This is where the list of possibilities becomes truly limitless. Although both Ableton Live and Apple Logic Pro X come preloaded with a huge range of samplers, effects, and other virtual instruments, sometimes referred to as “software synths” or “VSTs” (short for “Virtual Studio Technology”) , since many early VST plug-ins were intended to emulate familiar hardware devices) – there are many downloadable sounds a la carte. In terms of versatility and quality, many inexpensive software instruments today are capable of producing sounds as rich and substantial as those produced by much more expensive hardware components, and some are explicitly designed to reproduce them. Arturia offers a wide range of software instruments that emulate hardware classics such as the Yamaha DX7, Buchla Easel V, and even the semi-modular ARP2600.
For many musicians, Native Instruments will be a good first step. (Disclosure: I gave a paid talk at a Native Instruments workshop in early 2016.) The Berlin-based company, which has been in business since 1996, is one of the music software giants, and their Complete suite of software instruments ($599) offers a huge collection of synthesizers, samplers, effects, acoustic emulators, sample-based instruments, drum machines, and more. (For the curious, there’s also the more rudimentary Komplete Start, which is free.) Among Komplete’s instruments are the heavyweight Massive (a favorite synth of dubstep and bass producers), the drum sampler and sequencer Battery, the Guitar Rig amp simulator, and various sample-based instruments that painstakingly recreate different types of acoustic tones. “I hardly use software synthesis these days, but I still really enjoy NI Komplete,” says Project Pablo. “It’s the most diverse set of software you can get as a beginner.”
Berlin’s U-He started out as a one-man operation, but today software developer Urs Heckmann has transformed his virtual instrument shop into a formidable operation with a growing line of products. the Zebra 2 ($199), the current version of a software synthesizer that has been around for over a decade now, combines a variety of synthesis types with a powerful modulation engine to deliver a powerful, surprising, and great-sounding instrument. (Composer Hans Zimmer even used it on The black Knight soundtrack; you can purchase his sound set and a custom instrument upgrade for $99.) Any Cable Anywhere ($79) and Bazilla ($129) both extend modular synthesis techniques to the virtual domain, while Diva ($179) takes advantage of the classic synthesizer design to deliver incredible sound quality. For an alternative approach to modular-style synthesis, you can try the excellent, Buchla-inspired Alto ($99) from Madrona Labs in Seattle, who particularly excel in creating dynamic and evolving sounds and sequences. If singing is more your thing, try Madrona Labs Virta ($89), a voice-driven synth with truly stunning effects.
For more effects, many musicians I’ve interviewed swear by Valhalla’s range of DSP plugins like the Valhalla Plate classic plate reverb ($50), Glittering Valhalla reverberation ($50), and the free Valhalla Freq Echo frequency shifter. Anthony Naples recommends Soundtoys plugins, like the echo boy delay unit ($199)– manna for dub fanatics – and the MicroShift stereo widener ($129), while Perko likes unfiltered sounds Special Ops ($99) multi-effect and Tooth 2 ($49) distortion unit, and Sui Zhen suggests Unfiltered Audio’s Instant Delay ($29).
Galcher Lustwerk recommends saving your plug-in budget for effects — a good reverb, compressor, EQ — “which are usually less expensive and give your music more character.” Izotope Ozone 9 bundle ($129 – $499) is a good effects starter kit “for fast, radio-quality sound,” says DJ Seinfeld. “The presets are good and you can learn a lot about basic mastering and mixing by tweaking them.”
Likewise, Siete Catorce insists on the importance of learning the ins and outs of synthesis, however easy to use the instrument may seem. “Knowing everything about your software synth to get the sounds you want is more important than having a million of them.”