8 Classic (And Free) Synth VSTs That Still Hold Up In 2019

  • Fact: we’re spoiled for choice with quality freeware soft synths.
  • We review 8 free soft synth VSTs to add to your music production toolkit.
  • Let us know if we’ve missed your favorite on this list!

8 Timeless (And Free) VST Synths That Still Hold Up In 2019

There is a myth that money buys quality and therefore anything free is guaranteed to be flimsy, shoddy or downright useless.

This seems to make sense in the real world, where the quality of materials and components is reflected in their cost. However, in the virtual world, the quality of ideas is not restrained in the same way.

This is to say: good ideas are priceless, and when good ideas lead to cool free stuff who are we to complain? If this seems like something Steve Jobs once said, it’s because he either did or he should have, and he would have been right.

Another thing he was right about is the importance of visual design in shaping the user experience; aesthetics influence how we interact and respond with everything even in the most subtle ways, and when it comes to the tools we use to create amazing art we ought to appreciate this. 

Free synthesizers somewhat rightfully have a reputation as being visually…rough.

Programmers are more interested in getting the sound right and no one is paying a professional graphic designer to make it all look nice, right?

In this collection, however, we’ve managed to find the best free VST synths that don’t look like Shrek’s bare arse and we’re sure you’ll be jamming with them in no time — because they sound incredible.


Noisemaker by Togu Audio Line

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Noisemaker VST Review

Noisemaker happens to be a great starter synth for anyone who is curious to get a feel for some of the basics behind synthesis. You can’t go wrong with it, it’s an extremely useful synth that can cover plenty of ground and sound great while doing it. By making it free, they’ve also managed to provide a generous learning resource for those who are curious about synthesis but don’t want to part with their cash right away. 

Download Noisemaker Here

A Brief History

TAL is legendary in the computer music sphere for providing consistently high-quality effects and instruments, most of which have remained free for more than a decade.

With an eye for logical, smooth interfaces that emphasize accessibility and readability, their products are often ideal for those looking to understand the basics behind synthesis in an intuitive fashion.

This is not to imply TAL products are strictly for newcomers, either. Sound quality has always been a top priority, a fact that producers of any experience level will appreciate.

Enter Noisemaker, a culmination of expert synthesis knowledge that combines the features of TAL-Elek7ro and TAL-Bassline into a whole new beast with plenty of new features to boot.

Features and Sound

Noisemaker is neither saturated with options nor deprived of them to the point of being boring.

It has just the right amount of oscillators, effects and modulation options to cook up a wide array of classic sounds and also cover new ground. What’s important here is the sound quality, which is immaculate. The oscillators are free of aliasing and still sound juicy under heavy modulation. The filters are smooth and transparent when needed, but can absolutely scream when the resonance is pushed.

Having 11 different filter types at your disposal is a real treat and a rare find for any freebie.

It’s just a shame that only one can be used per patch as it does make complex, evolving pads more difficult to achieve when you only have a single filter to work with.

On the plus side, the highly flexible envelope editor lets users create plenty of cool custom shapes for modulation, which can really open up a lot of distinct possibilities.

Design & Ease Of Use

The interface goes a long way with assisting here, as all the familiar parts of the synth are clearly labeled and colored.

It isn’t obvious, but clicking the “SYNTH 1” “SYNTH 2” “ENVELOPE EDITOR” and “CONTROL” labels actually hides the controls from view, which can be confusing if done accidentally. The presets are plentiful and very tasty indeed, you’ll find what you’re after in no time or just stumble upon a new sound you need to use right away.


PG8X by ML-VST

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PG8X VST Review

It is particularly suited for synthwave, electro, minimal techno and house music as a go-to VA subtractive synth that effortlessly cuts through any mix, and is often highly reminiscent of Vangelis’s soundtrack to the original Blade Runner film.

For those that don’t have room in their studio for what is – by all accounts – an absolute tank of a synth, PG8X is here to save you space and cash. Though strictly speaking this isn’t freeware – a donation is highly encouraged and well deserved.

Download PG8X Here

A Brief History

Martin Lüders (as ML-VST) brings you this fantastic emulation of a forgotten classic – the Roland JX8P analog polysynth.

Manufactured in the dying days of 80s analog keyboards, most would be forgiven for assuming the JX8P is a boring digital preset-machine simply because, well, it looked like one. But despite its cold brutalist exterior, it is capable of endless warmth and thickness that still sounds fresh and powerful in 2019.

The PG8X VST does a flawless job of bringing all this power into your DAW with no compromises on quality. 

Features and Sound

The structure of the synth is minimal and should be familiar enough to anyone with a basic understanding of subtractive synthesis: There are two tunable oscillators, two ADSR envelopes, a single LFO, a controllable low pass filter, a fixed high pass filter, a chorus effect as well as settings for pitch bend, portamento, “brilliance” (treble boost) and unison.

Though this may not seem like a wealth of sound-shaping parameters, like any good virtual analog synth PG8X always manages to sound useful no matter what the sliders are set to thanks to the quality of its oscillators and filters.

The built-in stereo chorus effect is the icing on the cake. The team at Roland were well noted for their distinctive, rich chorus sound that found its way into practically every recording of the era and ML-VST has faithfully recreated this highly sought after effect that is nearly impossible to turn off.

If this still isn’t enough thickness for you, the unison effect can be engaged to layer multiple detuned copies of the same patch to taste.

Design & Ease Of Use

Browsing presets can also be a tad confusing as banks need to be loaded in manually from files, but these drawbacks are ultimately forgettable when compared to all the things PG8X excels at.

Though there aren’t any notable drawbacks that weren’t on the original machine, PG8X can get a tad CPU intensive when full polyphony is being engaged, which may force some users to resample complex chord progressions or hyperactive solo parts.


Dexed by Digital Suburban

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Dexed VST Review

Dexed is a vital tool for anyone looking for genuine retro 80s vibes, 90s SEGA leads and basses or just a versatile FM sound exploration machine that can cook up all sorts of abstract weirdness when abused. If you’re into synthpop, vaporwave, old school techno and electro, Dexed has you covered with thousands of time-tested patches ready to rock your next big hit.

Download Dexed Here

A Brief History

Much has been made of the impact FM synthesis had on music production when the Yamaha DX7 debuted in 1983. The very idea of FM is still highly polarising in synthesizer communities, with descriptive terms such as ‘cold’ and ‘harsh’ being thrown around by detractors and supporters alike.

But say what you will about FM because it’s clear that it’s here to stay, and the immense popularity of Dexed is a testament to its relevance in the modern era of wavetable super synths and the like. 

Features and sound

Designed as an emulation of the DX7, Dexed lays waste to many criticisms of the original unit by providing crystal clear, 24-bit oscillators and envelopes that are free of clicks and squeaks (yes, noisy envelopes were a real concern back in the day!).

For those that want the grit of the original, the plugin has two other synth engines that deliberately crush the quality and take you back in time.

Instead of piling on new features to the point of irrelevance, Dexed stays true to the original unit, only adding a simple low pass filter which isn’t very useful and could be considered a glorified ‘tone’ control at best.

Most sounds are very ‘dry’ and will need some chorus or reverb to thicken up the timbre, something that has always been true of any FM synth. While imprecisions in tuning are welcome in subtractive synths, such as the silky rich sound of two sawtooths a dozen or so cents apart, imprecisions in FM synthesis warp the timbre into an inharmonic mess, so this is better achieved with effects rather than in the patch itself.

Design & Ease Of Use

Because it is modeled on the DX7 it is also able to load in banks from the original unit, making Dexed one hell of a time machine as there are thousands of patches available on the internet dating right back to the 80s!

This makes Dexed an ideal preset-machine, which is fortunate as programming FM patches from scratch can be incredibly fiddly and time consuming.

Like PG8X, it’s worth noting that Dexed has existed for quite some time, but only gained popularity when the GUI was freshened up by AZur Studio to give it a smooth new look that is true to the original unit.

Both Dexed and PG8X prove how important a clean, modern interface is for user engagement. No matter how good it sounds, it’s proven that we will reach for a tool less if we don’t like looking at it!


OXE by OXE Software

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OXE VST Review

For fans of FM that want something with a bit more flexibility, OXE is another open-source freebie that won’t disappoint.

OXE is a powerful synth in its own right that doesn’t seek to emulate or copy what others have done. The FM matrix makes experimentation fun and easy, proving ideal for sound explorers who want to get a feel for complex FM synthesis before going even deeper with something like FM8.

Download OXE Here

Overview

Rather than using fixed algorithms to set how the operators interact, users can freely route them using the matrix on the right side of the screen. This isn’t the only advantage OXE has, either.

Unlike Dexed, there are other oscillator shapes available, which can greatly alter the harmonic content of a patch without changing a single setting on the matrix. There are also two filters available for cutting away at the sound when the modulation becomes too much for your mix.

What Are Operators?!
An operator at its core includes an oscillator and its associated envelope. This grouping is useful in FM synthesis as it gives us much greater control over the sound when there is a separate envelope for each oscillator. Most other forms of synthesis typically use just a single envelope for controlling the level of all the oscillators after they are mixed.

Features and Sound

Though OXE certainly has a lot that Dexed doesn’t, it is worth noting some minor drawbacks when they are put side by side.

In particular, ADSR envelopes can be limiting for FM synthesis, whereas breakpoint envelopes allow for more precise control over the harmonic content and how it changes over time.

On a similar note, though the extra oscillator shapes are certainly welcome, they’re not terribly useful in the context of FM synthesis and are often better off being routed straight to the filters.

For those who think OXE is strictly for dedicated sound designers, flicking through the presets will reveal a wide range of fun sounds that are ready to use.

These patches are especially useful for classic techno and house, evoking many famous club sounds from the 90s. There is a Lately Bass patch that sounds just as juicy as the original, and plenty of crystalline bell sounds that are equally at home in modern productions as they are in throwback styles.

The included effects are simple but welcome, featuring a basic feedback delay and a reverb that sounds like a murky 90s digital box in the best possible way.

Design & Ease Of Use

OXE somehow manages to fit everything onto one screen without taking up too much space or feeling cluttered, no extra menu diving needed! For those who feel the default interface isn’t the nicest, there are alternative skins that should satisfy, including one that cheekily imitates NI’s FM8 synth.


Surge by Claes Johanson

Surge VST Review

Surge is a fascinatingly deep synthesizer that is highly recommended for anyone looking for some seriously far-out programming potential. The fact that all this is offered for free is very generous indeed, and Surge is still being updated and maintained with new features always on the horizon. 

Download Surge Here

A Brief History

Surge is a workhorse synth for the modern digital studio. It’s packed with so many features that it warrants an article of its own and because of this, it avoids easy categorization. Previously released through Vember audio, the original programmer Claes decided to make it free and open-source a few years back and we’re all the better for it. 

Features and Sound

At its core, Surge is a 3 OSC, twin filter polysynth with a seriously huge number of LFOs and modulation options. It has 7 different oscillator types. Not 7 different shapes, but 7 entirely different methods for generating sound.

These include two different FM algorithms, a library of wavetables, noise as well as classic shapes such as sine, PW and saw waves all with unique shaping parameters.

The inclusion of wavetable oscillators is significant as this alone immediately distinguishes it from other free synths that are available. We’re used to getting virtual analog and FM sounds for free, but most wavetable synths on the market will set you back at least $100.

What Are Wavetables?!
As opposed to classic sawtooth and square shapes which can be described as static ‘single cycle’ waves, wavetables take this to the next level by representing multiple single cycle waves in a sequence. A ‘morph’ parameter is then used to fade between waves in this sequence, creating complex, evolving timbres. 

As you’d expect from a synth with so many features, Surge covers all sonic territory imaginable.

It is, however, especially suited for pads and experimental textures, as there are many unique features that tend towards experimentation.

For example, there are multiple filter configurations which allow audio to be fed back from the output, creating bizarre, unpredictable comb filtering and flanging effects. The manual insists that controlled chaos and creating “sounds that are just about to break apart” are what make Surge special as an instrument, and this is certainly hard to argue against.

Design & Ease Of Use

At first, the interface is a bit overwhelming, it’s almost too scientific and doesn’t bother trying to look realistic.

It’s certainly not ugly though and the bold, matter-of-fact approach makes more sense once you start to grasp the synth’s features, particularly the unique approach to applying modulation.

For such a complex beast, it’s worth noting that it does an excellent job of managing CPU resources. Even heavily layered pads with reverb are hardly a cause for concern, Surge manages to pull these off without much sweat.

Synth1 by Ichiro Toda

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Synth1 VST Review

Synth1 is a time-tested classic freebie that has unfortunately fallen by the wayside in recent years with development seemingly abandoned. Nonetheless, it still works well on modern systems and is a lightweight, robust tool with thousands of patches available. 

Download Synth1 Here

A Brief History

Ahh, Synth1. A go-to freebie synth for more than a decade, it remains one of the most popular choices for many good reasons. It’s lightweight, comes with plenty of patches, and has a decent amount of built-in effects.

In case the included patches weren’t enough, KVR is host to almost 100 extra banks for Synth1, a true testament to the popularity and longevity of this workhorse freebie.

Features and Sound

Like TAL’s Noisemaker, it has everything you need to make a wide variety of subtractive sounds for free.

So how does it sound? Just fine. Perfectly usable as a bread-and-butter subtractive synth that is light on resources and big on opportunities. It’s not a “juiced up” sound that will cut through the mix without any assistance, but this doesn’t mean it can’t provide big leads and basses either.

There does seem to be a problem with aliasing when certain limits are approached and this can be quite displeasing in some circumstances.

When pushing the oscillator pitch or filter resonance high enough, unwanted harmonic overtones show up to rob the sound of clarity.

The various distortion types are a further burden in this area and should be ignored in favor of your favorite VST distortion effects if sound quality is particularly important to you. Drawbacks like this make it difficult to respect the “virtual analog” tag, as aliasing is an entirely digital phenomenon that has developers going to great lengths to minimize it where possible.

What Is Aliasing?!
Digital aliasing is a phenomenon where the digital sample values do not accurately represent the waveform they are trying to create for various reasons. This is heard as a harsh, inharmonic distortion that is reminiscent of a bitcrush / downsampling effect. Software developers can reduce aliasing with careful oversampling and interpolation, among other methods. 

Don’t let this put you off, you’ll still be able to find plenty of ways to use Synth1 with no problems, it’s just worth noting where some of its sonic limits lie so you can either avoid or exploit them. There’s no reason why a professional mix wouldn’t be able to use multiple instances of this classic freebie and still sound fresh.

Design & Ease Of Use

Its compact interface means all the parameters are available to the user with minimal menu diving.

It has a multi-effects section with various distortion modes and a handy arpeggiator for those Stranger Things moments.

There are also thousands of patches available, making it a perfect ‘preset machine’ for those who don’t want to waste too much time in the weeds with endless tweaking.

TX16WX by CWITEC

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TX16WX VST Review

If your DAW lacks a serious sampler or you don’t have hundreds of dollars to throw at the heavyweights, TX16WX is a no-brainer that can easily serve as the backbone to many productions providing all the instruments your synths can’t, whilst also having some serious synthesis capabilities built-in. 

Download TX16WX Here

A Brief History

If you don’t mind a bit of menu diving, spend some time with TX16WX to discover a powerful sampling instrument that could easily find itself at the center of all of your productions. While listing a sampler for this article may be cheating a bit, all the familiar parts of a synthesizer are here, TX16WX just happens to use samples instead of oscillators.

Features and Sound

TX16WX allows users to easily drag, drop and arrange samples on the keyboard, choosing what keys they’re active on and how they respond to velocity. At its simplest, this can involve a single one-shot sample being replayed as a melody, but much more is possible with some patience.

Looping sounds so they sustain when the keys are held instantly opens the doors for complex synthesis methods to be applied. After all, there’s no point adding all sorts of cool modulation if the sound dies out before you can hear it.

Design & Ease Of Use

You can also use TX16WX’s extended sampling capabilities to create drum kits, or sets of samples that you want to be able to load up in a flash.

For example, you could make a program that collects all your favorite snares in a single patch, where each note on the keyboard is a different sample, and you never have to browse all those folders again. Organizing your sounds in this way can have huge benefits; if you’re reaching for something you know you need in a track or browsing patches as a jumping-off point it never hurts to have a good library of sampler patches.

Simply put, the interface is confusing and will take some getting used to.

This isn’t the fault of the developer though, instruments offering this many features are naturally overwhelming. But before long the parts that are important will make themselves obvious and programming will be a breeze.

SQ8L by Siegfried Kullmann

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SQ8L VST Review

While successful attempts have been made to capture the sound of ROMplers from the late 80s and early 90s, SQ8L brings us back to when sampling was just being utilized in synthesizers, and the results were raw and primitive. Ever so dreamy and ethereal, SQ8L delivers on pads and ambience with grace. The only major drawbacks are the lack of compatibility, thanks to its unfortunate discontinuation.

Download SQ8L Here

A Brief History

SQ8L is a bit of an oddity, it’s quite unlike any of the other synths mentioned in this article both in form and function. Part of this reason is that SQ8L is itself based on an oddity from the real world, the Ensoniq SQ-80.

It combined primitive digital samples with smooth, buttery analog filters. SQ8L sounds dreamy and ethereal, delivering warm pads and deep, murky leads for fans of Boards of Canada and hauntology. 

Features and Sound

Clear, pristine sound would be an essential trait of any decent synth, but that’s not what you should be after when you reach for SQ8L. The oscillator waveforms are digitally compressed, noisy and downright ghostly sounding.

In an era where good sound quality is taken for granted, it’s a refreshing throwback to hear these digital imperfections.

When combined with the silky smooth low pass filter, these artifacts are nicely rolled off and the result is rich, deep and rewarding.

The included waveform library has 74 different sounds for you to mix and match, with up to three oscillators allowed per patch. There are 4 LFOs and 4 envelopes to provide plenty of modulation. 

The included presets are a trip back in time, think PBS documentaries from the early 1980s or Future Shock by Herbie Hancock. Due to this retro appeal, SQ8L is obviously perfect for vaporwave and synthwave. 

There are two major catches, though. SQ8L is not supported on Mac computers, and never will be as the original programmer abandoned the project long ago.

Also because of this, it is only available as a 32bit VST, so Windows users will need to check compatibility with their host or ensure they have a VST bridge such as jBridge installed.

The lack of widespread compatibility really is unfortunate; there isn’t anything out there quite like this little gem and finding a substitute would be fruitless.

Design & Ease Of Use

SQ8L makes a bold attempt at recreating the experience of browsing digital menus on old hardware, something that was never easy or pleasant. Once you get used to it it’s not so bad but it would be easier if the parameters didn’t feel so hidden away.

The LED text certainly looks cool, in fact nothing about the visual design is off except for the functionality. SQ8L is good practice for aspiring gear heads who dream of programming a DX7 one painstaking parameter at a time.


Final Thoughts

Hopefully, by now you’ve found at least a few fun new things to check out, and maybe even a new go-to synth to get that sound.

As stated before, there’s no reason not to download the whole lot as they each cover different ground and have something unique to offer you. Quality free products are hard to come by in any sphere, so make sure you show the creators some love by checking out their other products and donating where you can.

Which is your favorite freeware soft synth VST? Have I missed out your favorite from this list? Let me know in the comments below!