Vital, ANA 2.5, and Serum. These three VST synths together make for a powerful trio. In the synthesis jungle, there’s many tools to carve a path to a desired sound, but the path more easily carved is carved by the tools most effective and easy to use. Or something like that. Regardless, synthesis is a pillar of sound design and music production as a whole, and is considerably one of the most fulfilling aspects all around. The three synths I’ve mentioned above provide just that on a consistent basis- fulfillment; that is consistent fulfillment in enjoyment, learning, and productivity, and why I have chosen them as the three best free & paid VST synths in 2023.
The VST synths covered below are those that I use on a daily basis, and are in my opinion the best for beginners and experts alike for these reasons:
- Accessible outright prices, and payment plan options.
- Exclusive premium presets designed by the best in music.
- Easy to learn workflows and UIs, which translates across other VST synths.
- Near limitless sound design possibilities regardless of style and genre.
- High-quality sonic characteristics.
- Most importantly, are consistently fun to use.
At the end of day we’re creators, and being able to express our creativity seamlessly is primary. The VST synths featured in this article are designed and made accessible with that in mind.
As always, this article is free of any paid testimony. These are fantastic synths that I love and think you will too.
Vital by Matt Tytel (Free)
Starting off is the incredible FREE VST synth, Vital. A spectral warping wavetable synth, Vital immediately comes with an exciting name, look, and classification, however, all exciting words and flash aside, this particular VST synth comes first because of it’s massive potential.
Upon first view, Vital features in the “Voice” window 3 oscillators, 1 sampler engine, 2 filters, 3 envelopes, 3 LFOs, and 2 random modulators from left to right and top to bottom respectively. The two standouts are the oscillators and their wide variety of morphing options, and the sampler. The oscillators come with the usual FM and Bending morphing types, but included are a couple such as “Smear” and “Squeeze” that are exclusive to the synth; both of which are fun to use and seriously powerful, especially for experimental and bass music sound design.
The sampler is equipped with the usual sample looping, key tracking, etc. but it has an amazingly clear, almost silky sound, that I have found highly useful for creating atmospheres, resample type sounds in general, and adding texture. A rarity even in most VST synths.
A further look in the “effects” window shows a total of 9 effect types including a variety of high quality distortion units, a compressor, filter, chorus, delay, and reverb. All of the effects have a superior sound quality, as well as a fun to use interactive feeling. Furthermore, many of the effects offer modulation options that might not be found on most other VST synths.
Vital’s potential is all around. For starters it’s free which is reason enough to grab a copy to try, but what has kept me hooked is it’s gorgeous sound quality, endless sound shaping possibilities, and very friendly UI. These all keep the VST synth feeling fresh and consistently fun to use, while being absolutely powerful regardless of studio session. This all included in a free VST synth is a rarity, and that attention to detail, quality, and accessibility to everyone can truly be felt.
Vital is available for both Mac and PC, and can be downloaded for free, or purchased under “Plus” and “Pro” plans that offer more presets, wavetables, and other perks. Additionally users can subscribe for $5/month to gain Pro plan perks and get first access to exclusive content.
ANA 2.5 by Sonic Academy ($170)
ANA 2.5 is an extraordinary VST synth that boasts an array of first-rate oscillators and wavetables, samplers and samples, filters, LFOS, effects, presets, and unique functions that make it a must have for sound designers, producers, composers, and artists of all styles. It’s sound engine is incredibly charismatic and dynamic, almost as if it knows the sound you’re making and changes its whole attitude around it.
The main standout of this VST synth is its flexibility. Naturally when one thinks about a synth, what comes to mind are the usual functions, as some are listed above, the usual association to synth-centric music, and clean, clinical, binary digital sound. While ANA 2.5 is fundamentally capable of doing this, and doing it well with the high quality oscillators, wavetables, and modulators, it doesn’t limit itself. With 3 samplers included, you can take that simple synth pluck, or complex reese bass, and give them some pop with one, or multiple, of the many, and highly useable samples that come stock. The use of these samples truly can take your sound and turn it in to much more.
What’s even more is the integrated multisampler feature as part of the update from ANA 2 to 2.5. This multisampling function is simply put, some of the absolute best I’ve played with. Sonic Academy has taken in to account the detail needed for a multisample sample library, and the functionality of those samples in their program. The samples themselves are well recorded and produced, while also behaving well in the synth in such a manner that setting them up and playing doesn’t feel like a painstaking process that might lead to catastrophic results. Once all is set to go, these samples play beautifully, and can easily be flipped on their heads for unique and interesting new sounds.
Outside of the main functions, one huge consideration of this synth is its workflow. Although at first glance it seems like an enigma to wrap your head around, its design makes total sense, and is actually empathetic to the process of making sounds. What I mean is it works from left to right, top to bottom, and their isn’t any fussing about in different windows for effects, mods, or matrixes. Adding on a distortion, compressor, reverb, etc. is a breeze, just as much as setting LFO 1 to the fine pitch tuning for a little analog flavor. It all happens without bouncing around. Speaking of the LFO, lets talk about the special enveloper.
G-Env is the unique enveloper in ANA 2.5 that acts as a hybrid of an enveloper and LFO, and can be assigned to just about anything. Users have access to up to 3 G-Env instances and can all have unique shapes, rates, depths, phases, and modulation assignments. Especially useful is the ability to draw custom shapes for total flexibility and specificity in modulation. For example, a sound designer can use one of the G-Envs to create a tight transient, another for eighth note filtering, and one last for increase of delay feedback over time.
ANA 2.5 is one of the most powerful VST synths available, and can be used on both Mac and PC. You can grab a copy through Sonic Academy ($170) or the Slate Digital All Access Pass ($9.99 per month. You’ll even find a wide assortment of sounds handcrafted by yours truly.)
Serum by Xfer Records ($189)
To close out the show, it always has to be Serum by Xfer Records. By enlarge the most powerful synth on the planet, and for reasons that may or may not have already been discussed out of the atmosphere for the last few years, it comes as no surprise that this highly focused VST synth still remains at the top of many categories. It’s safe to assume many are familiar with it’s functionality, so I want to present as well a couple of thoughts beyond its modus operandi that I believe lend into its capacity and success.
Before getting in to those thoughts and as a brief (re)introduction to the VST synth: Serum by Xfer Records is a wavetable synthesizer at its most basic function, but is also a subtractive and additive synth, and sampler. Serum comes with 2 main wavetable oscillators, a sub-oscillator featuring basic shape waves, and a sampler oscillator as the main sound sources, multiple assignable envelopes and LFOs, a filter, and a collection of first-rate effects. Topping it all off is the ability to create your own wavetables either through additive synthesis, or by dropping in audio samples that convert into wavetables.
The first thought on Serum’s success has to do with its accessibility in different manners: most importantly the synth hasn’t been driven towards a specific type of sound designer, producer, or artist, and rightfully so. The synth offers much more than what the experimental bass music designers gravitate towards, or the analog synth music community appeals to- it has something for everyone. Making it accessible to everyone has not only lent in to the success for Xfer Records and Steve Duda, but as well those who are using it.
Furthering the accessibility is its intuitive and easy to learn, easy to teach, workflow. First, its intuitiveness makes it easier for the user to create what they want in a quicker and even more creative manner. Second, this intuitiveness is in part due to its simplicity- no matter your skill level, wrapping your head around Serum doesn’t feel like mental gymnastics. Since it easy to learn, making desired sounds now becomes even easier and intentional. Third, when in the studio with a friend or client, teaching the synth is fairly simple- this can be a HUGE time saver that keeps the creative flow moving.
The last point to make deserves it’s own paragraph. Serum is simply the best VST synth, and in some cases hardware synth, teacher on the planet. Because of its simple design, learning signal flow and what certain parameters do is easy. That knowledge gained opens the gates to better understand more complex synths. I truly believe the flow of Serum will continue to usher in new generations of sound designers who will have a better grasp on synthesizers and feel excited to utilize their knowledge when learning more complex synths of all types.
Serum by Xfer Records is available for both Mac and PC, and is widely accessible by purchasing through the Xfer Records website, or Splice’s rent-to-own program.
Whether you’re producing the next hit, sound designing complex bass sounds, or spacing out with your fingers held firm on an F Major 7th chord of sine waves drowned in reverb, synthesis should first and foremost, bring you some kind of fulfillment. That fulfillment should also be preceded by a feeling of justification for investing in that VST synth. As many great VST synths as there are available, Vital, ANA 2.5, and Serum are consistently those that show up in my projects big or small, and continue to stay fresh as fun toys and powerful tools.
Now I pass the question on to you – What are your top 3 best VST synths?
Happy synthesizing, and thanks so much for reading.
About The Author
Bio: Imaginate is a renowned American recording artist and award-winning sound designer known for his unique, eclectic blend of music. In 2019, he began releasing a series of award-winning collections, including Glitch Kitchen and Kaleidoscope Neuro DNB on Loopmasters and Aqua, Charta, Verre, Terra, Metallum, and Aer as part of the Elements Series with Black Octopus Sound, and released on Splice. He has also released numerous synth presets and sample packs with Slate Digital. Imaginate is also a songwriter, composer, and performer of original music which you can listen to here.