With fuel prices at an all-time high, how far can you really go for less than 50 bucks these days? Well, if you're searching for new sonic vistas, look no further: we've got 17 products that are sure to give you extra creative mileage for less than the price of a tank of gas.
I asked the editors of EM to pick a handful of software apps under $50 that they use and enjoy. The only caveat was that the products could not have appeared in our other roundups of low-priced software, such as “Too Much Good Stuff” (August 2003), “Bargain Hunter's Delight” (May 2004), and “Twelve Under a Hundred” (March 2007; all available at emusician.com).
The results include shareware, donationware, freeware, and even one application with a hardware component. With such a wide variety of synths and effects, as well as an audio editor and a programming environment, you're sure to find a software vehicle to take you where you want to go. — Gino Robair
DubStation (Mac/Win, $39)
FIG. 1: DubStation''s GUI encourages hands-on processing.
Audio Damage (audiodamage.com) has earned a reputation for vintage gear emulations, and DubStation is about as close as it gets to a bucket-brigade analog delay. For example, the high frequencies degenerate with longer delay times, and cranking up the Lo-Cut knob reproduces the lousy bass response of those units (see Fig. 1). Delay times, which you can sync to tempo, range from 4 ms to 2 seconds. The Drive knob adjusts the input from -80 to 3 dB, and the Level LED flashes red to indicate analog-like soft clipping.
To encourage hands-on operation, DubStation offers only the essential controls together with an easy-to-use MIDI Learn implementation. The Drive (input level) and Regeneration (feedback) knobs, along with the Loop and Reverse buttons, beg for real-time use. Pressing the Loop button loops the contents of the delay buffer. Looping differs from full-level feedback in that the signal is not repeatedly passed through the delay line and therefore is not degraded. Incoming audio is overdubbed during looping unless you turn the Drive knob down. Reverse plays the buffer backward while new material is overdubbed forward (see Web Clip 1). If you like real-time delay effects, DubStation is a must-have plug-in.
Big Tick Audio
Cheeze Machine (Mac/Win, donationware)
FIG. 2: Even with high polyphony, Cheeze Machine is light on your CPU.
Although it's been five years since its most recent update, Cheeze Machine, a plug-in from Big Tick Audio (bigtick.pastnotecut.org), continues to be a favorite instrument. It ostensibly simulates string synthesizers such as ARP's String Ensemble, but its real strength is its ability to generate floating, ethereal pads and other analog-type sounds (see Fig. 2).
Cheeze Machine comes with eight presets you load at the touch of a button. You can also save your own patches and download more banks from Big Tick's Web site. The instrument's oscillator produces waves described as “saw-like,” processed through phaser, reverb, and ensemble effects, each with user-programmable parameters. Other than attack, decay, and brightness, though, additional user parameters are minimal. You can vary polyphony from 1 to 32 voices, but Cheeze Machine's CPU usage is negligible.
FIG. 3: There are many third-party utilities available that provide a graphical front end to Csound. Here, the code for Web Clip 2 is shown using Stefano Bonetti''s WinXound Pro.
Csound 5 (csounds.com) is the latest in a long line of sound-synthesis programming languages stemming from Max Mathews's seminal work in the 1950s. It's supported by a huge number of users worldwide who collectively have created a massive library of resources that includes great documentation, numerous examples and tutorials, a journal published approximately three times per year, and a vibrant Web site full of utilities. If you've always felt that programming was something left to technical types or computer science majors, Csound 5 may just change your mind.
The programming environment runs on nearly all modern computing platforms and is capable of creating any sound imaginable. You can use it to synthesize additive sounds with hundreds of oscillators, rich and warm subtractive timbres, or complex time-varying FM patches. But those are just some of its old-school tricks. Csound also supports newer synthesis methods such as physical modeling — Perry Cook's WG (waveguide) opcodes are great for that task — and there are several robust techniques for producing granular sounds using either synthetic or sampled grains (see Web Clip 2).
Csound 5 provides hooks for incorporating real-time MIDI input, and you can also configure it to generate sound in real time (as opposed to writing its audio output to disk, which is the default mode). A recent user contribution puts the entire Csound engine under a VST plug-in or standalone interface, and another lets Csound function as a VST plug-in host. But with so much built-in power, it's not likely that you'll need to look elsewhere for your synthesis needs.
Though there are good graphical interfaces for Csound that limit the amount of text you need to type, be aware that Csound is neither as intuitive nor as easy to use as a modular synthesis environment such as Native Instruments Reaktor, much less a modern soft synth with sliders and knobs (see Fig. 3). But what you do get for your effort is an unlimited number of sound-synthesis and -processing capabilities that will keep you busy for a long time.
Pluggo Jr. (Mac/Win, free)
Pluggo Jr. is a 12-plug-in subset of the Cycling '74 (cycling74.com) Pluggo suite, which supports AU, VST, and RTAS formats. While the full Pluggo includes both effects plug-ins and virtual instruments, Pluggo Jr. focuses on the former. Like many Cycling '74 products, these effects were created with sound design in mind and are not what you might call “bread-and-butter” plug-ins.
Take, for example, Filter Taps, which combines a multitap delay line with filter effects, allowing you to mangle your audio in a rhythmically cool manner. Jet is a sweet-sounding flanger that has a sonic fingerprint reminiscent of the classic Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress pedal. If you want to move beyond conventional flanging, you can take Jet into higher altitudes with its 5-way shape control, which lets you choose different waveshapes for modulating the sound.
More strange modulation effects are available in the distinctly nongeneric comb-filter plug-in called Generic Effect. It lets you go from relatively subtle chorus- and flanging-type effects to alien-sounding comb filtering and even complete sonic chaos, depending on where you set its ten adjustable parameters.
Additional filter effects are provided by Resosweep (see Web Clip 3). With Spectral Filter, you draw in filter settings by dragging the cursor across a graphic display. Also notable are Limi, which offers preamp and limiting effects, and Resonation, which combines EQ and delay for some very cool, and often waterlike, effects.
It's not often that you can get a dozen professionally designed and fun-to-use plug-ins for free, so what are you waiting for?
Augustus Loop (Mac/Win, $29)
FIG. 4: Augustus Loop offers classic tape-delay effects.
Expert Sleepers' (expert-sleepers.co.uk) Augustus Loop 1.8 is an amazing audio-looping plug-in that emulates classic tape-delay devices such as the Maestro Echoplex EP-2 and Roland Space Echo RE-201. Unlike the hardware versions, however, it allows for extremely long delays — up to an hour — and very complex effects. Augustus Loop supplies four taps, each with independent delay time and feedback. You can set delay time or loop length by typing it in, moving a slider, tapping a button twice, or syncing it to your host program's tempo (see Fig. 4). A Freeze button lets you sustain delay indefinitely — very handy for setting up ostinato loops to play over.
Augustus Loop behaves a lot like analog tape, but only when you want it to. You can change the virtual tape's speed, reverse its direction, and bring it sliding to a dead stop. You can change delay time gradually, as if you were changing the relative position of two tape heads. Unlike with real tape, however, you can transition instantly from one delay time or loop length to another and abruptly switch from the current tempo to a multiple of that tempo. You can punch in and out and quantize the punch points, and fade your loops in and out gradually. And if tape echo isn't your thing, a Digital Mode button disables the tape-simulation effects.
For live performance, most controls respond to MIDI Control Changes. Two rows of buttons are arranged in semitones for specifying pitch-shifts quickly and accurately, and there's even an LFO to modulate pitch. At the end of the signal path are a resonant multimode filter (with lowpass to highpass to bandpass response) and another LFO to modulate filter cutoff. Saturation parameters apply various amounts of overdrive to the signal, ranging from soft distortion to hard clipping.
All of these parameters allow you to set up very intricate echoes and loops within loops, the likes of which you'd be hard-pressed to reproduce with other effects processors, either hardware or software. And considering the price, if you're fascinated with either loop composition or tape delay, you can't go wrong with Augustus Loop.
Warbler (Mac/Win, $19)
Warbler, from Expert Sleepers (expert-sleepers.co.uk), is a combination pitch-modulation (think vibrato) and feedback-delay effect. The Shape and Bias knobs make this delay unusual: Shape varies the waveshape of the pitch modulation continuously from sine to square, passing through sawtooth up, sawtooth down, and triangle; the Bias knob morphs the effect from pitch modulation to delay. In delay mode (Bias knob fully clockwise), the effect ranges from flange to chorus to discrete echoes. Intermediate Bias settings produce unusual combinations of pitch modulation and delay (see Web Clip 4).
Superfine, Fine, and Coarse Speed knobs give you precise control of pitch-modulation frequency, whereas Fine and Coarse Depth knobs affect modulation amount. In delay mode, the depth knobs set the delay time with a range of 0.01 to more than 500 ms. Additional LFOs let you modulate the Speed and Depth settings. In particular, applying the LFO to depth with short delay times provides the sweeping associated with flange and chorus effects. Delay lines are easy to find and pitch-mod effects less so, but this is the only effect we've seen that morphs between the two.
Fretted Synth Audio
Free Amp 3 (Win, donationware)
FIG. 5: Windows users looking for a guitar amp and effects emulator will be surprised by the power of Free Amp 3.
When you first open Fretted Synth Audio's (frettedsynth.home.att.net) Free Amp 3 and see its 3-D-graphic look, you might be surprised to discover that it's not a full-featured commercial product (see Fig. 5). The plug-in offers amp and cabinet simulations as well as virtual stompboxes and rack effects.
You get a Clean amp stage and a Drive amp stage. The former has 5 settings (Normal, Bright, Edge, Warm, and Smooth), and the latter 19 (Tube, Punch, Fizz, and so on; see Web Clip 5). These are not amp-emulation models that evoke specific classic amps, but the sounds are realistic and range from clean to crunchy to distorted. You can choose between 17 different cabinet types, ranging from 1 × 10 open-backed simulations to 4 × 12 configurations to 8 × 10 bass-amp cabs.
A maximum of three stompbox effects and three rack effects can be applied to each patch. Available effects include Compressor, Chorus, Flanger, Delay, Pitch Shift, (auto) Wah, Equalizer (both parametric and graphic), Tremolo, Overdrive, and Reverb. All time-based effects can be manually set, adjusted with a tap tempo, or synced to your host. A noise gate section with six adjustable parameters is also included.
Free Amp 3 offers a large selection of presets for both guitar and bass sounds. You can save your own sounds, too.
Not everything in this plug-in works as expected. The virtual mic placement feature — you drag a mic icon around a speaker grille — has an almost negligible effect on the sound. Also, no documentation is offered online (Fretted Synth's site offers download links for its software and for donations, but not much else), but for the most part, the user interface is pretty intuitive.
If you want credible guitar sounds for your Windows machine without spending much, Free Amp 3 is a great solution.
Amadeus Pro (Mac, $40)
FIG. 6: Amadeus Pro has numerous audio-editing features and works well as a file translator.
Considering its price, HairerSoft's (hairersoft.com) Amadeus Pro is a surprisingly robust audio editor (see Fig. 6). Although it has multitrack capabilities, it's strongest as a 2-track editor. In many ways, Amadeus Pro compares favorably to programs costing much more. It's easy to use and very stable, and it lets you zoom with a mouse's scroll wheel, which can really speed up your work flow (see Web Clip 6).
Amadeus Pro handles all the typical 2-track audio editor functions, including cut, copy, and paste; converting stereo to mono and mono to stereo; reversing; normalizing (both peak and RMS); adding or subtracting level; click and pop repair; basic denoising and audio repair; and fading. Not only can you add fades in and out, but you can also crossfade a selection to the left and to the right. I've found this to be extremely useful when trying to smooth out an edit in a spoken-word audio selection.
The program supports both AU and VST effects. The handy Actions window shows you the effects you've applied, and lets you reapply them to another part of the audio file by simply selecting a section of audio and double-clicking on the Action in the window. You can also save Favorite Actions, which stay in the list even when you open a new file. In addition, the program lets you construct and save racks of multiple effects.
The downside of Amadeus Pro's effects handling is that you can't add a plug-in nondestructively to an entire track and wait until you're finished editing to actually apply it (the way you can in BIAS Peak, for example). Instead, when you open an effect, you must apply it destructively to a selection or the entire track, or decide not to use it. You can preview it, though, before applying. You also get multiple levels of undo.
As a file translator, Amadeus Pro reads and writes in a wide range of formats, including WAV, AIFF, QuickTime, Ogg Vorbis, and MP3. The program also supports batch processing. Among its other useful features are flexible and easy-to-use markers, and the ability to burn CDs (although it's not set up for mastering CDs).
Christopher Keyes and Marcel Wierckx
ArtsSync 1.1 (Mac/Win, free)
FIG. 7: Combining sound and image, ArtsSync offers real-time audio generators, a dozen buses to route data, and a generous matrix-modulation system.
If you think sound and images play well together, then you'll enjoy working with ArtsSync 1.1 from Christopher Keyes and Marcel Wierckx (www.hkbu.edu.hk/~lamer/download.htm). ArtsSync is a patch for Cycling '74 Max/MSP that runs under either the free Max runtime application (available at cycling74.com) or the full commercial version. It includes modules for extracting information from an audio file and using it to process real-time video input or a video file on your drive. It also offers several real-time audio generators and a massive matrix-modulation system for sending data across different areas of the program (see Fig. 7).
ArtsSync provides 12 buses on which you can route data. You can assign an envelope follower to watch the amplitude level of one channel of an audio file, then use that information to control the fade level, brightness, or zoom level of a preexisting video file or live input while the amplitude of the other channel, scaled by a certain amount, controls the amount of granulation on a different video. The same data could also be used to control the parameters of a new animation that is generated in real time by the program or to alter one or more still images on your drive.
In addition to using incoming audio information, ArtsSync includes six internal data generators (two Random, two Chaos, and two Oscil functions) and six real-time MIDI data streams, all of which can be routed to control a variety of video effects. Added to that are six multisegment envelope generators that can scale the other modulators or simply control parameters of their own. The combination of the above provides an almost mind-boggling amount of control.
TonePort GX (with GearBox) (Mac/Win, $49)
Line 6 (line6.com) is hardly what you'd call a small, independent software developer, but without a doubt, one of the greatest bargains available from any company is the TonePort GX. It pairs a 24-bit, 96 kHz-capable audio direct box and USB computer interface with GearBox (Mac/Win) — the same modeling software that accompanies Line 6's more expensive hardware devices. GearBox comes with an abundant assortment of guitar and bass amp, speaker cabinet, mic preamp, and effects simulations and a GUI that makes them even easier to use than some of their hardware counterparts. At this price, it's almost like you buy the software and get the hardware for free.
With a high-impedance ¼-inch input and an ⅛-inch line output that accommodates headphones, the low-latency, palm-size TonePort GX interface is short on frills, but it opens the door to some of the finest tones and effects available. You get 23 amp models and 29 cabinet models for guitar and bass, 6 virtual mic preamps, and 29 stompbox and studio effects simulations ranging from phasers and flangers to vintage tape echo and fuzz boxes. Ampeg, Fender, Marshall, Mesa/Boogie, and Vox are just a few of the brands of hardware amps that GearBox emulates. The software's internal player not only lets you jam along with songs and riffs, but it also lets you play them at half speed without affecting pitch. What's more, GearBox parameters send and respond to MIDI.
GearBox runs standalone, and when your budget allows, you can buy additional Model Packs and upgrade to GearBox Plug-In. You can also subscribe to GearPort Online, a built-in Web-based service for downloading new tones, songs, and lessons.
Free Alpha 3 (Mac/Win, free)
LinPlug (linplug.com) is well respected for soft synths such as Octopus, SaxLab, and CronoX. The company also offers a no-cost version of Alpha 3 called, appropriately enough, Free Alpha 3. Because the free version supplies much of the functionality and many of the same excellent sounds as the $99 version, Free Alpha is a deal you can't afford to miss. Like the fully functional edition, the Free Alpha plug-in supports VST in Windows and AU and VST in Mac OS X.
Free Alpha 3 is an 8-voice virtual analog synthesizer with two oscillators, a resonant multimode filter, an LFO, and two invertible ADSR generators with an additional Fade stage. You can choose from 30 oscillator waveforms and 6 LFO waveforms. Free Alpha 3 has programmable glide and chorus, as well as a 7-slot modulation matrix that routes any of 17 sources to 14 destinations. Because all parameters are addressable by MIDI, you can control any setting in real time with an external controller. Best of all, Free Alpha 3 comes with 64 outstanding factory presets, and its ability to store additional patches is unlimited.
Ambience (Mac/Win, donationware)
With reverb plug-ins you generally get what you pay for, but Ambience, a donationware plug-in from Magnus (magnus.smartelectronix.com), is an exception. This VST and AU plug-in sounds surprisingly good (see Web Clip 7) and offers a range of editable parameters.
Ambience comes with 77 presets, which encompass a range of reverb types from drum rooms to halls. You get numerous editable parameters, including room size, decay time, EQ controls, stereo width, and gating amount. A slider labeled Quality/CPU lets you lower sound quality to save CPU power. This can be useful on less powerful computers because Ambience, like reverb plug-ins in general, uses a lot of CPU.
Is Ambience going to replace your $400 reverb plug-in? No. But if you want to try another reverb option without spending anything except a couple of minutes of downloading time, it's a solid choice.
Soundmagic Spectral (Mac, free)
Michael Norris (michaelnorris.info/software.html) has produced a powerful set of tools that use spectral analysis and resynthesis as their basic modus operandi. Soundmagic Spectral is a collection of 23 AU effects that can do amazing things to your audio files, including transformations you won't readily find elsewhere (much less at this price). The plug-ins perform their analysis in real time, which means there's little or no delay when you use them on a track, and you can tweak the FFT size (aka the window or frame size) to suit different material. The range of parameters each plug-in provides is extensive, and the potential for experimentation is vast.
The Spectral plug-ins are organized into eight categories, including Spectral Smoothing, Spectral Filtering, Spectral Pitch, Spectral Texturing, and Spectral Excitement. Several parameters are found in all of the plug-ins; for instance, Brightness (a high-frequency booster), Gain, and Feedback. It's hard to generalize about the sound each plug-in produces because different source material will generate very different end results — even a minor tweak of a setting or two can send you off into an entirely new direction. For example, by default, Spectral Granulate produces a continuous swirling haze of sound, but with a slight adjustment of the Density and Bin Size parameters, intermittent snippets of audio will spew forth from your monitors (see Web Clip 8).
If you haven't explored the realm of analysis and resynthesis, Soundmagic Spectral is a great place to start. From freezing to blurring to creating slowly evolving drones from fast-moving sounds, these plug-ins offer a wide range of sonic wonders.
Mammut 0.59 (Mac/Win, free)
FIG. 8: Mammut''s single screen provides access to all the program''s features and shows a two-dimensional graph of the current sound''s spectrum.
Mammut, from Notam (notam02.no/notam02/prod-prg-mammut-e.html), is a standalone application that lets you get down and dirty with the spectrum of your samples and audio files. It performs a quick spectral analysis when you load a file, then offers a large number of processing options to tweak the audio before resynthesis. Mammut's developers claim that the program uses a “completely nonintuitive sound transformation approach.” To be sure, its analysis method is somewhat unusual — it performs the entire analysis using a single window that is the total length of the file, which means that it is very good at detecting frequency components but not so good at timing. But its functions are intuitively named (Multiply Phase, Invert, Filter, and so on), and with a little practice, you'll be able to get repeatable results using different sound files and often predict the outcome of the processes you're using.
Across the bottom of Mammut's single screen is a row of tabs for accessing each of the program's main functions (see Fig. 8). Among these are the Stretch command, which will raise all of a sound's frequencies to the power of an exponent you specify, and the Wobble feature, which expands and contracts the components of the spectrum using a sine function at a user-defined frequency and amplitude (see Web Clip 9).
For splicing and dicing a sound's spectrum, try the Block Swap command; use a small block size and large Repeat value if you want to chop your audio into oblivion (see Web Clip 10). Or, to give a pitched quality to a completely unpitched sound, tweak the settings of the Mirror feature, which reorients all the partials around a center frequency that you specify.
As its developers suggest, use Mammut “experimentally, by ear. Do not try to understand what happens — even the programmer can't explain it in many cases.” Trial and error is clearly the name of the game with this software.
Fire (Mac/Win, donationware)
Smartelectronix (smartelectronix.com) is a worldwide consortium of individual software developers who specialize in unusual effects and instruments. All of their offerings are affordable or free.
Fire, from Remy Muller (aka mdsp) of Smartelectronix, won third prize in the KVR 2006 Developer Challenge (kvraudio.com). It is a multitap delay line (AU/VST) with some interesting twists. Choose a delay time and a number of taps, then select a distribution curve and amount for pan, volume, and delay time. For instance, if you choose a linear distribution and an amount less than zero for delay, the time between delays will decrease like a bouncing ball.
Fire's most unusual parameter is called Morphing. It sets the length of time it takes for real-time changes in the delay times to take effect. For example, if you make radical changes to the delay time with a long morph time (the range is 10 ms to 10 seconds), you hear a slow contraction of the delays along with pitch-shifts proportional to the differences between each tap's original and modified time. With short morph times, the change is glitchier (see Web Clip 11).
SupaTrigga (Mac/Win, donationware)
Smartelectronix (smartelectronix.com) founding member Bram de Jong's SupaTrigga is a deceptively simple effects plug-in (AU/VST) for real-time beat slicing. You start by selecting the number of slices per measure and setting the probability that a slice will be processed. You then set separate probabilities for four kinds of processing: reverse playback, tape-style slowdown with pitch-shift, repeat the previous slice, and silence. The probability of the individual processes is a percentage of the overall processing probability, and different processes can happen simultaneously. Results range from complete chaos when the probabilities and slice counts are high to subtle accents when they're low (see Web Clip 12).
You can exert more control with automation or MIDI remote if your plug-in host supports that. In particular, buttons for reversing, slowing, and repeating let you force these processes regardless of their probability setting. Anything from leads to chords to percussion parts makes good fodder for SupaTrigga.
The Sound Guy
Backwards Machine (Mac/Win, $35)
Getting it backward is where Backwards Machine (sfxmachine.com) starts, but not where it ends. This little plug-in can add a ghostly background sheen to loops, pads, and leads, or it can mangle them beyond recognition.
You start by choosing a buffer size between 0.5 and 4 seconds (see Fig. 9). Times between 1 and 3 seconds that are a multiple of the beat length produce the subtlest results (see Web Clip 13). You then set the wet/dry mix and the amount of feedback into the buffer. If you think of the buffer as a circle, Backwards Machine fills the buffer starting at the top and moving clockwise around the circle. In Reverse Playback mode, once the buffer is half-full, Backwards Machine starts playback from the bottom and moves counterclockwise around the circle.
Choosing times not related to the tempo and using Backwards Machine's other playback modes (Forwards Backwards and Reverse Repeat) is less predictable but no less interesting. If reversed audio is not to your liking, put two instances in series and set the Dry sliders to minimum. That gives you a very unusual delay effect.
Mike Levine is executive editor and senior media producer, Dennis Miller and Len Sasso are associate editors, and Geary Yelton is senior editor for EM.