Really, has there ever been a better time to be a computer musician? Practically every imaginable kind of instrument and effect can be had gratis - you needn’t spend so much as a penny to outfit the virtual studio of your dreams.
From virtual analogue synthesizers and realistic sampled instruments to classy modelled mix processors and cutting-edge creative effects, every step of the production cycle can be taken without any involvement whatsoever on the part of your wallet.
But, with so much free gear out there of wildly varying quality, downloading and sifting through it all to find the genuine plugin gems is a Herculean task. It’s almost not worth the bother when you could be spending that time doing other things - actually making music, for instance.
No, what the modern computer musician really needs is a directory of the absolute best free gear out there, saving them time and effort in addition to cash. In 2016, we find ourselves knee-deep once again in more free plugins and samples than our hard drives can handle. Which are the keepers and which aren’t worth the bandwidth?
You’re looking at the answer right now: our guide to the very best free plugins that have been released or updated over the last 12 months or so.
For more on 2016's best free music software - including tutorials on many of the plugins featured here - check out Computer Music 230 (June 2016) which is on sale now.
Plogue’s free Alter/Ego is a superb singing synthesizer. Similar in approach to the company’s Chipspeech, it attempts to create a more modern vocal sound. Currently there’s only one Voice bank available for it: Daisy, also available on the downloads page.
SampleScience Orion Sound Module
Orion Sound Module contains almost 100 instruments, all built using public domain samples. As such, the quality varies between patches, but there are some fine sounds onboard. Access them using the arrows in the upper corners of the display or by clicking the instrument name to reveal a large menu.
Ample Sound Ample Guitar M II Lite
Ample Sound’s Ample Guitar M II Lite can be used to create astonishingly realistic guitar passages in virtually any style. At its most basic, it makes for a good means by which to do a bit of convincing finger picking. Load it up and have a play using your MIDI keyboard or controller of choice. Try to play dynamically for the best results.
Matt Tytel Helm
Matt Tytel’s Helm is a seriously deep synthesizer - almost as complex as a modular, thanks to its comprehensive modulation routing scheme. You can create rich, evolving patches with this incredible open-source freebie.
LVC Audio Limited-Z
A terrific transparent dynamics processor that can be pushed very hard indeed without creating unwanted distortion.
Shattered Glass Audio Code Red Free
Shattered Glass Audio’s Code Red Free is one of the grooviest ‘vintage’ free plugins in recent memory. Designed to emulate the legendary tube-based REDD consoles used in Abbey Road during the 1960s, Code Red Free combines a punchy vintage EQ with the rich sound of the REDD’s preamps.
Metric Halo Thump
Are your basses anaemic? Do your kick drums feel as if they were delivered by a malnourished member of the IT support staff? If so, you may want to look into a subharmonic synthesiser, and Metric Halo has a free one for you in the shape of Thump.
Tokyo Dawn Records TDR Nova
If it’s functionality you’re after, Tokyo Dawn Records’ TDR Nova has it in spades. Nova does double duty, acting as a superb parametric equaliser or a dynamic equaliser, offering dynamics processing on each band. Add to that a gorgeous spectral display and you have a plugin that should cost a pretty penny - but doesn’t.
Softube Saturation Knob
If you need to impart a bit of warmth to your tracks, you should immediately avail yourself of Softube’s wicked Saturation Knob. Ridiculously simple, this one does just what you’d think: it adds a modicum of saturation to any incoming signal.
Alex Hilton A1TriggerGate
Gates have long been used as creative effects, particularly for controlling one signal using the amplitude of another. Alex Hilton’s A1TriggerGate is a humdinger of a gate plugin.
HOFA 4U+ BlindTest
HOFA 4U+ BlindTest provides a means by which various plugins or signal paths may be compared unhindered by bias based on, say, a plugin’s name or GUI. 4U+ BlindTest is instantiated at the end of every signal path to be compared. The interface hides the identities of the test subjects and you can shuffle their positions in the interface for utter anonymity. This obscurity enables you to choose the best based on your ears, rather than your emotions. It’s a great idea and one that will shake up your preconceptions.
Dotec Audio DeePanpot
A simple, single-slider affair that allows for true panning of a stereo signal, as opposed to simply adjusting the balance between left and right channels.
Think about it: a stereo signal is normally manipulated using a balance control, which simply adjusts the levels of either left or right channels, but doesn’t actually simulate moving the signal further to one side or another. DeePanpot draws upon a psychoacoustic phenomenon called the Haas (or Precedence) Effect to do exactly that. Honestly, we didn’t even know we needed such a thing until we tried it, and we’re sure you’ll feel the same way.
Fletchy-Muncher is designed to help you overcome the so-called Fletcher-Munson effect by exaggerating the deceptive mid-range frequencies, allowing you to better balance the highs and lows against them. Simply place it at the end of your signal path and let it show you where you might be going wrong. With so many of us consigned to bedrooms, apartments and other shared spaces, such a utility can be a lifesaver.
Hardware oscilloscopes are quite costly, but the fortunate desktop musician has plenty of free ones to choose from, including MeldaProduction’s Moscilloscope.
Another MeldaProduction plugin? Yes indeed, and this dastardly distortion processor isn’t the last of them, either.
Undoubtedly one of the strangest, most creative plugins on our list, u-he’s Protoverb is, as you’d expect, a reverb plugin. Based on a new idea, the algorithm simulates resonances in the body of air, rather than simulating reflections.
Audio Damage FuzzPlus3
Feeling dirty? If so, you’re going to love FuzzPlus3 from Audio Damage. This delivers filtered filth of the first order.
Audio Assault Defacer
You can never have too many quality distortion plugins, so we’re more than happy to follow up FuzzPlus3 with the equally awesome Defacer from Audio Assault.
Togu Audio Line TAL Reverb-4
A decent reverb processor is a must have in any studio, which is why every DAW worth its salt has at least one built in. Nonetheless, it never hurts to have options, so Togu Audio Line’s TAL Reverb- 4 is well worth downloading.
Matthieu Brucher ATKColoredCompressor and ATKColoredExpander
Sequels to his previous offerings, these dynamics devices bring you classic compression and expansion with all the function and facility you’d expect, such as Attack and Release controls, adjustable Threshold and Makeup gain knobs. Additionally, you’ll find Quality and, significantly, Color parameters that enable you to dial in some analogue-esque mojo.
MaxSynths has made its entire previously paid-for product range free, due to the difficulty in maintaining support. That means you can now get superb synthesisers like the 3-oscillator Chrysalis and the analogue-style Latte, along with bombastic beatboxes like the DR-910 and the Simmons-inspired Simon Bassdrum, not to mention DSP-2 Vocal, a dynamite dynamics processor, and the DSP-3 Bus compressor.
These are just a few of the plugins on offer - if you make music on a Windows machine, you owe it to yourself to check them out and donate if you like them.
A wavetable synth, TableWarp2 is bursting with subtractive, FM, PD and PWM tones, all of which can be warped and modulated using an LFO, envelopes and more. It’s got dual oscillators, each with a choice of 16 waves, and modulating the Offset parameter results in the familiar swept wavetable sound so popular with the new wave musicians of the ‘80s. To ramp up the power, there are 16 ‘Warp styles’ to choose from, including one that simulates a filter sweep.
Surprisingly powerful for its tiny footprint, TableWarp2 is ideal for generating classic PPG-style wavetable sounds and more.
Black Rooster Audio Canary
Canary works in a similar way to Metric Halo’s Thump in that it tracks the incoming signal and imparts its own tone to the mix in order to reinforce your drum sounds. You can tune the tone to the desired pitch, adjust the attack and sustain, and do a bit of filtering. You can, of course, dial in the dry/wet mix.
On its own, the sound is nothing special, but with a bit of care, you can indeed bolster almost any sort of drums and percussion.
Created to give you full control over your main and sidechain inputs, MChannelMatrix is all about flexibility, allowing you to perform such tasks as swapping left and right channels or siphoning only one channel of a stereo sidechain.
MeldaProduction’s plugins aren’t without a few quirks - despite the customisable interface, they all share a fairly generic design, regardless of whether that design is appropriate to the plugin at hand - yet such oddities only add to their charm.
At its heart, Svep is a modulation processor that performs the same sorts of effects that you’d achieve using a phaser or chorus. However, it’s Svep’s interface that sets it apart.
Rather than faux brushed aluminium or pixel-perfect recreations of Rogan knobs, Svep offers a large, friendly and tactile interface all but free of labels. There’s a stereo link button and a slider each for mono/stereo and dry/wet mix, but all effects parameters are controlled by dialling in and around two large concentric circles (one for each channel), the inner circle of which breaks into multiple tendrils that represent the modulation speed.