Last year, we asked Cities and Memory artists to give us a rundown of the best sound design software of 2015 (and we’ll be doing the same again later this year).
However, in the spirit of Cities and Memory being an open, collaborative project, we thought we’d run through some of the amazing free tools that are out there to help you get a head start in the sound design world.
So here, from a poll of artists, is some of the finest free sound design software out there today. Where possible, we’ve tried to include a link to a piece in which you can hear the effect being used.
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Variety of Sound’s DLA MkII offers a great range of effects from chorus, echo, ping pong to long space type delays.
Fusion Delay (Windows-only)
Andy Lyon: “Created for the KVR 2012 developers’ challenge, this is an awesome free delay effect that has a plasma function which separates the sound into component frequencies and blends it back in with the delayed signal. If you get the timings right this dither effect can sound really good.” You can hear it on the vocal parts of this Cities and Memory piece:
The free VST from Valhalla, who do some of the best affordable reverbs around (we swear by Vintage Verb!), this is a very tidy little plugin, It’s a frequency shifter and analogue echo that can generate everything from subtle effects to outright psychedelic or dub madness.
A fine colouring distortion that can create some surprisingly warm tones – as heard in this piece from Cardiff:
A virtual analog drum and percussion synthesizer that can produce a wide variety of drum and percussion sounds. Here it is in action, for the high-end percussion and cymbals sounds in this piece:
A freebie from Variety of Sound, who produce a fine range of free plugins – this one is a tape dynamics simulator that can add crunch and presence.
Glitch 2 by Illformed is an excellent tool for injecting all sorts of chaos into your sound design to take it in a new direction. Glitch 1 contains much of the same functionality but it’s free to download and comes in a VST pack along with other effects Crusher. Stretch and TapeStop, which are also worth a look.
Add the (semi-)authentic crackle of old vinyl to your tracks for free with this little gem. You can pick different settings for warp, wear and even record age.
Here it is, with its ‘warp depth’ facility used to help the background wash ebb and flow behind the lead piano.
Andy Lyon: “Glitchmachines produce some excellent paid plugins but they also produce two excellent free ones. Fracture has buffer effect, filter, LFO and delay and is great for glitchy effects or abstract textures. Hysteresis has stutter, filter and delay effects and is great for delayed, glitchy sounds.”
A rhythmic gate allowing you to introduce rhythm into any input source (in a more basic way than something like Output’s fantastic Movement) – worth a try, and here it is used by us in a piece from Leicester:
Klevgrand are a Swedish company who know how to make their products look as good as they sound. This is a neat free modulation tool comprising chorus, phase and flange, but just LOOK at the interface. It’s a pleasure to use.
There were lots of shout-outs for this warm compressor from many artists, who all felt to be a useful addition to anyone’s setup.
Another Variety of Sound entry, a smooth and sophisticated EQ, used here by Mark Taylor: “Its distortion profiles were used to add high end shine and a touch of warmth to the shimmering wash.”
Density MK III is praised by Andy Lyon, who says “one of my all-time favourite plugins. It’s a compressor that adds amazing depth and clarity to any sound.”
Tokyo Dawn do some excellent freeware, and Kotelnikov is a nice mastering compressor that keeps the sound clean and transparent. You can partner it with VOS Slick EQ from the same company while you’re there.
“I use Ferric TDS, Density MK III and TDR Kotelnikov as a final ‘mastering’ rack on most of my songs.” – Andy Lyon
Mark Taylor: “A 7-band harmonic (overtone) graphic equalizer that supports mid/side channel processing, and can also apply harmonic enhancement processing if wanted. In the piece below, mid/side processing was used at the mastering stage to enhance the overall placement of frequencies in the stereo field.”
An acoustic guitar simulator, which can handle chords and picking, and has a decent array of onboard effects to liven up the sounds, too – here it is in a piece from Venice:
A lovely little Mellotron instrument VST, modelled on a 1973 Mellotron M400S, with nine sound types to pick from.
An oldie, but still a winner. A virtual analog bass: a -18dB low pass filter with a lot of asymmetric / random components to help create a warm sound. Here it is in action:
Simple, clean upright piano tones (which sound excellent paired with a nice big reverb), with the usual decay/sustain/release controls and not a whole lot you don’t need.
Looking for a free reverb? You could do worse than Sanford, which boasts a great sound and is light on your CPU too – you can hear it in this piece:
Another neat reverb, capable of everything from small rooms to huge cathedrals. You can hear it in conjunction with Fusion Delay (see above) in this piece:
Made by Loomer and free as part of Computer Music magazine’s haul of free plugins, this is an easy-to-use and flexible granular sampler. Here it is transforming a field recording of bells into fragmented ringing tones.
Any free product from NI is worth a look given the quality of their gear (in fact, sign up for their email alerts as they periodically make a VST available for free) – this free Reaktor synth with 70 preset sounds is no exception – pick it up.
Want to make old-school R2D2 droid sounds in your tracks? Soundmorph’s free DRO1D is the tool for you. Word of warning, though: you need the full version of Reaktor to be able to enjoy this one.
With thanks to Andy Lyon, Mark Taylor, Ian Haygreen and a cast of dozens on Twitter for their input.
Know of a great VST/plugin/download that’s not on the list but is a sound design essential? Let us know in the comments and we’ll keep the article updated!