Free plugins, then. They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and as a society we’re conditioned to be (often rightly) sceptical when we’re offered something for nothing. When it comes to music software, though, the dream is a reality - you really can pick up pro quality plugins for free with no strings attached.
Why might a developer let you download one of its creations without you paying for the privilege, though? Well, there are actually a multitude of reasons why programers create and distribute so-called freeware.
Often, free plugins act as promotion for an expanded paid version of the same plugin, or as an entry-point to the rest of a developer’s range. Sometimes, freeware plugins are older versions of a recently updated product; sometimes they’re created as a learning exercise for the developer; and sometimes they’re simply a labour of love.
Whatever the reasons, the result is that the internet is awash with quality synths, effects and production tools that can be had for free (or, in a few cases, in exchange for an email address). Seeing as there’s such a volume of excellent freeware tools out there, we’ll drill down into each of the categories below with more in-depth guides in the coming weeks. To start. though, let’s take a whistle-stop tour of the music production world’s most unmissable freebies.
As impressive as all the plugins included here are, they do often lack some of the bells-and-whistles of paid-for plugins - niceties like expansive preset libraries, expanded feature sets or regular, substantial updates. When you’re ready to shell out, be sure to check out our guide to the best VST plugins to make sure you’re spending your money in the right places.
Don’t forget, also, that every issue of our sister magazine Computer Music comes with an expansive library of free instruments, effects and much more. Pick up a copy or subscribe to get your hands on the full CM Software Library.
Best free synth plugin
Mac/PC/Linux (Paid iOS version also available) | VST/AU
Let’s caveat this with an acknowledgement of subjectivity: there are numerous excellent freeware synths out there, and depending on your tastes, needs and musical leanings, you could make a convincing case for any number of them being the ‘best’. That said, though, this recently updated Oberheim OB-X emulation undoubtedly counts as a must-have freeware instrument no matter what genre you’re working in.
OB-Xd is a rich and thick sounding analogue-style synth that not only sounds good by the standards of a freebie synth, but holds its own against commercial plugins. While it might lack some of the bells and whistles of big name emulations like Arturia’s V Collection - such as onboard effects, sequencing or an extensive preset library - OB-Xd does build on the design of its hardware inspiration with a morphing filter and voice variation controls.
The original OB-X was a powerful, versatile polysynth beloved for its meaty sounds and easy-to-use interface, and the OB-Xd brings an authentic recreation into your DAW for free. A must-download!
Best free drum machine plugin
Mac | AU
This cutdown version of the impressive DrumSpillage is a slick and stellar-sounding percussion synth. While it trims the 13 sounds of the paid version down to just three synthesis algorithms, there’s still a surprising breadth of tones that can be coaxed out of its engine.
The Bass Drum generator combines pitch sweeps and frequency modulation to shape hard-hitting, speaker-shaking kick tones, while the Hi-Hat module blends multiple oscillators, noise and resonant filters to fashion an assortment of metallic, machine-like sounds. The final piece of the puzzle is the Wood Drum, which models a variety of toms, wooden knocks and mid-range perc sounds.
Filters, distortion and modulators round out the package, offering up movement and flexibility that mean MiniSpillage is more than just a simple one-trick, static drum generator.
Best free reverb plugin
Mac/PC/Linux | VST/AU/AAX
How could we do a round-up of the best free plugins without including Togu Audio Line somewhere? The Swiss developer is one of the best-known names in freeware thanks to its generous crop of impressive, vintage-inspired downloads (and its paid plugins are very much worth your money, too).
TAL-Reverb-4 is a retro-leaning plate reverb with broad size and diffuse controls that allow it to go from tight echoes all the way up to epic drawn-out ambience. An onboard modulation section adds movement, for authentic ’80s-sounding ‘wobbly’ reverb, and high and low EQs help tame and shape the effect. TAL-Reverb-4 is simple but highly effective on a variety of audio sources - download this one and it could easily become your go-to ’verb.
Best free delay plugin
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX
ValhallaDSP makes some of the best commercial reverb and delay plugins going, but the developer has also treated us to several must-have freebies over the years, such as the excellent Freq Echo and Space Modulator. SuperMassive is Valhalla’s latest freeware offering and it’s undoubtedly one of the most slick and powerful free effects we’ve ever tried.
Straddling the line between echo unit and reverb, SuperMassive is a stereo, multi-mode delay capable of generating extreme feedback and dense washes of repeats. This plugin is perfect for inspiring sound design ideas.
With multiple delay types on offer, a decent crop of presets, an interactive help guide and, most notably, gorgeous sound, this would be a must-have even if it wasn’t free!
Best free EQ plugin
Ignite Amps PTEQ-X
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX
Alongside the likes of the LA-2A compressor and Roland Space Echo, Pultec EQs are one of the most regularly-emulated hardware effects, and any modern producer worth their salt should have one in their digital toolkit. Fortunately, thanks to Ignite Amps, it’s possible to add a quality Pultec to your arsenal for free.
PTEQ-X is more than just one Pultec EQ; in fact, it features models of the brand’s three best-known hardware effects. That includes the EQP-1A, known for the famous ‘Pultec trick’ that lets users cut and boost around the same low-end frequency, which can work wonders for adding definition to bass and kick sounds.
Best free filter plugin
Mac/PC/iOS | VST/AU/AAX/AUv3
Filterstep is a sequencer-focused multimode filter with low-, high- and band-pass modes. The sequencer element has an adjustable length that goes up to 64 steps, each equipped with a slider to set the filter cutoff level. It can cycle through steps in several directions - forward, backward and back-and-forth - and offers randomisation and smoothing tools to help fine-tune sequences.
The resonant filter sounds good enough to make this worth a download for that alone, but the ability to set up rhythmic patterns and automated sequences makes this indispensable.
Filterstep is a great tool for everything from classic sidechain-style ducking to glitchy rhythmic effects.
Best free compressor plugin
Audio Damage RoughRider 3
Mac/PC/Linux/iOS | VST/AU/AAX/AUv3
An undeniable freeware classic, Roughrider is - according to its developer - one of the most downloaded dynamics plugins of all time. It’s not hard to see why this is such a popular freebie; this is a characterful and easy-to-use compressor, that has only got better and better over its three iterations and decade-plus lifespan.
Version three now features a sidechain input, improved metering and a new ‘full bandwidth’ button which allows users to turn off the analogue-style ‘warming’. Roughrider 3 can also be downloaded in AUv3 format for iOS (or a new M1 Mac).
Best free distortion plugin
Softube Saturation Knob
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX
The world loves a ‘one-knob’ plugin, and Softube’s popular saturator is a classic of the genre. While it’s not the most out-there or destructive distortion going, its ability to add subtle mid-range grit and natural, melodic degradation to sounds makes it an indispensable production tool.
Simplicity is key to Saturation Knob’s popularity - there are no sub-menus or alternate UI views here; simply load the plugin on to the desired track and crank the knob to add a touch of grit. The only other control is a switch to adjust which frequencies the effect targets.
A simple and satisfying tool for quickly adding character to drums, synths, vocals and more.
Best free modulation effect plugin
Blue Cat Audio Chorus/Phaser/Flanger
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX
OK, we’re breaking our own rules here and bundling three plugins in under a single ‘best’ slot, but Blue Cat Audio’s trio of vintage-inspired modulation effects is essentially three variations on a shared concept. Each takes its cues from vintage hardware, replicating a classic, analogue-style take on a staple modulation effect.
Turn to Vintage Chorus for rich, stereo thickness; use the Vintage Flanger for weird robotic tones; and fire up Vintage Phaser for deep, churning modulation. All three plugins come equipped with controls for adjusting the depth, stereo width and tonal qualities of the effect. You can download all three, plus an excellent EQ, amp sim and more, in Blue Cat’s Free Pack.
Best free creative effect plugin
Audio Blast Instalooper
Mac/PC/Linux | VST/AU
As its name suggests, Instalooper is a plugin designed for on-the-fly looping of audio. This is more than just a virtual looper pedal though, thanks to five onboard effects that allow users to warp, mangle and glitch-up loops for cool creative results.
The plugin features four loop lanes, each of which can capture a different tempo-synced loop of audio, with pitch and reverse controls to manipulate playback. The effect options feature a phaser, bit crusher, high-pass filter, auto panner and warping Time Expander.
This freebie is great for live use - try mapping its loop triggers and effect controls to a MIDI device in order to get hands-on with some improvised loop mangling!