Welcome to The Unfinished World Cup of Synths! I’ve chosen 32 softsynths that I either currently own or have used in the past and pitted them against each other to see which one will come out on top as champion.
Make your predictions now (no sneaking ahead and looking at The Final tab) and see how your favourites fare. And if you disagree with how things play out, why not let me know in the comments?
It’s worth mentiong that there are some obvious high quality omissions that I’ve not had much experience of (particularly the synths of Arturia, GForce, Rob Papen and Madrona Labs). So, it’s purely subjective and a bit of fun!
(Cakewalk Z3ta, Dmitry Sches Diversion, TAL U-NO-LX, u-he Diva)
There’s a strong analogue modelling aspect to the first group in the competition, which appeals to me right now. Diversion is perhaps the most feature-packed of the four (it has a particularly good effects section), which can also mean a greater CPU-hit if you push it to its limits. Really great for sound design, textures and subtle, modulating sequences. A synth that requires a little more love I think. Z3ta feels like it has been around for ages and has always had great sound quality. The update was a great improvement on an already very flexible synth. Admittedly, I haven’t used it in quite a while. But for me, the two qualifiers are Diva and U-NO-LX. They’re a dream for realistic analogue emulation – with Diva being the more flexible, with its multitude of oscillators and filters. It’s a truly terrific synth that combines great sound with tremednous ease of use. U-NO-LX can seem a little limited due to its specific attempt to model the Roland Juno series of hardware, but it does it so well… and that chorus! It’s neat and tidy and full of character, a really great bit of programming.
(NI FM8, Siegfried Kulmann SQ8L, u-he Bazille, Wide Blue Sound Orbit/Eclipse)
I’ve clubbed together Orbit and Eclipse from Wide Blue Sound, as it’s essentially the same engine but with two different collections of soundsources. And it’s a real tour de force in terms of modern cinematic synth sounds. It’s simplicity in creating great, pulsing sequences is a great feat, though it may be limited for some because that’s essentially all it does. What it does have is the ‘fun factor’, it’s hugely satsifying to play with. Synths that are definitely not simple include FM8 and Bazille. FM synthesis has always been the poor cousin to subtractive for some, not because of the sound (which is magnificent) but for the sheer learning curve. However, if you’re patient, there’s no better option than FM8. I did a game score where I only used FM8 for the synth stuff and it did a great job. When taken in unusual directions it can provide some extraordinary sounds. Bazille offers a route into semi-modular synthesis and brings with it an initially complex-looking GUI full of cables and options. It’s got a great analogue-modelling sound and some great tricks up its sleeves with the modular style cabling and a curiously different sequencer. Ensoniq hardware is often overlooked, despite its amazing sound as it combines analogue and digital so beautifully. SQ8L is an emulation of the SQ80 which is very accurate, though a little let down by not having been updated to 64-bit. For me, Orbit/Eclipse and Bazille go through, purely on the strength of their great sound quality and FM8 just misses out because it’s a tricky bugger to programme.
(Lennar Digital Sylenth1, u-he Zebra/HZ, Xfer Serum, Xils Lab PolyKB II)
Some powerful big-hitters in this group. Let’s kick off by being brutally honest and admitting that Zebra is one of my very favourite synths and that it’s going through comfortably. Okay. PolyKB II is a curve ball as it emulates a synth most people have never even heard of: the RSF Poly Kobol. It’s a great vst for creamy, retro sounds and also has a very nice sequencer. Its pretty feature packed for such an off-the-wall emulation. But, compared to other analogue hardware emulations, its sound lacks a bit of depth for me. Which means, second place is a straight fight between Sylenth1 and Serum. Sylenth1 has been around a while and has had a very stealthy handful of updates from the near mythical Lennar Digital (like the Obi-Wan Kenobi of synth developers). It does a lot of things very well though, even if its reputation as a dance synth has stuck. It still has a nice, warm sound and a great number of options for sound sculpting. Serum comes across as essentially being the update to Massive that NI never did. A huge wealth of digital sound and modulation, with a decent effects unit attached. It packs a real punch and there’s much fun to be had importing your own wavetables (especially now you can load in .png files – which is a bit mad!). Lacks decent sequencer/arpeggiator options though. However, I’ll let it sneak through in second place.
(Camel Audio/Apple Alchemy, NI Absynth, Steinberg Retrologue, u-he Hive)
Ooh, this is a competitive group. Many of us remain sad that Alchemy disappeared off to become a part of Logic, though the original version still works fine. It has several types of synthesis available and great sample implementation. Some of things that Biolabs did with it were terrific. But, ultimately I’m a bit sad that I’ll never get updates or support for it, which means it is very much on the back-burner in my studio. Absynth is another synth with great options to abuse your own samples. It has a sound very much of its own, and is also surprisingly capable of some lovely analogue style drift. Its effects section is quite different and the envelope controls are truly extraordinary, maybe even a little bizarre. Would benefit from a GUI overhaul though… fiddly knobs! Retrologue is Steinberg’s attempt to jump on the retro synth modelling bandwagon and it’s not a bad attempt at all. You can quickly dial up patches that have the Vangelis and Jarre feel. It falls short a little sonically in what is a very competitive analogue-modelling field. Hive is the new kid on the u-he block and offers great sound quality at a small CPU-hit. At it’s centre is a really great sequencer and it has all the modulation hallmarks of a u-he synth. Yet, despite this, appears to be fighting off a ‘dance synth’ reputation. There’s clearly more to it than that and I look forward to spending more time with it. Absynth goes through for its uniqueness and Hive joins it due to its strength in depth.
(Ichiro Toda Synth1, NI Massive, Reveal Sound Spire, Ummet Ozcan Genesis CM)
If you were poor and making computer music in the early 2000s, you definitely had Synth1! Crazy flexible synth, that packed a punch for an ugly looking freebie. In particular, its ability to sound like the very popular Nord series of hardware synths made it a ‘must have’. Also, there must be thousands and thousands of sounds out there for it that cover a wide range of styles and approaches. Massive and Spire are at the heart of much dance music making these days. Massive is a little longer in the tooth and it’s a shame that it hasn’t been updated for a very long time. It still sounds great and has some very simple and useable modulation options. I’ve always really enjoyed sequencer and the mod oscillator, and it’s also possible to create more than just dirty dancefloor sounds with it. Spire feels like it’s modelled on the classic virtual analogue synths of the 90s/00s; the Viruses, Supernovas and, of course, the JP800 – a model of a model, like the windmills in your mind… It packs a great punch though (and a somewhat high CPU hit). It’s pretty generous on the features front, which means there’s great potential for cool sounds with it. Genesis CM is another free synth that delivers decent synthesis. Originally bundled with Computer Music magazine, it was devised in conjunction with trance DJ Ummet Ozcan, and its presets certainly reflect this. For a freebie, it’s a great place to get all that huge 2000s detunery! Lots of fun to play with, but pretty digital sounding (which is not necessarily a bad thing!) However, I’m putting through Massive and Spire in the battle of the dancefloor synths because they offer so much more than their freeware counterparts.
(iZotope Iris, Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2, Spectrasonics Trilian, TAL Bassline 101)
Ooh, a battle of the Spectrasonics synths. Let’s not be silly, Omnisphere is one of the best sounding and most flexible synths out there and it’s going to waltz through this group. Can Trilian join it? Trilian at first appears a little niche. It’s designed predominantly for bass sounds, both synthetic and acoustic, and it does them really really well. However, I find myself using the Trilian soundsources within Omnisphere more and more, which almost leaves the Trilian vst itself a little redundant. Iris is an intriguing synth. It offers a very unusual way of manipulating samples with its Spectrogram section, and you can get some wild results with four layers. But, for me, there’s something a little lacking in the sound it creates, a depth that’s not quite there. That leaves Bassline 101. On the face of it, Bassline 101 appears to be nothing more than an SH101 emulation. This makes it simple to use and, naturally, with a great sound to boot. But it does also have some extra tricks up its sleeve though, not least the ability to use it polyphonically. And boy is it an accurate emulation, of a truly great synth. And for that, it just sneaks into second past Trilian, which feels more like an add-on to Omnisphere, like the Bob Moog Tribute library, these days.
(NI Monark, Psychic Modulation Phonec 2, Sonic Projects OPX Pro II, u-he Tyrell N6)
Retro retro retro! All four of these synths are trying to deliver us a slice of the past: Moog, VHS tape, Oberheim and Juno sounds. Which does it the best and goes through? Monark is a Minimoog, wrapped up in NI’s Reaktor format. It does very little more than attempt to emulate the original hardware synth and does it very nicely, especially with the filters. Great for basses and twiddly leads, but possibilities for odder, darker, droney sounds too if you push it. Phonec 2 is probably the most ‘out there’ of the four. It’s not trying to copy any specific old skool hardware, more the warping, drifting sounds associated with Boards of Canada and the synthwave genre. It has a very enjoyable ‘Melt’ function, that is basically adding some pitched modulation, resembling the deteriorating playback of VHS tapes. It’s simplistic in its approach but is rather a lovely sound. OPX Pro II is almost like a big brother to Phonec, in that it offers a genuine retro sound but with a whole host of extra features. Primarily aimed at apeing legendary Oberheim synths, it does a really very good job of it. It is perhaps only let down by its slavish attempt to also emulate the visual design of the OB-X, which is not terribly efficient for a softsynth GUI. Finally, Tyrell N6, which aims to emulate the Juno 60. Again, as you’d expect from Urs and the u-he team, it does it very well and also offers a few extra features to add some flexibility. It sounds great and is very easy to use. As a freebie, it offers much more than some commercial, expensive synths. OPX Pro II goes through because I’m a bit in love with it at the moment, and is joined by Tyrell N6 because of its slightly more useful nature (but it was very close for Phonec 2).
(NI Razor, Spitfire Audio eDNA Earth, Steinberg PadshopPro, Waldorf PPG Wave 3)
The final group and just as competitive as the rest. Razor is an intriguing synth, crisp and aggressive. It’s one of very few additive synthesis synths out there and manages to simplify the process with a very effective GUI. Its real mojo, for me, is its ability to producer evolving, moving sounds. If you need sounds to cut through a dense mix, it’s a good ‘go to’. Slight downside for me is it being housed in Reaktor, which remains a bit of an acquired taste from a useability perspective. eDNA Earth is a big old beast, housed in Kontakt. It relies on some stellar soundsources from Spitfire Audio and gives you some really neat options to blend two samples together for intricate results. It’s particularly good for very high quality soundscapes and pads. The wealth of soundsources covers a lot of sonic territory, and the broad effects section is pretty tasty too. Padshop Pro is another synth that uses samples, but unlike eDNA Earth, runs as its own vst. It specialises in granular synthesis and does it really pretty well. Allowing you to pluck very specific parts of your samples and manipulate them to your heart’s content. It’s really clever and doesn’t make granular synthesis overly complex. If you want to give some old samples a second life, it’s a pretty neat place to start. Waldorf’s vst recreation of the classic PPG Wave synth has come on leaps and bounds since its first incarnation – though it still won’t let you import your own wavetables, which seems a little shortsighted. In some ways it covers very similar territory to Razor, but allows you to stack up to eight waves. The PPG sound is certainly a classic, but is to a certain extent, perhaps, limited in comparison to its competition. eDNA Earth is the winner here, simply because it so quickly allows me to create the sort of sound I use regularly in my music. But it’s a tight one for second place. I’ll give PadshopPro the nod, as its user sample import has really opened up the possibilties. But Razor’s really unlucky to miss out.
It’s all down to the luck of the draw now. Will the heavyweights manage to avoid each other? Will any of the unfancied synths sneak through? Let’s find out…
MATCH 01 (NI Absynth vs u-he Tyrell N6)
Well, this seems a little like a mismatch in terms of flexibility and capability. Tyrell N6 is merely a free synth that emulates a Juno 60 (incredibly enjoyably, admittedly). Whereas Absynth has a complex synth engine, the ability to import your own samples and a unique effects section. It’s a clear win for Absynth in my opinion.
MATCH 02 (NI Massive vs TAL UNO LX)
This rather follows the pattern of the first match, with Massive offering a great deal more options over UNO LX. And despite the rather lovely, quirky nature of UNO LX, I’m calling it as a reasonably comfortable victory for the old favourite, Massive.
MATCH 03 (u-he Zebra/HZ vs Steinberg PadshopPro)
PadshopPro rather squeaked into Round 2 and then comes up against one of the favourites. It’s a hard life. Zebra, with its myriad of options and stellar sound quality has a pretty straightforward win. Not getting a lot of upsets so far are we?
MATCH 04 (Xfer Serum vs TAL Bassline 101)
On the face of it, this looks a little unfair. But do you know what? I’m going to be a bit controversial here. Sometimes limitations can be a good thing, and whilst Serum offers much more scope than Bassline 101, I have to admit to finding it not the most stimulating synth to use. Perhaps I’ve grown a little tired of aggressive, digital sounds, or perhaps it’s something else in my subconscious, but… occasionally it’s fun to try and make pads out of a bass synth. I’m going to award a shocking win to the Roland emulator.
MATCH 05 (Spitfire Audio eDNA Earth vs u-he Diva)
A match up of two big-hitters here. One a sample/synth library, the other a full-on analogue emulation. Fond as I am of everything that Spitfire Audio produces, Diva’s analogue modelling is belter and a synth I’ve used in just about every project. It’s tough to see one of these go, but Diva goes through to the quarter-finals.
MATCH 06 (Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2 vs u-he Bazille)
Lots of versatility in this match-up, but even Bazille’s strength at creating weird and wonderful modulations comes unstuck against the sheer wealth of options under Omnisphere’s hood. Eric Persing’s big, blue monster carries on, squashing all in its path.
MATCH 07 (Sonic Projects OPX Pro II vs u-he Hive)
Well, here’s a battle of two outsiders. Germany’s u-he has a lot of representatives in this round, such is the quality of the brand. Hive has a really easy to use interface, which makes dialling in the sound you’re after less time-consuming than others. OPX Pro II is a little less straightforward, but makes up for it in lushness and analogue sound. And it is, after all, mostly about sound here, so it goes through to the quarters.
MATCH 08 (Reveal Sound Spire vs Wide Blue Sound Orbit/Eclipse)
Two very different synths here. Spire’s a straight up, no nonsense virtual analogue beast. Orbit (and Eclipse) are both designed specifically to create sequences, sounds with movement, and use samples rather than oscillators. This is a dirty fight for the last place in the next round. And whilst flipping through Spire’s presets makes me very nostalgic for trance-filled summers of the late 90s, I’m going to plump for Orbit/Eclipse because it suits my tastes rather better, and is lots of fun to use.
It begins to get serious now. We’ve lost some good synths, but the cream of the crop remain. Will the draw be kind? Or will it pitch some big-hitters against each other at a relatively early stage? Let’s find out…
QF 01 (TAL Bassline 101 vs u-he Zebra/HZ)
Even I’m surprised that Bassline 101 has got this far. I certainly wouldn’t put it in my top eight synths. And, alas, this is as far as it’s going, as it crumbles under the immense weight of all Zebra’s synthesis possibilities. We have our first, comfortable, semi-finalist.
QF 02 (Sonic Projects OPX Pro II vs Wide Blue Sound Orbit/Eclipse)
Who could have seen these two battling it out for a place in the last four? Not me. And yet here we are. I think it’s time that Orbit’s limitations have finally made it stumble, and it’s a shock semi-final position for OPX Pro II and it’s lush sound.
QF03 (u-he Diva vs Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2)
Oh my. The fickle hand of fate has put two of my very favourite synths together at the quarter-final stage! Diva, with its fabulous GUI and analogue sound, and Omnisphere, with its extraordinarily deep collection of soundsources and sound manipulation techniques. How I regret having to send one of them home, but… I have to give Omnisphere the nod… just.
QF04 (NI Absynth vs NI Massive)
It’s the battle of the Native Instruments synths! Absynth offers sample import and some great sonic capabilities, whilst Massive is the old king of digital synthesis. It’s a mighty match-up but, whilst I owe a lot to Massive (it was the first synth I started programming on), Absynth creates the more interesting sounds for me. Absynth is the NI champion.
Down to the final four. Two will take their rightful place in the final, two will go home empty-handed. The luck of the draw can still throw up a surprise at this late stage… but, will it?
SF 01 (Sonic Projects OPX Pro II vs u-he Zebra/HZ)
A surprise semi-finalist has their last hurrah here. As much as I do enjoy the sound of OPX Pro II (and who doesn’t like the Oberheim sound? crazy people, that’s who), its interface needs some work and it falls pretty short of Zebra’s ludicrously vast array of oscillators, filters, effects and a modulation matrix that appears to have been designed by NASA. It’s a straightforward victory for Zebra.
SF 02 (NI Absynth vs Spectrasonics Omnisphere)
Like samples with your synthesis? Then this is the semi-final for you. The wacky old Absynth’s put up a great fight to get this far, but Omnisphere makes its way into the final because it just has so many options and sounds so good. And, let’s face it, Absynth is getting a little old now… come on NI, show it some love!
So here we are, the final. Two amazing synths have powered their way through the group stage and the knockout rounds, to meet head to head in order to find out the winner of the World Cup of Softsynths!
FINAL (Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2 vs u-he Zebra/HZ)
Had I made a prediction at the beginning of this tournament, I would have put money on these two making the final. Though, of course, it all depended on the kindness of the draw, making sure they didn’t meet in an earlier round.
These are, in my opinion, the two most powerful softsynths out there. Both have huge range when it comes to their sonic capabilities, but also have relatively straightforward interfaces that mean the bread and butter stuff is easy enough to do, before you delve into the labyrinthine depths of options behind the curtains.
Where they differ the most is in the source of the sounds you make with them. Despite a very respectable synth engine, Omnisphere’s strengths lie in its near endless supply of soundsources (literally endless when you consider you can now import your own audio). Whereas Zebra is pure synth. However, it has a great deal more synth options than Omnisphere. All the usual waveforms are there, plus you can draw your own and add in noise and FM oscillators.
Both synths have a fine array of filter options, modulation sources, routability and entertaining sequencers/arpeggiators. Omnisphere, for me, has the better effects (and certainly has more effects) and has the rather entertaining Orb feature. Zebra offers many more oscillators and is also kinder on the CPU (well, unless you’re running the HZ version in anything other than Draft quality!).
And then there’s the all important factor… how do they sound? Omnisphere’s use of samples mean it can literally sound like anything you want it to. Add in the granular synthesis and truly extraordinary textures and timbres are possible. Zebra’s reliance on synthesis lends it a certain personality that perhaps Omnisphere lacks, it’s a purer sound. For me, Omnisphere can also sometimes be a little more difficult to fit into a mix. It can take more EQing because its sound is capable of being huge and sometimes a little strong in the lower mids. Zebra’s sound is easier to control, which can often mean you can throw more instances of into a track.
Both synths are amazing. We are hugely lucky to have them in our studios. But, there can only be one winner and when it comes down to separating one from the other, it has to come down to pure personal preference – which synth do I like using most?
The answer is Zebra. Whilst Omnisphere delivers an excellent, straight from Hollywood, punch, it is the gentler, subtler, more ‘soulful’ character of Zebra that wins the day for me. It is my desert island synth.
Hope you enjoyed the World Cup of Softsynths. I’m sure many of you will disagree vehemently with some of my decisions. If so, feel free to argue it out with me in the comments section below. I look forward to it!
As an antidote to the somewhat random nature of the World Cup draw, I thought I’d present my current top ten favourite synths.
01. u-he Zebra HZ
02. Spectrasonics Omnisphere
03. u-he Diva
04. Spitfire Audio eDNA Earth
05. NI Massive
06. NI Absynth
07. Sonic Projects OPX Pro II
08. Wide Blue Sound Orbit/Eclipse
09. u-he Bazille
10. TAL UNO-LX
Hang on. Have I put Massive ahead of Absynth, despite the fact Absynth knocked Massive out of the World Cup? Fickle sod aren’t I?