When diverse timbres are what you need, these virtual synthesizers are the cream of the crop.
Synth and Softwarehas been publishing monthly Top 10 lists since April, and they’re almost surprisingly popular. We’ve had no shortage of ideas, ranging from Top 10 synthesists and synth soloists to Top 10 vintage synthesizers and Logic Pro X tips. This month’s top 10 is not a terribly original idea—you’ve certainly seen similar “listicles” on other websites—but it gives me an opportunity to share my recommendations about software I use all the time: virtual polyphonic synthesizers that run on computers.
All these synths are for both the macOS and Windows. All of them run as AU and VST plug-ins in most DAWs, and many run in Pro Tools, too. Four of them—Omnisphere, Pigments, Kontakt, and Falcon—can run standalone as well, without a DAW as host. That’s especially handy when you’re performing live or computer resources are limited.
Although companies like Arturia, Roland, and Korg make some terrific emulations of vintage instruments, you won’t find any emulations here. To stimulate your muse to the max, I’m recommending instruments that leverage the multitude of synthesis techniques that only software makes possible. I’ve listed them in alphabetical order by company name.
I chose these ten virtual instruments not only for their utility and quality of sounds, but also for their popularity. When you walk into a computer-based electronic music studio, they’re the ones you’ll most likely find in use. Most have been around awhile, and most are updated rather frequently. One thing they all have in common is that I can easily recommend them.
Arturia Pigments ($199)
With its colorful user interface, multiple synthesis techniques, and outstanding factory patch library,Pigments made a big splash when it first appeared in late 2018. A year later, the version 2.0 update added new capabilities and delivered even more unique timbres to work with. From Arturia—a French company that makes synthesizers and audio hardware and software instruments and effects—Pigments is their only software instrument that doesn’t emulate classic keyboards and synths. With twin sound engines, you can layer two types of synthesis in a single preset using virtual analog, wavetables, and sample playback.
Pigments’ sampling engine lets you load six samples and then map them or play them in sequence. Import your own samples and shape them with an assortment of granular parameters you can randomize within boundaries you define. Pigments’ wavetable synthesis lets you manipulate waveforms with FM, phase modulation, phase distortion, and wavefolding. Choose from nine filter types for two filters in series or parallel. You also get three envelopes with breakpoints, three LFOs, three function generators, three random generators, and the ability to combine modulation sources. Throw in MPE support, a 16-step sequencer and arpeggiator, and an effects section with 3 busses and 14 effects, and you’ll have a very capable platform for designing your own custom patch library.
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