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11 Soft Synths to Add to Your Rack

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Synthesizers are amazing instruments. I used to love watching videos of Vangelis, Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson and Jean Michel Jarre play their racks of synths in the 70s and 80s. Their arms would jump from keyboard to keyboard with practiced precision, their fingers hitting buttons, moving sliders and changing patches between phrases.

What I love most about synthesizers is the way you can use them to create new sounds, or emulate existing sounds. Creating a new sound can require just as much inspiration (and perspiration) as creating a new melody or groove. Subtle variations or combinations can make all the difference.

Watch the masters at work in these Youtube videos. First is Rick Wakeman performing an amazing solo on several racks of synths.

Rick Wakeman solo.

Second, you can watch Vangelis in the studio as he is recording “China”. While his fingers spend most of the time pounding on his favourite CS80, he is surrounded by an incredible number of keyboards, and utilizes some of them in his playing.

Vangelis: The Making of China.

Audiotuts has run quite a few synthesizer tutorials in the last month. Times have changed. We can now have a huge stack of software synthesizers on a laptop we can carry with us anywhere, and control them with a MIDI controller keyboard like the M-Audio Axiom that has a generous helping of knobs and sliders for controlling the synthesizers’ parameters. You no longer need to own a music store or have an army of roadies to have a great synth setup.

A large range of soft synths and virtual instruments are available, and most DAWs include at least one. What is your favorite? While we can hardly scratch the surface in this article, here is a handful to get us started. Please add to the list in the comments.

1. ES2

ES2 is Logic Pro’s synthesizer. Featuring three oscillators, two filters, and 32-voice polyphony, it is a powerful and versatile subtractive synthesizer. Davide Di Bucchianico shows us around the synth in his tutorial How to Design Reeses and Hoovers

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2. Malström

Reason's Malström soft synth uses “Graintable” synthesis invented by Propellerhead, making it capable of creating unusual sounds. Propellerhead explain:

“The Malström Graintable synthesizer features all imaginable filtering and modulation options, and a couple of unimaginable ones too; Try some real-time waveform stretching, some spectral modulation, or some awesome wavetable sweeping.

“Malström comes with a wide range of meaty and exotic Graintables, letting you create anything from lush pads to scary squeals, from the pretty to the gritty. And that’s just the sounds coming from Malström itself; try using this monster’s audio inputs to filter other Reason devices, and let some of Malström’s magic rub off on your drums or sampled vocals. With a device like this, no one can accuse your sound of being ordinary.”

3. Metasynth

Metasynth by U&I Software is a very different soft synth only available for Mac OSX, effectively allowing you to “paint” sound. For more details, see Toby Pitman’s tutorial An Introduction to Metasynth.

4. Prologue

Prologue is included in Cubase 5. It is a subtractive synthesizer with three oscillators, powerful multi-mode filter, four envelopes, two LFOs, a powerful modulation matrix, and on-board effects.. It comes with hundreds of presets covering a wide range of sounds.

5. Rapture LE

Rapture LE is included in Cakewalk’s SONAR 8.5. It includes over 200 programs & hundreds of oscillator shapes.

6. Reaktor

Reaktor is an expensive, complex, modular soft synth (or rack of synths) by Native Instruments. It makes use of both FM and subtractive synthesis. Programming Reaktor isn’t simple, but it does come with a long list of useful pre-programmed patches.

7. Subtractor

Subtractor is a subtractive synthesizer for Reason. It is an analog type polyphonic synthesizer. See it in action in Mo Volan’s screencast A Basic Guide to Subtractive Synthesis (Part 1).

8. Thor

Thor is another of Propellerhead Reason’s soft synths. It includes four different filter types and six forms of synthesis.

9. Vacuum

Pro Tools’s Vacuum monophonic vacuum tube synthesizer is designed like an old-fashioned synth, and has all the knobs and parameters Rick Wakeman would expect. It even looks dusty. If you prefer not to program, it comes with around 200 presets.

10. Xpand!

Pro Tools’s Xpand! is “a free RTAS® sample-playback/synthesis workstation plug-in that provides fast, efficient ways to access and manipulate thousands of high-quality sounds directly from within Pro Tools.”

The webpage lists the following features:

  • Comprehensive sound factory for all musical styles and applications
  • More than 1,000 factory patches and 500 combinable part presets
  • Four layer-able parts for millions of combinations
  • Subtractive synthesis, wavetable, FM synthesis, sample playback, virtual tonewheels, and effects
  • 64-note polyphony
  • Quick and easy sound tweaking
  • Two built-in effect sections and four arpeggiators/phrase generators
  • Highly efficient — requires little CPU power per instance

11. ZynAddSubFX

ZynAddSubFX is a free and open source software synthesizer. It is a polyphonic, multitimbral synthesizer with three synthesis engines: additive, subtractive and “pad”.

Which soft synth or virtual instrument do you prefer? How much do you use soft synths? What do you love and what do you find frustrating? Let us know in the comments.

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