Free Plugins: A Shortlist
Updated: Apr 13, 2020
A common question I get from clients looking to learn about production, mixing and mastering; is what free plugins are out there, and which ones are worth trying. While the answer to that question is different for every use case, there is an abundance of free tools that I have found worth recommending to beginners and professionals looking to expand their tool set beyond the default offering of their chosen DAW.
This article is an ongoing project to compile a shortlist of some of my own personal recommendations. Including a short description of suitable uses and compatibility. It is by no means complete and I very much plan on expanding it as time permits.
All plugins are organised by alphabetical order by publisher and all opinions contained within are of course my own. The name of each plugin itself should be a hyperlink to where it can be obtained (if still available). Read through and see what appeals to you but also feel free to use the search function in your browser to look for a particular category of tool. The major categories I have divided by include:
Distortion | Dynamics | Effects | Equalisation | Instruments | Utility
Please note I have endeavored to select plugins that are available to everyone, regardless of DAW or Mac/PC platform. Please refer to the subheading notes to ensure compatibility with your platform at time of writing. If you notice any mistakes in my list or have suggestions of your own, I would love to include them. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Organised Alphabetically by Category
Organised Alphabetically by Publisher
It contains a number of tools with somewhat niche but certainly creative applications, my personal picks can be found below.
Ableton also provides an array of free sample packs and tools, the full list of which can be found here.
If you are an Ableton Live 10 Suite user, don’t forget that Max for Live comes with a host of excellent processors as standard. Including the essential LFO Tool and Envelope Follower.
Instrument: Monophonic Synth | Ableton Max for Live
As the name might suggest, Bass is an excellent synthesiser for synth bass sounds, with something of a Moog-like style to my ear.
It has all the features necessary for creating bass sounds with the same design sensibilities that will be familiar to Ableton Live users.
Extremely high quality as far as free synths go so a definite recommendation for any Ableton Live users.
Distortion: Heavy Limiting | Ableton Max for Live
This limiter is designed to provide a distinctively distorted character at almost any setting. Rather than transparent peak reduction like a conventional limiter.
As the meter range (0-48!) suggests, this tool is meant to be pushed, so go for it and drive into it with drums or guitars to get a really fat, heavy sound.
Effects: Pitch Manipulation | Ableton Max for Live
This tool is perfect for creating and tweaking classic pitched delay effects.
Pitch hack behaves something like a conventional delay processor but allows you to modulate the pitch and playback direction of audio in the delay line.
Some of the presets are excellent but its one of those tools that greatly benefits from some hands on experience and experimentation.
Instrument: Polyphonic Synth | Ableton Max for Live
A polyphonic synth that emulates analog character but with some modern design sensibilities.
It features straightforward controls with a handy oscilloscope, as well as a built-in chorus and detonable oscillators.
Like Bass, this synth is one of the best free offerings out there. Definitely worth a try for lead and pad sounds.
Acustica audio specialise in emulations of classic hardware using convolution-based processing.
Currently only the TAN compressor is available however Acustica often have some of their products free for a limited time and provide trail versions for their entire range.
All their products are available through their Aquarius product manager.
Dynamics: Compressor | AAX, AU, VST, VST3
A solid compressor, great for processing all kinds of sources.
Comes with an engageable pre-amp emulation that lets you add a little extra colour and distortion as required.
Like most Acustica Audio products, it can use a considerable amount of processing power, especially when utilizing multiple instances.
Airwindows plugins are made by Chris Johnson who provides a vast number of small, simple plugins for free from his website.
All Airwindows plugins are developed without a GUI, so they use the native slider display for your AU/VST host.
They are each designed with very specific applications in mind, ranging from the general to the niche.
The way they are coded also means that they tend to have different behaviours at different sample rates.
Having said that there are some genuinely unique and fascinating tools. I have included a couple of my favourites below. All of which are free and funded through Chris’s Patreon.
Distortion: Console Emulation | AU, VST
The Channel series has been a very popular ongoing series with now 7 iterations.
It allows you to select from several well-known console designs and aims to emulate the saturation characteristics of running signal through a real console.
As with all Airwindows plugins, it has its quirks and can create anything from subtle to over the top effects.
Give it a go on some complex sources and see for yourself what it can do.
Distortion: Filthy! | AU, VST
This one is honestly just a pile of fun. Instantly makes things sound like an overblown club system.
Absolutely filthy. There is no subtle setting!
Effects: Distance |AU, VST
This is one of my favourite plugins by Chris. Very simple to use and sounds totally convincing.
Simply increase the distance value and the signal will sound as if it is further away.
A new version, Distance2, also exists but has additional features that I find somewhat complicate the brilliant simplicity of the original. Feel free to give it a try if you like and see which one you prefer.
Distortion: Tape Emulation | AU, VST
This has been another of Chris’s most popular ongoing projects, now at its 7th iteration. (Previously known as ToTape1-6)
Tape emulates the change in tonality, EQ and saturation that you get when running signal to tape.
Like real tape you want to be very particular with what level you drive into it. Although now it does come with a handy drive control to exaggerate or reduce the effect.
The Blue Cat suite of plugins is another great resource for a range of useful and well-designed alternatives to the default ones available in your DAW and a few powerful features that are often missing.
The most popular of which is the excellent Blue Cat Spectrum analyser which is perfect for identifying problem areas and analysing your fresh new batch of plugins.
There is more to be said about this selection and I am looking to add further detail at a later date.[ARM1]
DDMF make a range of powerful utility plugins
They also have a number of freeware plugins that may be of interest.
Utility: Analysis | Standalone Application
Now this one is not technically a free plugin but is so essential that I think even the demo version is a must have (albeit the full version is available at a very affordable price).
In my view Plugin Doctor is an invaluable learning tool allowing you to directly measure the processing of any plugin you analyse with it.
Use it to visualise exactly what that “analog” style eq is doing to your signal or even measure the precise attack and release times of your favourite compressors.
There are many features but most useful in my experience are the magnitude and phase display as well as harmonic analysis. Especially as it even works on hardware and external inserts!
The demo version works as the fully featured but cuts out after a set period. Which is usually enough to diagnose a problem. I would however recommend this as a tool to anyone looking to better understand signal processing.
Utility: Versatile | AAX, AU, VST,VST3
A simple plugin that provides controls for many of the basic manipulations often required when mixing but are not always easy to access in some DAWs. Quick controls for a variable High Pass filter, mid-side encoding and panning, simple delay and phase.
Flux:: Audio produce some excellent processing tools aimed towards to mastering and post production applications.
Both their freeware offerings come recommended and are available through the Flux::Centre Product Manager.
Dynamics: Transient Design | AAX, AU, VS3, VST
An effective transient designer with straightforward controls. Easy to use and a great introduction to the power of this kind of processor.
Utility: Metering, Stereo Panning | AAX, AU, VS3, VST
An excellent panning and stereo manipulation tool for corrective and creative tasks.
My personal favourite vector scope for when creating and monitoring wide synth sounds.
HOFA produce a whole range of different plugins and processors, most of which are designed around a common visual and design language and can be easily used in conjunction with each other to construct more complicated processing from simple parts.
They have a number of paid and free plugins, I have included my favourite free offerings below.
All Categories | AAX, AU, VST, VST3
HOFA produce a range of effects and utility plugins for sale on their website. This bundle includes 29 of them with various limitations.
Includes everything from EQs, Convolution Reverb and various utilities. There is bound to be something of use to any producer in this bundle.
Utility: Misc. | AAX, AU, VST, VST3
Separate to the SYSTEM Basic bundle but a helpful tool for measuring time spent working on a project.
This one is another solo developer that can be found on KVR Audio making excellent free plugins of various designs and applications.
Equalisation: Broad Shaping | AU, VST, VST3
This EQ is based on a particular design pioneered by Cliff Maag Sr with a very unique character.
In short each of the 4 lower bands has a fixed frequency but very wide bandwidth. The 2.5kHz band is in fact a high shelf filter and the “High Boost” band is a variable shelf filter that can be centred as high as 40kHz.
Each of the filters interacts greatly with the others, so done be surprised if lifting the 640Hz band also raises the sub frequencies.
For this reason I find this style of EQ best suited to broad shaping, and can be the perfect addition to a mixbus when a lift in energy or clarity is required.
Having said that of course be careful with dramatic changes in gain. Which is why the keep gain feature on this plugin is so useful.
Equalisation: Linear Phase Parametric | AU, VST, VST3
It can be hard to find a reliable linear phase eq for an affordable price, especially one as fully featured as this.
Provides 12 variable bands with ergonomic controls and adjustable latency and a useful visual analyser
Linear phase EQ is an often misunderstood or misapplied tool. My recommendation would be to give it a go on a couple sources and see how you like it.
If you are interested in learning about Linear phase eq, more details on this specific plugin can be found on the QRange Blogpost with additional notes from the creator about IIR Linear Phase EQ here.
Effects: Stereo Widener | AU, VST
A very simple “oneknob” stereo spreader. Well suited to creating that “supersaw” effect on any source.
Plot twist! Actually has two knobs, a hidden mix control that you can access by clicking on the text of the UI.
Equalisation: Pultec Style | AU, VST, VST3
An excellent Pultec style EQ, featuring emulation of the characteristic eq curves and saturation. Features comparable with more expensive versions of the same design.
As with any Pultec emulation, this EQ sounds great on Vocals and whole mixes, with that classic curves of the original. A worthwhile style of EQ to master.
Utility: Stereo Widener| AAX, AU, VST, VST3
This is one of the more recent releases on this list but has already become one of my favourite imagers and stereoizers for backing vocals and guitars. Does exactly what it says on the tin but as mentioned has the extra function of being able to synthesise a stereo image from a mono source in a way that can sound as natural or exaggerated as needed. Not as versatile as the full multi-band version that you can find in iZotope’s flagship Ozone product but perfect for situations when you just want to make something wider within a mix.
Distortion: Vinyl | AAX, AU, VST, VST3
Probably the best vinyl distortion emulator out there. Simulates 5 noise types, 4 different models of warping and 6 different eq profiles, allowing you shape the precise effect you’re looking for, yet easy to get a quick result. Highly recommended.
Dynamics: Vintage-Style Compressor | AAX, AU, VST, VST3
An excellent compressor, suitable for gentle settings on vocals and characterful pumping on drums and more dynamic material.
The little brother to the MJUC compressor which is also excellent and very affordable.
An easy recommendation for anyone looking for a more “analog” style compressor for vocals. Available from here.
Dynamics: Compressor | AAX, AU, VST, VST3
A fixed attack/release compressor with an abundance of extra controls that make it easy to add character to any sound.
Not necessarily appropriate for precise dynamics control. This plugin none the less is excellent for when you want to fit an element into a mix in a more interesting way than with just a simple VCA style compressor.
Distortion: Saturation | AAX, AU, VST, VST3
Similar to the DC1A as a scaled down version of Klanghelm’s fantastic SDRR saturator plugin.
Surprisingly versatile for a simple tool. Great for snares and all kinds of program material that need a little bit more hair or bite.
Benefits from experimentation, download it and give it a go!
Softube make a wide variety of excellent plugins for production, mixing and mastering.
One of their best offerings (at least in my opinion) happens to be free!
Distortion | AAX, AU, VST, VST3
An excellent distortion tool. Can range from subtle to aggressive depending on how hard you drive it and which frequency range you choose to “keep” thanks to its sensitivity adjustment switch.
It’s only downside in my option is the lack of gain control at the input and output which would be especially useful considering it can boost your signal quite quickly. None the less an amazing plugin.
Try it on your master bus at 1.4, “keep low” and wonder how Softube can get away with giving it away for free!
All Categories | AAX, AU, VST, VST3
One of the most complete free plugin bundles out there. Contains 36 different plugins providing creative and utility functionality for a variety of tasks.
All MeldaProduction plugins feature their excellent resizable and highly customisable GUI design with an abundance of helpful features and metering.
The MFreeFXBundle page for free and with the option to upgrade to increase the functionality of the included tools.
There are too many to cover in this post but below are my personal recommendations.
Effects: Pitch Correction | AAX, AU, VST, VST3
An effective automatic picth correction tool, suitable for vocals and monophonic instruments.
A no-brainer for any bedroom producer or vocalist who needs access to effective pitch correction software on a budget.
Effects: Comb Filtering | AAX, AU, VST, VST3
Another creative tool that does something novel and unique.
Comb filtering is an important part of audio engineering yet is seldom a desired effect. This plugin lets you turn that on its head and create dramatic distortions.
My suggestion would be to try it on creative effects where you want to drastically change a sound such as distorted bass synths, in series with reverb or delay effects, or on modulated elements such as a pad synth.
Thankfully provides randomisation controls and presets to help you find examples and inspiration.
A very dramatic sound but there is nothing else quite like it.
Dynamics: Compressor | AAX, AU, VST, VST3
A straightforward compressor design that offers several features uncommon among standard DAW offerings.
In addition to the conventional compressor controls you would expect MCompressor allows you to specify the shape of the transfer curve to your precise needs.
One of those tools that can applied in a straightforward manner or customised for very specific circumstances.
Equalisation: Parametric | AAX, AU, VST, VST3
MEqualizer provides many of the standard features we have come to expect from modern parametric EQs but adds some very useful and somewhat unique features.
Each of the 7 bands has a variety of shapes on offer. As well as a very useful “harmonics” control, which allows you to diminish or exaggerate the harmonic multiples of a given frequency.
It’s a feature worth trying out and can be very useful for enhancing monophonic instruments with a static pitch such as kick drums. Or for removing pitched errors or noise from more complex signals.
Like most of the MeldaProductions line, the analyser is also excellent and highly customisable. Allowing it to serve as a viable alternative to your DAWs built in plugins.
Distortion |AAX, AU, VST, VST3
MSaturator is another plugin that can be operated quickly and easily or with greater specificity and precision.
The harmonics section is an extremely useful tool for adding clarity or presence to bass sounds and is one of my favourites for distorted 808s that need to be audible on smaller speakers.
My advice would be to try each of the different modes and see what suits your source. MSaturator is a great plugin for both subtle and extreme distortion.
Plugin Alliance and Brainworx make some of my personal favourite plugins. I think they do an excellent job of developing high quality plugins that of both emulated and original designs that perform as intended with minimum compromise. They offer a number of free plugins that are very useful tools for a number of applications.
All the below plugins are available from the Plugin Alliance Website upon creation of an account.
Distortion: Guitar Amp & Cabinet | AAX, AU, VST2, VST3
Really solid guitar amp plugin for if you just want to play something that sounds good with minimal tweaking.
Having said that not the right choice if you goal is to have a sound that you can tweak as many of the controls have been limited in this free version compared to its fully featured counterpart.
None the less a great sounding guitar amp sim and perfect for when you just want to plug in a guitar and jam!
Utility: Monitoring | AAX, AU, VST2, VST3
A simple and very useful tool for easy soloing of Left Right Mid and Side channels.
An essential feature for developing an understanding of where elements of the mix are sitting and the interactions between the mono and stereo versions of your mix.
Equalisation: Resonant High-Pass Filter | AAX, AU, VST2, VST3
Essentially a resonant High Pass filter with an additional band at ~45hz.
Very useful for adding extra power to sub frequencies but should not be confused with a true a sub-harmonic generator like its big brother; bx_subsynth.
Equalisation: Tilt EQ | AAX, AU, VST2, VST3
A simple “tilt” style EQ. Great for quick and musical shaping of a signal before more specific processing further down the line.
Can also produce a Low-Pass or High-Pass filter by setting the frequency knob to the extreme left or right respectively.
This one of my favourite features on other Elysia processors such as the Elysia Alpha and mpressor.
Equalisation: Fixed Graphic | AAX, AU, VST2, VST3
A simple graphic eq with 4 EQ individually shaped bands at 40Hz, 150Hz, 1.8kHz and 16kHz.
While limited in application due to its fixed bands, can be very useful for shaping vocals in particular
Shattered Glass Audio make a small range of tube style distortion and saturation tools, often modelled off vintage designs.
They have two free product offerings as listed below.
Distortion : Vintage Channel Strip | AAX, AU, VST2, VST3
Based on the EMI REDD console design, made famous by the Beatles and Abbey Road Studios.
A great tool for broad tone shaping and adding extra colour and saturation to clean sounds.
One of those tools that can go from subtle to extreme very quickly so take time to experiment.
Distortion : Tube Saturation | AU, VST
A tube style distortion processor designed to emulate the complete circuit design of a vintage pre-amp designed around two 12AX7 tubes.
Also includes gentle Baxandall style tone controls for further sound shaping controls.
Also lots of interesting design notes and information included in the product manual.
Utility: Talkback Mute | AAX, AU, VST, VST3
A useful tool for automatically muting a talkback channel during playback.
Easy to use and essential when recording without a dedicated talkback system already in place.
Instrument Orchestral | AAX, AU, VST
Terrific instruments, I’ve spoken about before here.
Effects: Chorus | AAX, AU, VST
Based on the Chorus module found in the ubiquitous Juno-60 synth.
This is my personal favourite chorus plugin and sounds great on almost any source.
The plugin is simple to use; pick either chorus I, II or both and mix the dry/wet knob to taste.
Be aware that at its default setting there is a considerable increase in gain. So remember to turn the vol knob down for a fair comparison.
Effects: Filter, Sidechaining | AAX, AU, VST
Extremely useful as both a utility and effect tool.
This filter plugin features an excellent envelope designer that allows you to control the modulated shape of the filter.
It has a number of different filter shapes and types as well as the ability to modulate the overall volume of the track, thus providing a super customizable sidechain effect.
Effects: Reverb | AAX, AU, VST
A simple reverb plugin that has all the controls you need to get a usable sound.
Has something of a digital character similar to a lot of early digital reverb units from the mid to late 80’s.
Allegedly related to the reverb algorithm found in the very popular Xfer Records Serum softsynth.
Tokyo Dawn Labs are somewhat legendary amongst creators of free and affordable plugins.
Many of the TDR plugins also have excellent tutorial videos narrated by the wonderful Dan Worrall.
Dynamics: Compressor | AAX, AU, VST
An excellent compressor that features some very powerful features for transparent and precise dynamics control.
Includes release control between peak and RMS detection, as well as sidechain filtering, stereo link control and parallel processing.
Appropriate for vocal, bus and even mastering applications. This is an excellent compressor and its big brother has even more powerful features.
As always TDR has provided a range of excellent resources, including a video tutorial voiced by Dan Worrall an extensive manual and this advanced guide demonstrating some of its more advanced features.
Dynamics: Vintage Compressor |
Definitely one of the more esoteric plugins on this list, but by no means an unpopular choice.
The Molot compressor feels very much like a tool that has been designed to bring back that feeling of unfamiliarity to a tool as ubiquitous as a compressor. Although for the same reason it is definitely worth reading the manualif you want to accurately understand what is going on under the hood.
Equalisation: Dynamic | AAX, AU, VST
An easy recommendation as one of the best dynamic equalisers out there. Perfect for gently controlling the dynamics of a complicated signal or even for precise de-essing of vocals or other harsh instruments.
It has a lot of features so definitely worth reading the manualto get the most out of it.
If you find this plugin particularly useful, it can be further enhanced through the purchase of the gentleman edition.
Utility: Distance Perception | AU, VST
A powerful tool for placing a sound convincingly at a distance to the listener.
Proximity was created as a collaborative product between Tokyo Dawn Labs (A.K.A. TDR) and vladg/sound.
There are a number of advanced controls on the plugin that allow you to dial in a precise effect, however it can easily be operated by simply pulling down the main fader at its default setting to increase the perceived distance from the sound.
Having said that the main fader provides a huge range of effect so is best used in moderation from my experience. Feel free to experiment with different combinations of settings or perhaps put it through DDMF Plugin Doctor to take a closer look under the hood.
Have a play around with the controls and see what you can come up with. It’s a powerful tool for sure.
Equalisation: Semi-Parametric | AAX, AU, VST
A 3 band semi-parametric EQ with built in saturation and shape profiles modelling a selection of famous circuit characteristics.
An extremely useful plugin worth having, it also has a more feature rich version for an affordable price.
Instruments: Subtractive Synth | AU, VST, VST3
Originally the TyrellN6 project was intended to be built as a low-cost hardware synth, however along the line this plan was scrapped and this software rendition of that design was created instead.
With a lot of features similar to the ubiquitous Juno-60 synthesizer, this instrument is great for creating simple and effective subtractive synth sounds. With a great built in preset browser and excellent manual that helps to explain design choices and best practices. Download available from the amazona.de website.
Voxengo are another one of those plugin manufacturers well known for a particularly popular product. In this case their ubiquitous Voxengo SPAN.
Each of their plugins feature A/B functionality and customisable colours.
They produce a wide range of excellent processing tools, both paid and free, ranging from mastering limiters to spectral processors.
I have included below my personal favourites but a complete list of their free offerings can be found here.
Distortion: Guitar Amp | AAX, AU, VST
A noticeably feature rich guitar amp and cabinet simulator.
The Cabinet Sim/Convolver feature provides the powerful functionality of being able to import effectively any convolution sample you may have.
Voxengo even link their own recommended source for further convolution files and there are many more available for free on the internet.
Can be used as a complete guitar processing unit or just one stage in a multi-effects process.
Effects: Reverb | AAX, AU, VST
A vintage styled reverb with straightforward controls and a characterful sound.
Perfect for when you want to add dimension to a sound without an obvious or overwhelming effect.
The Voxengo website suggests that “OldSkoolVerb is best suited for non-percussive and soft-attack sounds like vocals, piano and pad sounds.” although personally I’ve seen great results on drums, particularly snares and percussion.
As always; use your ears and decide for yourself.
Effects: Delay | AAX, AU, VST
A relatively simple tempo-synced delay plugin that features several controls often sadly absent from native DAW iterations.
Aside from the usual delay control, features independent panning controls, tremolo and filtering.
Utility: Spectrum Analyser | AAX, AU, VST
A versatile spectrum analyser appropriate for a range of functions. Great on the master output as an overall spectrum analyser.
While the default setting is helpful, the plugin can be best utilised by customising its display for your specific needs.
Hereis an excellent video hosted by Dan Worrall providing his tips on how to appropriately setup and use Voxengo SPAN.
Also hereis a video of Drum & Bass producer Icicle describing his process for setting up Voxengo SPAN for his productions.
Distortion: Tube Amp | AAX, AU, VST
A simple tube amp style distortion plugin.
I have found it excellent and easy to use on guitar sounds and bass. Any source that needs a little more drive and colour.
Worth trying out and pairs very well with Voxengo’s OldSkoolReverb
Xfer Records was founded by Steve Duda, once half of the group BSOD with Joel Zimmerman of Deadmau5, and now the renowned developer of Serum.
Steve has taken from his experience in music and audio to create some powerful and widely used tools in electronic music production, many of which are free. I have included two of my personal favourites below.
Effects: Spatial Delay | AXX, AU, VST
Dimension expander is an emulation of an effects module within Native Instruments’ Massive with the same name. This effect was in turn based on the Roland Dimension D hardware unit.
It uses an array of short, modulated delays to perceptively widen a signal with minimal mono compatibility issues.
This effect is excellent on synth leads, pads, guitars and other harmonic instruments that can be subtly widened to help find their place in the mix.
Dynamics: Extreme Multiband | AXX, AU, VST
A ubiquitous (albeit somewhat notorious) plugin in the EDM world.
OTT is a reproduction of the “OTT” preset built into Ableton Live’s Multiband Dynamics stock plugin, with a couple extra features added for ease of use.
This plugin can have a dramatic effect on any kind of source but is especially popular for synths, bass and in rare cases even in parallel on the master bus.
My advice would be to use it more as a sound shaping and transformation tool than a traditional dynamics processor. Use the independent high mid and low controls to tweak the balance of upward expansion and compression to control how much of the sound gets pulled up in that unique OTT way and how much of it gets squashed down.
As with many powerful processors, works best when used with the dry/wet control.