With a plethora of free music tools and plugins for everything from beats to synths to samples, where do you begin? With this list of some of the very best.
If you don’t know Andrew Huang, then you should get to know. Experimenting in music for the masses over years on YouTube, few people have dedicated as much time to not only exploring the possibilities of music digital and analogue, but sharing those experiments and breakthroughs with viewers around the world.
Whether you’re looking for the coolest and weirdest synths, advice on learning music theory (in just half an hour!), or some of the best music software out there that you can download – for free! – then Huang has got the goods.
In an update to his ‘best free music tools in 2019‘ video, Andrew has walked us through some of the best plugins that he knows that don’t cost a penny to download and start using with your music. You can watch the full video below, and we’ll provide some links and more details in each underneath the video so you can dive straight in with all of them.
This astonishing synth powers some of the craziest sounds you can begin to imagine. With their wavetables offering warping of the synth, you can discover the manic potential of a synth when it’s waveforms have gone of on an ayahuasca trip.
Add in your own samples and manipulate them with VITAL’s pitch splicing and vocoding modules. You can even turn text into a wavetable and manipulate synthesised speech as sound.
The entire synth offers a gorgeous display with a deep power to every element including its effect modules for compression, delay, and phaser.
Andrew says: “This is the kind of synth that if you get to know well enough, you can probably design almost any sound that you can imagine.”
A self-described master of chaos, this chaotic oscillator takes inspiration from double pendulums to create unique sounds from that swinging basis. The oscillators seem like pure chaos to start with, but as the patterns become clear you’ll discover a unique soundscape in the movements.
Designed with some of the best synths in history in mind, the three sound producing modules are capable of producing bright lead sounds and deep bass notes. Discover what you can do when you produce your own sound and then combine it with the unique response of pendulous motion.
Andrew says: “What I like about it is that it has a few pre-routed modulations that make it really easy and fun and fast to create super chaotic sounds.”
This is not one, but many free software instruments coming out of London-based creators. The amazing selection available through LABS needs to be experienced first-hand to be believed – especially in terms of the quality available from the website’s packs and instruments.
Strings, guitar sounds, percussion, synths, vocals, and so much more; The outstanding quality and variety of LABS sets it apart from any other offer. For his video Andrew honed in on BBC Symphony Orchestra Discover. This offering brings 33 instruments from the BBC Symphony Orchestra intro your DAW at no cost (if you fill out a questionnaire) and hints at what they offer in their far bigger orchestral packs – whilst offering such an array of potential still that your horizon will immediately open.
Andrew says: “Spitfire produce so many kinds of instruments and with their LABS series there’s a tonne of really great quality, free ones.“
Pianobook is a community-powered library of samples uploaded by users. Using a sampler plugin, users can explore the full range of user-powered sounds of exceedingly quality instrument samples of all kinds. Also from Spitfire you can trust that the library here is both quality and expansive.
The name may fool you but there is a world of sampled instruments to explore here beyond piano, including: viola, synths, organs, accordions, ocarinas, and even a metallic water bottle from Synth Fest UK.
As mentioned, be aware that you need a sampler like KONTAKT to play them as they are instruments.
Andrew says: “There are lots of incredible sounds in here; it’s not just pianos.”
Offering a massive pack of samples with over 200 snares and kicks alone, this plugin features an amazing amount of great drum sounds. With loads of preset grooves to choose from and presets from famous drummers and artists, you don’t even need to program in your own drums to find a strong backing to your music.
For any non-rhythmic, home-recording artist; the lack of a drummer is often the big lacking factor holding you back. Especially for bedroom guitarists who want to record bigger sounding tracks but don’t have access to a drummer or a studio to record them in.
For a free plugin, there is huge potential to be had here.
Andrew says: “The best free plugin drum kit I’ve tried is Steven Slate Drums Free. This might be a bit more rock-oriented, although you can get jazz stuff out of it – you can probably do country stuff with it. They sound like a pretty real kit.”
Looking for an authentic guitar and bass tone on your tracks but don’t own the instruments yourself? Look no further than the fantastic sounds offered by Ample and their two plugins for an electric bass and a Martin acoustic guitar replicant.
Capable of emulating not just the tone of each instrument but replicating the sounds of hammer ons, pull offs, accents on each note, and much more to have your digital instruments sounding like the real deal. The martin guitar also offers chord modes to strum like an authentic guitar and allows you to customise any chord shapes you’re after.
Andrew says: “You can play really expressively with them and there’s also a lot of tone control as well as parameters for things like string buzz.”
As it says on the tin, this is a plugin effects module designed with massive delays and reverb in mind. With astonishing sound quality and a really empowering range of controls over your delay, feedback, modulation, and equaliser there is the power to create a universe of space within your music here.
It is in its essence a delay plugin but with use of the Warp control the delay thickens to transform into more of a reverbed effect offering an inspiring range of control over the sound of your effects.
Andrew says: “I think one of the most exciting effects – free or paid – is Supermassive by Valhalla. I use this thing all the time, it sounds so pristine.“
Simple yet effective stereo power. Using the stereo function from Polyverse’s larger plugin Manipulator, this effect is focused entirely on “widening” your mix up; giving your sound space to breathe and sound like it exists beyond the restrictive realms of your speakers or headphones.
With a “mono-compatible” system, even mono tracks can be used with Wider for a bigger space whilst remaining “in phase with itself”. Keeping a track in phase with itself is key to how Wider works, comparing itself to other stereo effects which can lead a track to sound “muddy and unbalanced”, Stereo promises to beef up tracks whilst keeping it sounding gorgeous.
Andrew says: “This is a super basic plugin but one that I reach for quite often. It’s just got one control: to make things wider in stereo field.“
Andrew’s pro tip: For a super wide sound that still sounds good, try using two simultaneous versions of Stereo at 100% rather than one at 200%.
This plugin tows the line between effect and synth. It is granular effect that offers an intense amount of attention to detail for the user in its interface (hence the complicated) but as Andrew says, you can jump in and play with the sounds without needing to understand fully how every function works.
Add Ribs to a track and then send some audio into it to allow it to receive a sound that it can manipulate and play with in a variety of ways. You control the speed of the sample down to a complete stop and then even further back into reverse. There are then controls for filter, amplitude, and envelope to expand the sounds you create further.
Andrew says: “One of my all-time favourite ways to play with audio is using granular processing and I think my favourite free granular plugin is Ribs. This is a really complicated plugin; It doesn’t have to be complicated, you can ignore half the interface if you want. I still haven’t fully wrapped my mind around how all of it works.”
This isn’t a single plugin but a huge marketplace of brilliant audio plugins, many of which are generously provided for free. There are a number of free instrument plugins for free on their site, particularly from their MDrummer range of software. When it comes to effects, you can have a field day browsing all that is on offer at no cost from Melda.
Andrew says: “I feel like they’ve been around forever. I would say about half of their plugins are free and regardless, all of their plugins are super high quality, they give you a lot of fine control over parameters. I think they sound great.”
One man and many, many brilliant plugins. Supported by Patreon, the creator of these plugins – Chris Johnson – makes all of the amazing plugins he creates available for free. There’s no user interface to look at, so no airs about the appearance will be found here. Instead you will find incredibly functional and brilliant sounding plugins with simple parameters to control your sound.
Andrew says: “One thing about Airwindows plugins is that there’s no user interface, you’re basically just looking at grey boxes with sliders and numbers inside them and Chris does this so that he can focus entirely on how they sound and on making tonnes and tonnes of plugins.”
An Ableton favourite compression unit with multiband upwards and downwards compression inside. A favourite amongst electronic producers, this sweet sounding effects plugin was so popular that it’s creators – Xfer – had to make a version available for creators outside of Ableton. Oh, and they made it free!
Andrew says: “It just completely squishes all the bands so that no matter what you put through it, it’s kinda got this really hyped up, squeezed, compressed, super-excited sound.”
Got any free favourites that you couldn’t live (make music) without? Share the love in the comments below and let people know what you use that isn’t leaving a dent in your wallet.