The rise of software synths has been nothing less than meteoric, with thousands of developers large and small offering up their take on synthesis techniques alongside new and innovative designs.
Whereas hardware synths are limited in terms of number of oscillators, filters and other components, in the software world we can combine a huge number of such elements, perhaps excessively stacking oscillators for massive-sounding waveforms. Although an analogue-modelled Minimoog soft synth might not equal its hardware counterpart, consider the fact that you can layer up multiple instances and also use it in polyphonic mode.
However, while many companies look to offer more flexible, software versions of classic synths, others endeavour to create new techniques for sound-design using resynthesis, convolution and granular techniques. Instruments such as iZotope’s Iris enable you to select a portion of an audio file from a spectrogram display using an array of drawing tools, then use this as an oscillator sound source.
There’s also Camel Audio’s Alchemy, which has a powerful additive synthesis engine that can accurately resynthesise audio, allowing you to manipulate it in ways that are impossible with sampling alone. If you’re looking for an instrument for cutting-edge sound design, these kinds of soft synths are good starting points as they excel at creating complex and detailed sounds.
However, if you’re intending to write warm, analogue-sounding house, you might find these textures a little too complicated and end up cluttering your mix. Ultimately, you’ll probably want to select several synths for different tasks. Just be wary of mixing and matching too many different flavours of synthesis together as you may end up confusing your listener – and yourself!
Price £99 Contact Sonic8 08701 657456
Tremor is an analogue-modelled drum synth with eight voices and a grid-based pattern sequencer. Each of the voices is based on a specially tuned D:CAM oscillator with eight partials that behave either like a membrane or a harmonic source. A sub-oscillator and stereo noise source can be mixed in with the signal, which is then directed into a multimode filter with both pre- and post-filter drive stages. Any of the parameters can be modulated by a range of sources, and the 32-step pattern sequencer contains some interesting features, such as the ability to add randomness to your groove.
Price £129 Contact Time+Space 01837 55200
Iris is a little different from your average synth as it’s a ‘sampling resynthesizer’ that uses sampled digital audio to generate sound. There are three sample layers available per patch as well as a Sub layer that lets you add lower frequencies to a sound, plus a main display that shows either a waveform or a spectrogram view. Iris works by enabling you to select parts of a sound, both from its waveform and also within its spectrum, using the same technology that you find in RX, with a comprehensive set of tools that let you home in on a particular part of a sound. This intuitive synth is an amazing resource for sound designers, and layering up samples makes it easy to create breathtaking sound effects.
Price £138.04 Contact via website
Diva is based on a number of modules that closely model components of classic synths from Moog, Roland and Korg. You can mix and match each section, with options for voltage- or digitally controlled oscillators and envelopes, plus a selection of multimode, ladder, cascade and bite filters. This opens up a wide range of combinations and it’s easy to get great-sounding results. Along the bottom is the Global section, from where you can set up and tweak LFOs, tuning, amp, pan, voice stacking and much more, as well as selecting from two FX slots including phasing, chorus, reverb and delay. Diva consumes a fair amount of CPU in high-quality mode, but represents the current pinnacle of analogue-modelled sound.
Price $199 Contact via website
Rayblaster is based on Impulse Modeling Synthesis and aims to offer more of a synth behaviour to a form of sound manipulation that usually lacks any serious real-time controls. Each of the two oscillators is focused around an eye-catching waveform display and starts from one or two audio files. There are plenty of factory options here as well as the option to import your own waves, which can be anything from instrument waveforms to vocals, sound FX or drum loops. The central area of the synth lets you twist your sounds with formant and tuning controls, and there’s a highly flexible arp/gate section to the right. You might not always know what you’ll get from this synth but you can guarantee that the results will always be unique.
Price €99 Contact 2twenty2 0845 299 4222
Razor has been designed by German producer Errorsmith in conjunction with Native Instruments and works with the latest version of Reaktor and the free Reaktor Player. At first glance Razor looks much like a traditional subtractive synthesizer, having two oscillators, a filter section, envelopes, LFOs and effects. However, behind the scenes it is creating and sculpting its output purely in the additive domain, using 320 partials to assemble sounds on a ‘harmonic-by-harmonic’ basis. Overall, Razor’s sound is edgy and digital – but not at the expense of power, depth or beauty – and it comes with a range of presets catering for everything from heavy dubstep wobbles to eerie pads. On the downside, the well-designed GUI and unique additive-style output comes at the cost of a high CPU hit.
Sonic Academy ANA
Price £49.99 Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Sonic Academy tutors Phil Johnston and Bryan Spence have created a synth that aims to balance features, sound quality and ease of use in a single, reasonably priced package. ANA comes with Analog, Advanced Noise and Attack oscillator types, plus 23 filter types including some especially tasty vintage and saturated models. Other features include three envelopes, a graphical envelope, two LFOs, two modulation slots and built-in effects.
Price €119 Contact Sugar Bytes +49 306 092 0395
Fans of Skrillex, Boys Noize and Knife Party should be sure to check out Cyclop, as it’s a one-stop shop for creating twisted complextro bass and lead lines. There’s a stack of features and oscillator types including Saw Regiment (for super-saw waves), Analog Sync (for classic wave, sync and pulse sounds), a dual-carrier FM source, Transformer (for granular/wavetable tones), Spectromat (an additive synth) and Phase Stressor (phase distortion). There’s also a large knob on the left for controlling wobbles and another on the right for FX, which can be switched using the automation lanes section for creating instant, complex-sounding patterns.
Price €99 Contact via website
Oxium is a ‘performance synthesizer’ sporting a fast and intuitive interface while offering creative modulation options such as Le Masque, ported from the company’s Le Masque: Delay plug-in. Many of the functions are based around what XILS-lab refers to as a Flower design, with the two cumulative oscillators allowing you to select up to four waveforms located around a central tuning knob. Simply exploring waveform layering, unison modes, stereo spread and stereo tuning can result in some monstrous, thick lead sounds in just a few mouse clicks. The LFOs also benefit from the stacked waveform design, allowing for some interesting modulation curves.
Rob Papen Blade
Price £89 Contact Time+Space 01837 55200
Blade is Rob Papen’s latest synth creation, which aims to combine the complexity of additive synthesis with a more typical synth layout. The main section is the Harmolator oscillator, which has nine parameters for controlling the additive synthesis, plus there are also the usual envelopes, LFOs and filters alongside a superb FX section that can help to shape mix-ready sounds. Another unique feature is the ability to set up modulations on an X/Y pad and record your movements, which is great for complex pad and soundscape design.
Price €199 Contact 2twenty2 0845 299 4222
While we’d like to include only one soft synth from each company, it’s hard to when it comes to Native Instruments as it has such a rich portfolio – FM8 and Reaktor were also in the running. Massive is certainly the analogue to Razor’s edgy digital, the two together offering a great spectrum of sound. Huge basses and leads are what you get; the very elements that can make or break a track – and in this case most definitely the former. With more than 1,300 sounds to choose from you certainly won’t go wanting. Put simply: all the highs and lows you will ever need.