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What freeware virtual instrument VSTis can you recommend? Please link to just one instrument per answer so we can vote for favourites.

Useful information for each plugin includes:

  • link to download
  • features
  • screenshot
  • platforms supported (e.g. Windows / Mac, VST, RTAS, AudioUnit)
  • type of sounds (e.g. synthesizer, drum machine, sampler)
  • availability of additional presets / samples
  • installation requirements (register to download, run an installer etc)
  • CPU usage

I'll start the ball rolling with a few of my personal favourites. Looking forward to seeing what else people come up with.

n.b. this should be made a community wiki by anyone with powers to do so

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Let's not forget: kvraudio.com –  d-_-b May 25 '11 at 8:13
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@sims, I love KVR, but the plugins database is losing its usefulness because of the mountains of rubbish on there (and very few reviews so you can't sort them easily). My hope in creating this question was that the good ones could be voted up to the top. –  Mark Heath May 25 '11 at 8:15
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5 Answers

Synth 1 is a very powerful and flexible synth from Japanese developer Ichiro Toda. Don't be put off by the web pages being in Japanese and the GUI being less slick than many other synths - this is a top quality instrument. To get a feel for what it is capable of, have a listen to some of the entries in the "One Synth Challenge" made entirely with Synth 1.

Synth 1 GUI

Functionally it is modelled on the Clavia Nord Lead 2 Red Synth. Its features:

  • 2 Oscillators, FM modulation, ring modulation, sync, modulation envelope.
  • 4 types of filters, distortion.
  • 2 LFOs (synchronized with host).
  • Arpeggiator (synchronized with host).
  • Tempo delay (synchronized with host), stereo chorus/flanger.
  • Legato mode, portamento.
  • 16 notes polyphony.
  • 128 presets.
  • Thoroughly optimized for light CPU load using SSE instructions, etc.
  • Automation.

You can get loads of free additional banks for it (for example, see this huge collection).

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Synth1 is a great analogue synth VST - very usable, great sound, light on CPU resources, and completely free! I use it on my Muse Receptor all over the place. Highly recommended. –  NeilDurant Jun 3 '11 at 10:13
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Native Instruments Kore Player is a free software instrument designed to tempt you to purchasing one of their paid options, but it is very useful as a starter sound-set for those short on money. It features 150 free presets which cover a wide variety of sounds, including pianos, strings and drums as well as more electronic sounds. One of Kore Player's strengths is its intuitive way of organizing patches into categories making it very easy to navigate to the type of sound you are after. You can add star ratings to your favourite sounds, which is very useful.

Kore Player GUI

Each patch gives you eight parameters you can modify, as well as eight different variations on those parameters you can morph between. Under the hood Kore Player is using the full power of their various software instruments (e.g. Kontakt and Massive), but in the free version, you only get to modify the parameters they make available.

You can't create your own sounds, but you can purchase add-on sound packs from Native Instruments. It's available for Windows and Mac as a 32 bit VST, AU or RTAS.

To install it they send you a download link and an activation code, and you use their NI Service Centre app to keep things up to date (they also have free versions of some of their other instruments you can update with this too).

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Camel Audio Alchemy Player is a free version of their more fully featured Alchemy synth. It comes with 200 patches, covering the usual synth bases of leads, pads, bases, soundscapes etc, and the presets are of a uniformly high quality. What sets it apart from the crowd is the ability to load in sfz files, making this a powerful sampler. It currently only supports a small subset of the sfz opcodes, but they are enough to load the majority of sampled instruments.

Alchemy Player interface

You don't have access to all the editing power of the full Alchemy version, but the interface allows you to use midi continuous controllers to morph the sound in real-time in various ways, with each patch having 8 variations (often quite radically different) you can switch between.

You can expand the preset library by purchasing add-on packs, as well as upgrading to the full version of the synth to unlock the ability to fully edit patches.

It comes on Windows and Mac as VST/AU/RTAS for 32 or 64 bit hosts. You do have to create an account on their website to download it though.

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rgc:audio/Cakewalk sfz must rank as one of the greatest free virtual instruments of all time, despite having no included sounds. It is basically a SoundFont player that can also load sounds in an open text-based format called sfz. It is created by highly regarded softsynth developer René Ceballos, and supports a variety of modes for balancing the demands of memory/CPU usage and sound quality.

SFZ GUI

The sfz file format itself has grown in popularity and an increasing number of samplers now support this format (although not all fully support all its opcodes). In addition, there are literally hundreds of free soundfonts available for download on the web. To get started check out "the infinite free SoundFont list" thread at KVR.

It is only available as a Windows VST. Unfortunately it has not been under active development for a few years now and can have problems on multi-core systems. The engine is now part of the Cakewalk Dimension Pro instrument, although you can get Dimension LE very cheaply if you just want the definitive sfz playback engine (or the free Alchemy Player if you don't mind a reduced set of opcode support - see other answer for details).

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If you're looking for a decent sounding vinyl effect plug-in, look no further than Izotope Vinyl

  • Simple.
  • Cheap (free!).
  • Sounds good.
  • Easily configurable; set your own dust level, wear level, electrical noise and more.
  • 64-bit.
  • Multiple plug-in formats (RTAS, AU, VST) so you can use your favourite DAW.
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