If you’re just getting into electronic music production in 2017, you’ve likely done some research online to find out what tools you will need. If that’s the case, you may have gotten the impression that you will need to purchase expensive software plugins in order to produce quality tracks. Amateur producers are often discouraged by the combination of aggressively marketed professional products and elitist hearsay on audio forums. Fortunately, there’s a vast array of free plugins readily available to you, and many of them perform just as well as comparable products that cost several hundred dollars.
In this article, we will profile ten plugins that we highly recommend to beginning electronic music producers. The list contains a variety of fundamental tools, from synths, to drum machines, to effects, so you’ll have all your bases covered. The key is to not fret about whether your tools are good enough, just get out there and start making music!
A Powerful Soft-Synth for Leads and Pads
Helm is a free software synthesizer that runs as a plugin or as a standalone app. While programming your own sounds in Helm takes a bit of experience, it comes with a variety of useful presets right out of the box. While it’s quite versatile overall, I tend to reach for it when I need arpeggiated leads and complex textures. It’s well-maintained and available on both Mac and Windows.
Simple, Analog Style Soft-Synth Great for Leads
TAL Noisemaker is a straightforward subtractive synthesizer, with a familiar interface. Equipped with 2 oscillators and all the basics, NoiseMaker gives off an “analog feel” with a basic UI and simple parameter control. Although it has less features than Helm (notably, it lacks an arpeggiator), its simplicity makes it ideal for classic synth lead sounds.
Drum Machine with Pre-Loaded Samples (808 included!)
Download BeatSkillz Drums
The beat forms the crucial, driving backbone of many styles of electronic music; in fact, some genres are structured entirely around the distinctive sounds of specific drum machines! Good free drum plugins can be hard to come by, but this is one of the better options for simple, straightforward drum programming. Beat Skills Drums comes with a few basic kits that sound quite good - the catch is that it doesn’t allow you to load your own samples. That said, you can do a lot with its recognizable pre-loaded samples. Although BSD is a solid tool for composition and sketching out ideas, I recommend finding an alternative drum plugin that allows custom sample upload and individual sample control, such as Ableton Live’s Drum Rack, or Battery by Native Instruments.
Phat Monophonic Bass Sounds with a Simple UI
Download Tal Bassline
Although Helm and Noisemaker are capable of solid bass synth sounds, it’s often helpful to have a dedicated monophonic bass synthesizer on hand. TAL Bassline can do the job, and sports a comfortable user interface. Use this plugin to layer a simple sub bass tone under your kick, or throw an arpeggiator plugin on the “Square Acid” preset and get to work on some acid techno.
Powerful Reverb Plugin with an Analog Feel
Reverb is a crucial tool for modern music production, and you’ll want a robust reverb plugin in your arsenal. Old Skool Reverb offers some vintage sounds and plenty of control over the basic reverb parameters, including damping and EQ. It gives you just enough control to get creative, but with a simplicity that can help to keep me from going overboard. Nobody likes a producer who hides behind too much reverb… yet no one can live without it.
A Vintage Style Delay Plugin for Dubbing-Out your Mix
There’s a reason they call it dubstep. Delay is a crucial effect across a wide variety of popular genres, especially electronic music; just ask King Tubby. TAL Dub is a great tool for dubbing out your tracks. Especially in conjunction with a reverb plugin like Old Skool, TAL Dub will help you create the far-out spatial effects that breathe life into your tracks.
A Well Rounded Compressor/Limiter Plugin
Download the mda Plugin Package
While tastes vary, it’s safe to say that no club mix is complete without a bit of compression. MDA’s dynamics plugin is a dirt-simple compressor that covers all of your bases, and its multiband functionality gives you a great deal of control when it’s time to give your tracks a little more movement and energy.