A free Windows-based software studio
Here I will explore some possibilities for a completely free (as in beer) Windows-based studio. This question seems to come up a lot in various places, and I also just wanted to look into it myself, to see what was out there these days that I might have missed, and catch up on some older stuff that may have been updated. Some of this stuff has been around for some time, particularly some of the stuff in the "other software" section.
Although I won't be talking about it further in this article (I'm not well-versed enough), I would like to mention that Linux has also become a perfectly viable option for a free software studio. See linuxaudio.org for more info on that subject.
I will also mention Computer Music Magazine - though not technically free (since you have to buy a magazine) it comes with a DVD full of great "magware", as well as samples and demo software. The exact contents of the DVD vary from month to month, but a regular feature is "the CM Studio" - a collection of pretty much everything you need to get started, including several CM-branded plug-ins from big names in the industry such as Camel Audio, LinPlug, Muon, and U-he.
Note that I am not covering all the possibilities here, because that would take too long, especially when it comes to plug-ins. Instead, I will cover what I feel are the standouts in each area. Also, I will not be covering "lite" or demo versions of any payware, these are strictly free alternatives (with one technical exception in the hosts section). We will also steer away from "preview" or beta versions of software which have an expiration date on free use. There's still plenty of ground to cover, don't worry.
One final note before we get started: though this software is all free, donations are a fine way to show your appreciation to the developers if you can spare it.
Hosts (DAWs, etc.)
There are a few sub-categories here, such as trackers, modular hosts, etc. I'll be leaving audio editors out of this section, and giving them their own, below. The only real criteria I imposed here is the ability to host VST plug-ins. This area has improved quite a bit in recent years, though it still seems to me like trackers and those willing to try something less traditional (as in, not a Cubase/Sonar-style DAW) have the most choices. Also, though one can definitely get great results with the programs mentioned below, some may be lacking in features or conveniences, may be buggy, or may not fit with a preferred style of working.
If you like trackers (or are unfamiliar, but they look interesting to you), you're in luck. There are several good options out there in the free tracker world which support VST(i) plug-ins, either natively or via adapter. Buzz (the classic modular tracker) is still around, and received a long-awaited new beta release in 2010. VST support in Buzz is available via 3rd party adapters. I recommend the Polac VST adapters (one for effects, one for instruments, both available from buzzmachines, where the Buzz link takes you). Psycle is another option here, and includes native VST support. Both of these programs have a number of machines (plug-ins) available in their native formats as well. A more old-school option (at least interface-wise) is Open ModPlug Tracker, which is the evolution of a now-classic Windows tracker.
For a more traditional multitracking environment, one solution is Zynewave's Podium Free. This would be the "technical exception" I mentioned, as it is a free version of a payware application. However, the restrictions are on multiprocessor support for plug-ins, 64 bit mixing, and multiple MIDI interfaces (none of these are available in the free version, but note multiprocessor support does work for everything else like disk streaming, GUI, etc.), as opposed to track/plug-in count. Another option is Macaw, which takes a slightly different approach to some things, but includes all the basics you should need, plus some interesting built-in synths. Last on the list, but not least, is Kristal Audio Engine. It has some limitations, but is still a fine choice- see "Chainers" below (under "Plug-ins") for a way around the VST insert limits. It also lacks MIDI, but can be used to assemble audio rendered from other applications, or perhaps with one of the "pluggable" options below.
If you prefer a pattern-based approach, you may be happy to learn that Bram Bos has released a bunch of his old software for free, including Tunafish, which includes VST support; and Tuareg 2, which can be used with PQN Audio's VstSeq for VSTi sequencing. There is also LMMS, which was designed as a free alternative to FL Studio, and even includes several similar built-in synths. It stands for Linux MultiMedia Studio, but there is now a Windows version too. Finally, though not actually a full-on sequencing package, and also apparently "abandonware" (the link goes to a fully-functional preview version), there is Phrazor, a "virtual synthesizer workstation" which can host and sequence plug-ins, and can also be loaded as a plug-in in another host, where it can be slaved to host tempo or provide its own sync. It can output MIDI as well as audio, so it could be used with one of the other programs mentioned here to provide sequencing capabilities where none are provided. I've used it quite a bit, and it seems quite stable, despite being unfinished.
There are also a few lightweight options for simple live chaining & such. These programs lack most of the sequencing-related features of "normal" hosts, acting more like a virtual rack or pedalboard - two even use the latter analogy in their names. The strength of these programs is the freedom of routing, connecting things however you like with virtual wires. Perhaps the most well-known of these is Hermann Seib's VST Host. This one has been around the longest, and includes several handy features, such as a MIDI file player. Another is VstBoard - from the creator: "Its main purpose is to allow fast switching between setups and was primarily designed to be used as a guitar multi-fx". VstBoard uses a unique multi-layered approach, and can also be used as a plug-in itself. Yet another in this category is Niall Moody's Pedalboard 2. All three of these support modular-style audio & MIDI routing, Pedalboard 2 also supports OSC.
For those who want to get really deep, there are also a couple of interesting options. One is Bonneville's CPS, another is Pure Data (or "pd", a branch of the Max family). Both are visual programming environments which use a virtual wire-style interface somewhat similar to the above programs, but also allow you to do much more than just host plug-ins. The learning curves are steep, but the payoff is worth it if you're a "roll-your-own" type. Both of these can also be used as a plug-in inside another host application, though pd requires an add-on (available here).
Also worth mentioning is Maizesoft's AirRack, "a live environment for those who make sound effects for TV program and other live performance". Though simple, it does provide basic VST hosting.
Though some of the programs mentioned above include audio editing, there are times when a dedicated program is also desireable. Here I considered VST hosting less important, though both of the programs I mention are capable of that. They also both include some built-in effects & other processing, such as normalization and such. I recommend trying both of these to see which one fits you best, as both are quite nice, just rather different from each other.
Audacity: Can do multitrack recordings. If all you need is a multitrack recorder with editing capabilities (no MIDI), this may be all you need, period. You need to download an add-on to enable VST support.
Wavosaur: Has more advanced analysis features, but can't do multitrack recordings, though it can handle multichannel files, i.e. surround, and can have multiple files open at once. Comes with VST support built-in.
Even restricting ourselves to just freeware, there are a huge number of plug-ins out there. When it comes to various common types of synths or effects (i.e. VA synths or delays), most of them are basically variations on a theme - the point being, nobody but you can really judge what the best one is for your needs. I'm going to mention some of my favorites, but please feel free to keep looking for your own.
First up, a few bundles, which include multiple plug-ins. These alone will cover the basics and then some, effects-wise.
mda vst bundle: big bundle of goodies, considered classics by many.
GVST bundle: includes many bread-and-butter necessities and handy utility plugs, including a tuner.
Simulanalog guitar suite: some great guitar fx, including a couple amp sims. Mono only.
Xhip effects: some basics and a few odd ones (also home to a killer VA synth).
ReaPlugs VST versions: the Reaper VST suite.
You may find yourself wanting more reverb options - try Freeverb 3 and Ambience. If you're looking for a "character" compressor, Audio Damage has you covered with Rough Rider. For more guitar fx, amp, and cab sims, check out BTE Audio (scroll down), AcmeBarGig, Ronald Passion, and LePou. How about an Echoplex/JamMan-style audio looper? Mobius is a feature-packed solution which should cover all of your needs. In a similar vein, but simpler, and targeted more towards the "remix" crowd, is Muxer's Instant Sampler. See the "other developers" bit below for more cool stuff.
As for instruments, we'll start with samplers. There are a few good choices in the freeware world, my favorite being Vember Audio's Shortcircuit. Others I have tried and liked include DiscoDSP's HighLife and CWI's TX16wx. There is also the monster Linuxsampler, another Linux app ported to Windows. If you're after something designed specifically for drum sampling, a couple to try are Majken's Grizzly and Witech's TheDrumSource, which also includes a step sequencer. For an excellent soundfont player, see SFZ+, which Cakewalk has released as freeware.
There is no shortage of other types of instruments either. For your basic VA needs, some of my favorites are Synth1, Atlantis (also comes with seperate fx version with just the filter/delay section), Oatmeal, and Tyrell N6. For some FM action, see Stefan Kuhn's stuff or CuteVST's Hexter, which can load DX7 sysex files. Martinic makes some great free combo organ models. For drum synths, try Drumatic 3, TS-808, and/or Cubix. Emulations of two great 80's hybrid synths (ESQ-1/SQ-80 and PPG Wave) here: SQ8L and here: Wavesim. A few others to check out: Crystal, Plex 2, and H.G. Fortune's stuff.
Chainers: these are plug-ins that allow you to load more plug-ins inside them. Useful for creating and saving complex chains of effects, among other things. Here are links to a couple of free ones:
Acon Digital Media FX Chainer - all the way at the bottom, pretty straightforward
Studio Units - modular chainer with some built-in fx & stuff
A few other developers to check out: Tiny God, Variety of Sound, Christian Budde, de la Mancha, smartelectronix, g200kg, Ugo, xoxos, signaldust, Distorque, Shuriken, and Togu Audio Line. All of these have free stuff available, though some also offer payware.
That oughta be a good start, but we've barely touched the tip of the iceberg. For more, see the Gersic free audio plugin database. The KVR database is another good place to look, and allows you to specify searching for only free stuff. I also recommend checking out Bedroom Producers Blog, they cover a lot of free stuff as well.
Here are a bunch of other various things to try. A few utilities, a few classics, and some more experimental stuff.
ASIO4all driver: universal ASIO driver, which may help you out if you're stuck with onboard or "consumer" audio hardware.
Viena: free soundfont editor, no SoundBlaster hardware required.
sfZed: free SFZ editor.
RareWares: provides media compression codecs (lame mp3, ogg vorbis, FLAC, etc.).
BRELS MIDI Editor: open-source, lightweight MIDI editor.
FractMus 2000: algorithmic MIDI music generator.
HourGlass: a granular audio processor/synth.
Coagula: image synth.
Paul's Extreme Sound Stretch: does what it says, and he does mean extreme.
SPEAR: Sinusoidal Partial Editing Analysis and Resynthesis (additive analysis/resynthesis program).
SynC Modular: once upon a time, a competitor with Reaktor, now free.
ReBirth RB-338: a piece of softsynth history, also now free.
Giada: live looping machine.
Stomper: old school, but still one of my favorite drum synths.
Komplex - Term: Waveterm-style waveform/wavetable generator.
Tranzilon: "transwave" generator (designed for Ensoniq samplers, but useful elsewhere also).
CSound: audio programming language.
SuperCollider: audio programming language.
MIDI-Ox: very handy set of MIDI utilities.
Christian Budde's measurement programs: several useful items here.
Plugview: lists the plug-ins used in your DAW projects.
AnalogX: various stuff.
Freequency: musical time calculator (bar/beat to sample length, beat division to ms, etc.).
Sonic Beacon: audio test software.
Samples and sample libraries
Some specific sites to check out are freesound.org, which is an open, collaborative Creative Commons effort; KB6 free drum samples, which has tons of free drum machine samples; and Philharmonia Orchestra's Sound Exchange, which has a bunch of free orchestra samples. Another good set of ree orchestral samples is available here: Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra.
Also, it may be talked about in the above KVR threads, but it still bears mentioning that the Internet Archive contains a fair amount of public domain and creative commons-licensed stuff that can be freely and legally plundered for samples... videos, political speeches, all kinds of stuff.
So there you have it - several options for a totally free software studio. The situation is definitely better than it was when I got into this computer-based music thing in 1996, though one may still have to make compromises in the DAW/host department, depending on specific wants or needs. Even so, I think it is entirely possible to get "professional" sounding results using only free software now.
Thanks to the KVR community, which is where I found out about most of this stuff, and of course all the freeware devs out there.
Note: I will try to keep this article at least somewhat up-to-date as links die and new things come along.
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