I’ve used so many VSTs in the last decade or so, it’s pretty hard to keep track of them all. There’s the semi-useful one-trick ponies; the totally useless, “why even bother?” effects; the “look pretty good but always crash” old timers; the “oh, so this is why you’re so expensive” industry standards. There’s also a secret bunch. The plugins they don’t really talk about in gear magazines and forums. The ones that big companies and studios don’t really want you to know about. Because they’re free. And great.
Here’s a list of my favourite free plug-ins I’ve used in my time as ‘the man behind the desk’. The best free VST effects around today:
Not one specific effect per se, but rather a little bundle of simple processes that can give a weedy, lifeless channel some ‘oomph’. Its super-simple controls allow you to fiddle the amount of compression, distortion, filter and level that can give results ranging from “subtle warmth” through to “oh hell, I just messed my pants!”
I like using it on the bass buss to get some grind and hard-edge synth sounds flesh them out and filter off some of the filth.
These days I tend to default to Native Instruments Guitar Rig for sketching out guitar tracks in the studio, but before I got hold of Komplete I was a total sucker for AmpliTube. Some of the amp/cab sims can sound a little fizzy if you over-egg them, but if you treat it with respect and don’t max-out the gain you can get a pretty plausible, totally usable guitar track.
I always found AmpliTube’s ‘clean’ amps to sound better than their ‘lead’ amps. There’s something very jumpy and satisfying about the ‘Fender clean style’ amps that really hits the spot.
This swivel-eyed loon of a plugin is like having Squarepusher on command inside your DAW. Load it up, drop effects in to the sequencer section and cut up the timings. Bob’s your mother’s live-in lover: Total sonic devastation to anything and everything.
Because this plug-in is quite widely used, it’s best to use it in moderation. I like running my final mix through it, recording the result and then dropping in the occasional beat or bar that sounds the most awesome. I also love to use it in conjunction with my Korg KaossPad 3 to make small children cry and fluffy animals explode.
Proof that free VST’s don’t need to look like ass, this sleek little number offers effective, transparent buss compression for precisely £0.00. Even with the limiter on, it sometimes throws up the odd random +1dB spike so it can’t really be considered a ‘final stage’ plug-in, but if you want an infinitely useful mix ‘glue’ to tie sound elements together, this is your boy.
I like to use it on percussion & drum buss channels to make everything gel nicely. It also does a pretty neat job on acoustic guitars, giving them more perceived volume while subtly notching out the big hits.
Right. I know what you’re thinking. Yes, it’s crude. I don’t care. Once you hear this totally bonkers delay in action, you won’t give a damn either. To work this percussion-focussed delay VST, you just move the little love-hearts that cover the cartoon boobies around to find bizarre filter/drive/delay combinations. The fun part is, it doesn’t tell you what you’re changing… It’s up to you to ‘hear’ what sounds good, rather than dialing in something you ‘think’ is right.
This isn’t something you can stick on an FX return and leave for a whole track. Use it to spice up an instrumental solo or vocal section, then kill it. Darkware plug-ins are a little tetchy sometimes, so I’d advise you freeze/bounce any good results you get just in case it decides to stop working mid-session.
Reverb’s always a tricky beast: Too little and all you’re really doing is muddying up your mix for no reason; too much and you sound like you’re a Duran Duran fanboy yearning for better days. I’ve used a good selection of premium hardware and software reverbs, but Ambience is one I return to again and again. It’s not the sweetest, it’s not the most realistic, it’s not the most three-dimensional but, you know what? It’s the most usable.
If you’re feeling lazy, it’s perfect to throw on tracks as an insert effect due to its super-low CPU usage. Find a patch you like, set the mix to about 15% and you’ve got some instant, great-sounding reverb in your track.
I’m going to struggle to write a whole paragraph about this. It brickwalls your signal, cutting off the peaks in a fairly musical way. This gives you more perceived volume. That’s… it. That’s all it does. WOOHOO!
You COULD stick it on your master buss to give you some mastering-style loudness control, but I tend to use it to tame the big hits on kick and snare drum tracks to get a signal that’s a little more uniform and useful. To each, his own.
THAT’S IT… for now. Do you have any of your own secret, freebie favourites you’d care to share with the world? Comment below 🙂
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