The world of VSTs can get overwhelming when it comes time to choose a compressor or an equalizer. There’s a stupefying array of options and price points for utility plugins, which means that there is really no sure path to an informed decision for the entry–level user.
But fortunately, the opposite is true when it comes to the eccentric and mind–bending plugins that are out there. Generally, for less than $100 — and in the case of many on this list, less than $50 and even free — you can get your hands on wild synths and effects that will make your tracks sound like no other.
There’s a tantalizing and budget–friendly menu of VSTs out there for transforming your voice into a synth, or your drums into a synth line, or your field recording of noises on the bus into a pad.
The best part is that the functions strange VSTs perform tend to be so unique that you’ll never get a migraine listening to the same two YouTube videos back to back for an hour trying to choose between the Waves API 2500 and the Eventide Omnipressor.
Sinevibes’ MO is a barebones interface that makes it as easy as possible to turn your sound upside down. The Hologram is the perfect emblem of the company’s mission to make complex digital sound transformation dead simple.
Somewhere between an additive synthesizer and an effect, Hologram uses “re–synthesis” to take an audio input and churn out a series of sine waves at difference frequency bands conforming to the profile of the sound put in. It’s a great way to transform a drum rhythm into a percussive synth line, or transform a bass guitar into an alien synth bass line.
iZotope Iris 2
The Iris 2 has been one of the most imaginative synths on the market for a while, and it’s a secret weapon for creating extra–dimensional textures. Arca has made the Iris 2 part of his sonic signature, using it to create evolving synth pads with unfamiliar textures.
The Iris 2 is essentially a sampler that allows you to sculpt the audio via spectrogram view. From there, you can run your manipulated sample through all of the typical synth features, like LFOs, envelopes, modulators, and effects. Iris 2 may be the most fun instrument on SYNC right now, period the end.
Audiothing The Orb
Formant synthesis was initially developed to emulate the sounds of human speech in a musical way. The capacity of format techniques to mimic vowel sounds is fascinating and freaky and can take music right to the edge of the uncanny valley.
This can either be set in a subtle way to lend novel expression to a guitar or synth line, or be used in a dramatic way to shape a melody into some bizarre approximation of a vocalist.
Eventide has been at the top of the digital effects game since the ‘80s, so it’s no surprise that the company transitioned effortlessly into making high–quality, next–level VSTs. The New Jersey firm’s new Fission VST is an effect in a category all its own, employing the company’s proprietary Structural Effects technology.
Fission breaks audio down into transients (or a sound’s attack) and tones (the rest of it) and allows users to effect each differently using delay, reverb, pitch shift, gate, and a series of other processes. Behind this is some serious analytical firepower, all smoothed over with an elegantly simple interface.
The ways that you can transform a sound multiply exponentially, but fortunately, Eventide solicited preset designs from some of electronic music’s heaviest experimentalists, including Suzanne Ciani, Throbbing Gristle’s Chris Carter, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, and Richard Devine.
Freedom Audio 3D Audio
Audio spatialization is nothing new, but the only spatialization plugin available on SYNC right now is also one of the most intuitive out there. The basic idea of Freedom Audio’s 3D Audio is that you can drag your audio around a three dimensional axis to position it around a listening space.
Panning is just left or right, but with audio spatialization you could, for instance, move the sound up and down in a listener’s headphones or forward and backward. This adds a whole new idea of space to the traditional stereo mix, and then you can even automate movement within that space.
Convolution reverb is another one of those effects that has a lot of incarnations already, but the one available on SYNC stands out for its library of spaces. StageCraft Echothief uses impulse response to make it sound like your sound was recorded in all sorts of novel geographies.
Convolution reverb basically works by combining an input signal — like your vocal track — with a field recording of an acoustic space somewhere in the real world. Using a convolution reverb, you could theoretically make it sound like you’re singing in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, as long as you had a recording of the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Waves Smack Attack
Waves Smack Attack is basically the lite version of Eventide Fission, but the utility it performs is a helpful and versatile one nonetheless. Smack Attack focuses solely on transient response, allowing users to either tighten up a sound’s attack (like exaggerating a snare drum’s thwack) or draw it out in a variety of ways.
This is as much a mixing utility as it is an audio sculpting utility, as playing with the transients of various instruments in a mix can influence how subtle or disruptive they are within the context of the broader mix. It’s a powerful tool with just a few essential controls.
Much like the Iris 2, iZotope’s Vocalsynth is all about transforming audio into something other–worldly and wonderful. This VST, though, is obviously intended specifically for vocals. It is most similar in spire to Antares Auto–Tune, but it actually offers a variety of synthetic sounds and means for manipulating them.
The Vocalsynth works in a similar way to the aforementioned Sinevibes Hologram, insofar as it resynthesizes the vocal input. But the point is to create a musically satisfying treated vocal that can be as smooth or brittle as the user desires. You can even set it to auto–harmonize, lending your track an entire cyborg chorus.
It’s actually a beautiful–sounding effect that’s being used more and more these days, especially by adventurous rappers like Future who are tired of the traditional Antares Auto–Tune sound.
The Krotos Dehumanizer a really similar effect to Izotope’s Vocalsynth, except that it quite literally turns human vocals into a monster’s. The aptly named Dehumanizer is designed for use in film studios, implementing a variety of digital synthesis techniques to allow voice actors to sound like Xenomorphs, Orks, and whatever other gnarled beast finds its way onto the silver screen.
MeldaProduction has a series of really cool free plugins on SYNC right now, but its MWaveShaper may be the most creative of the bunch. The MWaveShaper takes a simple idea from subtractive synthesis — shaping a signal to slightly mutate its sound — and allows users to apply it to any input signal at all.
It’s touted as a distortion because guitar distortion may be the easiest way to implement the effect. But the true joy of the MWaveShaper comes from just playing around with all of the different ways you can shape the audio spectrum of any sound you feed it. Spend a Sunday afternoon fiddling with it, and you’ll surely find some wild new timbres that fit perfectly into your music.