It doesn’t matter if you are starting out as a music producer or if you want to expand your set of tools, free plugins are always welcome in any setup. Free plugins give you access to functions and parameters which often rival paid plugins. However, in the current labyrinth of plugins on today’s market, it is easy to get confused. In fact, most of the free plugins available are pretty outdated or simply contain old material. With my latest findings and personal experience when it comes to music production, I will attempt to give you an objective overview of the best free VST plugins as of October 2018.
Free plugins VST | A bit of history
It has been years since I first started with computer music and production, and from the beginning, I was most interested in the technological part of it - DAWs, audio processing, synthesizers… When I discovered plugins, a whole world opened to me. I was looking for free ones all day, downloading and collecting them in a huge folder which soon got unusable and limiting - you had to look for a tool which did what you wanted, and learn to use it each time. It really did slow the creative process a lot.
A few weeks later I started from the beginning, looking for new plugins but only keeping them if they were really relevant and unique. In the sea of free VST/AUs it’s pretty easy to get lost, and although nowadays it’s much easier to find something with certain quality (unlike the old days of Synthedit and Flowstone when everybody could “develop” their own plugins - and a lot of them weren’t good), there is still a lot of duplicated functionality and hidden pleasant sound behind a weird GUI (and vice versa).
It’s really important to choose good and usable tools that allow you to project your ideas directly to the DAW, and to learn how to use them so you only get faster and faster: there is always time to find new toys and to play with them, but when the inspiration calls, you have to be quick and know how to translate your thoughts into actual sound.
Here I have collected the best free plugins I have encountered in my musical journey. They are divided into two categories, effects, and synthesizers. Not all are compatible with mac OS but most of them are, so feel free to explore. Each entry of the list has a small technical description and a bit of opinion. They are listed in no particular order.
Best Free VST Plugins
Best VST Effects
If you don't know Reaper then you should definitely check this VST out. It offers an equalizer with infinite bands and many filter types (fully parametric). A compressor with side-chain and every parameter you could need is also included. You also get a Multiband compressor with infinite bands (very customizable). An amazing delay, FFT processor, gate, and a Jesusonic effect interpreter (an FX plugin you can program, basically). These are to be used constantly, especially the equalizer (for anything), the compressor (very easy to use for sidechaining) and the multiband compressor to control
2. YouLean Loudness Meter 2
Works wonders when premastering, to check for sane LUFS (loudness) values. If you don’t know why monitor the loudness of your mix, a lot of streaming services (YouTube, Spotify, iTunes…) do an automatic gain adjustment based on the loudness of your track. If your track is over compressed, with little dynamic range (high loudness) its gain will be reduced and will sound smaller. If your track is more dynamic and sounds better, it will benefit from a gain increase.
3. RS-MET ToolChain
All the RS-MET plugins in one, including Engineers Filter (a pretty interesting filter with unique shapes), two synths (wavetable and 303 clone), a waveshaper based on math functions you can type, an advanced delay in which you can set the echoes manually, a limiter and a spectrum analyzer. You can resize them for bigger or smaller screens (especially useful for the spectrum analyzer) and note that it includes the free plugins AND the previously paid ones (the wavetable synth and the delay).
4. Tokyo Dawn Labs Free Plugins
Kotelnikov is a very nice buss compressor for drums and master. It has a knob to mix the dry signal and the wet one (allows for parallel compression) and a delta button to hear how the compressor is doing its thing (basically it acts as a gate triggered by the compression detector). Nova is a dynamic equalizer, meaning its a mix of an equalizer and a multiband compressor. Useful to control the spectrum of an instrument, while being less aggressive than a multiband compressor.
5. Togu Audio Line collection
Specially the Reverb 4 (room) and Reverb II (plate), the synths (analog emulations of some vintage Rolands) and, of course, the magnificent vocoder which has MIDI input with its own synth.
6. Xfer OTT
Very useful for sound design, and you may find it other purposes, too. It's an upwards/downwards multi-band compressor, which means that, if a band is lower than the threshold, the compressor increases its volume; if a band is higher than the threshold, the compressor decreases its volume (like a regular compressor). The result is a really squashed sound that usually enhances higher harmonics and digital distortion sound and artifacts, but it really has a lot of character. The parameter you will probably have to manipulate first is the Amount (up left).
7. Vladg sound Molot & Limiter No6
These are also very cool processors tools, specially the limiter which has a lot more options, including a compressor, a high frequency limiter, and a clipper. The compressor Molot is a characterful compressor which in my opinion is too aggressive, but you can find its uses with drum sounds. In the same page you can find Slick EQ, a mastering equalizer with soft saturation modes. Note that Limiter No6 has a skinned version which is easier to use and more visually pleasing.
8. Ignite amps stuff
A collection of guitar amp emulations, perfect for your distorting needs. There is also a Pultec equalizer emulation, a characterful and musical equalizer with low and high pass filters.
9. Luftikus by lkjb
Another mastering equalizer, with fixed bands and a very clean sound which is hard to make sound bad or extreme.
10. Glitch by dblue (32 bit only alert!)
The predecessor of Glitch 2 (paid), very cool plugin to glitch and destroy your sound using stutter, flanger, reverser, tape stop and so on. You can make sequences of chained effects and it has a randomizer for them so you can easily create new sounds. A cool workflow with this one is opening it in random mode, bouncing the track, then slicing and dicing to please your inner sound designer.
11. Auburn Sounds Graillon Free edition
An easy way to pitch down or up a sound, and it also comes with basic pitch correction.
12. Auburn Sounds Couture Free edition
Another transient shaper with pretty extreme settings and a very snappy behaviour.
13. Voxengo plugins
There are many very good plugins here, but the ones that stand out are SPAN (spectrum analyzer), Overtone GEQ (graphic equalizer with saturation) and Marvel GEQ (linear phase equalizer). There are also stereo wideners, reverb, delay and tube distortion.
14. TB Pro Audio sTilt
sTilt is a linear phase tilt equalizer, which means it's a big knob that you can move clockwise to increase the lows and decrease the highs, and move counterclockwise to do the reverse operation. Being a linear phase equalizer means that it will keep the sound free of unwanted phase distortions (quick and dirty explanation), unlike regular equalizers, and so it keeps the sound quality fully.
15. TBProAudio mvMeter2
This is a virtual VU meter, useful to measure loudness and do gain staging with its gain controls.
16. TBProAudio ISOL8
This one is just a band isolator: it divides the input sound into 5 bands (low, low mid, mid, high mid, and high) and presents you with Solo and Mute buttons for each one. In principle this is a monitoring tool, to focus your attention into a part of the spectrum, but this is not everything you can do with it. Since it uses linear phase filters, you can use this as a multi-band crossover:
- Route the output of your track to the input of three empty tracks, and add an ISOL8 into each one. The same sound should enter the three.
- In the first track, solo the LF and LMF. In the second, solo MF and MHF. In the third, solo HF.
- Now add the same effect(s) to each of the tracks. Even if your DAW has PDC make sure to have the same plugin delay in the three tracks so you avoid unwanted phasing.
- Now add the tracks to a buss. You will have created a multi-band configuration you can use with any effect you have, including compressors, distortions, reverbs...
17. Sonic Anomaly
QuadraCom is a 4 band mastering processor with compression and transient enhancing. With light settings it can really help to get a gluing sound in a mix. Transpire is a transient shaper with attack and release modifiers, and it's really the only decent free transient tool I have found that works with most materials. This is very cool for drums and percussive sounds, of course. There is also Unlimited, a free brickwall limiter with Inter Sample Peak support.
18. Klanghelm DC1A & IVGI
I bought their bigger brothers and still use these, as they are very simple to use but effective. They sound very good, analog emulation compressor and a saturator respectively.
19. Oril River
Probably the best free algorithmic reverb you can find. With early reflections, wet output equalizer and a very nice sound, you should try it, really.
20. HY-Plugins free editions
Bitcrushing plus drive stage and a post-distortion analog modelled filter. If you don’t have a bitcrusher yet, this is a good candidate for your first time.
21. Tritik Krush
Probably the best free algorithmic reverb you can find. With early reflections, wet output equalizer and a very nice sound, you should try it, really.
22. Analog Obsession PreBOX
This is a fun one: 11 preamplifier simulations, each one with its characteristic saturation, dynamics and transient response. This guy actually models his plugins using an electronic circuit simulation which then is translated to code, so even if they may not be the most accurate emulations, you can get some interesting saturations.
23. Klevgrand Freeamp
We can never have enough saturation plugins (or plugins in general), and if they are one-knob style, the addiction becomes worse. This is a cool one-knob tape/tube saturation to add to your collection.
25. D16 Frontier
OK, for this you need to create a D16 user account, but in the long run it might be beneficial. D16 plugins are incredible (at a moderated price) and this is no exception: a simple but characterful limiter you can use to pump up your drums, basses or anything you need. When you register you get a welcome coupon from D16 to get any other product you want (don’t forget to check out Syntorus or Devastor 2 if you plan on using it).
Best VST Synths
This amazing bad boy was recently open-sourced and I really recommend checking it out. A polyphonic, bilayer, subtractive/FM/wavetable synth with a thousand presets, 180+ wavetables, plenty of complex modulation stuff, effects and more. Previously paid so there is definitely a lot of quality in here, and it has been recently updated with a vectorial GUI so you can resize it and make it as big as you want, a much needed feature. This is the best sound and feature set you can get for free, no doubt.
A free and open source synth with drag and drop modulation, cross mod between oscillators, many different waveforms, 3 envelopes and 3 LFOs, a sequencer and some effects. Really a nice bread-and-butter synth for general use.
Free full modular architecture synth, amazing sound, plenty of modules, wavetable support. What else could do you need? A good candidate to desert island synth.
4. U-he Tyrell N6
An analog emulation synth with a subset of the features of ACE, it’s a nice tool to have when you need some old school juice. U-he synths are well known for their amazing sound which really resembles the warminess of analog synths (but sacrificing CPU power in the process).
5. Tone2 Firebird
Some cool presets and interesting functionality makes this little one an instant inspiration machine. You either like its sound or hate it, defined by many as “very plasticky”. This really has some good bits like complex waveforms and samples, wave modifiers and weird filter modes. Since it has so few controls it’s pretty easy to tweak.
6. Fathom Mono
The mono version of the modular synth Fathom. It's in development so it's in constant change. Even taking into account you can only play one note at the same time, it has a lot of possibilities. Many oscillators, filters and modulators, possibility of making FM and RM synthesis, hand drawn waves, wavetable support, unison and effects.
7. HY-Plugins Mono
Two oscillators and a filter, one LFO and two envelopes… This is definitely not a complex synth, but maybe that’s its strong point. With a resizable interface this is a good bet for sub basses and arps (pairing it with a HY-Plugins sequencer maybe…).
If you can bear with the tiny interface, this thing has it all, including sampling. 8 oscillators with unison and string generator, many many types of filter and effects, and 255 modulation slots. (You will get virus warnings with this one, I think it's clean but I am not responsible of anything.)
9. VK-1 Viking
A monophonic Moog emulation, with plenty of presets and an amazing sound. It was previously a paid Reason extension but it's now a free to download (pay what you want) VST too. There are a lot of basses in here which will probably suit most of your funk/house/deep needs.
A nice little virtual-analog synth with its own sound and really easy to use interface, pretty usable for inexperienced people. Usually recommended to get started into synthesis.
If you can program this synth, you are my hero. If not, you can play your favorite DX7 patches from famous songs, so it’s a win-win situation. Yes, it’s a free emulation of that Yamaha FM synthesizer.
12. Shortcircuit (32 bit alert!)
Nice old sampler with a lot of possibilities of filtering and modulation, several keyzones and more features.
13. One Small Clue Grace
Probably the best and easiest to use free sampler. This one is more oriented to drum samples, but it will also work for keys and synths.
There are many more plugins out there, but I had to choose and these were the best I could find and I use. The effects section is pretty balanced, so you should not need anything else in your projects. The synthesizer section is a bit more limited because there are only pure synthesizers (and samplers). I left behind romplers and acoustic emulations because I don’t think there are free plugins which offer decent quality on those. If you use FL Studio, Reason, Ableton Live, Bitwig or any of the big DAWs you will have no problem with the stock sounds, at least for pianos and basic orchestral stuff. It's harder to make free instruments with acoustic sounds like piano, strings and drums.
Other sources of nice, very affordable plugins are:
Computer Music magazine: Buying the latest issue in Google Play or Zinio allows you to access the Vault. It comes with some bundled plugins and there is amazing material there. Especially some PSP plugins, U-he Bazille CM (monophonic, patchable modular synth) and Thorn CM (polyphonic, spectral synthesizer with plenty of patches).
Check pluginboutique.com and other sources each few days and get that AIR Music Tech Hybrid 3 or Xpand!2 1$ deal. Hybrid 3 is a nice oldish synth with a ton of presets (instant inspiration) and Xpand!2 is a one-stop solution for your piano, strings, orchestral, ethnic percussion, other stuff needs. It's a rompler full of sounds which can fake very well your orchestral parts in your indie rock track (or dubstep, whatever you want to do with it).
In the end, we get what we pay for, but the limit between paying and not is usually very thin, and sometimes some developers can even switch sides. There exist paid plugins which definitely are not worth their price because of the sound, GUI or stability - and there exist amazing free plugins with a sound or GUI we could pay for, and these are some of them.
It does not matter if you are starting with music making or you have been a few years in the game, they should allow you to produce, finish and polish full tracks, with zero monetary cost but full personal satisfaction.
Jorge Marcos Chavez
Computer lover and keyboardist. It was only a matter of time before he started tinkering with DAWs, music production and synthesis. After a few