The old adage ‘you get what you pay for’ has long held water, particularly in a music production context. But, casting our eyes upon the vast expanse of mixing tools, instruments, synths, drum machines, DAWs and the like that we’re now able to take without shedding a coin, reveals that today our industry is bursting with generous folk, less motivated by premium prices, and driven instead by passion and inventiveness.
The fruits of these creators’ altruistic free-wares have evolved beyond the simple and disposable. One only has to look at such expansive free synths as the DX7-inspired, open-source Dexed, the dizzying sonic possibilities of VCV Rack 2, or the subtractive hybrid engines that lay in the mighty Surge, to realise that not only are you getting bang for no bucks these days, but that any of the above could easily form the bedrock of a release-ready track.
These aren’t just disposable freebies: the quality bar with freeware is now astonishingly high, especially when their use is expanded by using it in tandem with other software. Many of these items sit within the rigs of the music-making world’s biggest artists. So, keep your hard-earned dosh to yourself, and prepare to swipe a splendid software suite. Entirely free of charge.
Surge is an open-source monster that has been the talk of the freeware town for more than ten years now, and with good reason. Via the hard work of its community, it now has cavernous libraries of dual-scened presets, with three oscillators per scene. Its filters sound incredible too. Freeware synths rarely come as weighty as this.
Dexed has been around for quite a while, and still endures as an exceptional sounding software take on Yamaha’s FM synth innovator, the DX7. Though it may need some time to understand how each section works, the resulting sounds Dexed is capable of producing are gloriously retro. It even loads in those original DX7 patches (including the legendary E.PIANO 1).
3. Vital Basic
Former video game developer Matt Tytel’s forays into synth design have come to excellent fruition with Vital. Focused on wavetable synthesis, Vital encourages the creation and inter-mingling of wavetables and samples. 75 superbly designed factory presets and 25 wavetables are ready to go from the off. It’s all housed within a gorgeous GUI.
Well, we can’t ignore this superb free delay that we ourselves had a hand in producing, can we? Baby Audio’s Comeback presents a whittled down version of the company’s larger Comeback Kid, an intuitive delay which imparts analogue warmth onto your sounds. Put this to use when mixing your beats, vocals or synth stabs.
Quickly establishing themselves as one of the plugin world’s de facto shining lights, Valhalla DSP’s wares have been truly extraordinary. Freq Echo marked the beginning of their story. Though it’s labelled a delay, Freq Echo is a much more versatile creative effect than you might think, working as an equally effective chorus or vibrato. It’s just incredibly inspiring to work with.
Though it’s technically a synth, Kairatune delivers a much more musical approach to sound creation, with an emphasis on developing unique beats, pulses and notes. It’s also adept at building up resonating bass sounds. First launched in 2011, it’s been many an EDM-er’s secret staple for the last decade.
We all need a DAW, and Cakewalk’s Sonar was up there with the very best. Unfortunately support ended in 2018. Thankfully, Bandlab resurrected it, offering it up completely free for Windows users. Its 64-bit mix engine, VST3 plugin support and touch compatibility make it a no-brainer in our book. Cakewalk is a perfect workspace to build up a rich electronica track.
If you're looking to produce something atmospheric, this here’s a damn good tool for weaving modulating static tones, hypnotic soundscapes and twinkly bleeps and bloops. Built around a step sequencer, Filterstep is all about creating evolving aural textures. It’s very cool, and there’s also an inspiring randomiser to trigger off new ideas.
Seize control of the gain levels of multiple groups of tracks with this exemplary audio tool from Blue Cat Audio. The Gain Suite includes three versions of the plugin, for mono, stereo or dual stereo, based around a single useful knob (or knobs) to control the different channels quickly. You can link up to nine link groups to apply and reduce gain quickly. Super useful! They also offer a free EQ plugin, too.
A staple of any freeware round-up for as long as we can remember, for good reason. Ichiro Toda’s Nord Lead 2-modelled freebie is bursting with 128 sublime-sounding preset sounds, as well as four filter types, two oscillators and a CPU-saving architecture.
11. VCV Rack 2
We’d all love an array of modular synths in our home studios, but for those who can’t, virtual – and free – alternatives are available. VCV Rack is incredibly easy to use, and allows users to patch sound-affecting modules as they would in the real world. The UI invites experimentation, and the quality of the resulting sound is, well, that’s all down to you…
Glitchmachines have great form when it comes to abstract textures and oddball noise-making kit, and Fracture is no exception. Whether it’s applied to samples, drums, vocals or synths, the scaleable LFOs, delay and filter effects are capable of upturning your sounds in mesmerising new ways – perfect ingredients for a tasty slice of electronica. And while you're over at Glitchmachines HQ, check out their free glitch delay plugin, Hysteresis.