No-cost mixing tools
You've loaded your plugins folders with primo free synthesizers and other instruments and maybe even worked out some cool arrangements or tracked some material to your DAW. Imminently, then, you're going to find yourself staring at a mixer.
Getting a great mix is more than just a matter of throwing some faders around and setting levels and pan positions. A creative engineer will need additional tools in the form of equalisers, compressors, reverb, delay and other sweeteners.
Before whipping out that battered credit card or signing in to your PayPal account to splash out on the latest and hottest commercial plugins, though, why not take a look at some quality freebies first?
We've sifted through our collective effects folders and singled out a selection of our favourites for your due consideration. For more on making music with freeware, check out the March 2015 issue of Computer Music (CM214), which is in sale now.
MeldaProduction makes exceptional plugins, so it should come as no surprise that its MfreeEfectsBundle has made our list.
With an astonishing 24 effects included, it’s a no-brainer.
Legendary producer Tony Visconti once equated the sound of rock music to the sound of compression. He wasn’t wrong - but he could have quite reasonably included every other modern genre, too.
With compression playing so crucial a role in modern production, it’s no wonder there are so many plugins devoted to the job. Some are knob-laden behemoths, but it’s worth noting that the most revered vintage compressors usually feature only a few controls.
That philosophy applies to Klanghelm’s DC1A, a dynamics processor with just two knobs: Input and Output. A bank of switches is on hand for further control, allowing you to lip between Deep and Relaxed modes, and access negative ratios. Dual Mono mode, meanwhile, unlinks the stereo channels.
Another killer free plugin from Klanghelm, IVGI simulates saturation and distortion. Like the developer’s free DC1A compressor, it’s simple and elegant, with just a quartet of controls front and centre.
Drive does just as you’d expect, as does the Output level knob. The Asymmetry function changes the waveshape without unduly disrupting the harmonic content, and you can control the relationship between frequency and saturation with the Response knob. A couple of tiny sub-controls let you adjust the trim and stereo crosstalk.
IVGI makes our line-up for offering subtle, lively and, most of all, musical distortion.
Tokyo Dawn Records VOS SlickEQ
Engineers can be a finicky lot, especially when it comes to virtual emulations of classic hardware. Yet we’ve heard died-in-the-wool mastering engineers rave about Tokyo Dawn Records’ TDR VOS SlickEQ, and for good reason.
A collaboration with Variety Of Sound, SlickEQ models four styles of EQ: American, German, British, and Soviet.
For a bit more control over your EQ and compression, you could do a lot worse than Vladislav Goncharov’s Nova-67P. Unlike many other vintage-style processors out there, this one is brimming with tweakable parameters, even if they aren’t immediately apparent.
Don’t let the interface fool you - this is one deep plugin. First, there’s the EQ section. Described as a “parallel EQ”, it uses filters to extract parts of the incoming signal, then adds or subtracts them as you like. The developer says this results in a natural sound, and we wouldn’t disagree.
Right-clicking a band provides a context menu with further options, and auto-gain can help compensate for changes to the amplitude of the signal. Additionally, Nova-67P provides multiband compression, as well as sidechaining.
The combination of equalisation, compression and sidechaining allows for some neat tricks, like easily taming frequency overlap between, say, kick drum and bass sounds: run the kick through the sidechain input and use it to dynamically control the frequencies of the bass. It’s not often that a freebie provides as much power as this one.
Alex Hilton A1StereoControl
A1StereoControl is a fabulous free mixing and mastering tool for adjusting the stereo image of any source. Incoming stereo signals can be shifted to either side and the whole image can be widened or narrowed to taste. Perhaps its most useful feature, though, is the Safe Bass button, which centres all frequencies below a certain point, making them mono, to ensure a firm low end.
We debated long and hard whether or not to include this one in the list, simply because it’s been around so long - ten years, to be precise. However, we simply can’t overlook its sheer power and versatility, which is why we’re still using today.
What does it do? The better question is what doesn’t it do! Based on multi-effects hardware units like those built by Alesis and Digitech, LFX-1310 provides 24 effects algorithms, any three of which can be slotted in at once. These algorithms include four reverbs; a trio each of filters and delays, peak and RMS compression, overdrive, two distortions, a crusher, vinyl noise and stereo imager, chorus, phaser, flanger, autowah, tremolo, and auto-pan. They might be run-of- the-mill processors when viewed individually, but in combination they spring to life.
The three effects slots are arranged in series, enabling weird and wonderful combinations to be created, as perfectly demonstrated by the factory presets, which include plenty of engaging and inspiring sounds. The only caveat is that LFX-1310 is only available as a 32-bit plugin, and so needs to be bridged for deployment in 64-bit hosts.
Mix engineers use high-pass filters to remove the lowest frequencies of individual tracks, reducing low-end rumble and getting rid of sonic junk.
That’s where Brainworx’s bx_ cleansweep comes in, a filter designed for clean bass and treble cleansing.
Transient designers help you make the most of your rhythm tracks by reshaping the envelope of percussive sounds, helping you add snap to flabby, indistinct sounds, and smooth-out overbearing attacks. BitterSweet allows you to alter the impact of the attack transients in your tracks. You can make drums punchier or rein in overly poppy basslines - all with a single knob.
Other functions include Fast, Medium or Slow processing ‘action’, and the ability to affect the entire signal, the stereo sides or the centre. An utterly essential tool.
Togu Audio Line TAL-Chorus-LX
Togu Audio Line makes another appearance in our list, this time with a stunning free chorus effect culled from its awesome TAL-U-No-LX synth. TAL-Chorus- LX brings to mind the chorus found on classic '80s Roland polysynth, the Juno-60.
Two flavours of chorus are here, and controls are simple: Volume, Dry/Wet mix and Stereo Width. There are no surprises and no learning curve: it does what it sets out to do and does it brilliantly. The original may have been for synths, but don’t hesitate to try this plugin on guitars, hi-hats and anything else that would benefit from a bit of shimmer and shine.
If you’re after an easy-to-grasp, broad-strokes equaliser that combines the best features of several retro hardware units, then SonEQ is a must-try.
The interface exudes that vintage vibe, with a clear nod to Pultec and Manley. It sounds brilliant, too, and features a preamp with a beefy bass boost and support for sample rates up to 192kHz. Throw this bad boy on any track and have a play - you’ll be glad you did!