Over the years, the world of audio software has evolved into a complex one, where one is more than spoilt for choice: it is difficult to find the right software with so many available alternatives. This article is a look at some of my favourite free audio software, organised into three main sections. The first two sections consist of standalone software that can be run on their own without any additional software, while the final section consists of VST (Virtual Studio Technology) audio plugins which require a VST plugin host in order to run. Whether you happen to be a budding music producer, mix engineer or instrumentalist, or a just looking for some software to create a beat matched mix CD for your car, hopefully this article has something for you.
Digital Audio Workstations
A DAW or digital audio workstation is an electronic device or software application used for record-ing, editing and producing audio files such as songs, musical pieces, human speech, sound effects, podcasts, etc.
A personal favourite, Reaper is one of the best free multi-platform digital audio workstations avail-able on the internet. In terms of functionality, it is right up there with some of its more expensive counterparts. There is a huge user-base and the forums are very active, with users uploading an enormous amount of content in terms of extensions, all available to download for free. Reaper is highly customisable and has some unique features: its intuitive signal flow grid makes routing your tracks and keeping track of your audio signals and chains a breeze. Mix engineers will be the first to attest to the importance of phase aligning individual tracks: something that is extremely streamlined and easy in Reaper.
One thing worth mentioning is that Reaper is not exactly free. It is free during a one month evalua-tion period, after which there is a subscription fee depending on whether it is going to be used for personal or commercial purposes. That being said, even after the 30 day period is over, one can opt to 'still evaluate' and keep using the software with all its features, including the ability to save and export projects.
Avid Pro Tools First
"Entry to the industry's most trusted audio workstation has never been easier." -Avid website
Since its initial release 27 years ago, Pro Tools has revolutionized the recording industry. Pro Tools First is the free entry level version of this industry-standard software that is being promoted as be-ing "simple enough for beginners, yet sophisticated for experienced musicians." It 'enables you to quickly compose, record, edit and mix music.'
However Pro Tools First has its limitations. Only 16 audio tracks can be used. Projects can also only be saved to the cloud, and a working internet connection is a must. Also, each registered user is only allowed to save up to three projects at a time. Despite its limitations though, being able to use one of the industry's leading software legally for free is no small matter, and that itself is enough to make this software a must-try.
LMMS is another multi-platform DAW with an interface that is similar to FL Studio. It has VST plugin support, and is as feature-packed as any other free DAW available on the internet.
Other Standalone Software
Mixmeister BPM Analyser - This is a very handy tool for finding the tempo, or beats per minute, of audio tracks. Of use to musicians as well as audio enthusiasts who want to beat match songs.
Audacity - No list of free audio software is complete without the inclusion of Audacity, which hap-pens to be one of the most flexible audio editors on the internet, despite have a slightly dated inter-face.
Virtual DJ Home Edition - Virtual DJ home edition is an excellent beatmatching software packed with features, and the Home Edition is completely free. Includes auto-sync and pitch and tempo detection capabilities. With the additional advantage of being able to work with video, the price at which it is being offered is definitely a steal.
VST/Audio Unit Plugins
This is where the world of audio software starts to get fun. Virtual Studio Technology (VST) is a software interface that integrates software audio synthesizer and effect plugins with audio editors and recording systems. All of the software mentioned above are available in standalone versions, ie, they can be used on their own without the need of any additional software. VST plugins require a VST host, such as a Digital Audio Workstation like Reaper or Ableton live. They are often virtual emulations of certain instruments, or effects units. Some of my favourite free plugins are:
Camel Crusher by Camel Audio - A compressor by name, but Camel Crusher can do so much more. Can be used as a guitar amp, or to add a bit of sparkle to any audio track.
Model-E by Steinberg - Steinberg's Model-E is a very special software as it is one of the first VST instruments to ever be released, while managing to still be one of the best sounding synths available on the internet. Recently re-released for free as a part of the companys VST CLassics Volume 1 package (along with VB-1, an excellent sounding virtual bass plugin), one of the reasons why it sounds so good is because it is modelled after the legendary Minimioog synthesizer.
Saturation Knob by Softube - Swedish audio plugin giants Softube are known as one of the best creators of audio plugins, and have even made some of the plugins avaible with Ableton. It has a simple interface which consists of only one knob: just keep turning it until you hear your desired effect. A Saturator is also a very handy tool for those looking to add some sparkle to their audio tracks.
MCreativeBundle by MeldaProduction - If you want to try your hand at installing some VST plugins to see what they are all about, and are unsure about what to download, you can barely go wrong with MeldaProduction's MCreativeBundle. It is a suite of 30 free high quality plugins, in-cluding a pitch corrector, a compressor, a 6-band equalizer with integrated tube saturation, a stereo image expander, a guitar tuner and a spectrum analyzer. Though not as feature-packed as its paid counterparts, for its price, this bundle is difficult to beat. Besides, upgrading to the full version at any given moment is just a click away.