Essential music software downloads
The internet is now awash with free VST plug-ins - you’ll find instruments, effects and others that defy categorisation. However, while it’s great to have so many to choose from, this weight of numbers means that it’s difficult to work out what’s worth having and what you should steer clear of.
Of course, you won’t lose out financially by downloading a dud or two, but to save you a lot of time, effort and potential disappointment, we’ve compiled a list of the best free VST (and Audio Units) plug-ins in the world today.
Our shortlist was put together based on your nominations from 2010, when we ran our first poll, and 2012, when we put the word out that our list was being updated. The final positions were decided by MusicRadar users votes.
Before we get down to business, we should also remind you that our sister magazine, Computer Music, features a slew of exclusive plug-ins on its cover disc every month, so if the software on this list doesn't satisfy you, try that as well.
NEXT: de la Mancha FMMF
de la Mancha FMMF
FM synthesis has a reputation for being a bit of a tough nut to crack, but FMMF is designed to make it as easy and user-friendly as possible.
To this end, the waveforms, algorithms and envelopes are all shown graphically, while you also have a low-pass filter, multimode distortion, a delay and an arpeggiator to work with.
Aspiring producers often ask how they can make their mixes sound bigger: UpStereo is designed as an answer to the problem.
It works by increasing both the ‘loudness’ and stereo width of the material it’s working on, and is operated via a rather nice 3D interface.
There’s something especially satisfying about using a free synth that used to cost money, and daHornet is just such a thing. It’s based on the Electronic Dream Plant Wasp, a cult hardware favourite, and offers warm and squelchy filters, unusual envelopes and an authentic analogue sound.
Although it certainly falls into the ‘quirky’ category, there’s more to daHornet than first meets the eye, which explains why it continues to create a buzz (sorry).
Ignite Amps The Anvil
A tube preamp for guitarists that offers three separate channels. These are labelled Clean, Rhythm and Lead.
The plug-in is modelled on the analogue circuitry of the hardware preamp of the same name, and its controls can be automated.
Martinic Combo Model V/F
You’ll find that there’s a surprisingly high number of freeware organ plug-ins, and Martinic is responsible for a couple of them.
Each of these offerings is modelling on a combo organ from the ‘60s; we say modelled because there are no samples involved in the tone creation.
SimulAnalog Guitar Suite
If you want to learn a lesson about not judging a book by its cover, check this guitar amp/effect collection out. The interfaces may be pretty much non-existent, but the sound’s impressive - good enough, even, to help you emulate the guitar tone of one Jimi Hendrix.
The Guitar Suite actually began life as an academic research project, and features two amps and five stompboxes. It might just turn out to be all the virtual rig you need.
Yellow Tools Independence Free
As you’ll discover by the time you’ve finished reading this countdown, it’s not uncommon for commercial plug-in developers to give away free cutdown versions of their products, but Independence Free still stands out because of the sheer size of its sample library. 2GB worth of sounds come included, making this expandable instrument pretty weighty right off the bat.
You can import up to 25 of your own audio files, too, and processing tools include timestretching and pitch shifting. There’s even support for third party VST plug-ins.
Magnus Jonsson Ambience
It’s been around a while, but it’s testament to Ambience’s quality that when people ask for a good quality free reverb, this is still the plug-in that frequently gets recommended.
This, unsurprisingly, is because Ambience sounds pretty fine, and there’s a good selection of presets, too. You’ve got plenty of control, and a useful Hold feature. Give it a go.
UltimateSoundBank UVI Workstation
UVI Workstation is ostensibly designed as the player for UltimateSoundBank’s sound libraries, but the fact that it comes with a range of presets and supports WAV, REX and Apple Loops files means that it’s worth looking at even if you don’t plan on buying any expansion packs.
Sporting sophisticated editing features, effects and an arpeggiator, this is an excellent sample playback device.
Variety Of Sound ThrillseekerLA
A digital stereo levelling amplifier that's said to have "truly analogue qualities". The input-level-driven two knob design is familiar, though you do also get individual Attack and Release controls.
When it comes to sound, we're promised "sophisticated and deep gain riding full of musical character and attitude but with virtually no inter-modulation (IM) distortion artifacts".
Sound Magic Piano One
Sound Magic has plenty of chargeable pianos on its roster, but this is one that you don’t have to pay for.
It's based on the sound of the Yamaha C7 concert grand and uses the company's Hybrid Modeling Engine. Additional pianos can be purchased via the Sound Magic Add-on Store.
Variety Of Sound Density
We’re guessing that a lot of you might have reservations about putting your faith in a freeware bus compressor, but both aesthetically and sonically, Density is a serious contender.
Recently upgraded to version III with improvements targeted at mastering engineers, Windows users would be foolish not to give this a try.
Audio Damage Rough Rider
Rough Rider is described as a "modern compressor with a bit of 'vintage' style bite and a uniquely warm sound". It's said to be suitable for use on your drum buss, and also on synth bass, clean guitar and backing vocals.
What this isn’t is a general-purpose compressor, though: Audio Damage stresses that its forte lies in adding pump to rhythmic tracks. It sports Ratio, Attack, Release, Sensitivity and Makeup controls.
Ohm Force Frohmage
Despite the fact that there are many paid-for alternatives, this ageing but excellent low-pass filter plug-in still has many fans in pro production circles.
There are 15 additional bands, each of which has delay on it for phasing-like effects, plus a distortion stage for those moments when you want some added crunch.
With its Commodore 64-style looks, it shouldn't surprise you to learn that Bleep is a chiptune synth that's inspired by (but not a straight emulation of) the SID chip that was contained in said computer.
There are three oscillators, a multimode LFO, a modulator envelope generator, a pseudo arpeggiator and an overall multimode filter
Green Oak Crystal
Rather than just offering subtractive synthesis, Crystal goes the extra mile by incorporating FM, granular synthesis, sample playback and even SoundFonts. And thanks to its wave sequencing functionality, it excels at producing complex and evolving textural sounds.
Yes, it’s been around for a while and isn’t as pretty as some other plug-ins, but if you want a free synth with real depth, Crystal is hard to beat.
Togu Audio Line TAL effects
We received so many nominations for different TAL effects that we’ve decided to lump them all together and simply recommend that you go and explore the range for yourself. It’s testament to Togu Audio Line’s consistency that you’re unlikely to be too disappointed with anything that you find.
Highlights include the vocoder, dub delay and bitcrusher, while the line also includes a reverb, flanger, phaser and filter.
E-MU Proteus VX
E-MU’s hardware sound modules were big favourites among producers in the ‘90s, but these days you can have many of the presets from the Proteus 2000 in a free piece of software.
Covering a wide range of sonic bases, Proteus VX’s patches can be tweaked using 16 controls, and you can also load sounds from E-MU’s Emulator X library.
LePou guitar plug-ins
A wide selection of guitar-orientated plug-ins – there are loads of amps here for the tech-friendly player to explore. Some are original designs while others are emulations of classic hardware.
Bear in mind that while everything works on the PC, not all the plug-ins have Mac compatibility as well.
Togu Audio Line TAL-NoiseMaker
TAL-NoiseMaker is an improved version of TAL-Elek7ro, a Togu Audio Line's hugely popular synth freebie.
A 3-oscillator instrument, NoiseMaker comes with a new synth engine, more filter types, a ring modulator, an improved amp ADSR and effects. In short, it’s the best synth that Togu Audio Line has produced yet, and consequently, one of the best free synths there is.
This synth has a strange history. Tyrell was originally the name of a project by German online magazine Amazona.de which saw readers suggesting features for a low-cost hardware synth, but once the design was completed, it became obvious that it wasn’t going to be practical to go ahead and build it.
Fortunately, Urs Heckman stepped in to create a freeware software version. There are similarities with Roland’s Juno-60, but a few more features have been added to the mix, too.
Span doesn’t produce any noise or make your existing audio sound any different: it’s a spectrum analyser plug-in. It’s also one of the most useful freebies around; Span displays a channel’s frequency content visually in order to reveal undesirable low-end frequencies or peaks and enable you to examine the content of a signal.
This makes it a great mixing tool, giving you a good idea of the EQ tweaks you need to make.
Ichiro Toda Synth1
Its interface doesn’t give you much of a clue, but Synth1 is actually based on Clavia’s Nord Lead 2 hardware, and it remains one of the best free virtual analogue instruments you can lay your hands on.
There are two oscillators, the first of which has an FM knob, and these can be ring modulated and hard-synced. Other features include unison detune (great for supersaw-style sounds), an arpeggiator and effects. Oh, and despite its juicy sound, Synth1 is impressively light on CPU usage.
Camel Audio Camel Crusher
A simple but highly effective plug-in that you can use to ‘colour’ your sound. There are two different distortion tones, plus a low-pass filter and a compressor that sports a dedicated Phat mode.
Drum and guitar parts are said to be the most receptive to Camel Crusher’s charms, but you can use it on much more than that.
If you haven’t yet tasted the delights of u-he’s Zebra 2, this is the perfect hors d'oeuvre. As a simple, single-oscillator version of the famous synth it’s a great way to experience some of what it has to offer for free, but it’s actually pretty capable in its own right.
Two LFOs, a multi-stage envelope, spectral effects and chorus, EQ and delay processors are part of the package, so there’s plenty to work with.
Glitch has evolved over the years into an all-singing, all-dancing sequencer-based glitch effect with the potential to turn your tracks into unrecognisable shells of their former selves with its nine built-in effects and filter section. Audio is broken down into slices, and then different effects can be applied to each slice.
Glitch is known to have been favoured by breakcore fiend Shitmat, so it’s definitely worth checking out.
IK Multimedia AmpliTube 3 Free
When IK Multimedia opened its Custom Shop, which enables you to buy bits for your virtual guitar rig piece by piece, one of the immediate benefits for users was that it also released a free version for AmpliTube 3 so that everyone can access their goodies.
This means that you can get your hands on a digital chromatic tuner, nine stomps, four amps, five cabs, three mics and two rack effects without spending a penny: not a bad deal, when you think about it.