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Harmony Central: Red Shift

The Harmony Central site offers one of the largest collections of freeware and shareware software for musicians on a variety of platforms.The Harmony Central site offers one of the largest collections of freeware and shareware software for musicians on a variety of platforms.

Derek Johnson & Debbie Poyser take you through some of the vast quantities of useful music‑related software available for next to nothing on the Internet.

One of the most fruitful aspects of the Internet is the amount of free software and almost‑free shareware to be found. There's tons of the stuff, including enough music‑ and audio‑related programs to keep a computer freak happy for weeks. Indeed, if you're not already connected to the Internet, you could find that it's worth shelling out on a modem and service‑provider subscription just to access this treasure trove of software.

Even the larger programs, occupying three or four megabytes of hard disk space, usually take no more than 20 minutes to download, with the benefit of file compression (the official figure is about five minutes for 1Mb of material, using a 28.8 modem under ideal conditions). So although you've got to add the telephone time into the equation, net‑sourced programs are still incredibly cost‑effective. Subscribers to Cable & Wireless' telephone service are even better off, since the company periodically offers a 50p flat fee for non‑local calls of any duration every Saturday. It is necessary to get a non‑local access number from your service provider and use this on Saturdays, rather than the local number most provide these days, but you could literally stay online all day for half a quid. (Maybe we shouldn't have told you that...) Cable & Wireless subscribers also receive 100 free evening local call minutes every month, which is great for Internetting. And no, Cable & Wireless have not sponsored this column, or us!

Centralised Sites

An impressive collection of synth patches and editors can be downloaded from the Red Shift site.An impressive collection of synth patches and editors can be downloaded from the Red Shift site.

Some sites make life a lot easier for the musician by grouping together much of the decent software, allowing you to download from one place. One such site is Harmony Central (www.harmony‑, which features a very good shareware section with an area devoted to each computer platform — even Amiga, Unix, DOS and the alternative Mac operating system BeOS! The site is excellent for Mac and PC users, but not quite as good for those with Atari or Amiga computers, as for these platforms it simply tells you where to go for the listed software, rather than archiving it for download. Still, it doesn't take long to click on a link...

The Shareware Music Machine ( bills itself as "The World's Biggest Shareware Music Software Site", and does indeed feature a huge selection. The programs available are divided, by platform, into categories such as Audio, Computer Synthesizers and Sound Generators, Instrumental (software with a drum or guitar bias, plus tuners and metronomes), Keyboards (editors and librarians), MIDI, Sound Cards and Device Drivers, and more. There are some slightly more off‑the‑wall categories than you might find elsewhere — sub‑categories feature algorithmic composition and esoteric music programs, and there's also a section for Music Skills software. The Miscellaneous section contains useful related programs such as the PC‑based Write Express Rhymer and Phonetic Finder, which could come in useful for songwriting and might save you buying a rhyming dictionary! Shareware Music Machine puts in a pretty good showing for Atari users too, though overall it's sometimes hard to tell from the listings what's a commercial software demo and what's free.

MIDIFarm ( is a fun, wide‑ranging music site with a decent selection of free downloads — including, in the Mac section, a free mix automation program (V‑MIX 1.9.25), which is designed to work with a wide range of off‑the‑shelf fader‑to‑MIDI converters and MIDI‑controlled gain devices. Other sites worth looking at that provide a centralised list of free or shareware programs include Synth Zone ( and Music Search ( The bigger centralised sites carry all the front‑running shareware programs, such as the D‑SoundPRO, SoundEffects, SoundHack and SndSampler digital recording and editing suites, the comprensive MIDIGraphy sequencer, and software synths such as Syd, OutOfPhase and GrainWave.

Of course, musicians don't use their computers only for music, and if you're on the lookout for other free software, is worth a look. It's a kind of shareware search engine, which allows you to search, by computer platform, on key words of your choice. Using this site to look for music‑related programs did actually unearth a shareware program we hadn't seen elsewhere — VSamp, which "turns a Mac into a multitimbral sample playback module".

Out On The Links

Redshift's Synth Editors and Patches ( is a site with links to, as you'd expect, editors and patch collections for MIDI synths. There's nothing stored on the site itself, but the links are comprehensive and appear to be well maintained. MIDI instruments and other devices from virtually every manufacturer are included, and platforms supported include Amiga and Atari, as well as Mac and Windows.

Head to the the MIDI Music Web Site (‑112005) if you'd like to get some instant background to making music with MIDI in general. The site has a PC bias, but the healthy collection of software links doesn't discriminate against the Mac or Atari.

Another good all‑rounder is the Digital Sound Page (; the main focus here is another comprehensive set of active links to software of all kinds (including VST plug‑ins) for PC and Mac users — the lists freely mix commercial as well as shareware links, but freeware and shareware packages are usually labelled as such.

Free Plug‑Ins

Users of Steinberg's Cubase VST and, indeed, any application that supports VST's plug‑in architecture (including Emagic's Logic Audio family) are very well served by the Internet. There are lots of free and shareware plug‑ins available:

  • Australian band Vellocet are taking the lead with their collection of free plug‑ins, all of which are available for both Mac and PC, with the PC versions also handily configured as a single, all‑in‑one download. The range currently consists of VNoiseGate, a noise gate with envelope; VPingPong, a tempo‑related stereo delay with high‑, low‑ and band‑pass filters; VFlanger, a flanger with left and right phase control; and VNoPhones, a "binaural spatialisation experiment". The new VReorder plug‑in lets you scramble and re‑order chunks of sound — definitely one to experiment with. Catch the Vellocet freebies at
  • Syncromesh Software offers the KwikKomp compressor free to both PC and Mac users. This plug‑in features variable attack and release times, hard‑knee peak compression, and a useful gain reduction meter. Snatch it from
  • Thomas Rehaag obviously takes a lot of pride in his set of colourful, good‑looking, PC‑only plug‑ins. They include SYNC1.02, a "sequencer with analogue sounds", AUM, a low‑pass filter with resonance that Thomas compares to Steinberg's Trancemitter, and the PSI phaser/flanger. Find them at‑rehaagth/tr.htm.
  • Dave Brown's freeware Tempo Delay resembles VST's stereo echo. You dial in a song's tempo and note value and Tempo Delay calculates the correct delay time for you. His free Sweep Delay also uses tempo‑based editing, but adds programmable auto‑panning. On the shareware front, Dave offers ProDelay, which features a range of filter options, fine tempo control, and tempo‑based auto‑panning of both delay channels; registration of these shareware plug‑ins also gets you ProDelayLite, a stripped‑down ProDelay for use as a channel insert effect. All these options are available for Mac or PC; currently PC‑only is Dave's Compressor, a straightforward mono compressor/limiter which uses very little CPU power. If you want a little bit more, the shareware ProComp, again currently PC only, is a true stereo compressor/expander with cross‑channel triggering and de‑essing. Go to
  • The excellent free North Pole filter is currently for Mac, though a beta PC version was recently released. It was developed by two people from Prosoniq, and can be downloaded from North Pole is a 24dB/octave, four‑pole low‑ or band‑pass filter, with controls for cutoff frequency and resonance, adjustable envelope follower, distortion, and basic digital delay.
  • Fraser Stuart altruistically gives away his plug‑ins, and they're available for both Mac and PC. Fraser notes on his web page that none other than Karl Steinberg assisted in the Mac port, which must be some sort of testimonial! The range consists of a Peak/RMS Compressor, a Shelf EQ, a Tube Warmth Overdrive, high‑pass and low‑pass filters, Line Trim and a Phase Switch. Not the most exciting of plug‑ins, perhaps, but potentially very useful, especially in VST systems equipped with multiple outputs. Point your browser at
  • Bo Johanson has a page ( devoted to his PC‑only Cubase VST plug‑ins, which include the BJ Flanger, BJ Overdrive, BJ Ringmodulator, BJ Tremolo and more. The world of bespoke VST plug‑ins is a new one, and Bo's examples are newer than most — the latest versions of some of his plug‑ins were released as we wrote this piece!
  • Frenchman Vincent Burel has an eccentric collection of plug‑ins for VST and Wavelab on the PC; we're not PC users, so we can't even begin to guess what Ping Pong Disto 1.0 does, although Vincent says that "this filter allows you to make funny things with voices, guitar, synth and what you want..." Likewise, Megatrancer 1.0 is a quick filter which "allows you to transform sound tone. Specially made for voices, it could be nice with drums." More explicable are Stereoizer 1.0 (turn mono sound into stereo), D Limiter 1.0 (specially designed to let you "do anything with levels and effects without "craaaAAAaaack" and distortion"), and Karakao 1.0, which appears to let you eliminate the central sound from a stereo waveform (ie. eliminate the vocals, for instant karaoke).If you like what you're reading, go to webperso.alma‑
  • There are a couple of free plug‑ins available from Arboretum, makers of the sophisticated commercial Hyperprism plug‑in family. Mac VST users can download free low‑pass filter, high‑pass filter and ring modulator plug‑ins. For PC users, there are DirectX compatible ring modulator, echo and vibrato plug‑ins, and Mac owners running Premiere‑compatible audio software can take advantage of free low‑pass filter and echo plug‑ins. Visit

A portion of Steinberg's web site maintains a full list of all currently available plug‑ins (commercial as well as freebie), which is an excellent reference if you want to keep tabs on the plug‑in situation and make sure you don't miss anything. It's a great place to start, and can be found at

The Steinberg site ( also offers the free Chopper PC plug‑in, though you have to part with your email address (so that Steinberg can mail you with their news) in order to get it.

Freeware VS Shareware

If you're new to sourcing software on the Internet, you'll come across two terms rather frequently: shareware and freeware. In the first instance, you're able to download a piece of software, try it out for a fixed period, and if you like it, send the author a registration fee — usually no more than US$40 or so, though it can be more, and the average is probably in the US$15‑US$25 range (that's about £9 to £15 in old money). Quite often, registering will provide extra features or unlock inaccessible functions (such as saving your work!), and it will certainly provide the author with the incentive to carry on writing or developing software. Most of all, you'll get quality software for a fraction of the price of fully commercial software, with a no‑risk trial period. If you find a given piece of software is no use to you, you should really delete it from your hard drive.

There are systems in place to make paying for shareware as painless as possible. Of course, you could send the dosh to the author directly, but often the author will turn over the collection/distribution chores over to a central service — KAGI is a notable example. These systems allow registration by credit card over the Internet, if you're happy with this method, or it's possible to simply send a money order (registration is mostly in US dollars) to the service's postal address.

Freeware is distributed in the same way as shareware, but the authors of this family of software are either generous individuals, too busy to process shareware fees, or too realistic, cynical or jaded to expect anyone to pay for something they've downloaded from the Internet. One point to remember: freeware may be free, but most of the time, it is not free of copyright. The author usually retains all rights regarding exploitation of his or her work.