EDM – Electronic Dance Music. It’s a controversial term in some circles but it’s been widely adopted to describe what we all know as dance music or club music.
If you want to follow in the footsteps of the likes of David Guetta, Deadmau5, and Skrillex, and have your tracks played at the world’s biggest and best clubs and festivals then you’re going to need a few quality plugins.
Before you dive into my selection of hand picked plugins it’s important to note that nobody needs hundreds of expensive plugins to create club ready dance music so there’s no need to bankrupt yourself purchasing everything listed here – explore this list of tried and tested plugin champions and select a handful to take your productions to the next level.
I’ve divided this list of plugins into the most essential tools that music producers rely on time and time again when creating their tracks, namely: synths, drum machines, EQ, filters, compressors, reverbs, delays, saturators, filters, bit crushers and transient shapers – arm yourself with a selection of the best of these and you’ve got everything you need to start making dance music like the pros!
Best Synth Plugins for EDM
If you’re looking to make electronic dance music on your computer then you’re going to need a synth plugin. Or three. Relatively cheap (at least compared to real hardware synthesizers) and taking up no space in the studio, software synths can be pretty addictive! Look in most producer’s plugins folders and you’ll likely find they’ve got more than they know what to do with!
Top Tip: Nobody actually needs 50 different software synths! Try to resist the marketing hype and restrict yourself to learning and using just a handful of synths. It’s always fun to try out new toys but constantly trying out new plugins can actually stop you making music.
Focusing on just one or two synths for a period of time and really learning what they’re capable of will serve you better than mindlessly flicking through the presets of forty or fifty different synths in search of a “killer” sound.
The six synths listed below are all super powerful instruments with more than enough features to keep even the most prolific dance music producers busy for years.
- Dune 3
- Hive 2
- Icarus 2
Let’s take a more indepth look at my pick of the best synths for electronic music production:
Serum: Ask any well known electronic music producer what synths they have in their plugins folder and there’s a good chance Xfer Record’s Serum will be on their list. Launched back in 2015, Serum was met with rave reviews thanks to its powerful, incredible sounding architecture including ultra-clean, morphing oscillators, impressive unison, effects rack (10 different effects modules), drag and drop modulation and much more.
Serum is one of those virtual synths that gives hardware synth manufactures sleepless nights and it’s “pro” sound has featured on countless electronic music tracks, across all genres.
More than six years since audio engineer and plugin coder Steve Duda revealed his magnificent plugin synth, Serum remains a firm favourite with music producers around the world.
A 15 minute demo version of Serum is available to download from the Xfer Records website. Try it out and see (and hear) for yourself exactly what this incredible synth brings to the table.
Serum needs to be immediately put at the very top of any synthesist’s shopping list. It’s insanely powerful and sounds phenomenal.– Music Radar Serum review January 2015.
Spire: A couple of years older than Serum, Spire is another highly regarded wavetable synth and one which comes bundled with an impressive library of over 1000 ready to use factory sounds clearly targeted at producers who favour brash and bold electronic sounds.
Spire’s sound engine is built around 4x multimode polymorphing oscillators with 9x unison voices on each oscillator. Chuck in 2x powerful, multimode filters with analogue and digital types of filtering, a suite of FX (Shaper/Decimator, Phaser/Vowel, Chorus/Flanger, Delay, Reverb), an incredibly powerful modulation matrix plus 2x step sequencers and arpeggiator and you have a soft synth that can more than hold its own against the best software synths of today and even give many hardware synths a run for their money.
Spire gets the thumbs up from lots of well known producers including Armin van Buuren, Thomas Gold and Morgan Page.
You can download the demo version of Spire from the Reveal Sound website:
I love Spire and I love how fresh and direct it sounds. I recommended it to a few fellow producers as well and now they are using it too. A definite player in my current productions.– Ferry Corsten
Dune 3: Yes it’s yet another wavetable synth (with Virtual Analogue and FM capabilities thrown into the mix too) to make my list but Synapse Audio’s award winning Dune 3 absolutely deserves a place in any “best of” synths roundup so there was no way I could leave this incredible synth out!
Dune 2 was already a highly regarded synth thanks to the impressive number of oscillators you could stack (as long as your computer could handle it) but Dune 3 piled on the features including a Wavetable Editor, “Swarm” mode (an evolution of the classic Supersaw oscillator) new filter types and new effect algorithms.
I have always found Dune 3 very easy to use and it’s an incredibly versatile “workhorse” synth that can cover most of the sounds you need from the deepest basses to shimmering, ethereal pads.
You can download a demo version, with a limited number of factory presets from the Synapse Audio website: www.synapse-audio.com/dune3.html
Hive 2: Since 2001 u-he have made a name for themselves with a series of award winning soft synths of which the Hive 2 synth is one of their flagship products.
Hive 2 is a wavetable synth based around 2 oscillators with standard waveforms and 2D wavetables, up to 16x unison and tunable sub-oscillators. Hive 2 boasts three different “sound engines”, a suite of 7 effects (distortion, chorus, delay, phaser, EQ, reverb, compressor) you can stack in any order, modulation matrix, step sequencer, 4 user-definable XY control pads and lots more.
A major update to Hive 2 added even more features to the interface which in my personal opinion makes for a much more busy and complicated synth to get to grips with compared to the original.
When deep in music production sessions I also find it easy to become confused about exactly which half (the left or right) of the synth’s interface I should be tweaking to affect the sound in the way I want, but user interface gripes aside, Hive 2 is a superb synth that deserves a place in any producer’s plugins folder – download the demo version today! www.u-he.com/products/hive/
Hive might be the single most workflow-efficient, high-performance synth I’ve used with this amount of flexibility and pristine sound quality– Bedroom Producers Blog, Hive review 2015
RAPID: Parawave’s RAPID is a polyphonic hybrid synthesizer capable of creating dynamic and fat sounds that fit well in any modern electronic music genre.
Sounds are created using up to 8 synthesis layers (accessed via tabs at the top of the interface), each of which can be controlled separately (in effect giving you 8 instances of the plugin to play with at once before the individual layers meet the master effects section and an 8-Channel Mixer.)
Fire up RAPID and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed at first – there’s so many options to play with per layer and 8 layers to get lost in.
I taught myself to use this synth by restricting myself to just one layer at first. Luckily RAPID comes with over 600 presets covering basses, pads, leads etc but also plenty of presets which demonstrate how to take advantage of RAPID’s multiple layers to create complete “tunes”.
For each synth layer you get three oscillators plus a filter to form the basic starting point of your sound. On top of this you get a modulation system, an arpeggiator plus effects (including many more filters) to further sculpt your sound.
There’s a lot to like about RAPID but the one thing I really love about this synth is its powerful arpeggiator which has enough sequencing options that it is almost like a mini-DAW piano roll within your own DAW. 32-Step pattern steps with adjustable lengths mean it’s really easy to quickly cook up new riffs and melodies right in the arp and you can save them for future recall too. Plus, unlike with some synths I could mention, RAPID’s arp has clearly been designed by someone who knows what users want – there’s no messing about in a tiny, hard to see, fiddly or confusing arp/step sequencer interface here.
One overlooked feature is that RAPID’s many excellent effects can be loaded up in any of your DAW’s channels to effect whatever sounds you run through them.
Visit the Parawave website and download the demo version of RAPID and see what you think. If you’re trying out the demo do be prepared to put in some effort – RAPID is a truly deep synth that rewards time spent getting to grips with it. www.parawave-audio.com/rapid_demo
For big, bright, mix-blasting modern electronic sounds, there’s just nothing it can’t do,– Music Radar RAPID review, 2017
Icarus 2: Tone Two’s Icarus 2 possibly doesn’t have quite the reputation of Serum and Dune 3 but don’t let that put you off trying out this incredible synth.
Boasting “3D wavetable synthesis” and 54 more synthesis modes plus a drum-sequencer, vocoder, re-synthesis, glitch-sequencer, modulation matrix, fantastic filters (over 60) and much more, Icarus 2 is a very powerful – but also easy to use – synth.
Icarus 2 comes with a fantastic library of presets most of which are geared towards speaker shaking electronic music and fx – if you have neighbours you want to terrify, or just drive crazy, then a quick flick through the preset library with its drones, rumbling basses, droid noises, bleeps and 303-acid riffs should be enough to have them running for the hills!
Some musicians and producers have been known to claim that the “Tone Two sound” turn them off Tone Two’s synths – in otherwords the”in your face” presets put them off. I’m not one of those people though and if you’re an electronic music producer keen to make some truly epic noises then Icarus 2 deserves a test run in your DAW (it also works standalone). Forget the naysayers – this synth certainly has enough to keep you and your ears happy and excited for many years to come!
I like to think of Icarus as a sweaty raver of a synth, compared with Serum’s more clinical, chin stroking vibes! Truth be told, I have always found Icarus 2 more fun to use than Serum and just listening to some of the many presets is usually enough to have me itching to start a new drum and bass or techno track.
Beyond the rave stabs, EDM leads and dubstep wobbles – all of which this mighty synth does well – Icarus 2 is also more than capable of creating beautiful pads and atmospheres for ambient and soundtrack work.
You can download a demo version of Icarus 2 from the Tone Two website: www.tone2.com/icarus.html
Best Drum Machine plugins for EDM
You can create your own drum sounds using almost any software synth but let’s be honest – it’s usually more fun and easier firing up a dedicated drum plugin.
Looking for a good free synth? Check out my guide to the brilliant Surge XT.
Best EQ plugins for EDM
You can make electronic dance music without touching an EQ but EQs are used on every single professional music track for a reason – it’s an essential tool for carving space in mixes, cutting and boosting frequencies and sculpting sounds. Music producers typically like at least two or three quality EQs in their tool box but they also need to know why and when to deploy them.
- FabFilter Pro-Q 3
- TDR VOS SlickEQ – Gentleman’s Edition
Best Compressor Plugins for EDM
When you first start making dance music you can be forgiven for neglecting compressor plugins or using them in the “wrong” way but, as with EQ, compressors play a vital part in the track creation process. Every pro producer has his/her go to compressor plugins which they turn to time and time again so do try out as many compressor plugin demo versions as you can and I also recommend you put aside some time to watch some tutorials on what compressors can do to and for your music.
- I Heart NY
- FabFilter Pro-C 2
Best Reverb Plugins for EDM
Reverb plugins are an essential tool which you’ll want to use on every dance music track you make. Reverb plugins take “dry” sounds and place them into an artificial space such as a drum room, church, cave, chamber or hall.
- FabFilter Pro-R
- Valhalla Shimmer
Best Delay Plugins for EDM
Another bread and butter effect you’ll reach for time and time again and a useful alternative to the reverb. Delays work on the principle of an echo and delay a sound to predetermined intervals. Plugin developers have pushed the humble delay effect to its limits and allowing you to create weird and wacky effect.
- FabFilter Timeless 3
Best Saturator Plugins for EDM
Closely related to distortion, saturation is the secret sauce of pretty much every dance music track. Take one of these tasty saturators and heat up your weak and vanilla sounds and also add pleasing harmonics for extra mojo.
- FabFilter Saturn
- Trash 2
Best Filter Plugins for EDM
Closely related to the EQ, good filter plugins deliver an easy way to remove and reveal frequencies in creative and pleasing ways.
- Fabfilter Volcano 2
- Philta XL
- FilterShaper 3
- OneKnob Filter
Best MULTI-FX Plugins for EDM
Imagine a plugin that combines reverbs, delays, distortion and much more into one handy plugin designed to make your sounds go crazy with minimal effort on your part – you’ve just imagined a Multi-FX plugin! When you’re bored with setting up your own complicated effects chains, reach for a Multi-FX plugin and flick through some presets while daydreaming about your track going viral thanks to your “mad skills”!
Best Bit Crusher Plugins for EDM
Pristine digital sounds can be boring which is why we must thank the plugin developer boffins for bringing us their bit crushers – crush, degrade and mess up your sounds in creative ways with these useful tools.
- Decimort 2
Best Transient Shaper Plugins for EDM
All of the individual sounds in your tracks – such as the kick drum – have their attack and decay portions and being able to tweak these is tremendously useful when it comes to mixing your music. Any decent Transient Shaper will help you make certain parts of a sound more prominent or, conversely, push parts of a sound back into the mix and out of the way.
- Smack Attack
- Transient Shaper
Best Spectral Analysis Plugins for EDM
You make music with your ears but sometimes your ears need a little help to know what’s going on in a mix. If you’re a wealthy music producer in a world class studio you can get the tea boy to give you a second opinion but for those of us with a tighter budget a few Spectrum Analyzer plugins are the answer to our prayers.
Use these plugins to display a visual representation of your music by frequency. They are especially useful for detecting clashing frequencies and unwanted holes and spikes in your mix.
- Voxengo Span Plus
- Insight 2
Best Metering Plugins for EDM
Every DAW comes with basic meters for every channel but ‘basic’ can be a hindrance and sometimes you need precise details. Reach for metering plugins to check levels of individual tracks, the overall mix and to see if you’re in the right ball park loudness wise compared to your idols and rivals.
- BUTE Loudness Analyser 2
- Perception AB