Today we’ll learn more about FM synthesis and look at the best FM synth plugins of 2023.
Synthesizers have been present in our favorite songs since the late 1960s. To this day, these lovely instruments helped shape and expand the sonic possibilities behind pop hit tracks and modern rock songs alike, with dozens of different models with customizable controls and varied sounds packed within.
One particular type of sound synthesis is the FM (short for “Frequency Modulation”), which we deeply explore in this list. In essence, FM synthesis work by modifying the original audio signal and shaping its frequencies to get a brand new tone, all based on that input.
You can think of effects like an octaver, for instance, which takes the note and reproduces it one octave higher or lower than what you’ve played, thus creating an output frequency that equals half or doubles the original value.
To get our heads wrapped around this subject even further, we’ve selected a few good examples of FM synth plugins that are relevant in 2023 to show you.
Hopefully, by learning more about the plugins below, you’ll get a good sense of how this kind of synthesis can help you create new soundscapes and shape new, original sounds, making your track stand out uniquely.
Top 12 FM Synth Plugins For Unique Sound 2023
1. Native Instruments FM8 (For FM Nerds)
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All aspects of FM synthesis are inside the clean interface of FM8.
The Yamaha DX7 synthesizer was one of the devices that prompted FM synthesis in the market. First, it was an instant hit due to the new technologies contained – from a brand new protocol entitled “MIDI” to velocity sensitivity – eventually, it became one of the best-selling synths of all time.
Following the steps of this awesome gear, Native Instruments introduced the FM7 a while back, and now we can explore this new, revamped version of a plugin dedicated to frequency modulation synthesis.
- Factory sounds
FM8 contains an incredible amount of sounds, ready to be used in any track you’d like. In addition, it supports all sounds contained in FM7, including the FM7 Sounds Vol. I & Vol. II from the Native Instruments Sound Line. There are 200 new sounds in FM8, all adaptable to the new configurations contained in this software.
- New effects
Some cool new effects are introduced in FM8, but this time with a rack concept that allows you to create varied effect chains and a preset system for the entire rack. You can count with overdrive, tube amp simulation, cabinet simulation, shelving EQ, peak EQ, phaser, flanger, talk wah, tremolo, reverb, psychedelay, and, of course, the old FM7 effect that is available as a chorus/delay unit.
- Sound morphing
This exciting new feature allows you to morph between four chosen timbres, which can be dragged and dropped from the “Sound Browser” menu. The XY control correlates each corner to a specific timbre, with the graphic handle in the square adjusting the interpolation between different sounds. You can also use it as a plugin in a host, thus automating the handle’s movement to suit your effect accordingly.
Native Instruments could not let such a nice feature pass by, so a complete arpeggiator is also included in FM8. This tool features a sequencer-like matrix of up to 32 steps, with flexible and programmable modes for pattern generation and keyboard split features. You can also use preset arpeggio templates, which can provide a quick selection of usable profiles.
- “Easy” page
This page can be found among the other windows at the “Navigator” panel on your screen’s left side. In essence, the “Easy/Morph” page displays quick sound tweaks and adjustments you can add to your sound, contributing to a more intuitive workflow that won’t require much effort to achieve superior sound results.
- Factory sounds
This plugin is available for macOS 10.14, 10.15, or 11 (64-bit only) and Windows 10 or higher (64-bit only). It runs in standalone mode and VST, AAX, and AU plugin formats.
Native Instruments FM8 is a complete workstation for FM synthesis. This handy tool offers a wide variety of timbres, effects, and configurations expected from such a big name company as NI, with extreme care in simultaneously making everything look good and fluid.
The nice arpeggiator included can provide unique patterns, and allied with the multiple factory sounds, FM8 can be a powerful plugin to get creative new ideas flowing without limitations.
2. XILS Lab KaoX (Modern 1)
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This plugin displays the versatility and usefulness of FM synthesis.
XILS Lab brings a virtual instrument based on multiple synthesis methods, including frequency modulation. Entitled KaoX, this plugin offers multiple features besides the FM synthesis, thanks to the simulation of analog components such as oscillators and filters that provide authentic sounds with power that only an algorithm can provide.
- Dedicated oscillator
A dedicated oscillator to the frequency modulation section can result in a more convincing and authentic overall sound, and that’s what you can expect from KaoX. This FM oscillator contains eight operators that can make your frequencies sound like in a vintage unit, aside from working smoothly with the algorithms included.
- Analog oscillators
KaoX contains two analog oscillators created to reproduce the iconic sounds of old synth units. These oscillators have continuously changing waveforms, which can include subtle variations in each sound file that bear a resemblance to how these components would react in an authentic circuit.
- Synth engines
You can use two independent synthesizer engines to create even more audacious and different sounds. Although they act independently from each other, they are identical in terms of configurations and programming and can be configured in three distinct modes: “Single,” “Double,” and “Split.”
- Double mode
The dual mode activates the upper and lower layers, which contain independent modules such as LFO and oscillators. By playing these layers jointly, you can expect new and vast sonorities that can be perfect for a fat, thicker, vast, or dynamic soundscape in a matter of seconds.
- Split mode
When the “Split” switch is activated, you assign the lower part of the keyboard to play the lower layers while the upper part plays the upper layers. A triangle symbol is responsible for setting the appropriate split point. This mode is ideal for anyone working with two distinctive sounds on each keyboard’s zone.
- GANG mode
If you need to tweak and configure all parameters in lower and upper layers simultaneously, the GANG mode can help you. It permits you to alter the knob values instantly while always maintaining the relative settings of these parameters. For instance, if you want to edit the “Cutoff” of both layers at the same time, the relative cutoff difference will always be kept – if the upper layer has a cutoff level of 100 and the lower has a level of 50, if you decrease them by 40, the values will be 60 and 10, respectively.
- Dedicated oscillator
This plugin is available for macOS 10.8 or higher (64-bit only) and Windows 7 or higher (64-bit only). It runs in VST, AAX, and AU plugin formats.
While it does not aim to reproduce any specific vintage gear, KaoX contains all the flavors that a vintage synthesizer could include, thanks to the in-depth and detailed reproduction of analog components into the digital world.
In addition, XILS Lab put a serious effort into crafting not only the most cherished tones but also the controls and configurations that make the FM synth popular while adding subtle digital variations on top of that, with features such as the multiple synth engines that can be run simultaneously.
3. Arturia DX7 V (Modern 2)
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FM synthesis has never been so easy to master.
Arturia is renowned for its excellent plugins, virtual instruments, and effects, always crafting and delivering iconic sounds with superb audio quality. Following this recipe, DX7 V brings the tones and controls of the famous Yamaha DX7 synthesizer inside your DAW, with concise emulations of the famous sounds that marked an era.
- Operators and algorithms
At the center of the main screen, you can find the colorful menu responsible for organizing the operators to your taste. Essentially, they’re all color-coded, meaning each operator bears a distinctive color, thus making it easier to create custom patches. You can also set up or alter any 32 original algorithms and tweak your sound meticulously.
- Data entry faders
Like in the hardware version, DX7 V offers the “Data Entry” faders close to the main volume control. They all deal with different parameters that can be assigned and activated simultaneously. You can select between the multiple available parameters, and by mixing them, you can make this plugin sound as versatile as ever.
- Global controls
Right at the top of the interface, there are global controls for adjusting common synth-wide configurations, such as “Transpose (offers chromatic transposition of the preset within four octaves),” “Tuning (sets the overall pitch),” “AMD (sets the depth of the global Amplitude Modulation),” “FMD (similar to the previous control, but relative to the Pitch Modulation),” and “P Mod Sens (introduces a pitch modulation based on the FMD knob).”
- Quick edit controls
These controls were included to offer quick adjustments to your operators. The “Feedback” knob controls the amount of feedback in a selected preset, while the “Pitch EG” knob sets the Pitch EG depth for any operators with this function included. Lastly, the “Poly” button allows you to switch between monophonic and polyphonic performances, with up to 32 voices available in polyphonic mode.
Also known as “Glide,” the portamento settings can be defined inside this section. There’s an “On” switch to activate it, while the “Gliss” button allows the pitch to change chromatically between two played notes (while deactivated, the notes will change smoothly instead). At last, the “Time” knob sets the amount of time necessary for the pitch to change from one note to another.
The arpeggiator is one of the most distinctive aspects of the original DX7 hardware. Arturia included it here and made it as configurable as possible. You can turn this tool on by activating the switch, with the additional “Hold” and “Sync” buttons (responsible for allowing the arp to keep running after you stop playing and locking it with an external clock, respectively) and a “Pattern” menu, which provides six different response patterns to the arpeggiator.
- Operators and algorithms
This plugin is available for macOS 10.13 or higher (64-bit only) and Windows 8.1 or higher (64-bit only). It runs in standalone mode and VST, NKS, AAX, and AU plugin formats.
The awesome sounds contained inside DX7 V are proof that Arturia always takes special care when it comes to recreating any sonority. The DX7 V is not only a synthesizer but also a pattern generator that can create intense, well-crafted tones present in multiple genres and styles.
The number of configurations included is impressive, and each section can tweak your soundscape further. Special attention to the easiness behind configuring the operators and respective algorithms, with colorful and clear instructions on the screen.
4. Roland SYSTEM 8
With System-8, Roland continues its crusade to reinterpret its earlier work in a modern context.
The SYSTEM-8 incorporates faithful recreations of vintage Roland oscillators, filters, and effects, drawing on our extensive background in synthesizer development. In addition to the iconic JUPITER and JUNO filter designs, it also features legendary third-party oscillator types for producing sounds that are extremely true to the era in which they were first produced.
The SYSTEM-8 can also produce good tones; it has various oscillators (both digital and analog) and waveforms (including SuperSaw, FM, and more). Recent innovations such as the formant, harmonic, and side-band filters join time-tested favorites like the VCF in the filter model lineup.
With a few simple adjustments, the SYSTEM-8 can go from glassy to growly or plucky to punchy, making it the most adaptable instrument ever created.
The filter portion features an ADSR envelope with the amount and velocity sensitivity for precise filter control. If you like the sound of your keyboard speed amplifying the filter cutoff, you should have this. It’s becoming apparent that Roland has simplified things to an acceptable degree.
- Variation Control
The addition of the various control, which, when set to variation 2, enables six Side-Band filters that amplify and distort the harmonics in a very harsh, almost metallic fashion, is arguably the filter’s most intriguing improvement.
This is especially helpful with more complex tonal sources like the Super-Saw since it provides an additional layer of control (to the point where a second LPF would be useful for taming the chaos).
Only the Vocoder, enabled by pressing the Vocoder button on the left fascia, can fully use this function. However, after exploring the settings, you will discover various vocoder control options, which greatly reduce the sibilance feedback and excessively high monitoring volumes.
This plugin is available for macOS 10.10 or higher (64-bit only) and Windows 7 or higher (64-bit only). It comes in VST/RTAS/AU/AAX formats and supports 32 and 64 bit systems.
The System-8 is a professional-grade synthesizer that has been a pleasure to use. You wouldn’t know it wasn’t a Jupe by listening to it on a track, but with all the extra features, it’s a potent creation in its own right, just like the original.
5. Tone2 Nemesis2 (For Trance Makers)
More Info & Price (Trial Available)
Nemesis2 can deliver an array of timbres with precise controls with a futuristic character.
German-based company Tone2 offers good synthesizer options in their catalog, with different aspects and sound profiles. Among the most audacious ones, Nemesis2 is a great alternative to get FM synthesis in your productions, counting with a classic digital approach that differs its sounds from other hardware emulations but with just as many controls.
- NeoFM synthesis
This new technology was crafted by Tone2 and eventually became the core for Nemesis – or NeoFM Synthesis. Aside from the traditional FM synthesis, this plugin showcases this improvement with high-quality audio samples that work well with any kind of shaping, especially frequency modulation and varied waveforms.
- Oscillator section
On the top right side of the interface, the dedicated section that houses the two main oscillators operates as intuitively as possible. Each oscillator gets specific knob controls, such as “Envelope” and “Filter,” and a small screen that indicates which waveform is active and how it has been manipulated. You can also alter the signal chain with varied orders.
- Menu bar
This section provides all the controls for Nemesis2’s feature displays. You can browse through the “Preset Manager” shop and download new content directly from the software, deal with basic preset management functions, and give a deep immersion into the available effects, among other standard configurations.
The arpeggiator inside Nemesis2 is an inspiring tool for creating new patterns and melodic lines. Here you can select the note inside your sequencer as usual and choose the direction it should go – up, down, etc. There are also optional advanced configurations, such as an auto-chord generator, polyphonic playback, swing into every played note, glide, and matrix integration.
Nemesis2 counts with 48 distinct effects to be used and blended at will. You can create a flexible routing that can make your track sound like nothing in this world, with specific features like the “Smart-micro-tuning” that automatically analyzes the notes of any played chord to improve their sound. Contour, fading, swing, and shuffle are additional features available for any effect.
- NeoFM synthesis
This plugin is available for macOS 10.7 or higher (64-bit only) and Windows XP or higher (64-bit only). It runs in standalone mode and VSTi and AU plugin formats.
Tone2 is focused on creating the most diverse synthesizer models for their plugins, sometimes even recreating an iconic circuit.
This time, Nemesis2 showcases the wonders the digital world can do for us: aside from the awesome controls, the tones are very modern-sounding and can help bring a fresh new vibe into your production.
The knobs may be diversely spread throughout the interface, but they are easy to tweak and offer an intuitive experience overall.
6. BLEASS Omega Synth (Great For Beginners)
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This multi-platform plugin proves how beautiful synths can be.
BLEASS Omega is a plugin that provides a meaningful and simplistic visual experience, with everything you would expect from a synthesizer housed in a user-friendly interface. All controls are easy to read and operate clearly, delivering good timbres and making FM synthesis as easy as possible.
- FM algorithms
In software like BLEASS Omega, the algorithms are the main force behind every function. To get that nailed down precisely, eleven FM synthesis algorithms were carefully developed to provide the most varied sounds, with the help of four operators that can easily be interconnected.
All sound modulation can be achieved through the dedicated window, dividing the screen between three sections: “LFO 1,” “LFO 2,” and “Assignable EG.” The first two are a pair of assignable low-frequency oscillators, with visual waveform selections included, whereas the latter is an ADSR envelope control that showcases the dynamic response of your synth very elegantly.
- Motion sequencer
This unique feature included in BLEASS Omega is a rhythmic movement generator, creating repeated patterns of modulation values that can be set to any of the two modulation destinations. In essence, it’s like an arpeggiator, but with refined adjustments that make it characteristic to the plugin. The possibility to include the modulation values inside your patterns can create different and varied soundscapes, as a reliable sound design tool should.
Sometimes it’s nice to have a starting point to begin learning something, and presets are very helpful in teaching more about audio design in general. The 160 professionally designed presets included in BLEASS Omega display all the versatility this virtual instrument can muster, ready to be explored and used.
The beautifully displayed screen that shows the available effects is very helpful in setting the perfect flavor for your track. You can choose between “Chorus,” “Tremolo,” “Delay,” and “Reverb” effortlessly, each boasting a distinct color to differentiate from the rest. The “On/Off” switch is big and clear to find, while other controls are also easy to tweak.
Inside the “Filter/Drive” panel, the dedicated “Waveshaper” section is the perfect choice for instantly adding a warm, overdriven sound. You can select from nine different shaping algorithms that offer the perfect control to boost your signal the intended way, while the close-by “Filter” effect will add more character and refinement to the overall frequencies.
- FM algorithms
This plugin is available for macOS 10.9 or higher (64-bit only) and Windows 8 or higher (64-bit only). It runs in VST3, AAX, and AU plugin formats.
Displaying lots of character and elegance, BLEASS Omega is arguably the best-looking software on this list. This might sound irrelevant, but the easiness of finding and setting every control in every window panel is very intuitive, which can be helpful for experienced and beginner producers alike.
Moreover, this simplistic visual experience can offer great learning opportunities and well-thought sound results when dealing with sound synthesis, especially FM synthesis.
7. Tracktion F.’em (Most Versatile)
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One of the most powerful and versatile FM synths on our list.
Sometimes, plugins intend to be lightweight and fast to load, but sometimes the focus is on having the perfect interface design. Well, why not have both? Tracktion F.’em is a powerful synth that combines an advanced FM synthesis engine with a plethora of programming options available to you.
- Control elements
There are some specific controls inside F.’em that can be used in some unconventional ways. For example, any knob inside this plugin has the “Dials” feature: click on a knob, hold down the mouse button and move the mouse up and down to easily set the desired value, while a double-click will reset everything to default. These fine details are a treat for a more fluid workflow, as simple as possible.
- Main Edit page
The Main Edit section is located in the middle of the screen, with powerful controls to set every specific value about a layer. Other than dealing with multiple layers running inside F.’em, you can set the FM Matrix for proper FM interconnections and tweak the operator’s order and which effects are altering it, such as pitch, envelope, and LFO.
- Noise generator
This section can be activated via the left list menu. In the first row, you’ll see an “N” option at the top, where you activate the noise generator. As expected, you can generate a noise according to your preferences, with controls such as “Noise Filter” and “Noise Selection” tailored to set your noise just like you imagined them, but also with unique tweaks like “Cutoff,” “Resonance,” and “Burst Rate.”
Every layer has eight possible operators to be used in a set. Although they can be stacked freely, the parameters are essentially the same: you can activate or deactivate them individually, set the waveform, invert the polarity, set the frequency ratio, and much more.
- Sample oscillators
The two dedicated sample oscillators are a great tool if you want to tweak specific values to your samples. These oscillators are designed to alter the sample’s sound via some specific parameters, like “Detune (fine-tunes the sample in steps of 1/128th of a semitone),” “Octave (sets the basic pitch of the oscillator in steps of an octave),” “Semitone (sets the oscillator’s pitch in semitone steps),” and “Ratio (makes the frequencies of the sample oscillator to follow the keyboard notes).”
- Modulation sources
There are a few different modulation sources to be used with the operators, the sample oscillators, the noise generator, and both filters (aka the tone generators). You can opt between “Pitch LFO,” when a low-frequency oscillator is used to modulate the tone generator’s pitch, “Level LFO,” which does the same thing but with the tone generator’s level instead of the pitch, “Pitch Envelope,” which deals with up to 32 nodes that are used to modulate the pitch of any tone generators, “Level Scaling,” a curious feature that changes the loudness of the sound by using the played key number as a mod source, and finally “Level Envelope,” the perfect way to deal with changes in volume or cutoff frequency of a sound over time.
- Control elements
This plugin is available for macOS 10.11 or higher (64-bit only), Linux Ubuntu 18.04 or higher (64-bit only), and Windows 8 or higher (64-bit only). It runs in VST2, AAX, and AU plugin formats.
If you’re looking for a very powerful synthesizer, Tracktion F.’em might be a perfect choice. The incredible processing power this plugin can handle is worthy of the best CPUs, of course, but the results are equally great.
This is mainly due to the number of controls and parameters available, all fully customizable and responsive to any changes you make. Furthermore, the design interface accommodates it colorfully and concisely, the perfect combination for a fluid session.
8. Sugar Bytes Aparillo (Minimal, Yet Powerful)
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This advanced 16-voice FM synth is the perfect choice for majestic sounds.
Most of all, synthesizers can create beautiful sound layers within a track, with subtle frequency ranges and smooth-sounding notes. In other words, the perfect balance for aerial textures that can create the perfect vibe instantly.
Sugar Bytes Aparillo is just like that, and it’s based on two interacting FM synths capable of forming complex and organic timbres, with a 16-voice-unison character on top of that.
- 16 voices
Synths are great for polyphonic phrases, with most of them natively controlling such parameters that will make it sound huge. Aparillo achieves this by using 16 individual synth voices that are triggered whenever you play any single note, thus quickly delivering complex sounds that vary from atonal noises to super rich and harmonic textures on the go.
This awesome effect is not so well-definable, but it’s as useful as a delay, reverb, or pitch-controlled resonator. The character will be defined by the “Spacial Range” and the “Size/Pitch Fader” controls for fine-tuning, as follows:Small1 ms < Range < 250 msMedium1 ms < Range < 500 msLarge1 ms < Range < 1,000 msPitch-24 semitones < Range < +24 semitonesSync1/16 bar < Range < 1/1 bar
The “Feedback” fader can create a reverb wall instantly, getting the perfect aerial vibe nailed down instantly. The “Mix” control adjusts the dry and wet gain signals accordingly, with the possibility of including the “Arp” signal.
The “Envelope” section houses the common ADSR controls that affect the “Modulation System” and its output. Each parameter comes with individual modulation options, but with the addition of “Slope-Curve” and “Loop Mode” configurations. Lastly, the envelope mode can be switched between “Unison” (all 16 voices in sync, but with a monophonic envelope) and “Polyphon” for a 16-voice polyphonic synthesizer.
This unique Aparillo feature is a one-touch macro-controller that affects the entire sound inside the plugin, giving you absolute control over the sound manipulation options. All this power is available at your fingertips’ reach, with an XY pad that controls all parameters. You can navigate between all sounds by mouse-clicking it or pressing the notes on your keyboard, containing 128 different sounds.
Having pre-recorded sounds and phrases ready to be used is a great way to kick things off accordingly. You’ll be easily inspired by the 450+ hand-picked presets that are inside Aparillo, distributed within categories such as “Bass,” “Pads,” “Lead,” etc.
- 16 voices
This plugin is available for macOS 10.12 or higher (64-bit only) and Windows 7 or higher (64-bit only). It runs in standalone mode and VST2, VST3, AAX, and AU plugin formats.
FM synthesis is not easy to play around with, and this technology usually requires an equally good platform to run smoothly. Aparillo gets this aspect down easily, with concise parameters that can be customizable and reach higher dimensions by themselves.
This plugin is one of the best choices to get ambiance textures, perhaps most sought-after by sound designers, cinematic composers, and score makers.
9. Imaginando FRMS (FM, Granular, Subtractive, Additive)
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A versatile synth that combines granular synthesis with FM synthesis.
Imaginando is a Portuguese plugin developer that creates some cool effects and virtual instruments. Their name translates to “imagining,” which gives a good idea of how they approach their creations. FRMS is a powerful synthesizer consisting of a minimalistic interface perfect for controlling advanced concepts in a quick, simple way.
- MIDI Learn
FRMS includes a dedicated mapping of its parameters that can be remotely controlled via a MIDI keyboard. If you toggle the “MIDI Learn” function, all controls will be darkened out in the interface, allowing for a selection of which controls you’d like to map connected to the respective keys chosen.
Four available layers can be used as a granulator or an oscillator, with color-coded controls for each tone generator. These layers can be thought of as individual instruments that can be summed together or used as an FM operator. By displaying this architecture, FRMS becomes a versatile virtual instrument that blends different synth profiles into one.
- Oscillator modes
The engines behind FRMS can be differed by an “Oscillator Mode” and a “Granulator Mode.” The first one is focused on subtractive synthesis, allowing for close manipulation of each waveform (there are four different types included, by the way), while the latter combines tiny portions of audio units – or grains – to create complex, large sound structures.
- Performance modes
You have two performance modes available: the “Keyboard” mode works as a regular keyboard, with the addition of playing in MPE mode, allowing for up and down movements along the octaves and adding pitch and hold controls, while the “Chorder” mode lists common chords that can be chosen between the “Major,” “Minor,” or “Major 7th” categories.
- Matrix panel
If you want to define how much a modulation source will affect a modulation target, the “Matrix” panel is the right tool. You can see multiple values distributed, going from -1 to +1. Choose the correspondent intersection to alter a specific value, and use the fader on the right side.
- MIDI Learn
This plugin is available for macOS 10.13 or higher (64-bit only) and Windows 10 or higher (64-bit only). It runs in VST, AAX, and AU plugin formats.
Although it claims to bear a simple interface, FRMS might be a little confusing on the first use, mostly due to the darkened aspect of the GUI. The overall design is elegant, but it can be troublesome for any new producers exploring audio design.
Even so, the multiuse behind this Imaginando plugin is a solid point to try out, with the possibility of blending different synth profiles in one window.
10. 2nd Sense Audio WIGGLE (FM / Wavetable)
More Info & Price (Trial Available)
A useful tool not only to improve your track but also to be used in audio editing.
2nd Sense Audio offers WIGGLE as a synthesizer plugin created to assist producers and musicians alike in creating expressive sounds with a distinctive dynamic shaping engine and precise controls distributed along the interface.
This soft synth can be a crucial element not only in creating specific timbres and tones but also in making every frequency and note in your track sound better.
- Expressive sonority
The four sound generators included in WIGGLE are imperative regarding wavetable manipulation and automation. Along with wave shaping, randomization, and wave distortion tools, you can create expressive and dynamic sounds with minimal effort.
- Intuitive frequency modulation
The FM matrix is very easy to handle, although it might sound otherwise. The controls are color-coded and prove how intimate the relationship between the modulator and the carrier is, with all parameters capable of modulation. This way, you can easily add a refined character to your sound that can sound complex and well-intentioned simultaneously.
Almost all controls inside WIGGLE can be captured as a snapshot. The plugin allows you to capture up to four snapshots of any sound you may be working on and blend them easily, manually, or automatically. This subtle integration between different snapshots makes the sounds come out so organic and smooth, capable of subtle variations or drastic changes.
As easy as it gets, you can free-draw the pattern for LFO/Envelope controls, while the four specialized modulators can be dragged and dropped to set almost every parameter. If that sounds too little, you can also count on eight additional step-based modulators to further expand your sound experiments.
- Intelligent sampling
WIGGLE counts with an internal recording function essential to quickly capture any sound you’re shaping or editing and create an audio file that can be instantly dragged and dropped into your DAW. This not only permits easily archiving your timbres and tones but also stimulates further editing and processing via other external effects, for example.
- Useful sequencer
The step sequencer inside this synth presents detailed controls that can arrange modulation and musical patterns in the same window. You can edit any pattern effortlessly, with the addition of generating an instant MIDI file of said pattern that can be inserted into your DAW.
- Expressive sonority
This plugin is available for macOS 10.6 or higher (64-bit only) and Windows 7 or higher (64-bit only). It runs in VST, AAX, and AU plugin formats.
WIGGLE might seem a bit polluted initially, but the sections and their parameters are distributed logically throughout the main interface screen.
Although it can be equally classified as an audio editing tool, this plugin offers good configurations that can be precise when nailing that perfect tone without sacrificing common synth functionalities that make it as musical as any other virtual instrument.
11. Image Line Sytrus (FM, RM, Subtractive)
More Info & Price (Trial Available)
This versatile synth might be the secret sauce behind your production.
Sytrus is a virtual instrument included in the FL Studio packaging, promising to be a reliable synth to be used and abused freely.
This versatile synthesizer contains rich elements that allow for an extreme customization array within your sounds, including basses, pads, bells, drums, piano, and strings settings.
The six included operators are fully customizable and work well with both FM and RM synthesis. They can modulate another operator, and these central components of the synth’s sounds can reach distinctive and unique results with this curious blending. Feel free to alter the dynamics, the filtering, or even the pitch of your sounds with the assistance of detailed configurations and knobs.
- Harmonics editor
This detailed editor is crucial to define an oscillator shape within the 128 harmonics available, either by manually drawing or external sample analysis. This work method is also known as additive synthesis, a blending of the harmonics and adjusting their respective phases. In other words, be ready to create any type of waveform you can imagine.
The FX module brings some high-quality and tailored effects to your synth. You can use chorus, a delay that has three modes and can process sounds in series or parallel (with the extra possibility to send the module output to a mixer send track), and a reverb section with color selection, diffusion, and high damping modes included.
To better tame the frequency spectrum in your track, the “Filter” section boasts 13 filter modes and various options that can be freely tweaked. It includes a full articulation segment that permits full control of the filter parameters, such as “Cutoff” and “Resonance.” As a bonus, you can also mess with waveshaping distortion with customizable mapping.
You can create and upload pre-existing presets to be used within Sytrus, but one cool thing that the developers thought of is the possibility of importing DX7 SYSEX data. Yes, that’s right: you can upload a patch, and the plugin’s engines will automatically emulate the original Yamaha DX7 sound, perfect for an authentic recreation of a vintage unit.
- Modulation matrix
The modulation matrix allows for a setup in the FM synthesis algorithm while it adjusts the operator send levels simultaneously, panning the “Dry” and “Wet” signal levels. Even though you can’t automate any knobs here, you can do so with the volume knob in the operator module – this creates the same result, as the matrix knobs also change the amplitude and, consequently, the amount of frequency modulation.
This plugin is available for Windows XP or higher (32 and 64-bit). It runs in VSTi plugin format.
FL Studio is a popular DAW among beatmakers and beginner producers, with easy-to-use virtual instruments and effects, aside from a very intuitive design. Sytrus is the synthesizer that comes inside the package and, in theory, should be able to operate flawlessly from the start.
It does, actually, but the sounds are somewhat dull and not so good in terms of quality, mascaraed by an elegant and pretty interface. Another bummer is that it’s Windows-exclusive which alone should say a lot about this virtual instrument’s reputation.
12. u-he Bazille (Modular FM)
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An immersive polyphonic modular system with digital oscillators.
The second installment in the “Berlin Modular” project, Bazille, features a polyphonic modular configuration with digitally-recreated components that resemble the past decades’ old units while offering modern features simultaneously.
There are almost infinite ways to connect the different sections, and patching this synth should positively keep you occupied for a considerable amount of time.
- Varied modules
Although it claims to be a modular synth, Bazille offers some clues that it’s not a traditional virtual instrument. This is due to blending analog elements, like the traditionally-inspired filters, with digital creations, such as oscillators. This combination presents the two technologies that made digital synthesis affordable and mixing them might bring new sonorities altogether.
The four included oscillators are distributed between two panels: “Oscillators 1 & 2” and “Oscillators 3 & 4,” being separated by the “Filters” and “Outputs” segments in the middle of the screen. Each panel has five different sections, “Pitch,” “Phase/FM,” “Phase Distortion,” “Fractal Resonance,” and “Outputs,” each with dedicated modulation input.
- Mapping generators
Bazille’s mapping generators are imperative to determine the frequency range of the four oscillators. Since they feature a frequency range that starts at zero Hertz, they can be adopted as synchronized and unsynchronized LFOs or to create any other custom shaping, getting all the frequencies trimmed according to your needs.
This useful device was constantly applied to general sound design uses, and u-he decided to include one right at the top center space of the screen. This handy window can check and adjust waveforms, monitor any effects of modulation or filtering, display envelope shapes, and generally give you more info about what you’re hearing. It shows a mono sum of both outputs, without effects included. The “Frequency” knob adjusts the horizontal resolution, whereas the “Scale” adjusts the vertical.
Some unique modules in analog modular synths were designed to serve as mixed or split devices. Since Bazille’s sockets can deal with several patch cables at once, the “Multiplex” section can be utilized as a crossfader, signal mixer, ring or amplitude modulator, and much more.
- Alternative view
If you prefer to have every available control shown in a single-window view, an alternative skin called “GearPorn” dramatically changes the user experience. This is a skin ideal for more experienced users since the number of knobs and patch cables going along the interface might be hard to follow. To get this alternate view, simply right-click on Bazille’s interface and select it from the menu.
- Varied modules
This plugin is available for macOS 10.9 or higher (64-bit only), Linux Glibc version 2.28 or higher, and Windows 7 or higher (64-bit only). It runs in VST2, VST3, AAX, and AU plugin formats.
Bazille is an excellent reproduction and a faithful homage to the awesome modular units of the late 1960s and early 1970s. These astonishing synth walls are always remembered by a large number of knobs and buttons, aside from the patch cables connecting separate modules.
It’s hard to translate all of this into the virtual world, but u-he did it masterfully by blending analog and digital aspects in a single package.
If you’re serious about sound synthesis in general, this is one of the best tools for you.
Best Free FM Synth Plugins
1. SONICBITS Exakt Lite
More Info & Download
This user-friendly FM synthesizer gets all sound characters right.
Boasting a futuristic interface and cool sounds within, Exakt Lite is a freeware synthesizer plugin that allegedly can get you plenty of different sonorities, from harsh sounds to more organic ones. Such versatility is explored via the multiple controls and panels available, with easy control and fluidness in all operations you make.
The core components behind Exakt Lite’s sound are the operators. There are four of them included, and they can be arranged in the classic eight FM algorithms with feedback on operator D. Each features different waveforms, like sine, saw, square, and triangle.
- Waveforms recreated
You can count on the previously mentioned waveforms to act with the operators, but SONICBITS decided to add something extra. In Exakt Lite, you have another eight classic waveforms recreated from the Yamaha TX81Z synthesizer, thus offering a better vintage aspect to the final sound.
- Envelopes redesigned
Each of the four operators has a separate amplitude envelope generator that supports the five-point Yamaha TX81Z envelopes, being remodeled to mimic another sonic aspect of this iconic synth. In addition to the aforementioned waveforms, you can achieve a pretty decent vintage sound in seconds.
Exakt Lite has a polyphonic mode with twelve voices, which can be crucial to creating complex patterns and phrases. You can work with as many voices as you want, with the possibility to return to monophonic mode always present.
- Waveform window
You can easily visualize the current waveform being used at the top right corner of your screen via the waveform window. Most synths include this feature, but it’s nice to see it in a freeware plugin. Triangle, simple sine, or square, it doesn’t matter: you’re always monitoring the music you’re creating.
This plugin is available for macOS 10.11 or higher (64-bit only) and Windows 7 or higher (64-bit only). It runs in VST2, VST3 and AU plugin formats.
The straightforward way Exakt Lite boasts new sounds is attractive to producers who want to get into FM synthesis, but don’t want to bust the bank for it.
This awesome freeware option includes nice sounds, good quality, and plenty of options to get you going for a significant time.
Overall, the functions are clear, and all controls are displayed in a logical sense, with all values being shown to you all the time.
2. Digital Suburban Dexed
More Info & Download
A multi-platform and multi-format synthesizer plugin modeled after the classic DX 7.
The first free option to emulate vintage gear is from Digital Suburban. Their Dexed plugin aims to recreate the intrinsic aspect of this iconic synthesizer with extended possibilities and different plugin formats that can be relevant to almost all kinds of users and producers.
- DX 7 tool
Although this plugin can be used on its own, Dexed is also a great tool to use along a genuine Yamaha DX 7, incrementing its sonority and acting as an expansion of the instrument as a patch editor or SysEx manager. You can even use the original Mark I cartridge in it, but other models are currently not supported.
There are 144 DX 7 parameters included in Dexed that can be fully automatable inside your DAW, all distributed in a single panel for easier visualization. These are nice parameters to be included, but the possibility to automate them freely gives unprecedented freedom when creating new sounds.
- VU meter
To ensure an operator is active, you’ve got to check the VU meters. Each operator has dedicated metering that ensures which is active and isn’t. Even so, this can be a simple feature. When working with multiple controls and knobs, it can be easier to have a nice visualization tool to get by.
Seeing a virtual instrument brought to so many different interfaces is not common. You can run it in multiple operating systems, but the nice thing is that there are different formats to enjoy Dexed, with particular attention to the uncommon LV2 plugin format.
- DX 7 tool
This plugin is available for macOS 10.11 or higher (64-bit only), Ubuntu Linux (64-bit only), and Windows 7 or higher (64-bit only). It runs in VST3, LV2, and AU plugin formats.
The cool thing about Dexed is that it’s not only a recreation of some vintage synth; you can use it as a tool to increment the sound of the original gear it was supposed to recreate. Of course, you can still use it on its own, but the expanded possibilities are awesome. You can edit patches, load and save SysEx programs, and more. The visual integration is nice and sober, perfect for anyone used to dealing with these instruments.
3. miniSoftmusik Abstractor (FM, AM, Analog)
More Info & Download
A complete synthesizer that will not leave you unsatisfied.
miniSoftmusik describes Abstractor as an “additive synthesis plugin.” In essence, additive synthesis is achieved when you combine multiple sine waves to create a new timbre or a specific sound, tweaking the relative parameters, of course.
Some would even argue that this is the best way to emulate an instrument’s natural timbre, and probably Abstractor can easily handle that.
- Additive synthesis
Focusing on additive synthesis, Abstractor has tailored controls to tweak and visualize your waveforms properly. You can generate non-specific waveforms, too, depending on how you twist the knobs around.
- XY pad
An XY pad included in Abstractor is crucial in nailing the perfect waveforms. As mentioned earlier, additive synthesis is based on combining waveforms to create new sounds so that this XY pad can morph any two waveforms very easily, and its visual aspect gives unprecedented control over your sound.
Abstractor contains a two-step sequencer, which means you can create different patterns for your tracks. This acts just like an arpeggiator but is not only limited to doing arpeggios with your notes. It doesn’t matter if you’re messing with a bass line or a drum part, sequencers can add more groove and feel to your track.
Another important addition to any synth is the filter section, and Abstractor contains two multi-mode filters. This means you can adjust your frequencies with two modules that present varied modes, with common controls like “Cutoff.”
- Additive synthesis
This plugin is available for Windows 7 or higher (32-bit only). It runs in VST plugin format.
This simplistic synthesizer can get the job done quickly if you need a tool that can deal with additive and FM synthesis simultaneously. Abstractor has an old interface, resembling old software from the early 2000s, but it’s got all the controls to get your job done right.
Although this could be a more expressive tool, though, the lack of macOS compatibility doesn’t make it as versatile as it could’ve been.
4. de la Mancha FMMF
More Info & Download
This simple plugin aims to make FM synthesis affordable and accessible.
Synthesizers are not always the most intuitive instruments, especially when dealing with virtual recreations. Obviously, the sounds coming from these instruments are still present to this day in our favorite songs and scores, but that doesn’t make it easier to mess with synths. Thinking about this problem, de la Mancha brings the FMMF frequency modulation synthesizer.
The envelopes included in FMMF were designed with special attention to detail since you can customize them in many ways. You can set the number of stages, the contour relative to each stage, tempo sync, and much more. The envelopes are made for each operator’s volume, pitch, and even for the effects section.
The main functionality behind a virtual synth lies in the algorithms included. They can dictate how the synth will operate and respond to the frequencies involved. FMMF counts with 17 different FM algorithms, a substantial quantity for a freeware virtual instrument to take care of that.
Another important aspect of a FM synth is the waveform behind every operator, and FMMF includes 11 distinct waveforms per operator. They can be adjusted and selected freely, with the additional note sync option included.
The included arpeggiator can be a handy tool to craft new ideas. The one included in FMMF has six distinct modes with adjustable tempo-sync, octave range, and note length.
This plugin is available for Windows 7 or higher (32-bit only). It runs in VST plugin format.
Although simple virtual instruments are cherished, sometimes it’s bad to have software that’s too simplistic. This is the main problem behind de la Mancha’s FMMF, which constantly feels like a cheap VST.
Poor graphic design can be especially tiresome for long periods staring at your computer screen, and that sole fact should be enough not to give it a good review. However, every common function is present, sometimes even with substantial dedication – like the 17 FM algorithms – even so, it’s a Windows-exclusive software.
5. Xen-Arts Xen-FMTS 2
More Info & Download
This synth contains a special set of features to nail the best FM synthesis sound.
Usually, freeware software presents a simplistic approach to its function, especially if it’s a “smaller” version compared to its paid equivalent.
When talking about virtual instruments, it reflects on the sounds in the package, the number of controls available, and even the sound quality in general – and most free plugins offer limited perspective here. But that’s not the case for Xen-FMTS2.
The included four operators make the magic happen behind the Xen-FMTS2 interface. This FM synth can work as an exquisite tool to get new, bold sounds from the same parameters, and the operators are the force that drives any other component included. The parameters can be controlled via faders for each aspect of the sound, like envelope and LFO.
The algorithms are relative to how the operators’ work and in which order. To get the most out of the components emulated, Xen-Arts included 57 new algorithms to deal with both common and unusual usages of a synthesizer, one of the most complete in the freeware realm.
If you require software that can work with micro-tunings, Xen-FMTS2 is the perfect tool. It can load MTS (MIDI Tuning Standard) files that allow working with micro-tuning easily. If you work with different music styles with this kind of tuning, you will find your next favorite VST, with full compatibility with unusual tunings.
- Pitch-bend ranges
To better experience the micro-tonal functions, the pitch-bend ranges have been configured in cents, harmonics, and “superparticular” ratios that offer incredible versatility and flexibility when dealing with specific notes inside a micro-tuning arrangement.
This plugin is available for Windows 7 or higher (32-bit only). It runs in VST plugin format.
Even if this plugin is unavailable for other platforms, it deserves proper recognition for its services. Xen-FMTS2 deals with micro-tunings easily, which is the main aspect that makes this synth so great-sounding.
It’s hard to understand how this freeware plugin could get so many good features and even expanded algorithms and effects. Unfortunately, the website for Xen-Arts is currently missing, and it seems this plugin was discontinued, but even so, it’s worth taking a look at it.
1. Klevgraand Baervaag (Minimal 2)
More Info & Price (Trial Available)
This clean-looking plugin gets the job done with a simple approach and elegant design.
Klevgraand is a Swedish company based in Stockholm that specializes in creating good-sounding plugins that are often versatile on their own and provide different soundscapes. Baervaag is another example of such a work method. The title comes from the Swedish word “Bärvåg,” which directly translates to “carrier” and can explain much behind this FM synthesizer.
- Simple approach
Unlike other items in this list, Baervaag is a very simple synthesizer: there’s only one carrier and one modulator included, allowing simplicity to take over your production. Although this can sound like something’s missing, it’s a valuable feature for increasing CPU productivity and good processing power.
- Carrier oscillator
The top-left small window displays the carrier oscillator, with an XY pad that sets the pulse width modulation (PDM) on the X axis and the wave shape on the Y axis. In other words, you can have a sine wave at the bottom of this window and a square wave at the top, with multiple possibilities going on in the middle.
This dedicated control deals with the carrier envelope settings. The ADSR controls are present just like you’re used to, but you can expand their usability a bit: by hitting the “VEL MOD” checkbox, the “Attack” time will be relative to MIDI velocity, meaning that you can set this parameter as you play the notes in your MIDI keyboard controller – high velocity makes the attack shorter, in essence.
Very close to the carrier oscillator, there’s a dedicated modulator oscillator panel in the same XY distribution as its relative. The main difference lies in the buttons included to the right: they can multiply the frequency value from “0.5” to “4,” which is the perfect tool to alter the pitch of any note played.
The two faders near the modulator oscillator panel are responsible for adding a subtle wobble effect to each note played, altering both the pitch and the amplitude. The “Speed” fader sets the desired frequency, and the “Depth” fader controls how much of the “wobble” effect is being added to your signal.
- Simple approach
This plugin is available for macOS 10.12 or higher (64-bit only) and Windows 7 or higher (64-bit only). It runs in standalone mode and VST2, VST3, AAX, and AU plugin formats.
The simplistic approach behind Baervaag is one of the best qualities of this plugin. We all love and crave easy-to-use software that will not be tiresome to mess around with, and Klevgraand masterfully provides this effect in all their products.
The elegant interface is a great appeal about this virtual instrument, with all displays and parameters shown to you via the main screen, but the simple design inside this synth’s functionality might be a good choice for slower CPUs.
2. Vengeance Producer Suite Avenger (Great For Trance/EDM)
More Info & Price (Trial Available)
A versatile alternative to get your sound synthesis up and running.
This massive virtual instrument is brought by Vengeance Producer Suite, which seems to be focused on delivering the best results in every product they make. The Avenger synth is like that, with multiple controllers and parameters to be adjusted and configured freely.
- Oscillator modules
There are eight oscillator modules included in Avenger, and each counts with “V-Saw” waveforms (acting like a “super saw,” with up to seven voices), vibrato and LFO, Chorder (note stacker and unison), an additional sub-oscillator and varied synthesis models to choose from.
- Arpeggiator modules
The included arpeggiator can be very handy for creating new patterns, and you can count on eight different modules: up, down, random, and play modes, editable note lengths, note transposition, and sub-patterns, aside from hundreds of arpeggiator presets that can be instantly rearranged.
- Drum sequencer
A dedicated drum sequencer can deal with all your track’s rhythmic needs, with up to 16 bars available. You can include triplets or quarter notes included, a roll function for each note (x2, x3, x4, and so forth), all common adjustments such as velocity, pan, and pitch, and special modes, like flip, mirror, and reverse.
- Mixer page
The mixer page can be extremely helpful in quickly setting individual parameters of the virtual instrument. You can count on different buses and their respective tracks to be displayed on a single screen, perfect for instantly mixing and leveling the sounds.
- Modulation envelopes
The eight modulation envelope modules contained in Avenger consist of freely configurable envelopes, numerous trigger modes (first/last notes, arpeggio, etc.), a sync mode to create moving patterns, and one shot, loops, and ping-pong reproduction modes.
- Oscillator modules
This plugin is available for macOS 10.11 or higher (64-bit only) and Windows 7 or higher (64-bit only). It runs in VST2, VST3, AAX, and AU plugin formats.
Avenger is a reliable tool to gather everything about sound synthesis in a single window, with multiple possibilities and configurations hidden inside the interface.
The variety in parameters and their functionalities is astounding, with precise knobs and values making the most difference in your final sound.
Synthesizers can be hard to master, even more if we’re dealing with vintage units requiring patch cable connections and specific routings to get the sounds right. Nevertheless, many artists have constantly applied sound synthesis in their music, and this is the definitive proof that synthesizers can be as fun as other instruments, even virtual ones.
This list brought some information on frequency modulation synthesis or FM synthesis.
It’s only one of the multiple types of sound synthesis available, and each can achieve a specific goal. In this case, all frequencies in our waveforms were changed by modulating them via a tailored modulator, thus resulting in FM synthesis.
Among our options listed, the best and most complete plugins are from major developers, as usual. Native Instruments shines again with the FM8 synth, a complete offering that will probably ensure all your FM needs are attended to.
XILS Lab KaoX is a similar option, with complete configurations and nice presets.
Other cool plugins were BLEASS Omega Synth and Tracktion F.’em, as both feature an awesome interface design that makes it easier to mess around with a synthesizer.
Such easiness is desirable since more and more producers and artists can get in touch with this sound technology in a very friendly way.
One of the most known synthesizers to deal with FM synthesis is the Yamaha DX 7. It has changed how synthesizers are built and operate since its conception in 1983.
As these units are important to this article’s theme, plugins like Arturia DX7 V excel in faithfully recreating all the best aspects of this synth, as Arturia always masterfully does.
But there’s more: the freebie Digital Suburban Dexed not only does that too but also acts as a tool and component to the actual DX 7 hardware, thus expanding its capabilities significantly.
Always try out the software you’re interested in, as these plugins can be very expensive and should be properly tested before a serious commitment is formalized.
See you next time!
Best Subtractive & Additive Synth Plugins
This article discusses the 12 best subtractive synth plugins in 2023 and 8 additional plugins of the same category that are free and open-source. We have covered these instruments for sound designers and music producers at beginner and advanced stages.
Subtractive synthesis is the most common type of sound design or shaping technique, in which we start with an oscillator that typically produces a harmonically-rich sound, usually a saw or a square wave, for which we decide the number of voices or unison value, pan, and the amplitude/gain.
Further, as the name suggests, you can subtract certain frequencies and resonances from the sound you do not want by using a filter and modulating that sound using modulators like LFO or envelope generators.
You can go back and forth between any of these steps and shape our sound as per our taste and preference. Lastly, you can add effects like EQ, delay, phaser, etc., to the sound to process it further.
We have provided a detailed description of each plugin, along with their best features and prices, so you can decide for yourself the best instrument that would suit your needs and fulfill your demands.
We have considered factors like functionality, value for money, GUI, adaptability, CPU usage, and other parameters to handpick these tools.
Top 12 Subtractive & Additive Synth Plugins For Music Producers 2023
1. Arturia Prophet-5 V
This plugin is the official software emulation of the classic Prophet-5 that you would have surely heard on many popular songs and is known for its massive, warm, and versatile analog sonic characteristics.
Before Arturia, Native Instruments had already created a software version of the classic synthesizer and several other accurate copies and clones created by various plugin companies, so they have a lot to compete with.
However, the 5-V is an upgraded version of the Prophet-5 and has many more advanced features. It takes advantage of the DAW-based and MIDI features and combines them with the features of the classic synth virtually.
- The Look
After opening the synth, you’ll find a visually stunning virtual interface of the Prophet V, and if you’re using the Prophet V3, then you can switch between the Prophet 5, Prophet VS (Digital Vector Synthesizer), and Prophet 5VS (a combination of 5 and VS) windows. You can also change the color of the plugin from back to red & purple, and vice-versa. The company’s design team has done a great job recreating the software version look.
- Sound Design Workflow
It has two main oscillators: A and B, with adjustable levels in the mix, with A having the option to select between the sawtooth and pulse-width waveforms, with adjustable frequency and pulse width, along with the option to “sync” the frequency with the tempo. You can select the waveform for Oscillator B between sawtooth, triangle, and pulse-width, with additional features of fine-tuning the pitch and turning Oscillator B into an LFO.
You also get the option to add a noise oscillator to the mix. For modulations, you can use another LFO with adjustable rate and waveforms (sawtooth, triangle, and pulse-width) and an amplifier/amplitude envelope (ADSR).
- Advance Modulation and Effects section
Under the “Advanced” mode, the Prophet 5-V offers additional digital modulations. Here, you can select between the following tabs: Envelope, LFO, and LFO retrigger. Here a lot more waveforms, including some complex curves, can be selected for the LFO (and envelope) with an option to select the source and destination for the modulation. This option opens up the scope of the amount and kind of modulation you can do.
In the Effects section, under the same “Advanced” mode, you can add up to three different serial or parallel effects, including reverb, chorus, multiband compressor, delay, etc. Finally, in the Keyboard section, you can select Velocity, Aftertouch, Modulation Wheel, and Keyboard tracking as a modulation source, with changeable response curves. With this option, you could use external MIDI device and performance expressions to modulate different parameters further.
- Organized Preset section
Arturia has put an insane number of presets in this synthesizer in a highly organized and structured way. It allows you to look for presets by categories like Types (Eg: Brass, Pad, Bass, FM, etc.), Style (Eg: Aggressive, Evolving, Funky, Soft, etc.), and Banks. They have called this section “Playlists,” in which you search for a preset with different combinations of styles, types, and banks. You can also browse a preset by typing its name on the “Search” bar.
- Analog sound
It models SSM VCOs with five waveforms, a noise generator, a hard sync, a detune option, and an emulated voice dispersion to add more analog texture to the sound. The low pass filter is modeled after the Dave Rossum-designed SSM 2040 LPF. So whether it is a shimmering lead patch or a silky-smooth RnB pad, you can always turn to V-5 for warm & vintage analog sounds.
The Prophet 5-V can run as a standalone instrument or a VST, NKS, AU, and AAX plugin on only 64-bit DAW. It requires at least 4 GB of RAM, Windows 8.1+ (64 bit), Mac OS 10.3+, and four cores CPU (3.4 GHz processor), and an Open GL 2.0 compatible GPU.
Overall, it does a good job of recreating the sonic characteristics of the original hardware machine. However, the heavy CPU usage and high compatibility standards limit it to only a limited number of music producers and sound designers.
Nevertheless, the advanced effects add great functionality and make it sufficiently competent with other desktop synthesizers.
It is suggested to try the demo first and compare it with other emulations of the Prophet 5 if that’s what you’re looking for.
By itself, it’s a synthesizer with limitless potential, amazing presets, and a beautiful-looking, user-friendly interface. As a subtractive synthesizer plugin, it’s one of the best options.
2. u-he Hive 2
U-he launched Hive as a soft-synth with a synthesizer architecture similar to Sylenth and Spire, adding their twist & innovation to this incredible software.
Years later, in 2015, they launched Hive 2, with some upgrades and improvements, including the wavetable functionality.
It has two main oscillators on which a standard waveform or a wavetable can be loaded, with up to 16 voices of unison, two sub oscillators, three different synth engines, and most importantly, low CPU usage. Yes, the plugin is light on CPU, given its vast functionality.
- Extensive Synth Engine
You can choose from three different synth engines: Clean, Normal, and Dirty, each of which varies in its internal circuitry, envelope, oversampling, and detuning algorithms, and the choice of models of filters that are used. All these differences bring about a change in the fundamental characteristic of the sound.
- Huge Sound Bank
With about 2300 presets, from categories like basses, poly leads, mono leads, keys, pads, plucks, etc., the plugin packs a versatile range of sounds for different genres and purposes. You can also save your presets and organize them by adding their tags (bright, dark, clean, phat, etc.), features (mono, poly, chord, etc.), and categories. A browser is also available for you to search the presets by their names and navigate through them.
- Good quality Sound Generators
The two main oscillators in the Hive2 can generate the following waveforms: saw, square, sine, triangle, half pulse, and narrow pulse, along with pink and white noise are of high resolution. You can also load up a wavetable and choose a waveform from that table. In addition, you can load up your wavetables by saving the WAV file of that audio in the same directory as others. Wavetables can be further edited, by changing their phase, position, how they are looped, etc.
You can change any waveform’s detune, width, pan, volume, and vibrato settings. There are two filters with six different types of curves: Lowpass 12dB and 24dB/octave, Bandpass, Highpass, Bandreject, and Peaking, for different types of filtration. Resonance, cutoff frequency, and destination can be set for each of these.
- Immense scope for Programming & Processing
There’s a dedicated display section for the Arpeggiator and Sequence, called as “Arp/Seq” section. In the sequencer, you can load up to sixteen steps and add settings like Gate, Transpose, velocity, and Mod. You can use the Mod value to assign modulating destinations to the Mod matrix. Two function generators sync the ADSR and adjust its curve as exponential or logarithmic.
For modulation, you can drag and drop any parameters with a crosshair symbol next to the destination of your choice. In addition, Hive 2 also allows you to quantize your signals using the scale quantizer. Further, there’s an X/Y pad also available for modulation.
The effects in the u-he are compressor, distortion, chorus, phaser, equalizer, delay, and reverb, and can be used in any sort that you like. In addition, the effects section has an aesthetic, colorful display that is pleasing to the eyes. Lastly, the Scope (short form for Oscilloscope) section allows you to see the movement of your waveforms by simply dragging and dropping them onto it.
- Advanced Interpolation algorithms
Hive provides four different algorithms for interpolating between the frames: switch (sudden jumps between frames), crossfade (smooth interpolation between waveform magnitudes), spectral (smoothly interpolates between waveform magnitudes and phase), and zero phases (like spectral, but phase adjusts each partial to zero first).
- Structured visual display
You get a fairly organized structure of the subtractive synthesis process, with everything loaded on a single window, easily switchable tabs and sections like fx, scope, seq/arp, etc., and laid out amps and LFOs and their knobs and sliders. The signals are also easy to route with an easily understandable signal flow.
The minimum OS requirement for the Hive 2 is a Mac OS X 10.7, a Windows 7+, or Linux. It is available in AU, VST2, VST3, AAX (Pro Tools 10.3.7+), and NKS with 32-bit and 64-bit versions).
However, the latest version of Avid’s toolkit for building AAX plugins is not compatible with the Apple SDK needed to build plugins for Apple’s new ARM/M1 processors. Therefore, the updated AAX versions are not compatible with macOS, Intel CPUs, and Apple M1.
The best part about Hive 2 is its low CPU usage, its wide range of scope in its overall functionality, and its well-thought-out GUI. Also, the official manual for the plugin released by u-he is well-made and informative.
There’s a lot that you can do with the plugin, and if you may not understand the process of synthesis and sound design, there is a huge library of presets arranged based on various categories and styles you could choose from.
3. HY-Plugins HY-POLY
HY-Poly is an advanced analog modeled subtractive synthesizer with five oscillators and a wide range of modulation capabilities.
In addition, it also has two filters (serial/parallel), two LFOs, four envelopes, and an expansive effects chain. It also has nine midi effect units; a MIDI learn option, a vibrato effect, and a resizeable GUI.
As a result, the software has a lot of depth and capability and can be used to design some really powerful sounds.
- Oscillator Modes
It has three main modes of oscillators; the first one includes three oscillators, the second includes two oscillators and one sub-oscillator, and the third mode includes two oscillators (with the option to sync, ring modulate, and frequency modulate each other) and one sub-oscillator. In addition, there is a vector oscillator, and a PD (Pre Data) oscillator is also present.
- Easy Modulation Routings
The amount of modulation you can do on this instrument is limitless, with tabs like Pitch Bend, ModWheel, C-Pressure, velocity, Key Tracking, Alternative, Random, and more. It’s easy to make new modulation routings by clicking on the ‘+’ button. You can further adjust the intensity of modulation using the Overlay parameter.
You can also use MACRO to control multiple synths parts and automate them over time. In addition, you can have up to 24 modulation sources with a simple drag and drop style modulation assignment.
- Benefits over the free version
Compared to the free version of the HY-Poly, the paid version has an additional third oscillator, more voices of unison (up to 7), more effects units, MIDI effects, Audio effects, and additional waveshapes, including triangle and sine waves, and way more presets.
The HY Poly is available in VST2, VST3 (32/64bit) for Windows VST2, VST3, and AU(64bit) for mac OS System. The system Requirements for Windows are Windows 7 or higher, and for Mac are OSX 10.9 or higher. Unfortunately, it’s unavailable in AAX format and hence can’t work with the newer Avid Pro Tools versions.
The plugin has insane capabilities when it comes to modulations and is primarily created for that. The plugin has one of the highest ROIs in the entire list, given its high functionality and price ratio.
The interface is to-the-point and not at all scattered, given the different windows that could open up in the plugin. The drag and drop modulation functions, and the modulation effects and tabs, with in-depth editing options, make this one a MUST-HAVE.
4. Image Line Harmor
Harmor by Image Line is an additive/subtractive synthesizer, with subtractive features like the filter also taking an additive approach.
Hence, to summarise the sound design process, you can build up your sounds from basic waveshape (like sine, sawtooth, etc.) and add harmonics to it, after which you can take the subtractive approach to subtract unwanted sonic properties from the sound.
Since you can add harmonics and harmonies to the waveform selected in the first step, hence the name – Harmor. However, this instrument’s unconventional design, layout, and terminologies may make you scratch your head at first and read its manual, but it will give you plenty of inspiration. So first, let’s look at the key features of the software.
- Two synthesizers in one
The unique feature of this synthesizer is that it has two parts, which can be the same or different, and you can also use them in a mix. Each of these parts is a separate synthesizer by itself, and you can have different sounds coming from both of these parts. You can also see these parts as the same by linking them.
- Easy modulation assignment
You can modulate parameters like Volume, Dry/Wet mix, filter parameters, pluck amount, and a lot of other different options, by selecting it from a simple drop-down menu and then assigning a modulator (like an envelope, LFO, keyboard mapping, velocity mapping, etc.) to it. Hence, there’s no drag-drop option to perform modulation. Further, modulations can be edited, snapped to the grid, and locked to the tempo.
The envelopes in the plugin are multi-stage and powerful enough to double up as sequencer and arpeggiator. In addition, Harmor can also analyze the audio and suggest an envelope based on that.
- Dual Oscillator section
Harmor has two oscillators to mix between and select from. You can load up a stock waveform on each of these, edit its phase, and randomize it. You can randomize the waveform itself and load up any complex waveform which you could further subtract from. The two oscillators can be mixed with and into each other using algorithms like fade, subtract, multiply, pluck, etc.
- Multiple filter algorithms
You get about 20 filters for the subtractive part, from a classic low pass to a band phaser to a custom shape filter. Further, there are ten more different algorithms like a wide bump, double cone, etc. So there are two filters in total that you could use.
- Instant visual feedback
To comprehend and understand the partials and harmonics of the sound, Imagine Line gives you analyzers and charts to monitor the audio visually. Apart from that, the envelopes, LFOs, knobs, sliders, etc., are well-laid out and easily editable, giving you good visual feedback for your actions.
- Image Synthesis
You can drag and drop JPEGs and PNGs on this synthesizer, and the Image synth engine will convert that to audio which you could further edit the image, control the speed, mix, loop, and position in time. This synthesis can result in grand sounds with sweeping timbres and unconventional sonic movements.
- CPU Efficient
Harmor is programmed as a multi-threaded processing software, which gives us some extra CPU core. Hence, even after generating multiple harmonics and partials and using many tools, the plugin is not heavy on the CPU and is rather light.
Unfortunately, Harmor is written in Delphi and is not available on Mac. However, it can work on both Mac and Windows if you use it on FL Studio. However, Harmor is not a standalone plugin and can only be used on FL Studio, with general FL Studio CPU requirements.
Harmor has a unique approach toward additive synthesis, with its interesting blend of subtractive synthesis. However, the plugin may appear all over the place because of its complex arrangement and design.
It doesn’t function like other synthesizers but has a huge fan base because of its interesting sets of presets and functionalities. Thar includes effects like blur, prism, harmonize, tremolo, etc., which may look unfamiliar but are great tools to shape your sound and give them a unique texture.
5. BeepStreet Sunrizer (Mac Only)
More Info & Price (Trial Available)
Sunrizer by BeepStreet has had a good reputation as an app for creating music on an iPad.
With a subtractive synth architecture and features of FM and RM, the synth offers two oscillators, 24-voice polyphony, two filters of various types, two LFOs, two envelopes, morph slider, effects, and about 400 presets to choose from.
- Morph Slider
A morph slider present in this plugin allows you to switch between different oscillators in real-time, producing some pretty drastic results. That is what’s unique about the Sunrize and makes it stand out.
- The Mighty Supersaw
The first oscillator in the plugin is a supersaw with seven detuned saw waveforms, which creates fat and huge sound, which could be further stereoised by using the width knob, which mixes in a waveform that is an octave lower than the original sound. In addition, you could choose other waveforms like a triangle, saw, and square, with a pulse width modulation control.
Lastly, there’s also an option to add a noise oscillator with noise and color controls, by which you can edit the sound. However, this is only available in the second oscillator.
- Modulators & Filters
You can apply two LFOs per voice, with six different waveshapes: Sine, Triangle, exponential, square, and Continuous Random, 17 modulation destination targets, and three modes (trigger, one shot, and global) you could choose from.
Regarding filters, two filters of different types are available to be routed in series or parallel with the oscillator. Some of these filters add a certain characteristic to the sound and can also be used as effects.
You can adjust the crossover knob, which filters the signal before it enters the effects chain, on which the first section includes effects ranging from Distortion, Chorus, Phaser, and Rotor. Further, dedicated Delay, EQ, and Reverb sections are in the effects chain.
Due to its low CPU usage, Sunrizer is compatible with many devices. To operate with it on a Mac, you’ll need Operating System X 10.7, 10.8, 10.9, or 10.10.
Sunrizer has decent functionality and is not a bad investment at its low price. However, this is definitely not the right choice if you’re looking for one synthesizer for all your needs. But you could add it to your arsenal for its unique sound of the supersaw and its morph slider.
6. AIR Music Technology TubeSynth
AIR Music Technology models and emulates analog characteristics in the Tubesynth, and does a great job.
Packing two main oscillators and one sub-oscillator, with waveforms like saw, square, pulse, triangle, and a noise option, the synth features lush soundscapes, dreamy strings, fat and deep bass sounds, huge soothing pads, and many interesting sounds with analog warmth and harmonic content.
The synth uses subtractive synthesis to create nostalgic 70s and 80s sounds and is great for producing retro music, dream pop, 80s synth pop, and many other dance genres. It’s designed for easy edits & tweaks, especially during LIVE settings.
- Extensive Sound Engine
Two main oscillators are present in the synth, with each having the option to add multiple unison voices for thickening the timbre of the sound and a drive option to add dynamic richness and further depth to the sound. It also features a low pass filter with variable slope and pre and post-distortion effects. Lastly, you can add more depth to the sound using the unison option and the detune knob.
- Modulations to Maximize Creativity
There’s a filter envelope, an amplitude envelope, and a third envelope with the assignable destination present in the Tubesynth. In addition, there are 2 LFOs with Sine, Square, Saw Up, Saw Down, Pump, Sample and Hold and Drift waveforms, and a polyphonic glide/portamento option to create pitch slides and glides between notes and even chords.
Further, there’s a Ring Modulation knob to add more timbral possibilities to your sounds.
- Huge Variety of Presets
You could choose from about 300 versatile presets with different textures, timbres, envelopes, and ranges. The high-quality presets include everything from spacious pads, hard-hitting plucks, fat bass sounds, and upfront lead sounds.
- High-Quality Audio FX
AIR has a good reputation for its cutting-edge audio effects plugins, which are also integrated along with the Tubesynth, and it contains the famous hype EQ, AIR reverb, compressor, and various other audio effects to beef up your sounds and make them stand out.
Originally, the Tubesynth was exclusive to Akai Professional’s MPC, but later, AIR Music technology launched it in AU, VST, and AAX formats. Furthermore, the synth can also be used as a standalone desktop version and could be played live using a MIDI keyboard, and hence can also be used in live performances.
Sonically, the software sounds great and is also easy to use. Because of its warm analog nature, some of its presets can be readily used in songs and film scores (the 80s or even futuristic).
However, when it comes to versatility, it’s not the best synth plugin, as it lacks range. One good thing that it has is personality, rather a unique one, because of which primarily deserves some space in your computer.
7. Plugin Boutique Carbon Electra
Carbon Electra by Plugin Boutique is a single-screen subtractive synthesizer.
It has 4-oscillators (waveforms: pulse width, triangle, sawtooth, sine, and noise), two envelopes (one for amplitude and the other for pitch modulation), a mixer window with a noise knob, a filter of 5 different types, and 3 LFOs with five different waveshapes.
It also has 5-tab effects windows with the following switchable effects: Chorus, Delay, Phaser, Distortion, and an Equalizer. Apart from that, it’s an analog style-soft synth with a huge presets collection with 800 options to choose from. Lastly, it also has a set sequencer for further programming.
- Stunningly Designed Interface
The synth window looks futuristic, simplified, and well laid out, with everything arranged according to the signal flow, starting with the sound source (oscillators) as the first window, then the envelope, then filters, and so on. The effects window is below this structure, with a step sequencer further below it. The duotone colors in the synth give it an attractive look and complement its organized structure.
- Inspiring Step Sequencer
The step sequencer is one of the coolest features of the Electra, with up to 16 steps and the scope to program twisted rhythms, with synchronization from half note to 1/32nd note, a step editor, and application on amplitude, filter cutoff, and pitch in varying proportions.
- Analog style synthesis and sounds
Everything from the oscillators to the step editor to the presets makes its design and flow quite analog. As a result, it’s great for designing sounds ranging from ambient soundscapes, lush and expansive pads, bright bells, piercing leads, and squelching synth sounds.
Electra is available in AU and VST formats for Windows 7 or later (64-bit only) and OS X 10.7 or later (64-bit only) (macOS 11 Big Sur and M1 Mac Supported) for Mac. Unfortunately, the Mac version of this software is 64-bit only and will not function on 32-bit systems. Also, since it’s not available in AAX versions, it’s not compatible with the later versions of Pro Tools.
The synth lacks an arpeggiator and modulation matrix, but apart from that, it’s a simple-looking plugin with great scope for sound design under the hood. Four oscillators allow you to do a lot of layering and splitting of sounds. It’s a great instrument for beginners, given its affordable price and uncomplicated layout.
8. Image Line Sawer
Based on the Obscure (Soviet-era Polivoks synthesizer), Sawer by image Line sounds amazingly analog, with its simple signal chain and classic modeling.
Scrolling through its immense sound bank will warm your ears with its fat and harmonically rich vintage and analog sounds. In addition, it has a multi-mode arpeggiator and an effects section including virtual Chorus, Phaser, Delay & Reverb units.
- Analog-style Oscillator
It has one main sawtooth oscillator with adjustable ADSR sliders, pan, and level knobs, along with a fat sub-saw oscillator with switchable invert, retriggers, and sub-saw-square ON/OFF buttons, and a noise oscillator. You can change the pitch of the main oscillator up to +/- 24 semitones and +/- 100 cents.
You can add up to eight unison voices and adjust detune and pan between the unison voices. In addition, you can also add glide effects using the glide mode, which can further create more analog textures and effects.
- Filters & Modulators
Classic LP 12, LP24, HP, and BP filters with adjustable cutoff frequency and resonance, keyboard, and velocity trackings, are available in the instrument. When it comes to modulation, the LFO is available in a triangle, saw, square, and random shapes and can target cutoff frequency, sync, phase, frequency, noise, level, and pan, with adjustable attack, release, amplitude, and speed. You can also tempo-sync the LFO. On the other hand, the envelope with adjustable ADSR can target cutoff, sync, frequency, and master level.
Sawer works inside FL Studio under Windows and macOS, with General FL Studio system requirements.
Sawer lacks modulation capabilities, but despite its limitations, it produces great sounds and is perfect for warm sounds with punch, depth, and powerful harmonic content.
The oscillator is modeled quite sophisticatedly sonically, but you may need to use additional effects and modulations externally on your DAW to fit these sounds into your mixes and production sessions.
9. Imaginando FRMS – Granular Synthesizer ((Subtractive, Additive, Granular & FM)
The FRMS – Granular Synthesizer has an interesting yet familiar interface, with four switchable layers, each layer having different visualizations.
This layering enables the combination of subtractive, granular, and FM synthesis, by which you can convert even simple sounds into deep, dense, and complex evolving soundscapes.
It is MPE compatible, has an internal audio recorder, and has some more intense functionalities that we will explore in the upcoming sections. Sonically, it sounds unique, and the granular x subtractive synth x FM synth engine can give your sounds a characteristic texture for them to stand out.
So you can start with a particular sound and end up at something completely different from it, and that’s the magical spark of the FRMS.
- Three in one plugin
The hybrid plugin uses a subtractive synth engine as its first layer, in which a standard single-oscillator synth with four waveforms: sine, triangle, square, and saw is available. After that, you can further layer with a granular synth, which extracts grains (small section of the audio) from a sample and then links the grains back together to create a new waveform. Lastly, the FM synth allows you to modulate the frequencies of one oscillator from another’s.
- Matrix panel
The matrix panel features a well-laid-out table that shows 4 LFOs and 2 Envelope Generators as modulators on the y-axis (as rows) and assignable parameters like level, pan, cutoff frequency, resonance, etc., as their targets on the x-axis (or columns). Each cell in this table can be assigned a value between -1 and 1 using the RESET slider.
- Other panels
The control panel has multiple knobs and controllers of various general parameters that are laid out and can be easily edited. Similarly, you can edit the ADSR of the two envelope generators in the Envelope panel. Further, the Modifier panels allow you to select and edit your LFOs and arpeggiator panels. Lastly, there’s the Global panel which allows you to play around with filters, modes, and effects like delay, reverb, etc.
That is one of the most interesting features of the FRMS, which allows you to play chords using single notes, and also allows you to strum these chords in different patterns and intervals.
The software is available on Mac, Windows, iOS, and Android. For Mac, the requirements are Mac OS 10.13 or higher, 64-bit host DAW which supports VST, AU, or AAX plugin format.
For Windows, you need Windows 10 or higher, compatible 64-bit host DAW which supports VST or AAX plugin format. For iOS, it’s available on iPad only, with iOS 12.1/iPadOS 12.1 or higher. Finally, even on Android, it’s available on Tablet devices only, with Android 6.0 or higher.
It’s an intensive plugin with loads of options and functions and can take some time to get used to, but you can derive a lot from this software.
It’s especially helpful in creating sounds that are experimental and futuristic. This plugin lacks nothing with a high-quality sample pack, 8 FM modes, and up to 8 voices of polyphony.
10. Rob Papen Blade 2
The blade was one of the most innovative software synthesizers due to its original Harmolator section.
The Harmolator window allows you to edit the harmonic content of the sounds in real-time using the XY pad, which is the main differentiator of the synth. Based on the same idea and technology, Rob Papen launched Blade 2 with fresh updates to make the synth even more solid.
With lots of extra features, the synth is sonically powerful, with expansive effects, an extra analog modeled oscillator, an overall deep synthesis engine, and additive synthesis options.
- New Additive Mode
By using the additive mode, you can use the XY pad to morph and mix between 4 different waveforms while building and designing your sounds. This model is built on the FFT algorithm for smoothly morphing the audios. In addition, the XY pad can also move between dynamics, harmonics, and waveform.
- Extra Oscillator
Harmolator does a great job adding an analog texture to the sounds, but it may lack the punch and the capability to cut through in modern productions. The new oscillator, with noise option, multiple waveforms, unison, detune, and other features, is perfect for adding that extra punch and layering to the sound.
- Switchable Oscillator Modes
The main oscillator can be changed between Harmolator and Additive modes, with the Harmolator mode having the capability to add up to whopping ninety-six editable harmonics in a single oscillator. The algorithm considers all additional partials as sine waves combined to create a fat and harmonically filled sound for the additive synthesis. In addition, you can even select the even/odd harmonics for the right tone and texture of your sounds.
- Expansive Synthe Engine
Apart from the interesting sound generators, you get a filter with 32 different types (including ring modulation and comb filtering) sloped from 6db to 36db, an amplitude ADSR, and three different effects sections with various knobs and edit options.
BLADE 2 by Rob Papen is available in VST 2, AU, and AAX versions, making it workable with almost every mainstream DAW. It’s available in both 32 and 64-bit versions in Windows and demands Windows 7 (or later). For Mac, it’s only available as a 64-bit version and is compatible with the OS-X 10.9 thru 10.15.
The sounds you can create with this synth are not replicable using any other synthesizer. It’s one of a kind and can inspire new, interesting, and creative sounds. It’s not as heavy on the processor and is easily compatible with almost every device.
The Blade 2 stands out and is a great 2023 subtractive synthesizer.
11. Image Line Sytrus (Subtractive, Additive FM, RM Synthesis)
Sytrus by Image Line is an interesting sound design plugin that combines subtractive synthesis with Frequency Modulation and Ring Modulation in a very analog style Matrix.
The MATRIX window could be used to create signal flows according to your needs. With six operators, three filters, and a create effects section, one can create some innovative sounds with this synthesizer.
It’s a powerful synthesizer capable of performing subtractive, additive, FM, and RM synthesis, with a huge palette of sounds and a versatile collection of presets, with categories like Arp, bass, brass, pads, strings, etc.
- Well-structured interface
The interface contains the Main tab, where you can control and set the overall signal flow, edit the frequency and amplitude envelope of the sounds, a modulation pad, and assign unison voices. Apart from that, it has separate tabs for oscillators, effects, and filters.
- Elaborate Oscillator Tabs
There are six tabs for six different oscillators, with each oscillator having sliders for setting shape, tension, skewness, and other parameters to set the waveform. Under the oscillator tab, you also get a window for assigning targets and sources of modulations. You can modulate pitch, volume, pan, phase, damp, input modulation, and harmonics for the oscillators using an envelope, LFO, Keyboard Mapping, Velocity Mapping, Random Mapping, and Unison Mapping, etc.
- Extensive Filter Tabs
There are three filter tabs, each containing thirteen different types of filters, each with different functionalities and knobs, with modulation-enabled filter parameters, including pan, volume, cutoff frequency, resulting, low band, multiband, high band, waveshaper, and waveshaper mix.
- Switchable Quality
With such elaborate features, Sytrus can get heavy on RAM, but using it can lower the resolution of the sound using the QUALITY window in the Main tab. In addition, you can oversample your sounds up to 64x in two modes: Draft and Render. Draft mode is the lower quality mode you could switch to if the software gets too heavy on the system, and Render is the mode you can use before exporting the audio.
- Cross-oscillator modulations
Each operator can modulate (RM and FM) the other operator, for which we can also control the phase and mix of the modulation.
Sytrus was designed way back in the early 2000s and has been developed since then. Hence, it’s compatible with Windows XP (SP2), Vista, Win7, Win8, Win8.1, Win 10 – (32 & 64 Bit), and only 512 MB of RAM is required to run this plugin. However, it’s available as a VST only.
Sytrus has endless possibilities and is a go-to soft-synth for many FL Studio users. You can hear its presets on much common pop and dance music. Its unique and simplified interface and versatility in producing sounds of different genres and moods make it special.
It may not be the best plugin in the modern day, but it’s still a pretty good tool.
12. Stagecraft Addiction Synth
Addiction Synth is an intuitive, powerful, and visually appealing subtractive synthesizer with a user-friendly interface that makes the sound design process less complicated and easier.
Just browsing through the presets themselves will give you an idea of how deep this synth is sonically and the range of tonal array that the synth carries. The instrument features an MPE and Aftertouch support, PWM for oscillators and LFOs, more command on aliasing and waveform, and an interesting collection of presets.
- Straight-forward workflow
All knobs and parameters in the Addiction synth are well-laid out and easily tweakable, which appears inviting and intuitional, even to beginners or amateur sound designers. It’s also visual, and the graphical display reveals everything you do. In addition, it’s stable and CPU-friendly.
- Synth Engine
There are three oscillators: independent pan, volume, pitch control, a filter bank, and an LFO. It also includes a bunch of effects like bit crusher, reverb, delay, etc.
You can automate different parameters to create sounds of different characteristics and interesting movements, ranging from a wobble sound to dubstep-based punch stabs that go in and out of rhythm at different intervals. It also allows advanced quantization options for all parameters.
The plugin comes in AAX, VST 3, AU, and a Standalone version, which is compatible with Mac OS X 10.11 (or later) processors (Intel/M1 Silicon supported) (64-bit only) and Windows 7 (or later versions) (64-bit only).
Addition by Stagecraft is a basic synthesizer with good graphics, interface, and advanced automation options, which makes it a good synthesizer. It does not have as many features, but its look is futuristic and is a great beginner-friendly subtractive soft-synth.
8 Best Free Subtractive Synth Plugins 2023
1. HY-POLY Free
The free version of the HY-Poly synth is also available, with a few restrictions.
This free version of the instrument has up to 2 oscillators, on which you can select the waveform from a pulse wave to a saw wave.
Unfortunately, there are only 17 presets present, and it lacks the modulation oscillator, oscillator modes, and some other modulation flexibilities available in the full version. However, the base features work fine and can do basic subtractive synthesis.
- Pliable Oscillator settings
You can change the pitch of the oscillators up to 2 octaves above and below and the sub oscillators up to 2 octaves below. You can also change the pitch in semitones and cents and sync the main oscillators. Tune, fine, and pulse width knobs are also available to tweak the sound source.
The oscillators (main, sub, and noise) can be mixed amongst themselves, using the pan and amplitude knobs that we can modulate too.
- Subtractive capabilities
The free version also has a filter, along with filter oscillators, available as a Low Pass, Band Pass, and High Pass version. You can also more depth and harmonics to the filter using the drive knob.
- Effects Unit
You can add up to 5 audio effects to your sounds to give them ambiance, deepness, and pristine, by using reverb, delay, compressor, etc.
In Windows, the Poly Free is available as a VST2, VST 3 (32 and 64-bit), and as a VST2, VST 3, and AU (64-but only) version on the mac. In addition, the OS is compatible with Windows 7 or later versions and OSX 10.12 or higher (Universal Binary 2 with native Apple M1 support).
There’s quite a lot you can do with even the free version of HY-Poly when it comes to subtractive synthesis. You can find more presets online and expand the overall functionality using external effects and modulation plugins.
2. Surge Synth Team Surge XT
The Surge XT is one of the best and most advanced open-source subtractive synthesizers.
It has a unique interface and signal flow. It operates under two scenes, with three oscillators in each scene, resulting in a total of 6 oscillators, with 64 voices of polyphony. In addition, it’s a modulation-heavy plugin with eight macros, six LFOs, two envelope generators, and other modulators.
- Easily Adjustable signal flow
Under the Filter Configuration windows, you can set how and order the filters are applied to the sound. There are eight different types of configurations that you can set, with three serial, two dual, a stereo, ring, and wide types. You can also map it to the controller or key and add automation lanes. By default, it’s set to Wide, as it’s stereo and will allow you to get the best results out of unison voices.
- Scene Modes for layering and splitting the sounds
The Scene modes decide how the scenes can be used together, whether layered or split. Single mode allows you to play only the selected scene simultaneously, whereas Key Split allows you to play different scenes on different keyboard parts. The third mode, Channel Split, will split the scenes to be played by the midi channel. Lastly, the dual mode will allow you to play both scenes together.
- Wide Oscillator Section
Three oscillators per scene can be mixed, soloed, muted, and even multiplied or cross-fed into each other. In addition, the oscillators can be key tracked or retriggered, and we can change their pitch up to three octaves above and blow. Further, their pitch, shape, pitch range, width, sync, unison detune, and unison voices can be changed and edited.
Further, you can choose the oscillator type from an insane number of options, including classic (saw and square), modern (triangle, sine, saw, and square), wavetable, window, FM, String, twist, Noise, and more.
- Huge scope of modulations
The modulation matrix is located right at the bottom of the GUI. Here, we can use the MACROS to control multiple parameters simultaneously with a simple drag and drop option. Almost every knob and slider in the interface can be modulated using the macros, and you can also rename the modulators as per your taste. However, the modulators in the plugin have so much depth and options that it could take a while to explore the software completely.
In Windows, the Surge XT is available as a 32 and 64-bit VST and CLAP plugin, which demands Windows 7 (or later versions), at least 4 GBs of RAM, and Pentium 4/Athlon 64 or above CPU. To use the 64-bit version on Windows, you require a CPU supporting the x64 (AMD64/EM64T) instruction set.
For macOS, the plugin is available in 64-bit Audio Unit (AU), VST3, and CLAP versions, which requires a Mac OS X 10.11 or newer, a 64-bit x86 Intel or ARM Apple Silicon CPU, and at least 4GB of RAM. On Linux, Surge is available as a 64-bit VST3 and CLAP in the form of a deb and RPM package.
The developer and management team has done a great job with Surge XT. It gives paid synthesizers a run for their money, given the limitless possibilities of sound design and synthesis that one can explore with it.
There are absolutely no downsides to having this plugin in your toolkit. It’s also CPU-friendly and extremely versatile.
Deduktion is a free subtractive soft-synth with two oscillators (sawtooth, square, triangle, pink noise, white noise), two filters (of 6 types), four LFOs, four envelopes, two modulation matrices, and effects like chorus, reverb, delay, etc.
It doesn’t have extraordinary analog emulation but is very light on CPU and adaptable enough to produce deep bass sounds to analog strings.
- Comprehensive Modulation Matrix
You have many modulation sources, which could create complex sounds in a jiff. We can also edit the existing modulation intensities by using the mod wheel to adjust the filter cutoff frequency amount.
- Simple interface
The layout and signal chain of the plugin is straightforward and easily understandable. Therefore, one can easily tweak it and create some interesting movements and sounds.
It’s available only in VST format and is only compatible with Windows 32 and 64-bit hosts.
The intuitive design of Deduktion makes it easy for beginner sound designers and music producers to work around it. Also, the GUI is customizable.
Further, the synth has a good number of modulators and low CPU usage, identical oscillators, precise tune parameters, and a smooth modulation matrix.
4. Matt Tytel Helm
Helm is a great subtractive soft-synth to create all types of EDM genres, which comes with 200 presets.
It has two oscillators with interesting waveshapes and 32-voice polyphony and is connected via a mod knob, which is a great way to alter the timbre of the oscillators. In addition, it has switchable modules, a filter, a filter envelope, two mono LFOs, one poly LFO, a modulation envelope, and a step sequencer.
- The formant filter
The formant filter is great for creating vowel sounds by picking different spots in the XY pad, which is especially great for creating dubstep and talking wobble sounds. You can also create interesting rhythmic patterns on this by connecting it to an LFO and changing its intensity and intervals.
- Cross Modulation between oscillators
The two main oscillators, as mentioned above, are connected via a mod knob, through which the left oscillator modulates the phase of the right oscillator, and the right oscillator modulates the tone of the left oscillator.
- Global Unison control
In the oscillator window, you can increase the width of the sounds by increasing the number of voices and adjusting the unison parameter by which the unison voices will be detuned by the value of cents you set on it. Further, a global voices knob controls the number of voices of the master output.
- Interesting Effects
There’s a dedicated arpeggiator section with frequency control and octaves up to which the arpeggiation can happen. You can also select different kinds of patterns of arpeggiation. What’s unique about Helm is the Stutter effect that you can add to the sound with frequency, resample, and softness parameters. That adds gated effects to your sound at different time intervals. In addition, you can also add distortion, reverb, and delay to your sounds.
The free plugin can run on Linux, Mac, and Windows as a standalone program and on DAWs/hosts that can run LV2, VST, AU, and AAX plugins.
Helm has many effects and features make it great for creating electronic music with robotic movements and artificial sounds. In addition, it offers great inspiration for sound design due to its different pitch and amplitude modulation algorithms.
5. Ronan Fed Essence (Great For Trance Music)
Developed by Ronan Fed, Essence is known to produce classic 80s, synth pop, and trance sounds, including lush spaced-out pads, upfront and filled synth saw chords, punchy and deep bass sounds, soothing chords, arpeggiations, and impactful saw lead sounds.
Being a basic subtractive polyphonic synthesizer, it features three oscillators with up to 8 voices in unison, with detune and stereo parameters, a noise oscillator, and a sub-oscillator.
It has a simplistic yet resourceful synth engine, as you can choose from seven different waveforms (Sawtooth, Sine, Ramp (inverted Saw), Pulse (Square), Triangle, White Noise & Pink Noise) in the main oscillators, with adjustable pulse-width, octaves, and pitch (in semitones and cents).
The Noise oscillator and the sub-oscillator can add depth and harmony to your sounds and cover the entire frequency spectrum. Further, the filter has different modes; it sounds warm and smooth, and the filter envelope has different curves you could choose from. The LFO and envelopes are easily assignable and can create some interesting sonic motion.
It runs only on Windows 7 and higher versions of Windows and is available only as a VST 2 and VST 3 plugin. The official manual of Essence recommends using Windows 10.
Essence sounds great and is perfect for the genre it is designed for. It is punchy, fat, bloom in the low mid-frequency range, and can add the required warmth and energy to your productions. In addition, it can perform all fundamental subtractive synthesis functions with high-quality oscillators and filters that are sonically appropriate for what it’s built to do.
6. u-he Tyrell N6
Tyrell N6 by u-he is a great synth for creating game audio and synthwave music, which comes with 580 factory presets.
Originally, a German music publication called Amazona wanted to create an affordable analog synth based on features and ideas from their readers but did not have the resources to. Fortunately, u-he took this concept and turned their idea into a free software synthesizer, which is how the plugin came into existence.
- Drift Mode for Realness
The analog nature of the sounds on the synth comes by switching the DRIFT mode on the top-right corner of the synthesizer. That is the secret sauce that gives the synth its vintage vibe. The chorus effect at the bottom of the synth also adds to the richness and width of the sound, hence adding to the analog characteristics. In addition, the VCA Envelope also contributes to that.
- The unique sound of its self-modulating filter
Under the Filters section, there are two modulation knobs, which you can tweak to add modulations to this filter. In addition, you can use the “Mixer” window and adjust the volume sliders of its oscillators, ring modulation, and feedback.
- Great Sound Design Capabilities
Tyrell N6 consists of two oscillators, one noise generator, and a ring modulator with editable oscillator modes. On top of it, it has a dual filter related to Diva (another synth by u-he), two gated ADSRs (0ne of which is voltage controlled), two LFOs, a modulation matrix, MIDi-learn, resizeable interface, and a voltage-controlled filter.
This soft-synth by u-he is not standalone software and requires a host application to run. It’s available as VST and AAX in Windows and AU Vol. 2, VST 2, and AAX in MacOS. It can run on Linux, Windows 7 (or newer), and Mac OS X 10.7 (or newer). A minimum of 1 GB of RAM is required to run it.
Considered a hybrid between the u-he ACE synth and Juno-106, Tyrell N6 is one of the best free synthesizers, as it features a wide range of analog sounds in an organized and simplified interface. Lastly, the sophisticated analog modeling done in the software is evident when you listen to the sound of it.
7. de la Mancha Scylla
Scylla is a synthesizer that is too good to be true and free.
It combines subtractive synthesis with sampling & granular synthesis, along with having a synth architecture to execute phase distortion synthesis, ring modulation, and more. All these features make it quite a versatile piece of software capable of executing virtually every type of sound design.
- A Great Head Start
The plugin has about 128 factory presets and a library of more than 160 original samples that you can load, edit, and play around with.
- Multiple layers
There are three main layers and one global layer of programmable audio sources. Each mean layer consists of a playback sampler/granulator, an oscillator with two waveforms, a ring modulator, a volume envelope, a filter envelope, and a low pass filter.
- Elaborate Oscillator Section
The oscillators have multiple waveforms, ranging from Sine, Saw, Ramp, Soft ramp, Peak Ramp, Square, Triangle, Peak, Octava, and Cluster. You could select modes by which you could mix, layer, modulate, and split any two of these waveforms.
- Hidden Features
There are a lot of features in Scylla that could be explored only under the hood by opening the drop-down menus and seeing the graphical representation around it. For example, there are a lot of shapes of the oscillator that you could choose from, different sampler modes, different morphing modes, etc., that may not be apparent but are present there.
It’s only available in the VST version and hence can be run only on hosts that work with the VST format of plugins.
By looking at the tightly-packed bright and yellow interface, there are layers and depths to the synth that are not visible on the surface level. However, when you explore the synth, you will find that there’s only so little Scylla can’t do as a sound design tool.
8. Sampleson Rand
Sampleson Rand appears as a unique single-button synthesizer, but it is a polyphonic subtractive synthesizer behind the scenes.
It has two oscillators, each with five waveforms and six unison voices, four types of filters, 2 LFOs, and an effects section, summing up a basic subtractive synth architecture.
- Innovative “single-button synth” idea
The main interface comprises this one button, which randomizes all the parameters, giving a different sound or preset every time you press a button. That makes the plugin extremely user-friendly so that anyone, even without the knowledge of synthesis and sound design, can use it. You can set which parameters can be randomized with this button by accessing and editing them using the “Edit Current” button.
- High-Quality Sounds and Easy Interface
The oscillators are high-resolution, the signal flow is basic, and the interface is easy to use. So, the plugin can offer massive inspiration for musicians who want a hassle-free music-making experience without getting into the nitty gritty of sound designing.
Rand is delivered as a standalone instrument and in VST/AU versions for both Mac and Windows and can run on most of the mainstream DAWS like Cubase, Logic Pro, GarageBand, Cakewalk, Reaper, BitWig, Nuendo, FLstudio, etc.
The idea is futuristic, and if combined with artificial intelligence and sophisticated algorithms, it can stem into something extremely useful and groundbreaking.
The single button works as a great gimmick but doesn’t add much value to a professional sound designer. However, Rand can also be manually edited and manipulated for producers looking for more control.
Bonus: Subtractive & Additive EQ
DJ Swivel Knocktonal
Knocktonal by DJ Swivel is a note-based resonance enhancer that allows you to tune your drums and instruments without destructive repitching and stretching.
Essentially the plugin has two main sections: subtractive and additive EQ. Subtractive EQ removes unwanted frequencies, resonances, and their partials. Additive EQ enhances the amplitude of desired frequencies and their overtones.
- Tune drums without losing quality
Usually, while tuning drums, music producers and sound engineers pitch shift the drum sample or recording, and they may introduce artifacts and unwanted characteristics into the sound. To avoid that, this plugin suggests a better solution. First, you can subtract the frequency (and harmonics) of the drum’s main note, leaving it with a flat frequency curve.
After that, you can increase the added amplitude to the frequency you want to set as the fundamental frequency and increase its harmonics. Further, you can also change and adjust the bandwidth and harmonic content of the sound.
- MIDI Input
Knocktail can derive the note information from MIDI data and has a MIDI input option, by which it could figure out the fundamental frequency and harmonic structure of the sound/sample/recording.
The plugin is available in AAX, AU, and VST3 versions, and has the following compatibility demands:
- Intel Core 2 Duo or higher, 4GB RAM minimum, macOS 10.12 or later for Mac
- Intel Core 2 Duo / AMD Athlon 64 X2 or higher, 4GB RAM minimum, and Windows 7 SP1 or later for PC.
Knocktail is an optimal way to tune percussive sounds but has a few drawbacks. First, it would not work for sounds that are not harmonically dense.
It’s designed on a chromatic scale and is unsuitable for EQing microtones and octaves divided on a different number of notes. Apart from that, it’s a useful tool for tuning drums and melodic instruments that need subtractive or additive EQing.
It can be overwhelming to view the options available in the market, as there are plenty of good-quality tools available at our disposal, both free and paid. Furthermore, due to the gift of technology and the presence of generous developers, we have high-functioning plugins like Surge XT and Tyrell N6 available as open-source freeware, which gives many paid synthesizers keen competition.
If you want a plugin with good quality analog emulation, Arturia Prophet 5-V and Tubsynth by AIR Music Technology are your go-to. Prophet 5-V is CPU-intensive, but sounds authentic, while Tubesynth is also high quality but is not as versatile.
On the other hand, if you want an all-in-one versatile instrument, you could go for u-he Hive 2, HY-Poly (full version), or Surge XT. The wavetable option in Hive 2 will also allow you to load up analog waveforms.
However, it’s always a good idea to have different variations of similar plugins to get different perspectives, approaches, and inspirations to create new and innovative sounds. Furthermore, each circuit is programmed differently, so each plugin has its sound. Hence, it’s recommended to hear for yourself which tool you resonate with the most.
Secondly, it’s important to consider the workflow, genre, and purpose of the software. In a creative process, some types of workflow and interface may come more naturally and intuitively to you than others.
For example, many modern EDM and bedroom producers may find it hard to work with plugins like Arturia Prophet 5 because of its old-school interface and workflow, which may not be familiar to many Gen-Z music producers.
Today, most plugin companies give a free trial. Make the best use of that service, and invest your money after trying your hands on each plugin that interests you. There’s sufficient information available online, so it always helps to research and listens to the synthesizer presets on YouTube.
Hope this article was helpful to you. Thank you for reading.
Eduardo Cardoso is a musician and audio producer based in São Paulo, Brazil. He studied both music production and theory in college and has successfully launched his career as a solo artist in 2021. With over 10 years of experience with the music business, he currently acts as a session musician, music producer, audio editor, and content creator. Read more..