Buyer's Guides

Best Synth Plugins: Synth VSTS (Free & Paid)

The era of DAW dominance has meant budding producers and musicians can make music to a professional standard all ‘in the box’, just with their laptops. And when it comes to the world of synths, the emergence of plugins and VSTs means you no longer have to remortgage your house to build a collection of synths and sounds.

And while there are some fantastic affordable hardware synths nowadays, such as the Arturia Microbrute, it is still cheapest to download a VST collection, sometimes even free. Speaking of free, some of the best DAWs, including the likes of Logic, Cubase and Ableton do come with some great synth preset sounds — however, you will likely spend a chunk of time flicking through the sounds before you find the kind you’re after. Whereas, with some of the amazing synth plugins listed below, you’ll be immediately spoiled for choice. 

Of course, as the tech behind synth plugins and VSTs gets better and better by the year, whittling the choices down to a shortlist becomes harder with so many solid options to choose from. Which is why Headliner is swooping in to save the day with this top 10 of the very best synth VST plugins you should consider for your music. Whether you’re after vintage synth emulations, something more modern, or something completely free, we’ve got your dream sounds listed somewhere below.

DiscoDSP OB-Xd

  • Completely free — yay!

  • Based on a legend of the synth world

Based on the Oberheim OB-X synth, this synth VST plugin is a fantastic analogue emulation option, considering it will cost you diddly squat to download. It has a lovely, user-friendly interface. It might not be as advanced in features as other hardware emulators such as the Arturia V Collection, but what it ultimately comes down to is how fantastic it sounds, putting it up there with some of the expensive big boys. Options like the filter design and voice controls will keep you ticking over if you don't need sound editing that’s too adventurous.


Cherry Audio Sines

  • Dirt cheap, but sounds excellent

  • Great range of presets

Speaking of vintage sounds for next-to-nothing, Sines from Cherry Audio isn’t a free synth VST plugin, but it almost is, costing around £/$30. And yet, it sounds as good as some synth collections that cost five times as much. It’s based on four sine wave oscillators, which all have a plethora of controls to endlessly create the sounds your heart yearns for. You can reshape, combine and shift these synths, and use them to modulate each other. There’s also FM synthesis, bundled effects, and fantastic filters.


Newfangled Audio Generate

  • One of the best for crafting cinematic sounds

  • Everything from ambient to earth-shuddering synths

Do you want your music-making to feel like you’re inside a Christopher Nolan movie? Then Newfangled Audio’s Generate could be the synth VST plugin for you. And, considering you can get some truly huge-sounding synths here, the £/$50 price tag is pretty darn reasonable. Whether you want music that would fit an understated indie film or a Jason Bourne-esque car chase, Generate offers a big spectrum of sounds based on feedback loops and patterns. It also uses static, harmonics, distortion, and noise.


Applied Acoustics Chromaphone 3

  • One for the physical modelling fans

  • Much more friendly than the above might sound

Chromaphone is a synth VST that packs a huge amount of punch. This third version of the synth plugin boasts its latest ‘two layers of layers’ feature, meaning you can achieve exquisite sounds by layering the different presets together. You can then couple the two Resonators of each instrument you combine, essentially creating a loop of sound and feedback between the two. Going under the hood, you can control how much sound transfers between the both. The potential of this plugin is quite staggering.


u-he Zebra Legacy

  • Wonderful presets

  • Analogue sounds, cinematic sounds, acoustic instruments and more

Besides their excellent analogue emulator plugin Diva (which is definitely worth a look if analogue sounds are specifically what you’re after), u-he are one of the most popular names in synthesiser VSTs thanks to Zebra. And this is a zebra that need not change its stripes, as it’s one of the best collections of synth presets you’ll come across. And for those that like to get down and dirty, there’s also FM and additive elements to get stuck into. It also packs four oscillators and four FM oscillators, and full waveshaping.


Arturia Pigments

  • Bundled reverbs, delays etc make this a one-stop-shop

  • Incredible sounds, incredible value

An absolute powerhouse of a synth VST plugin, Pigments from Arturia ticks an outrageous number of boxes: brilliant and varied synth presets (from lofi to cinematic sounds), bundled effects like tape machine, reverb and delays, and even sound design. Most people would add external effects plugins from, say, Soundtoys to their synth VSTs, but Arturia’s bundled effects mean this won’t be necessary for some, meaning the value offered here is huge. Astonishing work from Arturia.


VCV Rack 2 Pro

  • One of the very best for modular sounds

  • Great way to learn modular

When it comes to modular synths, people often fall into one of two camps: it either looks fascinating and fun, or totally bewildering, and they dread the thought of where to start with it. Building a modular hardware setup can become increasingly gigantic and expensive, so it’s brilliant that VCV Rack 2 Pro offers a synth VST plugin that lets you digitally dip your toe into the world of modular synthesis before trying it out in real life. Meanwhile, more advanced users will love how deep you can go with its patching abilities. As with the hardware units, you choose from module selections, and can customise to your heart’s content. Best of all, it sounds stunning, assuming the world of modular doesn’t weird you out too much.


Xfer Records Serum

  • Great modulation capability

  • Top-notch wavetable oscillators

If you’ve been searching far and wide for the best synth VST plugin, we may have just the serum for you, from Xfer Records. Serum has been around for almost 10 years now, and has become one of the most widely used synth plugins in its time. Besides an embarrassment of brilliant preset options, you can get very techy with Serum, with its wavetable editor, a very powerful modulation system, and extensive range of filters. Whether you’re looking for pads, leads, sound FX, or big basses, Serum demands your attention.


Native Instruments Massive X

  • The best synth offering from the sample library maestros

  • Modulation is a joy in this plugin

Native Instruments’ Kontakt is a huge name in the world of sample libraries, but it's their Massive X synth VST plugin that puts them firmly in the best synth plugin conversation. While Kontakt does offer plenty of great synth sounds (as well as orchestral, drums and more), Massive X takes it to the next level in the synth department. Many users love it most for the huge bass sounds you can craft in the plugin. You can easily modulate the parameters on offer with a drag-and-drop modulation feature, plus six LFOs, three modulation envelopes and more.


Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2

  • A lifetime’s worth of sound

  • Incredible sample-based system

Spectrasonics Omnisphere is known very well as a formidable synth VST plugin, and as such, you’ll need to be willing to lose a big chunk of hard drive space and take a big hit to your wallet. But with that said, its vast array of exquisite sounds and captivating sonic textures make it one of the very best out there. Beyond its impressive library of over 500 analogue waveforms and digital wavetables, Omnisphere 2 shows off its versatility with more than 30 filter types for each of its dual filters, 58 exceptional effects, and an integrated granular synthesis engine. The true star, however, is the inclusion of 65GB of high-quality sample-based sound sources, ready out of the box. Then there’s the added capability to import your own content. With its epic scale and unparalleled sound quality, Omnisphere 2 is a synth VST companion that you could spend years exploring and never run out of ideas.


Synth VST plugins versus hardware synths

On your journey of finding the right synth VST set for your music, you may come across naysayers telling you you’re wasting your time, as physical, hardware synths are superior. But rest assured that it definitely isn’t this simple. Ultimately depends on what sounds you’re after, what your budget is, and if you see yourself as an ‘in the box’ producer or a more traditional synth head.

Below are some points to consider when weighing up the pros and cons of VST synth plugins V.S hardware synths:

1. Cost:

      • Synth VST Plugins are generally more affordable than hardware synths. They are software-based and often have a range of prices, including some free options.
      • Hardware Synths can be more expensive. They are physical instruments with components and craftsmanship contributing to their cost.

    2. Versatility and Range of Sounds:

      • Synth VST Plugins offer a vast range of sounds and can be easily updated or expanded with new sound packs or updates. They often include a variety of synthesis methods (subtractive, FM, wavetable, etc.).
      • Hardware Synths have a more limited range of sounds compared to VSTs, but they often excel in producing certain types of sounds and may have unique characteristics due to their analog or digital circuits.

    3. Sound Quality:

      • Synth VST Plugins have improved significantly in sound quality, often indistinguishable from hardware in a mix. They benefit from the processing power of modern computers.
      • Hardware Synths are praised for their 'warmth' and 'character,' especially analog models. They have a distinct sound that some producers and musicians seek.

    4. Ease of Use and Workflow:

      • Synth VST Plugins are integrated into digital audio workstations (DAWs), making them very accessible during the music production process. They offer easy preset management and instant recall.
      • Hardware Synths provide a tactile experience that many users prefer. The hands-on approach can be inspiring and intuitive for sound design and performance.

    5. Integration with Other Equipment:

      • Synth VST Plugins require a computer and a DAW, and they integrate seamlessly into digital setups. They can be easily controlled with MIDI controllers.
      • Hardware Synths can be integrated into both digital and analog setups. They can work standalone and offer physical connectivity with other hardware, which can be important for live performances.

    6. Portability and Space:

      • Synth VST Plugins are highly portable as they reside on your computer. They do not require physical space other than your computer setup.
      • Hardware Synths vary in size and can take up considerable space in a studio. Their physical nature means they are less portable than software synths.

    7. Longevity and Maintenance:

      • Synth VST Plugins can become outdated or incompatible with newer operating systems, but they do not require physical maintenance.
      • Hardware Synths may require maintenance over time, especially analog models, but they can also become vintage items with their value increasing over time.

    At the end of the day, the choice between Synth VST plugins and hardware synths depends on individual preferences, workflow, budget, and the specific needs of the music production or performance. Both have their unique advantages and can complement each other in a music production environment.

    Further Reading:

    Best drum machine plugins

    Best budget MIDI keyboards

    Best synthesizers (hardware)