio, so get shopping and build that collection!