My old computer died last month. The hard drives are intact, so I didn’t lose any files. However, several frequently-used applications will not run on my middle-aged laptop, some because of technical incompatibilities, some because of tyrannical DRM. I spent a little time recently searching for freeware to substitute for missing soft synths, and I found a few.
• Spicy Guitar is a pretty good physically-modeled acoustic guitar. In a mix with with a pinch of reverb, it can pass for the real thing, and it’s a lot cheaper than the AAS Strum Acoustic.
• Piano One has a plausible grand piano sound. Unfortunately, the default setting has an excess of mechanical noise, which can be very annoying when you’re playing quietly in the upper octaves. (It might be possible to reduce or eliminate the noise by tinkering with the parameters, which I haven’t tried yet.) It’s worth downloading if you want a virtual piano but don’t have the funds for something like Pianoteq. (Update: adjusting the release controls makes a big difference in the noisiness.)
• Combo Model V has the cheesy combo organ sound that was omnipresent in the garage band era. There’s also a Model F, which I haven’t tried yet.
• Urs Heckmann has a couple of very nice synth-sounding synths free for the downloading, Zebralette and Tyrell N6. The former, a single-oscillator synth, is exceptionally light on the CPU, and I can run several instances simultaneously without stressing my adequate-but-not-overpowered four-year-old laptop.
• Togu Audio Line lists a number of freebies, including the Elec7ro. I haven’t played with it much yet.
There are plenty of other virtual instruments free to download. You can find many here to play with if you have a MIDI keyboard and a VST/AU host. (I use Logic, but Garageband should work, and there are a variety of free or cheap DAWs for both Mac and Windows available.)
I found a MIDI file of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” as arranged by Guy Van Duser, and used it to make a quick-and-dirty demo of some of the above noisemakers. The first half is Spicy Guitar, Piano One and Combo V. From the faux harpsichord on, every sound is Zebralette.
(Update: uploaded better recording)