Unquestionably, we’re living through a golden era of plugins at the moment. There are plugins to help you with transient shaping, resonance taming, granular sound design, linear phase EQ – the list goes on and on. At this rate, we’ll probably get one that will do the shopping for us before long.
We can all agree that plugins are useful and fun (Loopcloud even has its own plugin suite that includes two rhythm and melody sonic sandboxes, DRUM and PLAY), but they are often prohibitively expensive. No one wants to bankrupt themselves pursuing their passion, which is why we’ve compiled a list of the best free instrument and effects plugins out there this year.
Surge XT is the bigger, bolder sequel to Surge, a free and open-source hybrid synthesiser capable of concocting almost any sound you can think of. This unapologetically digital synthesiser consists of three selectable oscillators from a choice of 12 oscillator algorithms, including frequency modulation, string and wavetable. For even more sound shaping possibilities, there are two filter units with a variety of algorithms, plus a waveshaper with up to 43 shapes.
Surge XT also contains 27 effect algorithms across 16 effects units, with relatively standard fare such as EQ, distortion and chorus, as well as some pretty out-there effects including combulator, nimbus and treemonster (the best way to understand these is to try them for yourself).
On top of that, there are 12 LFOs with seven waveforms, a step sequencer and more. While its layout and appearance may seem daunting at first glance, the sheer number of features in this Swiss army knife of synthesisers mean it’s well worth investing the time to get to grips with it.
You can download Surge XT for free from their github page, here.
You may well have stumbled across a fair few free distortion plugins online, but have you ever seen a free multiband distortion plugin? Wings Music’s Fire device supports up to four bands of multiband distortion. For each of those bands, there are 12 distortion algorithms to choose from, plus drive amount, compression, rectification and bias plus more. There’s even global EQ and downsampling, all for free.
Download Fire from Wings Music’s github page, here.
Powered by their MNDALA 2 sampler engine, Mntra’s free Rasa plugin offers a taste of some of their paid instruments, Orakle, Arca, Atma and UDW. The general concept of this engine is based around layering sounds and independently modulating their level and pan to create morphing textures that interact between one another as they evolve. The 20 presets included do a great job of demonstrating what Rasa is capable of.
The plugin’s samplers tab lets you adjust the velocity curve, volume ADSR, pan and pitch of each layer. You can also apply EQ and saturation to shape the overall tone of your sounds. There’s also a global effects section so that you can process all your layers together to create one cohesive sound. Choose from delays, reverbs, filters and more to add space, character and movement to your audio. There’s even an inbuilt sequencer to help you turn your otherworldly sounds into unique new melodies.
You can download the MNDALA 2 sampler engine and Rasa from the Mntra website here, for free.
While it might not be the most glamorous plugin on this list, this entry could be one of the most useful. Techivation’s T-De-Esser Plus is a comprehensive de-essing device, an essential tool for taming sibilance and harshness from vocals, drums and synths. The simple layout boasts an output control, processing level, selectable frequency range and more. A package that promises to deliver natural and musical sounding de-essing with just a few clicks.
To download T-De Esser Plus for free, simply register for free at Plugin Boutique to add the installer to your account.
Integraudio Deelay is a powerful delay plugin that may be small in size but is large in creative potential. In addition to the usual features you would expect to find on a delay plugin, Deelay packs a whole host of deeper functionality that puts its uses far beyond many of its paid competitors.
There are five delay modes, including normal, reverse and chaos; the latter is a mode that resembles a granular delay plugin. You can even add reverb to your delay with diffusion controls. If this is starting to sound like it’s going to get out of control, fear not, as the inbuilt ducking functionality lets you control the wet signal’s level with the dry signal for more manageable and transparent processing.
Tape control lets you add subtle degradation and variety in the signal, while 11 distinctive distortion models can gently saturate or completely destroy your signal, and everything in between. You can even add the distortion before or after the delay in the signal chain.
To download Deelay for free, simply register for free at Plugin Boutique to add the installer to your account.
This nifty little gadget emulates the way in which internet compression algorithms degrade sound. As with many bit crushing plugins, there are Bandwidth and Bitrate controls. There’s also Loss, which simulates how data is lost in a poor internet connection, and Crunch, which adds gain without adding volume, for even more artefacts. You can get pretty gnarly results with the three Loss models, but the mix knob lets you dial back the effect to your liking.
To download Codec for free, simply register for free at Plugin Boutique to add the installer to your account.
Between a whole host of plugin developers and DAW’s own devices, there are panning plugins aplenty. But none of them offer the same level of control and creativity as Audiomodern’s Panflow. The intuitive graph editor lets you draw in any panning curve you desire, freeing you from the fixed modulation shapes of many other panning plugins.
Audiomodern’s clever randomisation engine features in Panflow too, so at the click of a button it will generate you a random new panning curve. Turning on infinite mode will randomise the panning curve at your chosen interval, so you will never hear the same panning curve again.
To download Panflow for free, simply register for free at Plugin Boutique to add the installer to your account.
This unassuming sample player contains a range of traditional recorded instruments, including brass, organs, strings and woodwind. While there are more accurate sounding sampled instruments on the market, Audiolatry Mel-Lofi’s strengths are in its FX layers section, where four different noise models can be mixed in to add an authentic lo-fi aesthetic to your recordings. There is also an assignable LFO, filter and inbuilt reverb to finish off your sound.
To download this instrument, head to the Mel-LoFi product page and use code “FREE” at checkout.
The next plugin on this list is a simple frequency modulation synthesiser, and it’s hard to believe that it’s free. Nakst Fluctus’ sleek appearance and straightforward user interface make it compare favourably to some of its paid FM rivals.
The three identical operators are laid out next to each other for maximum visibility, and their independent preview windows let you see what’s happening at each stage of the signal flow. For finishing your sound off, there’s an inbuilt saturator, filter, ping pong delay and phaser.
You can download Fluctus completely free from their website, and you don’t even have to provide your email address.
Magic Switch is based on the 'Magic' feature from the brand's lo-fi multi-fx plug-in Super VHS. Super VHS was developed to give users an instantly gratifying suite of one-knob effects to infuse modern productions with the lo-fi magic of the 80s. The Super VHS plug-in hosts a channel strip of six effects, each adding a unique flavour of VHS-era goodness.
One of the most popular features in Super VHS is its 'Magic' button: A one-click chorus effect with a "deep, dark and rich tone". The effect was inspired by the warm, detuned synth-scapes of the 80s. And, while, it's not designed to exactly emulate any classic design, BABY Audio set out to build its own ideal one-button chorus for the software age. And the company wanted to make it for a modern production scenario where the source sounds are cleaner and beg for more radical transformation.
Magic Switch combines a custom-built chorus algorithm with a series of gentle, analogue-modelled, low-pass filters to give the wet signal a more mellow vibe.
To download Magic Switch for free, simply register for free at Plugin Boutique to add the installer to your account.
Are you wondering why there’s a music software company with the same name as the reasonably priced South Korean car brand? Well, stop wondering, because it’s the same company! While Instrument might seem like a questionable sidestep from their usual fare, the fruit of their labours is an interesting free device with some useful features.
The single oscillator can create a triangle, square, saw or sine wave, and there’s a pulse width control too. A single low pass filter with ADSR envelope, plus inbuilt noise and reverb functionality give you deeper control over the balance and character of your sound. Kia Instrument’s unique selling point, though, is the inbuilt Nature Sampler section. Choose from environmental recordings of Wind, Birds, Beach, Geiser, Forest, Water, Thunder or Night to add an interesting backdrop of audio to your synth patches.
You can download Instrument from Kia’s website, completely free.
We’ve all dreamt of a solid gold-plated plate reverb, right? Black Rooster have brought that fantasy one step closer, with their free plugin Ro-Gold. This physically modelled effect promises to have the most luxurious reverb characteristics on the market today. While mechanical reverbs have historically been exclusively for those with the necessary space and resources, Black Rooster have sought to change that by making this plugin completely free and accessible to everyone.
You can download Ro-Gold from Black Rooster’s website, completely free of charge.