The Best Free Music Software Originally posted on http://www.soundtempest.net/ Written by Andrew Aversa In this day and age, if you have a computer that isn’t from the 1990s, you can write and produce “broadcast quality” music - ie. tunes that are ready to be played on the radio and on TV. The purpose of this guide is to walk through a number of excellent free music tools that everyone should check out. Just click the titles to check out each item on the list, and feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section at SoundTempest, or email me directly. I might add them to the guide! ARDOUR Digital Audio Workstation (Linux) If you’re on a Linux operating system, you might already know that while there have always been some great freeware alternatives to programs like Photoshop and Microsoft Office, music production has always been somewhat neglected. Not anymore! Enter Ardour, a powerful free DAW for your Linux OS of choice. It can handle all sorts of audio editing and recording tasks and, while not compatible with VST plugins out of the box, supports several other plugin formats which cover a wide range of plugin types. AUDACITY Audio Editor (Windows/Mac/Linux) Audacity is, hands down, the most powerful free audio editor out there. Not only can you record, edit, process and export audio in a whole host of formats, but it’s cross-platform, multitrack, expandable, and compatible with VST plugins. It even has a pretty killer noise removal algorithm, so if you’re cleaning up dialog (eg. for a podcast) or have a hum/buzz problem, you’re covered. What more is there to say? Get it! CACOPHONY Audio Editor (Mac) If for some reason you’re having trouble with Audacity on your Mac - maybe your system is too old, the software is running slow, or it’s just not playing nicely with your soundcard drivers - Cacophony is your next best option. It’s a no-nonsense, no-frills recorder and editor featuring an impressive variety of supported audio file formats. Though it doesn’t have the full range of audio processing features as Audacity, nor does it host VST plugins, Cacophony will still get the job done while being a little more gentle on your processor. Please bear in mind while using it that it’s not technically free, but rather, unlimited shareware; the creators ask you for $25 if you are getting some use out of it. FINALE READER Notation Viewer (Windows/Mac) MakeMusic, creators of the Finale line of notation software, used to offer a free, cut-down version of their $600 program called Finale Notepad. Sadly, it looks like this is no longer available as a free download, so it doesn’t qualify for this list… though for $10, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything else that can create scores in traditional notation format! Finale Reader, which did make the list, is a simple program that reads, plays and prints Finale-format files. If you’re at all involved with academia you’ll most likely come across this kind of file, so this tool will come in handy. GARAGEBAND Digital Audio Workstation (Mac) Apple has really been outdoing themselves since they first started bundling this program with all new Macs. Each subsequent version has added more and more powerful features, including many that seem to have been derived from their flagship sequencer, Logic Studio. Garageband can handle multitrack recording, editing, MIDI composition and processing with ease, but what really makes it great is its huge collection of both audio and MIDI loops. Much like Sony’s (not free) Acid software, it’s incredibly easy to put together something that sounds good just by dragging and dropping loops, so this one is a no-brainer if you’re just starting out and looking to get your feet wet. For the aspiring (or consummate) professional, Garageband has some nice features under the hood too, such as track automation, expansion collections of high quality sounds, and AU plugin support. Note: Garageband started shipping with new Macs during 2005. If you have an older Mac that doesn’t have the program installed on it, you can pick up the latest iLife package for less than $100. Not quite free, but shame on you for having an old computer! ;) INDEPENDENCE FREE Sampler Plugin (Windows/Mac) Yellow Tools, creators of the fully-featured Independence sampler VST, decided it would be a nice gesture to release a totally free version of that software for everyone to use with no limitations. The result was Independence Free, a VST instrument that comes with a healthy two gigabytes of high quality sounds derived from the full version. If you have a VST-compatible host (which you should, after reading this list) then there’s really no reason not to get this one as a solid starting palette for your virtual sounds. GSNAP Pitch Correction Plugin (Windows) Now you too can sing like Cher, Kanye West, and T-Pain! GSnap is a VST effect that pitch corrects (auto-tunes) any incoming audio. While it can be a bit tricky to use, and isn’t as powerful as Antares AutoTune for real-time singing or Celemony Melodyne for offline editing, it’s excellent for a free plugin and is a whole lot of fun to play around with. KJAERHUS CLASSIC COLLECTION Signal Processing Suite (Windows) I’ve been using this set of brilliant, low-CPU effects plugins for a good four years and they’re still every bit as useful as they were when I first downloaded them. Kjaerhus makes some great commercial plugins, but their free “Classic” collection covers all the bases too; compression, reverb, EQ, filter, phasing, chorusing, and so on. There’s simply no reason not to have these in your plugin collection. PROTEUS VX Synthesizer / Sampler (Windows) Your typical low-end keyboard these days runs at least a few hundred dollars and usually has some pretty low-quality onboard sounds. To get a decent unit, even an older one, expect to pay at least $500 or more; my Korg X-50 costs $700 and isn’t anywhere close to top-of-the-line. So why do people consistently shell out for a nice hardware synthesizer or workstation? The sounds, of course! Most keyboards, especially those by Korg, Yamaha and Roland, tend to have expertly-programmed presets meticulous packed into a tiny amount of memory. The Proteus VX by E-MU (a division of Creative) basically takes that “hardware mentality” and applies it to software. The Proteus line has been around for awhile, but previously has been tied to Creative hardware. Now, not only is it unrestricted as both a standalone program and a VST plugin, but this version is completely free. The sounds aren’t the most realistic around, but they’re highly playable and cover a whole lot of ground. If you’ve played and enjoyed keyboards while browsing your local Guitar Center or Sam Ash you’ll feel right at home with the VX. RAZORLAME Graphical MP3 Encoder (Windows) If you plan on releasing music for download anywhere on the internet, it helps to have a tool that will convert your CD-quality WAVs to compact MP3s. RazorLAME is just the right tool for that. Sporting a simple yet fully-featured interface, it’s my preferred encoding tool for Windows. Why use it over something like iTunes or your DAW’s MP3 encoder? Well, with RazorLAME you can tweak the encoding settings to a very deep level, such as using VBR (variable bit rate) and ABR (average bit rate) rather than just CBR (constant bit rate), which is the least space efficient option of the three. You do need the LAME encoder itself in order for RazorLAME to work; lots of sites carry it, just look around for the file lame_enc.dll. The Audacity website recommends the following download area (click on “For Audacity on Windows”). REAPER Digital Audio Workstation (Windows with Mac beta version) This DAW program (available at http://reaper.fm/), programmed by the same guy that created Winamp, has features that match those of some of the most powerful (and expensive) programs out there. In fact, I know a number of people who swear by it even when they have access to significantly pricier and widely-used DAWs! It can be a little intimidating at first, but it’s also highly customizable and efficient. The one caveat is that it’s not technically “free” - it simply has an unlimited, unrestricted free trial. Users are encouraged to pick up a $50 “non-commercial” license if they really want to keep using the software after evaluating it. So, do a couple tracks on it and see what you think. If you fall in love, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to most other programs in this price range while simultaneously being far more powerful. REFINED AUDIOMETRICS PLUGINS Signal Processing Plugins (Windows) To quote the Refined Audiometrics website, “We are professional physicists, mathematicians, and scientific programmers. We have very strong backgrounds in signal processing. But we are also musicians, composers, recording engineers, and lovers of sound.” Simply put, these guys know their psychoacoustics. They’ve created a number of free and commercial signal processing tools, but for the purposes of this guide, I’d like to mention two of the free VSTs. There’s HDPHX, which, when loaded on to the master track of your DAW, will adjust the output sound to remove the “artificial” stereo separation inherent when listening on headphones. This is useful because when you produce music on headphones, you experience an exaggerated stereo field due to the fact that the sound is completely polarized to left and right. The result is ear fatigue over a period of time and mixes that may not translate well to normal stereo systems. As you might imagine, these are not good results, so if you’re on headphones, pick up HDPHX ASAP. The other freebie is CLAS, which stands for Compressive Loudness Audio Shaping. If you’ve ever engineered your own music, you know that a major challenge is balancing the volume level to be competitive with other songs in the same genre. The predominant view of many record labels, artists and even listeners is that “louder = better”, which presents challenges for people who don’t want to heavily distort their music at the expense of dynamics and musicality. Enter CLAS. Unlike typical loudness maximizers, compressors and limiters, CLAS boosts the perceived volume of your music using a subtle algorithm that won’t wear your ears down. Nice! ROSEGARDEN Digital Audio Workstation (Linux) Another DAW for Linux? What is the world coming to? This one is more oriented towards scoring, notation and composition than audio editing and recording like Ardour, but still contains some of those features as well. If you’re using Linux, definitely give both DAWs a try and see which you prefer. SFZ Soundfont Player Plugin (Windows) For the budget-conscious musician, the most abundant source of organized and programmed free sounds out there comes in a format called “soundfont” (.sf2). This format was initially created for Creative-brand soundcards to enhance the quality of the onboard MIDI playback engine, but has since become a popular format for free sample collections. In order to use soundfonts, you’ll need a VST instrument plugin that can load and play them, and sfz is your best bet for that. It hardly takes any resources, sounds great, and is a breeze to use. Once you have sfz, all you need are some soundfonts, which can be obtained at sites like sf2midi. SHORTCIRCUIT Sampler Plugin (Windows) Creating your own multisampled instruments is one of the most fun and rewarding activities for any music producer. However, up until recently, there really weren’t many low-cost (or free) options for samplers so that you could actually turn a bunch of raw recordings into a playable virtual instrument. Luckily for all us cheapskates, graciously decided to make their Shortcircuit sampler plugin completely free (albeit, without official support, as it has been discontinued.) It’s a little intimidating to use if you’ve never touched a sampler like Kontakt or GigaStudio before, but for zero dollars and zero cents, it has a strong feature set that is without match unless you’re willing to spend hundreds of dollars. SIMULANALOG GUITAR SUITE & FRETTED SYNTH FREEAMP3 Guitar Amp Emulation Plugins (Windows) If you’re a guitarist, you already know how important your amp and cab choice is to the final tone of your sound. What you might not know is that the variety of software emulators is better and more accurate than ever. In this category we have two great free downloads. There’s the SimulAnalog Guitar Suite, a no-nonsense collection of amp/pedal emulations like the Marshal JCM900 amp, Ibanez TS808 tube screamer pedal, and Dunlop Univibe Chorus/Vibrato pedal. To compliment it, Fretted Synth’s FreeAmp3 contains even more tone-shaping tools, including some great effects (something that SimulAnalog doesn’t really have.) All you need to use these tools is a VST-compatible host. You don’t even need to be a guitarist to get use out of them; try running drums, synths, or even vocals through ‘em and see what comes out. SIR Convolution Reverb Plugin (Windows native, Mac beta) Most digital reverb plugins and hardware units are based on a series of delay-units which, when audio is fed into them, create the impression of a space that reflects sound in various ways. The most advanced of these “algorithmic reverbs” are very expensive and highly-sought after, but it is debatable as to how realistic they sound. The principal of convolution reverb seeks to address the issue by sampling the reverberance of an actual space. This recording is called an ‘impulse response’ and is loaded into a convolution reverb plugin. The plugin processes incoming audio and blends it with the impulse response, giving the impression that the audio was actually generated within the original recorded space. Convolution reverbs are usually pricey and CPU-intensive, and while SIR (http://www.knufinke.de/sir/) isn’t as light as a simple algorithmic reverb, it IS completely free. You’ll have to download your own impulse responses to use with SIR, but there are plenty of free ones out there (just Google “free impulse responses”). Convolution can also be used for sound design and experimental music. The impulse doesn’t necessarily have to be a reverberant space - it can be a sampled instrument as well. SMARTELECTRONIX PLUGINS Synth and Signal Processing Plugins (Windows/Mac) Smartelectronix is a group of programmers that, for some reason, love developing awesome free VST and AU plugins. I’m not sure why they haven’t started charging for their work, since most of it is at least as good as many commercial offerings, but I’m not complaining. Once you visit the main site, check out the menu on the left to visit the sites of individual developers within the Smartelectronix network. A few of my favorite plugins include: Ambience (reverb), the mda bundle (tons of low-CPU effects), mdsp Compressor and Livecut (intelligent beat slicing), andASynth (analog-style subtractive synthesis.) SYNTH1 Synthesizer Plugin (Windows) Among freeware music production aficionados, Synth1 holds a legendary status. Though Ichiro Toda, the plugin’s sole programmer, rarely updates it and never seems to post publicly, Synth1 has a fanatical following - and for good reason. It’s awesome. Just load this VST instrument up and even on a six year old computer it will run like a charm. It uses virtually no CPU or RAM and thus can be instantiated a dozen times with no significant resource hit. All the controls are laid out simply on one page, making it an excellent starter synth for those just getting their feet wet with electronic music production, but it’s also robust enough to produce a massive range of sounds. Of course, all of this wouldn’t matter if it didn’t sound good, and it unquestionably does. Apparently, Synth1 was designed as an emulation of theNord Lead 2 hardware synthesizer which itself is very popular, but since its initial release it has added a number of features that put it in its own class among both freeware and commercial products. For what it’s worth, Synth1 is one of the only free synth plugins I still use after five years of collecting high-end VSTis like Omnisphere, Zebra 2, FM8 and Absynth. Once you have it downloaded, check out KVR Audio’s free patch bank list and add thousands of sounds to Synth1’s already healthy bank of 128. TASCAM CONTINUOUS VELOCITY PIANO Piano Instrument Plugin (Windows) If you have a DAW that supports VSTi or RTAS plugins and need an expressive, realistic piano sound, look no further. Though TASCAM is no longer developing its GigaStudio software, which provides the basis for the CV Piano, they’ve graciously kept this download up. The key to the realistic sound of this sample library is the “GVI” software and some nifty programming which cuts down on memory used without compromising sound quality. WAVEKNIFE Offline Audio Editor (Windows) A bit of a specialty application, WaveKnife has just one function; separating a single audio file into multiple audio files. The primary application is for users that have long sequences of single sounds, particularly those found on sample library CDs, and want to save some time editing. However, it can be used for any purpose where you’re trying to separate blocks of audio with silence in between. There’s no other free tool like it, so if you think you might need to separate some audio files anytime soon, pick it up.
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