If your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is the canvas to music production, the VSTs we add are the paint. A VST or virtual studio technology is a software plugin that you add to your DAW for instruments and effects. For example, if you don't have a hardware synthesiser, you can download a VST synth. This is a lot easier to work with for the reason that I can have hundreds of instruments on the space of my laptop, this means if I'm producing on the train I don't have to bring hundreds of physical synths. The other benefit is that they are so much cheaper: most are under £100 and there are an incredible amount of free VSTs.
The easiest way to make music is download a few VSTi plugins (VST instruments) and then a cheap midi keyboard that can control the software synths.
So, time to get to the list:
By far the best free software synth, laid out over three control pages, it uses 3 oscillators plus a noise oscillator. It combines subtractive synthesis with FM (frequency modulation) synthesis which allows incredible control over sound. It has options for four envelopes, two are set as filter and amp envelopes and the other two can be set to control any other feature of the synth. In addition to the modulation envelopes, there are two LFOs (low frequency oscillators) again routable to any feature on the synth. The effects page is further subdivided into two pages, one that allows sidechain effects, dual delay, a bitcrusher and, a surprisingly good reverb. The other page is a 32 step gate with envelopes as well as note pans and volumes.
This synth names itself as an advanced trance synthesiser however, it excels in beyond the trance genre. This allows so much control the user is the limit. What I'd recommend is to use this as your main synth as its graphic interface is so intuitive that you will be able to create sweet sounds from day one.
My recommendations for this synth is to lower the main volume before adding any saturation on the drive as it gets very loud very quickly. Additionally while the effects are nice, remember if you want to any, they will be part of the original sound and any external effects you want to add will add after the built in ones.
A very popular free reverb unit, even at quick glance it is clear there is a lot of room for control which, admittedly I don't take full advantage of. With a few alterations, you can make your instruments change from sounding like they are from a tiny bathroom to a cavern with more reverb than physics could surely allow. The EQ is crude but remember it is not an EQ unit so I almost always add one after this plugin to control it.
There are prettier EQ plugins out there, likewise there are more powerful ones however I choose this because of it's graphic simplicity and low CPU usage. Available as part of the ReaPlugs VST FX suite, this effect comes native to Reaper and available for download off their website. I really like how it tells the user what note each frequency is and how each value can be controlled by dragging the faders, typing in the values or actually clicking and dragging the actual curve.
My previous post was on compression so if it's a concept that's hard to picture, check it out. This compressor is not subtle. This compressor is not for gentle compression. If you didn't notice, the name is Rough Rider and it also says audio damage on the user interface, this may indicate that this compressor is very noticeable. If an elephant was to sit on a drum bus, the result would be comparable to this compressor. As in the comparison above, this is perfectly suited to drums, just be aware this is not always a good effect to add, and I would never use it for the whole song, but when tastefully applied it really brings a new element to your drums.
This is a tape saturation plugin. I enjoy using this as the last effect on a mastering bus. The effects are a gentle noticeable warmth especially on the low-mids and upper-bass frequencies. You will struggle to put you finger on what it adds but you know it's better on. To be completely honest, I just fiddle the controls to my satisfaction, usually resulting in fairly high saturation levels. My advice is just to fiddle until you like the result.
Keep following for more posts on free VSTs (I plan to discuss more) as well as all other things audio related that I can think of.
Check out my previous posts as well: