There’s loads of good software out there for making music. Recording, making beats and processing. But Cubase, Reason, Sonar, ProTools and the like are ridiculously expensive. Obviously these people need to make a living, and if you ever go pro, that’s just what your studio needs.
But sometimes you don’t have the money to get started with it all properly. In this case, can you make good tunes on a bunch of freeware? Yes you can, and here’s a list for you…
Some of this stuff might not work on your machine, but sometimes, with a bit of luck, downloading missing DLL’s and tweaking, you should be able to go.
Most of this stuff has Wikipedia articles and YouTube demos so just search around and you’ll find out how it works.
HammerHead Rhythm Station – freeware drum machine
This is a simple sample-based drum machine styled sequencer. It might not work on older versions of Windows, but I seem to be able to get it working on XP Pro and my Vista Home, when run under support for old software and with a downloaded DLL. It has 6 “channels” for different drum noises or loops, simple reverse and distortion and a shuffle. It can expand into 8-bar loops. What it also has is space for 6 user samples you can import using the UserBank Creator that comes with it. On the HammerHead website there’s a huge collection of UserBanks full of sounds like tabla drums and extra breakbeat loops for you to download and plug in. It also has a couple of extra mods which change all the noises (there’s an acoustic drumkit mod for cool breakbeat creation).
What it’s great for is testing new beats and creating loops – you can export to a .wav file with perfect audio quality.
Audacity – open source multitrack recording
This thing’s great for recording and processing audio. It comes with a bunch of nice plugins for reverb, noise reduction, wah-wah, filters and effects etc, with the ability to add loads more. It has a nice easy click and drag to align tracks, and a zoom with a pencil where you can draw the waveforms sample by sample. It handles certain LADSPA effects (there’s a plugin with over 90 extra LADSPA effects), Nyquist, and (with an additional plugin) VST’s. It has spectrum analysis and can load midi samples for viewing, and although it can’t play or record them, it’s good for checking how your midi lines up with your audio. It can also slow down music without changing the pitch, which is fantastic if you’re trying to learn a fiddly guitar solo or match a sample to your tune’s BPM…
ModPlug Tracker – a free and open source music tracker
There are lots of tracker software out there, and ModPlug is but one of them. If you’ve never used a tracker before, basically it’s just a sample sequencer with effects that you program by hand. It supports VST’s. It’s a little tricky to get into as you have to program the triggering of samples by hand in Hex, but when you get the hang of it, you’ll find it very powerful.
Jeskola Buzz – freeware modular music kit
This thing is cool. It’s stems from trackers, but it’s so much more too. The main program is just a platform for the thousands of “machines” you can get. Machines range from midi controllers, synths, sample sequencer and effects, and you just plug one into the other with virtual cables, so you can chain effects together. All the machines are available on the site, and Buzz comes with a few preloaded so you can see how it works. For an idea of the kind of stuff you can do, check out the HamsterAlliance website – this is the website of a professional producer who works mainly in Buzz, and it has a player where you can listen to the stuff he does.
ReBirth RB338 – freeware house music maker
This is a small but powerful piece of kit, noted especially for it’s faithful rendition of the classic analogue synth the Roland 303. Basically it has two 303’s, and both an 808 and a 909 drum machine, all programmable in the same way as the original machines. However, every single knob can be automated and recorded, or played with a midi controller live. It also has a basic distortion unit, delay, compressor and a thing called a PCF, or pattern controlled filter which comes with a few patterns loaded for funky pluck effects or phase-type filtering on drums. While the 808 and 909 sound pretty much the same as the original machines, they’re actually sequencers and can be loaded with any sample you like using the ModPacker program included with it. The ReBirth community has produced hundreds of mods with different sounding drums and noises and even graphic interfaces. It can export to a CD quality .wav file for including in other tunes or for mixing down. It can also be synced to other stuff like Buzz.
A little word about ReBirth, it wasn’t always freeware. It’s made by the Propellerhead company who make Reason and when it first came out you had to keep the CD in your machine to run it. Propellerhead only released it as freeware in an .iso file (a CD image) available only as a .torrent file. To install it, you’ll need torrent software such as BitTorrent and, unless you’re happy burning to a CD and keeping it in your computer, some sort of CD emulator like WinCDEmu. A bit nippy, perhaps, but worth it – very satisfying to play with 🙂
Update: ReBirth is now available as an iPhone app! Not sure if it handles mods yet, but I think that’s pretty “wow!” anyway. ALMOST makes me want an iPhone. Not quite, but almost.
Hydrogen – open source drum machine
This is really a Linux program, but since the open source community find it hard to resist a challenge, it has been ported to Windows. It has a very intuitive interface and there are loads of drumkits to download. The Windows version is still a bit buggy, but if you save often in case of crashes and strange happenings, you’ll find it both useful and fun.
Jazz++ – open source midi sequencer
For composing tunes that sound like the Doom soundtrack (depending on whether you have extra soundfonts installed or not!). It’s a very simple piano-roll based composition tool. No more, no less. If you’ve never used a pianoroll, it’s a good place to start learning midi. You can make midi files to include in larger pieces of software, such as…
LMMS – open source everything doer
This is a pretty big piece of kit. If you’ve ever used FruityLoops, you’ll recognise a lot here. It’s got a drum-machine style beat and bassline editor with optional pianoroll, comes with a bunch of installed machines with loads of presets, like the triple-oscillator synth and the SynAddSubFX, which can make noises like organs or automatic arpeggio’d laserbeams, and a collection of cool samples from acoustic effects to weird noises. There’s also an effects chain tool with hundreds of effects available, similar to Audacity. You can hook up your midi keyboard and knob controllers, or you can just automate everything in their automation editors.
You’ll find everything you need to get kicking with this piece of software, you can automate practically any knob on any effect, and you can download extra presets and samples from their website. You can even change the colour and theme of LMMS itself. LMMS stands for Linux MultiMedia Studio, but the Windows version is fully functional and sweet to use.
You can import midi files, samples (in .ogg format – easily made in Audacity if you only have MP3’s), and even FruityLoops files in .flp format.
Some other useful software to get your hands on:-
VMPK – virtual midi keyboard
This is a piano keyboard you can download and use with your computer’s QWERTY keyboard. It can be used as a midi controller for creating music, or just to practise and learn your scales and chords on.
NutChords – chord and scale finder
If you don’t know your scales or chords too well, get this piece of kit. It has both guitar and piano graphics, with sampled sounds so you can hear the chords being played on piano or strummed on guitar. It has all the most widely used scales and chords, as well as some exotic ones to experiment with.
MuseScore – notation software
Lets say you’ve written a bitchin’ piece of music, but what you really want is live musicians to play it. You can import the midi file into MuseScore, and it’ll write it up for you in classic music notation. You can print it from there, or you can export it into a format used by LilyPond, which is a music engraving tool. LilyPond was created to make really nice looking PDF’s of your musical score, making it a little easier on the eye for people used to professionally engraved and printed notation.
There are a lot of other free music software out there, and if you know of any cool ones, add a link in the comments. This is just a list of my personal favourites.
Also available is some stuff online for you:
The AudioTool – a Flash based virtual setup
This thing has an 808 and 909 drum machine, an oscillator machine, and a strange plinky thing called the ToneMatrix. Also it has a bunch of guitar type effects pedals and a mixer. Everything can be wired together to create banging music. Fantastic if you’re in an internet cafe and don’t have any of your software with you, or just for finding out what those dance music people are doing with all those knobs on stage. It’s just new, but already people are making excellent sounds with this tool.
8 Notes – music theory tutorials
Learn music theory with this free online course of tutorials. How do scales and chords work, what do all those blibs and blobs mean on written music? Wonder no more. Get a pen and paper ready and get stuck in. You’ll learn scales, modes, chords and inversions, as well as how to write it down and tricks to help you remember. It has audiovisual media to help you along.
I hope you find this list useful. There may be a few things that might not work with newer versions of Windows, but it gives you enough to go on for now.