These days, most DAWs come with a host of built-in free VST plugins. These are generally designed to give you a good set of starting tools to make the most of your DAW. However, most DAW designers are very good at building DAWs and not as good at building VSTs. Whilst there are always a few stand out tools that every DAW user couldn’t live without, it’s quite common to find a large array of third-party plugins in professional studios. I know myself that over 95% of the plugins I use on a regular basis are third-party.
Now I’m sure you’re thinking that it’s all good and well having third-party VSTs if you’ve got the money. This is where I step in. Today we’re going to take a look at 13 free VST plugins for windows that give the high-end gear a serious run for their money.
Free VST Reverbs
First off, let’s take a look at reverbs. This is probably one of the most abundant freeware plugin types on the market. However, there are some real duds out there. I’ve got two great bits of kit here that will really help bring some depth to your mixes.
epicVerb by Variety of Sound
The first of these is epicVerb. Designed for maximum flexibility, this algorithmic reverb does it all. From small, ambient spaces to luscious halls, you’ve got full control. With built-in EQ and modulation controls, there aren’t many spaces you can’t recreate with this thing.
RoomMachine 844 by Silverspike
Another interesting reverb plugin is RoomMachine 844. This plugin appears to be modeled on a convolution premise in that it is designed to simulate speakers and microphones in a real space. However, as they are digital, we can assume it is still using algorithms to do the calculations and not impulse responses. However, it still has a unique premise. You are able to use the positions section to place virtual loudspeakers and then dictate their stereo width and distance from the microphones. This lets you simulate real spaces that suit what you are trying to achieve. The controls are simple and you certainly won’t get as many unique tones out of this one but it’s still a fantastic free VST.
Time for Some EQ
There are a variety of different EQ types out there and every DAW comes with at least one. This is typically a standard parametric EQ with fairly limited capabilities. As such, I can imagine that you might be wanting of a few more choices when using EQ.
Luftikus by IJKB
Some of my favourite EQs to work on are also some of the simplest ones you can get. I’ve always loved mixing with hardware EQ and really using my ears to sculpt the tone of my signals. As such, fixed band EQs whilst limiting, give me fantastic results. Unlike parametric EQs, you have to work with the fixed bands and as such, be far more careful with your choices. Using your ears, you make minor adjustments and keep things musical, not clinical.
Now, unfortunately, these types of EQs usually come at a cost. They are typically emulations of famous hardware and as such, yield similar prices. I’m talking about things like APIs and Pultecs. That was until I came across Luftikus.
This multi-band fixed EQ comes with four half octave bells, one half octave high shelf and another high shelf with adjustable fixed frequency points. It’s generally very gentle and you will have to really crank the knobs to get it to do much. However, this is kind of what makes it great. It’s one of those tools that’s handy when you’re trying to be subtle, especially with subtractive EQ. Bus EQing and master channel EQing come to mind here.
It also has three switches built into the bottom. One enables ‘mastering’ mode. This changes the EQ knobs from being adjustable by 0.1dB to being adjustable by 1dB. This means that each step on the knob will have a significantly more noticeable effect as it jumps. Very handy for final adjustments and mastering. We’ve also got an ‘analogue’ switch to emulate an analogue sound. Finally, there is a ‘keep gain’ switch designed to adjust the overall level of the signal as you make changes. This is really handy when you need to A/B the plugin.
Electri-Q (posihfopit edition) by Aixcoustic Creations
Now, if you’re more in the market for control over your EQ, you might like what I have next. Electri-Q (posihfopit edition) is a powerful, low phase parametric EQ with the capability to handle up to 64 bands. It also comes with a variety of filter types and the ability to switch between clean digital EQ and transformer modelled analogue EQ that’s a touch more colourful.
Whilst most DAWS typically offer their own parametric EQ, this offers you a little bit more. With it’s added controls, expanded band allowance, and low phase calculations, it becomes a powerful tool for mixing and mastering. It’s not the prettiest of things to look at but then who really cares?
The Best Free Compressor VSTs
Compression is always a tricky one for beginners. Just like with EQ, most DAWs only come with one standard compressor that often has a one glove fits all approach. For anyone who understands compression, you’ll know that no single compressor is perfect for everything. Below are a couple of really great tools that I guarantee will operate far better than any built-in DAW compressor.
MJUC JR by Klanghelm
In a previous article, I addressed the different circuit types that you can typically find in compressors. One of the lesser-knowns of these is the Vari-Mu. Often used in mastering, Vari-Mu (or variable-gain) is a tube-based compression type. The original design is owned and trademarked by Manley and costs so much, you’d need to remortgage your studio. However, there are plenty of software alternatives out there. Obviously, these don’t use tubes so you’re not going to get that true vari-mu sound. However, the concept for the compression type holds true and there are even free versions on the market.
The MJUC JR by Klanghelm is a great example of this. It has a simple and straightforward design just like a vari-mu should. We get one knob for the amount of compression and another for makeup gain. We also have a control for the recovery time and slew rate giving us control over different content types. Stacked up against the Waves Puigchild this thing performs pretty well. It works great as a glue compressor, however, I find it a little over-aggressive for the circuit type.
Molot by vladg/sound
Another great compression plugin to have to hand is Molot. On the surface, this looks like a fairly typical optical compressor. However, once you chuck it onto a channel it really comes into its own. This thing is far from transparent and offers a staggering amount of power. You’ve got the addition of a high-pass filter as well a limiter, mid-scoop bell EQ, and multiple stereo image modes. For me, this is reminiscent of the Fairchild in its design but more like an 1176 in its sound. It’s something you’ll probably have to learn to use and then only implement when you know you need it. But when you need it, it’ll work wonders!
Having a variety of compressors in your arsenal is imperative. Knowing how and when to use them is even more important still. Many DAWs come with one stock ‘one glove fits all’ compressor which is really no help. Grab these great free VST plugins to make sure you’ve got choices in your tool belt.
Moving on to Mastering Tools
Besides the typical things such as EQ and compression, mastering tends to deal with the subject of width and loudness. Here are a few freebies that can help get your tracks into that commercial realm without costing you a penny.
YouLean Loudness Meter
Being able to measure loudness and dynamic range accurately is one of the most important things a mastering engineer has to do. You can easily pay hundreds on histogram tools with fully customizable features. Or, you can grab the Youlean Loudness Meter for absolutely nothing.
A truly marvellous tool that does everything that you need a LUFS loudness meter to do. Easy to understand short-term and integrated loudness metering with a dynamic range readout and a true peak detector. It also provides measurements in mono and stereo and has a detailed and adjustable histogram. Seriously, you couldn’t ask for much more out of something like this, especially when it’s completely free.
If you don’t already have some form of loudness metering software, this is a great place to start. I routinely chuck this on my master channel even when I’m doing production or mixing work. It’s a really easy way to make sure you’re not clipping and a fabulous tool for identifying dynamic contrast in your work. Equally, it’s very handy when it comes to examining reference tracks. If you’re one for commercial loudness and being competitive in the market, this plugin is going to set your mind at ease in a heartbeat.
TT Dynamic Range Meter
Another great little tool to grab is the TT Dynamic Range Meter. Far simpler than the loudness meter above but it does a great job at measuring dynamic range and peak levels. For a low CPU quick mix checker, it’s definitely worth having. Especially before sending your material off for mastering.
Ozone Imager by Izotope
Another notable mention for freebies is the Ozone Imager. A slightly simpler version of the one that comes with the paid suite, this little gem is a great mastering tool for stereo width. It’s not something that I’m a huge advocate of because of the phase issues that these things can cause. However, used subtly for a little bit of separation, it can yield great results. It has a beautiful, simple design with a fader for width and another for the amount of stereoization. The vectorscope is a lovely thing to watch and really easily helps to show you exactly what’s going on under the hood. Grab this while it’s going free and get to work on widening your mixes. Just remember to check the mono mix afterwards!
A Great Set of Free VST Plugins for Beginners
Now this tenth plugin is a little more than just a single tool. As I mentioned early on, many DAWs come with plenty of built-in tools. However, sometimes they are a little lacking or you’re simply missing a few of the essentials. If this sounds like the problem you’re having, I suggest you check out Dead Duck Software.
With a plain but appealing GUI, Dead Duck provides 24 free VST plugins for all your production and mixing needs. From a full channel strip to a ring modulator, this plugin bundle encompasses a really great set of tools. You’ve probably got alternatives for a lot of them already but where you don’t, they make a really strong addition. The simple design makes them great for beginners and they won’t let you down in what they can do.
Even if you’re thinking that you’ve got all the basic tools already, there is one real stand out here. The Utility plugin. This is something that lives on my master bus by default nowadays. Being able to quickly flick between your stereo, mono, and mid/side mix is super helpful. Also, it’s great for checking out the separate sides of your mix independently as well as their phase. Do yourself a favour and have a play around with some of these. I’m certain you’ll find something worth keeping in your toolbox.
A Few Additional Mentions in the Free VST World
Amongst the typical tools listed above, there are also a variety of specialist tools that can come in handy in certain situations. The ones I’ve sourced below for you are particularly useful because they aren’t commonly available in the typical DAW.
Vinyl by Izotope
The first of these is a plugin by the name of Vinyl. Known as “The Ultimate Lo-fi Weapon”, Vinyl is a multi-parameter plugin designed to simulate the grit and noise of old analogue formats. This is one of those plugins that you can strap onto your master channel and use to dial in a bit of noise and ambience. It’s designed to give your tracks a little bit of character and edge. Now, this won’t be for everyone. I know plenty of people love a clean, modern sound and are thankful that gear has moved on from the noisy old bits of kit we had to use before. However, if you’re all about a bit of retro and lo-fidelity, then you are going to love this free plugin.
You’ve got controls for mechanical noise, electrical noise, dust, scratch, and warp. Not only this but you can dial in the amounts of each that you want as well as adjusting the whole plugin to replicate a different part of history. From the 1930s to the 2000s, Vinyl is capable of emulating an incredibly authentic sound for any genre at its high point. This is going to be especially great for those of you looking to get a really gritty 90s sound.
Bark of Dog by Boz Digital Labs
One of the most common things I find I have to do when mixing and mastering my client’s works is dealing with the low end. I’m often met with comments like “the tracking went well but we couldn’t get much low end from the kick“. Learning to position microphones and get the sound you want is a skill in itself. As much as it’s good to get it right at the time, some things can be improved in the mixing stage. Enter bass enhancement plugins.
As a big fan of Waves, I’ve always opted for using things like Renaissance bass for my low-end reinforcement. However, I was recently let on to a free VST plugin by the name of Bark of Dog that does the exact same thing that my Waves plugin can do. Naturally, I was curious to see whether a free plugin could keep up with the likes of Waves.
Whilst the GUI isn’t as pleasing to the eye, the plugins actually have an almost identical setup. Frequency selection, input gain, and output gain. Where the Bark of Dog plugin has an edge is that it also allows you to control the wet/dry mix of the plugin. I see this as fairly redundant as I typically just dial in the amount of gain that I want. If I need less, I’ll dial less in as opposed to varying the wet/dry. However, it’s still an extra tool that Waves doesn’t provide.
In use, these plugins perform at an exceptionally parallel level. There are very minute tonal differences between the two but I found that the Waves plugin was slightly better at dealing with sonically dense tracks. However, for a free plugin, Bark of Dog is 100% worth downloading if you’re working on a budget. Try it out on full mixes and on individual channels and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what it can do.
CamelCrusher by Camelaudio
For those of us mixing in the box, distortion and saturation plugins have always been a tricky one. If you’re lucky enough to have some decent outboard then you’re probably alright. Unfortunately, those of us working in the digital realm haven’t got as many options. This is even truer when it comes to free VST plugins. However, there is one that’s always served me well in a pinch. CamelCrusher not only offers fantastic distortion tones but it comes with a handy filter and compressor section to help you sculpt the results.
Offering tube distortion as well as mechanical distortion, CamelCrusher gives you multiple tone options for no money. The low pass filter isn’t anything special. It’s another great way to control your distortion without the need for further plugins. Again, the compressor is pretty simple and applies some soft-limiting to smooth out dynamic range. The phat mode button essentially applies smoother results. I find that it seems to almost always work better when turned on. I wouldn’t use this compressor as a first choice but it’s a handy little tool for smoothing out the effects of the distortion if it’s a bit too aggressive.
There is a multitude of free VST plugins out there that really are worth having. More so than that, some of them can honestly compete with the big names like Waves and Slate. This list doesn’t encompass everything out there but it’s a good place to start. To summarise we’ve got: epicVerb and RoomMachine844 reverbs; Lufitkus fixed EQ and Electri-Q low phase parametric EQ; Klanghelms MJUC JR vari-mu compressor and vladgs Molot; The Youlean Loudness Meter, TT Dynamic Range meter, and Izotopes Ozone Imager; the entire DeadDuck VST package; and Izotope Vinyl, Bark of Dog, and CamelCrusher. So, what are you waiting for? Go get downloading and start to have a play around!