Budding music producers take note, here lies a treasure trove of tools that can take your tunes from the bargain bin to the Berghain. And the best part is, they’re all free! Whether you’re looking to make an 808-heavy trap beat or recreate the thunderous churn of warehouse techno, these 15 completely free VSTs—from full DAWs to synth plug-ins and effects—will have you geeking out and holed up in your bedroom studio for weeks on end. Just promise us that when you win your first Grammy for Best Dance Recording, you shout out Pulse during your acceptance speech!
Here are 20 of the best free music production tools to be found anywhere on the web right now….
Tracktion won Freeware of the Year for the 2016 Computer Music Awards, and it’s easy to see why. The T5 is a fully-fledged DAW that features an intuitive, single-screen interface that’s user friendly with input, waveform and mixer (including EQ, level, pan and plug-ins) laid out from left to right. Additional features and automation can be added to any track in a drag-and-drop manner and it offers unlimited audio and MIDI tracks to combine.
REAPER, which stands for “rapid environment for audio production, engineering and recording,” is a DAW created by Cockos and offers a free 60-day trial for people who just want to take it for a spin. REAPER doesn’t include and third-party software but is highly compatible with thousands of plug-in effects and virtual instruments. It offers multichannel support for MIDI routing and has tons of studio-quality tools for processing, automation, modulation and whatever else you may need.
Linux Multimedia Studio is an open-source DAW software that comes with five editors (Song, Beat+Bassline, Piano Roll, Automation, FX) and a wide variety of synthesizers (oscillator-based, wave-based, Roland TB-303 style monophonic bass), giving you plenty of options to mix, refine and add to your tracks. LMMS allows you to import MIDI and Hydrogen product files and supports VST/VSTi and LADSPA plug-ins. The cross-platform program works with Windows, Linux and MacOS. You can listen to some samples of tracks(https://lmmsartists.bandcamp.com/album/the-best-of-lmms-vol-3) made using LMMS.
Noisemaker is a free VST synth that was created by Togu Audio Line and models an analog synth with three oscillators. The product is a bold, vintage Minimoog-style sound that acts as a perfect starting point for beginners aiming to achieve a full sound. It’s been praised as being extremely user-friendly and comes with a running list of factory presets and effects, like the reverb, delay and bitcrusher.
Live 9 Lite
This stripped down version of the popular Ableton Live software comes free with the purchase of a vast array of entry-level hardware setups, and is an intuitive, lithe gateway into the world of Ableton.
Live Lite allows you to work on recording and MIDI sequencing for up to 8 tracks at a time, but comes with tons of drum and instrument racks, studio effects and samplers, and other instruments to add to the mix.
Hydrogen is a production software designed with a specialized focus on drum machine patterns. The program is compatible with Windows, Linux and MacOS and comes with a pre-installed kit that includes Snare, Closed Hi Hat, Pedal Hi Hat, Jazz, Ride Jazz, Ride Rock, Snare Jazz, Stick and Cowbell drum kits. With the pattern-based sequencer, you can play around with an unlimited number of patterns, arrange audio effects over a file and overlap them. It offers multi layer support with up to 16 samples per instrument and its new Sample Editor function lets you cut and loop as you please.
ZynAddSubFX offers three different synthesizer engines (additive, subtractive, and PAD) and filters (analogue model, formant and state variable) for a variety of textures. The program comes with a built-in virtual keyboard if you don’t have a physical MIDI to use. Here’s a demo playlist.
TX16Wx Professional Sampler
Modeled after the Yamaha TX16W sampler, this freeware gives you the option of recording your own samples to edit, slice and modulate to create a near endless amount of personalized shaping possibilities. It comes with a built-in sample editor with pitch/tempo detection, loop and crossfading tools, slice mapping and more. Its 16 mappable controllers and 128 mappable VST parameters are great for automation.
This free compressor from Audio Damage is described as having a bit of “vintage style bite and a uniquely warm sound.” Suitable for your drum buss, synth bass, clear guitars and backing vocals, it’s best used for adding some ‘pump’ to heavy rhythmic tracks. The Mac and Windows-friendly program adds a perfect finishing touch on tracks that have a sturdy kick drum as the backbone.
The DC1A by Klanghelm is another free compressor plug-in for creating a punchier sound on your track. It’s simple to use with only an input/output knob and works well with parallel compression, even offering a "relaxed” mode for when you want a less aggressive, saturated sound. The creator Tony Fenzel describes it as "a compressor that just works: gentle, faithful, from almost invisible, smooth leveling to heavy pumping with a nice crunchy saturation and punchy enough to treat drums with."
The effects you slab onto your production can make or break your track, so it’s always nice to have some solid options to work with. Melda Production offers a completely free bundle of 30 different plug-ins that range from your basic tuner and phaser to a custom compressor and 6-band equalizer. Though you can’t save presets with the freeware, it’s still a helpful download for testing it out before you decide to invest in more of their professional features. The bundle is available for both PC and Mac computers in VST, AU and AAX formats.
Ardour is another open source DAW that gives you the full spectrum of tools to cover your bases when creating and editing a track. You can record and edit any number of tracks at a time with non-linear editing and support for dozens of file formats. Its options for MIDI editing are extensive and includes all the necessities for recording, mixing, editing and mastering.
DarkWave is a free Windows-compatible software that offers a virtual modular audio studio and supports both VST and ASIO plug-ins. The virtual studio comes with a wide range of bundled Experimental Scene plug-ins, like the Arpeggiator, Stereo Splitter, MIDI Input/Output, Distortion, Downstepper and Stomp, just to name a few. The sequence and pattern editors let you rearrange with ease and its modular design lets you connect hardware and machines in an ad-hoc fashion.
Native Instruments is one of the big players in the audio/production world, and they’ve released a free bundle of software that features three powerful audio platforms: the Reaktor 5 Player, Guitar Rig 5 Player and Kontakt 5 Player. The libraries that come with include 300+ high quality sounds and effects, including futuristic synths, edgy drum rhythms and versatile amp emulator. With a total of 600+ MB of samples at no cost, it almost makes up for the steep prices of NI software.
Digital Suburban’s Dexed is an emulation of the Yamaha DX7, one of the most popular synthesizers of the 80s. The multi-platform (macOS, Linux, Windows) and multi-format (VST, AU, LV2) program is a great tool to use when you need add some life to your percussion with the classic FM synth sounds that’ll give it a clattery, bold touch.
PreSonus Studio One 3 Prime
Studio One 3 is a free software from PreSonus that is made especially easy-to-use for beginners and students. The program lets you work on an unlimited amount of simultaneous tracks, plug-ins and virtual instruments, and operates with a quick drag-and-drop workflow. Studio One 3 features the Presence XT Sampler that comes with a 1.5 GB sampler library and 9 PreSonus Native Effects audio plug-ins. If you decide you like what you’re working with, you can try out the Professional version as a 30-day demo.
TDR VOS SlickEQ
Once you have your foundation for the track set, you’ll need an equalizing tool to get those frequencies balanced out in the right places. Variety of Sound and Tokyo Dawn Lab’s SlickEQ features three different filter-bands (Low, Mid, High), four different EQ models (American, British, German, Soviet) and five output stages (Linear, Silky, Mellow, Deep, and Toasted) so you have plenty of options for full customization.
Podium Free is a fully functional version of ZyneWave’s Podium software, with just a few minor limitations. Unlike the full version, its MIDI interface setup is limited to one input and one ouput, and the surround-sound playback, ReWire feature, plug-in multiprocessing and 64-bit mixer engine are disabled. It still offers many more features than most other freeware, equipped with a hierarchic track layout, integrated sound editor, multiprocessing, a customizable UI, VST plug-ins and more. Here’s a list of freeware plug-ins (http://zynewave.com/recommended-freeware-plugins/) that they recommend using in combination with Podium.
Compared to the MuLab UL, which runs at 69 euro, the free version supports up to 4 sequencer tracks and up to 8 VST plug-ins per project and operates with an extremely simple UI. This unregistered version works well as a secondary DAW for testing out and playing around with different modular routing set ups. MuLab Free offers Audio/MIDI recording and playback; flexible composition and sequence editing; high-quality samplers and effects; and is known for its powerful Audio/MIDI plugin routing. Here’s a demo playlist.
Image from KM Music Conservatory