Thanks to the Internet and the generosity of talented programmers all over the world, it's possible to assemble a PC music software suite for no money at all. We round up some of the best download sites and freebie programs.
There's an amazing selection of PC software available for free download, but with so much to choose from, and the fact that many musicians trying it don't have the chance to compare it with commercial packages, it's sometimes hard to tell what's good and what's not. Moreover, I've noticed a lot of snobbery about, of both varieties — some professional musicians look down their noses at freeware, dismissing it all as rubbish, while on the other hand there are beginners who use freeware downloads almost exclusively to get started, and who think the vast majority of commercial releases are not worth the money.
As always, the truth falls somewhere in between these two extremes. Certainly, while there are some freeware 'my first plug-ins' to be found that are likely to be quickly discarded by most people, there are also some absolute gems in the freeware world. So this feature will be a roundup of free PC software that doesn't quite merit a full stand-alone SOS review and doesn't fall neatly into Plug-in Folder, but deserves more than a quick mention in PC Notes.
One of the biggest problems with freeware is knowing where to look for it on the Internet. With millions of web sites worldwide and the majority of freeware tucked away on its creator's personal pages, it's hardly surprising that many excellent releases go almost unnoticed. However, there are, fortunately, some Internet portals — web sites acting as themed gateways to many others — that can help us.
One of the best for soft synths and plug-ins is K-v-R (www.kvr-vst.com), which posts regular information about new commercial, shareware, and freeware music software releases of all types, and maintains a database of instruments, effects, and their host applications, with an advanced search engine to find specific types — so you can, for instance, choose 'synth (wavetable)' or 'Exciter/Enhancer' to narrow your findings. It also hosts about three dozen forums supporting the users of products from a wide selection of the smaller developers.
If you're specifically looking for freeware, the best site I've come across in my travels is one called Database Audio (www.databaseaudio.co.uk), which not only covers Mac and PC Windows offerings, but also Linux. There are plenty of plug-ins and soft synths to explore here, and you can also find some intriguing stand-alone applications. I personally like its list format, with a few sentences plus one tiny image of each release, which often leads you to finds that you might not otherwise have made. The main page shows a list of the latest additions, while buttons across the top lead you to the full lists of plug-ins (including soft synths), applications, and online instruments (in formats such as Flash, Java, and Shockwave). A user chart shows the top 20 most popular downloads of the moment.
If your interest lies in multimedia players, MPEGX (www.mpegx.com) is a useful port of call, as it has lists of audio and video rippers, encoders, players, recorders, editors, CD and DVD burners, and utilities, as well as links to full versions of related applications, such as Ahead's Nero.
A more general-purpose site is HitSquad's Shareware Music Machine (www.hitsquad.com/smm), which has a huge categorised list of software ranging from audio editors to wavetable emulators for a variety of platforms, not only including Mac and Windows, but also BeOS, Linux, OS/2, and Atari. However, I always find this site frustratingly slow to use, partly because its policy of including lots of time-limited and restricted demos of commercial software makes searching for freeware very time-consuming, and partly because of the number of pop-up ads that slow your progress. Nevertheless, since there are a vast number of items to download, you'll probably find things here that you wouldn't elsewhere.
Yet another one to try is The Sonic Spot (www.sonicspot.com). This site has a far smaller collection of plug-ins and soft synths, but a good range of older software such as hardware synth patch editing and stand-alone utilities. It's also quick to use, with clearly displayed file sizes and software status (demo, shareware or freeware).
There are now various commercial DIY soft synth creator packages available, including the very popular Reaktor from Native Instruments and Tassman from AAS. Users of both of these can download lots of additional instruments and effects from a variety of web sites, designed by both their developers and other users, but of course you do need to buy the package in the first place to take advantage of these, and to run it as a host before loading in your modules.
A rather different approach is taken by Jeff Mclintock's SynthEdit (www.synthedit.com), which is a very reasonably priced ($20) shareware package for designing your own soft synths and VST effects, playing them live via MIDI, and recording, playing back and treating live audio. It's primarily aimed at advanced users and is available in two versions to suit Windows 98/ME or Windows XP, NT and 2000. The 2.1MB download file contains a tutorial to help you get started. There's also an optional SDK (Software Development Kit) for those who want to go the whole hog and create additional low-level SynthEdit modules to perform new functions. Over 50 of these have been contributed to the web site by talented users. There's a thriving SynthEdit Yahoo newsgroup, a dedicated SynthEdit community, and a K-v-R users' forum.
So far, SynthEdit is similar in concept to Reaktor and Tassman. The big difference is that its designs run without SynthEdit being present, so its users can distribute them as freeware, donationware (where those who want to show their appreciation of the work that's gone into the end product can make an optional donation to the author via Paypal), or as full commercial products, like Boomedia's Studio Weapons, reviewed in SOS August 2003.
Moreover, since the host application and its various toolbars isn't required, the user interface can be as conventional or radical as your graphic skills permit. Users have already made knob-creation tools, a 'skin' assembler and font editors to help others with the design process, and the results speak for themselves. Of particular merit are the stunning freeware designs by Spanish developer group Elogoxa (www.elogoxa.net), including a virtual recreation of Bob Fripp's 'Frippertronics' delay using two Revox B77 tape machines running a continuous tape loop. Elottronix XL looks wonderful (see the screen at the start of this article) and offers up to 80 seconds of delay, plus LFO pan, Biquad X filtering and a tape-noise generator. Other offerings include the highly unusual distortion and feedback synth effects offered by 'The Devil Inside', a mastering X-Cita inspired by BBE's Sonic Maximiser, and the vintage style Baxxpander to add warmth and saturation effects. However, for me the highlight is Sun Ra, a free-running or keyboard-controlled VST Instrument that creates complex ambient textures from samples originating from real solar sources. Wonderful!
At the other end of the scale, but nevertheless extremely useful, is Wally Cescato's MIDI Data Monitor (www.freewebs.com/wallyaudio), which loads as a VSTi and displays incoming MIDI note, aftertouch, pitch-bend and controller data on four 'LEDs', as well as providing a scrolling data display in text form. This is ideal when you're trying to sort out why there's no sound coming from your VSTis in Cubase, for instance, or for examining incoming MIDI controller data to see why it's not altering the synth parameter you expected.
In all, there must be well over a hundred freeware offerings from a wide variety of SynthEdit developers, and I must mention those of SOS reader and forum contributor Oli Larkin, who first brought the SynthEdit range to my attention. He has 14 on his web site (www.oli.adbe.org). My favourite is the complex yet subtle Dronebox, with six tuned resonators and sub-oscillator that can turn a guitar into a sitar or a drum track into chordal Eastern trance.
Overall, apart from the slightly greater CPU overhead inevitable with all modular designs compared to hard-wired creations, SynthEdit designs can and do look and sound wonderful. Jeff Mclintock doesn't even demand a credit alongside products created with it, although he does appreciate one. Consider it done, Jeff!
Most musicians will, by now, have heard about convolution reverb, the technique that captures the sound of a real acoustic space as an impulse response (IR) file and then uses it as a digital audio effect, either in hardware or plug-in form. This results in significantly more realistic reverbs than those created using an algorithmic model, albeit normally at the expense of rather more processing power. This same technology is also now routinely used to capture the particular non-linearities of preamps, microphones, compressors, speakers and their cabinets, and even the sound of software-designed virtual spaces.
However, while the 'big boys' release extremely clever but expensive plug-ins that can modify the initial impulse files in various ways, the maths for straightforward impulse reverb playback is well known, and many users are beginning to find that the quality of the original impulse responses is arguably more important than the playback engine. In other words, a significant part of the cost of commercial convolution reverbs is down to the huge effort involved in creating IRs from world-class acoustic spaces for the bundled library.
With this in mind, PC users are lucky to have a freeware VST plug-in available for IR playback. After over a year in Beta form, during which time it gained an enthusiastic following, Christian Knufinke's SIR (Super Impulse Response) has recently jumped to version 1.005. You can download it from the author's web site at www.knufinke.de/sir.
Using SIR is simplicity itself. You just click the Open File button on the right-hand side to load in an impulse file in standard 16-, 24-, or 32-bit WAV format. Its waveform then appears in the graphic window and you can start auditioning it. Beneath the window is a set of sliders. These control pre-delay, apply a basic graphic envelope to the impulse response (to remove part of its Attack for a smoother effect), add Envelope decay characteristics to simulate a smaller space, or change the Length of the impulse using gating, either to minimise CPU overhead or for special effects.
Further versatility is provided by the Stretch control. This alters the original sample's length, and hence the effective room size, between 50 percent and 150 percent. There are also width controls for both the input signal and IR output, and a Reverse button for those backwards effects. There's even a free-form eight-point graphic filter at the bottom to let you draw in your own EQ for the wet signal.
Mixing is handled by a pair of Dry and Wet sliders with peak-reading meters alongside, whose caps flash if you run into clipping. There's also an Auto Gain option and a 12dB boost to cope with low-level impulse files. Very handy Reset buttons are provided for the IR and EQ sections, to return all their controls to the default positions.
After downloading some impulse files to accompany SIR (see later), I was most impressed by the results. Like all convolution reverbs, it's incredibly versatile — if you don't like what you hear you just try another impulse, and keep trying until you find the one that's most suitable for your track. I find the Stretch control effective, within limits, for fine-tuning the apparent size of the space, although metallic and lumpy artifacts can kick in at more extreme settings. Used carefully, the Attack control also proves handy for reducing early reflections, while the Envelope effectively shortens the Decay Time. The Length control must be used carefully to avoid artificial-sounding truncated tails, but it's perfect for gated reverb effects that make drums sound huge without swamping them in reverb.
For straightforward playback of IR reverbs, SIR sounds very good to me, and the CPU overhead on my P4 2.8GHz PC was also modest, rarely exceeding six percent with 16-bit/44.1kHz impulses, compared with about four and half percent for the Waves Rverb and up to nine percent for PSP's EasyVerb. If your PC is much slower than this, SIR has a Dynamic CPU Consumption mode that seems to reduce overhead once the reverb tail has dropped to silence and calculations are therefore no longer required, without audible degradation. If you still find the CPU overhead too taxing on your PC, you can always use the 'freeze track' function of your sequencer to capture audio tracks complete with reverb.
The only limitation is that SIR imposes a fixed 8960-sample latency, which equates to 203ms at 44.1kHz. While this is huge, multitrack applications such as Cubase SX 2.0 compensate for it automatically, and latency won't normally worry anyone running a mastering application such as Wavelab. Only those whose applications are without automatic compensation should find this latency a problem, and even then it's possible to tackle it with a utility such as the AnalogX Sample Slide, as I described in SOS April 2004. However, SIR is not suitable for use as an effect during the recording process, and a few users have also apparently found instability problems while using it, although you can always remove it from your VST Plug-ins folder if this happens.
- AnalogX (www.analogx.com) provides a wide range of really handy utilities including DXMan for managing DirectX plug-ins, BitPolice for analysing what a DX plug-in is doing to your audio stream, MIDI Mouse Mod for mouse control of up to four simultaneous MIDI controllers, and DriveTime, which sits on your taskbar providing a read-out of remaining hard disk space in hours and minutes at a particular sample rate and bit depth.
- Anvil Studio (www.anvilstudio.com) from Willow Software is a sequencer offering comprehensive MIDI support, with staff, lyric, piano roll, drum and event editors, plus limited stereo audio support, although an optional $19 add-on extends this to eight audio tracks. It runs on all Windows versions right back to Win 95.
- Converter, from urr Sound Technologies Inc (www.urr.ca), is a DOS-only application designed as a system for sophisticated real-time MIDI performances, with an advanced MIDI input processor, audio to MIDI converter, gameport or joystick to MIDI converter, and mouse or touchpad to MIDI converter. You can use it with most elderly PCs, from an absolute minimum of a 486DX 33MHz, with the addition of an MPU401 interface or a soundcard such as a SoundBlaster or Gravis Ultrasound.
- MusicGraph, by Paul Nelson, (https://gigue.peabody.jhu.edu/~pnelson/welcome.html) is a visual tool for exploring the content of modern compositions. It takes a MIDI file and produces coloured graphs of interval content, total volume, notes per second, intensity and dissonance.
- Nero's CD-DVD Speed (www.cdspeed2000.com) is a handy 471K benchmark utility that tests the most important features of your CD or DVD drive. Various other related freeware utilities are also available on the same download page.
- Steem (https://steem.atari.st) is a freeware Atari STE Emulator that's claimed to run the vast majority of ST software without problems, including games and MIDI music applications.
Impulse files themselves are also freely available for download at various web sites, the most notable being the Noise Vault (www.noisevault.com). This now has hundreds of offerings from lots of different contributors. Understandably, given that it's far easier to get access to old hardware than to set up mics and speakers in halls, studios and churches, these largely consist of impulses captured from reverbs and other devices from the likes of Alesis, EMT, Eventide, Kurzweil, Lexicon, Quantec, Roland, TC Electronic and Yamaha, plus a small range of real spaces, mics, preamps and speaker cabinets.
The downloads are generally packs of several 16-bit/44.1kHz IRs totaling several Megabytes in size. They vary in quality considerably, with some being clean and clear while others are noisy. As might be expected, there are more Lexicons than anything else, but gems from other manufacturers can also be found in the collection.
Noise Vault also has active forums, with lots of helpful information on capturing your own impulses, as well as how to convert other formats to the standard WAV used by SIR, among others. This data will be particularly useful to users of Sonic Foundry's (now Sony Media Software) Acoustic Mirror tool, who already have a good library of impulse files in SFI format but often experience much higher CPU overheads when using Acoustic Mirror than they do using SIR as a plug-in in their chosen MIDI + Audio sequencer.
Other packs of impulses are available free from various web sites, including Echo Chamber's German-only site (www.echochamber.ch). There's a large library from Prosoniq (www.prosoniq.com) in HQX format for Mac users (although the free Stuffit Expander utility, downloadable from www.stuffit.com, will happily expand these files for PC users); the complete set of Acoustic Mirror Impulses from Sony Media Software (https://mediasoftware. sonypictures.com); and four banks from Voxengo (www.voxengo.com), this time of virtual (imaginary) spaces created with the Impulse Modeler application that I first mentioned in PC Notes October 2002.
For the last 17 years, various Tracker applications have helped generate hundreds of original sample-based songs in a compact file format, and PC users can now access them free of charge, as well as creating their own. Way back in 1987, Karsten Obarski came up with his SoundTracker software for Commodore's Amiga platform, which provided hardware support for playing back up to four samples simultaneously at differing sample rates.
By today's standards, SoundTracker was a fairly basic step sequencer with four channels. New samples could be triggered at any step on each of the channels, with data displayed in a four-column format and entered using the computer keyboard. The resulting four-channel Patterns were then chained together via a master list to form songs in MOD (module) format, consisting of the song data plus the various samples that had been used.
Despite these limitations, complex drum tracks could still be built up by interleaving samples in the same channel, leaving the other three channels for bass, melody line, and other accompaniment. For much music this proved perfectly adequate, although many musicians resorted to sampling a selection of chords to fill the sound out. Many other special commands were also available to enter into a step position in addition to the note data, such as tempo changes, volume changes and pitch bends, to provide more expressive capabilities.
This step-editing process might sound tedious, but a huge number of Amiga musicians rose to the challenge of making the most of this 4-voice polyphonic sampler package to add music to demos and computer games, in the process perfecting techniques for incorporating effects such as echo and gating.
When PCs first came of age for music making in the mid '90s, ScreamTracker (www.hitsquad.com/smm/programs/Scream_Tracker) was one of the first music software packages to appear with sample support, followed by the still popular Fast Tracker 2 (www.gwinternet.com/music/ft2), Impulse Tracker (www.noisemusic.org/it), and MadTracker (www.madtracker.org).
Fortunately, by this stage MIDI support had been added to most trackers, so you could play in your tunes in 'real time' from a music keyboard rather than entering them as step data from the computer keyboard, while the four-track limit was removed in PC trackers; a greater number of tracks could be mixed down to stereo using a software re-sampling engine. ScreamTracker supports up to 16 channels and sample sizes up to 64K, while FastTracker offers 32 channels and Impulse Tracker offers 64, as well as supporting much larger sample files, of up to 2MB. Other new features also appeared, such as software reverb and surround sound effects, although using them will make your songs sound different when played back on other trackers.
Despite the number of loop-based sequencers available today — Acid and Live, for example — trackers are still immensely popular, because they are compact and easy to learn and use. They're also often free to download, and there are many existing MOD files with relatively small file sizes available for free download (it's possible to create melodies from one single-note sample and complex songs using just a few hundred kilobytes of samples).
MOD files can be downloaded from quite a few sites. One of the largest must be the Mod Archive (www.modarchive.com), which houses nearly 12GB of files, as well as hosting various tracker-related forums. Music can be found in a huge variety of styles, although electronica abounds. I found a nice collection of modern dance, trance, rave house, and synth pop music by 'Otis' at www.xs4all.nl/~perseus during my travels, but you are never likely to run out of MOD files to download — a Google search for 'mod file downloads' turned up over a million links.
If you're specifically interested in soundtracks ripped from computer games, Game Music Base (www.mirsoft.info/gmb) has a huge collection in many different formats, including MOD, although some of the earlier Amiga ones don't sound quite the same on the PC, to my ears at least. If you just want to play back these archive songs, you don't even need a full tracker — MOD Players such as the 334K MODPlug (www.modplug.com) are perfectly adequate for this task (you can download yet more MOD files at this web site), while the popular WinAmp player (www.winamp.com) will also play back MOD files, as well as other formats. MOD Players are also generally more stable than trackers, in my experience.
If you're concerned about installing freeware plug-ins and soft synths from unknown developers, in case they have any effect on the stability of your PC, remember that those in VST format can simply be deleted from your VST plug-ins folder if they cause any trouble. However, one way to ensure that you don't have any such problems is to download the 'freebies' kindly provided by some commercial developers. Here are a few that I've found useful:
- IK Multimedia (www.sampletank.com): SampleTank Free 1.1 plus 20 free instrument files.
- Native Instruments (www.native-instruments.net): SoundForum soft synth, Traktor DJ Player.
- OtsZone (https://otslabs.com): Ots CD Scratch 1200, Ots Turntables Free.
- PSP (www.pspaudioware.com): PianoVerb, VintageMeter.
- Sony Media Software (https://mediasoftware.sonypictures.com): ACID XPress
- Voxengo (www.voxengo.com): OldSkoolVerb, EssEQ, Tempo Delay, Tube Amp VST.
- Yamaha (www.yamahasynth.com/download/twe.html): TWE Wave Editor v2.31.
Although there are some wonderful commercial stereo audio editors and mastering packages available for PC users, not everyone needs their vast arsenal of functions; nor can they afford their price tags.
Enter Audacity (https://audacity.sourceforge.net), a free audio editor for Windows, Mac OS9/X and Linux users. Originally started in 1999 by Dominic Mazzoni while he was still at college, its code is now open-source freeware and several dozen developers around the world collaborate to add new features.
Audacity is only a tiny 2.6MB download, but despite this it has lots of features and offers a choice of 20 languages for its menu text. The program can import and export WAV, AIFF, AU, Ogg Vorbis and MP3 files, and supports 16-bit, 24-bit, and 32-bit float formats at up to 96kHz. It provides a familiar graphic editing environment, with a main waveform display and a set of toolbars across the top, although these can be floated if you prefer.
The Control Toolbar contains attractive transport controls, plus a set of tools that includes the usual Selection, Draw and Zoom tools, plus a well-coded Envelope tool for changing volume over time, TimeShift for moving tracks left or right, and a clever Multi tool that lets you access any of these, depending on the location of the mouse and the keys you hold down.
The Edit toolbar has 11 buttons, all with familiar functions. The unlimited Undo/Redo functions, in particular, are welcome. The Mixer toolbar lets you set playback level, along with input source and recording level if your soundcard uses the standard Windows mixer.
So far, so good. But when you really start examining the various menus, you realise just how much Audacity has to offer. Loop enthusiasts will appreciate the way the Zero Crossings function modifies the start and end points of a selection to avoid clicks, as well as the variable-threshold Beatfinder, while the Effect menu is a revelation, with several dozen treatments on offer, including compressor, EQ and FFT filtering with click-and drag graphic interface, pitch, speed, and tempo changing, plus many others with a simpler slider-only interface.
There's even a Noise Reduction treatment that uses a noise profile. While this produced fairly obvious chirpy artifacts with the samples I tried, it proved to be a wonderful effect at extreme settings! As with Sound Forge, you can preview each effect before applying it off-line.
In a similar way to Wavelab 's Montage functions, Audacity 's Project menu lets you import, record and play back multiple audio tracks for subsequent mixdown into a single stereo stream. You can even import raw data, add or import text labels and load in and display MIDI files, although MIDI playback, recording and editing are still destined for a future release of the software. The Generate menu can create 30-second files containing test tones, white noise, silence and a handy audio click-track at any bpm rate.
I was extremely impressed with Audacity, but it has a few limitations worth mentioning. Firstly, it doesn't import audio tracks from audio CDs, although there are various other freeware utilities that can do this if it's something you need to do, and to export MP3 files you'll need a suitable encoder, such as the freeware LAME, which can be found via links from www.mp3-converter.com/ encoders/lame_encoder2.htm.
For most musicians it will also be frustrating not to be able to use any of their DirectX or VST effect plug-ins, although there is a partial workaround — the optional VST Enabler plug-in for use with Audacity isn't built in, for licensing reasons, but it can be downloaded separately and dragged into Audacity 's own Plug-Ins folder, along with any VST plug-ins you want to use. It certainly works, but the current version of the Enabler ignores the graphic interface from each plug-in, instead replacing it with a generic 'slider and text box' window. Simple plug-ins are still usable under these circumstances, but for more complex ones it's mighty frustrating. Let's hope the promised upgrade with full graphic plug-in support will appear soon.
Although I was fully expecting to report plenty of interesting free downloads when I first started working on this feature, I was still amazed at some of the things I found in my travels. I hope this roundup has whetted your appetite, as well as proving that free software can sometimes be surprisingly capable. I'm certain much of the software here could actually be sold on a commercial basis if its developers so wished, and given the huge amount of time it takes to develop (I know — I used to be a software author myself in a former existence) it would be great if users would support them, where appropriate, with a donation.
Since I deliberately restricted myself to freeware on this occasion, there's still a whole world of excellent low-cost PC shareware out there that I haven't yet mentioned, and I hope to cover some of the best in a future feature.