Here’s where the list of possibilities really becomes unlimited. Though both Ableton Live and Apple Logic Pro X come pre-loaded with an extensive range of samplers, effects, and other virtual instruments—sometimes called “soft-synths” or “VSTs”—there are plenty of downloadable a la carte sounds out there. In terms of versatility and quality alike, many inexpensive software instruments today are capable of sounds as rich and substantial as those produced by far more expensive pieces of hardware.
If you have classic sounds in mind, you might opt for a AudioRealism Bass Line 3 ($100), which emulates the sounds of a vintage Roland TB-303 bass synth, or a clone of the classic TR-808 drum machine like the D16 Nepheton ($109). At the opposite end of the soft-synth spectrum there’s Cycling ’74’s Max ($399), a visual programming language that can be used to design everything from software instruments, like these monstrous vocal sound effects, to scientific applications, like a map of the electrical currents running through the Amazon forest’s root system. Its complexities are not for the faint of heart, but its possibilities are limitless, and there’s a constantly growing library of virtual instruments created and shared by Max users. Max for Live ($199), meanwhile, offers a suite of instruments, building blocks, and lessons to be implemented directly within Ableton Live.
For many musicians, Native Instruments will be a good first stop. (Disclosure: I gave a paid lecture at a Native Instruments workshop in early 2016.) The Berlin company, active since 1996, is one of the giants in music software, and their Komplete suite of software instruments ($599) offers an extensive collection of synthesizers, samplers, effects, acoustic emulators, sample-based instruments, drum machines, and more. Among Komplete’s instruments are the heavyweight Massive (a favorite synth of dubstep and bass producers), the Battery drum sampler and sequencer, the Guitar Rig amp simulator, and various sample-based instruments that painstakingly recreate different types of acoustic tones. “The amount of amazing synths and samplers and sounds and effects that you get with the Komplete bundle is ridiculous,” says producer Laura Alluxe Escudé. “You could just get that and be totally set.”
Berlin’s U-He began as a one-man operation, but these days the software developer Urs Heckmann has built his boutique virtual-instrument company into a formidable operation with a growing range of products. The Zebra 2 ($199), the current version of a soft-synth that’s been around for more than a decade now, combines a variety of synthesis types with a powerful modulation engine to offer an instrument that’s powerful, surprising, and sounds great. (Composer Hans Zimmer even used it on The Dark Knightsoundtrack; you can purchase his sound set and custom update to the instrument for $99.) Any Cable Everywhere ($73) and Bazille($129) both extend modular-synthesis techniques to the virtual realm, while Diva ($179) leverages classic synthesizer design to offer amazing sound quality. For an alternate approach to modular-style synthesis, you can try the excellent, Buchla-inspired Aalto ($99) from Seattle’s Madrona Labs, which particularly excels in the creation of dynamic, evolving sounds and sequences.
For more effects, many of the musicians I surveyed swore by Valhalla DSP’s line of plugins like the Valhalla Plate classic plate reverb ($50), Valhalla Shimmer reverb ($50), and the free Valhalla Freq Echofrequency shifter; Sleigh Bells’ Derek Miller, Laura Alluxe Escudé, and Rex Riot’s Nicholas Rex Valente all recommend Soundtoys plugins, like the Echo Boy delay unit ($99)— manna for dub fanatics—and the Decapitator analog saturation modeler ($99).
Finally, Berlin’s Ralf Schmidt, a former Native Instruments employee who makes music under the alias Aera, suggests keeping an eye open for the many free VSTs that are available online through sites like KVR Audio and Soundhack. He specifically recommends Ichiro Toda’s Synth1 as “the perfect beginner synthesizer to learn about making sounds.”