The best plug-ins to buy in 2021: 16 of the best software polysynths

Soft synths can offer incredible value for money and sounds that you can't find in the hardware world. Here are 16 of the best out there in 2021.

There are many reasons to opt for a software synthesizer over a hardware one. Software can faithfully emulate iconic models, offer brave new sounds, and even present fresh ways to synthesise audio – all at prices that are typically far lower than their physical counterparts.

From legendary models to complex modular setups and newfangled instruments, there are countless software polys to choose from. We’ve rounded up 16 of our favourites, all with their own quirks that will keep you busy for hours on end.

Arturia Pigments 3

Arturia Pigments 3

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Price £179
Synthesis Virtual analogue, wavetable, additive, sample and granular

Arturia’s Pigments has been a roaring success, with the previous iteration being voted as the best soft synth of the year by our readers in 2020. Pigments 3 takes it to new levels with additive synthesis, 64 new wavetables and a new Utility engine. Considering how deep and intuitive it was before these additions, it’s now one of the more capable soft synths out there, by far. You’re given a wealth of modulators and effects to choose from and an advanced sequencing engine to transform your unique patches into musical movements.

In our review, we said: “Pigments is an exceptionally deep and powerful synthesizer, oozing with capability and flexibility. No matter what blend of engine modes you are using, the wide choice of filters, extensive modulation and top-notch effects make for a sublimely versatile synthesizer that’ll be as satisfying for sound designers as it surely will be for musicians and producers.”

Read our full review here.

Native Instruments Massive X

Native Instruments Massive X

Price £179
Synthesis Wavetable

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Native Instruments’ Massive made a name for itself during the rise of dubstep, thanks to a rich sonic palette and modulation engine that made it ideal for complex, moving basslines. The long-awaited update, Massive X, arrived in 2019 with a totally new design – so different, in fact, that NI has kept the original Massive available to download as a different entity.

Massive X is certainly worth experimenting with, boasting a plethora of modulation possibilities, a unique routing section, over 170 wavetables and 10 wavetable modes. There are also three blocks of 10 send effects, nine filter types and two additional phase-modulation oscillators to load up on top of the two main wavetable oscillators.

In our review, we said: “The Massive X bonuses are the stupid numbers of modulation options, the insert effects that can be oscillators, the Reaktor-like Routing section, the noise – how much? – the sounds (the sounds!) and the looks (and resizable screen!). It’s Massive then, and yet, of course, it isn’t an update to Massive in the strictest sense. Perhaps it’s best to consider them as cousins if you have to, but certainly not closer relatives than that.”

Read our full review here.

Softube Model 84

Softube Model 84

Price £159
Synthesis Virtual analogue

The Roland Juno series of the 1980s is nothing short of iconic. Almost 40 years on, producers are still checking second-hand stores to get their hands on one, and there have been many impressive emulations over the years. We’ve found a favourite in Softube’s Model 84, however, with an extraordinarily accurate recreation that just screams ‘vintage’. From the classic chorus effect and unison phase sounds to the expanded control panel and new artist presets, there’s so much to enjoy in this soft synth.

In our review, we said: “The sound is almost a perfect facsimile of the Juno-106. This is true both to the naked ear and when you compare frequency graphs between the original’s hardware and Softube’s software. There really is very, very little to choose between them, and as each original Juno sounds subtly different anyway, the sonic lines between software and hardware blur further.”

Read the full review here.

Arturia V Collection

Arturia V Collection 8

Price $439
Synthesis FM, AM, virtual analogue, modular, sample, vocoder

Speaking of emulations, Arturia’s V Collection comprises a whopping 28 virtual instruments, all emulating classic synths and instruments. There are plenty of polysynths in this collection, but also some emulations of electric keyboards, monosynths, and a piano. It’s not the most affordable product on this list, but the investment will keep you tweaking and designing patches for years. You may not have access to hardware versions of Jupiter-8, OB-Xa, Moog System-55 and a Mellotron but, with Arturia’s V Collection, you can fit it all in your laptop.

In our review, we said: “We thought it couldn’t possibly get any better than this staggering collection of vintage instruments (and wealth of patches). V Collection 8 ticks all the analogue and digital boxes. With the addition of a vintage sample library, vocoder and two iconic synths, this is a must-have for anyone chasing the vintage synth sound.”

Read our full review here.

Xfer Records Serum

Xfer Records Serium

Price £136
Synthesis Wavetable

Deadmau5 and Steve Duda’s Xfer Records has spawned a powerful go-to synth among myriad producers. Serum is an advanced wavetable synth with 144 wavetables, 10 effects modules, drag-and-drop modulation routing and custom wavetable creation. Its pristine sound and intuitive interface make Serum a dream to navigate and create with, whether it’s big EDM leads or thick pads.

Don’t just take our word for it – it’s consistently top on Splice’s plug-ins chart, and is used by Deadmau5 himself, Flume, What So Not and Marshmello, among others. It’s known to be a little heavy on the CPU, though, so do try before you buy and check if your system can handle it.

Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2.7

GOTd Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2

Price £285
Synthesis Sample, wavetable, granular, FM

Spectrasonics’ flagship soft synth is not to be overlooked. Omnisphere uses its unique STEAM synthesis and sampling engine to deliver over 14,000 inspiring sounds that you can manipulate using granular, wavetable and FM synthesis, among other timbre warping techniques. You can load up to 20 oscillators per patch and modulate them using eight LFOs, 12 envelopes and 34 filter types, with the Flex-Mod modulation matrix helping you get detailed with sound design. There are then 58 modulatable effects units to further develop your patches.

In our review, we said: “Thanks to some genuinely innovative features, not to mention a wealth of extra sonic material to play with, it’s hard to imagine any software instrument delivering the same breadth and sheer sonic excellence as Omnisphere 2.”

Read our full review here.

U-he Diva

u-he Diva

Price £152
Synthesis Virtual Analogue

U-he’s Diva is a virtual analogue synthesizer that producers have been reliant upon for years. It’s renowned for its various emulations of iconic synth components, such as the oscillator sections based on the Moog Minimoog, Roland Alpha Juno-2, Roland Jupiter series, Korg MS-20 and Roland JP-8000. There are also filters based on the Moog Ladder filter, Oberheim SEM filter and more.

Even now, nine years after its original release, producers are taken aback by its pristine, detailed sound, and its performance against vintage analogue synthesizers. The Trimmers panel allows you to go all-out on making Diva sound more analogue, with voice detuning per oscillator, voice drift and more. If you’re in the market for some retro synth flavours, Diva should be one of your first stops.

LennarDigital Sylenth1

LennarDigital Sylenth1

Price £118
Synthesis Virtual analogue

Sylenth1 may be 14 years old but, just like Diva, it’s a staple plug-in among the music production community. It’s been used by the likes of Armin Van Buuren, Martin Garrix, The Chainsmokers, and can be heard on tracks by Ellie Goulding, Mac Miller and countless others. Sylenth’s four unison oscillators sound fantastic, its warm filters are built with overdrive, and it’s easy to modulate with two LFOs and two filters. The built-in effects and arpeggio are fun to experiment with, too.

A recent update makes the GUI much sleeker, and new presets are regularly being made by users to keep you inspired with fresh sounds. If you’re looking for a straightforward polysynth that can help you get results swiftly, give this one a whirl.

KV331 Audio Synthmaster

KV 331 Audio SynthMaster 2.9

Price £71
Synthesis Semi-modular, wavetable, virtual analogue, additive, phase modulation, FM, physical modelling, SFZ Sample Playback, ring modulation, PWM, AM

KV331 Audio’s SynthMaster One came out on top in our 2016 Gear Of The Year awards, and has since undergone some significant improvements that maintain its reputation as a ‘must-have’. There’s plenty of synthesis options to choose from here, with multi-algorithm oscillators, multiple filters and a vast mod-matrix section.

In our review of SynthMaster 2.9, we said: “That’s what we – and you – love about SynthMaster. It is probably the most powerful synth out there, while still remaining both approachable and fun to use. The best synth keeps getting better!”.

Read our full review here.

Rob Papen Blade 2

Rob Papen Blade 2

Price £80
Synthesis Additive

Rob Papen’s Blade 2 might be one of the best weapons for producers wanting to go all-out on additive synthesis. Its sharp GUI is focused around a central panel that provides access to an XY pad, modulation matrix , arpeggiator, and more. The oscillators to the left can be set to Harmolator and Additive modes, with the former offering 96 partials to create some unique timbres, while Additive mode allows you to draw in complex waveforms.

In our review, we said: “Anyone who is a Papen devotee will not be surprised by many of the offerings within Blade 2. It’s the front end that makes Blade 2 unique, with a palette that sounds sharp and clean, but can be turned to true grit with the addition of de-tuning and distortion. It’s another highly impressive synth from the Papen stable, at a price which is enormously competitive.”

Read the full review here.

GForce OB-E

GForce OB-E

Price £99
Synthesis Subtractive

The Oberheim Eight Voice was a behemoth subtractive synth in the 80s with a huge, thick sound courtesy of eight stacked Oberheim SEM modules. GForce’s authentic recreation will give you the same Octophonic architecture with modern additions such as an eight-step sequencer, unison chords, and 600 presets. This is a wonderful sounding synth, and is sure to please anyone who has ever wanted to get their hands on this historic icon.

In our review, we said: “OB-E is, quite simply, brilliant. The emulated analogue filters are rich and smooth, and the oscillators are fat and punchy. Critically, the performance controls and ease of programming make it enormous fun to use. It also makes getting excellent sounds swift and efficient. In the hands of virtually any synth enthusiast, OB-E is capable of earth-shaking basses, massive and impossibly wide pads, and lead sounds big enough to reach the halls of Valhalla. We can’t recommend it highly enough.”

Read our full review here.

Moog Model 15

Moog Model 15

Price £39
Synthesis Modular

The Moog Model 15 is a modular synth from the 1970s, which Moog has revived as a less space-dominating iOS app. Those with macOS Big Sur can take advantage of the app on their computers, with a price tag that is almost a thousand times cheaper than that of an original Model 15.

You’ll be able to navigate the Model 15 as a standalone app and, as it is an AUv3 app, you’ll be able to run it in Logic Pro. Note that the app can’t be loaded in other DAWs such as Live, FL Studio or Cubase, but you may be able to find a way to record your computer’s internal audio if you wish to use a patch in your track.

Roland Zenology Pro

Roland Zenology Pro

Price Requires Roland Cloud Core subscription, $2.99/month or $29.99/year
Synthesis Virtual analogue,

Roland’s vintage synths are incredibly sought-after, from the Junos and Jupiters to the 808 and 303. As we’ve mentioned in this guide, software developers enjoy basing their software synths on Roland’s sounds and effects. Of course, Roland enjoys doing the same, and with Zenology there is plenty of the brand’s library to explore, with over 7,000 patches, 80 drum kits and 90 effects taken from vintage and modern instruments.

In our review of Zenology, we said: “Roland’s new offering isn’t the only option in its field but it’s one that’s backed by almost 50 years of synth-design and sound-design know-how – and this experience shows in the quality of the instrument’s sounds. The cloud-based subscription model through which Zenology is licensed may not be to everybody’s taste but you can get the Lite version simply for joining the service, without paying a subscription fee. You might be mad not to.”

Read our review here.

Reason Algoritm

REASON ALGORITM

Price £99
Synthesis FM

FM synthesis has been responsible for some wicked sounds in the last few decades, from glistening 80s bells to wrangled dubstep basslines. Reason Studios has made it simple with Algoritm: a nine-operator FM synth with flexible modulation and wavetable oscillators for nuanced sound design. You’ll need the Reason Rack plug-in to run this in other DAWs, but that might be a bonus – you’ll be able to use Algoritm along with some other Reason classics.

In our review, we said: “Algoritm might be billed as an FM synthesizer, but it’s so much more than that. Reason Studios has taken it far further with the addition of the wavetable oscillators you can use as sources or modulators. Mix in the shapers and the filters and the extensive routing and modulation capabilities, and you have a powerful synth that excels at glassy and digital textures, yet provides the kind of thick, hearty sound you’d expect from analogue behemoths.”

Read our full review here

Kilohearts Phase Plant

Kilohearts Phase Plant

Price From £145 or £9.99p/m
Synthesis Semi-modular, virtual analogue, wavetable, sample, FM

Phase Plant has won multiple awards, including an MT Gear Of The Year award, for its versatile approach to generating sounds. You’ll start with a blank canvas, into which you can drag in some Generators, with the option of Analog, Noise, Sampler and Wavetable. You can then load up Filter and Distortion blocks, and Group, Aux, Mixer and Output utilities. Then you can drag in modulation sources (Envelope, LFO, Random, MIDI and Utility), and finally some effects. If this sounds a little too arduous, there are 400 presets to choose from, but you’ll want to peruse around this fascinating synth and get your hands dirty.

In our review, we said: “Phase Plant is unusual in that it is both incredibly detailed but also incredibly simple to use. It is the kind of drag and drop synthesis you may not have experienced: as easy to use as something like Reason, but with enough possibilities, variations and permutations to satisfy many a hardened modular user.”

Read our full review here.

Vital

Matt Tytel Vital

Price Free, Plus – £18, Pro – £58
Synthesis Semi-modular, subtractive, wavetable

If you’re looking for some serious power on a budget, Vital’s your synth. The free version is more than capable of creating complex patches, all while making sound design a straightforward process. There are three wavetable oscillators, a comprehensive modulation matrix and eight routable effets. It’s also MPE-compatible, allowing for more expressive performances with an MPE controller.

The free version of Vital boasts 25 wavetables and 75 presets, and the Pro version amasses more than 150 wavetables, 400 presets and unlimited access to the unique text-to-wavetable feature. Its spectral oscillator warping means that you can easily manipulate the harmonics of a wavetable to create new timbres and textures. If anything, it’s at least worth trying the free version, just to get a taste of what it can do.

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