Making music as a hobby can quickly become wildly expensive, especially when you get into sample libraries that can cost several hundreds of dollars each for a single instrument… and one is never enough. Not to mention that a sizeable chunk of the software out there also charges for updates as they come. Fortunately there’s also a wealth of free stuff available if you know where to look.
Like here, for instance.
This won’t be a comprehensive collection of everything available. Everything on this list is something that comes recommended by someone in the community, or is something we see value or potential in, so it’s all worth clicking on. If you want to look deeper, there are also links to other collections on the bottom of this post.
Without a DAW you’ve got nothing, and among the most well-liked of those are FL Studio, Ableton, Logic, and Bitwig. None of those are free though, and while I would personally recommend FL Studio to most people for most situations, there are still plenty of great free options. Your choice of DAW is mostly down to personal preference and what workflow suits you best, so don’t be afraid to try out several of these, maybe some free trial versions of paid DAWs too.
Additionally, if you’re a mac user, Garageband is genuinely a decent option so feel free to poke around with that too. And finally, I have to include Audacity somewhere in this post or I’ll get beaten up, so there it is.
Update: Audacity has added data collection to their software and made some unwelcome changes to their license and policies, and whether or not you care about that, it’s a horribly scummy move. Because of that, I can no longer recommend anyone use the latest version of Audacity. Instead, keep an eye on this fork, or use version 2.4.2 or earlier.
Free Effect VSTs
Melda free bundle – A whole bunch of great mixing tools are in here. Full disclosure, Melda has sponsored us in the past, but this recommendation has nothing to do with that, it’s made with no influence or bias. Genuinely great plugins.
Fracture and Hysteresis – If you like weird, glitchy sounds, these plugins will be invaluable to you.
dBlue plugins – Another set of very versatile plugins for glitchy effects.
Argotlunar – Great experimental granular delay.
Driftmaker – Another very powerful delay plugin, similar in some ways to Hysteresis.
Expanse – If you like lush ambience, this is the plugin for you.
Strata – Another great plugin for creating soundscapes.
Izotope Vinyl – This is the lo-fi plugin, and it explains itself.
Ambience – Big reverb, good for its namesake.
epicVerb – More big reverb that is particularly good on drums.
Cloudseed – A very powerful and versatile reverb plugin.
Convology XT – More reverb, and lots of it. Vintage style.
PaulXStretch – Ever heard of PaulStretch? Here it is in plugin form, for all your extreme time stretching needs.
RoughRider – A very warm compressor plugin that can really squash things.
Krush – Very powerful bitcrusher distortion plugin.
CamelCrusher – Sausage fattener, but better, for free.
NC-17 – Want to make things stupid loud? Here’s the plugin for it.
PanCake – Very versatile autopanning plugin.
Acon Digital Multiply – An interesting chorus effect plugin.
Sleepy-Time DSP – Useful mixing tools, particularly Transient.
Nova, Kotelnikov, Proximity, and SlickEQ – Very interesting mixing tools here, with Nova being particularly versatile.
Klanghelm software – Very particular plugins with very particular sounds for very particular ears.
As a bonus, FL Studio comes with a plugin called Patcher. Once you get acquainted with it, it’s hard to live without it. The same company made a free plugin called Minihost Modular as well, which can do much of what Patcher can in any DAW.
Free Synth VSTs
I’m not going to bother writing little blurbs for each of these because synthesizers aren’t so easy to define. They definitely each have their strengths and weaknesses, but even the most limited synth can create incredible things in the right hands, and these are all free so there’s no reason not to experiment. I’m also not smart enough to get into the nitty gritty of these things anyway.
Same deal as before, no little blurbs for these, just check them out if you spot an instrument you like. Some of these are VST plugins, others are Kontakt libraries that you should be able to run in the free version, Kontakt Player, but some of them may require the full version unfortunately.
Piano in 162
Chamber orchestra community edition
The Free Orchestra
The Total Composure Orchestra
The Stroh Violin
Town hall organ
Steven slate drums free
Cinematic Synthetic Drums
Super Audio Boy
Wavesfactory Free libraries
Specifically guitar related things (including effects):
Ample Guitar M Lite
Ample Bass P Lite
Shreddage 3 Stratus Free
Shreddage 3 Precision Free
Amped Roots Free
Amped Stevie T Free
Nick Crow Lab
Blue Cat’s Free Amp
TSE X30, 808, R47, and BOD
Even more free stuff
If you want to dig a little deeper and try to find a real hidden gem, or just something you want that was missing from this list, here are a bunch of other, bigger collections of free stuff to peruse. Remember, if you find something you think should be included here, tell us about it!