Music software developers love to show off the quality of their products and build up their email lists by giving away free plugins, even the biggest players in music production technology are known to give away freebies. We’ve rounded up some of our favourites here to help bring you some new inspiration at no extra cost and take your music to the next level.
Seven of the best free effects plugins:
1. Saturation Knob (Softube)
2. Guitar Rig (Native Instruments)
3. Vinyl (iZotope)
4. Freeq Echo (Valhalla)
5. PanCake (Cableguys)
6. Thump (Metric Halo)
7. Smackos Tape Station (Legowelt)
All of these are audio units that should work across DAWs, unless specified. There may be compatibility issues with the latest Mac OS version.
This no-frills, easy-to-use beauty gives you the joy of tape saturation: that ‘warm’ kind of distortion that’s based on the vintage technology of tape recording and re-recording the same audio on top of itself on tape with resulting subtle variations in pitch, timing and frequency response.
Saturation Knob offers three Saturation Types — Low, Neutral and High — which apply the effect in varying degrees of intensity. With just an amount knob alongside this type switch, it’s a simple design and easy to get your head round. It can add warmth and fatness, or in its more extreme settings offers a more rugged distortion. They suggest using it to fatten up drums and bass and adding harmonics to vocals, but imagination is your oyster.
If you’re looking for a quick way to jazz up a dry sound or transform a bit of audio into something barely recognisable, multi-FX chains are your friend. Guitar Rig is an excellent free option to help bring you some quick inspiration. Based, as the name suggests, on the science of routing guitars through a sequence of outboard hardware units like effect pedals and amps, it’s packed with dozens of different modules which you can combine in millions of permutations.
It comes loaded with hundreds of presets too, allowing you to quickly cycle through a wild range of radically different options. While many of them are focused around altering guitar sounds, you can put it on any audio or MIDI channel you like. It’s particularly great for making weird sound FX and giving a trippy flavour to any sound. With step sequencers, LFOs and other modulators, you can create really intricate, dynamic patterns.
Best of all, it’s part of Native Instruments’ incredibly generous KOMPLETE START package, which is a completely free bundle of 16 virtual synths and effects plugins and over 2000 royalty-free sounds.
Want to add a little vinyl grit to your track? iZotope’s freebie lets you add some dust, crackle, pop and scratch sounds to your recordings, as well as other subtle sounds like mechanical wear, emulating the dusty feel of an old record. It also has EQ emulations that recreate the frequency response of a turntable in different decades. Just be sure to add an EQ after you use it to see exactly where it’s added energy, and avoid using too many instances of it on a track as the noise can add up. It’s better to add it on a bus and then route different sounds through it.
Valhalla make a small but beautiful range of plugins, such as their acclaimed reverbs. Combining analog echo emulation and frequency shifting based on the Analogue Systems Bode unit, it can create a multitude of modulation effects such as echoes, glissandos, chorusing and phasing. Good for dub, psychedelic and trippy vibes.
The in-built pan automation in DAWs can be a little fiddly or limited, and PanCake offers a hugely versatile alternative. You can draw in your own panning curves, and sync to your DAWs tempo or run it freestyle. It also gives you a volume output reading which is very helpful for making more accurate or controlled panning effects.
So you like the tone of your kick drum but it’s just lacking that extra bit of thump. Help is at hand! Metric Halo’s Thump is an audio processor / synthesizer that adds low frequency content to an audio source. It uses the pitch and dynamics of the incoming audio to control its own oscillators. So you can use it to phatten up a kick drum or a bass sound, add weight to other percussive elements like toms and snares, or use it to recreate classic drum sounds or drones.
Smackos Tape Station (Legowelt) [Ableton only]
Because you can never have too many tape saturators. This emulator was created by Dutch vintage machine enthusiast and producer Legowelt (find tonnes of his free vintage synth and drum machine samples here ). Offering a more complex and detailed tape saturation emulation, it includes eight different controls that mimic various attributes that go into the process, allowing for a great variety of results.
Want more free inspiration? Check out our guide to the best free VSTs plug-ins here.
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