Great sound design and mixing are integral parts of producing quality media content. The tools and resources available to the industry are numerous. From DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) and plugins to digital synthesizers and noise reduction software, some of the products available to create and manipulate audio are downright impressive in terms of their capability. This technology of course comes at a cost. It has been my mission with Frontier Sound FX to make sound design more accessible to the average content creator. In doing so, I think it is important that I make my best effort to introduce some free and/or low-cost technology available to the average content creator. Here is some of my favorite free software for sound design that I have discovered over the years.
The most important tool for an audio editor is their DAW, or Digital Audio Workstation. This is the software that allows you to record or import audio files and trim them, move them, and mix them together in timeline.
Audacity: A Cross-Platform Behemoth
Dominic Mazzoni and Roger Dannenberg are the folks behind Audacity, an audio editor first released in May 2000, and they have been expanding and updating it ever since. Audacity is best known as a free cross-platform audio editor, meaning users can download and run the software whether they have a Windows, Mac, or Unix-like based PC. For being free, the program hosts an impressive collection of built-in effects–not the least of which are waveform amplification/normalization, time stretching, and even noise reduction. While I am a Pro Tools user, I began my audio work in Audacity and continued to use its noise reduction software until I upgraded to RX 7 Audio Repair software from iZotope.
Limitations to Audacity
Destructive Editing: Audacity has an unlimited number of Undo commands and an Undo History window, but it can’t truly be classified as a non-destructive editor. If you trim off the end of a file, then make a few modifications, you cannot go back and regenerate the trimmed file without also undoing the modifications. More advanced DAWs like Pro Tools would allow you to regenerate the audio file at any time, which is a truly non-destructive property.
No Real-Time Effects: Professional DAWs allow you to insert plugins that will manipulate the audio file in real-time during playback. Audacity gives you the option to solo and preview a change before applying it, but in order to listen to your change within the mix, you must process/undo the effect until you are satisfied with the result. Depending on the size of the audio file being processed, this can significantly slow down your editing process.
Pro Tools First – A Free Intro to Professional Software
In the latest edition of Pro Tools, Avid released a starter version of their signature software for free. If you want to experience the look and feel of professional editing software without making an investment, Avid has provided an excellent opportunity. Pro Tools First is a pretty comprehensive version of the paid software, allowing access to 16 simultaneous audio tracks, minimal barriers in workflow, and a suite of 23 free plugins that can be inserted to process audio in real-time. If you would like to collaborate with others, Pro Tools First makes this possible with 1GB of cloud storage to save and share your sessions. This is all offered with no expiration to your free license.
Limitations to Pro Tools First
Limited Saving: While Pro Tools First is a great product for trying Pro Tools, keep in mind that Avid is still running a business. The greatest limitation to Pro Tools First is the number of saved sessions allowable. While Pro Tools First offers free cloud storage, it limits the total number of saved sessions you can have on your cloud to 3.
They have also restricted the ability to save a session to your local hard drive. You can remove this restriction by either purchasing a Pro Tools license, or purchasing an Avid Premium Cloud Plan ($4.99 USD/month).
Update: As of April 2019, Pro Tools First users can save an unlimited numbers of projects to their local hard drive. The 3-session limit still applies to cloud sessions.
Limited Track Count: Pro Tools First is limited to a total of 16 simultaneous tracks. While this is plenty for a small project, you will quickly find that this is not enough for larger mixes, especially in a post-production setting. Speaking of post-production, that brings me to the next limitation...
No Video Engine: Paid versions of Pro Tools come standard with a video engine for video playback synced to the timeline. This is essential when doing post-production sound design for video; however, this option has been removed in the free version of the software.
No Automatic Delay Compensation: As you add plugins to tracks, they induce a delay in the signal chain. The delay is particularly egregious when multiple plugins are stacked or a resource-heavy one is used. Pro Tools normally calculates the delay automatically and compensates, but this feature is not available in the free version. As a result, plugin-heavy session in Pro Tools First can have tracks that are out of sync.
As necessary as a DAW is today for designing and mixing audio, the system would not be complete without effects to process and manipulate the audio. While there are some amazing plugins available for purchase (I’m partial to plugins by Waves), there are several audio folks who have crafted their own plugins, and have made them available to the public free of charge. As discussed with the DAWs, Audacity and Pro Tools First come with a decent selection of free plugins. Here are a couple others I recommend to build up your inventory.
Voxengo Span is an incredibly versatile and free real-time spectrum analyzer, available in AAX, AudioUnit and VST plugin formats. It has a high resolution that is also scalable, allowing you to zoom in closer to view specific frequency bands in greater detail. Presets within the plugin allow you to view the frequency spectrum as a summed audio bus, or as 2 simultaneous spectrums analyzing the individual channels in Left/Right Stereo and Mid-Side setup.
Voxengo MSED, another free plugin by Voxengo, is a professional audio encoder and decoder for mid-side processing. Opposed to standard left-right recording (a configuration in which spatial audio information is recorded over a short distance between two microphones), mid-side is a recording technique that captures audio using one microphone pointed directly at the source and a second microphone collecting indirect “room” sound. The technique is known for capturing a more accurate representation of the natural sound, and is now a function readily available on consumer recording devices like the Zoom H2n Handy Recorder. To listen to mid-side recording properly, the files must go through processing. Voxengo MSED makes processing easy, allowing you to turn an MS recording into stereo, or stereo into MS. It also gives you control over the gain and panning of you MS audio files, so it is easy to make your sound image as wide or narrow as you want.
Blue Cat Audio Freeware Plugin Pack
Blue Cat Audio released seven freeware plugins together in one plugin bundle, available in most plugin formats for Windows and Mac based DAWs. There are some similar plugins to those included in Pro Tools, and a real-time analyzer that I probably would not choose over Voxengo Span, but these plugins have an excellent sound to them and are worth having in your arsenal. One standout among them is Blue Cat’s Chorus, an easy-to-use chorusing effect to add life to the instruments or vocals. Russ Hughes from Pro Tools Expert has produced an excellent YouTube video showing the functionality of Blue Cat’s Chorus plugin.
Youlean Loudness Meter
If you are mixing post-production audio for broadcast, there are strict requirements for average and peak loudness that must be met. However, conventional dbFS meters in a DAW will not provide an accurate reading since the industry has conformed to a metering algorithm known as LUFS. The Youlean Loudness Meter plugin provides LUFS metering, and does so in one of the cleanest and most sophisticated metering plugins I’ve seen, all free of charge.
Free Sound Effects
If you are looking for free sound effects for your project, there are several online resources to choose from. Sound effect companies will often have samples from their sound inventory available for free. In fact, you can download some samples from the Frontier Sound FX inventory below. As a thank you for reading, these effects are available to you for free in perpetuity, and require no attribution for their use.
Freesound.org is a repository of sound effects sourced from volunteer contributors around the world, all available free of charge under a creative commons license or in the public domain. Most of the files are field recordings rather than cleaned and edited professional effects, but it can be a great source for finding some obscure sounds.
BBC Sound Effects
BBC Sound Effects is an extensive archive of recorded sound effects that have been available for purchase for many years, but they have recently released a set of 16,000 effects under a RemArc License. These files are free of charge, but may only be used for personal, educational or research purposes. To use them for commercial purposes, you must purchase a license.
Soundly is much more than a resource for free sound effects. Soundly is an audio file management software that provides a robust searchable database for sound effects on your local hard drive, or effects available from an expansive library via Soundly's online cloud. Access to the full cloud and all features requires a subscription to Soundly Pro, but the free version provides access to 400+ sound effects via cloud, and supports indexing of 2,500 sound effects from your local hard drive. Soundly is clean and easy to use, and selected effects can be imported directly from the software into your DAW through the use of the ReWire plugin.
While some free online sounds are of high quality, be aware that many are only available at low sample rates. Others may require attribution in your project for their use. Use your best judgement whether these stipulations are acceptable for your project, or if you are better off purchasing your licensed effects from an online market like AudioJungle.
There are serious advantages to using professional software for producing your content. If you do audio work regularly, I recommend exploring some of the paid software also covered in this article. But if you are just starting out and are concerned about making a large investment, this free software can go a long way toward improving the quality of your content.