You don’t need to break the bank to get all the software you need to start making music at home. Scott Wilson picks 10 free plug-ins, synths and DAWs that enable you to create a professional sound without spending a penny.
The amount of free music software available on the internet has dwindled in recent years, but there’s a decent collection of free synths and VSTs around that are compatible with modern systems and you’ll still find in the folders of many professional artists.
However, finding this software is tricky. Most of it comes from an era before responsive web design, hosted on sites full of dead links and confusing descriptions that are likely to put people off before they’ve downloaded a single soft synth. That’s before you’ve worked out if something’s compatible with your computer.
A lot of it looks a little dated by today’s standards, but you can still find free music software and VSTs that are worth your time. Whether you want a DAW, a powerful synth or sampler for no money, this list will make it easier to find what you’re looking for.
If you want to try before you buy, all the major DAWs offer a free trial period, and one of the hidden gems is REAPER. The website says the trial lasts 60 days, but you won’t actually be forced to pay the nominal $60 fee for full access – simply nagged. REAPER is so good you’ll probably find yourself paying regardless, but if you’re broke, you’ll get unlimited access to a stable DAW that’s as powerful as Cubase and Logic.
If you don’t want to pay anything at all and you feel bad about cheating REAPER out of a paltry $60, there are a few DAWs out there that offer unlimited use for no money. One is Tracktion 4, which runs on Mac, Windows and Linux systems and uses a simple interface that should be familiar to anyone who’s used Garageband. It’s a few years old, but it’s still modern enough to run on 64-bit Mac and PC systems.
(Togu Audio Line)
If you want a simple, bold synth to get you started, Togu Audio Line’s Noisemaker is the one. It’s an analog modelling synth with three oscillators, making it one of the best free options for getting a vintage Minimoog-style sound. The controls are a lot easier for to understand than Ableton’s basic instruments too, making it ideal for novices.
Green Oak’s Crystal is one of the classic free synths. With FM, granular and wave sequencing synthesis capabilities, Crystal is capable of creating complex, evolving sounds. It looks a little aged next to other synths and it does take some time to get used to the multiple menus, but if you want to create otherworldly timbres, Crystal and its built-in effects will keep you involved for a long time.
Developed by German online magazine Amazona.de, the Tyrell N6 was originally intended to be an affordable hardware synth inspired by Roland’s Juno-60. While we never got what could have been a great piece of hardware, we do have this free piece of software, which is perfect for capturing thick polyphonic sounds.
If you want something to create lush pad sounds, Dexed is the one to go for. It’s an emulation of the Yamaha DX7, and it captures the synth’s classic FM sound as well as any paid alternative. It’s also great for making bright keys and bold plucked and struck sounds, making it the perfect tool for livening up your percussion.
TX16Wx Professional Sampler
If you want to try mangling samples to make your own sounds, the TX16Wx Professional is one of the most comprehensive and best updated free samplers you’ll find. Based on Yamaha’s rack-mounted TX16W sampler, it lets you record your own sounds and slice, edit, modulate and shape them into your own instruments.
Live 9 Lite
Ableton Live Lite 9 isn’t technically free: licences come on cards that come in the box of hardware such as MIDI controllers (Novation’s Launchkey for example). Lite is only a limited version of Ableton Live, but it’s one of the best ways to get access to one of the world’s most popular DAWs (digital audio workstation) for no money. It only lets you use eight recording tracks, but that’s more than enough to get started with, especially when you take into account the included selection of effects and instruments. If you don’t want to buy a controller, ask producer friends who might have bought some hardware recently if they have a Live Lite license they don’t need – they can be redeemed by anyone, not just the buyer of the hardware it came with.
Effects can be the most daunting category of free software to explore, but if you just want a selection of basic effects and utilities, then Melda Production’s MFreeEffectsBundle is worth a look. The 25 utilities range from a simple noise generator and phaser to a six-band equaliser. The included software offers only limited functionality compared to its paid offerings, but there’s still a lot of useful stuff in here.
(Togu Audio Line)
As well as making great free synths, TAL makes some solid free effects too. Not all are currently supported, but its Reverb, Filter and Vocoder all do exactly what they’re supposed to, albeit with no frills. The most interesting effect of the bunch is the TAL Chorus, which is modelled on the effect from Roland’s Juno-60 synthesizer.
Compression is essential for beefing up certain elements of a track, especially kick drums. It’s all too easy to go overboard however, which is what makes the Klanghelm DC1A so brilliant. With the saturation level controlled simply by the input dial, it keeps the process simple, much like the vintage piece of equipment it’s based on.
Spectrum analysers aren’t the most exciting software tools, but they’re essential for identifying where any unwanted high or low-end frequencies are coming from. Voxengo’s SPAN is one of the best, with a clean, colour coded interface and the option to view spectrums from two different channels at the same time. If you’re clueless when it comes to EQing your tracks, this is a great free tool.
(Tokyo Dawn Records)
Once you’ve identified the frequencies in your mix that need tweaking, you’ll need an equaliser. TDR’s VOS SlickEQ is one of the best free offerings, with a foolproof interface. It also features four different EQ models – British, American, German and Soviet – making it a useful download for those who might want something a little different from their usual EQ plug-in.
Native Instruments is known for its high-end – and often expensive – software. If you don’t want to pay a small fortune for Komplete, then you can get the Komplete Player bundle for nothing. It features Kontakt 5 Player, Reaktor 5 Player and Guitar Rig 5 Player, meaning you get a sample player, capable synth and effects engine with 600 MB of sounds. It might be a gateway drug into a very expensive world, but considering you could make entire tracks with just these devices, the Komplete Players offer exceptional value.
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