I’ve been a long time SONAR and recently switched to Windows 7 on a 64 bit processor. Ever since moving to the new box I’ve had issues with SONAR’s stability. It was time for an upgrade, but honestly I don’t get to record often enough and had to question whether a full upgrade even with the Cakewalk loyalty discount was worth the money spent. I ended up taking Reaper for a test drive and honestly, it has all the functionality I really need out of a DAW and then some, has an extremely small footprint, and can be purchased for a fraction of the cost of SONAR (and really any other DAW out there). So Reaper it is...
But over the years I’ve developed a glut of plugins. One of the weaknesses of Reaper (or strengths of SONAR) is plugin organization. Its extremely easy to find what you need fast in SONAR while in Reaper its kinda like trying to find Joe Smith in the phone book. As such, it was time to purge and decide what I really needed, especially among all the freeware I’ve accumulated. The following is a free software suite which would challenge many paid packages:
For British style break up, I like 2 plugins from freeware developer Le Pou. Though Le Pou’s creations typically focus on hard hitting high gain tones, these two provide some very nice verge of breakup chimey tones.
Le Pou HyBrit is a rather excellent plugin offering two channels roughly based on Pexi and JCM style Marshall amps tweaked to taste. The result is a highly dynamic amp which not only captures the classic Marshall krang but delivers a fair amount of Voxy chime as well. Per Le Pou’s site, this plug was his first VST project! Very Impressive...
When I first read news that the discontinued Wampler Cranked AC was to be recreated as a VST by Le Pou, boy did I get excited. The original pedal is one I’ve coveted for a while but just hadn’t been able to pull together the scratch to score one. This plug was coded by Le Poue based on Wampler’s actual design and it really captures and idealic thick and compresed tone I romantically associate with an AC30 via Brian May.
For the cleaner (and American) side of the tonal spectrum, I still haven’t found anything I like better in the free realm than the Fender Twin model from SimulAnalog. Just a fabulously clean sounding plugin which can be pushed into light overdrive if needed. There are a few other well modeled effects here as well including a surprisingly nice rendition of a Univibe.
My sampler/synth needs are pretty basic. Give me a decent drum set and bass guitar sound and that will cover 99% of the stuff I do. Since I discovered Yellow Tools Independence Free, its been my instrument of choice for pretty much everything I do. Yellow Tools has broken up their library into smaller chunks offered at a nice discount to their bundled packages (of which I’ve purchased a handful), but honestly the free library they give out would probably meet the needs of the casual programmer and more than good enough for throwing together demos and/or scratch tracks.
I have to throw out a tie for my 2 favorite VST compression plugin suites.
The Classic Compressor and Classic Master Limiter for the now defunct Kjaerhaus Audio are well worth checking out. Kjaerhus also had a line of higher end VSTs and a few of the plugs have been rebadged and included with more recent versions of SONAR. I certainly hope the company was purchased by Cakewalk rather than simply folding as they made some wonderful stuff. If you can find these, I definitely recommend downloading them and giving them a go.
Equally love worthy are the quirky compressors from digitalfishphones. They sound fantastic offering maximum tonal shaping with extremely intuitive interfaces. At the bare minimum, I think every frugal virtual studio should have the Fish Fillets channel insert package (including a compressor, de-esseer, and expander) but the Endorphin multi (dual) band compressor is well worth a download as well.
A final contender is Cakewalk’s Audio FX1 plugin which the company now offers for free. The suite includes compression, limiting, gating with nice graphical interfaces. However, note that Cakewalk Audio FX1 is a DirectX rather than VST plugin.
S.I.R. was my introduction to convolution based reverbs and I rarely stray from it even though I’ve acquired some bundled convolution engines which are likely just as good or better. Perhaps it’s just my comfort with the fairly intuitive interface, but I just don’t seem satisfied when I try any other reverb plugs. SIR does have a significant latency making it unusable for realtime processing (S.I.R. has since been updated with a 64 bit, realtime paid version) but since I really only use it for post processing, its not a deal breaker for me.
Another contender is Cakewalk’s Audio FX3 which is an algorithmic reverb allowing programming of a virtual space with a cool even if a bit dated 3 dimensional vector graphic representation.
General Effects (Delay, Modulation, etc)
Alas, the suite I typically always turned to for miscellaneous effects is the aforementioned Classic Series from the now defunct Kjaerhus. As I stated previously, I certainly hope the company was purchased and they didn’t simply go under. They were certainly generous, perhaps too much so, in what they gave away for free. If you can find a copy somewhere, its well worth the download. If not...Kaerhus Audio, I’ll always remember you.
A quirky plugin which I became addicted to as a SONAR user is their tape emulation plugin which Cakewalk now offers for free. The plug offers various emulations of tape saturation and hiss and a general warmth which I’ve found extremely pleasing. You also get an amp modeling plug with this package, but its no where near as nice as any of the better free plugins (namely the work by Le Pou and Aradaz) available elsewhere.
And there you have it folks! Without spending a dime, you've now decked out your virtual studio with some high quality plugins fully capable of knocking out some quality productions. Good luck!