So, you now have an all the gear you need, and a good DAWS installed. The next thing you need is to load it up with quality plugins to produce sound. Most DAWS come with some decent synthesizers, sample collections and loops, but you’ll probably find out pretty quick that you want to move beyond the generic sounds that come with it.
There are a myriad of different tools for making music, they range from lame to amazing and their prices range from free to thousands of dollars. You totally need to buy them all! Not really…We’re going to look at some of the best plug-ins that are good for starting out and also for doing VGM remixes and Chiptunes of course. We’ll also look at some of the non-music tools that help make your sound more professional.
Troll Disclaimer: This is not meant to be an exhaustive list by any means, and all prices are just estimates of current pricing at the time of writing.
Basically, it works like this; these plugins attach to your DAWS, you assign them to a track and start laying down MIDI notes on your MIDI keyboard or by putting the notes in the piano roll. The system plays these notes through its synths or triggers the proper sample.
If you’re not going the hardware route and want to add some retro sounds to your songs, here’s a few great options that are somewhat affordable:
Plogue Chipsounds ($95.00 – Limited Free Demo)
Chipsounds is a really awesome plug-in that emulates the NES, Gameboy DMG, Atari SID and a bunch of other classic chips, some of which you may never have even heard of. It’s well worth the price and it’s clear that Plogue is dedicated to being as true to the original chip’s parameters and sounds as possible.
YMCK’s Magical 8bit (Free!)
This tool provides the primitive waveforms needed to create some basic 8-bit sounds. It’s not as confusing and complicated as Plogue, but does take a bit more work to create a real distinct sound of a specific chip.
This VST might not be compatible with every DAWS but it’s a truly amazing way to get the FM Synthesis sound of the Sega Genesis. See this related article for all the details.
Bass And Synths
Bass is a key component to any song, and if you’re looking for powerful sounds, you’ll probably want to go further than your packaged bass synth that came with your DAWS. Here’s a few great options.
TAL Free Plugins (Free!)
These guys have all sorts of basic retro synths that mimic the famous TB-303 and other classic synth basses. It’s great for remixes and getting that retro sound.
Native Instruments’ Massive ($200 – Limited Free Demo)
Massive is best known for creating dubstep sounds. It’s powerful and flexible and can produce some nice pads as well. It’s worth trying out since the free demo works (even lets you bounce tracks, so really you don’t need to buy it) for 30 minutes sessions. It’s worth purchasing for almost any type of music.
Native Instruments’ Kontakt ($199.50 currently on sale!)
As you can see, NI makes it on the list a lot. I am dying to know why this tool costs 50 cents more than their other tools. The powerful Kontakt has loads of samples and modular synth interfaces that let you create modern sounds and classic bleeps and bloops. It also has exotic instruments and tons of third-party add-ons available.
Orchestral Sounds ($300+)
If you want to get into orchestral music, Final Fantasy-type stuff you can’t go wrong with Vienna Instruments or EastWest Quantum Leap’s systems. Beware though, you’re going to be dropping a pretty penny. I suggest starting the longly-titled EastWest Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra Silver, it’s a well-rounded collection to get you started for minimal spending. Make sure you check the requirements of hard drive and memory usage since these bad boys are huge.
Creating drums can be challenging but fun. There’s a myriad of free sample collections, which you can load into you’re the sampler that comes with your DAWS. Here’s a few really great programs if you do want to drop some cash on some killer beats and rhythm elements.
Native Instruments’ Battery ($199)
Battery is a full-featured sampler that comes with lots of great beats and has tons of available expansion pack drum kits you can add too. You really get your moneys worth on this one.
FXPansion’s BFD2 ($99-$199)
BFD2 has some killer acoustic drum sounds that sound natural and full. The affordable BFD2 ECO is a great place to start for some acoustic sounds.
East West Quantum Leap’s Ministry of Rock 2 ($299)
If you want thundering heavy metal drums, you can’t be ministry of rock. It also comes with some amazing guitars and bass guitar sample-based programs as well.
If you can only buy one thing on this list, I suggest you look at this section. Most of the DAWS come with basic mastering tools, but you really can’t beat oZone for its all-in-one professional interface.
iZotope Ozone ($199)
This mastering plug-in contains equalizers, multipressors (we’ll learn about these later), stereo controls, harmonic exciters and maximizers to help you get a loud, professional mix. It also does technical stuff like dithering to make sure you’re really producing a quality mix and final file.
Chances are, you can’t buy all this stuff right away and you will probably make more purchases over time. Therefore, it’s a great idea to sign up to the mailing lists of many of the companies that produce these tools. This not only makes you privy to new tools that come available but you can also take advantage of holiday sales, limited time offers and other deals. I’d estimate I’ve saved about $500 this year alone by buying things during sales, using customer loyalty discounts for repeated purchases and basically just being a smart shopper. Here’s a few companies whose mailing lists you’ll want to join:
Sweetwater – They sell lots of gear and software and have regular sales.
Native Instruments – The makers of Massive, they’re always putting out new stuff too.
iZotope – Makers of Ozone, they have lots of great EQ, distortion and other effect plugins.
FXPansion Audio UK – Makers of BFD and tons of other great tools.
Next week, we’ll return to life as a freelance musician with a ‘day in the life’ perspective of what it’s like scraping out a living by making a lot of noise in your living room. Stay tuned.