Software synthesizers have come close to matching the grit and indeterminacy of hardware synths, but at the moment there's no substitute for the real thing -- at least in my opinion. An entire generation of music and sound designers have never laid hands on analog sound-making hardware. I still use virtual synths more often than hardware but I enjoy tinkering.
I try to maintain a representation of my modest Eurorack rig over at ModularGrid. Below I'll write about some of my favorite modules.
Make Noise MATHS
The MATHS module scared me a little bit when I first ran into it. It's not immediately clear what it does and it's kinda ugly. It's a case study, I believe, in challenging user interface design. The best description I've read calls it an analog function generator. It can be used like an LFO, an envelope generator, a mixer, a slew limiter, and etc. I love it so much that I'm considering picking up a second one. I intend to update this page at some point with some of the ways I use MATHS.
Linix is a superbly useful mixer. You can treat it like six VCAs or like a five-channel mixer. When mixing signals, you can break a given channel out of the mix and use it like an isolated VCA. Another module that, along with MATHS, I'd pick for any rack.
FM8 from Native Instruments might be one of my favorite virtual synths. It's a software implementation of Yamaha's iconic DX7. I use it all the time as an additive synthesizer for all kinds of tones. I love the precise envelope control and the completely flexible FM matrix. Below are some of my more fun FM8 experiments. Free for you to use and download! I'd love it if you let me know if you use any of these!
Growing up in the United States midwest, nothing strikes fear into my heart like a good ol' tornado siren. I decided to try and make one in. It's an inelegant additive patch but it works really well and makes fun use of FM8's built-in effects. Fun on the low end of the keyboard. Play an A4 and an E4 together to get the recommended experience.
I was making some kick drums and got carried away. I decided to add some meat to the kick by bringing in an operator after the quick sine sweep attach and got further carried away.
I worship Philip Glass's "Einstein on the Beach" and wanted to nail the intro organ sound. Any of the Farfisa VSTs or sample libraries just weren't doing it so I reverse-engineered the recording and re-created it authentically organic. A little detuning gives it some motion. Drawbars not included but changing the operator amplitudes gives you the same result!
My Cat Roland
A playful sort of pluck followed by a sustain and release pitch modulated by a delayed LFO. Give shape to this sound with the pitch wheel and add cat anger with the mod control.
So named because it was a work-in-progress harp sound. I mangled it by applying controlled FM. Try messing with mod control for a wicked high-speed waggle.