Both synths are what we call wavetable synthesizers. Wavetable synthesis is a synthesis technique that uses “morphing” oscillators as opposed to static shapes like square and sawtooth waves. This was developed in the 1970s and was created mainly to yield better results when emulating musical tones & instruments.
(Note: In this article we’ll be talking about the original Massive VST, not Massive X)
Serum Vs Massive (Quick Overview)
Both synthesizers are absolute power-houses & you can genuinely achieve incredible results with both. However, there are still some key selling points that will tip the scales one way or another depending on your preferences.
You should go for Massive if…
You desire to create sounds with a richer, “analog-like” tone.
If you want more than two main oscillators with full control.
If you want easy use of macros you will find better options in Massive.
You want a huge array of presets for a synth that has been around for more than a decade.
You should buy Serum if…
You prefer super-crisp and clean oscillators.
You need a dedicated wavetable synth.
Lots of possibilities with effects and also a super easy modulation matrix system.
A really vivid and intuitive visual feedback.
Super flexible control of LFO shaping.
The ability to import, tables, noises, LFO shapes, and more.
For me, Serum is undoubtedly the best wavetable soft-synth on the market, it is my go-to!
For those interested in a deeper dive, let’s explore the features side-by-side.
Serum vs Massive: Feature by Feature
The user interface of both synths is practical. They are bright, colorful, and generally easy to read. Both are arranged logically according to the signal flow, with the oscillators on the left and filters on the right.
Serum and Massive use the same ‘modulation rings’ that extend around a parameter when a modulation source is applied. Massive popularized this technique and Serum is one of many synths that have “borrowed” from it. It’s a logical, common-sense approach to visualizing modulation.
Each synth has different panels for routing, however Massive keeps its FX on the main panel. The routing is also accessible through its central window.
Serum however has different tabs for all of these functions which makes it easier to manage. The main difference here is the visual feedback for the modulation. Massive offers no visual response to wavetable or filter manipulation, whereas Serum offers evolving graphical feedback for both of these.
As someone who experiences synesthesia, this is very helpful as it allows you to associate shapes with sounds & have a better understanding of how you are directing them. You also get a 3D & 2D visual response for both the filter & oscillators.
Massive has 3 main oscillators with full manipulative capabilities, as well as a noise oscillator. Serum offers 2 main oscillators will full manipulation & one sub-oscillator. Immediately Massive comes up the winner here. There are too many times I am designing a sound in Serum just wishing I had that extra oscillator!
Serum‘s oscillators produce a pristine sound that can be ‘too clean’ for some. It is great for digital sounds but it will be a challenge trying to emulate analog sounds without extra help. Massive manages to sound just a bit warmer and rougher around the edges.
Wavetables & Warp Modes
Serum & Massive come stacked with a bunch of amazing factory wavetables. However, Serum allows you to create your own as well as import them, so the possibilities are literally endless.
Really this is the biggest difference between the two. Serum is a dedicated wavetable synthesizer but Massive is closer to a general subtractive synth. Massive does not allow custom wavetables, but Serum has many features for crafting your own from scratch. The newer Massive X on the other hand is much more geared towards wavetables.
Both offer the ability to manipulate the wavetables with various warp modes and again Serum has a handful more options.
Massive allows you to warp the wavetable with 5 modes:
Serum’s warping options are vast in comparison:
Sync (3 types)
Bend (3 types)
A-sym (3 types)
Remap (4 types)
FM (Noise Osc, Osc A/B or Sub Osc)
AM (Osc A/B)
RM (Osc A/B)
One area where Massive wins is that it has a dedicated Modulation oscillator. This means you can warp and modulate simultaneously – a capability impossible with Serum. This section allows the possibility of phase modulation, Position, Ring modulation, and filter frequency modulation.
It’s important to acknowledge that while Serum doesn’t have these options, the same results can still be achieved through different means, which I will touch on later.
Massive has some really rich options. While it has fewer filter types, you do get two filters. Serum only has one filter, but you can add more in the FX section. Because filters in the FX section are paraphonic, this can be a bit of pain when designing a lush poly sound.
Again though, Serum has more filter types. Serum has over 50 filter types from LP/HP to creative filters such as reverb & comb. It’s really an incredible selection of filters.
Serum and Massive each have a dedicated noise oscillator.
Massive has 12 tables, and you can control the color (an LP filter) & the amplitude, but that’s where it ends. In Serum, you have tonnes of included wavetables & you can import as many more as you like!
You can also control phase, randomization, pitch, pan, & amplitude. The noise oscillator can also bypass the effects and filters, enable pitch key-tracking or one-shot mode AND FM from noise, which can yield some really interesting textures.
Serum’s noise oscillator can also be used as an extra oscillator if you load in a melodic tone and enable pitch tracking. Remember that unlike custom wavetables, custom samples won’t save with the patch. So if you are distributing patches that rely on your own samples, make sure to include these in the download.
Envelopes & LFOs
Massive offers you 4 envelopes & 4 LFO’s/Steppers to work with. The LFO shapes are restricted to preset shapes but there are over 30 of them to use. The Stepper also allows you to create some cool shapes however it is still fairly restricted.
Serum has 3 fixed AHDSR envelopes and up to 8 LFOs which allows for tonnes of control. The envelopes in Serum are functional, however, the release setting can be a bit fiddly and sometimes sounds like it can end prematurely.
The best part of all this is that Serums LFO’s are 100% customizable in terms of their shape. You can draw in any shape you like which again allows you lots of control, and this is my favorite feature. Serum is sometimes criticized for lacking a built-in sequencer but the truth is the LFO works just as well for this. If you hold shift while clicking on Serum’s LFOs, you can program in steps that are quantized to the grid for sequencing fun!
When it comes to effects, both synths have a wide array on offer. Massive also dedicates two windows to FX within the GUI, You have Insert FX & send FX which in turn offers more variety and acts as a pre-routed signal flow which can certainly help speed up your work-flow.
Massive’s FX are as follows:
Sample & Hold
Massive’s selection of FX sound great & are particularly easy to use. This should be no surprise, as Native Instruments have been making top-quality effects and synths since the dawn of the VST era.
Serum offers a dedicated FX window within its GUI. It also allows a simple signal workflow that can be altered by shifting each effect unit up and down the rack by dragging with the mouse. This is really handy for re-arranging signal flow on the fly.
Serum’s FX are as follows:
Hyper / Dimension
Distortion (16 types, includes filter)
Compression (with Multi-band)
Reverb (Plate and Hall)
Serum doesn’t have as many dedicated FX options as Massive, however many of its FX & filters can achieve the same results as Massive’s FX. For example, the Ring Mod filter or the various saturation algorithms within its single distortion unit can achieve the same results as Massive’s ‘Frequency Shifter’.
Both synths have really practical & great sounding FX, and this is probably the hardest category to call for either synth. However, for me, Serum just wins out again thanks to its incredible array of distortion tones and filters.
Massive’s routing is practical, but for a beginner, it can be quite daunting. Whereas Serum has been designed with user-friendliness in mind at every step of the way, making it great for beginners despite the advanced features.
Massive has some great extra features such as Feedback, which feeds the output from the filters back into the input for some cool tones.
Massive also has 4 extra macro controls than Serum and the window offers quick routing to modulate key-tracking, velocity, trigger random & after-touch. This is really practical for work-flow when designing sounds.
Serum has a dedicated ‘Modulation Matrix’ which is essentially a list of all the modulations with parameters controlled via a simple slider system, and it is very easy to use. This also allows you to select “auxiliary” sources for modulation, meaning that if you tie an LFO to the filter, you can also tie velocity to this routing so that the harder you hit a key, the more the LFO moves the filter.
Serum also has an extensive wavetable editor, that allows you to create wavetables in a huge number of creative ways. While other wavetable synths do offer inbuilt editors, Serum’s editor is packed with so many features and different approaches to creating wavetables that you will never run out of steam here.
Serum also has many hidden or “under the hood” features that are usually added in as updates. For example, it’s possible to modulate the x and y position of each individual breakpoint on an LFO. You can also drag and drop image files onto the oscillators and it will convert them into wavetables!
CPU is easy to skip when it comes to assessing software but it is hugely important to acknowledge, especially if you have some restrictions when it comes to processing power.
Both synths aren’t exactly sparing when it comes to CPU, but Massive is certainly less tolling. With all of Serum’s extra GUI features, it pays a price in devouring CPU as it requires a lot more. It also makes sense that Serum is just a newer synth with more features, but Massive was made in a time when CPU performance was more critical.
In short, your computer will have a better time running 10 instances of Massive compared to 10 instances of Serum.
Price is undoubtedly important. Massive is the older synth and having been around for 10 years it has seen its price fluctuate. Normally it retails at $173 but currently it’s on sale via Native Instruments for about $86.
Serum is more expensive than Massive and is currently retailing at around $188. However, Serum can be purchased via a rent-to-own program using Splice, which is paid back in monthly increments. This is great for anyone who is on a more restricted monthly budget.