While some might be able to afford top of the line plugins, the rest of us, who are on a budget, need to be careful where we put our money.
Thankfully, there is a ton of free software available for our music production needs. From a range of great synths to a go-to compressor, as long as you have the software to host it, there is sure to be something for you.
What’s So Great About Free Plugins?
While some would argue that achieving particular sounds can only be done with the right effects processing units, others suggest that as long as you know how to properly use and manipulate an effect, you can create almost any sound that you want.
While some plugins might make this a little difficult, the idea remains. Now, it’s important to note that there really is only some truth to this. It’s true that certain effects processors and units have their own sound. However it’s also true that if you’re on a budget and don’t need the “LA-2A sound,” then getting a range of free VST plugins might be the right option for you.
It’s important to note that not all DAWs will support VST plugins. Pro Tools, for example, does not (Pro Tools supports RTAS and/or AAX plugin formats).
How Were The Winners Determined?
Of course, while these plugins are the most popular, the best is objective. The important thing is to use your ears. Having said that, some are easier to use and serve a wider range of purposes than others.
To find the winners we looked at Reddit communities like /r/edmproduction, and tallied up the results based on first hand experience. For example, if someone said something like “my friend said…” or “I once heard that…” then they were not counted.
Here are our results!
Total votes: 20
It’s really no surprise that Synth1 is at the top spot of the free VST list. If Sylenth1 is the most ubiquitous non-free synth plugin, Ichiro Toda's Synth1 is it's free counterpart. The Clavia Nord Lead 2 Synthesizer was the inspiration for this extremely comprehensive synthesizer. And while it may look a little basic when it comes to the user interface, it’s anything but basic. In fact, many suggest that this is one of the most versatile plugins out there for synths, and it’s a wonder that it’s free.
- “My main synth for almost everything.”
- “I use Synth1 very heavily in my tracks because I make a lot of retro synthwave material.”
- “I use this for almost everything. I think it’s my favorite synth.”
- “Synth1 is awesome because it is so powerful and is not that hard on the CPU.”
- 2 Oscillators, FM modulation, ring modulation, sync, modulation envelope.
- 4 types of filters, distortion.
- 2 LFOs (synchronized with host).
- Arpeggiator (synchronized with host).
- Tempo delay (synchronized with host), stereo chorus/flanger.
- Legato mode, portamento.
- 16 notes polyphony.
- 128 presets.
- Thoroughly optimized for light CPU load using SSE instructions, etc.
Available for Windows and Mac OS X. It functions as a VST Plugin and an Audio Units Plugin.
Total votes: 13
Rough Rider is a compressor that certainly lives up to its name. It is not the compressor to go to for subtle compression. For things like parallel drum compression and getting a real pump going to your compression, Rough Rider is great. Not only that, but it’s very easy to use, and the user interface makes a lot of sense.
- “I'm a fan of Audio Damage's free Rough Rider compressor - it's a not-subtle-at-all compression effect that I like a lot for electronic drums.”
- “I can't use any other compressors since I started using this.”
- “Rough Rider is a go to for me. I freakin LOVE Rough Rider on drums, I usually over do it and then dial it back after listening for a while.”
- “Rough Rider is the cluster bomb of compressors.”
- Ratio: The ratio knob is logarithmic in operation. Completely anti-clockwise is 1:1, and completely clockwise is 1:1000. The 12 o'clock position is 1:10, so everything to the left of center is single digits, and everything to the right is "atom bomb squish," essentially.
- Attack and Release: They've left off the actual time values, so you're gonna have to use your ears, like the he-men did it in times of myth.
- Meter: That honking big dial in the middle of the UI is the gain reduction meter. It basically shows how much compression is occurring.
- Sensitivity: Usually called "threshold" now, but they think "sensitivity" makes more sense. Turn to the right, you get more compression, essentially. Turn it all the way to the right, and you've got a distortion box, the sound of which is tuned by Ratio, Attack, and Release.
- Makeup: 30 dB of gain to compensate for the attenuation caused by the compressor.
- Active: From the front panel, this is simply an off/on switch, but if you automate it, strange things happen...
- MIDI Learn: Like all of their products, the VST version has MIDI Learn. Download any manual from the current product line for an explanation of how this works, as it is common among all their VST products.
Rough Rider is available as a VST effect for Windows, and an AU or VST for OSX. The OSX versions are Universal Binaries, and require OSX 10.4.0 or later.
Total votes: 13
Illformed’s dBlue Glitch was one of the crowd favorites for “glitching,” or adding short effects, to things like drum beats and progressions. The software offers users a range of possibilities, including things like a tapestop effect, modulation, sequencing, and more. Not only that, but the plugin is also very easy to use.
- “The effects in dblue glitch are quite useful, and are easy to figure out by arranging the knobs to your liking.”
- “Glitch is so useful. You can set the tape stop so it sounds like a kick drum. Bam. All the percussion you could want from one VST and no messy samples.”
- “Glitch is an awesome product.”
- Each program consists of 128 scenes that can be triggered via MIDI notes. Each scene has its own unique sequencer pattern, timing, and effect settings, allowing you to create tons of unique variations for every moment in your song, all ready to go at the press of a key!
- Multi-lane sequencer allows many effects to be played simultaneously, to create interesting layered sounds.
- Improved sequencer timing controls to better match your groove and song structure.
- Intuitive pattern editor with drag'n'drop. Draw, erase, resize, split and join blocks with ease.
- 9 cheeky little effect modules designed to slice, dice, chop, screw, twist, turn and mangle your sounds into radical new forms.
- Tempo-synced effects can easily be dialled in to precise musical timings such as 16th notes, 8th note triplets, and so on.
- Filter, mix, pan and volume controls on each module, to help shape and fine-tune the output.
Randomize, Mutate, Glitch!
- Randomize and Mutate functions can be found at almost every level. Mutate a single effect to get slightly different parameter variations, or instantly Randomize everything in the entire scene to create unexpected, chaotic and inspiring results!
Now available as a Windows VST plugin, Mac VST or Audio Units plugin, or Linux VST plugin.
Total votes: 11
The Molot Compressor is another compressor that is hailed as one with a lot of character. That is to say that it’s not a very subtle one. In fact, many use it as a limiter rather than a compressor. This is great for controlling spikes on single tracks, and also helps it work well on drum compression and to give a more colorful sound.
- “It really makes plucks punch and breathe, and adds warmth.”
- “Molot sounds so musical, and is amazing on drums.”
- “It's not just a limiter, it has a great compressor and clipper too. And limiters can be very useful in controlling peaks on individual tracks so your master limiter won't have to work as hard.”
Available for Windows and Mac OS X.
Total votes: 11
The second synth on the list, TAL’s Noisemaker might not be as versatile to some as Synth1, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sound great when applied well. Having said that, it still is an extremely versatile plugin, offering three oscillators, a built in reverb and delay, and dozens of other controls. The user interface is user-friendly, and is a great addition to any musicians plugin list.
- “If you use a DAW and don't have TAL-Noisemaker, get it! It is an incredible free VST that I couldn't go without now.”
- “TAL noisemaker is a great free synth.”
- “Its free, uncomplicated, and can pump out a nice spread of really dark sounds.”
Available for Windows and Mac OS X.
These plugins were mentioned quite a bit, but were inched out by the top five. Click on the name for more info!
6. Variety Of Sound FerricTDS (11 Votes)
7. Camel Audio CamelCrusher Distortion Plugin (10 Votes)
Available via Splice
8. Variety Of Sound ThrillseekerLA (10 Votes)
9. Variety Of Sound Boot EQ MKII (10 Votes)
10. Smartelectronix Ambience (9 Votes)
What's your vote for the must-have free VST plugins? Let us know in the comments below!