We all love free stuff, but unfortunately in the music world, free is rarely synonymous with quality. In fact, we usually have to spend quite a bit in order to get quality sounds and tools into our production arsenal. More often than not you get what you pay for, and while the price tag can hurt, it is usually worth it. This is not to say there aren't cheaper or even free alternatives, actually there are almost endless numbers of cheaper and free alternatives; the problem is that they are rarely good. Do a quick search for free VSTs and you will find all sorts of plug ins that of do their job to a degree, but lack that professional luster we all long for. With that said, if you dig deep enough you will find that there are indeed quite a few gems to be found. So lets do this! Here are 9 free VSTs that are actually good. I'll also share how I incorporate these tools into my beats so you can get an idea for how they work and weather or not they are worth your download.
Here we go!
1. Camel Crusher - Camel Audio
I am a late comer to the Camel Crusher party, but this is a free plug in that I use in quite literally every beat and mix that I do now. It's your standard bit crusher/ distortion plug in, but I have found that I favor this over the saturation plug-in in Ableton and a couple other distortion VSTs with a significantly more expensive price tag. With simple parameter control, and a clean interface, its easy to dial in distortion and color quickly. It comes with a great on board filter and compressor, and the disortion section can provide all sorts of color to yours sounds. It also has a really awesome feature called "Randomize", which as you would imagine, randomizes all of the parameters when you click it. I'll sometimes click this thing for a good twenty minutes and let it do all the work for me. More often than not I will stumble upon something that I love and with a few minor tweaks I'm off to the next thing. If the Randomizer fails their presets are pretty dope and have a great unique flavor to them.
Whether you want color on your master, grit on your drums, presence in your bass, or any other type of coloring, this is a great download that will earn it's way to your top of your saturation/distortion plug in list.
In terms of using it on my productions, you can almost always find this thing on my drum bus. I use a lot of parallel processing on my drums, and the Camel crusher is the main work horse on my processed side. Since this is a post about free VSTs and not parallel processing, I wont dive into that topic, but if you are unfamiliar you should watch this, which does a pretty good job of explaining the basics.
Here is an example of a drum loop that has a camel crusher adding some grit and body to the sound via parallel processing.
And here is a version without Camel Crusher on the processed side.
It's a pretty subtle difference, but notice how much things open up when the camel crusher is enabled. There is more presence and more punch and just an overall tonal quality that works really well in the context of the rest of the song. This coloring was accomplished by just using the annihilate preset that comes with the VST.
With the addition of a compressor doing some transient enhancing work, this camel crusher preset added some welcomed tone to my processed signal. I then just need to mix that in with the dry and was left with a drum beat that cut through the mix and added to it's power. This VST also works great just slapped on an instrument as well. This is when the mix knob comes in handy. While I love the tones that I can get with Camel Crusher, I tend to only really love it in moderation, so I almost never throw this plug in on and leave it totally wet (unless I am using it with parallel processing). Another great use for Camel Crusher is throwing it on 808s, tweaking the settings, and adding a little of the saturated signal via the dry wet knob. You can really get some cool presence and saturation with this. My mode or practice is to find a cool tone, dial the dry/wet all the way to dry and then slowly add in the mix until i get a sound I like.
The uses for camel crusher are endless, and since it's totally free, I highly recommend downloading it and taking it for a spin. I think you will be pleasantly surprised by it's versatility, and while I have my ways of using it, the sky is the limit.
2. OTT - Xfer
When i first moved over to Ableton, one of my friends showed me this insanely powerful effect called OTT, which stands for over the top compression. It is essentially a multiband (3 bands) compressor that combines upward and downward compression and slams your signal in either compression or expansion depending on how you set your threshold. This totally transforms whatever you run through it, and leaves you with a larger than life version of your previous sound. Until Xfer, this was an exclusive effect to ableton (even though you can emulate it with the right set of tools), but Xfer not only made an incredible emulation of this effect, but they did so in the form of a free VST. While I don't necessarily use this plug in because I have the Ableton effect, this is a must have for anyone using FL, Logic, or Reason. I didn't realize what I was missing out on until I came into Ableton, and now the good people of Xfer (Steve Dudda) has given everyone access to this amazing tool, and for FREE.99!
While Xfer's OTT may not have all of the control of it's Ableton counterpart, it does have a sleek interface and straightforward controls. The only things missing are individual band ratio control, frequency band control, and side chain functionality, but aside from that, Duda did a really great job of containing all OTT's power into a small and easy to maneuver unit.
As for how you can incorporate this into your next beat, it's as simple as just dropping it on your chords, sample, drums, bass, or even master,. You will almost immediately hear a difference, and a pretty distinct one at that, and I mean this thing really smacks you in the face. Your depth knob is the Dry/wet knob so when it is all the way to the right, your sound is fully processed. The bottom knobs are how much upward compression (expansion) and how much downward compression (traditional compression) is happening within the OTT. This is essentially a global ratio knob. You then have individual gain for each band and in and out gain for the overall signal. You also have a time control, which i believe adjusts the global attack and release of the compression and expansion, and if you click where the green and orange bars are you can adjust the threshold for expansion and compression. The orange is expansion and the green is compression.
Lets listen to a quick example. Here are some chords without the OTT enabled.
Here are those same chords with the OTT plug in enabled.
And just so we can have a visual reference, here is what the OTT looks like as we run these chords through it:
So there is a pretty audible difference bettween those two signals. The one with out OTT just sort of seems flat, while the one with OTT is opened up and expanded. Notice how it also feels compressed though. This is what's so cool about this effect. See those blue bars in the pic above? They represent our signal and those little orange bars extending off are the compressed signal. Those only happen when the signal reaches the green section because that is our compression area. Any signal that hits that green bar gets compressed, HEAVILY. Signal that remains in our orangeish bar to the left of the green is expanded. There are three bars because this is a 3 band processing unit, so our top bar is our high band, our middle bar is our mid band and our bottom bar is our low band. as i mentioned earlier, you can adjust the threshold of the expansion and compression line just by clicking on the bars and dragging to the left of the right. The further to the left you drag it the lower the threshold for the compressor, and vice versa. So in this example I set this ott to really clamp down with compression on our middle and low band while expanding our high band. What you are left with is a heavily compressed middle and low range and more presence in the top end. I then tweaked the upward and downard percentage to get the right amount of compression and expansion and then did the most important thing when it comes to this tool, messed with the depth knob until I achieved a good mix of unprocessed and processed signal.
This works great on literally everything, but because it is so intense it's good to be aware of that dry wet knob. It will take up a lot of real estate in your audio bandwith and will make it hard for other elements in your song to compete with it.
You can download it here.
3. Valhalla Freq Echo
This is a great free plug in that is a sure shot way to add some unique and creative movement to your music. With only 6 knobs, this plug in packs a surprising punch and can provide an array of stylish delay effects to whatever you add it to. What I find so cool about this effect is it can either be very subtle or really in your face depending on how you want to use it. At it's core, this is just your traditional delay unit. You have a mix knob, a delay time section, feedback, and basic eq control as low and hight cuts. You can either work in free mode and manipulate the delay knob, or you can utilize the delay sync section and snap your delays to a grid. Where this plug in differentiates itself from a normal delay is in the shift knob. This knob allows you to control the the pitch of each delay that comes after your original signal. So if you set a high feedback and a 1/4 note delay sync, and set the shift knob all the way to the right, each delay after the original signal will get progressivley higher in pitch. You can keep things in key by having your shift knob on a Hz value that fits with the scale of your song, or you can just mess around with it and place it randomly. It of course depends on the style of music you are creating, but I prefer the random method. It allows me to step out of the norm and I always end up coming away with some really cool stuff.
Now there are few ways you can go about utlizing this tool. One way is by setting a fast delay time and raise or lower the shift knob by a couple Hz and create a cool analog tape warble sound. This is great for all of you lo-fi heads that want to add some of that classic tape sound to your sample or drums.
Above is an example of that tape warble effect. Here is a screen shot of the plugin for reference.
Nothing too crazy going on in here, but the effect is still very cool. The real power of this plug in comes from automation though. When you start automating these parameters you can come away with some interesting effects. A quick downward automation of the shift knob can render some really cool sweeps. Pair that with some feedback automation and you are in for some blown out delay tricks that can add a psychedelic element to your song. You can also get crazy with automation, render that down, chop it up and put it through this unit AGAIN. With the onboard filters, it makes it even easier to sweep this effect in or out by messing with these knobs as well.
So whether you want to be on the grid, or in key, or just want to be free and random, this plug in will give you some amazing results.
You can download it here.
4 Tal-Filter 2 by Togu Audio Line
This is a plug in that totally blew me away. LFO envelope tools are a very popular effect these days, mainly because they offer a quick way to add movement to whatever you place them on. A lot of these exist, but the Tal-Filter 2 was the first one that I came across that was not only free, but also easy to use and flexible. You have various modulation types, so you can choose from not only a wide variety of different type of filters, but also volume and pan. You can choose the rate, the resonance, depth and probably the coolest functionality, create totally custom envelopes. Just by clicking the envelope line you can create a node which allows you to pull or curve the line how you see fit. I haven't tried it, but I'm pretty sure you can create an infinite number of nodes which means this thing is totally customizable.
I use this tool a lot for adding pumping movement to my pads or chords. It's also great on long sustained sounds or drone sfx.
Above is an example of what you can come up with by quickly tweaking the envelope in this plug in. Below is a screenshot of what you are hearing.
Its honestly great for adding any type of movement to any type of sound and the more time you spend tweaking your envelope the more locked in it will be. Another great use for this is to change the modulation type to pan, and putting this on your hi hats. You can than have this envelope tool generate cool pans for hats and keep your hat line from getting sterile. Tal-Filter 2 may not have as much control as Xfer's envelope tool, but it is incredible powerful, not to mention it's free.
Download it here
5. Pancake by Cableguys
I honestly can't believe that this is a free plug in. Once again, a really cool and clean interface with some powerful stuff under the hood. While it could be easy to look at this plug in as a simple auto pan, when you take a closer look you will realize that there are some really cool elements that allow for this unit to transcend others in it's catagory. For one, you have a totally customizable LFO. You can create your own curves, create tons of node points for sharp slopes or smooth waves, and even utilize the step grid feature and make steps as opposed to slopes. You can keep things random or natural, or you can be precise and select grid mode so that you know every node will fall directly on beat. You also have the option of selecting a basic sine shape if you know you want something super basic, or you can hit the randomizer button which will put together a random LFO curve shape that you can tweak further.
What blew my mind about this plug in was the fact that it can be midi controlled. You can also set how the LFO operates, So if you threw this on an instrument track and set the LFO to re trig mode, if would start its LFO cycle over each time a new note played on that track. You could also set normal beat sync mode which would just have the LFO run in time with the song or have it in one shot mode where it stops at the end of the cycle and plays the final value until it is reset. You can also set the LFO's rate cycle to standard music timing or have it cycle based on the frequency of the last note that you hit via midi.... which is crazy! I honestly am not sure how you would utilize it, but it is an impressive feature to have available. I would imagine this would be helpful with sound design.
Try adding this to your hi hats or maybe your pads as a subtle variation to it's stereo placement. I will often create larger pan swells at the beginning that trail off into quick swells at the end. This creates a cool feeling of momentum that sweeps you in into the next chord or note.
This may not be as easy to use as Ableton's auto pan, but it certainly provides a level of customization and flexibility that will yield some crazy stereo movement to whatever you add this to.
Download it here.
6. Krush by Tritik
Krush is one of those of plug ins that I would happily pay for because of how intuitive the interface is. With straight forward coloring controls like drive, crush and DWSP knobs, Krush makes it easy to dial in some pretty gritty and bity sounds. I always appreciate plug ins with a less is more attitude, especially when they are quality, because it not only makes them comparable to plug ins you would pay for, but also allows for quick use so you can get your idea out and keep things moving. Probably my favorite feature on this VST is the LFO modulation control. They make it soooo easy, and trust me when i say this, most plug ins do not. With Krush, you just set your rate, and then increase the amount you want it to effect each parameter by adjusting the corresponding knob. That simple! It even shows you the automation via a yellow line that moves in sync with the LFO (look above). Add some automation to the modulation amounts or the coloring or filter parameters and you can create some awesome texture. I have been using this on my hi hats a lot, and it adds such a nice crunch. The DWSP works wonders on percussion in lo-fi arrangements, and throwing some of this on your 808's (or any bass) can give them all the presence they need to pop through your mix and be audible, even on an iphone speaker.
Not only do i find this interface incredibly intuitive and easy to come up with your own coloring options, but the presets are also incredible. The digital water preset in the FX category is one of my favorite effects of all time. Add this to some water or forest foley, throw a gate on it, side chain that gate to your drums, and tell me you don't come away with some awesome texture and movement.
You can download it here.
7. Vinyl - izotope
This one is for all of my boom bap/lo-fi/ambient heads out there. Vinyl by izotope is a must have if you like the warm crackle and analog sound of a vinyl. The wide array of paramater controls makes it easy to get exactly the kind of sound you want, and can yield some convincing results. You can adjust warp depth to give it that time warble, increase the amount of dust or scratches on the record to emulate the pops and skips, increase mechanical noise to mimic electrical hum, and more.
Slap this on a master, or slap this on an individual sound. Either way, you will invite the warmth of vinyl into your next production.
You will probably still here a little bit of popping in the sample without vinyl, but that's only because of an instance of OTT, but notice the fidelity difference between the two. The example with vinyl just sounds old and dusty. Just like a record should. Something that I have been doing a lot is creating some chords and throwing a melody line on top, running it through the vinyl VST and then chopping that up and resampling it. This process makes for a convincing emulating of chopping a record without any of the licensing headaches down the road.
8. Dimension Expander by Xfer
For those of you who have dabbled with the synth Massve, you are most likely familiar with the on board effect, dimension expander. Well Xfer is back again with another free VST that emulates this effect. It's essentially a four voice chorus effect, where two of the voices are out of phase with the others, with some extended delay action going on underneath. So what you come away with is the very unique chorus and spatial expander that really widens whatever you put it on. Have a listen to what it sounds like
When the dimension expander is enabled, you can hear the sound widen quite a bit. You can also hear that chorus effect underneath which really gives it more space and little but more movement. You can add this to just about anything and get some awesome results. There are definitely ways to emulate what this effect is doing, but it usually takes significantly longer than just throwing this on. the Xfer squad did a great job keeping this effect simplistic with two knobs and and on and off button. Honestly all i do with this one is throw it on my chords or lead and be done with it. It's just that simple.
I couldn't recommend this one enough.
9. Pecheneg Tremolo by Pecheneg Audio
I saved this one for last because we already went over an envelope type VST, but I had to add this to the list because of how intuitive it is. This is a basic tremolo plug in, but it comes with a user friendly interface with straightforward parameters that take almost no time to get them where you want them. You have tempo control, with note and timing options you would expect, volume or pan mode, depth to control how much wobble occurs, and shaping knobs so you can dial in to your grooves.
The Shape knob will let you choose the shape of your envelope, the phase groove controls where the cycle starts and the symm knob allows for you to change the reflection of the enevelope. I have been throwing this on a lot of my pads and automating the note section to get faster as i approach a new section of my song. I will also automate the depth to get more extreme as my note speed increases. When i have a super syncopated beat I will usually mess with the phase and symm knobs so that it can match the groove and really lock in.
You can download this for free here.
Free stuff is always good, but its even better when the free stuff is actually... well, good! There are some extremely powerful tools on the audio market, and i strongly believe that these 9 VSTs compete with the best of them. Now sure there are some things I wish these plug-ins could do, are didn't do, but they are free so it's easy for me to look past the short comings and really celebrate these companies for providing these powerful and free tools to the community. This is only the tip of the ice berg too! There are countless other free VSTs out there on the market and I encourage you to search far and wide, because you will be surprised what you will find. Who knows, maybe it will be the key to your signature sound. I should also note that while these were mainly audio effects, there are tons of free instruments out there too. I will eventually do a post about these.
Let me know what you think of this, and let me know what some of your favorite free VSTs are.
Hope you enjoyed this post. If you dig it let me know! If you hated it let me know! If you have any ideas or things you want me to cover in a future blog post, let me know!
Thanks for tuning in !