Which vst synth to buy. The best virtual instruments and plugins 2021.
Which virtual instrument should you buy?
Here are my personal favourites and why I love using them.
VST instruments are a staple of modern music production but the, ever increasing, choice of synths, samplers and virtual instruments can make it difficult to decide where to invest your, hard earned cash. With many of them costing hundreds, it’s worth getting it right! Purists often argue that “as a producer you should be able to make any sound you want with the VST’s that come bundled with your DAW”. That’s fine if you have a good understanding of the intricacies of sound design and are willing to invest time into sculpting sounds from scratch. But, in my experience, most producers want quick results that don’t delay their creative process.
There are countless ‘best VST instruments’ lists online; each offering a breakdown of features (which you could easily find on the developer’s website) and technical descriptions (which are great if you understand the terminology). But these lists often give minimal detail of their practical uses and it can be exhaustive reading trying to figure out whether an instrument will fit your production requirements. So, instead of reams of detail about additive and subtractive synthesis, wavetables and partials, I would like to focus on some simple facts. Does it sound good? Is it tweakable? Is it user-friendly?
Native Instruments flagship sampler
Kontakt is, arguably, the best VST sampler on the market today! It comes as part of the Native Instruments Komplete bundle, but there is the option to purchase it separately. However, for the price tag, you would be better to spend a little extra and get the full suite of Komplete VST’s.
In its simplest form, a sampler will map single or multiple recordings across a keyboard or drum pad, making it possible for the user to trigger sounds easily. But, thanks to the incredibly powerful algorithms embedded within Kontakt, this sampler can offer so much more. Splicing, warping, layering, stretching and shaping sounds, just to get started. These are all great features, but where Kontakt outperforms all other rivals is in creating authentic sounding instrument parts.
I love using ‘real’ instruments in my productions and, although I play a few instruments myself, there are many I don’t own or don’t have the necessary skills to use. But these things no longer have to be a boundary or limitation thanks to the enormous variety of, Native Instruments and third-party, Kontakt libraries that are available. So, if I want an authentic sounding string section, a jangling banjo part or even a more obscure instrument like an Arabic oud, Kontakt is my go-to sampler. But don’t be mistaken in thinking that replicating an instrument in this way will sound fake! With a little bit of effort, they can sound utterly convincing, with outstanding depths of realism. This is because most Kontakt libraries offer multiple samples, multiple velocity layers, expression control, ambient noises and all the intricate details that make up an instrument’s “sound”. And when used correctly, check out my ‘Realistic Instruments’ tutorial to see how, you have all the tools you need to achieve stunning results.
Writing real instrument parts is just one small section of what is possible within Kontakt, but this alone makes it a worthwhile addition to your collection!
Visit the Native Instruments website here
Xfer Records Powerful Synthesizer
Serum is one of the most popular VST synths on the market today – and for good reason. Not only is it great at delivering rich electronic synth sounds, but it’s also intuitive and easy to program. This means even the most inexperienced sound designer can achieve amazing results (with a little practice).
There are not a great deal of presets to choose from, and some of them are quite frankly unusable, but don’t let that put you off! Serum is more about sculpting and crafting your own original sounds. But don’t worry if you find that an intimidating prospect, there are literally hundreds of amazing Serum presets available to purchase from, both, Xfer Records and third-party designers.
I use Serum a lot when I am teaching synth programming because the interface is straight forward to use and the layout is easy to navigate. This is perfect for learners who are just starting their journey into the world of sound design. Plus, for learning the terminology (a transferrable skill for programming other synths) it is clearly labelled and well designed.
Although I use this a lot with beginners, that is not to say that it is a ‘beginners’ synth. Serum can go deep and complex, mind-bendingly scientific and intricate. Screaming dubstep basses, powerful EDM leads, ambient pads and clean pop plucks are all possible with the tools on offer. So, regardless of genre, there is a place for Serum in every producer’s virtual kit bag.
Find out more about Serum on the Xfer records website
The Omnisphere interface is clean, sleek and user-friendly.
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Spectrasonics unparalleled soft-synth
Omnisphere is vast and it offers an expansive palette of sounds, which range from real hardware synthesisers to ethnic instruments. This synth is a real heavyweight when it comes to content, with over 14000 sounds once installed. So, there is plenty of choice for using in your productions. The downside of such a huge library, however, is the long-winded task of searching for a sound. This is made slightly easier with its search options, but you can easily find yourself “preset scrolling” for long periods of time. The good news is that there are plenty of high quality presets, many of which need no tweaking at all and are ready to use. The bad news is; there are an equal number of less useable presets to navigate past to get there.
For me, Omnisphere’s strengths lie in its more unusual sounds and I often use it to back up standard synth parts with something more unique or organic. Afterall, it’s bursting with ethereal patches, atmospheric soundscapes and ambient drones – the kinds most often associated with cinematic writers. But, don’t be fooled into thinking that’s all it does because there are plenty of rich and versatile hardware synth patches that can have you jamming out funk basses, trancey leads and electro chords too.
Within the interface there are plenty of tweaking options as well. I found there was a small learning curve to become familiar with assigning parameters and navigating through screens, but it didn’t take too long to get up to speed.
So, if you’re looking for something that can really open up your creative horizons, Omnisphere really is a worthwhile investment
Visit the Spectrasonics website here
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Vengeance hard-hitting EDM synth
If you write any form of EDM, Avenger is worth adding to your toolkit! This is one of those plugins that just sounds great straight out of the box. There are plenty of useable presets, as well as numerous purchasable expansion packs, and that means you never need suffer from a weak sounding lead again!
As great as Avenger sounds, however, it’s not very user friendly when it comes to editing patches or creating original sounds. The interface can be rather intimidating for less experienced sound designers, due to the developer’s decision to keep everything on one main screen, and there are buttons galore to navigate through to find the parameters you wish to edit. The confusing nature of this may be off putting to some. But once you get used to this you will be in synth heaven!
If you want a powerhouse synth, Avenger certainly is one - delivering huge leads, driving basses and epic pads. The in-built effects are perfectly designed for electronic music, with enormous reverbs, bouncing delays and rhythmical sidechains. That, coupled with the sonic clarity, sizzling high end and unashamedly electronic patches makes Avenger an essential tool for any modern dance music producer.
Discover more from Vengeance website here
Spectrasonics - Trilian.
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Modo Bass from IK Multimedia.
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BASS IN YA FACE
IK Multimedia and Spectrasonics bass synths
I have coupled these two together because I use them both for one specific task – live bass guitar. Although I have a bass guitar in my studio, I always find myself writing my live bass parts using one of these two plugins. This is because I like to tailor my bass guitar sound to the genre of music I am creating and I don’t have access to all of the makes and models of bass guitar I need to accomplish this. So, if I need a disco bass part, I like to use a p-bass or for an indie-pop track I love the grittiness of a Rickenbacker. And what both of these particular plugins do is offer me that choice.
But that is not all! Because they also both offer a great selection of performance techniques that bring a bass part to life. Articulations like slides, bends, vibrato and hammering. The things that make the difference between a real or an unrealistic emulation. Couple this with the fantastic tone that they both offer and you have the ideal bass player for every occasion.
It’s probably worth noting here that they both differ in their approaches to achieving their ‘sound’. Modo Bass uses physical modelling, where it recreates the physical properties of a real bass, and Trilian is sample based. For me, Modo Bass has a better overall sound and, due to the physical modelling technology, is much easier to adjust to fit a mix.
If I were going to choose just one for creating live bass parts I would go for Modo Bass, mainly because of the flexibility gained from the editing options. But that is not to say that Trilian is redundant! The reason Trilian remains part of my production tools is because there are a few bass tones that Modo Bass doesn’t cover – for example double bass. Plus, it is stacked with thousands of synth basses as well as the live bass patches. So, they both have their individual merits.
Gone are the days of bad quality and unrealistic midi bass thanks to plugins like these two! And ultimately, whichever you choose, you won’t be disappointed
Discover Trilian on the Spectrasonics website
See Modo Bass on the IK Multimedia website
I have been using VST instruments for over 18 years and have tested my fair share of good and bad ones. The plugins I have covered further up are, by no means, an exhaustive list of must haves. And there are plenty of other plugins that are totally worthwhile investing in, honourable mentions to Diva, Massive X and Superior Drummer. But these 6 VST’s are the ones that I couldn’t be without! The ones that feature in every production and the ones that I can rely on every time.
So, next time you’re considering a new purchase be sure to check them out – your productions will thank you!