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)
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 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 2023 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.
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Shaurya Bhatia, is an Indian Music Producer, Composer, Rapper & Performer, who goes by the stage name MC SNUB, and is also 1/2 of the Indian pop music duo, called “babyface”. A certified Audio Engineer & Music Producer, and a practicing musician & rapper for more than 6 years, Shaurya has worked on projects of various genres and has also been a teaching faculty at Spin Gurus DJ Academy.