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I hate paperwork. So it’s been a few years since I updated the list of music gear covered by my insurance policy. When I started crossing off the things I no longer have, or still have but no longer use, I was reminded once more just how rapidly the world of electronic music has been transformed by computers.

Six or seven years ago, there just about wasn’t any such thing as a software synthesizer. Crafting a synth arrangement required routing MIDI and audio cables and searching through LCD patch lists in a rack of hardware. Today I can (and generally do) work straight through from my initial musical inspiration to the final tweaks in the mix without ever leaving the computer screen or switching on a hardware synth, except to use the weighted-action keyboard on my ancient Korg 01/W ProX.

Not to knock hardware: there are still some great hardware synths out there. Any short list would start with the Yamaha Motif and Korg Triton series, both of which are terrific. And not to deny the limitations of software, such as stability problems and the gnawing fear of a hard drive crash. Even so, soft synths offer some potent advantages:

Because I write a lot of product reviews for music magazines (mainly Keyboard and Electronic Musician), I probably have more familiarity with a variety of soft synths than the average bear, so O’Reilly Digital Media thought you might like to hear which ones I feel are especially noteworthy. “But don’t just tell people what your favorites are,” they said. “Explain what makes each synth special. And include a few sound files that show why you’re inspired.”

Given the number of great soft synths available today, any list of favorites is bound to be not only subjective, but more than a bit arbitrary. My apologies in advance to those whose dream machines aren’t discussed here. (Leave your nominations below.) For reasons of both practicality and personal prejudice, I applied the following criteria:

Help for Beginners

If you’re new to synthesizers, more than a few terms that insiders toss around may be Greek to you. Here are some quick definitions of terms used in this article, to get you off to a running start. For more background, see my book Power Tools for Synthesizer Programming.

aux send: an aux (auxiliary) send is an audio signal path (also known as a bus) that is used to route a signal from a mixer or synth channel to an auxiliary effect processor.

envelope generator: a synth module that creates a signal (called the envelope) that can be used to modulate (change) some aspect of the sound. For instance, an amplitude envelope changes the loudness (amplitude) of the sound.

filter: a synth module that processes a signal by removing (filtering out) some portion of the frequency spectrum. A lowpass filter, for instance, lets low frequencies pass through, while filtering out high frequencies.

frequency modulation (FM): a type of synthesis in which one oscillator modulates the frequency of another oscillator. When the modulating oscillator is in the audio frequency range (20Hz–20kHz), FM produces a perceived change in tone color rather than a perceived change in pitch.

just intonation: a tuning system in which the frequencies of the notes are whole-number multiples of one another. Our conventional tuning system, in contrast, is based on the 12th root of 2, which is an irrational number. Just intonation tunings produce pure-sounding chords, but they don’t allow free transposition from one key to another.

LFO: Low-Frequency Oscillator. An oscillator running below the audio range, typically used to produce vibrato, tremolo, or filter sweeps.

modulation: a signal that changes the behavior of an audio module (such as a synth or effect). For example, modulation from an LFO could alternately raise and lower the cutoff frequency of a filter, thus changing the harmonic content of the sound passing through the filter.

multitimbral: capable of making more than one type of sound (timbre) at the same time. An eight-channel multitimbral MIDI synthesizer can play up to eight different sounds at once, with each accessible through a unique MIDI channel.

oscillator: the module in a synth that produces the sound. The raw signal coming from an oscillator will usually be processed by other modules so as to make it more musically useful.

overtones: most sounds in nature (and in music) can be thought of as composites that contain simple vibrations (sine waves) at many different frequencies. Each of these sine waves can be referred to as a partial. The words “overtones” and “harmonics” are often used as synonyms for “partials”; the differences among them would require a lengthy explanation.

patches: a group of settings for parameters that work together to create a particular sound in a synthesizer. Most synthesizers provide memory storage for numerous patches. The words “preset,” “program,” and “patch” are synonymous.

Scala tuning tables: Scala is a software system for creating and analyzing tunings. Tuning files created in Scala can be loaded into various synthesizers, after which the synth will play whatever tuning has been loaded.

waveshaper: a synth module that changes the shape of a waveform. Since waveform shape is directly tied to the harmonic content (sound) of the waveform, changing the waveshape will change the sound. Often, waveshapers add new harmonics to a tone, making it brighter and more colorful.

Without further ado, then, here are my personal picks—as of mid-2005. If you ask me again next year, the list may have changed.

1. Native Instruments Reaktor

Any discussion of the top software synthesizers pretty much has to start with Reaktor. Reaktor is not only powerful, it’s also one of the most expensive soft synths. But there’s a reason for that: it isn’t just one instrument. The program comes with more than two-dozen separate instruments—and if none of them fits the bill, you can create your own. Reaktor isn’t just a suite of synthesizers, it’s a fully modular toolkit, in which you can wire up oscillators, filters, envelope generators, waveshapers, and many other types of components to implement your musical vision.

I’ve used Reaktor, for instance, to build a complex FM/subtractive synth that can be tuned to any imaginable scale in just intonation. It’s true that more and more soft synths (not including Reaktor) can load Scala tuning tables, making it easy to define your own tunings. But my custom synth does things none of those instruments will do, because it was designed from the ground up to play in just intonation.

Reaktor isn’t just for diehard experimenters, however. Among the factory instruments are versatile polyphonic synths meant for keyboard work and several powerful beatboxes suitable for edgy contemporary dance/pop productions. Some very capable effects are tucked away in their own folder; you can use them as plugins in other programs. You’ll also find a couple of very programmable, but rather mysterious, sound generators that will do their thing happily for hours without user input. Unfortunately, documentation on the included instruments is sketchy.

Reaktor’s factory soundset leans toward aggressive dance and experimental styles. If you need a variety of meat-and-potatoes sounds for producing pop songs, it might not be the best choice. But if I could have only one synth on my hard drive, it would be Reaktor.

Reaktor Spacedrone Reaktor’s SpaceDrone can produce a variety of endlessly keening, chirping soundscapes, which morph subtly without human interference.

SineBeats 2 SineBeats 2 is one of Reaktor’s sources of looped synthetic beats. Note the large-step sequencer at the top and the two small ones at lower left. ToolTips (upper center) make it easier to understand the factory instruments. (Click to enlarge.)

Reaktor Carbon Carbon 2 is designed to be played from the keyboard. It has three oscillators (left), a multimode filter (center), and built-in effects (right).

Reaktor Skrewell The large, animated display that dominates the panel in Reaktor’s Skrewell synth is purely for show. You program this self-playing sound source in the lower area. (Click to enlarge.)

2. Spectrasonics Stylus RMX

The latest addition to my collection, Stylus RMX is rapidly making itself indispensable. RMX is all about rhythm: it’s a workstation plugin designed specifically for playing, editing, and creating beats. The RMX concept starts off with a truly massive 7GB sound library designed under the guidance of Eric Persing, perhaps the leading sound designer in the music industry. For many songs, a factory RMX beat will provide all the necessary inspiration. If more is needed, you can layer (for instance) the hi-hat pattern from one groove with the kick from a second, a djembe rhythm from a third, and a noise bed from a fourth.

Stylus is eight-channel multitimbral, but that doesn’t mean you’re limited to eight loops at a time. Put a channel in Groove Menu mode, hold down six or eight MIDI keys, and you’ll hear six or eight beats at once on a single channel. (Typically, each channel will control a unique drum kit.)

In Slice Menu mode, RMX lets you retune, pan, and apply filters and envelopes to your own defined “edit groups” of drum hits within the beat. With just a minute or two of work, you can radically alter the sound of a factory pattern. A handy rack of built-in effects can be applied to edit groups as well.

Not satisfied with a beat that sounds the same every time it loops? Switch on RMX’s Chaos Designer, and you can introduce subtle (or radical) randomization. The random functions can be applied intelligently to specific subdivisions within the bar, and can affect pitch, push/drag, or the choice of which sound will be played. The output of the Chaos Designer can be captured as a new MIDI file, so once RMX has improvised a beat you like, you can save it for later use.

Stylus RMX The Stylus RMX edit page doesn’t look fancy, but these parameters can be applied separately to each drum hit in a pattern if desired.

Stylus Effects Rack In the RMX effects rack you can apply three insert effects to any drum pattern or even to a subset of drum hits within the pattern. You can also use four aux sends and master effects, if your CPU is up to it.

3. Steinberg Xphraze

The ancestry of Xphraze goes straight back to the Korg Wavestation, which pioneered the concept of wave sequencing. The idea is simple, but powerful: rather than choose a single waveform for an oscillator, as in most synths, you can design a rhythmic sequence of waves, which will cycle as each note plays. Not surprisingly, Xphraze is ideal for keyboardists who want to play show-stopping grooves by holding down one finger. The groove can include not only drum hits but percolating bass or lead lines.

Another point of commonality between the Wavestation and Xphraze are two-dimensional vector envelopes, which let you dynamically crossfade the sounds coming from the four oscillators. But there the resemblance stops. Xphraze goes far past the Wavestation in having resonant filters and multidimensional sequences in which not only the waveforms themselves but up to six different types of modulation can be sequenced. Real-time interactive features let you switch among up to four wave sequences for each oscillator. And in Xphraze you can use your own keyboard layouts of user samples rather than rely on the factory soundset.

I’ve always felt that Xphraze was one of those “under the radar” plugins. But German developers Wizoo, who created Xphraze for Steinberg, aim to change that with the recent release of five dance mix-ready Xpansion sound libraries, each containing dozens of sounds and several megabytes of audio.

Curiously enough, Korg itself recently released the original Wavestation in software form as part of the Korg Legacy Collection. The new Wavestation is 100 percent authentic, complete with all of the original waveforms and factory patches, and most of the quirky limitations. Unfortunately, the software Wavestation is available only as part of the rather pricey Legacy Collection. Unless you’re craving that early ’80s vintage sound, Xphraze would be a better investment for wave sequencing.

Xphraze Main Panel The main panel of Xphraze includes a patch browser (lower left), graphically editable envelopes, and a whole slew of wave sequences (center).

Xphraze Vector Envelopes Xphraze provides graphic editing of a vector envelope (upper left), a separate effect processor for each of its four stereo outputs, and an interface for importing user samples.

4. Image-Line Sytrus

Most music-production software these days comes with a couple of basic built-in synthesizers, at the very least. I debated limiting my list of favorites to third-party plugins, but in the end Sytrus was just too cool to ignore. (There was another debate about whether to give the tip to Sytrus or to Mπlstrom, the extraordinary synth in Propellerhead Reason. It was a close call.)

Sytrus is available as an optional add-on for Image-Line FL Studio, the program formerly known as FruityLoops, and is bundled in the XXL version. At heart it’s a six-operator FM (frequency modulation) synth, a design first seen in the early ’80s in Yamaha’s enormously successful DX7.

Sytrus will load DX7 patches, in fact. But it goes much further, thanks to its three resonant filters with waveshaping, built-in effects, plucked-string algorithm, additive waveform designer, and syncable, looping multisegment envelopes. A single patch can use more than 50 envelopes, not including the multisegment amplitude contours for the LFOs.

As I noted in a review of FL Studio for a recent issue of Electronic Musician, Sytrus is not free of quirks. Those great envelopes, for instance, can’t respond to key velocity, which strips off some of the subtleties you might like to program into certain types of keyboard patches. Even so, the sheer variety of timbres it will produce, ranging from warm pads, Hammond organ clones, and punchy basses to one-finger percussion grooves, makes it a winner.

Sytrus Sytrus’s multi-segment envelopes can sync to the tempo, and you can edit the slope of individual segments by dragging the little circles. The knob matrix on the right is for programming audio signal routings for FM, filtering, and effects.

5. Camel Audio Cameleon 5000

Additive synthesis is one of the most idealized, but least practical, ways of generating electronic sound. The concept seems simple: since any sound can be described mathematically as the sum of one or more sine waves (each with its own frequency, amplitude, and phase characteristics), in theory we can construct absolutely any sound by adding together a bunch of sine waves.

In the real world, additive synthesis is not quite so straightforward, for two reasons. First, until recently even the fastest computers simply weren’t fast enough to do it in real time. Second, how many of us have the patience to program musically expressive sounds by defining the parameters of dozens upon dozens of sine waves?

Thanks to today’s Macs and PCs, additive synthesis is now a viable proposition for those with modest budgets. And thanks to the brilliant user interface in Cameleon 5000, programming complex, evocative sounds using additive synthesis is no longer quite so burdensome a proposition. Up to four sound-source profiles can be defined for each patch, and Cameleon will morph among them under the control of a two-dimensional, graphically programmable morphing envelope. Each source also has its own loopable multisegment envelope, which allows you to blend overtones in arbitrarily complex ways.

The synth also includes a utility for analyzing sound files and converting them into Cameleon data so that they can be used in patches. Thus it’s a simple matter to morph between, for instance, a dog bark and a grand piano. Surprisingly for a synth that uses such space-age programming techniques, Cameleon’s factory soundset includes numerous meat-and-potatoes basses, leads, and pads alongside the exotic additive effects patches.

Cameleon is the only one of the five synths in this article that’s available in a downloadable demo version.

Cameleon Morph After choosing four sound-source definitions with the pop-up menus at the corners of the square, you can create a morphing envelope in Cameleon. Envelope times are programmed using the horizontal timeline in the upper window.

Cameleon Data The displays and tools on Cameleon’s source A, B, C, and D pages are for setting the harmonic content of each source. You can adjust the amplitudes of individual sine waves and noise components, and the harmonic content can be different for each point in the multisegment envelopes. Cameleon also supports sine wave detuning, which can be different for each envelope point.

Five, No Jive

Any one of the synthesizers featured above (except Stylus RMX, which only does drums) could be used for complete instrumental productions. Each would sound great—and in some ways they’d sound quite different from one another. So choosing the one (or several) that will best meet your needs can be tough. I hope the brief profiles here, and the audio examples, will make the process easier. Visit the manufacturers’ websites for more music demos and information.

Music Examples

Camel Audio Cameleon. I created this sonic event by opening four instances of Cameleon5000 and playing overlapping notes. Two Cameleons were playing stock factory patches; the other two patches were lightly edited:

Native Instruments Reaktor. This groove layers three Reaktor synths and two Reaktor beatboxes—probably Aerobic and Sinebeats, but I was having too much fun to take notes. One beat appears in the first eight bars; the second is layered with it in the second eight. The bass comes from a relatively simple Reaktor instrument called Junatik, the plucked arpeggio from Carbon 2, and the little twang in bar 3 from Kaleidon:

Steinberg Xphraze. I made this musical statement with five Xphraze instances. The first provides the opening snare build-up (a one-finger factory patch, not something I played) and the ride cymbal. The second does the main drone, the third the main drumbeat—again, one-finger patches. I played the lead and bass parts by hand:

Spectrasonics Stylus RMX. I used six of Stylus RMX’s eight mix slots in this example, unmuting individual channels in the host program with its automation. I also panned, filtered, and retuned some of the loops dynamically. Because Spectrasonics prefers that its loops not be made publicly available in a form that could be resampled, I blended in a bass line (played on Spectrasonics Trilogy) and a background pad (played on Spectrasonics Atmosphere):

Image-Line Sytrus. Since Sytrus is available only within FL Studio, I took the liberty of using a few non-Sytrus sounds (the Speech Synthesizer and sampled kick, hi-hat, and noise snare) for this example. The bass, both of the one-finger groove patterns, the lead (with FL distortion added as an insert effect), and the plucked sound at the end are all played by Sytrus:

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