• Alex Mader

Free Plugins: A Shortlist

Updated: Apr 13, 2020

Introduction

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 alex.mader@madervmusic.com


Contents:

Organised Alphabetically by Category


Distortion:

Boogex

bx_rockrack V3 Player

Channel7

Code Red Free

Colour Limiter

Deckwrecka

IVGI

iZotope Vinyl

MCompressor

MSaturator

Saturation Knob:

SGA1566

Tape

Voxengo Tube Amp


Dynamics:

DC1A

Flux Bittersweet

Kotelnikov

MJUC jr

Molot

OTT

TAN

VOS Slick EQ


Effects:

Dimension Expander

Distance

iZotope Imager

MAutoPitch

MComb

OldSkoolVerb

Pitch Hack

Superspread

TAL Chorus_LX

TAL-Filter-2

TAL Reverb-4

Tempo Delay


Equalisation:

bx_subfilter:

Elysia Nevieu Filter

Lifticus

MEqualiser

Nova Dynamic EQ

PTEq-X

QRange

SPL Free Ranger


Instruments:

Bass

Poli

Spitfire Audio Labs

TyrelN6


Utility:

bx_solo:

Flux Stereo Tool

HOFA 4U ProjectTime

Muteomatic

Plugin Doctor

Proximity

Voxengo SPAN


Plugin List:

Organised Alphabetically by Publisher


Ableton Max for Live Creative Extensions

The Ableton Creative Extensions pack was made available to all Ableton 10 users shortly after launch as a collaboration between Ableton and Amazing Noises. Available for free download here.

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.


Bass

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.


Color Limiter

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.


Pitch Hack

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.


Poli

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

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.


TAN

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

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.


Channel7

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.


Deckwrecka

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!


Distance

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.


Tape

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.



Blue Cat Audio Freeware Pack

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

DDMF make a range of powerful utility plugins

They also have a number of freeware plugins that may be of interest.


Plugin Doctor

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.



DMG Audio


DMG Audio Track Control:

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

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.


Flux Bittersweet

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.


Flux Stereo Tool

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 Plugins

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.


HOFA SYSTEM Basic

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.


HOFA 4U ProjectTime

Utility: Misc. | AAX, AU, VST, VST3

Separate to the SYSTEM Basic bundle but a helpful tool for measuring time spent working on a project.



Ikjb

This one is another solo developer that can be found on KVR Audio making excellent free plugins of various designs and applications.


Lifticus

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.


QRange

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.


Superspread

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.


PTEq-X

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.



iZotope

iZotope Imager

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.


iZotope Vinyl

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.



Klanghelm Audio Plugins

MJUC jr

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.


DC1A

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.


IVGI

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

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!


Saturation Knob:

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!

Available from the Softube Website. Does require a Softube and iLok account.



MeldaProduction

MFreeFXBundle

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.


MAutoPitch

Effects: Pitch Correction | AAX, AU, VST, VST3

An effective automatic picth correction tool, suitable for vocals and monophonic instruments.

Not necessarily as transparent as more sophisticated tools such as Antares; Auto-Tune and Celemony; Melodynebut perfect for creative effects or “hard-tuning”

A no-brainer for any bedroom producer or vocalist who needs access to effective pitch correction software on a budget.


MComb

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.


MCompressor

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.


MEqualiser

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.


MSaturator

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

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.


bx_rockrack V3 Player

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!


bx_solo

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.


bx_subfilter

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.


Elysia Nevieu Filter