So, you are overwhelmed. I get it! There are so many great audio plugins out there (both free and paid), making it hard to decide which ones will actually help you and which are just marketing hype.
In this guide, we have broken down the best VST Plugins in just about every possible category.
Whether you're a modest composer looking for some mixing tools to liven up your instruments or a clubgoing EDM producer with advanced synthesis needs, we've got you covered!
As you can see, we've added a table of contents for this guide to help you navigate to what you're looking for.
This article is broken down into two main categories - Instruments and Effects - and under those categories are many sub-categories.
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If you enjoy our picks here, but are on a frenzy to find EVEN MORE great plugin choices, we have written individual articles as well on these additional plugin categories.
Xfer Records Serum (Our recommendation)
With a crystal clear sound and spotless GUI that makes using the over 450 factory patches and 144 wavetables a breeze, Serum stands out among the synth VSTs as the go-to plugin for both sound designers and newcomers.
Serum is designed to give you an easy and effortless way to create, import, edit, and morph wavetables all in real-time. There is a demo version available for both OS X and Windows, and while it is limited to only 15 minutes, we think that is all the time you need to fall in love.
In our opinion, there is no other synth VST on the market that delivers the versatility of Serum.
Other noteworthy selections: Native Instrument Massive and Lennar Digital Sylenth1
Your Craving For Synths Not Satisfied? View Our Entire List Of Synth Plugins.
Native Instruments Kontakt (Our Recommendation)
If you’re at all familiar with sampling VSTs, you probably already know that Kontakt is the big guy and the be-all and end-all when it comes to the current VST samplers on the market. It delivers an unmatched sound quality, along with 1000+ instruments to choose from.
Don’t let its size worry you, however, because Kontakt is absurdly light on CPU and its interface always stays nice and neat, and easy to use.
Really, the only thing that holds Kontakt back is the price, so let’s look at some alternatives as well. However, one great part about Kontact is that there a ton of user created instrument packs - both free and paid.
Other noteworthy selections: Kontakt Player, UVI Falcon, and One Small Clue Grace
Your Craving For Samplers Not Satisfied? View Our Entire List Of Sampler Plugins.
XLN Audio Addictive Keys (Our Recommendation)
Addictive Keys is a beast, and its sound quality and the GUI’s workflow push it to the top. The first thing you should know about Addictive Keys is that it is available in four different instruments: Modern Upright, Studio Grand, Electric Grand, and Mark One.
You have the choice to buy them separately or as a bundle of two or three. You can choose which of the four instruments you want in the bundles as well. We loved and wanted all four, however!
You will truly feel like you’re playing the actual pianos, and the mic placements along with other recording features go far in making you feel like you’re in the studio.
Other noteworthy selections: Native Instruments Alicia’s Keys and EastWest Quantum Leap Pianos
Acousticsamples Sunbird Acoustic Guitar (Our Recommendation)
A common complaint from guitarists is that VSTs can’t truly replicate the sound and feel of an acoustic guitar. Normally, they would be right, but not when it comes to Sunbird by Acousticsamples.
Sunbird is based on a 1962 Gibson Hummingbird and if you’re aware of the sound and versatility the Hummingbird delivers, then you already know what you have in-store for you with Sunbird.
The sampling on the articulations is beyond incredible. Every upstroke, every slide, every pull off, etc. sounds gorgeously natural. The sound quality is backed with a GUI that has an effortless workflow and intuitive features that make writing and creating songs easy for guitarists, VST users, and those just getting started.
When it comes to an acoustic guitar VST, there is no naturally sounding VST out there that can beat Sunbird. But there is another acoustic guitar plugin that literally throws a wrench into the equation.
Other noteworthy selections: Vir2 Fractured Prepared Acoustic Guitar
IK Multimedia Modo Bass (Our Recommendation)
We usually find ourselves recommending the VST that comes the closest to sounding like the acoustic instruments it is based on. This time, with MODO Bass, we are recommending a VST that might just sound better than the majority of physical basses out there.
Yeah, we’re actually saying it, because all you have to do is hear Modo Bass. Seriously, stop what you’re doing and go listen to a sample of its sound. See, we weren’t lying!
Plus, you are given 12 basses to choose from, along with seven effects, two amps, and 20 pickup models.
Modo Bass’s UI is brilliant with the image of the actual bass model you’re currently playing taking up the majority of the screen. It’s a small thing, but it goes a long way in making you feel like you’re playing the “real” thing.
Modo Bass is where it starts and stops when comes to paying for a bass plugin, but there are two decent free options to check out that will help you get familiar with bass VSTs without having to spend a dime.
Other noteworthy selections: DSK BassZ and Samsara Cycle Om Bass 2
Joey Sturgis Tones SubDestroyer (Our Recommendation)
SubDestroyer - This will not be the only time you see Joey Sturgis Tones on our list. Time after time, the company impresses us with their highly affordable and high-quality sounding VSTs.
For the most part, Joey Sturgis Tones’ plugins are simple, both in use and in the number of features they have. For the most part, JST’s plugins aren’t used to create new sounds and tones, but to enhance your already established sound, and to help fix areas in your sound that are lacking in some manner.
SubDestroyer is no different. If you are finding a lack of low end in your bass sound, all you need is SubDestroyer. That’s simply what it does and it does this to perfection.
With SubDestroyer you’re never going to feel that you have too much at your disposal or too little either. You do have the option to replace the low end in a bass and create new bass sounds as well.
Other noteworthy selections: TAL Bassline and DopeVST Bass Engine
Xfer Records Nerve (Our Recommendation)
If drum samples and loops are your go-to, then there is no other VST we like more than Nerve. Nerve’s highlight is its sound sculpting ability, and with effects ranging from pitch shifting and ring mods to weirder effects like PWM (pulse-width modulation), it’s easy to see why it stands out.
Like we said, loops are a blast to use in Nerve. Nerve has the ability to quickly analyze a loop and create up to 16 triggers that you can arrange however you like for days and days.
There is also no hit to your CPU because Nerve effects are applied directly to the sample data.
Other noteworthy selections: Native Instruments Battery and iZotope BreakTweaker
FXpansion BFD3 (Our Recommendation)
BFD3 is similar to Modo Bass, in the sense that gives us a chance to make an outlandish statement about acoustic instruments. This time we are going to say that BFD 3 is so hyper-realistic and easy to use, that you could kick your drummer out of the studio and just replace them with this plugin.
We are of course embellishing, but BFD3 is truly a wonderful sounding drum kit plugin. And honestly, you may find that this plugin takes a lot less work to create the drum sounds you want. Hey, don’t fault us; setting up 13 mics on an acoustic kit takes a lot of time and effort.
The attention to detail is unmatched and it somehow never hits CPU that hard either. Price is really the only reason you should look somewhere else.
Other noteworthy selections: XLA Audio Addictive Drums 2 and SONiVOX Tony Coleman Drums
Native Instruments RETRO MACHINES MK II (Our Recommendation)
There are a lot of Kontakt instrument VSTs out there, and it was hard to choose just which one would get our recommendation. So that should tell you how much we love RETRO
MACHINES MK II.
This plugin really does do it all for us when it comes to the number of features, the sound quality, and look and workflow of the GUI. Oh, and it’s crazily affordable, because why the hell not!
16 analog synths and keys, eight integrated sound variations, and an arpeggiator and chord player are just a few of the fantastic features. You’ll definitely want to check out our full review to see everything this VST has.
Other noteworthy selections: The Giant, Heavyocity Vocalise, and Session Strings
UVI Orchestral Suite (Our Recommendation)
With the ability to deliver the highest quality sounds over the widest range of instruments (60+), Orchestral Suite gets our recommendation as the best orchestral plugin. Oh, did we mention that it’s a steal at its retail price as well?!
You have the ability to create your own orchestras from the 60+ instruments, but a nice feature for newcomers and those that want instant gratification is that UVI gives you a category of complete orchestras that you can choose from. The plugin footprint is also incredibly light, coming in at only 4.62 GB.
Other noteworthy selections: SONiVOX Film Score Companion and Garritan Instant Orchestra
Looking For More VSTs That Emulate Real Instruments? Check out our other guide!
Fabfilter Pro-Q (Our Recommendation)
Pro-Q is a gorgeous EQ plugin packed full of incredibly useful feature. The GUI is a benchmark for future plugins to hit, and thanks to zero-latency mode, this VST can dominate in the studio and/or on the stage.
Other noteworthy selections: Photosounder SplineEQ and MeldaProduction MAutoDynamicEq
D16 Toraverb 2 (Our Recommendation)
For us, we think Toraverb should be in everyone arsenals of reverbs. While you only have one reverb here, it easily stands along with any reverb you can think of. The UI is sleek and stylish, and all the features and lettering are easy to find and read.
Modulation tail, EQ features, and spatial reflections come together to highlight why we love this VST so much. And really the only thing to knock this VST down on is the one reverb algorithm. That’s us pushing to find a negative critique though.
Other noteworthy selections: Audio Ease Altiverb 7 and Waves Abbey Road Reverb
Saturn is a must have distortion plugin, and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone that says otherwise. We are so confident recommending this plugin, that right off the bat we will point out its weakest and only flaw, and that this it’s not the dirtiest of distortion tones. But if it did that, you wouldn’t have the variety and warmth of tones this VST can deliver.
The GUI is unmatched and setting up crossovers is a breeze. The modulation system brings in a wealth of complexity (envelope generators, envelope followers, XLOs, XY controllers and MIDI CC sources). There is also a large library of fantastic presets.
Other noteworthy selections: Audio Damage FuzzPlus3 and iZotope Trash 2
Audio Damage Rough Rider (Our Recommendation)
Rough Rider is the only free plugin you see us recommend in our list. But when you deliver a compressor that has essentially all the features you need, a great simple UI, and magnificent sound it’s hard not to choose you as our number one.
On the features side, you have ratio, attack and release, meter, sensitivity, makeup, active, and MIDI Learn. We like the plugin the best for drums, but it truly works great on a number of instruments.
Other noteworthy selections: 112dB Big Blue Compressor and Joey Sturgis Tones Gain Reduction Deluxe
Since our first two compressors focused on drums, let’s take a look at a fantastic compressor for vocals.
Xfer Records LFOTool (Our Recommendation)
LFOTool stands out because it delivers a number of fantastic features – some very unique – without overwhelming the user or burdening their CPU.
On the features side of this incredible plugin, you have LFO with a customizable point+tension-curve editor, 12 graphs in a preset, graph preset shape menu, and you can send MIDI CC out to other softsynths, effects, or external hardware. This is just scratching the surface, however.
Logically, the plugin is great for EDM genres, but because of all the features that this little VST somehow manages to hold, LFOTool is great for a lot of genres. It’s also very affordable and this should peak the interests of those that might want to start doing some exploring in the EDM realm.
Other noteworthy selections: Tony Romero Kickstart
Waves SSL G-Channel
SSL G-Channel is an EQ compression plugin taken from the SSL 4000 console. Often the G-Channel is compared to the E-Channel, so let’s dive into the difference between those two first.
There is really only one big difference, and that is the G-Channel has a grittier sound compared to the smoother sounding E-Channel. We found that the grittier character that G-Channel offers plays well for rock genres, and for vocals in particular.
G-Channel EQ module delivers the same characteristic pre-boost dip, pre-cut rise, and broad Q for extreme frequency manipulation, which you would expect to hear from the hardware original.
The big thing to note is the G-Channel is only sold as a bundle. There are several of them and they range in the hundreds and thousands of dollars.
Other noteworthy selections: Softube Tube-Tech Classic Channel and Team DNR MixControl Pro
FabFilter Pro-L (Our Recommendation)
Pro-L is packed full with an absurd amount of features that never overwhelm you, making it a perfect all-around limiter. So features first: linear-phase oversampling, advanced dithering and noise shaping, customizable look-ahead, attack, release, and channel linking settings are just some of the few wonderful features found in Pro-L.
Transparency is crystal clear on the sound front and getting our volume loud enough was never an issue. There is also a 30-day trial available so go give FabF
ilter Pro-L a try.
Other noteworthy selections: Thomas Mundt LoudMax and vladg/sound Limiter №6
Soundtoys Echoboy (Our Recommendation)
If you’re a fan of echo delays at all, then immediately go out and buy Echoboy. You have 30 different echoes to choose from. Some are practical like making an instrument sound bigger, while others become the instruments themselves.
The UI is a perfect blend of old and new, and we never came across any CPU issues. So go give the 30-day trial a try, it’s another plugin we bet you’ll buy before the trial is even up.
Other noteworthy selections: TAL Dub Delay, Valhalla Freq Echo, and FabFilter Timeless2
iZotope Ozone (Our Recommendation)
iZotope Ozone aims to be the complete package for all you mastering needs and successfully succeeds in doing so.
Now in its seventh installment, Ozone comes in two forms: Standard and Advance. Ozone 7 includes Vintage Tape for both versions and Vintage EQ, Vintage Compressor and Vintage Limiter modules for the Advance version. Both versions add Codec Preview, an upgraded Maximiser, and new file export format options (Mp3/AAC).
With the Advance version, you have 10 modules in all here, that all come with their own presets. Both Standard and Advanced share stereo imaging, dynamics, exciter, dynamic EQ, and dither.
If you’re familiar with Ozone 5 and older versions’ interfaces you’re going to be in for a surprise. With version 6, iZotope completely changed up the UI for the better.
The positional layout is similar to older versions, but everything just looks so much more modern and stylish compared to older versions. Some of the black on gray text can be hard to read, but besides that, it’s a great looking UI.
Really, that’s about the only criticism we have for Ozone. We recommend going for Ozone 7 Advance and think the added features easily warrant the higher price.
Softube Transient Shaper (Our Recommendation)
A transient shaper is a lovely little mixing tool that every producer should have in their bag. They work by controlling the transient response and envelope curve of any audio signal without messing with the overall level.
They work great on bass drums and usually that’s all they are used for, but great ones can even help out guitars and vocals.
That’s why we picked Softube Transient Shaper as our number #1. It’s simple, affordable, has every feature we want, sounds great on drums, vocals, and guitar, and is super light on CPU.
Other noteworthy selections: Waves Trans-X
We found it to be great for bass drum and decent on both vocals and guitar, which is fine since it’s really a steal at its asking price.
WaveDNA Liquid Rhythm (Our Recommendation)
WaveDNA Liquid Rhythm is hands down the best MIDI Sequencer on our list. Speed is the name of the game for Liquid Rhythm.
It is incredibly fast and easy to make gnarly and groovy beats with LR’s ability to create beats with note clusters and patterns, instead of individual notes.
LR’s speed inducing beat creation just doesn’t end there. The BeatWeaver feature will take a series of beatforms and throw it all together until it has found every single beat combination possible.
If you’re at all familiar with Ableton Live, you’ll immediately recognize Liquid Rhythm’s UI. While the plugin works great with other DAWs, It was designed to be paired with Ableton Live.
Other noteworthy selections: Sugar Bytes Thesys and Sinevibes Inertia
Looking for something other than LiquidRhythm? Here are two other fantastic choices.
Stagecraft Scratch Track
Scratch Track is designed to give you a way to add scratches to your samples, loops, tracks, or live input. The plugin supports all types of timecoded vinyl, MIDI learn for controls, automation, and programmable crossfade.
With MIDI scratching you can adjust the sensitivity and friction controls to create a truly natural sounding vinyl scratch, but with a bit more tweaking you can get super far-out spacey scratches that are insanely fun to create.
The UI does a great job at making you feel engaged with Scratch Track. This mostly stems from the dancing waveforms that dominate the UI. However, the colors are overall a bit dull and blend in together, and this results in some hard to read text.
Stagecraft Scratch Track is now on their third installment and one of the biggest new features is automation recording. With this feature, you can record turntable scratching into automation data. This means that besides simply recording the audio output, you also record how the timecoded vinyl was moved to obtain a certain scratch.
What this means for you, is you can go back and edit the recorded scratches allowing you to create impossible to play scratches.
There have been some CPU issues associated with Scratch Track, but Stagecraft notes that they have been working on the issue. While a niche product, it’s fairly affordable and we had little complaints.
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