If you've been feeling like VSTs aren't quite cutting it for achieving the sounds you want for your Trance productions, or just want a slightly different sound than everyone else, here's a list of the 10 best desktop synths for the genre. This list contains mixed Virtual Analog, Digital, and Analog synths. The ranking is in no particular order, but you can listen to the soundset samples of each by various 3rd party studios, to decide which sound suits your tracks the best.
1. Roland JP8080
The original Trance synth (along with its sibling, the JP8000). Made famous for its signature SuperSaw sound, it first came to prominence following the release of Rank 1’s iconic classic “Airwave”. Subsequently used by nearly every major Trance artist for pads, leads, and occasionally, basses. Nearly all the controls are laid out on the front panel, making this a very easy to use, friendly synth for the novice hardware user.
Polyphony - 10 voices
Oscillators - 2 Roland Analog Modeling DSP oscillators: Saw, Square (PWM), Triangle (PWM), Super Saw (7 de-tuned Saws), Triangle Mod, Feedback OSC
Filter - Resonant 12/24dB/oct low/band/hi pass, 12-band formant filter bank
Effects - 3 onboard effects: Delay; Multi-FX including Chorus, Flanger, Distortion and Tone control
Memory - 384 preset and 128 user patches; 192 preset and 64 user performance
Arpeg/Seq - Onboard Arpeggiator and real-time Phrase Sequencing (RPS) capability
Keyboard - None
Control - MIDI (2 parts)
Date Produced - 1998
2. Access Virus TI2
Another legendary Trance synth, as much an icon of the genre as the JP80x0. The TI series expanded on the older Virus models with improved DSPs, higher polyphony, added effects, more complex routing options, and more effects. Useful for virtually any genre, and can be used to produce almost 100% of a track, it’s a true studio workhorse. And with an abundance of knobs and front panel controls, it’s easy to use and fun to sculpt sounds with. The TI2 boasts an additional 25% processing power over the first TI, making it extremely useful for long, complex pads, and sounds no other hardware synth can achieve.
Polyphony - Over 90 voices
Multitimbral - 16 parts
Oscillators - 3 osc + subosc + noise, FM, Sync
Waveforms - Sine / pulse / saw / h9persaw / wavetable / granular / formant
Filter - dual LP/HP/BP/BR with envelopes and addtional multi-pole analog emulations (includes Minimoog 4-pole emulation)
LFO - 3 LFOs, multiple options plus mod matrix 18 slots
Envelope - Amp / Filter / 'LFO as envelope' option
Sequencer - none onboard
Arpeggiator - Up / Down / Random / Chord / Multiple additions, editable in software to any variation
Effects - Reverbs, Delays, EQs with Q and freq control, Tape Delays, Distortions (multiple), Phasers, Flangers, Chorus, Analog EQs, Vocoder.
Memory - 128 patches in each of 30 banks plus USB storage / Librarian with additional free patchbanks provided regularly by Access
Control - MIDI, USB, 16-part multitimbral in Multi or sequencer modes
Date Produced -
Virus TI series: 2005
Virus TI2 series: 2009
3. Waldorf Q
Another amazing VA full of character. It’s a classic you hear in abundance in DuMonde and Ace Da Brain records, and its unique Waldorf Sound makes it distinct from the Virus and JP synths most commonly used, and its polyphony and tone make it great for bright pads, sharp leads, and punchy basses.
Polyphony - 16 to 32 voices
Oscillators - 3 per voice (sawtooth, triangle, sine, PWM, new oscillator algorithms, waves and a noise generator)
Memory - 300 single programs, 100 multi programs
Filter - 2 12dB/24dB Filters (Low pass, band pass, hi pass, notch, comb, ring mod and more; FM and distortion)
VCA - 4 envelopes (ADSR with loop and one shot function, bipolar)
Arpeg/Seq - Arpeggiator: Many user patterns (accents, timing, swing, glide, chords and more); Sequencer: 100 user patterns; 32 steps per pattern, polyphonic
Control - MIDI (16 parts), CV
Date Produced - 1999
4. Access Virus C
The 3rd iteration of the Virus series. Where the TI series has HyperSaws, and higher polyphony, this has (according to users) a slightly fatter and heavier low end, making it ideal for basses, and thick pads demanding more low frequency content. It was commonly used in Psytrance between 2002-2005, and you can hear it in the basslines and acid squelches of the genre during that period.
Polyphony - 32 voices
Oscillators - 3 Osc per voice plus 1 Sub-Osc: Sawtooth, variable pulse, sine, triangle, oscillator sync. 5 FM Modes: 64 digital FM spectral waveforms.
LFO - 3 LFOs with 68 waveforms
Filter - 2 independent resonant filters; lowpass, hipass, bandpass, band reject, parallel, split & 2 serial modes with up to 36dB/voice (6-poles), overdrive/saturation.
VCA - 2 ADSTR envelopes
ModMatrix - 6 Sources, 9 Destinations
Effects - 98 simultaneous effects: 16 Phasers, 16 Choruses, 16 Distortions, 16 Ring Modulators, 16 Parametric EQs, Delay, 32-Band Vocoder, Surround Sound.
Memory - 1024 programs (256 User / 768 ROM / 128 Multi)
Control - MIDI (16 multitimbral parts)
Date Produced - 2002
5. Moog Slim Phatty
When it comes to Trance, Analog Monosynths rarely take center stage. The lack of polyphony, and the tone drift can make using them difficult, and when they have Mono out instead of Stereo out, that makes using them for wide leads nearly impossible.
That said, the Slim Phatty, being compact AND the last synthesizer the founder Bob Moog designed, has that classic, magic Moog sound, and its true analog oscillators and filters make it fantastic for super fat, intense basses with just enough unpredictability to make it endlessly useful for unique, distinctive basses that cut through in a mix and add more character than any sterile vst or sample. Almost no one in the Trance world is using them, either, which gives you an extra reason to pick one up.
Polyphony - Monophonic
Multitimbral - No
Oscillators - 2 VCOs, both 16', 8', 4', 2'
Waveforms - Continuously variable: triangle through saw and square to narrow pulse.
LFO - LFO with triangle, square, sawtooth, ramp
Modulation - Mod Source: LFO, Filt. EGR or Sample and Hold, and Osc. 2 or Noise. Mod Destination: Pitch, Osc. 2, Filter, Wave.
Filter - 1 Low Pass VCF: 24dB/Oct Moog Ladder with overload and ADSR.
Envelope - 1 Volume amp with ASDR
Effects - None
Sequencer - None
Arpeggiator - Up, down, ordered. MIDI-syncable
Keyboard - None
Memory - 100 presets, all can be overwritten by user
Control - MIDI In/Out/Thru; USB; and CV: Pitch CV In (1 V/Oct) Filter CV In Volume CV In Keyboard Gate In
Weight - 5.75 Lbs (2.6 kg)
Date Produced - 2011
6. Waldorf XT
Another underutilized legend. The XT was Waldorf’s wavetable synth, in a Halloween color scheme (for some reason), and when it came to evolving sounds, cutting leads, and exciting soundscapes, it was king. While not as well-known or used as its cousin the Q, it was an excellent synth, and makes a worthy addition to any studio.
Polyphony - 10 voice (expandable to 30)
Oscillators - 2 oscillators per voice of DSP wavetable synthesis; 1 Ring Mod; 1 Noise Source
Memory - 256 internal patches, 64 external card
Filter - 6/12/24 LP/HP, FM Filter, Sin (x)-LP, Dbl LP/HP, 24/12 BP, Band Stop, Waveshaper
VCA - 1 VCA, VCA ADSR, 1 Free Envelope
LFO - 2 LFO's, sine, tri, square, random, S&H
Effects - Chorus, Flanger 1 & 2, Autowah BP, Autowah LP, Overdrive, Delay, Amp Mod
Keyboard - none
Arpeg/Seq - 16 steps, 128 patterns
Control - MIDI (8-parts)
Date Produced - 1998
7. Clavia Nord Lead 2X
An icon of Trance, the Nord Lead 2X (and the 2) really stands alone. The unique Nord Sound made it a feature in countless tunes throughout the 90s and early 2000s, featuring in tracks by San Van Doorn and Protonica, and other Nord synths appeared in E-Type’s, Armin van Buuren’s, The Thrillseekers, and numerous other big artist’s songs.
Polyphony - 20 Voices
Oscillators - 2 VSM oscillators: sine, triangle, sawtooth, pulse and noise
LFO - 2 LFO's (triangle, sawtooth, random) control OSC 1 or 2, filter, pulse-width, ADSR envelope
Filter - 12 dB/oct 2-pole lowpass, 24dB/oct 4-pole lowpass / bandpass / highpass (both with cutoff, resonance, env amount, env velocity, key tracking, ADSR envelope)
VCA - ADSR envelope and Amplifier Gain control
Keyboard - 49 keys (velocity sensitive)
Memory - 99 patches (59 preset, 40 user), 99 performances, 10 drum kits
Control - MIDI (4 parts), and all knobs and controls are MIDI!
Date Produced - 2003
8. Waldorf Blofeld
Perhaps one of the rare synths deserving of the title Most Obscure Modern Classic. Well-beloved in sound designer circles, it’s a descendent of the Waldorf Q, Micro Q, XT, and Microwave series (and includes a number of their wavetables and filters), it is easily one of the most versatile synths on the market. What it lacks in user-friendliness and front panel accessibility, it makes up for in creating clean, fat plucks, basses, evolving pads and soundscapes, and gnarly basses. Users can upload their own wavetables into the synth, and with 25 voices of polyphony (not fixed, though), it works well in Trance. And hardly anyone in the Trance world is using it, so it’s perfect for creating sounds no one else is making.
Polyphony - 25 voices maximum (Poly, Mono, Dual or Unison modes)
Multitimbral - 16 parts
Sampler - 44.1kHz mono with 60 Mb RAM
Oscillators - 3 oscillators per voice (128' to 1/2') plus noise, frequency modulation, ring modulation
Waveforms - All Q Oscillator models: sine, saw, triangle, square with PWM; 68 digital 16-bit wavetables from Microwave II/XT/XTK
LFO - 3 LFOs per voice with square, sine, saw, triangle, S&H, random with delay and fade in/out
Modulation - Modulation Matrix with 16 Slots, freely programmable
Filter - 2 independent Multi Mode Filters per voice: Low pass, High pass, Band pass, Notch, Comb; 12 or 24 dB/oct modes
Envelope - 4 Envelopes per voice, ADSR, AD1S1D2S2R, One Shot, Loopable
Effects - 2 Effect units with Chorus, Flanger, Phaser, Overdrive, Decimator, Delay, Reverb
Vocoder - None
Sequencer - None
Arpeggiator - Programmable, 16 steps, Up, Down, Alt Up, Alt Down, Random
Memory - 1,024 sounds, 128 multi sets
Control - MIDI IN (plus OUT on Keyboard), USB
Date Produced -
Blofeld Desktop: December 200
9. Novation Supernova
Another piece of Trance history, the Supernova is one of those synths you hear everywhere, but might not immediately recognize. It’s versatile, flexible, and lacks a singular character just enough that when you use it, people in the know won’t groan and go “Guuh, they used a _”. You CAN hear it in tracks by ATB, and Ace Da Brain.
Polyphony - SuperNova: 20 voices, expandable to 32
SuperNova II: 24-, 36-, 48-voice models plus additional 12- or 24-voice expansion boards
Oscillators - 3 (sqaure, saw, variable width pulse) and noise
LFO - 2 with control of VCA, VCF & pitch; saw, square, tri, sample/hold
Filter - Hi/Low/Band pass, 12/18/24 dB/oct ranges, resonant self-oscillating filter with overdrive
Effects - Distortion, reverb, chorus, flange, phaser, delay, pan, tremolo, 2-band EQ, comb filtering
Memory - 512 expandable to 1,024 patches; 256 performances
Control - MIDI (8 parts)
Date Produced - 1998 - 2000
10. Clavia Nord Lead 3
Another classic, that you can’t pass up. It sounds different from other Nords, which you may or may not like, but it has higher polyphony and an expanded oscillator section relative to the others, which makes it even more useful for fat leads and wide pads.
Polyphony - 24 voices
Oscillators - 2 oscillator groups each with Six waveforms: sine, saw, triangle, square (pulse with width modulation), noise, synced noise, dual sine; 2- and 4-op FM and differential FM; osc-sync; ring-modulation; variable unison.
LFO - 2 per voice, syncable to MIDI. Triangle, saw, square, smooth and stepped random, and triple-peak sine waveforms. Seperate vibrato effect.
Filter - 2 multi-mode filters (series or parallel). Lowpass, Bandpass, Highpass, LP-HP, LP-LP and Classic mode. 1-, 2-, or 4-pole.
VCA - ADSR envelopes for amplitude and filter; Amplifier Gain control
Memory - 1,024 patches, 256 performances
Control - MIDI IN/OUT/THRU (4-parts)
Date Produced - 2001