There are so many VSTs on the market, it can be difficult to sift through the noise and find the plugins that are actually going to help you make music – not waste your hard earned cash.
*Holiday season is almost here! Get ready for the best Black Friday plugin deals in 2021*
That’s why we devised a list (with neat category headings) of 50 of the best VST plugins available now.
While we’re on topic, you also might want to check out our list of the best 250 free VST plugins.
Here’s the complete list of the best VST plugins, instruments & synths in 2021:
- uhe Diva
- Xfer Serum
- Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2.6
- Kilohearts Phase Plant
- Waves Smack Attack
- Arturia Pigments 2
- Parawave Rapid Synth
- Native Instruments Kontakt
Best Synth VST Plugins
Let’s face it, there’s not much more satisfying than a great software synthesizer.
And with the advances in plug-in technology, software synths have become a welcome evolution for synthesis & the music industry. The great thing about digital synth vst plugins is that, they don’t have limits to their capability.
Below are our picks for the best vst synths of 2021.
uhe’s Diva made top of this list because of the sheer quality of sound it produces – it’s simply the best sounding synthesiser that money can buy.
(btw… if you want a more in-depth overview of what Diva can do, then be sure to check out our uhe Diva review)
It’s a virtual analogue synth that impersonates over 5 decades of analog hardware synths, including:
- Roland Juno 60
- Roland Jupiter 6 & 8
- Oberheim OB8
- Roland JP8000
- & a few extras
What’s even cooler, is that Diva has slight modular capability – allowing you to mix and match the oscillators, filters & envelopes to your liking.
That means you can have a MiniMoog (Triple VCO) oscillator, with a Jupiter 8 filter (cascade) & a Alpha Juno-2 envelope, giving you the most phenomenal crossover of warm, analog sounding gear.
Diva also sounds excessively similar to the original hardware, & you’d be hard pressed to find someone that would be able to tell the difference. It uses special PSpice technology to model analog circuitry at component level.
This makes it sound incredible & also gives it zero-delay feedback response on filters – making it the most true emulation of analog gear we’ve ever seen.
Using this technology does make Diva extremely taxing on the CPU, meaning you’ll have to sacrifice your processor to the gods to power the divine beast. But, it does have a multicore mode for those that aren’t using their Mum’s old Packard Bell from 2004, which helps reduce the hit.
If you’ve been producing for more than a week, I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of Serum. You know, that wave-table synth that everyone seems to be using.
Well, it is undoubtedly one of the best and most beloved plugins for the modern producer.
Like we said in our Xfer Serum VST review, Serum is extremely easy to use, while remaining unique and interesting throughout.
The audio quality is top-notch and the control + freedom you get, while working with Serum is a breath of fresh air.
Unlike a lot of modern synth VSTs, Serum has remained comparatively simple. It’s very friendly to beginners and sounds great.
What some of you might not know however, are the sampling capabilities of Serum. You can import any audio into serum and turn it into a wave-table, to create completely new and unique sounds.
One of the best things about Serum is the rent to own options. Not only are you able to pay in instalments of as little as $9.99, but each payment gets you closer to owning the virtual instrument!
(it’s also 0% interest)
Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2.6
Spectrasonics Omnisphere is one of those VST plugins that does almost anything you can think of.
Considered by many to be the cream of the crop for sound design, Omnisphere is often regarded as one of the best virtual instruments of all time.
From its Granular Synthesis modes, through to the complex rate-level envelope generators, there’s more than enough to keep the knob-twiddlers happy.
On top of that, Omnisphere is absolutely loaded with ear tingling preset sounds, which are extremely popular among cinematic film composers.
With Omnisphere, you also get access to a huge range of wave-tables, sampled directly from old hardware synths.
When comparing the sound to any of the other vst plugins on this list, Omnisphere comes out victorious every time.
Kilohearts’ flagship synthesizer is probably the closest competitor to the giant, Serum.
It’s a primarily wave-table based synth, that is super versatile, easy to learn and use.
The most interesting parts of Phase Plant are where it differs from Serum, with the workflow being the most apparent.
Phase Plant is, at its heart, a modular synthesizer, though perhaps not the kind that immediately comes to mind.
Instead of connecting immovable modules together with cables, Phase Plant allows you to slot modules in where needed.
As with all synthesizers with a modular workflow, flexibility becomes a key element in sound design.
With so many modulation destinations, and even sound generators able to be modulators, Phase Plant can produce sounds with an incredible amount of movement. Think modulating basses, twisting chords and evolving pads.
You can pick up Phase Plant from Plugin Boutique today!
Arturia Pigments 2
Price: $199 or $9.99/month
You might know music industry giants, Arturia from their wide variety of hardware synths, keyboards and controllers.
In the software world, Arturia is best known for analog gear reproductions, like the amazing Arturia CS-80V.
Pigments is a more contemporary take on a soft synthesizer, and it’s definitely one of the best vst plugins of 2021!
It’s a perfect example of a synthesizer that couldn’t really exist as a hardware synth.
The UI is fresh, colourful and fun to use, while the extensive modulation possibilities keep you busy.
Due to the nature of Pigments being a combination of, virtual analog and wave-table synthesis engines, the depth of the plug-in is unmatched.
Our favourite part of Pigments is hands-down the polyrhythmic sequencer. It turns Pigments into a quirky, extremely powerful melodic machine.
Parawave Rapid Synth
Parawave’s Rapid Synth is the best value for money power synth we’ve used, and it competes with the likes of Omnisphere and UVI Falcon. If you want to find out more about Rapid Synth, check our full, in-depth Rapid Synth review.
With Rapid Synth you get 3 oscillators, and 8 total layers that you can blend together.
This means you get 8 instances of 3 oscillators, samplers, the effects included, and things like LFOs, Envelopes, Sequencers, Arps etc.
And, as you can guess, you can make some incredibly in-depth sounds with Rapid Synth. The type of sound that continuously evolves and never becomes boring.
With Rapid, they also include a huge library of factory content, which has over 250 unique wavetables to choose from, and a huge library of 600+ multi-samples, including stuff like: guitar sounds, warping granular sounds, entire drum kits, and a tonne more!
The quality of these samples and wavetables are second to none, and honestly… I’m a huge Omnisphere lover, but I fully believe this is a cheaper version, with a lower CPU hit.
You also get access to 22 different FX units, as well as an extremely cool arp.
The arp is amazing. It can read MIDI, meaning you can import anything from your 3rd party packs, or whatever you have inside your DAW. You can also choose from a number of presets, and have extremely precise control over it.
Modulation is vast too, including 4 LFOs, 4 Envelopes, 4 Sequencers & up to 32 routing options.
The possibilities with this synth are almost endless, and it’s a pure sound design beast. Rapid also has an intuitive UI, and is easy to pick up and use. However, there are some things that could be slightly easier to operate.
Either way, it’s the best value for money synth VST we’ve ever used, and should definitely be something you consider if you’re looking for a new synth.
TAL’s Bassline 101 is an analogue emulation of the SH-101, that sounds wickedly brilliant. It’s an absolute wizard when it comes to bass patches, & with the addition of a Polyphonic mode – the 101 is now great at making Roland style, warm pads & chords.
(if you want a deeper overview, be sure to check our TAL-Bassline 101 review)
This is one of the best value for money VST plugins of 2021 & is an absolute steal for what it can do. It’s actually a more accurate sounding emulation than Roland’s own, Roland cloud version (which is more expensive & ties you into monthly payments).
It’s got a beautiful user-interface, & is extremely simple to use. You can get a great sounding patch within a matter of minutes, leaving less time worrying about sound design & more time actually making music.
And, even if you don’t want to spend a little time designing your own sounds, the 101 comes with an expertly crafted library of 300 great sounding presets, plus a 96 step sequencer, up to 6 voice poly mode & a de-clicker for shorter envelopes.
The Bassline 101 is pretty simple, only having 1 envelope & a few modulation options, but don’t let that fool you. It sounds great, is easy to use & isn’t gonna burn a hole in your brand new chinos, you chino w**ker.
Native Instruments Kontakt
Obviously, Kontakt is not a big secret. It’s the best sampler instrument/synth that money can buy. Where Native Instruments Kontakt shines is the sampling of real instruments.
Violins, basses, guitars, even old-school synths – Kontakt has the most incredible sounds for them all.
For well over a decade, producers, sound designers and professional mix engineers have made great use of it. During that time, it has been showered with high praise and deservedly so.
At it’s core, Kontakt is an environment for multi-sampled instruments, but the plugin itself runs much deeper.
Kontakt is fully programmable and, regardless of your level of experience or programming knowledge, your sample processing needs are most definitely covered.
Especially given the power available to you with custom scripting, which allows you to create your own sound engines.
There are also countless instruments and packs for Kontakt to choose from.
Our favourites are:
- Kinetic Treats
- Retro Machines
- Sound Dust
Native Instruments Massive X, is their flagship synthesiser and it’s an improve on the original Massive, which helped to give birth to entire genres, including Dubstep.
I’m getting flashbacks to those nostalgic MW2 days :'(.
The extremely fast, well-thought out patching is what made massive such an incredible tool, and Massive X expands on this.
With an incredible selection of 170 different wavetables, 2 oscillators (with separate sub oscillators for each), and the ability to add an extra oscillator through the FX rack, you can morph Massive X into anything you want it to be.
Where it really shines is the modulation capabilities, and the ease-of-use. With Massive X you can quickly re-route your entire chain, and have full control over the signal path (much like you would with a modular synth).
This means you can bypass certain oscillators and change their flow in the signal path. This gives you full control over everything, and allows you to create some truly unique sounding patches.
Alongside this you get 3 envelopes mappable to pretty much any parameter, 6 LFOs, 3 performers, & 4 trackers. The modulation capabilities of Massive X are insane.
It is one of the most customisable, expressive synths on the market.
TAL have done it again, with the U-NO-LX – creating one of the best VST analogue emulations, of an all time classic, the Roland Juno 60.
It’s one of the best value for money analogue emulations in 2021, & sounds almost identical to the original thing. Like Diva (mentioned above) – TAL use special PSpice technology to model the original circuits found in the Juno 60, at component level.
This replicates the sound of the U-NO-LX with complete accuracy & allows for a zero-delay feedback response.
It sounds all kinds of warm & thick and, with new technology, TAL have been able to remove the noise that was such a pain with the original unit & is great for mixing purposes.
One of the coolest things about the U-NO-LX is that it comes with the original hardware presets factory bank A, so you can jam out on some real old school sh*t & live your 80s synth pop dreams.
Alongside that, you get 300 factory presets, filter effects, an arpeggiator, beautiful chorus effects & a load more options for control.
Best Reverb Plugins 2021
Reverb plugins are definitely a dime a dozen. With numerous options for both paid and free plugins, it’s a hard task to narrow it down to 5.
We’ve gone for variety here. If nothing else, at least one of these Reverbs should catch your eye.
Below is a list of the best plugins that reverb has to offer.
Similarly to the Fabilter pro series, no best plugins list would be complete without mentioning Soundtoys.
Built from the classic hardware unit, (the EMT 140 plate reverb), Soundtoys have meticulously modelled this beast, to capture the stunning sound, & vibe from the original, almost perfectly.
As Soundtoys state themselves, the Little Plate is more than just a reproduction of the EMT 140. They’ve used modern possibilities, to enhance the characteristics of the original rack unit.
While the original reverb could only muster a modest five seconds of reverberation time, Soundtoys pushed that number higher. A lot higher. With Decay Time set to infinity, Little Plate’s reverb tails never fade away.
Another great feature of the Little Plate, is the built-in Low Cut filter types.
Instead of having to use a separate EQ or filter plugins, to remove these unwanted frequencies, it can all be done inside this very simple and intuitive reverb machine.
Soundtoys’ Little Plate is a great reverb plug-in for anyone who wants to achieve that coveted electro-mechanical sound, that the EMT 140 is so famous for.
Fabfilter’s vst plugins prove themselves time and again, to be the ultimate package for mixing and production basics.
The Fabfilter Pro R is no exception. It’s simple, straightforward and effective.
Compared to the previously mentioned Adaptiverb, Pro-R is almost a completely different thing altogether.
Where Adaptiverb is the latest and the greatest in reverb innovation, Fabfilter Pro-R has nailed the basics, to the point that no other reverb plug-in has.
If you’re looking for an extremely versatile reverb plug-in that you could use on everything, there’s not much better than Pro-R
Valhalla is known to producers as the cream of the crop of reverbs.
It’s an algorithmic reverb designed for BIG sounds, but the versatility of the shimmer cannot be understated.
The built-in pitch shifting, as well as the sonic qualities of the reverb, make for the best way to add some necessary sparkle to your dull tracks.
We’ve used the shimmer on pretty much everything under the sun, leads, pads, percussion, etc. But where it really shines is on guitars.
Guitars just work so well together with the shimmer. The pitch-shifting of the plug-in also serves as an added layer to your already lush reverb’s.
These qualities make Shimmer one of the best plugins for guitar.
It’s a magical little piece of kit, that is one of the few, true, necessities for a modern producer.
Kleverb is the highest quality algorithmic reverb effect on the market.
It has an intuitive UI that has been carefully designed, using a calibrated network of filter types and delays. This makes it extremely versatile to any genre/musical situation; all from acoustic jazz to EDM.
It has to be mentioned, that the Kleverb has, in our opinion, one of the best plugins for user experience.
The workflow is extremely intuitive and easy to use, but powerful at the same time. What usually takes some automation trickery, Kleverb streamlines the process to just a click of a button, and we’re all for it.
Another on our list is: Zynaptiq Adaptiverb, and it offers a selection of things that other reverb’s do not.
It is a hybrid synthesizer/reverb that can provide lush tune-able reverb tails, or can be played like a virtual instrument.
Adaptiverb employs machine learning, ray-tracing and source separation techniques to synthesise a reverb tail that automatically adapts to the audio context it is used in — like a chameleon.
The depth of this reveb plug-in is unlike anything out there and the interface is also very striking and responsive.
Designed specifically for sound designer and people who love to experiment, Adaptiverb is one of the more compelling options for reverb VSTs in 2021.
Compressors are a thing every producer has had to use. The problem is that compressors are anything but intuitive.
For us, a good compressor strikes the balance between ease of use, great sound and character.
So here’s our picks for the best vst audio plugin compressors of 2021.
The second Fabfilter plugin entry on our list, Fabfilter Pro C2 is arguably the perfect digital compressor.
The original Pro-C was one of the most beloved digital compressors, and Pro-C2 expands on that legacy.
As with a lot of FabFilter products, Fabfilter Pro C2 is an extremely high-quality compressor unit, with little to no sonic characteristics.
FabFilter makes up for the lack of a sonic character, with an intuitive and easy to understand UI, as well as a lot of features, like side chain, mid side etc.
As far as compressors go, the Fabfilter Pro C2 is as good as a digital compressor can get. It’s easily one of the best vst plugins of 2021.
As a clean and powerful compressor for mixing, you can’t go wrong by picking up Pro-C2 on Plugin Boutique today!
The Arturia TUBE-STA gives you a gorgeous recreation of a classic: the stalwart, valve-driven compressor. This was a compressor used in the early days of radio broadcast, and gives a certain type of warm, classic feel.
A boutique signal processor with a golden touch, the original STA-Level was well known for the intimacy, air, and subtle saturation it gave to any audio it treated.
As it moved from TV and radio studios to more music-focused studios in the 60s and 70s, word got around that it had a killer sound on bass and vocals
And this is exactly the reason, why it made our list of VST plugins to die for.
The Tube-STA is hands-down one of the best plugins for achieving a thick and juicy bottom end.
It transforms weak bottom-end into fat, harmonically rich bass, and brings vocals to life. All this at the turn of one knob. Its simplicity is certainly a big part of the appeal.
When bringing up software compressor models, UAD is easily one of the best plugins available, for your compressor modelling needs.
Honestly, if we could, aside from Fabfilter Pro C2, this list would be comprised of only UAD plugins.
The granddaddy of all great character compressors, the LA-2A makes this spot purely for it’s classic sound and great sonic characteristics.
The LA-2A is arguably one of the most recognisable rack compressors ever made. It’s primarily used to bring in some analog warmth to your sounds, while remaining relatively clean.
This doesn’t mean however, that the LA-2A is a push-over.
When you slam the settings on the compressor, the grit and distortion of the circuits are to die for.
As with all UAD products, the reproduction of the original rack unit is impeccable, and honestly, having used the original unit, we could not tell the difference between the digital and analog versions.
Yes, UAD are just that good at what they do. You can get the LA-2A from the UAD webstore
A personal favourite of ours that just had to make an appearance.
Sausage Fattener by Dada Life is one of those magical plug-ins, that can seemingly make everything better.
With just 3 knobs for saturation, colour and drive, Sausage Fattener is comically easy to use.
Incidentally it is also comical to look at, the more you saturate, the larger the sausage grows.
Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted?
As it’s a very simple plugin (it’s basically just a saturator) the versatility of it is nothing to scoff at. We’ve put them on Kicks, basses, saxophones, leads, pads, and much more.
Whenever we think of roughening up a sound, Sausage Fattener is usually the first thing we add.
Check out Sausage Fattener on the Dada Life website
The Lindell Audio 7X-500 is a software reproduction of their 500 series FET compressor.
As a FET compressor, the 7X-500 is nowhere near the versatility of Fabfilter Pro C2, or the UAD LA-2A compressor.
Where it makes up for it though, is the extremely prominent and in your face sonic characteristics. It’s aggressive, mean and rough, and a lot of times – that’s exactly what you need.
In fact, the 7X-500 is easily one of the best compressors to run in parallel.
The tracking isn’t all that great, which means that vocals aren’t really the best fit for the plug-in.
Layer it in parallel however, and you can start to see why it made our list.
A really great pick-up for anybody looking for a full bodied character compressor.
Best EQ Plugins 2021
EQ is one of the basic building blocks of a good mix. If you’re not equalizing something in your mixes, you’re doing it wrong.
A good EQ will fit either of two categories:
- Surgical EQ
- Musical EQ
Which of these is best for you depends on the situation, which is why we compiled a great variety of different and interesting EQ’s to sink your teeth into.
Below is a list of the best plugins in Equalisation.
The Fabfilter Pro Q is a razor sharp EQ with no sonic quality. It is exactly how a mixing EQ should be. Simple, easy to use and damn powerful.
Since reviewing the Fabfilter Pro Q3, it’s become one of our favourite EQ’s for every situation. The dynamic EQ is amazing, the sheer, surgical precision you can have with cuts, boosts across stereo, L & R, Mid/Side EQ is insane & the workflow of this a producer’s dream.
The spectrum analyser is incredible, it will automatically detect points of resonance and give you the option to create a Q point with a quick click, you can freeze it to see the entire spectrum & easily spot which frequencies are too harsh visually.
We could go on…
But, there’s a reason it gets mentioned as one of the best EQ’s on Reddit and other forums consistently.
Here’s what it offers (version: Pro Q3):
- Incredible precision.
- An optional Dynamic EQ setting.
- Mid side & left/right settings.
- Zero latency (unique to pro q)
- 24 EQ individual bands for sculpting.
- Incredible filter shapes & support for 96dB/oct slopes.
Sonible’s smart:EQ 3 is an incredible AI mixing assistant, that analyses your audio and helps you to make informed decisions, rather than making decisions for you.
And, it’s really good at it. When testing it out in our smart:EQ 3 review, we were extremely surprised with the suggestions it was making, and often they were decisions we would have made ourselves.
One of the coolest new features in smart:EQ 3 is its ability to do cross channel mixing.
For instance, you can load smart:EQ on up to 6 channels, and put them in groups. These groups have a level system, where you can place your channels in order of importance. Then smart:EQ 3 will analyse these channels and apply processing based on what you want to stand out the most.
The algorithm is extremely good at making these decisions, and 99% of the time get’s it sounding perfect. And, it includes some clever features like dynamic adaption.
Dynamic adaption will adapt smart:EQ’s, EQ curve to your audio as it progresses in time. So, if you’ve got a synth opening up in cutoff, you don’t have to automate your EQ, or create duplicate channels and process them differently – smart:EQ will adapt for you.
It’s pretty CPU heavy, which is a downside, but it’s an incredible workflow tool to use when mixing, and also a great tool to help people learning how to use EQ.
Not a lot can be said about the 550a and 550b that hasn’t been said a million times over. Probably the most ubiquitous example of a hardware EQ that has ever existed.
Based on one of the most popular EQ’s ever, the API 550 range, the Waves emulations don’t disappoint.
The Waves 550A EQ provides equalization at 15 points in 5 steps of boost, divided into three overlapping ranges.
Its high and low frequency ranges are individually select-able as either peaking or shelving, and a band-pass filter can be inserted independently of all other settings.
The 550b on the other hand is invaluable as both a problem solver and a sweetening device.
Since both of these plug-ins are usually bundled together, you will end up having an incredibly versatile and great sounding set of EQ’s.
This set of EQ’s is available on sale on the Waves website.
The Maag Audio EQ4 is a musical EQ, making it ideal for sweetening tracks.
The exceptionally low phase across all EQ adjustments helps maintain the integrity of your original signal while giving it an airy quality.
The Maag EQ4 has a ‘Sub’ band, which is a bell boost/cut fixed at an earth-shatteringly low 10Hz, and the ‘Air’ band a shelf boost that can be set to 2.5, 5, 10, 20 or 40 kHz, as well as ‘off’
We love it especially for the absolutely beautiful top end presence that this EQ provides.
Try using it on vocals, to see why some of the best producers in the world demanded a software replica of this exact EQ
The Kilohearts Carve EQ is a 31-band EQ with built-in spectral analysis and a Match tool that makes it both addictive and useful.
Carve EQ can be both heavy handed and precise, depending on how you use it. We prefer to use Carve EQ for drastic cuts and boosts. The UI also lends itself incredibly well to a fast paced production style.
Additionally, it is admittedly incredibly fun to use. This puts it in the conversation for one of the best vst plugins of 2021.
The most interesting feature by far, that Carve EQ has, is the Match and Reference Tool.
By uploading a song, or track into Carve EQ, it will calculate and figure out how the source audio has been EQ’d, and spits out an EQ curve, based on the source audio, which is a great starting point for any mix.
Check Carve EQ on Plugin Boutique.
Best Mixing Plugins
A bit of a weird category here, because, what really is a mixing plugin?
Well, for us, it means anything you could use to make your mixes sound better, fuller and more clear.
Since we already have separate categories for EQ’s and compressors, the plugins you’ll find here are more situational, but definitely great to have.
So keep on reading, to find out what they are!
Price: $1,199 or $15.99/month
The first entry of an iZotope product on our list is the famed RX-8 plug-in. And it’s another wicked plugin you can get on Splice’s rent to own plans!
Anyone that has ever used iZotope’s RX products in the past will know just how incredible their range of plugins are. Ask most producers what they use for mastering, mixing or audio repair, and we guarantee you’ll hear iZotope’s name more than a couple times.
They provide the best processing effects for audio repair, dialog editing, spectral processing, post-production plugins around.
RX-8 is really good if you want to clean up a vocal take, a podcast recording, or do anything that involves audio repair/restoration. It can even be used as an interesting sound design tool with the spectral processing.
One use that’s exceptionally useful for producers, is the ability to create almost studio-like DIY acapellas without having the original recordings.
As with everything tech, iZotope’s software is constantly improving and evolving. The latest version of RX, (RX-8 Advanced) can now realise the difference between, vocals, bass percussion and other instruments, and identify them.
In addition, RX 8 Advanced now also supports surround sound.
Saturn is a multi-band saturation and distortion unit with FabFilters famously flexible modulation routing system onboard.
As with all FabFilter products, it is extremely easy to pick up and get to know. The UI is great, everything you expect from FabFilter is present here.
Even as a single-band unit, Saturn does a stunning job of saturating and distorting any source thrown at it, but add multiband functionality and all that per-band modulation and you have a saturation/distortion design tool with control over every aspect of your sound from frequency and drive, to dynamic range and volume.
Using Saturn to saturate a part of the frequency range of a bass sound, or giving guitars some juicy extra crunch, is where it shines.
The quality and sound of Saturn, makes it one of the best vst plugins of 2021.
If you’ve ever wanted to saturate just a part of the frequency spectrum, look no further than Saturn.
A so-called “secret weapon” for mixing drums and other percussive instruments, this Waves’ transient shaper plugin is absolutely insane for adding that extra kick, punch and grit into your boring drum mix.
Smack Attack does this by boosting, or attenuating the attack and release of the transients in your audio signal. As a result, it gives it more punch & a snappier attack. You can also reduce the transients if they are too harsh.
And it’s not just any other transient shaper plugin… the transient detection system inside this thing is wickedly good; and other transient shapers, just don’t live up to the same standard as Smack Attack.
Smack Attack is a fantastic sounding plug-in, it’s excessively easy to use & will help bring your drums to life in an instant. We like to take the KISS approach when making music (keep it simple stupid).
It’s important to have plugins & racks that help you speed up the process & dump your creative ideas from your brain into your DAW. Smack Attack is one of these plugins for sure & is something we’ve used on every single drum group since the day we got it.
You can purchase Smack Attack on the Waves webstore today.
What happens when a theoretical physicist decides to design and build an EQ plug-in? The answer is Gullfoss.
Gullfoss is based on a computational auditory perception model and is described as a form of AI that analyses and corrects your signal dynamically.
This means Gullfloss is extremely transparent. It can morph its frequency response over 100x/second, while still leaving the perceived dynamics untouched and preventing nasty artefacts from appearing in your audio.
It can be used to instantly improve the clarity of both mixes and tracks in a way that’s impossible with normal EQs.
The algorithm intelligently picks out the elements in the audio signal that are dominating or being dominated in a specific frequency range.
If they are too prominent you can use the ‘Tame’ feature to bring them back to a better level, or if they’re too hidden, you can use ‘Recover’ to help reveal them.
Gullfoss is a very interesting plug-in that could be very useful for both beginners and as well as experienced engineers.
Though there are a lot of mid side plugins on the market, all of them have failed to strike a perfect balance between simplicity and power. So Goodhertz built their own. Sometimes panning isn’t enough for getting a thick and full stereo image.
Mid side was built to be automated and moved around (even the mute and solo buttons won’t click or pop).
Use it to manipulate space and depth; automate it to create more motion in your mixes or masters.
If you’ve wanted more expressive control of your stereo image – this is the plugin. The ease of use of Mid Side cannot be understated.
Best Mastering VST Plugins
Mastering is a thing that confuses a lot of producers.
There is a tonne of conflicting information online, that somebody who is learning mastering could get totally lost in.
So, for us, the best plugins in mastering are the ones that make it accessible. And here they are in all their glory:
Price: $499 or $19.99/month
Ozone 9 has absolutely everything you’ll ever need for mastering.
There’s nothing that can really compare to how dominant this plug-in is for mastering purposes. Ozone has always offered powerful processing and a user-friendly interface, allowing it to appeal to both experienced engineers and mastering newbies.
The features and possibilities of Ozone are so endless, that we wouldn’t be able to truly do it justice in this small amount of words.
Probably one of the most interesting features of Ozone is the Master Assistant. Using AI, Ozone analyses your audio, and adjusts the mastering settings, according to what you’re going for.
It’s as simple as pressing on the assistant button, and answering a couple questions. From experience, Ozone’s mastering assistant gets you already most of the way there.
No faff, no convoluted workflows, just a few buttons and knobs and you’re done.
For professional mastering engineers however, the mastering assistant is pretty much useless, other than providing a vague reference. The approach-ability of Ozone makes it one of the best plugins for mastering on the market.
Fabilter Pro L2 is as much a FabFilter plug-in as anything else – it’s incredibly precise and clean. It’s easy to use and most importantly, it does the job its designed to.
Most of the plugin’s interface is given to the visual meter, that shows the audio coming into the Limiter, in real time.
Even though you should usually focus on what you’re hearing, crucially you can use the meters to check visually, that nothing unusual is happening to your audio.
You can use the audition mode to check for distortion, and the loudness meter to make sure you’re not going to lose the energy of your song.
Fabfilter Pro L2 also sounds excellent. It’s flexible and diverse, easy to use and easy to learn.
smart:comp is an “AI” assisted audio tool for compression.
Their unique Spectral Compression mode, analyses the input track, in real-time with more than 2000 frequency bands, making it one of the best plugins for spectro-dynamic compressors about!
It also has a side-chain input, with the ability to use the instrument profiles, detection focus, and the spectral compression function to provide selective ducking.
smart:comp is definitely a unique product, suited best for mastering.
An all time favourite of audio engineers everywhere is the SSL4000G. It’s a classic piece of hardware that has been used on countless records, and sounds extremely punchy, modern & transparent. Where it truly shines, is its ability to glue different elements of your mix together, even if they sound like they’re polar opposites.
Like with the original SSL, the emulation by UAD has been made with simplicity in mind. The simple controls and the logical layout, give you an incredible depth of control over your buses and separate mixes.
The SSL compressor adds a certain charm to your mix, making it instantly feel like a record, without sacrificing clarity.
Used in the making of albums by Nirvana, Radiohead and Pink Floyd (including Dark Side Of The Moon), amongst countless others, this has to be one of the best plugins for mastering available.
The TG mastering chain actually consists of six plugins: mono and stereo versions of the main TG Mastering Chain, live versions of both, and mono and stereo versions of the TG Mastering Bridge.
The sound is full of character, but the fixed-frequency EQ & filter types lead you towards presets, rather than giving you total freedom.
(although these can be great as a starting point for any master).
Even so, with its warm, analog vibes, this is certainly one of the best plugins that, engineers working in rock, pop, jazz (and other styles) can use for lively, punchy, masters.
The plug-ins that are wholly unique, original and different from everything else around have ended up here.
Personally, being the favourite category of this article, we had to severely cut down the amount of plug-ins here to fit it all into a top 50.
Some honorable mentions include:
XLN Audio RC-20
You’ve probably already heard of RC-20, because pretty much everyone uses it (& has hyped it to oblivion). But, there’s a reason so many people use iPhones over Android – it’s because they’re generally better & more intuitive. The same goes for the plugin world.
XLN Audio’s RC-20 is a vintage, multi-effects unit that sounds all kinds of wicked. It’s the type of plugin that can inject a warm, cozy/lofi feeling into any track & add all the audio imperfections that are missing in today’s digital world of recording.
(if you want a deeper dive, check our RC-20 review out)
It comes with 6 effects modules that all sound pretty awesome, & can be used to create that vintage feeling including:
- Noise – injects cassette hiss, vinyl crackle & more vintage noise effects.
- Wobble – a pitch modulation tape deck style effect.
- Distort – distortion with a tonne of different modes.
- Digital – a bitcrushing effect.
- Space – reverb that sounds great straight away.
- Magnetic – creates dropouts/wear you’d hear on tape machines
One of the more creative things you can use RC-20 for, is filter sweep transitions or warping automation to add movement to sound design.
It’s easy to use, has a beautiful interface & can create very interesting results! RC-20 is one of the best effects VST plugins in 2021.
Crystallizer is an absolutely insane echo plug-in.
Perfect for toying around and experimenting, Crystallizer is a sound design dream.
Soundtoys Crystallizer isn’t your typical echo plug-in…
The sounds you can get, range from traditional to unique, but it is the unique and strange sounds you get from this plug-in that make it so appealing.
Crystalizer takes a slice of the input audio and when it plays it back, it can play it back in reverse. It can be shifted up or down in pitch by 3 octaves, and delayed up to 2 seconds.
The Recycle features allows for regeneration, where the output is fed back into the input.
This all makes for a wholly unique and excellent sounding echo plug-in.
There isn’t a better way of tuning vocals than Melodyne and, it’s easily the one of the best plugins for vocals.
Where auto-tune is like a big brush for rounding up your vocal notes to the nearest semitone, Melodyne is like a scalpel.
After importing your audio into Melodyne, you are presented with your vocals in a MIDI-like interface (take a look at the above picture).
From here you can either pitch your vocal notes or shift them around the grid, changing timing. You can also delete any unwanted notes, insert vibrato and a plethora of other things.
But, probably the most impressive thing about Melodyne is that it isn’t just for vocals.
You might be surprised to hear that it works extremely well on chords & melodies too!
Imagine a situation where you played the sickest piano riff of your life, but missed a note in the next chord.
Before Melodyne, you had no choice but to re-record. But now, you can simply move the individual notes where you need them to be & the sound quality is amazing!
Guitar Rig is the go-to guitar plug-in.
The sheer amount of effects, amps, cabs and other customisation options make Guitar Rig one of the best plugins for guitarists!
In the early days, Guitar Rig offered three tube amplifier emulations, and more than 20 effects including:
- Models of well-known hardware pedals
- Studio-style effects such as:
The Cabinets and Mics inside the plug-in have 14 speaker types, including the classic B4 Rotary Speaker reminiscent of an old Hammond cab.
Additionally, the modelling also takes into account the electrical reaction between the power amp & the speaker!
Guitar Rig 5 is available on the Native Instruments webstore.
Scaler is a fantastic music composition and learning tool, which can be used not only by those who aren’t too much into music theory, but also by those who are willing to learn & expand their music theory knowledge.
Scaler 2 offers an enormous library of chords and scales, pretty much everything we know in music today.
Scaler 2 also includes some great features for live performance. You can pick from a list of options like: expressions, arpeggios, and strumming patterns which can be used to help aid performances, and add a lot of depth to them.
If you want to add a bit more of a human element to your playing, you can select from the Humanize options to add subtle changes to the note velocity, timing, or both.
If you’ve ever felt stuck by not having enough music theory knowledge, we highly suggest picking up Scaler 2.
Best Piano VST Plugins
Second to last on our best vst plugins of 2021 list, we have the Piano category. We know that, finding great Piano emulations can be extremely difficult.
So we decided to try and test the very best virtual instruments, in search of the most realistic emulations of Piano plugins available.
Keyscape is an extraordinary virtual instrument featuring the largest selection of collector keyboards in the world.
From “holy grail” pianos to stunning keyboards you didn’t even know existed, this is a keyboardist’s dream come true.
As with Spectrasonics Omnisphere, the sound quality of Keyscape is stellar, but where it really comes alive is the customisation.
Let’s say, for example you want to lay down some chords with a classic Fender Rhodes sound, but just want some percussive top end from a harpsichord.
Well, the beautiful thing about Keyscape is that, you can combine these sounds into what they call “Hybrid Duo Patches” & they’re incredible for sound design.
And it doesn’t stop there.
If you also own Spectrasonics Omnisphere, you can load the entire Keyscape library into its synthesis engine.
Personally we use Keyscape in every single track we make. The Celeste with echo & varispeed is one of our favourites – a dissonant, vintage sounding beast. The Rhodes sounds so much like the real thing it’s not even worth buying a real one (and we’ve tried many in different studios).
The Grand Piano… well I’m pretty sure you’d have a very hard time telling the difference between a real on & Keyscape side by side.
Addictive Keys is one of those VST plugins that gets Piano emulation just right.
It works by using incredible samples that sound like the real thing!
What’s great is, you’re actually able to modulate and change them in any way you want.
And, once you have fine-tuned your sound, you can use a variety of mic placements to sound like you’re recording the thing from a studio!
Different microphones, mic placements and rooms are just a few of the great customisation options that Addictive Keys’ virtual studio offers.
REFX Nexus 3
Although this isn’t just a piano VST (it’s a huge synth), it has some of the most incredible piano sounds for EDM specifically.
If you want that kind of EDM piano sound, then Nexus is your best bet for this. You could potentially make the EDM style piano sounds by yourself, but I’ve never managed to get as close a Nexus gets to this.
It’s also a huge workflow boost, because the sounds you get really don’t need tweaking at all. You can choose a preset, and it will fit with your tune instantly.
There are also a tonne of customisation options for interesting arps, a load of filters, effects and macros you can use to control different sounds.
Being a synth, you’ll also get incredible pluck sounds, pads, basses and more. It’s the ultimate EDM package.
LABS is stupidly good and it’s free. It has an incredible library of orchestral, piano, guitar & tonnes of other sounds that you’ve probably been searching for online for ages.
When we first started music production, we found it really hard to find free piano sounds that actually sounded good. Until we found LABS…
Personally we use LABS a lot in our own tracks, even though we own some expensive sampler instruments. LABS makes it simple to find a great sound & use it to lay down your ideas quickly.
LABS packs are hands-down the best sampled instrument libraries available for free.
From percussion, to Wurlitzer emulations, to experimental, granular ambient sounds, LABS makes their packs sound unlike anything else.
At exactly 0$ for the entire LABS package, if you don’t already have this on your computer, then you’re missing out!
Soundmagic Piano One
Comes from the sampling of a Yamaha C7 concert grand. It uses its own hybrid modelling engine to capture the well known sound of the C7.
This engine combines the realistic sound of sampling and the play ability of modelling. The play ability is responsive, due to the modelling, while the sampling makes the sound crisp and realistic.
The user interface includes an absurd amount of controls for a piano VST. It allows you to customise just about anything. Interesting features include piano key noises, audience and player perspective, and tuning systems.
Best Delay Plugins
Last on the list of our favourite plugins of 2021 is delays.
Delays are something we use in our production every time. From creating incredible sound design, to just using them for mixing purposes, delays are essential for every producer.
EchoBoy by Soundtoys is by far the best delay plugin we’ve come into. It’s versatile, has that warm analog sound you desire & is extremely popular among producers.
As mentioned, it’s an analog plugin that has over 30 emulations of vintage machines.
If you’re looking for a delay plugin, this is your dream.
The D16 Repeater by Slate Digital, is a serious contender to Soundtoys’ EchoBoy, offering far more depth & deep customisation than it’s competitor.
With the D16, you have access to 23 different delay models which you can tweak even further with the colour knob.
Despite the deep customisation available on Repeater, what makes it so great is how quickly you can get incredible sounding effects with just a few changes.
Imperial Delay by Boz Digital Labs has been designed with workflow in mind, and it shows. It’s a powerful beast of a delay that gives you control over everything.
Due to its design and nature, Imperial Delay allows you to modify tonnes, without affecting your creative flow.
As can be seen above, it allows you to have control over a number of options such as:
- And loads more!
Fabfilter Timeless 2 is another plugin from the software giants that just makes sense.
It’s a fairly unique delay unit, because it’s a fairly straightforward plugin that can be used to achieve incredible results within minutes of using it. But, there’s also a tonne going on in the background.
The options when using Fabilter Timeless 2 are absolutely endless! You can either rustle up a simple delay or make use of the large array of modulation options available to create awe inspiring sound design.
On top of all that, Fabilter includes absolute precision with access to their fantastic filters including, bells, roll offs, shelfs & more!
Softube Tube delay is a delay plugin that packs a punch.
It has an awesome vintage analog style passive EQ that can create results that sound clean or just plain dirty, with just a twist of a knob!
As the name suggests, it also has the ability to add drive to the delay signal to give it a certain warmth & grit.
With Softube Tube delay, you can either add drive to the source of your signal, just the delay or you can add it to the entire sound.
With such a low price tag for such an incredible sound, Tube delay is a must have.
What Are The Best VST Plugins For Beginners?
It entirely depends on what you want, but in our opinion, Serum is the best starter synth VST you can get. As for audio effects, Valhalla Reverbs + delays, & the FabFilter range are great for mixing, but your DAW probably comes with some already great stock plugins you can learn on first.
Waves plugins are also great, and pretty low-budget for mixing & mastering.
iZotope Ozone Elements is also extremely cheap and great for mastering purposes. Wait for iZotope to have a sale and you can pick it up for under $10.
We’d recommend getting a synth, some creative effects, some mixing plugins & some mastering plugins.
Here our are top 5 VST Plugins for beginners:
- Serum – best beginner synth VST plugin
- Spitfire Labs – best free piano/orchestral VST plugin for beginners
- Fab Filter Pro Q3 – best beginner EQ VST plugin
- Fab Filter Pro C2 – best compressor plugin for beginners
- Valhalla Supermassive – best free reverb plugin for beginners
Should I Buy Plugins?
Buying plugins can get out of hand, and you often don’t need as many as you think you do. Think objectively about your purchase, and ask yourself how much of a difference it’s going to make to your music making process.
There are certainly tonnes of paid plugins that are worth their weight in gold, and I personally couldn’t function without. Other plugins aren’t that necessary.
You should try to limit how much you spend on plugins. Sometimes they can seem like magical tools that will solve all your music production problems, but they’re not.
You need to know how to use the tools properly before they become useful.
What VSTs Do I Need?
You don’t need to buy any VSTs, but they can help with your production process massively. We’d recommend getting some Synth VSTs, Reverb & Effects, and mixing and mastering VSTs such as, EQ, compression, limiting etc.
Most VSTs you’ll need as a beginner will come with your DAW as stock plugins.
Depending on what you do inside your DAW you will use some VSTs more frequently than others.
If your main goal is production and song making, we suggest focussing on creative effects, synth VST plugins, and getting a few mixing/mastering tools like EQ, or compressors.
If your main goal is mixing and mastering, you’ll want to put all your budget into high-end FabFilter plugins, Waves & Softube to name a few.
At the end of it, it entirely depends on your goal and what you objectively think will help you make better music, or better mixing decisions.
What Does VST Stand For?
VST or, Virtual Studio Technology is a software that is used for audio-plugins. VST technology means we can get synths, samplers & effects units inside DAWs (digital audio workstations) and use them to make music with.
Virtual Studio Technology uses DSP (digital signal processing) to emulate original hardware gear found in studios. With new, advanced technology some of these emulations of old, hardware gear are almost indistinguishable from the original.
Digital signal processing does have a few drawbacks when compared to analog, but with new technology being invented all the time, this has become much less of an issue in 2021
Here’s the complete list of the best VST plugins, instruments & synths in 2021:
- uhe Diva
- Xfer Serum
- Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2.6
- Kilohearts Phase Plant
- Waves Smack Attack
- Arturia Pigments 2
- Arturia CS-80V
- Native Instruments Kontakt
The sheer amount of high quality plug-ins that have come out in the past 20 years is astounding.
You literally no longer need any hardware other than a computer, interface and speakers.
If there’s a rack compressor, you can have a plug-in version of that. If you want a boutique synth that nobody has heard of, chances are, there’s a VST emulation out there.
The world of incredible plugins is growing daily, and it’s awesome.
That just about brings us to a close. We really hope you enjoyed our list of the best vst plugins in 2021.
If you want some FREE plugins, check out our list of the top 250 free plugins you can download right now!