What is a synth plugin?
As your music production journey evolves, you’ll eventually want more options for sounds and textures. Synth plugins can fill that void. They are virtual instruments with an expansive range of synthesis capabilities to generate and shape sounds. They operate within your computer, no hardware necessary.
Synth plugins come in various forms, including recreations of analog synthesizers or new hybrid approaches to synthesis. They typically work within a DAW (digital audio workstation), but some can function as a standalone plugin.
Over the past decade, the marketplace has grown significantly. Legacy companies like Roland and Korg now offer digital alternatives to their legacy hardware synthesizers at a fraction of the cost. Meanwhile, the number of new plugin developers has exploded in recent years. Some synth plugins have almost singlehandedly shaped entire genres.
If you’re just getting your bearings, start with your DAW’s native software synthesizers. Once you’ve gotten familiar with basic synthesizer architecture and workflows, explore the below list for a deeper dive into some of our favorite synthesizer plugins.
Kilohearts Phase Plant
A relative newcomer in the synth plugin market, Phase Plant quickly established itself as a go-to weapon in the producer’s arsenal. It offers wavetable, sampling, noise and virtual-analogue synthesis in one modular-like plug-in.
Developed by the Swedish company Kilohearts, Phase Plant provides extensive synthesis options. Its Modular Hybrid Architecture supports wavetable, virtual analog, sample-based, and FM synthesis.
One of the most popular features is its modular design. You can build complex sound patches by combining different modules and effects for endless sound design possibilities. The advanced modulation system provides multiple LFOs, envelopes, and macro controls. This allows you to add depth, movement, and expressiveness to any sound.
It also offers an incredibly intuitive user interface. The streamlined workflow saves you time, so you can focus on creating rather than getting lost in the details.
I know what you’re thinking, how does it sound?! Phase Plant delivers exceptional sound quality, even if it may tax your CPU at times.
Don’t believe us? Just take a look at Phase Plant’s thriving user community. It’s one of the most engaged in the plugin world, giving regular tips, tricks, and feedback–always a sign of a well-loved instrument.
Xfer Records Serum
While all of the entries on this list have left their mark in unique ways, Serum has shaped the sound of EDM more than any other. It offers over 150 wavetables, making it the most powerful wavetable synthesizer plugin on the market. It runs four separate oscillators, including:
- Two main wavetable oscillators.
- A flexible noise generator.
- And a dirty sub-oscillator.
You’ll find it hard to match Serum’s versatility. Not only can you make unique wavetables with your own samples, but you can also use an image to create a wavetable. Yes, an image. Drag and drop a picture of anything you want, and see what wavetable it generates.
Its FX chain is exhaustive. Meanwhile, 12 LFOs power its modulation capabilities. Plus, its workflow makes creating a patch from scratch a breeze. Serum’s popularity has shaped the sound of EDM, dubstep, and many other electronic genres these past ten years. After all, EDM legend Steve Duda helms Xfer Records…
Before they ever released their own synth plugins, Arturia had churned out faithful emulations of classic hardware synthesizers for years. But when they launched Pigments, Arturia became a company everyone loved.
The insane popularity of Serum probably helped inspire Pigments. But with Arturia’s significant background in synthesis, they took the format to uncharted territory.
Pigments is a powerful, highly programmable soft synth. Its two assignable sound engines deliver flexible sound generation from four synthesis engines: Analog, Wavetable, Sample and Harmonic.
Pigments’ modulation capabilities help set it apart, allowing users to modulate almost any aspect of a sound. Most of this happens in the modulation grid, which includes three LFOs, envelopes, assignable shapes within the Function section, and Randomization. Each of these can be shared across multiple destinations.
However, Pigments’ Harmonic Engine feature stands as its most unique feature. Drawing inspiration from Arturia’s Synclavier emulation, the Harmonic engine introduces complex additive synthesis capabilities. This addition expands the sonic possibilities of Pigments, supporting intricate and harmonically rich sound design.
Pigments also has two filter sections, with controls on how they get routed to the effects. The filters can run in series or parallel, and you can also control the amount each filter sends to each effects slot for added flexibility. Pigments draws on years of synth development and packs it all under one roof.
Omnisphere predates all others on this list. Initially released in 2008, it was ahead of its time. Soon after its initial release, Spectrasonics Creative Director Eric Persing claimed it would “take a lifetime to explore all the possibilities.” You’d usually dismiss such a claim as hyperbolic marketing hype, but in this case, it might be true.
Omnisphere offers a unique Hardware Synth Integration feature. This transforms over 65 well-known hardware synthesizers into extensive hands-on controllers. It makes using Omnisphere feel just like a hardware synth.
To say that this is a heavyweight synth is an understatement. It requires a whopping 60GB of free hard disk space, which indicates you’re playing with some serious kit here. In all, Omnisphere includes 14,608 sample layers and 5,439 sound sources.
Omnisphere users love its arpeggiator feature with strumming modifiers, chord voicings, pitch slides and seamless MIDI integration. Omnisphere’s sound engine allows you to layer up to four sounds which can be modulated with over 8 LFOs, 12 ENVs, and 34 Filter Types per part.
In total, it offers an absurd 12,000 patches. Spectrasonics spared no expense in making Omnisphere one of the best synth plugins on the market. It’s on countless records covering all genres. We promise you won’t be disappointed.
Remarkably, our list has avoided describing anything as a ‘game-changer’.
All of the above are outstanding instruments. Yet, Output’s Arcade stands in a league of its own.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way – it’s not feature-heavy like the others on this list. It’s not even a synth in the truest sense like any above. So what is it?
Arcade provides loop-based sampling capabilities with a continuously growing library of sounds. It was initially billed as “The Netflix Of Plugins’ and at the time of release, nothing like it was on the market.
Under the hood, Arcade gives you a surprising amount of control. In essence, it makes sampling a breeze. You can easily resequence, change the speed or direction of playback or repeat loops. With over 62,000 playable samples and 1,200 instruments across every genre imaginable, you won’t get bored anytime soon.
Output also reinvented the business model by pricing Arcade as an inexpensive recurring monthly subscription charge instead of a perpetual license. Rent-to-own or subscription models have become ubiquitous, but Arcade started the trend. And for your $14.99 a month, you get regular new sounds perfectly tailored for use with Arcade.
If you love insane synthesis and sound design, then you may want to look elsewhere. If plug-and-play, loop-based performance interests you, you can’t really beat Output Arcade. It’s as straightforward as that.
Price: $14.99 a month
Lunacy Audio CUBE
Lunacy Audio’s debut offering comes in the form of CUBE. Like others on this list, it’s a highly ambitious, award-winning instrument. While not strictly a synthesizer, CUBE’s complex, multifaceted sound engine and its excellent modulation and effects features make it capable of creating sounds as captivating as any other synth on this list.
CUBE centers around layering and blending multiple samples, allowing you to blend up to eight sound sources. To adjust the blend, you use the “Orbit” feature, essentially an X/Y pad on steroids. The Orbit tab provides plenty of presets for the orbit motion, but if you’re looking to dive in deeper, CUBE also lets you customize your own orbit paths.
Under the hood, CUBE has an extensive but highly usable modulation matrix, with four assignable LFOs to 16 target parameters. A single source can be linked to multiple targets. Despite its ease of use, the modulation matrix supports complex sound design workflows. The below video illustrates the power of CUBE’s modulation capabilities.
Lunacy is relatively new compared to others on this list. But with a massive bank of presets and sound sources and a genuinely remarkable 3D interface, you will find endless hours of joy with it.
Choosing a synth plugin can be challenging with so many features and price points to consider.
We advise you to use your DAW’s native synth plugins to learn basic synth architecture first. Having a solid foundation on synthesis basics will help ensure you make an informed choice. Many of the synth plugins on this list offer trials or demo versions to help with your evaluation, so give those a whirl before you purchase.