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When we talk about the best free synth VST plugins in 2021, the word that stands out is free, right? Believe it or not, there are some amazing synth plugins, befitting any hit record, that won’t cost you a cent.
We have picked out a top 10 that we consider to be the best of the freebies right now. Let’s check out the pros and cons for each, and enjoy not worrying about the cost!
Here are the best FREE synth plugins 2021:
1. U-he Tyrell N6
The dream synth
Anytime you have access to a U-he plugin, paid or free, it’s usually a good day. The first U-he offering to make our list is the Tyrell N6 synth plugin.
U-he teamed up with German online music magazine Amazona.de to create this plugin. The magazine asked forum users to submit their ideas for the dream soft synth, and Tyrell N6 was the result.
Tyrell N6 is a two-oscillator synth with a noise generator and ring modulation. It also offers two syncable LFOs with eight waveforms. There are two analog-style envelopes that can be looped or LFO triggered. The filter comes from a prototype that would go on to be the U-he Diva twin-filter design.
Rounding up the UI is a simple mixer and modulation matrix. If you are familiar with hardware synths, you might notice that it’s loosely based around the Roland Juno-60.
It comes packed with around 580 presets, including basses, pads, and leads. As a virtual-analog plugin with a slight Juno-60 vibe, the sounds are very 80s. But that vintage analog sound is desired by producers of many different genres today.
The interface is very nice for users of all levels. Nothing is overly complicated, and controls can be MIDI mapped to your keyboard controller if you want to be more hands-on.
|Image credit: U-he Check Amazona.de||
Tyrell N6 is a free synth that you should already have, and if you don’t, then go get it now. The UI doesn’t show every parameter possible; it’s kept primarily to the basics. That might be a negative for some advanced users, but it’s also a good thing; it keeps it simple.
It will sound great for anything from an 80s vibe to minimal techno. It’s my pick as the best free VST synth available.
2. U-he Zebralette
The mini Zebra 2
It’s such a joy to be able to add any U-he synth to our best free synth plugins. The fact that there is more than one is crazy; go get them now!
This time we are focusing on U-he’s Zebralette, which is a streamlined version of their flagship synth, Zebra 2. Zebralette runs with a single oscillator with 16 waveshapes. The waveshapes can be edited with several morph and blend functions.
There are two LFOs, one global and one per voice – Zebralette is up to 16 voice polyphonic. It features a single ADSR envelope and a multi-stage envelope generator (MSEG).
What you will notice pretty quickly is that there is no dedicated filter. Instead, a spectral effect named filter can be modulated by the MSEG to simulate a dedicated filter.
Moving on to the built-in effects, and there are plenty. There are 24 spectral effects in total, along with chorus/phaser, EQ, and delay. Everything has MIDI learn capabilities, and it supports polyphonic aftertouch. Zebralette comes packed with 300 factory presets, including some incredibly cinematic pads.
In typical U-he fashion, the UI is as simple as it can be. As well as presets being easy to find/load, the UI invites exploration and custom sound design.
|Image credit: U-he Check U-he.com||
Zebralette is a synth that you should have regardless of the genre that you work in. However, if you like creating cinematic, atmospheric scores, Zebralette is remarkable.
The lack of a dedicated filter might seem confusing at first, but it’s really not. Having one oscillator could also be seen as a positive because it keeps things simple; it’s crazy to think this is free.
Surge has been around for well over a decade, and it didn’t start out as a free synth plugin. It started as a virtual synth that cost $100, and people paid for it!
Surge is a hybrid-subtractive dual synth engine. It offers an impressive three oscillators per voice with an even more impressive eight algorithms. The oscillator algorithms include FM and wavetable with a ridiculous 183 wavetables – for free.
There are two filters, eight filter types, and a huge 12 LFOs available per voice. You can see why Surge started life as a paid-for product; it’s massive. Surge goes deeper into sound-design than many other free synths; it has eight effects slots per voice with 10 effect types.
If sound-design isn’t your main concern and you want to hit the ground running, Surge has over 1000 presets! Everything you’d expect from smooth hip hop style leads to the dirtiest lead you’d hear from someone like Jordan Rudess.
If anything lets it down, it’s the UI. It’s not a complete disaster, and sounds are organized to an extent for faster browsing. But, there is still some menu-diving to be done that can halt your flow a little.
|Image credit: Surge Check GitHub||
I might say this a few times throughout this article, but it’s hard to believe this synth is free. How many times do you see a three oscillator per voice with 183 wavetables for free? It’s crazy.
Surge isn’t as refined or smooth as some other virtual synths, but it’s an animal you need to download now. It’s still one of the best free VSTs around.
The best DX7 emulation
Dexed is another synth that has been around for a while, and it does something that can be quite risky. It emulates the most popular FM keyboard synthesizer of all time, the Yamaha DX7.
Dexed has seen a number of improvements over the years from its developers, Digital Suburban. Most notably, the UI, which has gone from bargain basement to high-end plugin. One of the things that Dexed has in its favor, even over some paid DX7 clones, is that it’s so easy to use.
There are 32 sound banks that each contain 32 preset patches. So, without any work, you already have a large number of sounds to use. The sounds cover everything from electric pianos, synth pads to synth brass, all with that unique DX7 flavor.
As impressive as the UI is, it can still be daunting if you are new to FM synthesis. However, with a little time, it becomes very easy to navigate. All 144 of its synth engine parameters are available for DAW automation. So, it’s a studio DX7 without paying for a DX7!
|Image credit: Digital Suburban Check GitHub||
Dexed captures the sound of the iconic Yamaha DX7 with remarkable accuracy. It offers the same feature set with the added convenience of being a software synth.
Realistically, if one of the big developers released this as a $50-80 plugin, it would sell. If you are a fan of FM synth sounds, you should already have Dexed.
5. DiscoDSP OB-Xd
The best OB-X emulation
The Oberheim OB-X is easily one of the most sought after synths ever made. Unfortunately, it comes with a price tag that will send most of us running. Fortunately, there are several plugin emulations available, and the OB-Xd from DiscoDSP is absolutely free.
Although it’s been around for a few years, this plugin has recently had an update with faster, more responsive controls and better overall functionality. The new update also brings a standalone app and MIDI CC learning.
The OB-Xd plugin features two detunable oscillators with sync and cross-modulation. There are two ADSR envelopes, an LFO, and a lovely continuous multi-mode filter.
One of the things that made the original OB-X so popular was the big analog pad sounds that graced so many hit records. This plugin emulation comes with a massive number of presets that heavily feature those famous pads along with leads and bass patches.
The UI looks fantastic, and it’s pretty easy to follow even if you are new to subtractive synthesis. As well as being Windows, Mac, and Linux compatible, it also comes in an iOS version for portable use.
|Image credit: DiscoDSP Check Amazon||
Is it as good as the real thing? Absolutely not, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise. What this plugin does is gets you very close to those iconic Oberheim sounds without shelling out thousands of dollars.
You should download OB-Xd for the pads alone; they are gorgeous. Did you ever expect to see OB-X and free synthesizer in the same sentence? Get it now.
The best for modern electronic music
Helm by Matt Tytel was released as a free software synth some years ago while it was still a work-in-progress. Several years later, Helm is now a modern synth plugin and a must-have for many electronic musicians.
Helm will run as a standalone synth or as a plugin in any major DAW via Window, Mac, or Linux. This subtractive synth has everything that you’d expect and a few surprises not often found in freeware.
It features two oscillators with unison and cross-modulation, plus a sub-oscillator. There are a pair of ADSR envelopes, a noise generator, three LFOs, and a filter with key tracking. All of that is pretty standard, but add to the mix a step sequencer and stutter effect, and Helm takes on a whole new character.
Helm comes with built-in reverb and delay effects, too. A multi-mode arpeggiator is available, which works great with the built-in step sequencer.
As far as the sound quality, it’s awesome and comes with a decent amount of presets. The UI is busier than many of our other choices because it has more features, but it follows a pretty simple layout to prevent the need for extensive menu-diving. A small but cool feature is that the UI shows an oscilloscope, so you always see exactly what’s going on.
|Image credit: Matt Tytel Check Tytel.org||
Helm is a fantastic synth, mostly because of the added functionality, such as the arp and step sequencer. It might seem strange that it has more functions than most, yet we say it suits fewer genres. The reason is that without the built-in effects, stutter, and arp, it’s not as good as some of the other if you just want great pads or leads.
But if you make modern electronic music, the combination of the sounds and glitchy stutter function will be perfect for you.
7. TAL NoiseMaker
The best beginner synth
TAL NoiseMaker is one of the most popular free synth plugins available. Much of its popularity comes from the fact it has no issues running on Windows or Mac, whatever DAW you use.
It’s a two-oscillator synth with a sub-oscillator, similar to the Moog Subsequent oscillator setup. The oscillators can sync to the sub-oscillator, and it also features two LFOs and a lovely multi-mode filter. NoiseMaker has two envelopes, one standard ADSR, and one fully editable envelope that can be a modulation source for various parameters.
There are two modes, mono, and poly, with poly offering up to six voices at once. It has some nice built-in effects, including reverbs, delay, a bitcrusher, and an especially nice dual-chorus.
NoiseMaker appeals to a lot of people because it’s so easy to use. The UI is very basic, which makes it easy to navigate, and the presets are fast to load. Despite being basic, the different sections of the synth are clearly labeled throughout.
There are 256 presets in total; not every single one is a winner, but some are surprisingly good. Especially if you like aggressive lead sounds, think dubstep, or even prog-rock. Noisemaker is a basic but reasonably versatile synth.
|Image credit: TAL Check TAL Software||
TAL NoiseMaker is a fantastic starting point if you are entirely new to virtual synths of any kind. It has an interface that won’t take long to figure out and will have you making noise in no time. It’s a great way to learn the basics, and it delivers some surprisingly good sounds.
The best JX-8P emulation
It’s a testament to Roland that their synths are emulated so often. This time, it’s a Roland JX-8P emulation in the form of the PG-8X plugin.
Offering two oscillators, two ADSR envelopes with key tracking, and a single LFO, it follows the JX-8P outline very closely. Each oscillator offers saw, square, pulse, and noise waveforms. The most recent update of PG-8X raised the polyphony to 12.
There are three key modes, which are poly, unison, and mono. If you are familiar with 80s music at all then it’s more than likely you’ve heard the JX-8P. It’s famous for its big warm pads, amazing basses and is a mainstay of any synthwave movement.
The PG-8X plugin captures that 80s sound in all its glory. It’s surprisingly accurate, from how the digitally controlled oscillators are cloned to the virtual filter behavior. It has an aftertouch section that lets you adjust the parameters that are triggered by aftertouch. It’s very useful for pads or stabbing chords. There is a built-in stereo chorus effect, too.
The UI follows the path set out by Roland, and you’ll notice it’s almost entirely sliders over knobs. If you are working with a mouse rather than a controller, sliders could be much easier to control accurately.
|Image credit: ML-VST Check ML-VST Site||
If you paid for a high-end virtual synth, and it emulated an analog classic this well, you’d be delighted. The fact you can get this for free is quite mindblowing. It’s all very 80s, and maybe that isn’t your thing, but those sounds are cool again! The strings, pads, basses, it’s outstanding.
The best Nord Lead sound for free
Synth1 came around in the early 2000s as a Nord Lead 2 clone. Since then, it has been a staple in many producers’ sonic arsenal.
Synth1 spent many years as the consensus top dog of the freeware synth world. Multiple updates later, it doesn’t have the dominance it once had, but still competes with the best of them.
Following the traditional subtractive synth formula, Synth1 comes with two oscillators and a noise generator. It has a single ADSR envelope, a single LFO, and a pretty versatile filter. Synth1 has three voice modes, poly (16 voices), mono, and legato.
It features an arpeggiator with a 4-octave range, which is pretty impressive. There are a lot of small touches that are really nice, like the pitch bend range being so easy to set and assign. This virtual analog synth is great for live work because it has a wide range of gig-ready sounds.
Built-in effects include delay, chorus, flanger, and EQ. The UI is the one area that isn’t quite up to scratch. It’s dated, super busy, and generally just not as clear as you’d want it to be.
|Image credit: Daichi Lab Check Daichi Lab||
In the not too distant past, Synth1 would have been my answer to the best free synth plugin available. Now, it has been passed by in some areas by newer and slicker plugins. However, on the most important aspect of all, the sound, Synth1, still delivers big.
10. VCV Rack
The best modular learning tool
VCV Rack is a must-have if you have the slightest interest in modular synths.
Modular synthesis is probably the scariest concept for beginners to get their heads around, but it doesn’t have to be too complicated. VCV Rack is an excellent learning tool, as well as a good synth in its own right.
Understanding the workflow and signal path is essential to understand any modular synth. Even in the virtual world, a UI can get very messy when virtual patch cables are everywhere. VCV Rack manages to keep a clear visual signal path through patch cables without muddying the screen too much.
At first use, VCV Rack isn’t the most impressive synth on our list. But, the beauty of any modular setup is that it’s infinitely expansive. There are currently (as of writing) 2349 modules available for VCV Rack. Those modules include chord generators, plugin hosts, and more.
Available modules come from The VCV Rack developers and third-party developers/contributors and come with a small fee. I know that takes away the free element slightly, but the money is put to good use in developing additional products.
|Image credit: VCV Check VCV||
VCV Rack won’t blow you away in its freeware form, but it’s still a must-have. The best way to understand modular synthesis is to get your hands on some modules, and that can be very expensive.
VCV Rack lets you learn for free, and if you choose to spend a little extra, then you can build one hell of a setup with it.
We are truly spoiled for choice with these fantastic free synth plugins. Our top 10 picks should cover a wide range of needs and uses. Whether you are brand new to synth plugins, learning about modular synths, or anything else, there’s something for everyone.
Many of the developers who offer their synth plugins completely free also provide the opportunity to make a donation towards future developments. If you are in a position to donate, please consider it; if not, don’t worry; pay it forward next time, enjoy.