We have our DAW and maybe some gear. One perfectly valid strategy is to simply use the included plugins in your DAW of choice. If you’re using Reaper, then it has all you need to learn with for now. Master that stuff, and come back here when you’re bored with it. Whenever that is.
If you want some external synths and effects, please go easy! It’s really tempting to get a bunch of synths, thinking, “I AM POWERFUL! SEE MY SYNTH ARMY AND WEEP!”
But the only one doing the weeping will be you. Because you won’t know which freakin’ synth to use. You may even forget which ones you have.
Get one plug-in or synth at a time, learn it, know it in and out, then it’s okay to get the next one, if you need it.
Some of the best artists limit their choices to free up their creativity. “I’m only going to paint with blue.” “I’m only going to draw dudes bowling.” “I’m only going to write angry songs about my ex.” In your case, how about, “I’m only going to use one synth?” Try to stick to that for at least a month.
Here are a few good starter synths, and they’re all free:
- Synth1 (download) is great because it’s really deep and sounds great, even if it’s kind of ugly. (English manual here.) It also comes in 64-bit version if you have to.
- Podolski by u-He is an excellent virtual analog (VA) synth.
- So is Tyrell N6 V3 (which you can download here, scroll down to the “Download XXX Version” links in the middle of the page.)
- Zebralette is a smaller version of u-He’s Zebra, but it’s useful in its own right.
- Togu Audio Line’s TAL-U-NO-62 is a lot of fun.
- Their Noisemaker is also a lot of fun.
- Tone2’s Firebird synth is free (32-bit only.)
- FreeAlpha is a cut-down version of LinPlug’s Alpha synth (click on downloads, then look for FreeAlpha.)
- There are more at this article on the best free virtual analog synth plugins over at the Bedroom Producer’s Blog.
Get a Few Free Effects
What goes for synths goes double for effects. Go easy on the effects, because there are even more effects out there than synths. How many reverbs is enough? One, maybe two for now. Same goes for compressors, limiters, gates, and EQ. If what you’re trying to learn isn’t in the effect you’re using, then by all means, keep looking, but know when to stop and go back to making music.
So, here are some good sources for free plugin effects:
- GVST has a ton of free effects plugins. (They have synths, too.) Their effects plugins are great for learning the basics, because they don’t fill up your screen with a lot of crap. They don’t necessarily sound the best, but they’ll do the job for now.
- The KVR Developer Challenge is where devs go all out, make free plugins, and fight for prizes. It’s a great way to look for something new/free/cool.
- Also, check out KVR’s list of the most popular plugins, and check out the Free category.
- Also check out their Free News category, for the latest on free plugins.
- Xfer Records has a page full of free effects to play with.
- Limiter No. 6 is awesome, too. Download here.
- George Yohng’s W1 Limiter is a nice Waves L1-style limiter for free.
- Tokyo Dawn Records has some really good free effects, and some you can buy.
- Voxengo has a nice selection offree effects plugins.
- Audio Damage’s Rough Rider is a great free creative compressor. It adds a lot of squash, dirt, and crunch to sounds. It’s really good on percussion sounds you don’t like.
- Luftikus is an awesome free equalizer that’s similar to the Maag EQ (download). It even has an “Air Band,” which will make everything sound like it was made at 11.
- The Klanghelm IVGI Saturation and Distortion plugin adds some warmth and grit.
- Sound on Sound has a list of their favorite free plugins, too.
- Drummic’a from Sennheiser, available only from their German Site, is an incredible drum library. It comes with the free version of the Kontakt player. Grab a buddy who can sprechen Deutsch, and go at it. You’ll need to register with the site, activate it by email, then use the code for activating the sounds. It comes as a Kontakt library, but it’s awesome. And it’s free! We like free! (And it’s by Sennheiser, who make great mics!)
I’ll add more as I find them. There’s a staggering number of good free plugins out there.
Or, if you own Native Instruments’ Reaktor, Max For Live, or Plogue’s Bidule, you can make your own Synths and plugins, and save a ton of money. (Minus the cost of the programming environment, of course!)
Samples, Patches, and Instruments
This is a short section, because it links to some massive content. (Pun intended.)
This Reddit thread that contains an insane amount of drum samples and Massive patches should tide you over for a while. It’s useful more for the drum samples than the Massive patches, because we’re cheap here.
Here’s another Reddit thread on readers’ favorite free VST instruments.
Pay a Little, Get a Lot: Computer Music and DTM.
I recommend Computer Music magazine, specifically it’s 200th issue, because it comes with some great stuff, like the full edition of Cakewalk’s Rapture synth. Get the electronic version of the magazine through iTunes or Google Play, set up your username/password, and go download a bunch of free plugins. (If you use Google Play, when you go to download, tell them you got the magazine off Zinio. It works that way. There’s no drop-down for Google.)
One note about Rapture. Yes, it’s the full synth, but read the license carefully: it says no commercial use on the synth. So… yeah. Use it as a practice synth, then go buy the real thing, I guess.
A few of the included plugins are full versions, but most of these are “CM” versions of commercial plugins, which means that they’re functional, but kind of stripped down in a few places, because it’s hard to make a living off of free, and they really want you to go out any buy the full version.
It’s a great way to play with an unlimited demos. SynthMaster CM is essentially a “lite” version of SynthMaster you can play with as long as you want. (SynthMaster is one of my favorites, but not free. It goes on sale once or twice a year, though!)
It’s also a good place to get some free samples, because each issue comes with free samples. Buy a few issues, and you could build up a seriously crazy sample library.
Computer Music (CM) is also great for reviews. They’ll tell you if something sucks, so you’ll save money. (So will the posters at Gearslutz. In fact, they’ll tell you a lot of things suck. If they all say something is good, then it’s probably godly good.)
CM also has a ton of tutorials that come with each issue. Not to sound like a shill, but for a few bucks a month, it’s a great deal.
If you don’t care about Rapture, then just get the latest issue of CM, and you can still get some sweet gear for “free.” Well, minus what you paid for it. I think it’s like $5 an issue, or $40 a year. Your money, your call.
If you’re into the Japanese music scene, can speak the language, and can spare the money, try to hunt down DTM magazine. They also have a lot of tutorials, reviews, and free plugins. But it’s paper only, each issue is around 1500 yen, and that doesn’t even include the shipping, which can get ridiculous. (And I did say it’s in Japanese!) Cheap-ish if you live in Japan or near a Japanese bookstore, though!
Spend $130 to Never Buy Patches Again!
Now that we’re spending a little money, I’ll recommend one other thing I know, and that’s Syntorial. It will save you a stupid amount of money on patches, because you will learn how to make your own damn patches. (As you should do, anyway!)
It’s a program that teaches you how to use a synth, one knob at a time. Then it teaches you how to use your ears to figure out how sounds are constructed. It’s brilliant.
You watch a short video, then do exercises, watch more videos, do more exercises. You can quit whenever you want, but it gets addicting.
In my next (and last) post on this, I’ll give you my “How to buy plugins like a cheap badass” advice.