A synthesizer, often referred to as a synth, is an instrument that plays similarly to a piano, but uses electronic technology. This hybrid allowed anyone who could play a piano to manipulate the sound using LFOs, envelopes, oscillators amongst other effects. Although synths have been around since 1955, the use of them really took off in the 1980s when the technology developed further and more artists began experimenting with them.
Recently, these analog sounds from earlier synth models have been highly sought after the emergence of synthwave and lo-fi music. Unfortunately, many of these old school synths aren’t mass produced anymore, making them expensive to get a hold of.
But never fear, thanks to the rapid advancement of digital music technology, it’s possible to acquire virtual instruments that emulate the sounds and appearance of these machines. But best of all, many of them are free! So let’s take a look at some of the best retro synth VSTs available today.
PG-8X by ML-VST
At last, Martin Lüders has released his native C++ version of the PG-8X. This means that if you’re running a lighter computer system, this plugin should still work very well, without giving your CPU too much of a hard time. This one is based on the renowned Roland JX-8P analogy synthesizer, and is available in both 32-bit or 64-bit for Mac and Windows.
This version comes with a stunning-looking GUI and was actually created by ENV1 ( a KVR Audio member) and hasn’t had any major bugs so far. Regardless, ML-VST are still tweaking and building upon it to make the virtual synth even better than it already is. And the synth itself is already capable of producing a vast array of sounds.
String ensembles are able to be replicated with it. This sounds excellent when the chorus module is used. Along with that, massive bass sounds and ethereal pads can be created so that you have everything you need for a retro synth sound.
Check out some of the features listed here:
- A polyphony range between 6-12.
- A three stage high pass filter.
- Envelope generators of which are exponential.
- Ring modulation and hard sync settings.
- Saw, Square, Pulse and Noise DCOs (2 of each)
- Automatic sample rate adjustments.
- 6 Key assignment modes (Poly, Poly2, Unison, Unison2, Mono, Mono2.
This newer version comes with a few improvements too. There’s some little GUI adaptations, improved compatibility and even a user manual to get you started.
The original hardware synth has been used by Depeche Mode, The Cure, Tangerine Dream and Biosphere, just to name a few. Evidently, it really captures that 80’s synth sound.
If you’re a big fan of the Roland JX-8P machine, this plugin does an excellent job of replicating that sound. Likewise, if you’re new to the world of retro synths, this is an excellent place to start.
Dexed by Digital Suburban
Digital Surburban’s Dexed is a virtual synth that aims to replicate the Yamaha DX7. The aim of this software is to capture the instantly recognizable sound of the DX7, but within a simple, all-inclusive package that’s much easier to utilize than its hardware clone.
The emulation of Dexed is so realistic that it can even load the same presets as the DX7.
It can capture the slightly cheesy e-piano sound that was used extensively throughout the 80’s. Moreover, it’s able to replicate the tubular bell, funky bass, e-organ and deep house organ that it’s famous for.
Another mind boggling feature is that you can use it alongside the DX7 natively, letting you use Sysex messages and to switch controllers.
Here are some additional features:
- A real VU meter for each operator to show which ones are active.
- large amounts of DX7 parameters available from a single panel (144, to be exact).
- A 1024 programs collection included.
- Supports Mac, Linux and Windows (and can be downloaded in either AU or VST format)
This retro synth can produce anything from mallets, to icy pads, to distorted bass sounds, and beyond. If this sounds like your cup of tea, be sure to pick it up.
Exakt Lite by Sonicbits
Exakt Lite is another synthesizer aiming to recreate the sounds of a legendary synthesizer from the past.This one, is based off of the classic Yamaha TX81Z. It's a synth used by the likes of Squarepusher, Future Sound Of London, Fluke and Josh Wink. It includes 8 waveform types. This means it can create FM type sounds whilst also being able to produce organic and warm tones. So, it’s a very versatile plugin indeed.
There are separate operators that control individual amplitude envelope generators. These support the five point TX envelopes which are typical to the hardware device that it is emulating.
There are 4 operators on the Exact Lite, all of which can be arranged on operator D via the 8 FM algorithms. Each operator contains these waveform types:
As this plugin was created with vector graphics, it can be resized. This could be useful for when you want to look at mulips VSTs at once or if you have trouble seeing the options on the plugins, like myself.
Check out these other features that haven’t already been mentioned yet:
- The LFO is syncable to the host
- The waveform is visualized in real time, enabling you to see how each dial affects the sound.
- Operators are aliasing-free.
- 12 voices.
- A lowpass, highpass and bandpass 24dB resonance filter.
- Envelopes can be dragged and dropped into the plugin.
As this free synth comes packed with a whole bunch of sonic potential with some retro flavour sprinkled in, it’s worth adding to your other plugins and seeing what you could achieve with it.
Mono/Fury by Full Bucket Music
Have you ever craved for a VST that could replicate 80’s vibes of the beloved KORG Mono/Poly® (used by artists such as Hardfloor, Tangerine Dream, The Orb and 808 State)? Well, there’s no need to crave anymore! Full Bucket Music’s plugin called Mono/Fury is here, and it does just that. Written in native C++, this plugin is capable of running at a high performance and on lower-spec machines. Some of its features include:
- An arpeggiator, including a sync-to-host option.
- Oscillators which are four band limited.
- A zero-delay, four-pole feedback self-oscillation lowpass filter.
- Cross modulation and hard sync located in the ‘Effects’ section.
- MIDI Learn.
- Poly and Mono keyboard options.
The Mono/ Fury has four Voltage Controlled Oscillators (or VCOs). Different waveforms can be switched between these rotaries. Pulse, triangle and sawtooth waveform types can be switched between, adding fixed widths and modulation. The octaves of the VCOs can also be affected between 4 settings. three of them can be pitched shifted, also.
Located in the top middle of this plugin, are two functions that simultaneously. These are the ‘Portamento’ and ‘Master’ parameters. Messing around with these settings will create pitch bends, with the added ability to control the distance between when these bends will occur.
The Envelope Generators and Voltage Controlled Filters radically alter the sound of the LFOs. Basically, this is done by using resonance, lowpass filters and changes in the frequency response. There’s also some other filters that directly interact with the MIDI’s velocity.
This plugin does a brilliant job of replicating the KORG Mono/Poly®. If there were a blind test between the two, I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of producers, composers and musicians wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. The Mono/Fury is just so realistic.
What has been covered in this blog about this specific synthesizer, just scrapes the surface of its capabilities. It’s so sophisticated and versatile, that so many sounds can be replicated to get that vintage sound you may be searching for. So, download it, and see what sounds you can discover with it.
Download: Full Bucket Music
Tyrell N6 by U-he
Originally, Tyrell was a project that was started by a music publication company from Germany called Amazona. Their aim was to create an analog synth, with a low cost, that was based on recommendations from readers gathered from polls and discussions that took place within forums. As the project went on, it started to be conceptualized as a kind of Juno 60 replica (by Roland), which used some simple modules with a few extra features.
However, the Amazona team began to realize that creating an actual hardware synth was too long and expensive for them to be able to pull off. Luckily, though, Urs Heckmann (the founder of U-he) saw an opportunity to transform this idea into a virtual instrument instead. But best of all, it was released completely free in 2011.
It’s already in its third rendition and available for Mac, Windows and Linux.
Some of its features include:
- More than 580 factory presets.
- A resizable UI.
- 2 LFOs with 8 waveforms that can be synced.
- A ring modulator, noise generator and 2 oscillators
- A chorus effect which has 8 modes.
- Has both the classical architecture of an analog synth combined with digital features.
- A skinnable UI
- Analog emulations of ADSR envelopes, which can be triggered via LFO or looped.
- Realistic overdrive and filter feedback provided by the audio source mixer.
- A modulation matrix with depth control from a second source.
- The ability to use unison with up to 8 voices.
If, for some reason, the 600 presets aren’t enough for you, then there’s even a user base dedicated to creating patches that can be downloaded online. So if you’re new to synthesis, the Tyrell community is there to provide you with their own outstanding sounds that they have discovered with this plugin. On the other hand, if you’re experienced with synths, you can help the rest of the community out by uploading some of the sounds that you have created yourself.
The great thing about Amazona and U-he collaborating, is that you get the benefits of two different visions, all in one extensive free plugin. It still holds up as a Juno 60 emulator, whilst also incorporating elements of U-he’s modular synth, ACE. For this reason, this virtual synth is capable of capturing both retro and modern sounds. There’s something for everyone in this plugin.
TAL-U-No-62 by TAL
TAL’s U-No-62 polyphonic virtual analog synth aims to replicate the instantly recognizable sound of the iconic Juno 60 hardware synth by Roland. The hardware synth has been used by bands and artists such as Faithless, Howard Jones, Enya and Astral Projection.
Due to its self-resonance capabilities, it has the potential to be used as a tone generator.
On the UI, a filter section can be found and has options for controlling the envelope amount as well as LFO modulation, keyboard tracking and polarity. A non-resonant high pass filter is also available for removing the lower frequencies, creating more clarity in the sound and stopping it from getting in the way of your kick drum or bassline.
Here are some of its features:
- Filter envelopes which are velocity sensitive.
- Support for all sample rates.
- 20 presets included with the download.
- It’s polyphonic with 6 voices.
- 5 different waveforms included with the LFO (which can also be synced)
- ADSR envelopes with fast reaction times.
- Able to do cutoff changes smoothly, especially with MIDI controllers.
- All potis can use MIDI learning.
- Bandlimited oscillators.
The great thing about this plugin is that it does exactly what it`s set out to do, and that is to replicate the Juno 60 as accurately as possible, in a digital package. It does its job spectacularly and gives all of us the opportunity to get to grips with how these old school synths work. It would sound fantastic in a synthwave track or as part of a film score for an 80s-themed sci-fi movie.
Download: TAL Software
Model E by Steinberg
Now, here’s a very famous VST synth with an interesting backstory. In fact, it was actually one of the first virtual instruments that was commercially available (along with Pro-Five from Native Instruments). Now, the synth is back, but this time, it’s available as a freeware plugin that works in any DAW.
This one is heavily inspired by the Minimoog, one of the most recognisable and revolutionary synths ever created. It is included in the VST Classics Vol 1 pack, alongside their virtual bass guitar vst, the VB-1. A 64-bit version is available and it works on both Windows and Mac.
Just like the Moog Model D Minimoog, thick 3-VCO monophonic bass sounds are easily obtained. But aside from this, the plugin actually has many advantages and more capabilities than the hardware synth that it’s replicating. Here’s some examples:
- It's totally polyphonic and able to produce 64 voices simultaneously.
- MIDI can be used to trigger the sounds, so it’s not necessary to be a piano playing witch or wizard.
- As it`s a VST, presets can be saved so that your discovered sounds are always easily accessible.
- The pitch of the VST remains in tune (though you could use chorus effects to simulate this).
- The filter is very warm while the oscillators are nice and crisp.
- The ability to add extra effects from within your DAW (eg. reverb, delay, saturation) with ease.
As you can see, the Model E from Steinberg comes packed with a whole bunch of new features that add to the already incredible Minimoog. But, regardless of all these new additions, Steinberg still maintains the classic look of the hardware synth in both its GUI and concept.
It comes loaded with an amazing 24dB filter with ADS and no LFO and three oscillators per voice. Though fully polyphonic, it’s possible to switch to mono mode to make it feel even more like the real thing. There’s also glide and portamento effects for you to enjoy experimenting with.
You would think that due to its digital nature, it might not be possible to create the ‘in your face’ sound we’ve all come to love from the Minimoog hardware synth, but astonishingly, it superbly emulates fat bass sounds just as well as whooshy sounds prominent in RnB, hip hop and electronic music in general. If film score composer mastermind Hans Zimmer can get down and dirty with this plugin, you can too.
With this selection of old school synth emulators, you should have more than enough retro sounds to select via presets or create yourself through experimentation. So get inspired and make your next 8-bit video game soundtrack or synthpop song!
Top Free Retro Synth VST Plugins, Final Thoughts
Which of the above retro synth VST plugins will you use? Let us know in the comments below.