9 free music making tools
In these trying times, we look to get creative on a budget with nine free tools for making music
We are living in uncertain times. The threat of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, has introduced some of the most drastic measures we’ve seen in a generation, forcing millions around the world to remain at home. Festivals and events have been cancelled, with promoters, artists and DJs hit with lost fees and revenue.
Self-isolation and social distancing have been recommended, and while there are few positives to the situation, the increased time you might have on your hands can be used for positivity — even if it’s purely a distraction rather than a necessity. So here’s our list of free music-making tools, whether it’s to finish a track, look for inspiration, or make your first dive into music-making. Feel free to pitch in with your favourites on our socials and help spread the love.
Ah, the DX7. Everyone’s favourite ’80s synth (probably) is one of the most instantly recognisable instruments going, be it from Whitney’s electric piano ballad or the famous Lately Bass preset that’s littered dance music since it first came on the scene in 1983. Dexed is a free softsynth version of the pop-tastic classic, that can faithfully remodel the DX7, and can even accept SysEx patches from the original synth, which you can find with a simple Google. It’s also a lot easier to program – even if you don't know what you’re doing, there’s plenty of presets to kick start some retro vibes, or some more experimental FM sounds. A must-have synth for your plugin arsenal.
TAL’s synths and plugins have been part of the Swiss Army knife that is our AU/VST folders for almost 20 years. Their TAL-U-NO-62 plugin – not so subtly modelled on the Juno-60 – was an early freeware classic, plus their TAL-Chorus-LX is still a go-to for creating that classic Roland chorus effect. Since, they’ve launched a heap of high-quality non-free plugins like the updated 60 clone, the LX and an excellent old-school sampler emulation, but it’s worth grabbing the OGs, even if they are pretty old at this stage. Their SH-101 clone and dub delay are also top picks.
While some still view Garageband as an entry-level toy for amateurs, it's become extremely powerful in more recent times as Apple fused a lot of the functionality of Logic Pro into its baby brother. Famously used on Justice’s ‘Cross’, Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’ (the intro drums are in fact an Apple Loop) and Kendrick Lamar’s ‘PRIDE’, it’s already proven its power in the charts and clubs – and it’s probably on your computer right now. Features like Drummer that offer highly realistic drumming patterns and a huge palette of sounds and FX via built-in plugs and loops, Garageband needs to be taken seriously. If you haven’t used it in a while, why not crank it open for some fresh inspiration? You might be pleasantly surprised.
Online DAWs have come a long way in the past few years, and none more so than BandLab, a virtual music-making environment that’s totally free to use. Not only is there a fully-operational, remarkably smooth DAW without any installations, there’s also the ability to save projects and tracks in order to collaborate with others and there’s even a LANDR-style mastering option once you’ve wrapped up your opus. There’s also a matching iOS app so you can continue to work on your tunes on the go, also for free. BandLab also bought what was formerly called SONAR and turned it into BandLab Cakewalk – a fully functional, high-end downloadable DAW, but only for PC. And it’s also free. Act quickly before they change their minds.
Given the recent isolation and social distancing that’s been bestowed upon most of Europe and the world, those good folks at Korg and Moog have made some of their most popular music-making apps free. Korg’s iKaossilator, an iOS and Android version of their mini yellow XY synth, is now free to download while Moog’s iOS clone of their classic Minimoog Model D synth is also available for all. Despite their legacy being analogue, Moog’s iOS apps are actually very impressive and the sound of their touchscreen Minimoog is mighty impressive. Works with MIDI too and all the usual iOS audio tools so isn’t just a novelty for on-the-go, it’s a true studio tool.
Output is quietly becoming one of the most respected companies in the plugin world. The LA-based team’s Exhale vocal plug was heard all over the charts, with its silky and airy vocal engine while Substance, Analog Strings and Movement all impressing fans like Zedd, Diplo and Richard Devine. One of their more recent devices is Arcade, a loop-based plugin with a huge library of high quality sounds, triggers and unique FX and tweakability. It’s hard to explain, so best off watching the video below. Once you get your head around how it works, it’s capable of track-ready sounds from the off. It’s not technically free, but does offer a 30-day trial that we’d recommend getting stuck into.
Loopmasters’ Loopcloud is one of the most ambitious – and impressive – music-making tools on the market. It combines their decades of loop and sample making knowledge into a cloud-based software that automatically links into millions of samples across thousands of packs, all tagged with genres, instruments, styles, key and formats. Having access to millions of samples is good enough, but you can also tweak, pitch, reverse, chop and even add FX before you commit to ‘buying’ via credits. It can be a bit of a rabbit hole but with a free version offering five free samples and access to the basic features, it’s a no-brainer to have it as an inspirational tool. Artist, Studio and Professional versions offer more features if you’re tempted.
Plugin Boutique, also owned by Loopmasters, is a gem of a source for plugins in general. But its collection of freeware is outstanding, with an almost endless list of free tools to crack on with. With instruments, effects and studio tools to browse through, there’s a great selection of inspirational tools as well as more zany, out-there utilities and sample packs. If you’re not sure where to start with the wild world of freeware, Plugin Boutique is as good a place as any.
One of the first browser-based music-making tools, Audiotool is something of a legendary website among certain circles. It was capable of some comprehensive drum machine and synth sequencing even when they first launched in 2008. Now, all the synths and beat making tools remain, but they’ve been joined by 250,000+ samples and over 50,000 presets for their devices. Its drag-and-drop approach makes it super intuitive to use and you can easily patch inputs and outputs through FX pedals, filters, EQs and more. You quickly forget it’s all happened inside the humble browser – with fans like Richie Hawtin, it’s one of the best websites for trying out ideas, even if you’ve no experience in making music.