75-Reaper (and other free and cheap music software)

Reaper logoReally, over the years of all the music software applications that have come and gone, Reaper is a unique success story that can’t be denied.

I really can’t praise this DAW too highly. Besides the absurdly low price (I think it’s still only USD60 for a non-commercial license) the responsiveness of the developer to user bug and enhancement reports, and the vitality of the user community, is unmatched.

2022 Jan update — Reaper apparently reached some kind of critical mass of users, and is still going strong and being frequently updated. I think today it’s at 6.4x something. The notation modules are wonderful in particular and so easy to use. The best value by far for software for years!

2019 Dec update— a lot has happened in three years. Cakewalk has bounced around through various owners, went dead for a while, and has been re-animated via a company called BandLab which I talk about elsewhere.

2016 Jun update – version 5.20: The only reason I still used Sonar (which is a very nice piece of software itself) was for its MIDI and notation capabilities. At this point, Reaper has finally surpassed the need I had for Sonar. On top of that, and not trivial, is the fact I couldn’t get Ableton Live 9.6 to act as a ReWire slave with Sonar — Reaper has no problem doing this.

So I couldn’t be happier. I was feeling guilty about getting all these excellent updates to Reaper for no additional cost, so I sent in the payment for another license.

2011 October update – version 4.x: They finally ticked over to version 4, so I had to pony up the princely sum of USD50 to upgrade. It’s at the point however, where I am just about able to replace my Sonar installation with Reaper for all new projects that I don’t use Live for. [I see Live as more of a creative tool; Reaper more as a DAW replacement for Sonar/Pro Tools/Logic/etc.] It just continues to get better, faster and more powerful with every new version. The installer is still only about 6 or 7 MB!)

2012 update: development still continues, but it seems to me at a slower rate. This makes sense as Reaper is really mature from any way you look at it. Not that I am a power user, but nonetheless I can’t believe how stable it has been even back to the 2.x versions.

“Wah, wah, I can’t afford to pay for music software…”

Quit yer bellyachin’.

I think I wrote about this somewhere else (on the Csound blog, probably) but it’s worth repeating here. You DON’T need a lot of money to make music with computers. This probably isn’t a good analogy but…you can do art with a pencil and stack of copy paper. Or you can spend beaucoup bucks on brushes, oils, canvas, and easels. Or you can go nuts and get into sculpture or something where the simple costs of materials can be astronomical.
The same sort of thing is true in music production (with or without use of computers.)

OK: admittedly I use the (rather expensive) Ableton Live as my main tool. To go out and buy it new will cost you quite a bit (unless you get a cracked or ripped version…that’s between you and your conscience.) The current (Jul 2010) list price for the basic full version is USD499 (ow ow ow — that is PAINFUL. In fact, the only reason I’m still able to use it is because I can upgrade yearly for a non-prohibitive cost.). They do supply a good demo version that is enough to illuminate what it can do, with plenty of tutorials and reference material: but as usual for a demo, you can’t save or export work.

So–suppose you are on a budget (like most people) and say “I want to produce music using computer/laptop but can’t afford stuff like Live…so what do I do?”

Well, you’re living in the golden age, you whining git, so do a little research and be amazed. Just a few years ago your options were paltry in the extreme, now you can pick and choose amongst an embarassing array of fantastic stuff.

On top of that, just a year or two ago, the One Laptop Per Child project started releasing many gigabytes of free sound and music samples for anyone in the world to use freely in their productions, for simply the cost of downloading them. I mean, I’m sure many people were already doing that, but this is a completely legal and honorable option.

There’s also the Freesound project which I’ll talk a little about later for content, but first we need to look at a few tools… Here’s a list of a few things I’ll talk about (they won’t all be free but they will be at least cheap)

Composing/Sequencing/DAW suites

Acid Express 7

You can’t do any better than free! Sony Media Software makes this software and a basic audio loop pack available for free (hoping of course, that you’ll want to graduate to one of their bigger versions like Acid Music Studio or Acid Pro). You can get it here.  Acid Pro (the main version, about USD300) is at version 7 as of this writing and is a very stable, fast and powerful package. A lot of pros have started with this (back when it was sold by Sound Forge) and still swear by it. But for around USD50 you can get “Acid Music Studio” which is between the Express and Pro versions.


[2019-12-08] This has changed a lot, within the last couple years, BandLab has made the full version of Sonar available for free and it’s excellent.

Although I personally have been using Sonar for years, really 99% of what I do could probably have been done with “Sonar Home Studio”. Cakewalk gives you some pretty good options on purchase: there are versions of Sonar for $140, $210, $370 and $620. (2010)


Once again I have to state that currently I’m a 100% Windows user. So I can’t really talk firsthand about this program, except to report that people seem to be pretty amazed by it. Apple seems pretty committed to it, so definitely give it a look if you’re using a Mac. The current version really has a strong emphasis on instruction too. This does my heart good what with arts and music curricula continuing to be eviscerated from public education.

Advanced Programming Environments for Music and Sound Manipulation


ChucK is an amazing software suite from Princeton for real-time composing/performing. Also free! Check it out here.

I recently visited some of my old ChucK bookmarks and it looked like development had finally ceased. But what apparently has actually happened was one of the developers has relocated from Princeton to Stanford and work is still proceeding. So if you are googling for the most recent info, keep looking since some of the old forums and news pages are still rolling around out there but have been superseded.

In particular, look here https://lists.cs.princeton.edu/pipermail/chuck-users/ for an archive of list traffic up to date (July 2011).


Csound needs an entire encyclopdia to discuss. Basically, it’s the longest-lived music software out there, with roots back into the 1960s. I’ve been trying to keep up another blog about this, but like everything else it’s falling behind…Csound is the grandpa of music software, going back 20 or 30 years, but still running, still supported, and new versions still keep coming out. Best to check its own site since this will no doubt fall behind. There is also a very active discussion group at http://csound.1045644.n5.nabble.com/

At this price point (i.e., zero), you’re going to have to give up certain things that you expect with commercial packages. Like coherent documentation and the expectation that things will work relatively simply on your system.

On the other hand, this is a great solution if you’re into Linux or compiling your own applications. I know I ignore talking about the Macintosh a great deal on this blog, being a Windows user, but a large percentage of Csound users are running it under MacOS.

Pd (Pure Data)

Pd is basically the Open Source equivalent of Opcode’s venerable Max audio and MIDI programming system. The base website for all info on it is puredata.info.

When I first looked at it some years ago, it didn’t seem quite ready for serious use. The functionality was limited and there were serious bugs and limitations to its use.

But currently (version 0.42.5) it appears much more stable and functional. Besides the source code you can get executables for Mac, Windows and Linux.

It still has its quirks, but for visualizing complex audio signal flows or software synths, its graphic structure with audio and midi flowing from object to object via virtual wires can have an advantage over text-based systems like Csound (or even ChucK).

One good example I saw is a Pd patch in which you could use your mouse to draw a waveform in a box, and the patch would play a tone based on that waveform. This is great for not only electronic music beginners but all students of synthesis.

Cycling74’s Max is of course a monster of a program with roots going back decades, but for USD500 it’s worth checking out Pd to see if that will do what you want.

(Speaking of Max, it’s also now integrated with Ableton Live meaning you can get the power of real time audio programming along with the workflow brilliance of Live. But again, together they are not cheap: Live is USD450 and Max4Live is USD300.)

VST Instruments and Effects

My current main synth “axe” is Zebra2. No, it’s not freeware. See http://wp.me/PnrSR-iM on this site for a page I’m devoting to it and its creator.

kvraudio (formerly kvr-vst)


kvr audio

Your first stop for all information about VST plugins is the kvraudio site. This has evolved into the major go-to place on the web for all things related to VST instruments and effects. (I forget what kvr stands for anymore, but I presume it’s explained somewhere on the site…)

HG Fortune synths

HG Fortune link bannerI happened on this guy’s creations somewhere along the line…he has written some fantastic and intriguing software tools for algorithmic composition/soundscapes. (Click on the banner to get to his site.)

Kaspar Neilsen’s KarmaFX synths and effects

karmafx1Dane Neilsen has created some great basic tools which are essentially pay what you like and what looks like a cool modular software synth. I hope to experiment more with these before too long as well. (Click on the banner to get to his site.)

Effects (especially Reverb and Guitar Processing)

Just to make sure I don’t forget to add more later–two free effects that I love and use a lot are:

I used Ambience for a long time; I think before I even started using Live, when people were complaining about the poor reverbs that were in commercial programs like (early versions of) Sonar and Reason. It’s a VST plugin which means that to use in Sonar I had to jump through the VST to DX conversion hoop that used to exist; but it was worth it.

Dirthead appeared more recently; after a search on kvr-vst for a guitar amp sim that a lot of users liked. This little gem’s name kept getting mentioned with rave reviews and I can see why. It took my lackluster, limp guitar tones and really infused them with power and crunch. I ended up creating a Rack in Live with three different amp sims in parallel that I can tweak to get the exact sound I want, but I used Dirthead alone at first and it was and is sterling.

For more information and opinions about software guitar processors, particularly with reference to use in Ableton Live, see this page.

OpenOffice suite: word processing, spreadsheet, drawing, etc. tools

WordPress.com (which this site sits on) didn’t allow me to upload files in formats like Word, Excel, but instead only “.odt” (Open Document format). At first I thought that was just an annoyance, but I went ahead and downloaded and installed the OpenOffice suite anyway. I have to admit that I’m incredibly impressed by the power, stability and feature set of that software. I highly recommend you give it a try, if for no other reason it makes it easier to download certain media files from this site…Download it from here.

Other oddball music tools

Browsing around the web can unearth all kinds of strange and wondrous musical tools.

One of the first I discovered was thonk (or as they called it: thonk+0.2) This was a little Macintosh-only tool. There is a page discussing it at http://www.audioease.com/Pages/Free/FreeMain.html. The description on that page reads:

thOnk_0+2 provides the sonic treasure-chest composers can turn to to harvest fresh, unanticipated material to solve their writers blocks with, without having to think at all.

The way it worked, as I remember it was as follows: you’d point it to a sample of your own; whether it be a field recording, piece of music or any other piece of audio. You’d set it to work for either minutes or (preferably) hours and it would grind on the sample using granular synthesis techniques. You didn’t get to hear what it was doing while it was working, however. At some point, you’d decide it’s done “enough”, stop the program and listen to the file it generated. It tended to be some kind of strange noise with no recognizable elements from the original file.

However don’t get too excited by the description: I can’t find anywhere live that you can actually download it from anymore.

Page#75 / last edited 2019-12-08