A selection of great free VST plugins that all hold their own against their commercial counterparts.
Whether you’re just getting into music production, you want to expand the basic toolset of effects that came with your DAW, or you’re just looking for something different for your next production, these are all worth downloading and trying out immediately. I’ve used them all in commercial projects at one time or another. And using free tools is a great example of one of my 10 Principles Every Producer Must Know To Achieve The Pro Sound: Use Available Tools To Their Full Potential.
Here’s my choice of free effects and processors. If you’re looking for the best free VST synths, see this companion list.
Multi-effect plugin for glitch effects and stutter edits
Still the best free glitch effect plugin. It features a sequencer that you can apply colour-coded slices to – each colour represents one of the 9 effects, which is then applied to that section of the incoming audio. I tend to loop a drum beat or synth line, go mad with the Crusher, Gater, Shuffler and Reverser sections, and record the realtime output so I can go back over the ‘performance’ and lift out the best smaller sections to use as fills and effect edits. Windows only / VST 2.3 or higher. More info and download here.
Guitar amp simulator
Not so much a plugin as an institution amongst guitarists in the know, LePou makes really good guitar amp and cab simulators. It helps that they look as good as they sound. If I had to choose just one (and I did, here), it would be the Le456. All LePou plugins available in VST for Windows, most of them are also in VST and AU for Mac. More info and downloads here.
‘Colour’ / distortion effect plugin
There are many distortion, bit-crushing and saturation plugins. Camel Crusher stands head and shoulders above the rest based purely on it’s usability – it’s difficult not to find a good sound quickly, which cannot be said for most plugins in this area. Somehow, Camel Crusher can be smooth while still obliterating or aggressively fattening up your sounds. Try using it as a parallel effect, mixing in a little effected signal with the original for great ‘coloured’ results. For Windows VST and Mac VST/AU. More info and download here.
Guitar multi-effects (*also good for synth processing)
Yes, you have to signup for a (free) account with IK Multimedia in order to get it, but it’s worth the extra hassle. Incorporating virtual stompboxes, amps, mic’ed cabinets and rackmount post effects, there’s a lot to explore (before you inevitably want to invest in any of the many commercial versions. Damn it, they’re good…) More general info on Amplitube 3 here, and signup to download Amplitube 3 Free here.
It’s so important to have a really good standalone resonant filter in your arsenal if you’re making any kind of electronic or club music. Frohmage is almost certainly the best free one available. Like all Ohm Force plugins, it looks ‘different’, is really fun to use and sounds amazing. Windows and Mac in VST, RTAS and AU formats. More info and download here.
Any of the Variety Of Sound plugins could be on this list. I’ve chosen ThrillSeekerLA, as it’s the best free saturation plugin I know of. Also on this page are some very useful tips from the designer, Bootsy, on making the most of it. Recommended. Windows only. Download from here. And while you’re there, you may as well get all the others too…
Span is a spectrum analyzer, showing you a graphic real-time display of the frequency content of your mix or of individual sounds. This enables you to accurately identify any problem ranges where you’re getting clashing/masking of different parts, or to check whether individual sounds (particularly drums in and bass) are really hitting the right frequencies – something you can’t always hear very clearly on a typical small studio monitoring system. Used judiciously and in conjunction with other tools – particularly EQ and compression – this can really help you get tighter, more focused mixes with less exploratory knob-twiddling.
By the way, you can learn more about getting the most out of SPAN, or any spectrum analyser plugin, with my 3-part post on Using Reference Tracks Effectively.
Windows VST and Mac VST/AU. More info and download here.
Multi-effects including flanger and classic EQ
Actually four different effects here: TAL-Bitcrusher, TAL-Flanger, TAL-USE (or ‘Ultra Simple EQ’) and TAL-Tube (saturation). All of the TAL stuff has really good, compact layouts and GUIs, especially the cool TAL-USE with it’s single large knob: I’ve found it’s quite good for for setting up automated filter-esque sweeps on sounds with this one.
All available as Windows VST and Mac VST/AU. More info and download here.
I listed the SIR1 as the best free convolution reverb plugin in my The 10 Best Reverb Plugins In The World post here, and I still haven’t found a better one yet. If you like Altiverb or Wizooverb but don’t have the budget, this is your best bet.
It is Windows only, although the bigger brother, commercial version – SIR2 – is available for Mac VST/AU as well. Info on both versions and download SIR1 here.
I missed Rough Rider off the 50 Of The Best Compressor Plugins In The World list, so I’ll happily live with it here instead. This compressor is not for everything, but is perfect for making a drum buss or synth bass really pump. Like other Audio Damage plugins, it has that indefinable ‘musical’ quality to the sound that makes it easy to get good results quickly. Plus it has possibly the coolest ‘future-retro’ dial design ever conceived.
Available for Windows and Mac (VST/AU). More info and download here.
I hope this list is useful – Let me know below if I’ve missed off any amazing free plugins! And check out my other plugin list posts, which always include a few free models. Cheers!