Arguably, the two most popular "powerhouse" synths available are Massive, by Native Instruments, and Serum, by Xfer. These two synths alone, have been major contributors to the sound of electronic music over the past few years. This article will see them pitted head to head, to see if we can determine an ultimate winner.
Both Massive, and Serum, are wavetable synthesizers. This means that they take a wave shape and repeat it the required number of times to make that note. A simple wavetable would be one cycle of a saw or a triangle wave in a "frame" which can interpolate with other waveshapes in different frames.
The flexibility arises when more complex wavetables are used, this is the case here, both synths offer a large number of wavetables to play around with and edit.
Massive offers a list of wavetables which can be selected for each oscillator. These wavetables have variations which can be expressed using the wavetable position knob. While not extensive, the list offers more than enough sound for most applications.
Serum, on the other hand, is completely open-ended. It has a large range of built-in wavetables, but also the advantage that you can load new ones in, and even edit or create your own! Serum's visualisation is significantly more intuitive, You can see the actual waveform of the wavetable used as well as the morph shape as you progress through the wavetable position.
That isn't all though, Serum also allows further experimentation by generating wavetables from .png images. This, of course, has the potential for sounding both awful and amazing, and so it is an absolute delight to people who enjoy the experimentation side of patch building. You can see below, two examples of loading images into the oscillator, both featured in the Free Preset Pack by Audio Ordeal.
Still focussing on the oscillators, but moving away from the initial loaded waves, are the wave editing tools. Massive (below, right) offers 5 wave editing tools to further change the wavetable. These are Spectrum, which controls how many harmonics and higher frequencies are let through; Bend+/-, Bend +, and Bend -, which controls the stretching of the waveform; and Formant, which alters the formant and resonances of the oscillator. All these can quickly and effectively change the sound made by the oscillators but is nothing in comparison to what Serum has to offer (below, left).
Serum offers a whole list of wavetable editing options, too many to go into in fact. It has the bend controls which Massive has, with the added benefit that you can see the effect on the actual wave. In addition to bend, there is PWM (pulse width modulation), and Asym (asymmetry) controls. There are several incredible sync sounds and so much more.
One thing to highlight is the FM (frequency modulation), AM (amplitude modulation), and RM (ring modulation) options which allow you to use the oscillators as carriers and modulators. This differs from Massive which only allows a single modulator to control all of the different "modulations".
Massive does somewhat redeem itself with the awesome Filter FM modulation (Which essentially uses the Mod Osc to control the Filter opening and closing), however, in all other aspects of oscillator control, Serum reigns king.
We haven't even got to one of my favourite features of Serum yet. This is isn't even possible in Massive, and it is what really makes Serum stand out in the Oscillator section. Below, you'll see the wavetable editor where you can draw the waveforms and edit the wavetables, as well as create them from scratch.
You can see there are options to edit each frame and all the frames can be morphed together, processed, duplicated, and edited either individually or as a batch. The grid resolution which you draw on can be edited so you can get different sized segments and along the top, you can add harmonics in a sort of visual additive synthesis style.
This one window along offers enough room for experimentation that it should be a separate program. You can really learn the fundamentals of synthesis and waveforms by playing about here. An excellent challenge and puzzle is trying to make square and triangle waves, just by adding the harmonics in the top bar. This really is where Serum becomes exciting, not to play, but to experiment and learn on.
In terms of filters, Serum and Massive are pretty evenly matched, offering different benefits with each. I would argue that while Serum has the better choice of filters, Massive offers a much broader scope of blending the filters together. This is due to the operational differences between the two.
While they both allow to stages of filtering, Serum only offers one on the main page, and each oscillator either sends to it or doesn't. Serum's second filter is on the FX page meaning that the two, if both used, are strictly in series with limited deep-level control.
Massive on the other hand is significantly more generous with routing options than Serum, and this is most valuable in the case of the filters. Each individual oscillator can be distributed to both filters in parallel or series, with the amount it is sent to each, being controllable.
From another angle though, Serum again manages to trump Massive in terms of the visual effect of the signal, with the primary filter offering a GUI that displays the frequency curve which it applies to the signal.
So, depending on whether you want the benefit of advanced routing or better visualisation of what you are creating, each synth offers their own benefits.
No synth can be claimed as the best without effects that polish and transform the signal. Luckily both Massive and Serum are, in this instance, deservedly counted as two of the best software synths. By this stage in the comparison process, it wouldn't be gross-speculation to think that Steve Duda, Serum's mastermind used Massive as a benchmark to exceed in all areas, because again, while Massive offers the undeniable quality of built-in effects, Serum has more to offer.
Massive has two FX slots, plus two inserts, with an EQ on the end. These are high quality and should suffice for most applications, but the FX slots and inserts offer different options and so you have limited flexibility here.
The inserts are very flexible and can be routed at multiple stages of the process, meaning you can place an insert before the filter, but they are typically distortions.
Compare this to Serum's effects which are limited to the end of the chain, but offer a much broader range of options. Serum can also allow you to re-order the effects to exactly how you need, and each effect has its own GUI so you aren't limited to the four knobs which Massive is fixed to.
Even within single effects in Serum, you have options, a great example of this is the distortion. Within the distortion effect, you can select through the different types, while Massive offers them as separate effects.
Serum also offers a compressor with multi-band capabilities which are very similar to those from Xfer's OTT plugin.
The EQ in Serum is counted as another effect and so can also be ordered at any stage of the effects chain, whereas in Massive, it is limited to the final position.
Regarding FX, if you just want one or two, the playing field is equal between the two synths. If you want flexible routing you may consider Massive, which offers more limited effects, but a broader range of positioning them in the chain.
Otherwise, Serum really does take the lead here. Its effects are so diverse and powerful that you could run a basic oscillator through them and come out with a formidable synth sound from them alone.
Both synths are major players on the market and thus are prevalent in the synth libraries of preset makers. What this means is that there is an abundance of presets available online for both synths. They are both easy to load presets into and the quality of presets online, even in free packs, tends to be superb.
If you are afraid of designing your own sounds, either synth will do for the vast scope offered from online presets. They both allow making preset packs for others very easy too.
The only real point to consider here is that Serum may also require you to download the required wavetables if the preset uses a non-default wavetable. Massive doesn't have this issue because it is limited to its built-in wavetables only.
Cymatics offers a great list of free presets for both Serum and Massive, I recommend you check them out!
Both these synths will have such a positive impact on your productions that piracy should really be off the table, if there are two plugins which fully deserve the support from users, I would say it is these two.
Without getting into too much of a debate about piracy, it is undeniable that many young, new musicians will do it, simply because they cannot afford the lump sum. This is where Xfer's offer of Rent-To-Own for Serum, partnered with Splice, is incredibly favourable for new producers starting up.
Basically, what this system allows, is monthly payments of $9.99 where you can use Serum immediately until the total cost is paid off. You can pause payments in the harder months, causing Serum to be unavailable until payment resumes, and once you have paid the full amount, Serum is fully available to keep.
If you are a student or financially limited, this could possibly be the deciding factor for you to pick Serum over Massive. It allows a huge amount of flexibility, and means payments are much more manageable on a budget.
I currently am paying off my Serum license via this program, and can genuinely recommend this system. I don't even need to manually pause the payments if I'm struggling because if the payments fail, it automatically pauses it for me. It is also much easier to pay that amount (equivalent to two fewer pints of beer a month) than to pay the full amount in one go.
This is a very hard choice to conclude, given that both synths are so extremely powerful. Based on countless hours of playing with both, I would have to say that, Serum is the better choice to go for. It has a much broader scope for sound design and is a lot more fun to play about with, compared to Massive.
That being said, if you are looking to get the best value for money, buying Massive as part of the Native Instrument's Komplete bundle gives you many more synths and effects for a fraction of their individual prices. The link sends you to an article I wrote on how to save a lot of money when buying Komplete.
If you are a student, however, with money being an issue, sticking to mostly free plugins does work very well. It would be advantageous for you to consider Serum's Rent-To-Own initiative which allows you to have it for the monthly cost of a cheap phone bill (or cutting out a few Starbucks coffees).
Needless to say, you should download the demos before jumping to make a purchase, because personal preference is the final decider in all cases!