20 Free VSTs for Making Music at Home (That are Actually Good)
Music production is getting cheaper and more accessible for average people. You don’t need to rent studio time or hire sound engineers to produce music for Spotify or YouTube. You don’t need a scheming major label blood contract…I mean record deal…to gain traction on streaming or social media platforms. If you are strapped for cash but have the time and effort, you can make distribution-quality music with a personal computer, basic hardware, and some software.
And when it comes to software for making music, you can actually find some serious quality apps for little to no cost. If you are a beginner, you don’t necessarily need or want to shell out big bucks for capable software. So in this list, I want to share my recommendations for the best quality free programs I’ve used for making music.
MIDI Controllers (and Why You May Want One)
It’s totally possible to compose music with just a computer keyboard and mouse, but it can be tedious. Thankfully, there are devices called MIDI controllers, also called MIDI keyboards. These are plastic pieces of hardware that look like a piano or synthesizer, but they don’t make sound on their own. Instead, you plug them into the MIDI port on your computer. Then you can play them like you would any piano, and it will send the note information into your computer and make it into MIDI data. For working with VSTs and software synths, I highly recommend that you buy one of these MIDI controllers (if you can afford it). Some can be found for quite cheap and are very versatile. Now let’s talk about the actual software and digital instruments you can play with!
Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs)
A Digital Audio Workstation (normally referred to as a DAW) is a program used for recording and editing audio files. This DAW is the basis for all your music production, where you will record your instruments/vocals and mix them into finish songs. The following DAWs are not only free, but are also full-fledged programs on par with their propriety competitors.
- Cakewalk by Bandlab. It boggles my mind why more people don’t know about this software. It is a full-fledged, completely unlocked DAW with built-in effects, VSTs, and a lite trial version of Melodyne. All for free. Cakewalk by Bandlab is literally just Cakewalk Sonar Platinum but without the $600+ price tag. The reason it’s now free is because the company Cakewalk, who originally built and sold the software, went out of business (it was owned by Gibson Guitars and, when Gibson’s sales contracted, they started shuttering a lot of their subsidiaries). The company Bandlab later bought the rights to the software and made it a free download. I used Sonar before Cakewalk went out of business and I use the Bandlab version now: it’s the same program just a lot cheaper now. However, be aware it only works on Windows.
- Waveform Free by Traktion. Here is another gratis DAW that has no limitations on the number of tracks or types of plugins you can use. It also has a drum sampler built in, which Cakewalk doesn’t.
- Soundbridge. This is an interesting DAW that looks like it’s tooled towards beat producers. It has built-in effects, unlimited tracks allowed, and what’s most interesting is that it comes with a built-in drum sampler called Ritmix.
A soft synth is a digital version of a synthesizer; instead of needing an expensive hardware keyboard with built-in sounds, you can simply load a software version in your DAW and record or compose MIDI notes directly into your piano roll. Depending on your style of music, a soft synth may be the only melodic instrument you need. A synth normally comes with many presets for emulating pianos, strings, pads, 808 drums, bass, plucks, etc.
- DEXED by Digital Suburban. This is an emulation of the popular Yamaha DX7, an FM synthesizer. If you’re after that 80s retro sound on the cheap, try this out.
- Vital by Vital Audio. This is a wavetable synth similar to the heavyweight favorite, Serum; it comes with three wavetable oscillators and two filters. If you’re looking for a Serum alternative that can do pop, trap, hip hop, synthwave, etc. then give this one a test drive.
Unlike synths that generate their own tones, samplers let you load and play back pre-recorded sampled instruments common referred to as VSTs. If you want a more realistic or analog sound to an instrument in your track (like a piano or a violin), then using a VST in a sampler will usually yield a result that’s more authentic to the original instrument timbre and qualities (because the samples are taken from an actual instrument being recorded).
- Kontakt Player (Free Version) by Native Instruments. Kontakt is practically the industry standard on VST samplers, and Native Instruments offers a free version with limited features. You can also find quite a bit of free and paid VSTs that will run in this version.
- LABS by Spitfire Audio. This sampler is not very feature heavy, but Spitfire has made a very nice collection of high quality free VSTs that run inside of it.
- Decent Sampler. This is a pretty basic sampler meant for use with Decent Samples own VST instruments (some of which are insanely creative and fun to use). I’ve used it and it’s a little wonky, but gets the job done.
All of the piano VSTs listed below are recordings of actual acoustic pianos and are available for one of the free samplers listed in the last section.
- Soft Piano for LABS. A simple but intimate piano VST.
- Claustrophobic Piano by Christian Hensen. Sampled by the same guy who did the Soft Piano above, this VST was recorded inside the soundbox of an upright Schimmel and sounds quite lovely. This one works in either Kontakt or Decent Sampler.
- Reel to Reel Tape Piano by Decent Samples. A great lofi piano tone that was recorded through a vintage reel-to-reel tape recorder and slightly warped.
There are two general flavors for drum samples: ones that sound like straight recordings of a real analog kit or ones that sound like a modified 808 drum machine kit. Depending on your genre, you may prefer one over the other. For that reason, I’ve listed a few options for both sounds.
- Drums for LABS. A very distinctive drum kit sound that lacks features and controls but does sound quite cool.
- SI Drum Kit in Cakewalk. This is a VST included with the Cakewalk software suite, but you can use it in any DAW once you’ve installed it. This one is an analog kit with several presets and controls that allow you to tweak each individual drum in the kit. Having used Cakewalk for over a decade now, it’s safe to say I’ve used this drum kit quite a bit.
- BPB Cassette by Crimson Merry. This is a freeware emulation of the classic 606, 808, and 909 drum machines.
- Using Sample Packs. If you have a drum sampler, you can browse for free sample packs instead. With this route, you can collect the audio samples of each drum kit, then drag and drop what you like into your samplers to save your own custom kits. Places you can peruse for free sounds include Cymatics and the Bedroom Producers Blog recommendations. If you don’t have a built-in sampler in your DAW, you can try out Decomposer by Sitala (which is free).
Bass Guitar VSTs
If you want the sound of an actual bass guitar but don’t have one available for recording, you can try one of these sampled bass VSTs. If you want an 808 or synth sound for your bass parts, one of the soft synths listed earlier can get you that tone.
- Bass Guitar for LABS. A jazz bass played through a vintage Ampeg amp.
- Ample Bass P Lite by Ample Sound. A sampled precision bass with multiple articulations.
- ‘60s P-Bass by IK Multimedia. A stripped-down, one-model version from their full MODO Bass collection.
You don’t need to hire a local orchestra to add a full string section to your tracks. There are several orchestra VSTs recorded with professional instrumentalists on the market for adding lush walls of sound to your songs.
- BBC Symphony Orchestra Discover by Spitfire Audio. A stripped-down orchestra collection with 33 instrument sections.
- Strings for LABS. A basic string ensemble.
- Cello Moods for LABS. Solo cello performances.
- The Free Orchestra by Project SAM (works in the free Kontakt Player). A stripped-down orchestra collection by a company renowned for it’s professional film scoring libraries.
- Layers by Orchestral Tools (works in their own free SINE player). Orchestral Tools is a heavyweight in the world of orchestral sample libraries, and this is their free but impressive version of a light orchestra sketching VST (if you call17 GB of samples light!).
Other Articles to Consider
Thank you for reading! If you found this guide helpful, here are a few more articles for your consideration: