The free digital music studio/
This is a guide for both aspiring producers and the experienced studio worker. After spending countless hours, or let's be honest - years, learning about audio production and different hardware and software options, reading on the www.gearslutz.com forum, discussing with colleagues, and spending tens of thousands on gear, I feel like saving other people some valuable time and money. So I decided to write this entry-level guide, with relevance for pros also. I’ll actually use this guide myself too, to find and install all the free software I still use(even though I have a lot of expensive stuff also), after a format, or when I buy a new computer.
Feel free to send me tips, if you think I left out something. And also, please note, I use OS X, so the list below is meant for Mac users primarily. And btw, for the pro user, who already has a lot of good commercial plugins, I've added a little ⭐️ to the plugins that I feel have extra value, and that you might want to check out even though you've already spent lots of money on software.
(DIGITAL AUDIO WORKSTATION)
There is no such thing as a free DAW, or is there? The truth, as always, lays somewhere in between. But my personal recommendation is you spend a few bucks on Ableton or Logic. They will enable you to do whatever you want. But the alternatives below however, will at least get you started for free. And maybe even, depending on what you want to do, take you all the way.
Presonus Studio One is quite similar to both Ableton and Logic/Pro Tools. It is meant for people who want to make beats and record instruments. Their smallest version of the program is free, but you can't use third party plugins like VST or AU(external instruments and effects) with this free version. The bigger version of Studio One is a good way to start if you are on a budget.
Ableton Live Intro will be yours for 79 EURO. With Intro you’ll get everything you need to make your first songs. But you’ll probably feel like upgrading quite soon because of the limited 16 tracks available in Intro. This is my personal favourite for everything except mixing really, really big projects(with like 100+ tracks).
Cockos Reaper is made mostly for people who record real instruments and hardware synths I feel like. Programming beats and using plugins in Reaper is still a bit of a struggle, if you compare to say Fruity Loops or Ableton. But it is an AMAZING DAW, and you can customize it for your purpose. Reaper is not free, but you can download it for free and it has great value at an affordable price. It’s always a good idea to support what you like, and this is a very fairly priced, 100% professional DAW. I know several professionals who swear by Reaper.
I also want to give Apples Logic a mention here. It’s full version is a powerful and intuitive DAW, that is cheaper than most of it’s competition. Theres is no free version of Logic unfortunately.
(VST/AU 4 OSX)
When recording with a microphone, you amplify the microphone through a mic-preamp. A high end micpre will cost $1000-$4000, and they make the sound you record juicy, fat and defined. Software has come a long way in imitating what they do though, and Airwindows has a free plugin that does this almost just as well as the plugins that will cost you hundreds! Don't let the somewhat poor looks fool you. This is pure gold!Airwindows Channel 6 ⭐️
Airwindows Console 5 ⭐️
Airwindows Tubedesk (they even have a tube version, that imitates how a tube mixer sounds)
Equalizers enables you to boost what sounds cool, cut what sounds bad, and/or make space in the mix for other sounds in the same freq range. These are my free favourites:
Luftikus ⭐️ (Free VERY NICE Maag-inspired EQ)
Analog Obsessions MPReq ⭐️ (like a simplified mix of a Pultec and Decapitator VST)
Analog Obsessions Filteq
Tokyodawn Tdr-nova (dynamic equalizer)
Airwindows Cstrip (full channelstrip from Chris)
Elysia Niveau Filter ⭐️ (brilliant for focusing things)
Marvel Graphic EQ (16-band graphic eq)
Voxengo Overtone GEQ (7-band harmonic EQ)
Slate Revival (bass & treble boost)
Xfer DJMfilter ⭐️ (Really handy DJ-filter from the producers of Serum)
Rare How awsome! A free Pultec!
This could be a large chapter, but I’ll only select my favourites here. Compressors make the all the parts of a sound «equally high». For instance, if you play some bass-guitar, and some notes, sounds or frequenzies are much louder than others, a compressor will automatically fix this. Compressors, like preamps and eqs, in the analog world, will colour the sound a lot through trafos and other fancy electronic parts - some of these plugins also model these charming artefacts - but to be honest, the only ones I know who do plugins that sound similar to analog gear, is Universal Audio - but the plugins below will take you far enough to get a professional sound, if you get your levels and settings right!
Audiodamage Rough Rider 2
Saturation:Need a fatter, juicier, or more extreme sound? This is the department. «Saturation» is the gentler little brother of overdrive and distortion. The colouring of Airwindows Console could also be seen as something adding very subtle saturation, while the ones below can also make your sound scream like a guitar amp, if that is what you want.
Tape Machine:Recording stuff digitally has come a long way, but there is something extra to recording stuff through a high quality tape-machine. Mastering grade tape machines are huge, heavy, and will set you back quite a few thousand $. I’ll let you in on a little secret though; I’ve stopped using almost all my other expensive tape-emulation plugins, and now I mostly use Totape5 from Chris of Airwindows. In my opinion Airwindows Totape5 alone is worth becoming a Airwindows Patreon over:
Reverb:Reverb is basically the sound bouncing off walls, chairs, windows, whatever you are surrounded by, so it's basically the sound of you being in a room doing stuff. Throughout the history of music production people have tried to replicate this effect in different ways. They've even come up with ways of making sounds resonate in a material in a likeable way(springs or plates). So, some of these tooles have been digital ones(EMT 250++), some physical ones(like re-recording your sound in a box or room) or physical analog ones(EMT 140 or springs). In the legendary studios, they used to have Spring or Plate reverbs(google EMT 140 or AKG BX20 for the most legendary ones). These ones are really hard to imitate, and I’d recommend you to go to UAD for some real plate or spring-sound, but there are a lot of other cool reverb plugs out there:
TAL Chorus LX
Blue Cat Audio Chorus
Svep Phaser Flanger Chorus
DelayValhalla Freq Echo (Really cool free plug!)
The limiter is really just the same as a compressor, but it compresses things REALLY hard(at a 1:10 ratio or higher). This is the last tool you use, to make sure your track is loud enough(How loud is loud enough? Read about LOUDNESS WARS! Again, Airwindows wins with another insane FREE product. NC-17 used to cost $50, Airwindows recently made available as free download because of his Patreon.Airwindows NC-17 ⭐️ (AMAZING limiter!)
Vladgsound Limiter 6
A loudness meter does exactly what you's expect it to. It measures how loud your sound is, and how close your are to the peak limit.Youlean Loudness Meter ⭐️ Good to have if you want to master your own tracks.
Voxengo Boogex is a tone-shaping monster actually! It has a guitar amp simulator, and an eq, and a convolution reverb (a reverb where you can load sampled rooms!). Google «Free Impulse Responses» to find files you can load into the reverb. Here you can actually find some really cool spring and plate sounds if you're lucky. In the Boogex they will sound somewhat lo-fi, but it is really awesome anyhow! Crank it!
Metric Halo Thump is legendary Metric Halo's bass boosting thumper that'll make your subs go bump!
NI Guitar Rig 5 Player is a very cool guitar amp plug. This is a limited free version.
iZotope Vocal Doubler ..doubles your vocals, or any other audio - plain and simple.
Paulstretch VST is a timestretching effect. Good for experimental, digital, slowd-down effects. Or if you need to make a Justin Bieber song last for 30 minutes?
Soundmagic Spectral VST in the same category as the above; experimental. Do you like electroacoustic music, does comb filtering and granular synthesis make you feel good? Well, then here you can get a whole suite of effects in .au format!
Voxengo Span ⭐️ lets you see your sound. Nice tool to have, for learning or just to figure out where that annoying frequenzy is, so you can remove it with an EQ.
Transient Designers are tools you can use to make that snare pop a litte bit more, or less, or to make those guitars sound a little less aggressive, or more.. Flux Bittersweet ⭐️
An editor/generator for single cycle waveforms for hardware, software and samplers. SCW Editor
SYNTHS & SAMPLERS
Virtual Analogue SynthesizersVCV Rack ⭐️ (Not a plugin yet, but VERY cool! Makes me regret spending money on modular synths.)
U-He Zebralette ⭐️
A WHOLE RANGE OF AWSOME FREE SYNTHS!!! ⭐️ (Most inspired by analogue classics!)
BL-303 ⭐️ (TB-303 inspired VST!)
OtherNI Komplete Start (free Komplete-selection)
Dexed ⭐️ (this one loads DX7 presets/sysex!)
Tau Bassline! a free 303!!!
SyndtSphere innovative and quick!
Cheeze Machine 2 a vintage string monster!
SamplersSforzando (A free library also with good melotron and perc samples)
Native Instruments Komplete Player (With free sounds)
Spitfire Labs Series One of the nicest
sampled pianos I’ve heard, and a whole bunch of other cool sounds FOR FREE?!!
Ample Percussion Cloudrum Really nice steel tongue Drum!
Keyzone Classic Free A fre decent pianos in this one!
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted Philharmonia Orchestra has released this collection of free orchestral samples. Download them here
Audio EditorsNeed to cut away or edit the ending of only one sound? Edit the beginning and end of your track prior to mastering maybe? Or just isolate a cool part to sample as a drumsound? Use an audio editor. For recording, editing and even some simple DAW-tasks, you can try Audacity or Ocenaudio . My personal favourite is Sound Forge, but it will set you back some $s (Funfact: Burial made his whole legendary album "Untrue" in Sound Forge!!).
A FEW PLACES
TO SPEND YOUR MONEY ON
If I had to start from scratch, these are the first plugins I would add to the free ones above.
You may be asking yourselves; how do I get to sound as cool as all the other contemporary producers? The answer is; you have to get the right sounds! Sign up to Splice for a month or two and knitpick your favourite sounds - combine this with ploughing through the Free Samples section of The Bedroom Producers Blog, and you should be set for the next year, if not the next five.
Soundtoys Echoboy If I was to buy ONLY ONE plugin, my choice would be Soundtoys Echoboy. The amount of things you can do with Echoboy is insane - it has a incomprehensible creative palette. Buy through Audiodeluxe.com and get a few dollars off also! Soundtoys also deserves an extra mention for frequently giving away products for limited periods of time - so I can recommend subscribing to their newsletter.
The second one that gets a special mention is Waves CLA-76. This is actually a very good plugin-version of the legendary 1176 compressor. On a good campaign-day you can get it for $29! A bargin!
Abbey Road Reverb Plate. Carefully modeled plate reverbs from the actual Abbey Road studio. These actually sound quite vintage for real, and are in my opinion the second best(after UAD) plugin version of plate reverbs you can get! Also frequently at $29 these days.
Toneboosters! This is an incredible bargain! The bus tools pro pack gives you everything you need to produce some amazing tracks. I’d also like to give a special mention to Barricade 4, which is an amazing limiter, that will make your masters hit HARD and LOUD!
Ok, so this was kind of my 'best of'-list, and I'll keep updating it as I find new stuff that is worthwhile my harddrive-space. But you can also follow the feed at Gearnews or Bedroomproducersblog to keep updated on all new free audio software.
Hope you found this guide helpful!
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