So, you’ve done your research, and picked yourself a new MIDI controller and a digital audio workstation (DAW) software, only to realize that you’ll need access to loads more content and tools with the help of free VSTs (Virtual Studio Technology).
Now that your pocket money’s gone, it’s time to explore a place that shouldn’t be overlooked: The glorious world of free VST plugins and instruments.
Our hand-picked selection of the 5 best free VST plugins aims to showcase our top recommendations in categories ranging from best sample-based instruments to the most versatile mixing tool.
While these plugins are certainly a great bang for the buck (hey, they’re free!), they are also well-proven in their specific field and offer an INSANE amount of quality for FREE software.
Overview of VST Plugins
It’s mind-blowing how many free VST plugins and instruments are out there on the web these days, but like all things free, not everything is created equal!
With such a wealth of options, it’s more than fair to say going through all of them will take a considerable amount of time. But with a little bit of research, it should be relatively easy to find the ones that tickle your creativity.
And that’s the fun part here — among these, you can find otherworldly concepts and designs that just aren’t available anywhere else but might suit your creative flow perfectly!
Free software is also a great way to learn about certain music production techniques and concepts that enable you to get a real hands-on experience when introducing yourself into the world of synthesis, sampling, or perhaps classic music production technology.
There are a few downsides, even to some of the best free VST plugins and instruments.
One of them being typically fairly limited with features. Bear in mind that many of them simply offer you a way in, while the paid version will give you access to full features and full support from the developer.
Another downside can be the plugin performance or code optimization, which is many times overlooked or not completed in the free version.
Some popular “research-ware” plugins, such as U-He Repro-5, consume a considerably high amount of CPU time in order to calculate digital representations of the original hardware components.
While these plugins might sound absolutely stunning, it means you will be able to run only a few of them before maxing out your computer CPU or memory.
For some plugins, the lack of development time has also simply made older plugins unusable on recent computers.
While this is unfortunate for the free plugin community, these developers might have included these great concepts in their more recent work.
Also, in the Land of the Free, the looks (or user experience) are not always top-notch, but even the ugliest design will still do the job if you’re willing to accept these minor shortcomings.
Design and Functionality
There were times when some of these plugins were real hardware sitting in studio racks and desks. It’s really no surprise to see these concepts being recreated in digital form.
They were the go-to tools of their time and proven concepts that still earn their place in our modern software world.
Software recreations have become so powerful recently that the reason to own old hardware has become questionable.
Plugins generally require no maintenance, have no performance issues or functional limitations, and include advantages that can only be offered in an integrated software environment.
Many modern plugins can also perform tasks that wouldn’t be possible in a single hardware unit.
Just think about Native Instrument’s Kontakt Sampler, which also includes insert effects, flexible signal routing options, and scripting.
The hybrid approach to combining yesteryears concepts with the latest cutting-edge technology is also a very successful one and can be witnessed in various plugins such as Waves H-Delay or U-He Diva.
One important rule of thumb to follow with free plugins is the rule of upgrades. Seeing that a developer offers a “big brother” version of the free plugin is usually a sign of active development.
If a plugin is inactive with development for extended periods of time, it might become obsolete and incompatible with newer DAW or OS versions.
Essentially, the best free VST plugin of choice should have an upgrade path available to get the latest version, full features and support offered by the developer.
Our hand-picked selection of 5 Best Free VST plugins and instruments all feature an upgrade path and support for the paid version.
The 5 Best Free VST Plugins
1. Native Instruments Reaktor 6 Player
Native Instruments have been around for a long time, since 1996 to be exact, and are very well-known and respected in the industry, especially for their Komplete lineup of software instruments and VST effects.
Needless to say, their selection of free VST instruments is a great choice to include in any music producer’s sonic arsenal.
Reaktor 6 Player is a limited version of their modular synthesis-based audio devices environment, which allows you to create, patch, and program a wide variety of unique and some of the BEST FREE VST instruments and effects.
Reaktor Player is free, and it does mean that the Player version contains some limitations. You will only be able to load ensembles specifically built for Reaktor Player, and there are no deep editing features available.
Loading an ensemble that is designed for Reaktor 6 will show a demo time limitation counter on screen. Reaktor Player will still be able to run an impressive set of free or commercial instruments and effects, and the full version even comes with a modular synthesis ensemble called Blocks Wired and a modal synth/effect Mikro Prism.
The full Reaktor 6 is a giant leap into the modular DSP rabbit hole and comes with over 70 virtual instruments and effects, thousands of sounds, and the free user community gives access to a further 4000.
The Reaktor Player is a great start for anyone looking to find unique sounds and expandability through compatible add-ons.
2. DiscoDSP OB-Xd
Plugin developer George Reales and his company DiscoDSP is probably best known for its Discovery instrument plugin, which closely emulates the Clavia Nord Lead 2 virtual analog synthesizer, which was also the first commercially available VST instrument plugin on the Linux platform (2008).
DiscoDSP OB-Xd is a take on the polyphonic Oberheim OB-X analog synthesizer and aims to take some original features further than the original product, which was considered very limited in some key areas.
The original Oberheim OB-X was released in 1979 and was available in 4, 6, or 8 voice configurations.
OB-X was massively popular because of its lush sounds comparable to Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 but at a much more reasonable price. It included an S.E.M. filter design giving it a “pure” Oberheim sound.
The OB-Xd software instrument extends the filter capability by adding a continuous blendable multimode filter (12dB HP-Notch/BP-HP and 24dB 4-1 pole).
But the biggest aspect of OB-Xd is its rich and distinctively Oberheim sound quality that closely resembles the original.
Finding a convincing Oberheim emulation is a big thing, but having this for free inside your DAW is a no-brainer!
3. Ample Sound Ample Guitar M Lite II
It’s so easy to find sample-based VST plugins and instruments these days: Native Instrument’s Kontakt, ReFX has Nexus, and they all have massive amounts of commercial and free sound libraries available for them.
But the free selection is rarely top-notch, mainly because of unthoughtful implementation or simply lack of depth with the provided sample content. Ample Sound makes an impressive exception with AGML II.
Ample Sound (or Beijing Ample Sound Technology Co. Ltd) is a Chinese virtual instrument company that creates sample-based representations of famous guitar and bass instruments.
Their philosophy is to create functional virtual instruments that allow the musicians to focus on creativity and productivity rather than technology.
The free Ample Sound AGML II (Ample Guitar M Lite II) is based on the Martin D-41 Dreadnought acoustic guitar, which is considered a remarkably balanced guitar and a perfect fit for the accomplished player who has a modest budget.
The AGML II software instrument features separate sound sets for fingered and picked playing styles recorded from two mixable mic positions and with two stereo and two mono global playback modes.
The instrument engine utilizes a rhombic sampling structure to separate sample cycles for each note and velocity layer, creating a very realistic sounding instrument.
Everything from stroke noise to fret sound and resonance is adjustable.
The biggest winning feature here has to be the Strummer engine which mimics the player’s ability to play the virtual instrument as a real guitarist would play it.
It is a highly adjustable tool that makes the guitar track blend in as convincingly as a real recorded instrument would.
The Lite version doesn’t include full strumming and various other articulations but stands out as an impressive free instrument that leaves you hungry for more.
4. U-He Protoverb
German developer Urs Heckmann (and his plugin house, U-He) has been quite successful with instrument plugins that model the characteristics of original hardware components through industrial modeling.
This guarantees a very convincing sounding software emulation through mathematical calculation. But it doesn’t stop there: carefully crafted user interfaces are bliss to use, and U-He plugins have been widely adopted in the industry for a good reason.
U-He Protoverb is an interesting concept that is based on the idea of a room simulator.
Traditional algorithmic reverbs typically model and combine two essential parts of the reverb to make it convincing: early reflections and reverb tail. But this includes resonance characteristics of a modeled space, which is many times considered undesirable.
Protoverb, on the other hand, creates an image of space using multiple delays in networked, parallel, or serial configuration, effectively modeling as many room resonances as possible through mathematical calculation instead of avoiding them.
As a result, the reverb plugin doesn’t need any modulation or coloring options as it tends to produce a very natural sounding space but occasionally needs a lot of tweaking to make it sound just right.
This tweaking process can be quite laborious and includes a lot of experimentation with the settings, so U-He and his team decided to hand this great plugin for all of us to use as free “research-ware.”
It’s basically a massive data-mining project, which enables the developer to collect the best of the best sounding results before finishing the final plugin version as a commercially available product.
5. TDR Nova
Tokyo Dawn Records (TDR) is a Munich-based record label that has slowly formed from an eclectic jazzy and funky label into a professional studio tools house.
Tokyo Dawn Labs produces a number of high-quality plugin effects that are surprisingly affordable and usable.
TDR Nova is a parallel dynamic equalizer. This might not say much to the less experienced users out there, so let’s open this a little bit.
At its most basic, TDR Nova is an EQ with the ability to add compression to any of its individual frequency bands.
Nova can therefore act as a parametric EQ, a single band compressor, a dynamic EQ, de-esser, and various other things that could be typically achieved with a combination of plugins costing hundreds of dollars.
TDR Nova is available with a free edition that gives four bands of operation and HP/LP filters with 3 adjustable slopes, among other features.
The full Gentleman’s Edition adds two more bands, expansion ratios, four more HP/LP filter slopes, and an “insane” quality processing mode.
Tokyo Dawn Records stands out, especially with their free offering — their plugin versions that are absolutely FREE are highly advanced, look great, and could easily challenge any paid plugin with similar features.
TDR Nova is a Swiss Army Knife of processors and should find its place in anyone’s setup.
Time to Plug-in
All in all, the world of the best free VST plugins is a magical wonderland where you could lose yourself for days.
This is both good and bad, but the most important lesson to learn with the best free VST plugins is what to expect from the commercial plugins: Sometimes, the free version can do the job just as well, leaving you more pocket money to invest elsewhere.
But the lack of support or development of VST plugins can be dangerous and should not be overlooked, especially when working with commercial projects.
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