My favourite Free (or inexpensive) Plugins July 17, 2015 19:29

There are a lot of things that contribute to the cost of a plugin.  But rest assured, price is not always an indicator of quality.  Many cheap or even free plugins are extremely good.  Occasionally a free plugin bests just about everything out there.  This list is some of my personal favorites, the ones I use the most.

1. TDR Kotelnikov (free)


TDR Labs is a first rate developer.  They produce excellent sounding and stable plug-ins that come in VST, AU & AXX, 32 & 64-bit.  The TDR's Compressor is one of the most transparent mastering compressors you'll come across regardless of price.  It is not an emulation of any particular compressor, but it's features are more akin to what you'd see on a high end digital mastering compressor.  It features a clean and well made GUI, two release stages (Peak and RMS) and a "delta" control which lets you listen to the difference between the compressed portion of your signal and the original.

The crest control allows you to set the threshold for each of the two release stages. The idea behind this dual release stage is to treat short transients differently from the overall RMS of the material.  So short hits like a snare, can have a quick release, whereas the track as a whole can be managed with an independent release time. 

This dual stage release is something I've only seen on paid plugins. There is a lot more besides. There is a side-chain filter with variable slope and cut-off and a variable stereo decoupler, which allows you to define how the side-chain reacts to the Left and Right channels.

There is also a  "Gentleman's edition" available and it builds on this feature set by adding in some nifty features, it extends the side-chain filter to cover the entire frequency range, allowing you to boost the mid-range for example, and it also adds in some subtle but effective harmonic distortion. The Gentleman editions costs 40 Euros.

2. TDR SlickEQ (free)

SlickEQAnother TDR plugin, SlickEQ is a powerful four band EQ that also offers four different EQ types, a highpass filter and harmonic saturation. The different modes available, British, American, Soviet and German all feature different EQ shapes, some more suitable for mixing and some ideal for mastering.  It also comes with plenty of presets to get you started.  The Gentlemans edition also comes with a 5th EQ mode, Japan.  This one is my personal favorite of the bunch.

SlickEQ also has an auto gain control which compensates the output level as you boost or cut.  This allows you to hear your EQ changes without being fooled by the resulting change in gain, since making something louder almost always sounds like an improvement. 


3. Convolution Reverbs

Sometimes the real deal can't be beat.  I love algorithmic reverbs, but there is a quality and character to the classic hardware units that just sound better to me, not to mention that the following IR's (Impulse response) libraries are all free or very cheap (donation ware).  You can literally have the sound of $10,000's worth of gear for next to nothing.

So what is convolution?  Quite simply, instead of programming reverb behavior with algorithms, hardware units are sampled using impulses.  The result is then delivered as a file which can be loaded into a convolution plugin, say Logic's Space Designer or Steinberg's Reverence (there are many other convolution plugins out there).

Reverbs are not the only thing that can be sampled of course, I'll get to that later. Here's a list of some of the best free or cheap impulse libraries I've found:

  • Bricasti M7 (free) from Samplicity.  This is a stunning library, very well made, from one of the most highly praised reverb units in the industry.  Don't miss this one, it's totally free!
  • Sony Creative (free) - Sony have a bunch of libraries up, most of them are in a special sound forge format, but the Synthesized library is in wav format, and can be used in any convolution plugin.  I highly recommend this eclectic and inspiring IR library. 
  • Eventide (donation ware) - Eventide are famous for their effects units, micro shifting, echoes, incredible reverbs, they are all represented here.
  • Lexicon 480L (free) - This is a classic and loved reverb unit from the 80's and boy was it used on a lot of famous records.  I especially recommend this excellent IR library for anyone doing anything retro.  
  • Signal to Noize - Various amazing (and very expensive) Reverb units, all of them totally worth having (donation ware) 


4. Klanghelm (free) - Not only are Klanghelm plugins first rate (especially their latest compressor, the MJUC) but they all come in free versions.

On offer are two compressors, the MJUC Jr is a smooth vari-mu style comp. The full version has 3 modes and has numerous extra features which allow for some extensive control over the tone and behavior of the plugin.  The price of the full version is 24 Euros.



IVGI is another Klanghelm plug-in. It's a superb saturation and distortion plugin.  Use this on low end toms, baselines, claps, anything you want some over drive breakup on.

5. Voxengo (free) - They is a variety of useful and free plugins on offer from Voxengo.
 My most used are the SPAN analyzer and Sound Delay plugins.

Voxengo SpanSPAN gives you a very flexible and detailed look at whatever audio is running through it.  So use it to help aid your mixing and EQ decisions and to pick apart a commercial track you're emulating sonically.

Sound Delay is not an echo plugin,  rather it allows you to make precise adjustments to either the left or right channels.  I use this for the Haas effect, basically you delay only one side by about 100ms.  This gives you a lush stereo spread and is a widely used technique in mixing for clean stereo widening.  It also allows you to delay mid or side frequencies.  It's an extremely handy tool to have around.  And it's free!

6. Plugin Alliance (free)

These guys have some of the best plugins available.  Very flexible, very well supported.  They have a number free plugins, these are my most used

Cleansweep V2CleansweepV2 is a gentle sloped filter, ideal for some low and high frequency taming, and even does the "telephone" effect quite nicely. 



Elysia Nivea (because you're worth it?)

It's a tilt EQ.  You set the centre frequency and boost or cut accordingly.  The filter will then tilt the spectrum around the center frequency.  It's a great way to lighten the bass and brighten the top without boosting bands on an EQ, and sounds different.

BX_subfilter - Booty shaking bass 

Basically a high-pass filter with a resonant bump, but with numerous controls to fine tune the effect.

7. A.O.M Invisible Limiter ($30 for 1yrs' license) - This one came out of nowhere and became popular quickly.  In short, it's pretty much what the title says.  You can really push this limiter without obvious artifacts.  It also has a unity gain mode, so you can clearly hear what it's doing to your material without the distraction of the louder volume.  Highly recommended!

A.O.M Invisible Limiter

8. Flux Bittersweet V3 - This is a transient designer.  And a very good one at that.  It can be used to accentuate transients and can be used as another form of stereo widening.  

Flux Bitter Sweet V3

9. Xfer Records - You probably know about Serum, and LFO tool, but Xfer Records have some really awesome free plugins too.  My favourites are the Dimension Expander and the OTT.  The DJM Filter is also awesome. 

Dimension Expander    Xfer OTT

10. Waves - Waves have a long back catalog of older plugins. The GUI's are somewhat dated, they run at 24-bit which means you have to watch that you don't clip them, and their analog modeling is arguably a bit better now than it was then.  However, none of this should steer you away from the quality and usefulness of some of these older plugins, which are now often on sale. Sometimes you can pick up what would normally cost $150-250 for $29.  Such is the case recently with their sale of the Linear Multi-band compressor.  You never know whats going on sale next, but subscribe to their newsletter and watch out for one day only deals.  I highly recommend Renaissance bass, Maxxbass, Q-clone and the Linear Multiband compressor.  I got each of those for $29!

Multi-band compression can bean amazing tool in electronic dance music production, but there is something especially awesome about Waves Linear Multiband.  It has a very well thought out user interface, some nifty features like adaptive release times and two great compression styles, Opto and Electro.  Beyond all that though, it just sounds smooth and is able to really bring out some excitement and focus in the mix.

11. Kilohearts Disperser ($19) - This is a bit of an odd effect, but once you figure out what it's useful for you'll be addicted!
Disperser is a sort of Phase-scrambling plugin.  You get to set the centre frequency and amount of phase scrambling.  It's extremely useful in small doses to help elements sit in a mix better.  As an alternative to compression for example. The best way you can really hear what is going on is to put this effect on a low note sawtooth waveform.  You'll immediately hear the "rubbery" effect. If you want those big, in your face rubbery baselines, It's boss.  Trust me!

Do you have any awesome free or cheap mixing plugins you like to use that's not on the list? Let me know in the comments below!