So, you’ve done your research, picked yourself a decent laptop and a good digital audio workstation (DAW) software - only to realise that you’ll need access to loads more content and tools, than what comes with the DAW of choice. Bummer. Now that your pocket money’s gone, there is still one place that shouldn’t be overlooked: the glorious world of Free VST plugins.
Our hand-picked selection of 5 Best Free VST’s aims to showcase the absolute winners (in our opinion) in categories ranging from best sample-based instrument 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 a free software.
It’s mind-blowing how many free plugins are out there: the popular plugin developer centric website kvraudio.com alone offers access to over 4000 free plugins! With such 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, and enables 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 few downsides to free plugins though, 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 optimisation, that 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 in recent computers.
While this is unfortunate for the free plugins community, these developers might have included these great concepts into their more recent work. Also, in the Land of the Free, the looks (or user experience) is not always top notch, but even the ugliest design will still do the job if you’re willing to accept these minor shortcomings.
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 that also includes insert effects, flexible signal routing options and scripting. The hybrid approach to combine yesteryears concepts with 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 free 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’s all feature an upgrade path and support for the paid version.
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 effects. Needless to say, their Free selection of instruments are a great choice to include in any music producers’ 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 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 Native Instruments even throws in a full version of their modular synthesis ensemble called Blocks Wired and a modal synth/effect Mikro Prism.
Plugin developer George Reales and his company DiscoDSP is probably best known for it’s 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 Linux platform (2008).
DiscoDSP OB-Xd is a take on 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 it’s lush sounds that were comparable to Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 but at a much more reasonable price, and it included 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 it’s rich and distinctively Oberheim sound 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!
It’s so easy to find sample-based software instruments these days: Native Instruments has Kontakt, ReFX has Nexus, and they all have massive amount 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 II Lite) 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, with two stereo and two mono global playback modes. The instrument engine utilises a rhombic sampling structure, which aims 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 players 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.
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 modelling. This guarantees a very convincing sounding software emulation through mathematical calculation. But it doesn’t stop there: carefully crafted user interfaces are a bliss to use and U-He plugins have been widely adopted in the industry for a good reason.
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 modelled space, which is many times considered undesirable. Protoverb, on the other hand, creates an image of a space using multiple delays in networked, parallel or serial configuration, effectively modelling 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 colouring 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.
Tokyo Dawn Records (TDR) is a Munich-based record label that has slowly formed from an ecletic 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 an ability to add compression to any of its individual frequency bands. Nova can therefore act as a parametric EQ, a single band compressor, or as a dynamic EQ, de-esser and various other things, that could be typically achieved with a combination of plugins costing hundreds or dollars. TDR Nova is available as free edition, that gives four bands of operation, plus HP/LP filters with 3 adjustable slopes among other features. The full Gentleman’s Edition adds two more bands, expansion ratios, further four HP/LP filter slopes and an “insane” quality processing mode.
Tokyo Dawn Records stands out especially with their free offering - their free plugin versions 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.
All in all, the free world of 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 free 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 can be a dangerous thing that should not be overlooked, especially when working with commercial projects.
Our selection of Best Free VST’s are definitely just a tip of the iceberg! We’d love to hear your favorites!