The best free music-making software on the net

Create a complete recording studio without opening your wallet

Never before has making music been so affordable, easy and accessible. A thriving industry has driven prices of instruments and recording equipment progressively downwards, enabling a whole generation of music lovers to write and record their own tunes without spending a fortune on gear.

However, thanks to passionate - and crucially, generous - software developers, music makers can also legitimately download powerful music production tools for absolutely nothing. And, amazingly, these often rival the commercial products in terms of quality and usability.

We’ve rounded-up 27 of the best free plug-ins and other software tools that we could find, providing a link and screengrab for each one. Everything from synths to sequencers is covered – most are PC only (although there is stuff out there for Mac), but all can be downloaded and used without charge.

We think this is a pretty comprehensive list, but do you know better? If there’s an amazing free music-making tool that we haven’t covered here, let us and your fellow musicians know about it in the Comments section below.

Index - Jump to:
Sampling
Audio editing
Drum machines
Real instruments/ROMplers
Synthesizers
Effects
Sequencers
Miscellaneous

Sampling - back to index

1. HighLife R1
PC – VST/VSTi host

DiscoDSP’s HighLife R1 is a fantastic VST sampler with a plethora of features, including effects, amplitude and modulation filters, and a multimode filter. It’s a breeze to create patches from scratch, even compared to some commercial samplers such as Kontakt and HALion.

Screengrab
Website: http://www.discodsp.com/highlife/

Audio editing - back to index

2. Audacity
Mac/PC - Standalone

Audacity is an impressively fully-featured audio editor. It’s easy to use and there’s a large library of optional extras including export as MP3 and VST plug-in support.

Screengrab
Website: http://audacity.sourceforge.net/

Drum machines - back to index

3. DigiDrum Pro
PC – VST

DigiDrum Pro is an out-and-out TR-808 and 909 clone (due to the sounds it’s supplied with), although you can load your own waveforms into the five available slots to create something radically different. It’s fun to use, easy on your CPU and sounds great.

Screengrab
Website: http://www.audiosonic.dk/digidrumpro.html?1

4. Drumatic 3
PC – VST

E-Phonic’s Drumatic 3 is an unusual drum machine in that its sounds are completely synthesized rather than sampled – it’s experimental electronics to the bone. The interface concentrates on the envelope-shaping side of drum synthesis rather than emulating hardware drum machines, but this is no bad thing; Drumatic 3 is instantly creative.

Screengrab
Website: http://www.e-phonic.com/plugins/drumatic3.php

5. Dr-Fusion 2
PC – VST

Odosynth’s Dr-Fusion 2 is a very cool drum synthesizer and sampler, and if you’re into sound-shaping, this is one of the most flexible instruments out there. You can load your own samples into the plug-in, and/or use the supplied kits. You can layer two samples at a time, and there’s also a drum synthesis section, effects (distortion, bit crusher, clipper and filter, multiple outputs and envelopes.

Screengrab
Website: http://www.odosynths.com/vst.htm

Real instruments/ROMplers - back to index

6. Independence – Massive sample player and library
Mac/PC – VST/AU/Standalone

Independence Free from Yellow Tools is a free version of their Independence sampler, but even so, it’s a hugely generous offering. You get an astoundingly large 2GB sample library, as well as MIDI functions, envelopes and more. You can’t import or make your own sounds in the free version, but with a 2GB library to be getting on with, you probably don’t need to.

Screengrab
Website: http://www.yellowtools.us/cp21/cms/index.php?id=842

7. DSK Brass
VST – PC

Brass instruments are arguably among the hardest things to emulate in software. Freeware brass software instruments are incredibly rare, so we were surprised when we came across DSK Brass, and even more surprised when we found out it does a decent job. In fact, there are plenty more free VSTi’s on DSK’s site, so check them out.

Screengrab
Website: http://dskmusic.com/blog/?page_id=3

8. MrRay 2.2 – Authentic Rhodes
VST – PC

MrRay is a fabulous emulation of the Rhodes electric piano. Not only is the sound strikingly accurate, complete with the imperfections and warmth of the real thing, but the level of control offered over the modelling parameters means that a broad range of sounds can be created.

Screengrab
Website: http://www.soundfonts.it/?a=read&b=16

9. Organ One – Authentic organ
VST – PC

Bojo Software’s Organ One offers a realistic virtual organ, complete with drawbars. There’s also an LFO section with several different waveform shapes for vibrato and tremolo, and 32 presets to get you started.

Screengrab
Website: http://www.bojo-software.com/?Software:VST_plugins:Organ_One

10. String Theory – String emulator
PC – VST

Ugo Audio’s String Theory is quite simply one of the best free applications out there. It uses physical modelling to create sounds along with arpeggiations, delays, filters, a metal module, tremolo and more. In fact, it can turn its hand to almost any string sound, real or imaginary.

Screengrab
Website: http://www.ugoaudio.com/

11. Sonik Synth 2 Free – Electronic ROMpler
Mac/PC – RTAS/VST/DX/AU

Sonik Synth 2 Free is a free version of IK multimedia’s commercially available ROMpler. It’s orientated around the electric world, and comes with 20 synthetic sounds, which can be morphed and mutated, or effected using the 32 supplied effects. You can only load one instance of the plug-in, but it can play 16 different sounds on different MIDI channels.

Screengrab
Website: http://www.soniksynth.com/Main.html?SSFreeDwn

Synthesizers - back to index

12. PolyIblit 1.1.3.2 – Virtual analogue synth
Mac/PC - VST

Andreas Ersson’s PolyIblit is packed full of everything we’ve come to expect from a superior subtractive synth, and it rises to the top of the freeware pile on sheer sound quality. Features include 32-voice polyphony, three oscillators, four LFOs and two multimode filters.

Screengrab
Website: http://www.bostreammail.net/ers/polyiblit.html

 13. Triple Cheese 1.0 – Comb filter-based synth
Mac/PC – VST, AU, UB

Whereas the majority of synths and these days derive their sound from subtractive synthesis (where sounds are made by ‘chipping away’ at a complex waveform using filters), Triple Cheese uses comb filters (where a signal is delayed and the delay chromatically tuned and cascaded) to create and modify tones. If you’re tired of all-too-similar sounding synths, give Triple Cheese a whirl.

Screengrab
Website: http://www.u-he.com/TripleCheese/index.html

14. Crystal – Semi-modular hybrid synth
Mac/PC – VST, AU, UB

If a software synthesizer can achieve ‘classic’ status, the Glenn Olander’s Crystal surely deserves such a title. It’s a three oscillator hybrid instrument that contains a number of the most powerful synthesis methods in a package that’s relatively easy to get your head around.

Screengrab
Website: http://www.greenoak.com/crystal/

15. KarmaFX Synth– Modular synthesizer
PC – VST

Modular synths have always ranked among the most lust-worthy of electronic instruments, but fortunately they are now widely available in software form. KarmaFX make the best free example we can find. Its smart interface makes creating modular patches surprisingly easy, features include several filters and effects, a sequencer, and an input generator for processing external sound sources.

Screenshot
Website: http://karmafx.net/

16. Synth 1 – Virtual Analogue
PC – VST

Ichiro Toda’s Synth1 has a gorgeous silky sound and a load of features packed into its resizable interface. Based on the Clavia Nord Lead 2, it’s a typical subtractive synth, but its rich and organic sound is what sets it apart from its peers. For great analogue-style sounds and accessibility, Synth 1 is hard to beat.

Screengrab
Website: http://www.geocities.jp/daichi1969/softsynth/ Note: Japanese site but the download links are also in English.

Effects - back to index

17. Ambience – Digital reverb
Mac/PC – VST, AU

Magnus Jonsson’s Ambience plug-in is an ultra-smooth, releastic and highly tweakable digital reverb unit. It’s the best free reverb we’ve heard, and is loaded with features, including a novel ‘variation’ button that adds a bit of variety to the reverb algorithm

Screengrab
Website: http://magnus.smartelectronix.com/

18. Classic Auto-Filter – Four pole filter
PC – VST

Kjaerhus audio’s Classic Auto-Filter is an analogue modelled four-pole filter, of the sort made popular by the Minimoog, VCS-3 and ARP Odyssey. Modern musicians are putting almost everything through filters these days, and Classic Auto-Filter will allow you, also, to add movement to your tracks – for free.

Screengrab
Website: http://www.kjaerhusaudio.com/classic-auto-filter.php

19. Stardust – Mastering / enhancement plug-in
PC – VST

Mastering is a complex and in-depth process, so much so that there professional studios that are dedicated entirely to it. ‘All-in-one’ plug-ins such as IK multimedia’s T-RackS aim to make the process somewhat more painless, and Arguru’s Stardust aspires to do the same sort of thing. It features bass, treble and stereo enhancers, and multiband and wideband compressors. It’s a seriously good tool – whether mastering an entire mix or simply switching in just one of the processing sections for a bit of track enhancement.

Screengrab
Website: http://www.aodix.com/pagestardust.html

20. Nebula 3 Free – Multi-FX
Mac/PC – VST

Acustica Audio’s Nebula 3 Free is a single plug-in that’s capable of all kinds of effects: compression, reverb, chorus, phaser, flanger, filters, mic/amp/preamp simulation, EQ, distortion – and probably more. What makes it special, apart from the range of effects, is that the makers sampled the characteristics of real hardware, meaning each effect is an emulation of a classic hardware unit.

Screengrab
Website: http://www.acusticaudio.net/modules.php?name=Products&file=nebula3free

21. RetroDelay – Tape Delay
PC - VST

E-phonics’ retro delay is blessed with the more desirable qualities and tone of a vintage tape delay unit, but imbued with a range of modern features. These include two LFOs that can be inserted into the delay feedback loops, distortion, a multimode filter, spring reverb, and a limiter.

Screengrab
Website: http://www.e-phonic.com/plugins/retrodelay.php

22. Endorphin – Dual-band compressor
PC – VST

There are plenty of freeware compressors around, but very few that are as good as Digitalfishphones’ Endorphin dual-band compressor. Dual-band means that it compresses the low and the mid/high frequencies separately, giving you better control and more power to correct certain parts of a track without spoiling others.

Screengrab
Website: http://www.digitalfishphones.com/main.php?item=2&subItem=3

Sequencers - back to index

23. Reaper 2.0 – Fully-featured sequencer
Mac/PC – VST/DX support

Cockos’ Reaper is an audio and MIDI sequencer with all the trimmings. Designed for Windows, it offers support for VST, VSTi and DirectX plug-ins, although a Mac version is coming sometime in 2008. It aspires to rival professional DAWs such as Pro Tools and Cubase, although at a fraction of the cost (Reaper is donationware) and with some unique features too. You can read our full review of Reaper 2.0 here.

Screengrab
Website: http://www.cockos.com/reaper/

24. ACID Xpress – Loop-based production software
PC - Standalone

Sonic Foundry pretty much invented credible loop-based production software when it released ACID in 1998. Before that, it was pretty much impossible to mix and match beats of varying tempos without changing the pitch or chopping them up and using a hardware sampler. ACID Xpress is a 10-track free version of the famed software which includes MIDI playback and audio recording functions.

Screengrab
Website: http://www.sonycreativesoftware.com/download/trials/acidxpress

Miscellaneous - back to index

25. GSnap – Auto-Tune style pitch correction
PC – VST

Pitch-correction software took the industry by storm when it first burst onto the scene; being both cheaper and easier to use than its hardware equivalent. Today, we have all heard Auto-Tune in action, whether it is subtly adjusting a bit of off-key singing on a pop record, or used as an effect in electronica. GSnap offers PC access to a top-notch pitch-correction tool for free.

Screengrab
Website: http://gvst.co.uk/gsnap.htm

26. Soundflower – Inter-application audio router
Mac – VST

If you’ve every wanted to transfer the audio output of one application into the input of another (perhaps you want to sample a sound effect from a DVD into Logic) then Soundflower is for you. It’s a breeze to use and works flawlessly.

Screengrab
Website: http://www.cycling74.com/products/soundflower

27. Replacer – Drum replacement tool
PC – VST

Box Sound’s Replacer allows you to keep the live performance element of a drum sample but substitute the poor sound quality with your own drum hit samples. It’s simple to use too: the original audio recording is fed into the plug-in, which then recognises what drum is being hit when and triggers the appropriate one of four samples that you’ve loaded in.

Screengrab
Website: http://www.boxsounds.com/vst.html

Any we've missed out? Tell us about them below...


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