Guide to Free Mac Music Software

Arvid Tomayko :|: arvidtp.net

Mac OS X

Hey! I am Arvid. This list of free mac music software exists to help people to have fun with and become inspired by creating electronic music using their macs. This list is subjective and not meant to be comprehensive. It is based upon my own likes, dislikes and interests. All of this stuff is work having for the creative mac user, I would say.

I'm sorry this page getting so out of date though - the pace of OS X software development is getting so fast and I'm too busy to keep up! Do check out also Macmusic.org and studiotoolz.net for more up to date software listings. I consider this a good guide to some of the older tools that don't get too much press anymore with the likes of Garageband and other such flashly new music software being ubiquitously available.

And to check out a little of what I do using some this software, take a listen to my Music

Choose your operating system:

Mac OS 9


Mac OS X (10.4 or 10.3 recommended, 10.2 required by most)

Audio Editors:
Ardour - THE free DAW. Multi-track audio recording and editing. No support for MIDI yet. Requires X11 and JackOSX.
Audacity - A free, open-source, and cross-platform audio editor. Bound to improve in the future. Very promising offering unlimited audio tracks, VST effect support, ability to record while playing back (like a sequencer), mp3 and ogg export, non-destructive volume automation, non-destructive time warping tracks, spectral and pitch displays, I/O meters, and compatibility with many audio formats. Includes hints at MIDI support in the future. I use this for many of my basic audio editing needs. Check it out. Versions for OS 9, OS X, Windows, Linux, etc.
Eisenkraut - A simlple free audio editor that, despite its BETA status, works quite well for basic tasks, and fills a hole of free basic audio editors for OS X. Reqires installation of recent version of SuperCollider (see below).
Loop Editor - A Cool little simple editor for loops.
Luna Free - Basic multi-track audio and MIDI sequencing. Free version is limited to a certain number of mixer tracks and VST plugins.
XO Wave - "a digital audio workstation designed to meet the needs of audio and video professionals. Though still under development, XO Wave provides a wealth of features as well as a simple and elegant interface. Features include non-destructive recording, editing and mixing, real-time crossfades, fully configurable mixer, Quicktime and AVI synchronization and, of course, infinite undos."
Frequency - A simple but unorthodox mono audio editor that lets you paint in the frequency spectrum of an audio file. Very strange - and way cool. (New actually functioning Link!)
Spear - A wikkid frequency editor that interprets each harmonic of a sound as an editable trajectory through time… endless possibilities.
SonicWORX Studio/Powerbundle - Now made available for free, this full-featured OS 9 audio editor/processor can playback and edit in classic emulation on OS X using prosoniq's classic AISO plugin. I think it is worth starting classic up every once and a while for this software.


(DEAD)

Spark ME - Free powerful two channel Audio editor that amazingly supports both VST and Audiounit effects plugins, regions, and creation of playlists for CD projects with crossfades etc. that can be exported directly to Toast for burning. Unfortunately the new version that supports Audiounits is a bit unstable. Too bad - Spark ME is no more! It is no longer available from the tc-electronics site, not to mention it is mad unstable in Panther.
Audio Routing Systems:
Jack OS X - A most awesome piece of open-source software for the OS X digital studio! Allows any CoreAudio enabled software (that's most stuff except Pro Tools) to send audio to / receive audio from any other CoreAudio software. Basically this means that all those separate applications can now be unified! For example, send the output of Sonasphere into Plogue Bidule for processing, use audiounits in software that doesn't support them like Max/MSP, connect MaxMSP seamlessly with a sequencer for generating and processing sound in realtime. The options are endless! Also includes Netjack - a way to send audio between computers on a network.
qjackctl - OS X compile of the popular Linux Jack control panel. On an older version I had to change the server path to /usr/local/bin/jackd in the setup screen to make it work with Jack OS X. Don't know if this is still necessary.
SOUNDFLOWER Soundflower - Cycling '74's audio connector that can send audio between applications. Somewhat more primitive than jack, but may be useful to some as it requires less configuration.
  MIDI:
Pattern Sequencer - A cool little, well, pattern sequencer, that sequences patterns... works very well and includes step record, controller values and velocity editing as well as a song organization window. The best free MIDI composition software for OS X.
FingaMIDI - Turn your Powerbook or iBook trackpad into a 3D (X, Y, Pressure) MIDI controller! Control number output customizable and button sends note event. Pretty neat. Unfortunately it also changes the acceleration on your trackpad when installed, making it tougher to use it to make small, accurate mouse movements…
MidiSwing - A little Java app that allows editing and composition of full 16-channel MIDI files using piano-roll type editing. Includes the ability to edit controllers, pitch bend, program change, etc and a MIDI event list. Only plays back through java or soundfont instruments, not an external or virtual MIDI bus.Bummer, but hey, its free.
MIDI Patchbay - A helpful app to manage and re-route MIDI busses with handy transpose, etc. Very user friendly.
MidiPipe - A MIDI processing app with many complex features - like the ability to trigger applescripts via MIDI control, microtuning for synths that don't normally support it, MIDI message conversion, transposition, MIDI delay, message modification, filters, splitters, etc. Very cool.
MIDI keys - Turn your computer keyboard or mouse into a MIDI keyboard and also MIDI thru function. Simple, but good on the road if you have a laptop or if you don't want to shell out the bucks for a MIDI keyboard.
MIDI monitor - "MIDI Monitor is a utility for Mac OS X which displays MIDI signals in a variety of formats. It can watch both incoming and outgoing MIDI streams, and can filter them by message type and channel. Musicians will find it handy for tracking down confusing MIDI problems, and programmers can use it to test MIDI drivers and applications." - Read Me. Good for seeing what's really going on. Great when building new instruments that use MIDI for the interface as does my current project.
Mighty MIDI - SITE DEAD A great little MIDI file player that can output to any synth including quicktime instruments. Has volume/mute controls for each MIDI channel, tempo adjustment, transposition, track enable/disable, and a bar number display. Very handy for when you don't want to fire up a full fledged sequencer just to hear a MIDI file played with something other than quicktime instruments.
SysEx Librarian - Store and send SysEx Data to/from MIDI synths in an easy to use fashion. Was useful when I accidentally replaced the user bank on my Nanosynth with a bunch of garbage patches and needed to reload it!
  Simple Recorders:
Wiretap - record all sound coming out of your audio card - before it becomes analog! Good for mixing down with programs like Rax or recording internet streams - just make sure you don't let your iChat or something else beep while you are recording. The hard part is then syncing the mixed down audio back up in your sequencer if you want to do this. But the need for this is now negated by the extraordinary 'Jack Tools' (see above) and a bit of audio routing savvy. The new version on Wiretap is not free, but basic features can be used for free, I think. Also you may be able to find the old free version somewhere.

(Site Down)

Audio In - Simple but good line-in audio recorder with realtime waveform display and timer recording. Largely stable.
  Plugin Hosts:
RAX - Awesome Audiounit instrument host. Each window has one Audiounit synth with its own MIDI configuration and as many Audiounit effects as your mac can handle. Note: The new version of Rax is much improved, but is no longer free.
Synthtest - Simple one synth, one effect Audiounit host, but offers good control over Apple DLS instruments.
  Plogue Bidule - see below under "More Experimental" - Realtime VST and AU host and rewire master/slave with amazing features - now in beta. One can download some of the instruments and effects I have created in the form of Bidule Groups here, at my Downloads page.
Simplesynth - simple 16 channel soundfont synth - uses built-in Quicktime sounds

Plugins - Audiounits:

Now that I am using Logic Pro, I will update this plugin section most actively! Plugins I list here may also have VST and RTAS versions - check the developer's site.

Alphakanal - BuzZer, BuzZer 2 - Awesome analog-type AU synths. Great noisy and grungy sounds as well as nice sounds. Randomize feature. Automat is a sweet, deep but intuitive subtractive synthesizer. The first time I played with it I got some nice sounds out.
Nomad Factory Free Bundle - Simple but nice Phaser, Sweeper and Tremolo plugins. In AU, VST, RTAS and HTDM formats.
BetaBugs - some neat little effects with nice smooth GUIs. Chorus, filters, etc.

Musolomo - A looper that claims it will get you away from looking at the screen and back to playing. Made by the cool people are Plasq - and make sure you watch the how-to videos on the site - they are hilarious!

Warp Drive AU - SITE DEAD - A really neat distortion effect that goes well with trumpet...
Apulsoft AU Ports - Free audiounit ports of various open source plugins, including Bram's Supaphaser, Bram and Tobybear's Madshifta, and Betabugs Crayon Filter, Big Tick Audio's Cheezemachine, NUSofting's DaHornet, Bram's Supaphaser among others. This guy is awesome!
OTBitmodder - SITE DEAD - bitcrusher effect with Anti-aliasing
Sonik Synth 2 - Free version of IK Multimedia's new synth-workstation sampler - the electronic sister of sampletank. Otherwise similar to Sampletank Free 2. Limited to one instance per session in host software.
Sampletank 2 Free - A free, limited version of sampletank 2 with a few instruments updated monthly. Sound selection is not very extensive, but includes a piano, B3, bass, drum kit and some others. AU, VST and RTAS versions are available. Limited to one instance per session in host software.
Audiofield Wavebreaker - Chebyshev polynomial plugin for some good crazy waveshaping distortion.
Fish Fillets - AU and VST dynamics effects - compressor, de-esser, expander/gate. Very very nice compressor!
SmartElectronix - This community develops many free VST and AU plugins - a good number for Mac OS X. Some great stuff!
mda - Some Audiounit versions of their copious free VSTs.
Destroy FX - Awesome original effects, using lots of MIDI control. Also available as VST plugins, see below. Some other goodies as well. Definitely check this site out.
Airy Andre - Some cool basic Audiounit synths/effects, and the new Speedster, a realtime pitch shifting/sound twisting/speed-changing plugin, is awesome.
UH fx - Some free/donationware Audiounits, including zoyd, a grungy monosynth.
Green Oak Crystal - Crystal is a monster of a synth - commercial quality for free. But it is really CPU intense. Thanks to Logic's freeze feature one can now use it nicely. Download the 20 MB SF2 sample ROM for more waveform options - this ROM also works with other SoundFont compatible synths, such as the Logic EXS24.
Expert Sleepers - a good basic sampler, some delays, and more including a latency reporting plug that lets you correct for latent plugins or other routing delays.
Plugsound Free - A 'sample sampler' from the massive plugsound collection. Has about 20 high quality instrument samples loaded in.
Elemental Inspector - This useful VST/AudioUnit/RTAS plug features a realtime spectral graph, level meters, and various indicators warning of potential audio quality or mixing issues including headroom, clipping and channel imbalance. Very helpful, especially in Logic 6's not-quite-so-eyeball-friendly (IMHO) mixer.
Frohmage - Free unorthodox resonant filter - fun to MIDI control in realtime. Also for MAS RTAS and VST.

Pluggo -- Cycling 74's Pluggo is here for OS X - an environment used to host special MaxMSP patches created by programmers as VST, AU, MAS and RTAS plugins. For those new to Pluggo, this is a really amazing resource for plugins. If you are using them as AUs, remember to run the Pluggo AU scan! Unfortunately a number of them don't seem to show up in menus in Logic or Plogue Bidule's menus. I think it has something to do with unique plugin IDs or lack thereof...

See Pro Tools Section for more info and places to find free plugins.

Sound Consulting - some simple AU plugins including "Bad Cable", "Overflow" and "rider"
Audiounit Manager - Allows you to keep different sets of active audiounits for use in different software. Useful for when Final Cut Pro or other software does not like certain Audiounits.
  Plugins - VST:
Llama series - From Rekliner Records come plugins for realtime performance: LoopyLlama and TremoLlama. Author claims not to know why he designated these plugs as llamas. That is certainly not a llama in the picture...
  Destroy FX - Awesome VST plugins for OS X, OS 9 and Windoze - same as Audiounits above.
mda - TONS of free VST plugins and some Audiounit versions.
Linplug Free Alpha - This is a must have cool polyphonic VST/AU/RTAS synth. (You should have it if you download my Plogue Bidule layouts... but that was the old version of FreeAlpha... oh well! Time marches on.)
SmartElectronix - This community develops many free VST and AU plugins - a good number for Mac OS X. Some great stuff!
Elemental Inspector - This useful VST/AudioUnit/RTAS plug features a realtime spectral graph, level meters, and various indicators warning of potential audio quality or mixing issues including clipping and channel imbalance.
Green Oak Crystal - Crystal is a monster of a synth - commercial quality for free. But it is really CPU intense. Also other nice VST effects like chorus etc. Download the 20 MB SF2 sample ROM for more waveform options.

Pluggo - Cycling 74's Pluggo has just been released for OS X - we wait to see what other crazy plugins people will build with it! For those new to Pluggo, these are really amazing.

See above in Pro Tools Section for more info.

Free Plugins [and other stuff] for Pro Tools 6:

Digidesign Coreaudio Driver 6.9 for OS X 10.3 and verison 7 for 10.4 - A coreaudio driver with multi-client support, no supported apps list, and many fewer crashes. Still no sleep support or lower latency for the Mbox, but much better than previous (pre-6.5) drivers. If you are still using the coreaudio drivers from version 6.4 or earlier, give this a whirl.
Nomad Factory Free Bundle - Simple but nice Phaser, Sweeper and Tremolo plugins. In AU, VST, RTAS and HTDM formats.
Digidesign gives away free Bombfactory plugins - a classic compressor, tuner, de-clipper, bad gear simulator, level meters and stereo correlation meter. The 'Bomb Factory Essentials' aren't actually that essential - but they are free now. The vintage compressor is very nice, but what the hell is the clip remover supposed to do? It sounds more like a spastic, clip-CREATOR to me! Oh well.
Sampletank 2 Free (RTAS) - A free limited version of sampletank 2 for OS X with a few sounds updated monthly. Sound selection is not yet very extensive however. AU, VST and RTAS versions available.
North Pole - A filter/distortion/delay RTAS and VST plugin from Prosoniq. Can generate some cool wah-wah, EQ, distortion and delay effects. It is simple, but I find it very fun. Download includes versions of both RTAS and VST formats for OS 9 and OS X.
Plugsound Free - A 'sample sampler' from the massive plugsound collection. Has about 20 high quality instrument samples loaded in.

Pluggo - Cycling 74's Pluggo has just been released for OS X - we wait to see what other crazy plugins people will build with it! For those new to Pluggo, these are really amazing.

you will need the free pluggo runtime from Cycling '74. This does not include any plugins, but allows the running of many that are freely available from third parties.

Here are some free pluggos that have already been released for OS X:

• jk audio - useful and fun individual pluggos. luppo is sort of like a rex file player. piczer is the only simulation of a malfunctioning tape deck I have ever come across (besides the bombfactory funk-logic-mateurizer which just adds hiss and lo-fi). limo is good for distortion and limiting and there are several other plugins that act as displays for info such as tuning, stereoscope, phase inversion, detailed level and spectrum. Skyes is a spectral filter. Autowash is and auto-wah, and fluidsynth is a really useful little soundfont player synth.

• Percolate Collection - a collection of 12 of the nastiest, strangest plugins you have ever seen - from Columbia University. Lots of healthy granular stuff.

• The Lone Roger - some crazy pluggos - but many need 3rd party MaxMSP externals to work. You must find out these dependencies in the pluggo message window after loading the plugin, search for them on the web (google works), download and install in Library/Application Support/Cycling '74/externals.

• Gleetchplug - a very polished bundle of pluggos. NOW for OS X too.

• Go here, at the DUC forum, to learn more, including some OS 9 pluggos that are available and will work under OS X in Pro Tools.


Elemental Inspector - This useful VST/AudioUnit/RTAS plug features a realtime spectral graph, level meters, and various indicators warning of potential audio quality or mixing issues including clipping and channel imbalance.
TL|Fauxlder - A way to organize Pro Tools RTAS plugins if you have lots of them. Useful for Pluggo as a way to group all your pluggo plugs together, separate from other plugs. Create separate categories for true RTAS plugs. Slows down Pro Tools startup a little, but causes no other problems in my experience. Now obsoleted in Pro Tools 6.4, as Pro Tools does this for you. Downside is you can't customize the decisions Pro Tools makes about where to put stuff...
  Sound Programming/Performance Software:

Pure Data - Developed by Miller Puckette as an open source and free alternative to Max/MSP, Pure Data (or pd) is a powerful, cross-platform object oriented language for realtime audio and MIDI. You will want to visit this site to get an OS X installer package that does the dirty work for you. Can run as a native Jack Client.
jMax - A lighter, cross platform, java branch off of the Max/MSP tree. Unfortunately it has latency and stability issues, probably because it is written in Java. It is quite defunct due to some silliness by IRCAM. But some of the best stuff from jMax has been ported to Max/MSP through the FTM project at IRCAM.
  Plogue Bidule - Awesome! This software has power and flexibility akin to basic Max/MSP, but is much easier to learn (no typing stuff!). It is not as flexible or powerful (no data/message pathway, just signal processing), but more user friendly. Have fun just using it as a VST and Audiounit host, or take it into high gear creating your own realtime synths, audio processors or interactive compositions. It has MIDI, audio, sequencers, sync, spectral features, and is infinitely expandable. I use this software very often for studio work and a little for performance. Bidule can act as a Rewire slave to a sequencer! Works well with Pro Tools. You can download some of the instruments and effects I have created in the form of Bidule Groups here, at my Downloads page.
MacCsound - An OS X Csound app with realtime MIDI and audio and the ability to build a GUI for your creations. I desire to learn Csound now!


Cecilia - A powerful graphical user interface to the very powerful csound language. Even with no knowledge of csound, you can do amazing things. My knowledge of csound is very limited, but I still use this to apply insane effects I have found nowhere else to my audio. One of my favorite audio programs actually. If you know csound or want to learn it, have fun creating the most insane effects you can dream up [or even whole instruments / scores]. Cecilia is a bit hard to get used to at first, but so fun. Versions are available for OS X, OS 9 (see below), various Unix flavors, and Windoze via tcl/tk an the Wish windowing shell. For OS X, just download cecilia, install tcl/tk from here, then unstuff Cecilia and drag her to your Applications folder. Double click to launch. Should be a snap. Make sure to go to File>Preferences... and select helper applications, the most important of which will be the HTML Viewer (your web browser) so you can get to the help files!

Updated 1/6/05 to version 2.5.3 - fully 24 bit compatible and new FFT based modules!

Check out this Electronic Musician tutorial.

SuperCollider - A legend in crazy audio software. A line-by-line audio language for synthesis and DSP. May take some time to learn. Get the newest versions, including a Universal Binary, from Wesleyan University
  MaxMSP Externals, etc:
  Ok, I give up. Check out the Max Objects Database
  Sample Manipulation:
Sonasphere - A crazy sampling sequencer built on the concept of sound objects floating in 3D space and being connected with flexible tethers etc. Actually shows a realtime 3D environment where objects are bouncing around. Uses Audiounit effects and plans are in the works to include audiounit synths as well. Come armed with a fast mac. Updated to 1.2b - now Panther compatible and uses a spherical world.
SooperLooper - Neat realtime recorder/looper thingie - Native Jack client (in other words the mac version requires Jack OS X 0.61 or higher). This is one to read the documentation on I think.
Hydrogen - Jack native drum machine software ported from Linux. Requires Jack OS X 0.61 or higher.
Antiloop - loop-based, probability-influenced drum sampler/sequencer. Designed to play a drumbeat that never repeats itself exactly, but maintains the same feel. Rewire or standalone compatible. Can be used as sampler or just MIDI generator. Setup is extensive and I haven't figured out how to get it to re-connect to samples on loading saved setups, but promising and a really neat (and important) idea.
  Standalone Processing/Synthesis:
Hyperupic - Make a drawing, turn it into a piece of music! When photoshop is your composing tool you know it will get interesting. This software was inspired by the Upic system envisioned by the famous Iannis Xenakis. Hyperupic will turn any image into a piece of music as if it were a graph of the spectrum quantized to a particular user-specifiable scale. Works really well with Photoshop or GIMP - I use each layer in my image as an "instrument" that I paint the score for, then export each layer individually to .TIFF files, and load them into hyperupic, changing the oscillator for each different instrument. Caution: despite its looks, this is not a toy! Haha! Christopher Penrose, the "perpetrator" of this software was a teacher of mine. Do check it out! New version for March 2004 available (I just changed this link August 2004).
Amber-X - Mac OS X wrapper for the command line granulator Amber - beware not to set values too high or it will take 15 minutes to create a very loud 15 second file! Don't forget to install the included Libsnfile package before using.
Argeïphontes Lyre  - crazy esoteric processing software. Also does some image things.
Sound Hack - Really cool application to perform various strange tasks on sound files. Not exactly user friendly in the traditional sense, but great results and sometimes very useful.
  File Conversion:
Sox Wrap - a wrapper for the Sox batch sound file conversion utility.Does most everything except SDII - helps fill the great void left by Soundapp after moving to OS X.
Switch - a basic soundfile batch converter. Not too much more to say. Has a shareware big sister version.
  Music Training:
Music Trainers - all sorts of ear and visual music training as well as things like a simple staff paper generator for when you run out! Helps me practice for music theory class

Intervals - More flexible ear trainer application for musical intervals. I built this to practice for music theory class. A bit of shameless self promotion! But I felt there was a gap in this area which could be easily filled. Requires a MIDI synth to play notes on - hardware or software.

  Good Ear - Ear training on the web - many of the same features as Music Trainers, but more stuff like identifying chord progressions.
  Other:
Blender - Well, this is not really music software, but I had to include it because of it's supreme coolness to those of us using our computers in creative ways. This is an open source, pro quality, feature packed package for 3D modeling, animation and rendering, including built in compositing with background video and some sound capabilities. Incredible for a free piece of software. The learning curve is steep and the interface is un-mac-like (It is a cross platform App), but it is extremely capable. A new general undo feature has been added in version 2.35. There are many free plugins and scripts available to do stuff like build realistic humans, and import files from other formats, including from the free Wings 3D, where I find it easier to do basic modeling. I then bring models into Blender and texture, animate and render them over video for some wacky neat effects like flying houses, etc. Check this software out.
Pixelshox Studio - Realtime 3D and video with MIDI control and some limited audio capabilities. Great for doing visual stuff to go along with audio. This has now been reincarnated as Quartz Composer in the Tiger development tools!

Also Check out OS X Audio, Macupdate and Macmusic.org