Digital Synthesizers: The 9 Best VSTs for Retro Digital Sound
Digital synthesizers were once considered the cutting edge. Now they’re the norm!
Of course, today’s digital synths live in your DAW as VST plugins.
But in the golden age of hardware synths, they were physical instruments just like their analog counterparts.
In fact, some digital synthesis tools had such unique sound that they’re almost as sought after as the most beloved vintage analog synths.
In this article I’m breaking down the nine greatest digital synthesizers of all time and the best plugins available to emulate them.
Let’s get started.
1. Yamaha DX-7
Let’s get this one out of the way first! Possibly the most impactful digital synthesizer of all time, the Yamaha DX-7 has an outsized reputation.
Loved by some and hated by others, the DX-7 has a distinctive sound that’s deeply linked to the music of the 1980s.
When the DX-7 first debuted in 1983, it introduced the world to digital synthesis. Many sounds once considered impossible to create with synthesizers became available to musicians.
The classic bright and clangy attacks of its bells, tines and percussive sounds defined some of the biggest hits of the era.
But players of traditional keyboard instruments also loved its touch sensitivity and dynamics.
There are plenty of options available today to capture the sound of the DX7 in your DAW, but one of the best is free.
Yamaha DX7 plugins:
2. Korg M-1
The race for new digital synthesizers in the 80s and 90s took place mostly in Japan.
Yamaha, Roland, Korg and others pushed each other to bring more and more advanced technology to market.
Among the many popular devices released during this period, Korg’s M1 occupies a special place.
Based on a hybrid approach similar to that of the Roland D-50, the M1 was an affordable and accessible option that made its way into thousands of studios and home setups.
Sometimes considered the synthesizer with the most units sold worldwide, the M1 was a fixture of 90s house music, with many recognizable sounds in its factory preset bank.
If you’re looking for authentic sounds from the era, UVI’s Digital Synsations contains many of the classic patches in its sampled library.
Korg M-1 Plugins
3. Sequential Prophet VS
Dave Smith’s legendary Sequential brand contributed plenty of synth innovations before its temporary closure in 1987.
The Prophet VS was their last major instrument product before the shutdown, but it paved the way for plenty of development in digital synthesis.
Introducing the concept of vector synthesis, the Prophet VS pioneered the ability to crossfade between multiple sound sources based on wavetable oscillators.
Coupled with its signature Sequential analog filter, the Prophet VS was an exciting hybrid that still has plenty of fans today.
Prophet VS plugins:
4. Roland D-50
At the outset of the digital synthesis era, manufacturers had to contend with limited processing power.
The challenge resulted in some unique approaches to sound creation. Roland’s D-50 synthesizer engine used a method that combined sampling with traditional subtractive synthesis.
With short samples used for the initial onset of the sound, a traditional subtractive synth took care of the sustain and decay.
Capable of rich and evocative textures, Roland dubbed the approach Linear Arithmetic.
The D-50 is known for a handful of classic presets, including the famous “Fantasia” and “Soundtrack,” but its sound design capabilities are still exciting today.
Roland D-50 plugins:
5. PPG Wave
The PPG Wave introduced the world to a new type of digital synthesizer in the mid 1980s.
Although based on the subtractive architecture of previous instruments, it created the initial waveforms with a completely digital approach.
Called wavetable synthesis, the technique works by storing basic waveforms as digital files and cycling through them at different rates to produce different pitches.
It allowed synthesists to use waveshapes that weren’t possible before with analog oscillators.
The PPG’s wavetable synthesis had an icy, futuristic sound that contemporary electronic artists quickly adopted. But despite its early success, PPG closed down in the late 80s.
Luckily, its wavetable technology resurfaced with Waldorf Music who now produce an excellent plugin version of the PPG Wave.
PPG Wave plugins:
6. Casio CZ-101
In the mid-1980s, Casio was known more for calculators and wristwatches than musical instruments.
But its electronic keyboard offerings were beginning to make a mark with the introduction of Phase Distortion synthesis in the CZ series.
Similar to Yamaha’s FM approach, Phase Distortion uses a related technique to generate complex timbres.
While capable of similar bells, pads and metallic textures as the DX series, the CZ-101 brought its own flavor to the table along with its more affordable price and portable form factor.
It’s great to try in plug-in form as an alternative to the FM classics.
Casio CZ-101 plugins:
7. Yamaha SY77
Yamaha’s FM synthesis development didn’t end with the DX7. The company continued to push the limits of the technology, culminating in the 90s-era SY series.
With two FM-based models available in both keyboard and rackmount formats, the SY77 and its siblings are prized in synth circles for their powerful approach to FM.
The SY77 features two complete FM engines with 6 operators each. In a unique twist, each operator is capable of feedback with configurable paths.
If that weren’t enough, the SY77 also includes a ROM-based sample voice with a unique early digital flavor.
Equipped with a subtractive filter and envelope, the sample-based AWM voice can create lush layered textures in combination with the dual FM engines for complex sound design.
8. Korg Wavestation
Korg’s original Wavestation was an extension of the technology that powered the Sequential Prophet VS.
With multiple wavetable engines in action at once, the Wavestation featured a joystick controller that allowed musicians to morph between layers.
The technique allowed for highly dynamic soundscapes that evolved over time. That made it a favorite for cinematic scores and soundtrack work.
The Wavestation included an expansive bank of ROM waves that could be combined and sequenced to create entire grooves and tracks in addition to lush pads and atmospheres.
Korg Wavestation plugins:
9. Ensoniq VFX
Digital synthesis innovation wasn’t limited to Japan. In the United States, California-based Ensoniq was pioneering digital technology with innovative concepts.
Known most for their early sampling units, Ensoniq also produced a number of excellent synthesizers.
Among them was the VFX, a workstation that expanded on the wavetable approach used in the earlier ESQ-1 and SQ-80.
Ensoniq VFX plugins:
Digital dreams forever
The early synthesizers of the digital age have now become classics in their own right.
And while they may have been forgotten until recently, there’s still plenty of sound design gold to be found.
Luckily for today’s artists, there are more ways than ever to get the sound of vintage digital in your DAW.
Michael Hahn is an engineer and producer at Autoland and member of the swirling indie rock trio Slight.
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