You might be on a tight budget, but you needn’t miss out on some great synths: the freeware community has been happily programming some excellent plug-in instruments and effects over the last couple of decades and the number of synths that you can now download for free is quite staggering.
Quality varies enormously, so we’ve rounded up our ten favourites, trying to include as many for both Mac and PC as possible. Several are emulations of classic hardware, and one or two are becoming classics in their own right, so get clicking and try this lot for free…
One of the best Mac and PC freeware synths out there (and now available for iOS for $4.99) Crystal has been at the top of the freeware charts for many a year and won its large fan base through great sounds featuring subtractive and FM synthesis, so has a wide and varied palette.
One of the top-rated synths at the excellent Plug-in Boutique (www.pluginboutique.com) – and we certainly agree. It’s a Juno-style analogue synthesizer with some great sounds and enough polyphony to build some great walls of electronics.
This is a cut-down version of LinPlug’s Alpha synthesizer and is essentially an advert for it – but so what? It’s a proper, fully functional synth that is very capable and fat-sounding thanks to dual-waveform oscillators, a multimode filter and a great modulation matrix that lets you hook up mod sources to various destinations. You get a wide variety of sounds programmed by the pros – one of the best freebies out there.
Minimogue VA PC
Continuing the theme of free synths based on classics, here’s one based on one of the best of all – the Minimoog. And when this synth sticks to its guns, producing those original sounds, it scores highly. Basses are deep, leads piercing and, all told, it’s hard to believe it’s free. If you want to find out what the fuss is about regarding the Mini, it’s all here… Voltkitchen, the developers, is also responsible for the Arppe2600va, which is based on the ARP2600 (www.glenstegner.com). It’s rather good, too.
Like Crystal, Synth1 is widely regarded as one of the best freeware synths of all time and it does sound incredible – as long as you explore and play with it. Its presets don’t show it off to its best, but start programming yourself – easy for anyone familiar with analogue synths – and you will achieve wonderful results.
Cakewalk/RGC Audio Triangle II PC
Simple to use, easy to understand and as synthy as you can get, Triangle II is a great giveaway. You can tell it was put together by professionals (originally RGC Audio before they were snapped up by DAW specialists Cakewalk) and you get a wide variety of sounds to suit many genres of music.
Solicito Musica SuperTron PC
Any title with the word ‘Tron’ in it works for us, but this freebie is an electronica marvel, too. The best thing about it is that its ‘step’ features add a lot of movement to proceedings, with lots of arpeggiation all round. If you like your synths beefy, retro and macho, look no further.
Based on the Wasp synth from the 70s, one of the first affordable synths (affordable because it was basically a bit rubbish unless you wanted buzzing-bee noises). With stacks of presets that really will rock your productions, forget the original and bask in the glory of this one instead.
Anyone familiar with classic synths will know exactly which one this is attempting to emulate: the Roland SH-101. The simple signal path will appeal to synth newbies, while the sounds themselves will appeal to both veterans and dance-heads alike – fat basses, searing leads and some real dirt. It’s a shame you can’t add a handle and play it while on the move, just like the original.
TubeOhm Alpha-Ray PC
Alpha-Ray is a relatively new (well, relative to Crystal and Synth1) ten-voice synth with plenty of features, lots of controls and a lovely looking fascia. It’s got some great atmospheric sounds, too, many with plenty of movement and atmosphere. Controls and features are typical VA and the whole thing can be livened up with optional effects, which at just €4.95 are well worth the outlay.