Every sound engineer, music producer, composer, and beatmaker needs access to powerful tools to be able to enhance and bring their music to life.
These days, recording is mostly done “in the box,” with VST plugins.
And in recent times, even the free ones are starting to sound better and are quite versatile besides. There are different categories of VST plugins you’re going to need to build out your library to handle the many things you want to be able to do.
So, whether you need to build from scratch, supplement, or augment your toolkit, you’ve come to the right place. In this guide, we look at the best free VST plugins of all time – essential instruments and effects.
Effects like EQ, reverb, delay, chorus, compression, de-essers, distortion, and others are essential for individual tracks, as well as your overall mix. Without these, you’re going to be quite limited in what you can do to your tracks (volume and pan, maybe?), and unless you’re 100% happy with what you’ve captured, you’re going to be severely limited in achieving a different result.
In this section, we’re going to be looking at several plugins in the categories already mentioned. In addition to mixing and mastering, these can come in quite handy for shaping the tone and sound of individual tracks. EQ is a must-have when it comes to mixing and mastering alike, and Blue Cat’s Triple EQ is considered one of the best free options available.
This is a three-band semi-parametric equalizer. It can be controlled with a single filter, with a customizable shape.
Features also include dual mode (independent left and right or mid and side channels control), multiple channels linking modes, +-40 dB range per band, automatic gain compensation, no latency, real-time display of frequency response, and on-graph filter shape control.
Overall, Blue Cat’s Triple EQ is quite simple, and unlike some EQ VSTs, the effect is quite noticeable, letting you mold sounds to your heart’s content.
Download: Blue Cat Audio. Reverb is essential to most mixes, and unless you’re happy with your DAW’s built-in reverb (which in some cases can be quite good), you’ll probably want to supplement your plugin library.
The OrilRiver reverb comes highly recommended by certain users. This is an algorithmic stereo reverb with 12 variations of early reflections, five variations of reverb tail, and three-band equalizer for wet signal.
Which means this – you can even shape the tone of your tracks with this plugin.
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With OrilRiver, you can add a natural sounding high-quality reverb to your tracks. I don’t think any producer should be embarrassed adding this plugin to their toolkit.
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OrilRiver is compatible with Windows and Mac. Download: KVR Audio Software. The moment I heard OldSkoolVerb I fell in love with it. I’d tried a few reverb VSTs to that point, but most of them were quite basic or mediocre sounding.
OldSkoolVerb comes with a lot of great presets (bright studio, warm hall, drum room, etc.) that help you get up and running fast.
Most of the time, I just start with a preset I like and tweak a little until I’m happy with the sound.
In most cases, you will probably want to turn down the out gain on the reverb, though, because the presets can be quite intense. A lot of reverb can be nice, but sometimes too much is too much! There are several reverbs on this list, and they’re all worth trying, but you probably won’t find me without this one.
I didn’t even know about stereo-widening/vocal doubling effects until my producer told me about them a couple of years ago.
I was already sold on Voxengo’s OldSkoolVerb, so when I found out they had Stereo Touch, I was quick to download it and test it out.
Unsurprisingly, I was quite impressed with the results.
It’s capable of making your vocals stand out in a mix without boosting their volume. Again, there are several presets built in (vocal space, surround, stage, etc.), and they offer a great starting point for the sounds you’re looking to create.
And while the tendency will be to add this effect to vocals, it can work quite nicely on guitar too! Download: Voxengo. Valhalla Super Massive is kind of like a hybrid delay and reverb plugin.
Which means you can get quite a bit of utility out of it. Its user interface and design? But sometimes that’s all you need. It comes with controls for mix, width, delay, warp, feedback, density, mod rate and depth, and EQ high and low.
It comes with a lot of presets, so if you aren’t sure where to start, you’ll appreciate that feature. Super Massive offers a great sounding delay and reverb, and as a creative tool for harmonic echoes, space sounds, and huge reverbs, it shines.
A good VST to keep your inspiration alive.
Valhalla Super Massive is compatible with Windows and Mac.
Download: Valhalla DSP.
Klanghelm’s DC1A is a simple two-control compressor. It’s got controls for input, output, deep, relaxed, dual mono, and negative.
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It also features a tasty, professional design. While it looks quite straightforward, its versatility might just surprise you.
It works on vocals, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, drums, or keyboards – just about anything! This compressor is quite possibly one of the most effective free ones I’ve seen.
It makes it incredibly easy for you to alter the dynamics of your track without coloring it. You don’t even need presets to operate this baby – just work the input and output dials until you’re happy with the results, and experiment with the additional controls for full effect.
DC1A is supported on Windows and Mac. Download: Klanghelm.
While some will appreciate the simplicity of a compressor like the DC1A, others will want more control over the dynamics and sound of their tracks. Tokyo Dawn Records’ VladG Molot compressor gives you superior control of your tone.
That said, if you’re new to compressors, you might want to skip this one, because it’s hard to tune your tracks to perfection with this baby.
The graphical user interface?
I admit it’s a little intimidating even to me.
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Still, it is beautifully designed, in a vintage kind of way. You’ve got controls for filter, attack, release, ratio, threshold, knee, makeup, dry mix, limiter, mid scoop, mode, upsampling, on/off, alpha/sigma, and input/GR. The VladG Molot, unlike certain compressors, will color the tone of your instruments.
You will need to experiment yourself to get a better sense of what that means. The point is – if you’re looking for a compressor that’s more transparent, this isn’t it.
VladG Molot is available for Windows and Mac through Tokyo Dawn Records. Download: Tokyo Dawn Records. Chorus can add some shine and sparkle to your tracks. In effect, it adds voices (as if a choir) to the track, regardless of what it is. Blue Cat’s Chorus is a vintage style single voice chorus effect that allows for a wide range of sounds, from light ensemble, all the way to a deep, destructive modulation effect.
Its main features include stereo spread control, sine or triangle LFO shapes, and in or out of phase mix control. Included are multiple presets to help you get started. Just as advertised, I find it to be a highly usable vintage style effect that can work on just about any instrument you want to add some energy to.
Blue Cat’s Chorus is compatible with Mac and Windows. Download: Blue Cat Audio. We’ve covered a range of free de-esser effects on MIDINation before. SPITFISH is just one among half a dozen or so you may find especially effective.
A de-esser can help remove harsh vocal sounds, also known as sibilants – “s,” “z,” “sh,” “teh,” ch,” and so forth. It’s a must-have, especially if you’re working with a variety of vocalists and clients.
In addition to removing unwanted noise and hiss, de-essers are also often used on mixes, to round off the corners and remove the harsher, high frequency sounds that can result from boosting those frequencies (it’s common practice to add some sparkle to vocal tracks).
The beautifully designed SPITFISH is simple, effective, and easy to use.
It offers controls for sense, tune, depth, listen, bypass, stereo, and soft.
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Be sure to add a de-esser to your toolkit. Most professionals find they use de-essers on 60 to 80% of the tracks they produce.
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Download: Sascha Eversmeier. If you’re planning to make electronic music of any kind, or pop, hip-hop, and in some cases even rock, you need synthesizers.
Synths tend to be quite versatile, and with them you can create leads, pads, bass, drums, effects, and more. So, whether you’re looking to add some atmosphere to your track, or want to play a blistering synth solo, having a few synth VSTs at the ready is best practice.
Break out that MIDI controller, because you’re probably going to be spending a lot of time having fun and experimenting with these. There’s not a whole lot we can say about the free, open source, award-winning hybrid synthesizer known as Surge that we haven’t already said.
That’s because we’ve covered it in other guides, including the one on the best free synth VST plugins. Surge is known for its quality sounds, its versatility, its customizability, and more.
It even comes with over 2,000 patches. If you want to get a better feel for it yourself, have a listen to samples on their website, or watch the video below.
Fair warning – you’ll be watching and listening for a quite a while before you even start to get a sense of all this plugin is capable of!
Honestly, if you like synths, you’d be crazy not to download it and give it a whirl.
You can download it for Windows, Linux, and Mac.
How to use this guide
Download: GitHub. Pendulate is great because, quite honestly, it’s a little different from a lot of synths out there. This free synth comes with a novel “chaotic oscillator” based on the double pendulum.
That gives you access to a lot of unique sounds you may have never heard before (let’s face it – a lot of synths are emulating the same thing, so this is refreshing).
With Pendulate, you also get wavefolder based on the Buchla 259 Complex Waveform Generator with mix and cutoff, low pass gate with poles and resonance, 169 simultaneous modulation routings, MPE support, envelope and LFO, up to 221 modulation points, animations for the double pendulum, wavefolder, and low pass gate, three unique color schemes, 136 presets (including artist presets), and more.
Classic synths are great, and they are often emulated for a reason. But if you’re looking for something new or different, you should give Pendulate a try.
You can get Pendulate for Mac or Windows in exchange for your email address on the Eventide Audio website.
Download: Eventide Audio.
Again, as with Surge, there’s not a whole lot we can say about Helm that we haven’t already said at one point or another.
Helm is highly versatile and amazingly designed, with plenty of awesome, high-quality sounds reminiscent of video games in the 90s.
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I don’t know about you, but I’m a big fan of video game music, which of course means Helm is right down my alley.
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This isn’t to say there aren’t synths that specialize in video game sounds, but with Helm you kind of get all that and more. Helm works on GNU/Linux, Mac and Windows.
Download: Matt Tytel. u-he’s TyrellN6 was originally going to be a hardware analog synth. For a variety of reasons, it got turned into a VST instead.
Clearly, a lot of love and care went into its “sporty,” quality design, with all the knobs and faders you’ve come to love as a synth aficionado.
If not, don’t be intimidated, because TyrellN6 comes with over 580 factory presets(!). That should be more than enough to get you started.
Besides, there are plenty of tutorials online.
This VST is capable of just about anything, with plenty of classic and modern sounds.
TyrellN6 is compatible with Mac, Windows, and Linux.
If you love tweaking, then I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t enjoy Odin 2. You can draw a multitude of sounds out of this baby, and it works on Windows, Mac, and Linux besides.
But if you can’t see yourself spending all your time tweaking, that’s okay. Odin 2 comes with a diverse preset library too. This 24-voice polyphonic synth comes with endless modulation capabilities and is quite possibly one of the best free plugins to come out in recent years.
Download: TheWaveWarden. I’ve been getting into Spitfire Audio’s LABS series plugins as of late, as they are all quite high quality.
LABS – Synth Pads is one of the first I tried, because I happened to have a song in which I wanted to use a great sounding synth pad.
And that’s exactly what I got with this VST.
It sounded a little sparse and quiet to my ears, though, so I combined it with another synth, and that felt good to me.
LABS – Synth Pads is a one trick pony, and a big download besides, but there’s no denying how great it sounds.
Download: Spitfire Audio. Although guitar isn’t utilized in every genre of music these days, it’s still a popular instrument, and let’s face it – you would be hard pressed to find a genre where guitar doesn’t work. Whether you play a bit of guitar yourself, or plan to have paying clients in to record at your home studio, you should be prepared for a variety of eventualities (even if you already have great guitar amps and microphones at your studio).
Here is some must-have free VST plugins for guitar. Emissary is near legendary in its status as a metal amp sim. And, as you would expect, it’s perfect for metal and other heavier genres.
I would not call it a versatile amp by any means, but what it does, it does with authority. And its user interface? It looks just like a real guitar amp head, so even guitarists should feel at home with this plugin.
Glenn Fricker of Spectre Sound Studios even called the Emissary one of the best free amp sims for metal, and we don’t have any reason to disagree.
Just remember to use it alongside Impulse Responses (IRs) as Emissary and other amp sims mentioned here can sound kind of gnarly all on their own.
We won’t be covering what IRs are or how they work in any detail here, but they are kind of essential for use with amp sims.
For some seriously heavy tones, give Emissary a try.