There is a host of free VST Plugins, Synthesizers and Instruments out there, but how do you know which ones are worth having a look at? The choice is vast and ranges from funky experimental software to amazing professional quality tools. Even some commercial developers offer free instruments. In the following we’d like to introduce some of our picks, where to get them and what we like about them (we’ll keep updating this page, so it makes sense to check back once in a while).
Helm provides subtractive synthesis with a twist, delivering typical virtual analog sounds as well as more “digital” trap or chip-tunes sounds and a fun UI.
At first glance, Helm is a typical 2 oscillator synth with sub oscillator and noise generator – the identical oscillators offer 11 waveforms (including sine, triangle saw and square wave options). Where it instantly gets interesting, is the unison feature with “Harmonize” function: When active, the copied oscillator instances create harmonics. So you could eg. choose a sine wave and add up to 15 harmonics simply by adding more unison instances in the “Harmonize” mode for rich organ sounds.You can also detune the instances and crossmodulate the 2 oscillators.
An oscillator feedback stage with a delay line/comb filter in each voice adds even more shaping possibilities. The filter section has 12/24 dB low / band / hi pass and shelving filter types with resonance and drive. Add to that 3 envelopes, 3 LFOs, a step sequencer, an arpeggiator – and built-in FX like Stutter, Formant, Distortion, Delay and Reverb for even more options.
And really powerful modulation features: Helm’s modulators can be assigned to most destinations, including FX, simply by clicking on the little mod icon and then clicking on the desired target parameters and dragging in there to set the range. Nice!
Helm is capable of warm virtual analog sounds as well as contemporary digital “harsher” sounds for d&b, trap or edm. Especially with the unison feature coupled with detune you can create rich sounds from one oscillator. The only caveat is, that you can’t pan the oscillators for more width: the sound is mono up until the reverb. A selection of good factory sounds shows off some of Helm’s strengths and gets you started right away. A synth that is really fun to discover and play around with!
Zebralette is a free synthesizer plugin by renowned German synth developers U-he.
Zebralette is a free synthesizer plugin by renowned developers U-he. Apart from their commercial plugins DIVA, Bazille or Repro, they have also created several great free plugins (Podolsky, Tyrell or Beatzille to name but a few). Zebralette is based on their Zebra2 Spectral Oscillator Synth. Its oscillator design goes beyond traditional subtractive synthesis by offering editable waveforms and allowing you to draw your own shapes. These shapes can then be morphed or crossfaded between, eg. using the LFO for very lively and dynamic sounds. Two so-called “OSC FX” allow you to modulate the waveforms with spectral effects, including Filter, Formant, CombFilter, something called “DX” or “Sync Mojo” – 26 options altogether. The results can be anything from just adding subtle harmonics to completely warping the sound. The OSC FX are modulatable from a choice of 12 modulation sources, including Velocity, Envelope or LFO. And Zebralette is really immediate and easy to use thanks to its one window approach:
With just one oscillator, this synth is capable of creating unusual and dynamic sounding results including typical 80s “bell-y” wavetable sounds reminiscent of the famed PPG Wave synthesizers, soft lush pads or earth-shattering aggressive basses. As you won’t get lost in a myriad of windows and parameters, it is fun to edit and play around. (And if you control it from a Nektar MIDI controller with DAW integration or Nektarine, it becomes even more intuitive. You can assign and control multiple parameters from the hardware at once for a true hardware synth experience.) Zebralette comes strongly recommended – definitely worth checking out!
Dexed brings you not just the sound of the legendary DX7 synthesizer into your VST or AU DAW, you can even use it as a DX7 editor and midi cartridge librarian for the hardware.
The developers of this open source project on GitHub say that you shouldn’t expect a perfect clone, but it is pretty convincing! They even went as far as providing 3 different “engine types”, including a Mark 1 (DX7 style), Modern 24Bit and experimental OPL Series 8Bit engine.
If you are not familiar with FM synthesis, you’ll of course have to get into the way sounds are generated and edited first. Unlike Zebralette, this synth and classic FM synthesis isn’t known for being overtly intuitive. But even if you’d like to just stick on the surface this synth is great fun, especially considering it includes 3000 patches or so. And you’ll find a lot of those classic 80s FM sounds in the library.
At the time of writing, Dexed was still version 0.9.6 – but worked quite well.
If you like the psychedelic strings of late 70s electronic music (think early Jean-Michel Jarre and Vangelis), or the sonics of contemporary bands such as Ladytron, check out the free Nabla from Full Bucket Music.
This plug aims to recreate the sound and features of the classic Korg Delta String Synthesizer, with a couple welcome additions like Phaser and Delay FX. Like its hardware predecessor, Nabla integrates two independent sections that can be mixed together: A simple synth offering 4 signal generators producing rectangle waveforms at 18”, 8”, 4” and 2“, a multimode filter with resonance, envelope and a bit of modulation as well as a string-section with 16’ and 8’ signal generator, simplified AR envelope, plus Equalizer.
A special limitation of the hardware has also been re-created: the plugin is “paraphonic”, so only has a monophonic filter (actually, the hardware also had a monophonic envelope – but this doesn’t seem to be the case here). But if you’d prefer Nabla to be fully polyphonic, simply activate the so-called “God-mode” switch. The plugin sounds pretty authentic, and is a one-stop solution if you’d like to recreate these recognizable classic string-pad sounds. But it can do more: In spite of the simple UI, Nabla is surprisingly flexible. All plugin parameters are MIDI-assignable, and with remote control from a Nektar MIDI controller you can easily assign key parameters and even switch the patches from the hardware (another welcome addition over the real Delta String – which had no presets).
And now for something completely different: Digits revisits classic phase distortion synthesis!
In the 80s, there wasn’t just the DX7 and FM synthesis. At the time, Casio also launched a new type of digital synthesis with the CZ Phase Distortion Synthesizers. Developer Louis Gorenfeld took that as a basis and added features such as easier to use ADSR envelopes and a traditional 1, 2, 3 or 4 pole Lowpass Filter with resonance as well as an analog chorus emulation.
The synth can deliver the squelchy sounds Phase Distortion became known for as well as softer and warm pads or dirty basses. It takes a while to get used to the slightly different parametrization, but the factory patches give you a good idea of what the synth is capable of. As the user interface is not too overwhelming, a little bit of “dare-devil-experimentation” can result in really interesting sounds – and when remote controlling Digits from a Nektar MIDI controller tweaking is even more fun, as you can control multiple parameters at once. This can deliver unexpected results you wouldn’t get to, if just mousing around.