What makes a Calvin Harris song sound so good?
Why does Flume sound so different to everyone else?
How does a producer like SOPHIE create those bizarre sounds?
There are various answers for all these questions, but one that ties them together is: sound design. Some people design with analogue synths but most of us use software synths.
With so many VST’s & AU’s out there it’s easy to get lost but there are a select few that are responsible for soundtracking a lot of the songs you love. Here is our guide to the best software synthesisers on the market today.
Massive X (Native Instruments) £179
Dropping in July last year Native Instruments follow up to the world-renowned Massive arrived.
Staying true to its predecessor, Massive X is also a wavetable synth but with two oscillators instead of 3. The two wavetable oscillators boasting over 170 wavetables each, with some remastered fan favourites found in the original Massive included. For further edits of the two wavetable oscillators there are also two-phase oscillators that affect the sound directly at the source, then two noise oscillators outside of the wavetable.
Keeping in line with the original Massive, the modulation on Massive X great.
Those landmark intuitive ‘Saturn rings’ have stuck around and mapping the parameters looks even easier. The performer window allows for more parameters to control and the LFO and envelope windows are sleek and simple.
Newly added switcher LFOs look to open doors to new and interesting sound design capability too. Massive X has three performers, and 9 LFO/envelope modulation sources.
There are standard effects you’d come to expect like reverb, dimension expander etc. They have been developed for high fidelity and now offer even more parameters to tweak. Massive X also boasts 16 macro controls assignable to any parameter.
To conclude Massive X features a really clean and sleek look, a vast array of parameters and features, that enable the user so much opportunity in designing, or finding the sound they need.
Check out our complete guide to the original NI Massive.
Serum (Xfer) £142
Serum is a two oscillator wavetable synth; accompanying these two are a sub oscillator, noise module and an expansive and impressive filter module.
Serum’s most well known feature might be its ability to easily drag and drop audio files into the oscillator window. You can then scan through the audio files wavetable and pick and choose a selection of frames of that wavetable using the morph feature. You’re essentially customising the wavetable heard in an audio file, which is crazy! Akin to NI Massive the modulation on Serum is great too! You map envelopes to an LFO in the same way with the ‘Saturn rings’ making it easy to use and intuitive.
The Warp engine is another particularly interesting and well-done feature in Serum. It allows users to control the speed at which the wavetable is read by the oscillator. The Warp engine offers a nice array of different modulations to choose from, and you can get some pretty crazy sounds experimenting with them. Assigning LFOs to the Warp engine to modulate the sound in real-time works to great effect too.
One of the best things about Serum is just how visual it is: from the oscillators to the filters, to the envelopes and LFOs. The changes you make to the sound are really well visualised in the interface and actually seeing how the twiddling of knobs is affecting the sound can prove to be super useful.
The visuals are particularly well illustrated in the wavetable editor, where you can actually draw your own wavetable, and hear the effects of your edits in real-time.
Macro capabilities are standard and Serum only provides you with four separate macro controls. Serum comes with over 450 presets and 144 wavetables.
Check out our Serum sound design masterclass.
Spire (Reveal Sound) £149.95
Spire has been around for a little while now and we’ve watched it grow a cult fan base that’s been converting into a larger audience of late.
It’s a very powerful subtractive synth with 4 oscillators, and some great sounding oscillator modes like classic, noise, FM, AM Sync, and SawPWM. It has an array of 49 wavetables/wave shapes to choose from per oscillator.
The FX and modulation are pretty standard, some nice delay and reverb etc. Spire contains 4x Macro's, 4x Envelopes, 4x LFOs with morphing shapes, 15x Matrix slots each equipped with 2x sources and 4x targets. Spire also has 2x multimode filters with analogue and digital types of filtering, all great sounding and unique.
A personal highlight of Spire for me is the layout; it’s very stylish and well thought out. The processes are laid out in order, starting at the oscillators, then to unison, filters, FX, with some sly arrows etched into the design.
They manage to fit everything into one page, with the envelope and step sequencer windows easily accessible, and nicely tucked away in the matrix tab. Spire features multiple well-organised banks of 800+ factory presets.
These include some complex arpeggios and bass sequences, a versatile assortment of leads, luscious pads, plucks, drums and FX.
Check out our Producer’s guide to Spire.
Learn more about Spire here
If you want bang for your buck and to see your money stretch the line, Avenger might be for you.
Upon first glance, there is a lot to take in, but after spending some time toying around and getting used to the layout and its features you could notice a major change in your workflow.
It seems Avenger is a great fit for genres like Big Room and EDM, so if you make those genres or something similar it’s definitely worth checking out.
It features 8 oscillators, all of which can run simultaneously in one patch, which offers some bonkers sound design capability.
There are a handful of nice oscillator transformation parameters and some great arpeggiator and step sequencer modules. For modulation, there are up to 8 modulation and pitch envelopes, and 4 amp and filter modules. You can also draw in your LFOs with up to 4 LFO modules.
Avenger contains 3 Macro knobs and a comprehensive Wavetable editor.
A standout feature of Avenger is the built-in drum sequencer. Coming with several kits bursting with punch and polish, it can be used as a drum synth as well as a regular synth. For example, you can choose a great preset pad sequence or arpeggio and program the drums to play at the same time, in the same synth.
The amount of control Avenger offers the user is great too. If you wanted that kick to be a little louder, or maybe one of the oscillators in your pad is a little harsh, there is a dedicated mixer window also built into Avenger.
This means you can turn the faders up and down to your choosing; to get the right mix of all the individual sounds coming together. Another stand out feature is the ability to drag and drop samples into Avenger’s oscillator window.
Much like Serum you can import your own waveform and wavetables.
Simply put it doesn’t seem like there is anything Avenger can’t do. All of the features do take a toll on your CPU, especially if you’re running multiple oscillators and the drum sequencer simultaneously.
Check out our Producer’s Guide to Avenger.
Omnisphere might weigh in as the priciest soft synth option in this article but for good reason. Now sat at a library of over 14,000 presets (Omnisphere 2.6) the sheer amount of sounds and capability is more than impressive.
The creative lengths the team at Spectrasonics go to source sounds is second to none. They have recorded modified toys and instruments you’ve never heard of and played them with bows, pills, or fishing wire. They have even travelled to a radioactive cavern in Eastern Europe to record the melodic sounds of the cave's stalactites when played with a beater. You can be sure to stumble on sounds you’ve never heard anywhere else.
For live performers, Omnisphere features a super intuitive live mode interface that looks great. The granular synthesis is really well designed and clear, it provides so many options for sound design, and can create very unique pads, textures and leads. If scouring through all those presets worries you, the sound organisation system is fantastic, and you can find other presets that sound similar to your selected preset, using it’s ‘Sound Match’ feature.
Other features include Arpeggiator, studio-grade effects, and some great filters amongst other things. In addition, the user interface is really simple and well designed too.
Check out our complete guide to Omnisphere.
Signal (Output) £180
This is an instrument for Kontakt, so you will need Kontakt 5 or Kontakt player to use it. It features 40GB of sounds and a mix of 500 digital, analog and organic pulse instruments.
The guys at Output have made something quite unique with Signal. It’s not your typical soft synth and is in fact a pulse engine, you can see in the image it appears very stripped back and basic.
As always with Output the aesthetics and usability are on point. If you’re not the type to sit and twiddle with knobs and parameters, and you like working with rhythms; Signal could work for you. It features two pulse engines, a range of standard built in effects, and four tactile and appealing macro sliders, unique to each of the 500 pulse instruments.
The engine itself has basic and advanced modes, LFOs, Step, Arpeggiator and a pretty cool Looper™.
Take a look at our course on Signal.
For more information about Signal, pricing and to download a Free trial click here.
Written by Glen Bevan for Producertech.