Free VST plug-ins for Windows

Like a lot of people who read this magazine, I'm a hardware guy, and I've resisted using computers to make my music for a long time. But I recently realized that you could get a pretty good synth and effects rig going for free as long as you have a Windows PC less than five years old. I spent a few days figuring out the world of freeware VST's and discovered that there's a huge variety of amazing sounds out there, available for nothing whatsoever. Now these instruments are a serious part of my studio, and they do things my hardware can't.

Tobybear MiniHost VST player

To run VST's, you need some kind of host application. Most computer musicians use commercial software for this purpose, but MiniHost is a donationware program that will run most VST's. It is a great little application that puts your soft synths in a discrete window and gives you a little graphic piano keyboard to play with your mouse, QWERTY keyboard, or MIDI controller. In addition, a toolbar along the top of the window offers a chord maker (like the toy Casios of yore), arpeggiator, and step sequencer that work with every single synth I've tried. There's also a pull-down preset menu, a CPU usage meter, and both MIDI and WAV recorders. It installs in a flash, takes up almost no space, opens instantly, and never crashes. MiniHost only runs one VST at a time, so forget it if you want a big, virtual rack of stuff. I think of it as the software equivalent of taking a synth or stompbox out of the closet and plugging it in. If you don't like the little registration reminder screen that pops up when you open the application, donate $20 to Toby, and it will go away. He'll also answer any of your questions and will direct you to his forum, which is visited regularly by experienced MiniHost users. Okay, now you need to go get some VST's. I've listed mostly synths here, but many of the developers who make them also make freeware effects. If these whet your appetite, and you want more, go to the largest Internet clearinghouse of VST instruments and effects, KVR Audio. (;

Simple-Media Spook Keys

Spook Keys is a virtual Theremin. This might seem rather counterintuitive, as the whole point of a Theremin is getting to wave your hands in the air; but surprisingly, this emulation is extremely playable. The largest part of the Spook Keys interface is taken up by a square graph, inhabited by a point of light. "Pick up" the light, and move it with your mouse-or map it to MIDI controllers- and there's your Theremin! Unlike most Theremins, Spook Keys has four different waveforms, a pulse width control, stereo panning, glide speed control, and an elaborate delay complete with feedback and resonance. It's also playable from a MIDI keyboard, in case you want to riff "Good Vibrations" style. How's it sound? Great. It's a cinch to get those vintage RCA-Theremin sounds everyone loves, and the nonstandard options make it more versatile than any real Theremin I've played. Simple-Media also makes an outrageously simple but very satisfying little instrument called The Shepherd. It was made to do one thing only: reproduce that whistling sound from Ennio Morricone's movie soundtracks. This it does with great precision. Download them both while you're there. (www.simple-

Piz Mr. Alias

"The Piz" makes weird, ironic VST's with names like Blood Bucket and JunkMaster. The graphic interfaces are intentionally crappy-looking, and the description for Mr. Alias actually reads, "Note: Don't use this. It's bad." Needless to say, any self-respecting musician would take this as a challenge. And it's true, Mr. Alias sounds horrible. That's the point, of course. It's a monosynth that employs pure mathematical waveforms and maximum digital aliasing. You know aliasing-that annoying background noise that cheap digital gear makes. Mr. Alias makes that sound on purpose. The synth looks terrible too; it's what software would be like if it were designed by four-year-olds. None of the controls are marked, and none of keys you press ever seem to correspond to actual notes of any kind. Which is to say that Mr. Alias is awesome. The noise that comes out of it is very evocative. It can sound like the ambient soundtrack of a science-fiction TV show, or a modem, or cell phone interference, or a child's toy with dying batteries in it. Sometimes it will suddenly, surprisingly, sound musical. While you're downloading it, check out the free Piz fonts, skins, and desktop icons too. (

Elogoxa Sun Ra

Inspired by the avant-jazz legend whose name it bears, this VST is sort of an instrument and sort of an effect. It is appropriately labeled an "Ambient Texture Generator." It takes a sound file and allows the user to pan it, adjust its pitch, and overlay it with a subtractive oscillator, LFO's, percussion, effects, and inscrutable randomization algorithms. You can create plenty of great sounds using the provided WAV files, but it gets much more interesting if you use your own. Spoken word makes an excellent base, as do ambient sound effects or noise. And after you've played a few chords, you can just remove your hands from the keyboard and let the thing groove on its own for a while. Its amazing graphic interface fills most of my screen and looks like a futuristic electronic Frisbee. Elogoxa's other plug-ins are equally interesting; they include a tape- saturation emulator, an exciter, a delay based on Robert Fripp's famous "Frippertronics" effect, and a feedback synth called The Devil Inside. (

SyncerSoft Polyvoks Station

In the 70's and 80's, while Americans and Europeans were enjoying the analog fruits of Roland, Korg, ARP, and Moog, a parallel universe was unfolding in the Soviet Union, where government-owned factories were churning out cool synths by the boatload. Some of these are available on eBay now at rather appalling prices, and a few people sell samples of them. But SyncerSoft has been quietly making really terrific software emulations of them for a few years. Versions of the classic Alisa, RITM-2, and Estradin-230 are available on their site, but my favorite is the Polyvoks Station, an emulation of the Polivoks, perhaps the most famous of all Russian synths. I've never played a real Polivoks, but this VST is a killer even if it may be nothing like the original. The Polyvoks Station has two oscillators plus a noise generator, and a variety of weird modulations are possible on both oscs. Each also has PWM. The filter self-oscillates, there's a delay and a phaser, and unlike on the Polivoks, this synth is in stereo and is polyphonic! All in all, this is one of my favorite VA synths; its sound is powerful and out-of-the-ordinary in a market crowded with two-oscillator, analog-style machines. SyncerSoft's server is slow, making download time rather long. But it's worth it. (

Oli Larkin SE64

Speaking of video game sounds, I have long lusted after the Elektron SidStation, a synthesizer based around the SID sound chip, most popularly used in the old Commodore 64 computer. Unfortunately, it costs $950. Oli Larkin has put an end to my longing-and for free. His SE64 monosynth emulates the sound of the SID and adds a number of useful, well-chosen features that set this synth apart from other SID copycats. The synth has two oscillators, one with a selectable waveform, the other a triangle wave. You can adjust the amount of each and cross-modulate them for weird, harsh sounds. There's a highly effective multimode filter (including bandpass!) and a Bit Crusher effects section, with one Bit Crusher per oscillator and something called SR, which I assume is sample rate reduction. These are lo-fi effects that Larkin says makes your sound "more retro." But the most distinctive feature of this synth is the sequencer. You can create eight-note sequences, with each note detuned or panned however you like; and it is blisteringly fast, fast enough to create the illusion of chords. Within minutes, you'll be creating insane loops of blips, scrapes, and beeps. If you like it, check out Larkin's VST effects as well; he sells an excellent series of Endless plug-ins based on the barber-pole effect. (

Tweakbench Rebar

Tweakbench is a one-man operation that produces simple, specialized software synths and effects. Almost everything in its catalog is a one-trick pony, but in every case, the trick is superb, and you're not likely to find it elsewhere. One of my favorites is Rebar, a metallic- sounding pad synth that allows you to build your own additive waveform using a clear, simple graphic interface. You shape your waveform with a traditional amplifier envelope and two modification "panels" marked warp and delay. Each X/Y panel contains a square cursor (that looks exactly like the main character in Atari's Adventure) which you can move around with a mouse. The delay axes are time and repeat, and changing them on the fly results in the same note-bending effects you'd get adjusting a tape delay. But the warp panel is the true gem of this synth; moving its cursor adds and subtracts all kinds of weird harmonics and digital distortion. You can get it to sound like everything from bowed cello to radio static. And with a couple of joysticks or KAOSS Pads, you can map each panel to a separate set of MIDI parameters through MiniHost. I mapped each axis to a slider on my little Edirol controller, and it worked great. Most Tweakbench synths have a common feature: a randomize button. Random patch generators are of limited utility in most synths, but Tweakbench products are limited enough to make this feature incredibly useful. Click it, and the parameters and wave frequencies scramble. The result is almost always interesting. This program is freeware, but I liked it enough to contribute by purchasing a t-shirt from the Tweakbench page at I also recommend Pippo, a plucked-string synth; Toad, a drum machine based on Nintendo video game sounds; and Dropout, a really cool, sequenced sample-slicer-shifter. (

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

Or Learn More