If you produce or record music on PC or Mac then you know that plugins can make or break a mix. Most DAWs come with some great built-in effects but they are often workman-like and lack character. Also, if you’re like me, you’re a little bit reluctant to fork out big bucks for plugins unless you have to. So, with that in mind, I’ve put together this list of free effects and instrument plugins that I personally use and recommend.
TAL – Togu Line Audio
These folks make some really nice, warm sounding plugins. I can’t recommend the following free plugins highly enough. Of course, it’s probably in your best interests to hit their site and download all of their plugins but these are the standouts.
TAL-Tube – A nice, relatively natural sounding tube emulator. Use this to take some of the digital spark off your synths and to warm up any source – a great tool when you’re working with virtual instrument organs.
TAL-Noisemaker – A full featured banger of a synth. It has a Moog-ish sound to it but a bit more digital and with far greater flexibility. If you can’t make a bass patch that could crack car windows with this one, then you’re not even trying.
I don’t know much about these folks, but I do use one of their free plugins extensively.
Kingdubby – This is a straight-forward but amazing sounding dub delay unit. The real beauty of it lies in the fact that you can set the delay to so many odd time signatures (3/96 anyone?). Also, it’s degrade setting (kind of like a cutoff for delayed signals) has a beautiful, almost crunchy tone to it. If you make reggae or similar styles of music then this is a must have. If you make any type of music at all, this will bring a smile to your face.
These folks have some outstanding commercial products. Their free products are mostly stripped down elements of their larger products – but they are still absolute gold. They have a bent towards Mid/Side encoding/decoding plugins and, in my opinion, they produce the best free Mid/Side tool that you can lay your hands on.
MSED – This is nothing more than a Mid/Side encoder/decoder but it is invaluable, none the less. The plugin lets you adjust the levels of mid and side signals separately (and mute either mid, side or both). I use it quite often on sampled stereo sounds (which are not mid/side encoded, strictly speaking) and set two instances up on two separate busses. I then send the same signal to both busses but on Buss 1 I mute the mid and on Buss 2 I mute the Side – that way I can apply entirely different EQ, level and effects chains to the central signal and the side signals. When used in moderation this can really bring a sound or an entire mix to life.
Again, a company that makes great commercial products.
Niveau Filter – Elysia call this a filter but is more rightly defined as a tilt EQ. Effectively you set the central (or tilt) frequency and the EQ will boost above/below and cut above/below that point depending on the gain settings you have applied. It doesn’t have the most obvious controls but, if you use your ears, it produces a really nice tone. The way they have implemented the EQ curve on this plugin is pretty much genius.
Now, these guys like to send me lots of e-mails about their product offers. This usually bothers me. However, they have one really nice free plugin that I use a fair bit, so I don’t really mind the promotions. Their commercial plugs are on the expensive side but they deliver quality goods so they’re worth a look.
Bittersweet II – This plugin is a ‘transient designer’. It is effectively a specialised form of compressor/gate with a special sauce of secret phase-related stuff poured over it. It’s a subtle beast but an impressive one. In short, it will detect and envelope-shape transients (the attack of notes/drum hits etc) to alter the character of the instrument sound. It has one big dial which allows the user to blend from “bitter” to “sweet” but, really, this is another one where using your ears will take you to the best result.
The folks at iZotope don’t do things by halves. They either release an absolute cracker of a full-featured plugin or they don’t release at all. They’ve received rave reviews for their iZotope Nectar vocal processing plugin but, since that costs me good money and I have decent outboard gear for that, I really only use their iZotope Vinyl plugin.
iZotope Vinyl – This is a bit of a one-trick pony. But it’s a really good trick. Effectively, the plugin is a record player emulator (in a sense). It adds all the stuff that you usually get from a vinyl record – crackle, mechanical noise, electrical noise etc. I tend to stay away from such plugins – partly because I already use records for sampling and partly because they never really sound right – but I have found myself reaching for this plugin on occasion. Because the plugin doesn’t just generate crackle (which, in reality, it only does as well as any other plugin of this type) you are able to generate a characteristic record sound. In particular, I love the knob that adjusts the age of the record. Grab a 1980’s cheesy horn sample and run it through this plugin with the record year set to 1930 and you’ll start to see how useful this tool is as an actual effect.
Another plugin company that I know nothing about but that has often made me a happy man with one outstanding plugin.
LFX-1310 – This one is a multi-effects unit that allows you to chain together three different effects in any order you like. The effects list is not huge but includes some crucial ones like reverb, delay, gate, phaser, flanger, distortion and so on. The real advantage comes through the ability to link these effects to each other (having one effect act on another) and then treat them as a single effect sound. More over, this unit just sounds nice. It sounds like one of those eBay purchases that you pick up cheap, have deep reservations about and then find out that it suits your style perfectly.
Anyway, that completes this wrap up. I will be sure to add more plugins to the list as I remember them or stumble across them.
I hope you find great uses for them and make some killer tracks.