I’ve used many different software synths over the years, but the following have come out on top, time and time again. All of the following synths are extremely versatile and can be used in tons of different ways. I've made sure to include my preferred use for each of them. Together, these 5 synths have become a critical part of my workflow.
After taking into consideration the feedback from the Black Ghost Audio community, I've updated this list to fulfill a broader range of needs. All the synths on this list are compatible with both Mac and Windows operating systems, although some synths like Harmor and Sytrus still deserve an honorable mention. There should be something in here for everyone, so enjoy! (Last updated: January 20, 2018)
FM8 is a synth made by Native Instruments that uses frequency modulation to generate sounds. FM8’s interface is user friendly and contains features like effects, an arpeggiator, and various different modes (easy and expert) that allow users of all levels to get the most out of the synth.
Experimenting with FM synthesis usually provides results that are textured, unique and rich with character. It’s somewhat difficult to do intentional sound design with an FM synth (because of how random the results can be), but it’s very easy to do experimental sound design with one. This tutorial is a great place to start if you’re looking to get into FM synthesis. It covers the basics and makes FM8 a little less intimidating.
Zebra 2 is a modular synth that allows you to quickly patch modules together by right clicking on the assignable knobs. This synth will definitely get you some sounds that you can't get from other synths. If you're looking to do original, organic, evolving sound design, Zebra 2 is the synth for you.
Zebra 2 lets you really dive in and customize how your audio is routed, but via a simple interface. I particularly like it's performance section. You can map the points on the X-Y grid to different parameters which really makes this synth come alive. I personally wouldn't use this as a go-to synth for leads, but for atmospheres and arps, Zebra 2 holds it down like no other.
Reaktor is a plugin that allows you to create your own modular synths from scratch. This thing has a ton of power under the hood. By navigating to the Ensemble Editor section, you're able to patch together different modules in pretty much any crazy way you can think of. Although the instruments that come with Reaktor are great, there's this whole world of geeky, modular opportunity that many people don't know about!
Creating hardware synths can be expensive and take forever to learn how to do. Reaktor is a cheap alternative that allows you to experiment and discover modular synthesis at a relatively low cost. If you're looking to discover how synthesis works (under the hood), or wish to start creating and selling your own synths, Reaktor is a great doorway into the realm of modular synthesis.
Omnisphere combines multiple different types of synthesis together to create one of my absolute favorite synths on the market. It contains over 12,000 sounds, an excellent search feature, a granular synthesis section, 58 FX units and countless other features. It’s essentially a hybrid between a sampler and a synth. The result is an instrument that produces everything from organic sounds to sounds that are the epitome of EDM.
There is a ton of hype online about this product and for good reason. I was skeptical before I used Omnisphere 2 in a session with a friend. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to find the sounds that I needed. You can sort the file library by categories such as complexity, genre, mood and tonality; this makes it extremely easy to find the exact sound you need.
If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. I rarely modify the patches that come with Omnisphere 2. Using it is as simple as finding the sound I want and then playing it into my track.
Serum, Serum, Serum… I think you’d be hard pressed to find a producer that doesn’t own a copy of Serum by Xfer Records. It’s creator, Steve Duda, really did think of everything the modern producer could want in a synth. Serum uses wavetable synthesis and even allows you to create and edit your own wavetables. Ever wondered what a picture of your cat sounds like? Well now you can find out; Serum let's you import images as wavetables. How cool is that?
The greatest parts of Serum is how visual everything is. You can see exactly what’s happening in each section of the synth. This makes it the perfect synth for beginners, and the synth of choice for professionals.
One of the recent Serum updates has allowed users to create custom skins. Although this doesn't affect the performance of the synth, it's a great conversation starter when you bust open your copy of Serum and Rick and Morty load up on the screen. You can learn how to create and install custom Serum skins here.
If you don’t have the funds to buy Serum right now, don’t worry! Splice allows you to rent-to-own Serum for $9.99/mo.
That's it for this list, but if you're in the market for new plugins, make sure to check out The Ultimate List of Plug-In Companies. It will help ensure you don't regret your next buying decision.