I thought I’d put together a list of the main programs and plugins I use to make music, accompanied by a brief comment/review! If there’s anyone out there looking to make their own music, I hope this list comes in handy. I’ll add to list in the future to include other things, but feel free to leave a comment if you’d like me to go into more detail about anything.
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DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) – FL Studio
Basically, this is the program I use to make the backing tracks to all of my recordings (I then export the backing track and record my live performances into Audacity, a free program). I use the Fruity Edition, which is the cheapest version. It’s missing a few features, such as audio editing and the Soundfont Player (which you have to buy separately, unless you want to go with a free version), but it has enough features to do what it needs to do.
It also comes with a generous free trial – you can use everything for an unlimited period of time, but you can’t open up projects after you save them. Before I bought it, I actually would use the free trial and finish off all my backing tracks in a single go…
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- Old Music Box [DSK]
As the name implies, this is an old music box. It has one job, and it does that job well, adding atmosphere to any track. It doesn’t have any of the bells and whistles you’d find in other plugins, but that makes it simple to use. I used it in Clockwork Mermaid, as well as in a couple of other tracks.
- Redtron [Artifake Labs]
This is a synthesised Mellotron, a type of old keyboardy type of instrument. It has a very distinctive sound. If you’ve listened to the Beatles, particularly Strawberry Fields Forever, you’d recognise its sound. It’s pretty easy to use, and it comes with a bunch of different sounds as well, including violins, flutes, (I think) a choir, and more. Like the above instrument, it’s quite atmospheric. I used it in Forgotten to add in a bit of spookiness…
- Firebird [Tone2]
Formerly a paid VST, the developers have made this one free since it’s now ‘vintage.’ It’s a type of synthesiser, but it has a bit of a different sound to regular synthesisers. It has a bunch of different customisation options, allowing you to create the type of sound that you really want to hear. I didn’t really end up using it much, but it could be the perfect VST for someone out there.
- Asian DreamZ [DSK]
This is by the same people who made the Old Music Box. As the name suggests, it includes a bunch of Asian instruments including the erhu(!). The sound quality is quite good for a free instrument, and it even has a few customisation options. I had a lot of fun using its percussion and erhu in Spellbound Stone.
- Super Spook Keys [Simple-Media]
This is a recreation of the theremin, an electronic instrument used a lot in sci-fi movies and TV shows. It’s quite cool, and has a lot of different customisation options, so it’s worth a look if you’d like to work on something futuristic. I haven’t used it much yet, but maybe I will someday…?
- Nintendo VST [Matt Montag]
I was out looking for a proper NES/chiptune VST the other week, and I stumbled across this one. It’s easy to use, and simulates the traditional triangle and square waves. You also get a rich range of customisation options. A recent experiment with it is I Can Be Your (Hero).
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- Friedlander Violin and Blakus Cello [Embertone]
These are some of my most favourite paid virtual instruments. Basically, the people at Embertone meticulously sampled 4 stringed instruments and put them together into 4 separate bundles. I only have 2 at the moment. The instruments themselves sound great when used as a regular solo instrument, but they absolutely shine when it comes to the extra effects like pizzicato and tremolo. They do a lot of the heavy lifting in my arrangements, and were the stars of my 4th album, Mastermind.They’re quite difficult to program, which is one of the reasons why I love the extra sounds so much, but it seems like they’re quite easy to use if you have a keyboard plugged in (which I don’t…)
The staff are really friendly, and they offer a generous education discount, too – just email them a copy of your student card. As a side note, their instruments require either the full version of Kontakt (quite pricey) or the free Kontakt Player. I think all of the strings can be used with the free Kontakt Player, so there’s nothing to worry about!
- The Steinway Walnut Grand [Imperfect Samples]
This is another heavy lifter in my collection. Unlike other virtual pianos, this one captures the rawness of the piano sound, rather than focusing on getting a pristine sound. I think that gives it a lot of charm, and I like it a lot! It comes with its own free player, but can also be used with the full version of Kontakt if I remember correctly. It has a lot of different settings, too, and changes completely depending on the velocity of the note. Kind of like a real piano…
My only complaint is that sometimes the sound gets a bit muffled and choppy if you have too many notes playing at the same time. Other than that, it’s a great virtual piano, especially if you’ve previously stuck with generic soundfont pianos like me. I used it a lot in Mastermind (the track, as well as the album), as well as in Barrier Breaker (the track).
- AAS Session Bundle [Applied Acoustics Systems]
I found out about this bundle when I was out looking for a proper virtual synthesiser. I actually had a look on RD’s website and saw that he uses it, so I decided to give it a go! This bundle includes three instruments: the Lounge Lizard electric piano, the Strum Session guitar, and (most importantly) the Ultra Analog Session synthesiser. They’re all really easy to use, and they give you a lot of different customisation options. I haven’t used them much yet, but that will all change when I release my next album…! They’re quite cheap, and you get a lot of value for your money.
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That’s all for now. I probably sound too positive, but I’m honestly really happy with my current range of virtual instruments, and haven’t really encountered any problems with any of them.