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There’s never been a better time to make music. What used to be a prohibitively expensive endeavor that required thousands of dollars of pricey hardware and outboard gear is now possible with a laptop, a decent set of studio monitors, and a MIDI controller. Fueling the fire of this production revolution are top-quality synth VST (Virtual Studio Technology) instruments and effects. Thanks to ever-improving computing power, the sound of these virtual synthesizers—which load into your computer as plugins in a DAW, or digital audio workstation—are now almost indistinguishable from their hardware counterparts. Whether you can hear the difference in the mix arguably doesn’t even matter anymore. Listeners surely don’t notice! And, because synth VSTs aren’t bound by real-world rules, advanced features, new and novel forms of synthesis, and astonishing, built-in effects are par for the course. And all at a fraction of the cost of hardware. There will always be a place for physical musical instruments but right now, many of the most exciting things in music production are happening in the computing realm. Here are our picks for the best synth VSTs on the market now. Viva la VST revolution!
- Best overall: Arturia Pigments
- Best free synth VST: Surge XT
- Best for beginners: Roland Cloud Juno-106
- Best for pros: Spectrasonics Omnisphere
- Best analog: u-he Diva
- Best wavetable: Xfer Records Serum
- Best loop-based/best sampler/best ROMpler: Native Instruments Kontakt 6
What is a VST?
Put simply, a VST is a plugin instrument, audio effect, or MIDI effect that you can load into a separate application, usually a DAW (see below). The term VST can be used in the broad sense to refer to all music plugins in general (and this is how we’re using it primarily in this list) or, confusingly, a specific format of music plugin. At the format level, VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology and was invented by audio developer Steinberg in 1996 for use in its Cubase DAW. The most recent iteration of the company’s VST standard is VST3. You may see the term VSTi used. This is an older abbreviation that refers to a VST-format instrument.
Other plugin types include AU (Audio Unit) for Apple computers and AXX (Avid Audio eXtension) for Pro Tools software. Some DAWs will accept only one format, like Logic (AU) or Pro Tools (AAX). Others, like Ableton Live, accept multiple ones (AU, VST2, VST3). Check your DAW’s technical specifications to find out what formats are compatible.
What is a DAW?
A DAW is a digital audio workstation. It’s a music-making application and, as the name suggests, a kind of virtual studio. It’s fully self-contained and allows you to make music with essentially just a computer. Some famous DAWs include Steinberg Cubase, Avid Pro Tools, Apple Logic Pro X, and Ableton Live. They are all a little different in terms of workflow but share many similarities. They allow you to record audio, work with MIDI to sequence notes, and load instrument and effects plugins. Most come pre-stocked with a selection of plugins to get you started and also accept third-party plugins, such as the ones on this list.
How we picked the best synth VSTs
The VST market is already massive and companies release new versions every day. And that’s before you even start counting freeware instruments. To arrive at our list of the best synth VSTs we considered a number of points, such as sound quality, the types of synthesis (how it generates the sound), an abundance of patch-shaping parameters, extras like built-in effects and sequencers, and price—including free synths. We also looked at the level of difficulty of use. Will beginners feel comfortable with it or is it better suited for pros? After narrowing things down, we amalgamated the results of our personal experience with general industry consensus and critical response to assemble this list of the best synth VSTs.
Things to consider when shopping for the best synth VSTs
What kind of music are you making?
As with any instrument, the first thing to address when buying a synth VST is does it match the music that you intend to make? Just as you probably wouldn’t buy an accordion to make heavy metal, a retro-sounding virtual analog synth might not be the best complement for dark trap. Or maybe it would—that decision is ultimately up to you and your creative needs.
There are also technical considerations. As computers age and operating systems are updated, software developers have to make choices about how far back they are willing to support. Make sure that the program you’re about to drop $200 on will run on your system. There’s also the matter of 32- and 64-bit apps. Modern operating systems no longer support 32-bit programs. While you should not run into any conflicts with the VSTs on this list, some older ones (and especially freeware plugins) may not work if they haven’t been updated to 64-bit.
Your chosen DAW has restrictions too. There are different plugin formats, such as VST and AU. We’ll explain this in more detail later but keep in mind that not all plugins will work in every DAW.
Finally, there’s the issue of CPU usage. Many modern VST synths are power-hungry beasts. After all, there’s a reason they can rival hardware in terms of sound quality. Make sure you’ve got a laptop for music production that is up-to-spec before spending money on a CPU vampire. Nothing kills the studio vibe like stuttering audio and drop outs.
Every synthesizer, soft or hard, generates sound through a form of synthesis. Think of synthesis as sonic alchemy—the process by which raw sound gets transubstantiated into throbbing bass, searing leads, soft pads, or whooshy effects. Much like the many different kinds of chemical reactions in the world, there are a number of different ways for sound to come together.
Virtual analog is traditionally the most popular form of synthesis for VST synths. This digitally mimics the real-world warmth and power of electricity coursing through a hardware synthesizer, like a Moog Minimoog or Roland Juno-60. This is also known as subtractive synthesis, as you start with a harmonically complex waveform and subtract frequencies and amplitude from it.
FM, or Frequency Modulation, was the first major digital brand of synthesis to challenge analog. It involves waveforms (usually sine waves) modulating other waveforms to generate new harmonics. Yamaha’s DX7 rode FM synthesis into 1980s pop ubiquity.
Wavetable synthesis starts with a sample that changes over time—for example, a bright brass patch that becomes progressively darker. This sample is called a wavetable and you have control over a number of parameters, such as playback position. Although this technology goes back to the late 1970s, it’s had a resurgence lately in modern music thanks to VST synths like Native Instruments’ Massive and Xfer Records’ Serum (see below). Other forms of synthesis include sample-based, granular, additive, physical modeling, and many more.
The best synth VSTs: Reviews & Recommendations
When shopping for a VST synth, remember to keep your end goal in mind. What kind of music do you intend to make with the instrument? If your goal is synthwave, something suitably retro and vintage-sounding is in order. However, a virtual analog synth won’t cut the mustard (or even the mayo) if your musical sandwich needs acoustic and real-world ingredients. In that case, you may need a sampler. Also, remember that beyond its musical capabilities, this is a piece of software with technical specifications, so ensure that your computer and DAW can handle it—both in terms of format and CPU hit. Finally, have fun. There’s very little that’s more exciting than a new synthesizer to bring your studio monitors to life.
Best synth VST overall: Arturia Pigments
Why it made the cut: A synthesizer that can do it all and sound great doing it.
- Formats: VST2, VST3, AAX, AU
- Synthesis types: Virtual analog, wavetable, additive, sample-based, granular
- Effects: Yes
- Stunning sound quality
- Variety of sound engine types
- Plenty of modulation possibilities
- Could be challenging for beginners
- CPU hog
Arturia is one of the top VST synth developers in the world. It made a name for itself creating deliriously great-sounding emulations of classic synthesizers. For its first original VST synth, the French company brought all of its decades of experience to bear in Pigments, a modern instrument with a deep variety of sound engines and parameters.
Think of Pigments like a colorful build-your-own dessert bar where you get to stack up the sweet flavors however you see fit. Start with the sound-generating oscillators: You can have up to three of these, with virtual analog, wavetable, samples, and additive (building up harmonic partials) available. After this comes the filter, or actually filters, with 10 types culled from a variety of famous synths ready to slide into two slots. Modern music is all about modulation, and Pigments comes packed with envelopes, LFOs, step sequencer-like function generators, and more. Colorful visual feedback that lives up to the instrument’s name makes this relatively easy to understand. Finally, there’s an extensive effects section, including ones taken from Arturia’s many famous effect unit emulations.
Pigments is not a beginner’s instrument; it’s deep and complex and powerfully capable. To get the most out of it, you need to know your way around subtractive synthesis, how to manipulate a wavetable, and how granular synthesis works. However, this also makes it incredibly versatile and able to turn out sounds that will easily fit into any genre. The presence of a sample sound engine alone makes it usable in everything from electronic music to film-scoring.
One caveat: all that power requires CPU so make sure your system can handle it or be prepared to freeze or bounce tracks.
With its deep synthesis options, customizable modules, and powerful modulation parameters, Pigments could be the only VST synth you ever need.
Best free synth VST: Surge Synth Team Surge XT
Surge Synth Team
Why it made the cut: This free and open-source VST synth is ridiculously powerful.
- Formats: VST3, AU
- Synthesis types: Virtual analog, wavetable, FM, physical modeling, more
- Effects: Yes
- Great sound quality
- Plenty of synthesis options
- May scare beginners off
You don’t have to spend a lot of money for quality synth VSTs. In fact, sometimes you don’t have to spend any money at all. Case in point is Surge XT, a deep and dynamic freeware synthesizer. What started as a paid synth by developer Vember Audio has now evolved into an open-source passion project by a team of volunteer developers known as Surge Synth Team. As more people come on to work on it, the synth continues to evolve almost organically.
Given its collective nature, practically every facet of Surge XT has an almost bewildering variety of options. The oscillator section alone has 12 different algorithm types, from standard virtual analog and wavetable to different FM varieties, physical modeling, and even a port from a modular synth. You could spend days just exploring the sound generation section, and that’s without mentioning the dual filters, each with a ton of different configurations, some taken from other freeware instruments like Odin and OB-Xd. Modulation is similarly deep and extensive, as is the effects section. There’s plenty more too.
If Surge XT has a drawback, it’s that it’s almost too complex. With so many options you’d be forgiven for finding yourself lost in the permutations. This can make it intimidating for beginners. Thankfully, there are presets to help get you started—unsurprisingly, almost 3000 of them. But if you’re going to have a problem, too much of a good thing is a fine one to have.
Best for beginners: Roland Cloud Juno-106
Why it made the cut: Roland’s emulation of its classic polysynth sounds just like the real thing.
- Formats: VST3, AU, AAX
- Synthesis types: Virtual analog
- Effects: Yes
- Gorgeous sound
- Uncluttered layout
- Perfect for beginners
- CPU hungry
Roland made a name for itself by releasing some of the most popular analog synthesizers of the 1980s. One of those, the Juno-106, has gone on to become something of a legend. With its uncluttered interface, streamlined signal path, and gorgeous tones, it has become classic hardware for synth-pop and dance music. The company has now released its own VST version and it’s the perfect instrument for beginners to get their heads around subtractive synthesis.
The sound starts with a single oscillator. Here called a DCO (Digitally Controlled Oscillator), it has a particularly smooth and stable tonal character. This passes through a single and lovely filter before hitting the effects section. The famous Juno chorus effect is included but Roland has beefed up this section to include distortion, reverb, delay, and other common effects. And while the signal path may be easy to understand, sound quality is not lacking in any way, with a depth and profundity to match the hardware original.
It’s not all sunshine though. As with other, modern VST synths, sound quality has a price tag and it’s usually paid by the CPU. You can reduce polyphony (the number of notes you can play at a time) to address this but this will also affect your ability to play complex chords.
Juno-106 is part of Roland Cloud’s subscription service. You can access it by paying a monthly or yearly fee or buy it outright for $149. Both options have their benefits; it’s for you to decide which is the more attractive. Either way, you’re getting access to one of the best—and easiest to use—synthesizers ever made.
Best for pros: Spectrasonics Omnisphere
Why it made the cut: With both samples and unique wavetables, Omnisphere is capable of wholly original sounds.
- Formats: VST2, VST3, AU, AAX
- Synthesis types: Wavetable, sample-based
- Effects: Yes
- Deep sound design
- Unique sample library
- Hardware integration
Some synths, like the Juno-106 (above), offer a limited palette of sounds. That’s OK. They do one thing and they do it well. And then there are synths that do pretty much everything. That’s Spectrasonics’ Omnisphere. And the clincher is it sounds like heaven.
Omnisphere combines samples with synthesis—in this case, DSP-generated wavetables. Because of the samples—many recorded bespoke by Spectrasonics itself—the instrument can go beyond the usual familiar synthesized sounds into completely uncharted territory. This makes it the go-to program for professional sound designers working in film, television, and the video game industry. Beginners beware: this is a seriously high-level instrument. Wallets also beware: Omnisphere comes with a pro-level price tag.
Spectrasonics was founded by hardware synthesizer designer Eric Persing (Roland, Alesis) so it’s no surprise that it allows you to use your real-world synth as a MIDI controller. Finally, the either/or question of hardware versus software has been answered with a resounding “both.”
When it’s time to level up in the VST synth game, Omnisphere is the obvious choice.
Best analog: u-he Diva
Why it made the cut: Diva’s analog dream synth combines the best bits of famous instruments into a jaw-droppingly beautiful whole.
- Formats: VST2, VST3, AU, AAX (currently Windows only)
- Synthesis types: Virtual analog
- Effects: Yes
- Incredible sound quality
- Modular approach to synthesis
- Deep sound design
- Heavy CPU usage
With so many famous analog synthesizers released in the 1970s and 1980s, wouldn’t it be amazing if we could somehow combine them all into one gorgeous instrument? Take, say, the oscillator section from a Moog Minimoog and combine it with the filter circuit from a Korg MS-20. That’s the idea behind u-he’s Diva, an analog-style synthesizer that offers not only this kind of flexibility, but also sounds absolutely stunning in the process.
At first blush, Diva appears to be your standard analog synthesizer. It has an oscillator section, filter, and envelopes. Move along, nothing to see here, right? Not quite. You can choose from a number of alternatives for each of these sections, building up the ideal signal path for your target sound. This offers a level of flexibility you don’t often get in traditional analog emulations. Diva goes deeper though, with additional controls for fine-tuning—even offering modifications to the “circuit” itself. It’s all finished off with a comprehensive effects section.
None of this would mean anything if Diva didn’t have the sound quality to back it up, but it does. Oh, does it ever. It can be luscious and creamy or wild and wooly, just as you expect a hardware synth to be. Close your eyes and you’ll swear you’re playing an analog synth from 1980. You do have to pay the piper in the form of CPU consumption, though.
If you’re after analog authenticity but don’t want the headache and hassle of owning a room full of cantankerous old synths, Diva is the way to go.
Best wavetable: Xfer Records Serum
Why it made the cut: Ultra-clean wavetables and plenty of modulation options make Serum a digital synth god.
- Formats: VST2, AU, AAX
- Synthesis types: Wavetable
- Effects: Yes
- High-quality sound
- Workflow oriented
- Effects suite
- CPU hungry
If you’ve listened to EDM or any other kind of dance music in the last few years, you’ve likely heard Xfer Records’ Serum in action. This wavetable VST synth has come to dominate the sound of electronic music and for good reason: it’s absurdly powerful and it sounds astonishingly good.
Xfer Records didn’t invent wavetable synthesis. That honor goes to Wolfgang Palm, who made it famous with his PPG Wave instruments in the 1980s. They used dynamic digital samples to create new textures and tones. These sounds were also full of aliasing, or digital noise, however. While some find aliasing charming, Xfer Records clearly does not and has managed to wipe it completely clean from Serum. The result is a synth with all the inherent power of wavetables that is also mind-blowingly smooth and crystalline.
Serum also offers more than just the usual scannable wavetables, with a whole host of table manipulation options. You can warp them in a variety of ways, from subtle to complete annihilation. You can even import your own wavetables and draw in original manipulations.
With tons of modulation possibilities—the source of the wubs, or fluttering bass sound, so popular in dance music—plus tons of filter types, effects, and a massive unison mode for stacking oscillators into single, fat tones, Serum is your one-stop-shop for dance floor destroying sounds. Just keep an eye on your CPU meter—Serum can be a ravenous monster.
Best loop-based/best sampler/best ROMpler: Native Instruments Kontakt 6
Why it made the cut: Kontakt is the sampler to have if you work with sample libraries, want to make your own, or both.
- Formats: VST2, VST3, AU, AAX
- Synthesis types: Sample-based, wavetable
- Effects: Yes
- Many libraries available
- Drag and drop sampling
- Built-in filter and effects
There are different kinds of VST instrument users. If you’re the type that likes working with real-world sounds like violins, guitars, and acoustic percussion, you’re going to need a sampler. Likewise, if you want to make your own sample packs. In either case, the choice is clear: Native Instruments’ Kontakt 6.
Native Instruments is a real player in the VST synth game, with an almost endless amount of famous releases in its stable (Massive, anyone?). Kontakt 6 is the jewel in its crown and practically an industry unto itself. All those expensive orchestra sample libraries aimed at composers and wannabe Hans Zimmers? They all run on Kontakt. If you have any interest at all in soundtrack work, Kontakt needs to be in your plugin folder. While third-party libraries must be purchased separately, Kontakt 6 does include a large and very usable factory library for immediate gratification.
Kontakt 6 is more than just a ROMpler, powerful though it is. It’s also incredibly useful for making your own sample packs. You don’t need to be a software developer to get the most out of it either. With drag and drop sample importing, easy editing, built-in filters and effects (many taken from NI’s own effects plugin line), and now even a wavetable engine, you’ll be sampling in no time.
Kontakt 6 isn’t cheap ($399). At that price, you’re better off paying a little more and getting it as part of one of the company’s Komplete bundles. But either way, Kontakt 6 is an absolute necessity.
Q: Should I buy more presets?
Most synth VSTs come bundled with a large selection of presets in a variety of styles. It’s very rare to find one that doesn’t have at least a hundred or so. Developers often hire specialists to create the presets for their instruments and will sometimes even advertise their names as a selling point. While additional official and third-party preset packs are often available, whether you decide to buy them is up to you. Presets can be a great way to reverse-engineer an instrument’s synthesis capabilities. They can also function as an inspiration for new compositional ideas. If your chosen genre isn’t represented in the pre-packed presets, go ahead and splurge for extra presets. They’re not absolutely necessary though.
Q: Will X VST synth make me sound like Y producer?
While it’s true that some producers are associated with specific VST instruments (Serum is a popular choice for EDM and dance music producers, for example), just buying that instrument is no guarantee that you’ll instantly sound like them. You can buy the same race car as a Formula 1 driver but that won’t necessarily guarantee a win. Better yet, find out what VST synths are popular for your chosen genre of music and then learn them inside out. You’ll never sound exactly like Dr. Dre or Diplo but you will sound like you.
Q: Does a VST synth sound as good as hardware?
There’s a lot that goes into making hardware sound the way it does. There’s the audio generated by the instrument itself. There’s also the signal path that it takes after leaving the instrument: cables, a mixer, possible outboard effects units, and an audio interface. All of these stages additionally color the sound. A VST synth, however, stands on its own, so the comparison is not necessarily valid. If you want the sound of hardware in the box, that is, in a DAW, start with the best-sounding VST synth you can (like Diva or Serum, above) and then add color with effects plugins that emulate the sound of top mixing desks and outboard gear.
A final word on selecting the best synth VSTs
There’s a vast world of incredible synth VSTs out there, no matter your musical style. While the sheer number of instruments on the market may initially seem overwhelming, the good news is that there are synths out there that will definitely work for you. You can also often try before you buy. Many offer free trial periods so you can make sure that the instrument will work with your genre and DAW/computer. Have fun and enjoy making music.