Five Must Have (Free) VSTs For That 80s Sound
Whether you’re in a cover band or just looking to add a little retro flair to your mix, these five free plugins can help you get the sound you’re looking for without breaking the bank. Now, since all of the plugins here are free don’t expect them to be as good as commercial plugin that cost $100 or more. But don’t write them off just because they’re free either. All five of these plugins do a reasonable job of emulating classic instruments from the 80s. Since they’re free, so what do you have to lose?
Cassette 808 VST – Roland TR-808 Emulator
For better or for worse, drum machines ruled 80s pop and New Wave music. Even if you had a live drummer (we did) you probably had a drum machine somewhere (we did). Of all the drum machines out there, two of them were almost ubiquitous among bands. One was the Roland TR-808.
Even though Roland had other drum machines, including the TR-606 and the TR-909, it was the TR-808 that you hear most often. Its sounds are immediately recognizable and go a long way in defining the sound of mid-80s pop.
While there are several TR-808 emulators out there, my favorite is the Cassette 808 VST by pbp. The interface itself is a bit sparse, but is color coded the same as an actual Roland TR-808.
What I really like about the Cassette 808 VST is the selection of three kits; Clean, Warm, and Hot. According to pbp
The Clean kits are based on the raw, unprocessed recordings of these iconic analog drum machines, whereas the Warm and Hot kits feature the saturated drum hits that were re-sampled from an audio cassette deck.
The samples sound great and the VST is easy to use.
DJINNDRUM VST – LinnDrum LM-2 Emulator
The other big dog in the drum machine game was of course the LinnDrum. Used by countless bands including Men Without Hats, Human League, and the purple one himself—Prince. Outside of Oberheim synths, the LinnDrum was the biggest contributor to the Prince sound.
Just like with the TR-808, there are a number of LinnDrum VSTs on the market, but I prefer the DJINNDRUM VST to all the other free VSTs out there. The number one reason I chose the DJINNDRUM VST is its ease of use. Everything in interface is well marked, easy to find, and easy to manipulate. And the dedicated tuning section can help you dial in just the right sounds. If you’re looking for one of the signature Prince sounds check out the RIM tuning on the image above.
Dexed – Yamaha DX7 Emulator
Introduced in 1983, the Yamaha DX7 quickly became a must have synth for a lot of band (I had one) and you can hear its unique sounds featured in a lot of mid-80s music. The problem with the DX7 was programming the thing. The DX7 is an FM synth. Most synths on the market are subtractive synths.
I’ll do a video or article about the different types of synths soon explaining the differences in detail. FM or Frequency Modulation synthesizers work by modulating the frequency of a waveform, likely a sine wave. In the image above, you can see dexed’s six oscillators. Unlike the oscillators in an additive synth like the Prophet 5 or Minimoog, only the first oscillator produces an audible sound. The other five oscillators (called modulators) are used to shape (or modulate) the carrier wave.
Dexed does a really nice job of emulating the DX7 and is quite a bit easier to program than the original. The DX7 can be harsh sounding, and so can dexed. Back in the 80s I usually added a bit of reverb to cut down on that harshness.
scP5 – Prophet 5 Emulator
The Prophet 5 was everywhere in the 80s and can be heard on some of the biggest and best songs of the day. So, any discussion about must have plugins for 80s music has to include a Prophet 5 emulator. Unfortunately, the free plugin market for Prophet 5 VSTs is shallow. For being such a ubiquitous part of 80s music, you would think more VSTs for the Prophet five would exist. But they don’t.
The scP5 is about the best your going to get for free. It works, sort of. You can get sounds out of it that aren’t too bad, but I’ve had problems getting some features to work including the arpeggiator.
If you need the Prophet 5 sound and you’re really short on cash the scP5 is passable. Just know that it’s an older plugin and probably isn’t getting updated anymore. If you want a much better experience, save up $30 and pick up a copy of Messiah from Memory Moon (32-bit only). Or save up $150 and grab a copy of Prophet V from Arturia.
MiniMogue VA – Minimoog Emulator
The Minimoog, with its three oscillators, was well known for producing fat sounds and great bass lines. Fortunately, the MiniMogue VA is an amazing VST emulator for the Minimoog.
The graphics look a bit dated and it is a 32-bit VST, but the MiniMogue is fully capable of producing fat sounds. With a fully featured arpeggiator you can quickly produce great sounding 80s style basslines.
When I think of 80s music drum machines, FM synths, the Prophet 5, and a nice fat bass synth come to mind. With only a few reservations, you can get the sound you’re after for free. Of course, commercial offerings are almost always going to be better, but by using any or all of the above VSTs you have no excuse for not making some great music.