Top 10 Synth & Workstation VST Plugins
Sure, there are free and cheap options out there, but your creativity time is priceless and the plugin you choose can mean the difference between a productive session and a waste of time scrolling back-and-forth through your plugins folder. That’s the great thing about VST plugins – you can have thousands of them installed on your computer at once and instantly load up whatever your session calls for. No need to spend time patching through physical hardware and getting all the routing set up in your DAW – just load up whatever plugin you fancy and get to making music. Not only that, but even the high-end expensive plugins on this list are cheaper than a lot of synthesizer hardware out on the market today.
That’s not even touching on the potential VST plugins have in a live environment where portability and reliability are of top priority. Pretty much every VST plugin on this list can, to some extent, be controlled by a MIDI controller – be it a keyboard (or a keytar if you’re feeling fancy), a drum pad, launchpad to the crazier side of things like motion and touch controllers. Controller mapping is the edge plugins have over the real-deal and put a lot of today’s plugins into a league of their own.
To help you navigate the ocean of plugins out there and find the plugin that slots perfectly into your workflow whilst getting the most for you money, we’ve put together a list of the Top 10 Workstation & Synth VST Plugins that you should have loaded up in your DAW and in your mixes right now!
Serum VST is a high-quality Advanced Wavetable Synthesiser plugin presented by Xfer Records sporting a brilliantly intuitive interface that fosters creativity whilst also allowing advanced users to dig deeper when they need to. It allows the user to directly import audio files to use as wavetables with plenty of options for mangling and manipulating the waveform in real-time, even options for ‘drawing’ directly on the waveform itself in 2D or 3D view. A wavetable is a collection of digital waveforms, and this is what gives Serum such a unique and flexible sound when compared to more traditional sine-based synthesizers.
Serum is made up of two main wavetable oscillators, a noise generator, and a sub-oscillator. Controls are available for morphing between wavetables and there’s even an option to import your own using the handy built-in external audio function.
Couple that with the filter section (Featuring all of the filters available in LFOTool) and a collection of 10 rack effects with plenty of routing and automation options and you have a truly unique and versatile wavetable synthesizer.
Serum’s high-quality wavetable synthesis is some of the cleanest and noticeably higher fidelity than other similar plugins on the market but just be aware that this does processing does come at a cost. Users with lower-end systems should try out the demo to make sure the plugin performs nicely in a session before biting the bullet.
Serum is offered in VST, AU, and AAX 64bit formats and comes with a huge assortment of presets and wavetables right out of the gate. Still not convinced? Try their (admittedly stingy) 15-minute trial and see what all the fuss is about!
Reaktor is an absolute beast of a plugin, and recent versions are much improved over the previously clunky and confusing interface of the previous iterations. It’s like Lego for synthesizers, with a unique node-based interface that shares a lot of similarities with other Native Instruments plugins. You could literally spend hours assembling your dream synthesizer, adding, and adjusting all the parts of your synthesizer in meticulous detail. No other plugin on the market really allows you to delve so deeply into the inner-workings of a synthesizer quite like Reaktor, and that’s before we talk about how flexible the interface creation and MIDI control tools are! There’s also an online scene of musicians constantly sharing and uploading their creations for others to download and play about with.
The big new feature with Reaktor 6 are ‘Blocks’ – modular virtual rack effects that can be dragged and dropped into existing patches and connected up as easily as any other module in the Reaktor interface. There’s a great mix of blocks from the barebones oscillators, VCA, and LFO generators to more exotic emulations of popular euro rack effects. These all integrate into the existing Reaktor workflow and further help push the plugin further and further in the wild unknowns.
Patches can be uploaded and shared onto the internet with other users in the community. This is a great opportunity for trying out new and interesting synthesizers for free but is also very useful for picking apart the synthesizers inside Reaktor to see what makes them tick and, more importantly, learn from other users and figure out how to further improve your own synthesizers.
For some, Reaktor can feel more like a maths lesson as opposed to a synthesizer, but if the Lego and synthesizers analogy got you interested then this one is worth checking out! There’s quite a steep learning curve to getting to grips with this one, but putting the right blocks together to create your very first sine tone is almost as rewarding as doing it in real life with a soldering iron!
3. ReFx Nexus 3
Let’s move onto Nexus from Refx. Nexus is an awesome hybrid analog synthesizer with support for sample playback and waveform generation, a bunch of great built-in effects, and a bunch of expansion packs to build upon Refx’s foundation to turn the VST plugin into whatever you need it to be. Refx boasts their product as having great sounds out the box and has geared the software to giving beginner musicians a great first impression of the product with its easy to navigate the preset library and nicely laid out interface. The most important controls are prioritized first, with the more fiddly controls hidden away for advanced users to dig into and tweak to the heart’s content.
Nexus boasts a vast (and growing) library of over 147 expansions, and this is where the VST truly shines. Nexus 3’s cloud expansion manager makes adding these to your collection an extremely straightforward process, and at prices starting from around $30, it’s a bit of a no-brainer. Working on an action movie trailer? Need a riser for your latest song? What about an orchestral sample pack? It’s all here and will immediately integrate into your current Nexus workflow.
A blessing and a curse, Nexus is available in three different editions – Starter, Value, and Complete. Whilst Complete is the one to go for if you want over 16,000 presets, all the expansions, and 130gb of samples, its asking price of $4,029 isn’t for everybody. Fortunately, the Starter and Value editions feature more than enough to get you started with plenty of samples and presets to get going with. Expansions can be had for a good price, so musicians on a budget can opt to pick-and-choose the sounds they think will suit them best through Refx’s online catalog. They’re so cheap that they’re attainable if you just fancy playing about with something new but the price isn’t so low that you start doubting their quality.
Sonic Cat’s Purity is a wonderfully crafted software rompler workstation for getting musical ideas down quickly and effectively. It’s kind on your wallet at only $49.99 and also kind on your system! Requiring only 100mb of disk space and a Pentium 4 CPU, Purity is probably the lightest weight plugin on this list, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t capable of holding its own.
Included are over 80+ drum loops, 110 phrase presets, an integrated pattern sequencer, and a huge number of patches featuring all kinds of sounds. Everything from pianos to slap basses and guitars, right through to trance style synthesizers and epic strings. Purity features the ‘on-the-fly’ mode for quickly switching through and auditioning patches to get the sounds you need as quickly as possible – one of the biggest selling points of the VST.
Speaking sound, Purity’s got a really nice range of sounds on-tap, which is especially surprising considering the VST’s low filesize. The sound of the samples and the look of the interface really does harken back to a simpler time when samplers were huge rack units and DAWs were in their infancy. Some may say the mid-2000’s look of the software may date it into obsolescence, while otherwise may fall in love with the charming old-school iTunes aesthetic of chrome, gray and blue.
The software is getting on a bit now, with no VST3 support and reviewers claiming there are a few patches that don’t hold up to today’s expectations. While it appears to still be supported by the developers (As of version 1.3.6), it might be worth double-checking before you buy to make sure it will work on modern hardware.
Native Instruments once again proving they’re one of the top-dogs when it comes to crushing the synth game. Massive isn’t just another virtual analog synthesizer – it’s an absolute powerhouse delivering some of the biggest bass and lead tones in an amazingly flexible package that’s fully equipped for both live and studio use. Massive really does live up to its name!
Creating a patch is a pretty standard affair when compared to other synthesizers on this list. 82 wavetables are available from the get-go, but it’s the intuitive oscillator modulation and routing sections that really steal the show. These open up thousands of possibilities for controlling almost every control on your patch through the modulation oscillator.
It can get pretty complicated, despite the easy to understand interface. Luckily, Massive has a vast library of 1,300 presets with a comprehensive array of filters to whittle down the list to the sounds you’re seeking out based on adjectives and genres. While the VST itself may be a bit of a dealbreaker for musicians on a budget, the sheer amount of potential Massive has to offer makes it one of those plugins that are worth saving up for.
6. Scaler VST
Scaler’s a super intuitive and inviting music workstation for getting right down to what matters – making music. It doesn’t try to hold your hand or get in the way – instead, Scaler listens to what you’re playing and suggests notes and chords in the key you’re currently composing in. Chord progressions can be built in seconds and scales are suggested with melodies to play over the top of them, basically removing the barrier of having to learn music theory for musicians looking to get into the hobby. It really is a fantastic tool for beginners and has a bunch of features to help both complete novices and seasoned veterans who are kept awake until the early hours trying to resolve a chord progression they’ve been staring at for the last 6 hours (we’ve all been there!).
MIDI progressions from Scaler can also be used to controller other VST plugins featured on this list, which is an excellent utility in itself when you want to use unfamiliar and new sounds quickly and don’t want to spend time coming up with something before you load up your new plugin.
Scaler’s most effective when loaded up as a plugin inside your DAW. It then reads incoming MIDI data and figures out what key you’re playing in based on your note choice. Once it’s figured that out, it’s up to you to piece together a chord progression based on Scaler’s suggestions. There’s no guesswork here – Scaler already did the hard work for you when it analyzed the notes you played into it. As Scale works on MIDI, this should in theory work with other instruments you have lying around that support the MIDI standard, just in case you feel more comfortable playing ideas into Scaler that way as opposed to punching in notes on a piano roll. For more advanced users, this opens the floodgates for experimenting with chord voicings and useful functions for modulating into different keys – something which can be boring, difficult, and time-consuming to work out at the best of times.
It’s a wonderfully cheap and cheerful package perfect for musicians of all levels and is sure to be a mainstay in your plugin toolbox for many years to come. Some may see it as ‘cheating’ or a crutch but if it’s what you need to help you out a rut or even get into making music in the first place then really, who cares? The beauty of mixing technology and music is that it can simplify and make the more complex and abstract sides of the hobby easier to understand for novices and those who never got around to learning music theory.
Kontakt isn’t just a sampler, it’s an entire ecosystem of sample library based instruments based on Kontakt’s industry-leading sampling engine. Stock, Kontakt comes with a massive 25gb (compressed) sound library that’s packed with over 1000 instruments covering pretty much everything you need to get going with some serious music production. These sample-based instruments are brought to a whole new level by Kontakt’s cutting-edge DSP allowing developers a huge range of options when developing their own Kontakt instruments using the included developer kit. This is a genius play on Native Instrument’s part, as it means beginners can get involved with the plugin for free but will need to pay a license to create and publish their own licensed instruments.
Kontakt’s steep asking price is negated by the fact that Native Instruments offer a free alternative, Kontakt Player, which is available from their website and used to host and play the thousands of Kontakt patches available in both paid and free flavors on the internet (the only caveat being that these libraries have to be licensed). A lot of the drawbacks of Kontakt Player are highlighted when you begin to get further involved with its bigger brothers sampling editing features. If you head on over to the Kontakt website, there’s a list of comparisons between the two and you’ll see a lot of 15-minute restrictions on the deeper editing features.
It’s up to you if you feel you get enough out of Kontakt Player or feel that Kontakt’s full version will get your money’s worth. Either way, the free version is there to try to see how it suits your workflow and can be upgraded to the full-fat version of Kontakt later on down the line if you like it and decide you’d like to delve deeper into the patch customization and creation side of things.
Omnisphere is Spectrasonics’ flagship synthesizer, and it’s perhaps the most unique VST plugin on this list. For years, people have been making the comparison between physical synthesizers and their digital emulations, and while the digital realm opens up a huge number of sonic possibilities, nothing can really compare to the response and feel of the real deal. Spectrasonics’ take on this issue? If you can’t beat them, join them.
Omnisphere is a one-of-a-kind VST plugin in that it offers full hardware compatibility with real physical synthesizers. And we’re not talking about controllers here – we’re talking about turning your existing Korg, Moog, Novation, or Roland synthesizer into a fully equipped controller for Omnisphere. The list of supported devices is constantly being added to all the time too! This means that you can retain the feel of your favorite device, whilst using it as a way to interface with the plethora of patches and sounds available in Omnisphere. Pretty cool, right?
The synthesis engine on display here is certainly up to the task, with over 500 DSP wavetables, four layers per patch, dozens of LFOs, envelopes, and filters per track, and drag and drop user interface for importing your own samples quickly and easily. To top it all off, the 58 rack effects emulate some classic electric guitar amps and effects pedals to studio staples like graphic EQs and reverbs – up to 16 of these can be used at once in a patch. That’s all without mentioning the 4,500 patches available out of the box.
It isn’t by any means cheap, but what’s on display here is a truly cutting edge VST plugin or a standalone piece of software that can be fully customized with your favorite synthesizer acting as a controller and touch screen displays for expanding on the capabilities of the gear you already own whilst maintaining that familiar feel. Spectrasonics offer a discount for upgrading to the new version, but unfortunately, the high upfront cost and no demo available to try it out before you put down the cash may put off musicians unsure if the plugin will suit their workflow and play nicely with their gear.
Phase Plant is an awesome synthesizer playground built from the group up to be suitable for both complete beginners and seasoned professionals. This is the first thing you notice when you load the plugin up – Kilohearts decided to load Phase Plant up by default with a completely empty patch. This decision was clearly deeply thought out, as it means new users aren’t overwhelmed by controls and dials to tweak that they have no idea how to operate. Musicians can feel out the VST at their own pace, adding what they need and getting the sound they want without having to spend hours on tutorials just to figure out how to do something super basic.
This thought process is carried through to Phase Plant’s pricing model. Three options are currently available to purchase the plugin – Phase Plant by itself is cheap enough and is marketed as the entry-level package, with Kilohearts Toolbox available with Phase Plant as a bundle in Starter and Professional additions. Toolbox adds a bunch of Kilohearts’ other effects packages in a format that directly integrates with Phase Plant, so these options might be worth a consider down the line if you find yourself getting on well with the plugin. A monthly subscription is also available in a seemingly growing trend amongst plugin makers.
So what does the synthesizer itself have to offer? Four signal generators (Analog, Wavetable, Samples, and Noise) can be selected and you can add as many as you like to your patch. They can be split up into groups for routing through to effects, FM’d with each other, or even used as signal inputs for modulating other signal generator chains. With so many generators available to be combined all at once, it can get complicated pretty fast when you start throwing effects into the mix but worry not! The great thing is that the plugin is designed to allow you to figure things out at your own pace to prevent yourself from getting out of your depth in synthesizer mayhem.
Rounding off our list, here we have Arturia Pigments 2! An awesome amalgamation of wavetable, virtual analog, granular, and sampling synthesis into one brightly colored (or ‘polychrome’ as they call it on their website) synthesizer package bursting at the seams with a bright and colorful user interface with a huge palate of sounds ready to go. Version 2 even packs in a sequencer, granular engine, and some brand new filters and effects for even more opportunities to express yourself.
All puns and jokes aside, Pigments’ interface is not only inviting and easy to understand but it’s also incredibly functional. Signal generators are clearly displayed on a colorful grid and with indicators showing the synth’s position on the waveform as it cycles through it – a nice touch for beginners to understand what’s going on under the hood and great for advanced users looking to get further into wavetable manipulation. Pigments’ interface is split up into three main pages – the ‘SYNTH’ page, ‘EFFECTS’ page, and the ‘SEQUENCER’ page. The SYNTH page is where you’ll spend most of your time with Pigments and features everything you need to craft the core of your sound using the VST’s advanced engines. ‘EFFECTS’ has all the effects you need to distort, mangle, and otherwise manipulate the sound created on the previous page. With the sound created in the SYNTH page and refined in the EFFECTS page, the SEQUENCER page lets you put it all into action with a fully-featured and highly customizable sequencer tool. This super easy to understand workflow is really what makes Pigments pop out from the crowd.
Hopping back over to the SYNTH page, there are so many options available here and all four of the signal generators offer a fully-fleshed out feature set (the wavetable manipulator is a particular highlight). The filter section contains 9 filters to further shape your newly formed sound into something unique and wonderful.
There are so many options to get into that beginner musicians might be feeling a little bit lost in the sea of terminology and acronyms that are littered throughout the VST’s interface. This isn’t that big of a deal as you can still operate the plugin through the built-in patches but further manipulation and meaningful adjustment of the deep inner-workings of the plugin will require a bit of experience to get the most out of it.
There you have it! Those are the Top 10 Workstation & Synth VST Plugins you should be checking out. From the mind-bending flexibility and detail of Reaktor to the wavetable warrior Serum, there is something for musicians and producers of all backgrounds to further their current sounds and open up doors for discovering and developing something completely unique for their next project.
We’ve tried to cover a range of awesome synthesizers for creating music (in the case of Scaler) to samplers with limitless possibilities, all the way over to the do-it-yourself approach of Reaktor, but if you think we missed out on something then we’d love to hear about it in the comments section!
What do you think, did you find your new go-to synthesizer for your next project, live show, or experiment?