James W. Pennington
Welcome to Byte-Mix Sound Design. This guide is geared towards beginners and students who are new to audio and music production. My past guides were more along the lines of setting up the room and building a studio. This guide will focus on software, namely VST/I Plug-Ins that I frequently use.
DISCLAIMER: This is --NOT-- a comprehensive guide. This is strictly what I know from experience, research, listening to other home-studio musicians, and what works for me. This "guide" also assumes you are just starting out in this field.
The majority of Plug-ins I work with are free. Some are bundles that were offered from the well known developers at one point or another. Others are freely available on http://www.kvraudio.com There is a large following of indie plug-in developers, and many are of a quality that rival well known commercial plug-ins. bedroomproducersblog.com/ is also a great place to get information about good quality VST/i
I: Synthesizers and electronic instrument plug-ins:
There are many types of synthesizer plug-ins available. 2-Oscillator analogue modeled, 3-Oscillators, some even up to 4 or 8 oscillators! Others offer different types of synthesis methods including Analogue Subtractive, Analogue Additive, Digital, FM, Phase Distortion, and some even have wave table synthesis. I have a few favorites, which I will list below. Some of these are well known by the music community, and others less so, but I assure you they are all quality plug-ins and useful in many different situations.
Oatmeal -- old favorite of KVR, 2-oscillator subtractive synth. I would recommend downloading one of LimeFlavor’s skins for this synth as the default interface is a bit ugly.
Synth-1 – A KVR classic Nord Lead Emulator with built-in FX. There is a downloadable library of user-made presets that is quite massive.
ILO Synth-1 – 2-Osc subtractive synth with complex modulation routing.
Tube-Ohm AlphaRay -- subtractive synth. This is free, but there is a $7 charge to unlock the FX section. The stock presets have FX attached, but any presets you create or save will lose the FX settings. This synth is very flexible, and IMO, is capable of some great sounds. The interface is pretty easy to learn and navigate as well.
Urs Heckman Tyrell Nexus 6 V1 and V2 – 2-Osc + 1 Sub-Osc Subtractive Synth similar to the old Juno’s. Capable of some nice gritty sounds. This is a collaboration between Urs Heckman (known for Diva/Zebra) and Amazon.de. This synth is circuit modeled similar to ACE. There are also some good skins for this if you hunt around a bit.
Togu Audio Line’s Noisemaker – 2-Osc + 1 Sub-Osc subtractive synth that is a logical evolution from the older Elek7ro synths of the same developer.
MonoFury -- Emulation of the classic Korg MonoPoly Synthesizer
Various GTG Synths -- too many to list here, and most all of them are great.
UGO’s Rez and Rez3 -- highly resonant single-oscillator + sub-Osc arpeggiated synth. Rez3 is the newer synth of course, and is packed with features.
Big Tick’s Angelina – Formant/Vowel Synthesizer with 2 tuned oscillators and 1 breath oscillator. This was formerly a commercial synth.
Krakli S3O -- This is best described as a power-organ emulator, not especially designed to deliver Hammond Organ tones, S3O will also deliver thundering church organs and Cheesy transistor sounds.
Krakli RMXL – This is basically a clone of a Richman synth (Actually a re-clothed RichmanCM) It uses a hybrid of physical modeling and FM Synthesis.
Blaukraut’s Charlatan -- Simple 2-Osc synth that is very easy to learn synthesis on, and has a great analogue sound. There are no built-in FX, so the sound will be very dry.
Drumatic3 – Electronic Drum Synth: Includes Bassdrum, Snaredrum, Handclap, 2 Toms, Hihats and a Rimshot / Bell. Sounds are easily edited and the palate is quite large.
ErsDrums – A decent drum synth. 2 Kicks, 2 Snares, 2 Blipps, Clap, Claves, Hihat, and Crash sounds.
PolyIblit – A nice subtractive synth. 3 Oscillators and lots of LFO/ENV options. H
De La Mancha’s FMMF – 4-operator FM Synthesizer.
RPS-1 -- RPS-1 is a pattern sequencing VSTi plugin designed primarily for the rapid creation of percussion sequences with random variations. The sequences are morphed via probability generated from a couple values.
Kairatune – A monophonic virtual instrument designed to produce crisp and tight electric sounds. This is an additive synthesizer.
Phutura -- A subtractive virtual synthesizer inspired by '80s hardware synth Alpha Juno, best known for the Hoover sound.
MauSynth – Very crisp punchy 2-oscillator synth. This is capable of some great sounds, but the interface takes some getting used to. Unlabeled knobs with arrows are indications of how things are routed around the synth.
Stelsi Synth – A unique 3-Osc analogue synth developed by Russians which has a built-in graphic EQ, and steppable LFO. Capable of some very unique sequence-ish sounds.
Schwa’s Olga – Great sounding analogue synth based on the old vintage quirky soviet synths.
Odo Synth’s Unknown Synth 4 – A 2-Osc phase modulated phase distortion.
Minimogue VA – emulation of the Minimoog. Includes additional features such as dedicated Release knobs for the two Contour Generators (envelopes), Tuning of Osc 1, Fine Tuning sliders for Osc2 and Osc3, Aftertouch control, 3 Overdrive sliders: one per oscillator (sort of a chorus effect to help thicken the sound), Oscillator Sync, Oscillator Drift (to emulate a drifting analog VCO), and a fully programmable Digital Delay.
Algo Music’s Phadiz(P) – A phase distortion synthesizer. (think Casio CZ101)
Fretted Synth’s PhazOsc – An audio / MIDI triggered phase distorted synth.
SQ8L – Emulation of the classic Ensoniq SQ-80 Synthesizer.
Urs Heckman’s Zebralette – This is a single-oscillator version of Zebra 2. While it is a single oscillator, it is a very capable and configurable oscillator. This synth, though limited, is capable of some very complex sounds.
II: Acoustic Instrument plug-ins:
Rayzoon’s Jamstix 3 – A great drummer artificial intelligence plug-in that is capable of generating complex drum rhythms for various styles of music. It is also fully programmable. This is commercial software, but the price is very good for the power you get with this software. $100
Cutter Music’s Revitar 2.0 – This is a guitar synthesizer and can produce a wide variety of guitar sounds and playing styles. To achieve added realism and playing flexibility, Revitar employs unique guitar pick, string and body simulations. No samples are used in the entire process, so no two notes ever sound the same.
Sound Magic’s Piano One – A decent sounding hybrid sampled/physical modeling of a Yamaha C7 grand piano.
Sound Magic’s Strings One – A hybrid sample/model of an orchestral string ensemble.
Cellofan – A sampled cello. It is okay sounding and can help beef up strings if layered. Solo, it’s “okay” sounding.
Suburban Guitarist – physical modeled electric guitar that leans toward jazz sounds. Is available in one of the KVR forum threads, but was never officially released or completed.
III: Effects Plug-Ins:
There are very many free FX plug-ins available. I shall list the ones I use most commonly.
Kjaerhaus Classic Series – This inclues an EQ, Compressor, Delay, Chorus, Reverb, Auto-filter, Phaser, and Flanger. All of these are useful for learning your way around applying FX to various tracks to make corrections and spicing up the sound. The sound quality of these effects is also very good, though they are fairly basic.
Variety Of Sound (Bootsy’s Plug-ins) – Bootsy over on VarietyOfSound has a number of high-quality free plug-ins available. These are a bit more complex than the classic series, but they offer a great sound. I use these plug-ins in almost every project I work on these days. My favorites are BootsyEQmkII, Density mkII and mkIII, BaxterEQ, Pre-FIX, NastyDLA, and EpicVerb.
TC Electronics M30 Reverb – This is a great simple reverb that is quick loading and not too hard on the CPU. The sound is very useable, and this was free at one point. I’m not sure if it is still free or not.
Camel Audio Camel Crunch – This is a free plug-in available over on Camel Audio’s site. It is a Multi-Effect plug-in which includes Distortion, Filter, Compression, and Gain. I use this fairly often on synth, guitar, and bass tracks. It is capable of adding some tube-like distortion and altering the sound in some pretty brutal ways.
Wurr Audio GreenMachine MkII – This is a nice little guitar amp simulator. It is capable of some very nice clean and dirty tones. I use this quite often along with my guitar plug-ins.
FrettedSynth FreeAmp 2 & 3 – A different flavor from GreenMachine, this is a very capable guitar amp sim type of setup with built-in pedal effects. I prefer version 2 to 3, though. Rumor has he may be working on a new one soon.
Acme Bar Gig – These guys make a lot of different guitar simulator effects. Different amp sims, amp heads, and some all-in-one plug-ins. There is a lot of mixing and matching and variety to be used with these, and they all have pretty good sounds.
EasyQ – An easy-to-use equalizer with an arbitrary number of filter stages in series connection. Each of the filter stages can operate in one of the following modes: peak/cut (aka bell or parametric EQ), high- or low-shelving, notch and low- or high-pass (both with either 6 or 12 dB/oct slope).
FnEqualizer – a 7-band Paragraphic equalizer intended to have a clean and transparent sound character. It features a user interface that is designed for quick easy and versatile mixing work.
IV: Various free plug-ins/bundles from big-name developers
Sometimes, if you are perceptive, you will be able to find special deals or promotional offers from the big name developers out there. Sometimes these will be at a much lower cost than usual, sometimes they will be watered down free versions of larger products, but that are uncrippled and still very capable and useable tools. This includes software included with Computer Music Magazine, and Beats.de.
EastWest Free Symphony – Not available anymore, but one Christmas, EW put out a free version of their larger symphonic orchestra. It is a very useable set of sounds including brass, woodwinds, strings, and percussion in both solo and unison versions. I have used this myself quite a few times. If you are lucky, you might be able to find it somewhere if you look hard enough.
IK Multimedia Sampletank 2 Free – This is a free version of Sampletank. There are some very useable sounds included in this package.
Native Instruments Players bundle – NI put out a free player version of their popular engines. This bundle includes Kontakt Player, Reaktor Player, and a free version of Guitar Rig. The sounds included are all very useful. NI also used to have a Player version of their older KORE software with some very useable sounds. I don’t know if it is still available or not.
Camel Audio Alchemy Player – This is a lite version of their larger Alchemy product. The sounds included are quite good and very useable for a variety of genres.
Sometimes you will be able to score some freebies through Computer Music Magazine, or Beats.de magazine. Well, not quite free, but the price of one magazine. Often these will be watered down versions of the larger software packages, but a bit more versatile than “lite” versions that are completely free.
So, there you have it. I use the majority of everything I have listed. I don’t use everything all the time, but I do put good uses to most of the plug-ins I listed above, particularly the effects. This should give you a good arsenal of sounds to really make some professional sounding mixes or pieces of music whether it is music for games, Electronica, DJ work, Rap, Orchestral, Rock, Metal, whatever you can think of. And even better, as technology improves and indie developers improve, the free stuff will also improve. Even today I still download new freebies to see how they sound. Sometimes it’s “meh” but sometimes they are some killer sounding pieces of work. So, good luck with your music, and happy plug-in hunting. Though, do try to clean out your libraries from time to time. Plug-In bloat….it ain’t pretty!