While there’s an abundance of free sounds available for inclusion in Neuroprogrammer or Mind Workstation there’s a certain pleasure in creating something completely original. With this end in mind I set about putting together the best free music creation setup I could find. To make life interesting I decided that everything had to be 64-bit.
There are three components to a complete system – an environment in which to work, commonly referred to as a DAW or digital audio workstation, instruments and effects. The term DAW is also applied to multi-track audio editors such as Audacity, but that, to my mind, is a whole different thing.
A while back I wrote about Mad Tracker. Trackers are probably the simplest form of DAW but they rapidly become tedious.
I have spent quite a bit of time with LMMS (Linux Multimedia Studio) for Windows which is a single stop solution – it contains everything necessary. Like many such projects, however, it has a bit of the camel feel – a horse designed by a committee. It’s also not as stable as one might hope. VST plugins are supported via an instrument called Vestige, which is almost hopelessly unreliable.
After trying many possibilities I settled on free editions of commercial products.
Presonius Studio One Free would be a good choice. It’s beautiful to work with. However it provides only one instrument (an excellent sample based player called Presence), it does not allow third party plugins and it’s not cheap to upgrade to the unlimited version.
Plugins are the fun part – by means of a standard introduced by Steinberg, VST, all manner of synthesizers and effects can be added to the basic setup. A 64-bit DAW requires 64-bit plugins and, while 32-bit plugins are overabundant, free 64-bit ones are a little harder to find. 32-bit plugins can, in fact, be used via a bridge, such as JBridge, but I didn’t want to go down that track.
The DAW I have settled on is Mu.Lab Free. It does everything very nicely and supports all of the 64-bit plugins I have found. The main downside to the free version is the four track limit – a restriction but not so much if you’re mainly creating pieces for inclusion in AVS sessions. It includes an excellent range of instruments, sounds and effects – nothing else is required. It is particularly interesting in that it adopts a completely modular approach – it’s relatively easy to build and modify instruments and effects. Mu.Lab has a basic audio editor but also links to an external audio editor, in my case Audacity.
The type of DAW I like now is based on a Piano Roll layout for creating the note sequences. This is as opposed to tracker or music notation.
The image shows MuLab with it own Basic Synth, the excellent Alchemy sample player by Camel Audio. The mixer rack which provides unlimited chaining of effects and instruments offers an overkill of possibilites and helps minimise the impact of the 4-track limit.
This I have built up with free plugins from…
Native Instruments gives away the Komplete 8 Player – Reaktor synth, Kontakt sample player and Guitar Rig effects.
Blue Cat effects.
TAL (Togu Audio Line) synthesizers TAL-Bassline, TAL-Elek7ro-II, TAL-Noisemaker and TAL-U-No-62. There are other free synths and effects available here. Note that the URL is unusual but correct.
Greenoak offer the beautiful Crystal synth – some wonderful presets.
Piano One is modelled on the Yamaha Concert Grand. Sound Magic are reputed to have some of the best piano instruments available.
From Full Bucket Music I have Deputy and Monofury – both interesting synths with plenty of useful patches. Frequency Shifter is an effect with potential.
U-He provide TyrellN6 and Zebralette synths. I particularly like some of the sounds of Zebralette – I expect that the full version, Zebra, would be truly spectacular.
Kamiooka is a rather cool looking synth with real looking patch cords dangling between modules.
BlauKraut Engineering have the Charlatan synthesizer. Not as refined in appearance as the others, but a useful synth none the less.
The TX16Wx is a comprehensive sampler.
Wolfgang Palm has created the unusual Plex synth.
There’s an excellent selection of effects from MeldaProduction.
Kirnu is an arpeggiator by Arto Vaarala. Many instruments include arpeggiators of varying complexity however one separate can be a handy thing. It’s worth noting that the modular construction of Mu.Lab makes creating special purpose arpeggiators and sequencers very simple.
Voxengo off a range of free effect plugins.
Steinberg provide their Model-E synth and Bassic bass in VST Classics Volume 1 . Neon and Karlette from Volume 2 won’t load in Mu.Lab.
Another product to consider if your needs will be met by a standalone sampler. Independence Free is superb! Be prepared for a big download – the free sample set is 2Gb.
There are varying degrees of free. Everything I’ve mentioned is free for personal or commercial use. Some of the products are cut down from purchased versions which usually have additional features and/or larger sound/patch/sample collections while others are full product with limitations, such as no MP3 export, number of tracks, VST support, number of VST plugins, bit width of audio engine/mixer, mix down bit width, save patches, and so on. Then there are ones that are really free – full versions of commercial product. Some require an email address to which is sent download or registration information. There is no demo-ware in my list, although most software developers offer versions of their commercial products.
I’m not even going to pretend to be competent with any of this, but I’m having a lot of fun and making some useful and interesting sounds. The products I’ve selcted all meet my basic requirements – they work, they’re stable and they can be used in their basic state without referring to a manual. The Mu.Lab documentation is good and to get the best results is well worth reading.
Tools like these open up new possibilities for AVS design – apart from their use in conjunction with NP3/MWS – most instruments have at least one low frequency oscillator (LFO) that can be used to modulate sounds at brainwave rhythm rates so it’s not hard to create complete AVS sessions that can drive AudioStrobe and suchlike.
If anyone comes across any decent free 64-bit VST plugins that I haven’t mentioned, please let me know – collecting them has become almost a hobby in itself.
I’m now entirely enamored with Mu.Lab – it looks sure to become my main session creation tool. I will be purchasing a full version as soon as funds permit (being broke sucks – Mu.Lab XT/UL are only 25/75 Euro). I have assembled presets to control AudioStrobe and once I have tidied them up a bit I will make them available at no charge.
I should also add that all this free stuff is free because the developers want to give you the chance to prove their products’ worth – there are some that I would be more than pleased to pay for if only I could.
The Christmas fairy gave me a copy of Mu.Lab UL. This coincides with their release of Version 5. I’m busily racing around the program seeing what’s new and different – will report in due course.
Update 15 may 2013…
After using MuLab 5 UL for a while it has become my favorite way to play with sound and light. It has been quite exciting seeing the product release unfold. Every other day, sometimes daily, there would be a new version or patch that has promptly dealt with problems, most of which I hadn’t noticed. Each time there were also enhancements, often new capabilities, often at the request of users on the KVR MuLab forum. Updates have slowed down a lot now. MuLab 5.15 does everything I require. To make it easy to share any MUX devices I come up with, I now make a point of using only MuLab tools. With the generous standard library and the ability to modify the factory devices at component level, and a bit of patient trial-and-error, MuLab should be able to (re)produce pretty much sound. The Sequence and Automation editors suit my session design workflow well. MuLab is my AVS session creation tool-of-choice – unlimited possibilites in sound – and fun!