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5 Digital Emulators Perfect for Getting a Retro Synth Sound

retro soft synths and drum machines, with Com Truise album cover collage

+ Producers, Composers, Synth Heads and Sci-Fi Nerds, our new course with synthwave producer Com Truise: Mid-Fi Synthwave Slow-Motion Funk, is out now! 

In case you’ve been living under a rock, the ’80s are back — actually they’ve been back for a while now — at least when it comes to synth-based music. Artists like Com Truise, Perturbator, and Kavinsky (to name a scant few of our faves) are taking retro synth sounds and classic synthwave into entirely new places — all while retaining the warmth and grit, and well, synthiness of the old school hardware.

A lot of times they do this by using old classic hardware units like the Roland Juno, old Moogs, TB303s, and so on – but not always, which is good if you’re balking at the cost of some of those classic beasts. If you don’t have the money or the space to gather up hundreds of classic analog synths, not to worry.

There are a lot of great soft synths to get that sick retro synth sound. Here, we’ll look at five of our favorites.

But first, speaking of retro sounds, Soundfly’s brand new course with legendary producer, DJ, and world-builder, Com Truise, is out now! In his first ever online course, we’ll be taking an in-depth look behind the curtain at how Com Truise creates his “mid-fi synthwave slow-motion funk” sound using synths, drum machines, and retro ’80s production techniques. Check it out!

Digital Suburban Dexed – Free

One of the best known and most widely used software synth emulators, Digital Suburban’s Dexed is designed to be a clone of the famous Yamaha DX7, and it does a really great job of it. Dexed sounds great and has can recreate pretty much anything the original DX7 could do; it even comes loaded with a bunch of the DX7’s original presets. It’s a multiple platform and multi-format plugin, working with OSX, Windows, or Linux, in VST, AU, or LV2 formats.

What’s super cool too is that Dexed fully supports DX7 input and output SysEx, meaning it can double as a patch editor and manager for an actual DX7 (if you happen to have one).

Arturia Mini V – $149

An emulator of the famed monosynth G.O.A.T., the MiniMoog, Arturia’s Mini V is one of our favorite not free retro synth plugins. Arturia calls the Mini V the “definitive virtual version of the ’70s icon” and seeing as how Bob Moog himself was part of the project, they have a pretty solid claim there.

Mini V sounds like a MiniMoog, it looks like a MiniMoog, and at $149 it is light years more affordable than grabbing up a real MiniMoog, which can cost you anywhere from $8-10,000 based on your retailer. Plus, the luxury of using software (…sorry, purists) is that you can add features, like extra modulation and effects, without compromising the integrity of the original.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “Learn to Rebuild the Spooky Arpeggiated Synth of Stranger Things.”

U-He Repro – $149

Another paid product, U-he Repro is actually two classic synths in one — emulations of Sequential Circuits’ Pro 1 and Prophet 5 — which were closely related to begin with. Module 1 in Repro is Repro-1; this side is built around the step sequencer model, similar to how the TB303 and family work. This monophonic bad boy is equipped with two separate 32-note sequencers (also chainable), three modulation sources, arpeggiator, and a cool additional feature; the tweaks page, which lets you change the fundamental behavior of each module. Plus the tweaks page just looks nifty (like you’re messing with the circuits themselves under the hood).

The Prophet 5 section (Repro-5), is up to 8-voice polyphonic, with built-in effects, polyphonic distortion, individual voice panning, and of course that yummy yummy tweaks page.

SimpleRecorder DJinnDrum – Free

If we’re talking about making retro synthy sounds, we’d be remiss not to mention at least one drum emulator. DjinnDrum is a so-simple-my-cat-could-run-it emulator of the classic LinnDrum drum machine. This no-frills plugin is free and it’s easy. Just load it up and go. The samples are good and nice and dry, giving you the perfect starting point for creating vintage drums like punchy Com Truise style kicks. Start with DjinnDrum, tweak the pitch control (not all LinnDrum emulators actually have this), dial up some compression and EQ, and you can achieve peak punch faster than you can say “peak punch.”

This little gem of a plugin gets called up in my projects pretty much every time there’s not already a real drummer on the track.

UVI Vintage Vault – $599

Finally, if you’ve got an actual budget for this, and you want a whole bunch of retro insanity all at once, UVI Vintage Vault is the ultimate professional catch-all for awesome emulations. In this monster bundle are 36 UVI products, over 14,000 presets, 800,000 samples, based on 255 different hardware instruments. According to UVI, you’d pay almost four grand buying them all separately (and you would… that’s how bundles work!).

In here, you’ve got all kinds of stuff you’ll recognize and some you won’t: a TR-808 emulator, BitZone (“inspired by an obscure Italian gem from the ’80s”), PX Memories based the LAMM mod analog synth, even a Mellotron emulator. This is naming a really small portion of what’s available in the UVI Vintage Vault. More expensive than single synth plugins, and certainly more expensive than the plethora of awesome free plugins out there, but an amazing grab bag of a zillion different retro options you could feasibly explore across an entire lifetime.

Now Go and Synth It Up!

soundfly advanced synths course ad

There is absolutely zero way we could have been comprehensive here. That’s how many really cool retro synth plugins there are out there — and at a variety of price points — and we picked these because you really can’t go wrong with any of them.

But if you really want to make progress on your synth and drum machine magnum opus, you really don’t want to miss Soundfly’s new course with Com Truise, a veritable synthwave great!

Don’t stop here!

Continue learning with hundreds of lessons on songwriting, mixing, home recording and production, composing, beat making, and much more, with Soundfly’s artist-led courses, like: Jlin: Rhythm, Variation, & Vulnerability, RJD2: From Samples to Songs and Com Truise: Mid-Fi Synthwave Slow-Motion Funk

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Aaron Trumm

Aaron J. Trumm is a producer, writer, singer (ok rapper) and personal trainer (yep, you read that right). He's always looking for the next awesome thing to say, and loves to talk to people, so social media him up!