What better way to end the year on a website such as BPB than making a retrospective of all the best free VST plugins which were released in the past twelve months? Let’s take a look at 2013’s finest freeware instruments and effects and see if your VST plugin folder is missing out on something good!
Please note that this Top 20 list only includes plugins which were released in 2013. If you’re looking for an all-time list of free VST plugins, take a look at our freeware VST directory. It contains links to hundreds of fantastic freeware effects and instruments, sorted into different categories for easy browsing. We also have top lists of freeware VST plugins released in 2014 and 2015!
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It’s time for this year’s freeware VST plugin countdown! Enjoy reading and feel welcome to leave your opinion about the list in the comments section!
#20 Brzoza by Saltline (Windows)
I’ve decided to begin this year’s Top 20 list with Brzoza, an interesting freeware FM synthesizer plugin for Windows. The instrument was developed by Saltline, a company which was on quite a roll in 2013, releasing several pretty cool instruments and effects as part of their Drzewo free VST plugin series.
We don’t have too many freeware FM synthesizers around, and Brzoza is an interesting instrument to try if you’re in need of a polished tool for FM synthesis. It is a two operator monophonic FM synthesizer with three modulators per operator. It does lack polyphony, however it works great for creating classic FM bell sounds, as well as FM leads and basses. The synthesizer received a positive review in Beat Magazine #90, getting a highly respectable 5.5/6 rating. Take a look at our free FM synthesizer round-up for more freeware FM synths.
Don’t miss the rest of the Drzewo plugin series, either! If you’re looking for a freeware additive synthesizer, ADHDidi by Saltline is a great pick. Their CBW01 drum machine is also pretty neat (although it requires registration to the Music-Society forum).
Demo Video: http://youtu.be/o_pbNnDiOKQ
Download: Brzoza (32-bit VSTi plugin format for Windows)
#19 ULTRAkILLER by NOVAkILL (Windows)
Originally released as a gift for people who purchase their album, NOVAkILL has decided to re-release their ULTRAkILLER virtual hybrid synthesizer as a free instrument in October 2013.
The plugin is based on a mix between subtractive and additive synthesis. ULTRAkILLER features one standard waveform oscillator and one unison oscillator, but the real fun starts with the SPECTRAL generator which is basically a high quality additive oscillator.
The list of features is expanded with a built-in trance gate effect, 2 drive stages, and a cool 8-slot modulation matrix. The plugin is well designed and easy to use, packing a lot of horsepower in a compact package. It’s a great synthesizer for creating modern dance music leads and classic trance sounds.
Demo Video: http://youtu.be/Bv2YRSXN-OE
Download: ULTRAkILLER (32-bit VSTi plugin format for Windows)
#18 NadIR by Ignite Amps (Mac & Win)
NadIR is a freeware guitar cabinet IR loader plugin developed by Ignite Amps. Released in late 2013, it already has some pretty tough competition in the fantastic LeCab convolver effect by LePou.
NadIR is designed as a high quality guitar cabinet impulse response loader which will provide zero latency performance with a low CPU hit. Since the plugin works at zero latency, it is a great tool for live performances and tracking. The plugin also features analog modeled filters which sound great and can be used for quick and easy tone shaping. The same developer has also released TPA-1, a cool freeware tube amp VST plugin which is totally worth checking out.
Chances are you’ll need some good guitar cabinet impulse responses to go with this plugin. You can grab those in our guitar cabinet IR round-up article which sums up the best cabinet impulse responses which are currently available for free download.
Download: NadIR (32-bit & 64-bit VST/AU plugin for Windows & Mac)
#17 DuckEQ by HeelAudio (Mac)
The only Mac exclusive plugin on this list is DuckEQ by HeelAudio. This handy plugin is a dynamic equalizer with a sidechain input. It can be used for ducking specific frequency bands, as well as for standard ducking and dynamic equalization.
DuckEQ offers more control than a basic sidechain compressor, making it possible to achieve more transparent and natural sounding results. By ducking a specific frequency range, you can choose to only remove the clashing frequencies of two sounds without a noticeable amplitude drop.
Apart from DuckEQ, the same developer has also released a neat mix reference plugin called MixRef. I really hope to see their plugins ported to Windows one day! For now, the only freeware Windows alternative to DuckEQ is IQ4GUI by Platinumears.
UPDATE: As suggested in a comment posted by BPB reader Unruval, a closer Windows alternative to DuckEQ would actually be Equinox by Platinumears.
Download: DuckEQ (32-bit VST/AU plugin format for Mac)
#16 Tyrell N6 V3 by U-He (Mac & Win)
Whaaat?! Tyrell N6 on 16th place? Am I going loco? Nope! The third iteration of the magnificent Tyrell N6 synthesizer simply didn’t bring enough new features to be included higher on the list of this year’s highlights.
Even so, it’s still awesome enough to be included on the Top 20 list. The latest version of Tyrell N6 comes with a bigger (and great looking, btw!) GUI, around 20 bugfixes, 64-bit support for Mac users, as well as support for the up-and-coming VST 3 plugin format.
So, while the instrument itself is easily the best freeware virtual analogue synthesizer out there, the V3 update which was released in 2013 didn’t bring enough improvements to put it on top of this list. It still is an amazing piece of free software, though, which should be installed in everyone’s VST folder.
If you don’t have it already, got get it right away. If you’re using an older version, grab Tyrell N6 V3 from the link below and enjoy the new design and bigger layout. You might also want to grab the great looking free skin for Tyrell N6 V3 designed by Jazzigula.
Demo Video: http://youtu.be/IL_DZEj5CI4
Download: Tyrell N6 V3 (32-bit & 64-bit VSTi/AU plugin for Windows & Mac)
#15 EXD-80 by THS (Windows)
My favorite freeware drum synthesizer of 2013 is EXD-80, the premiere VSTi plugin released by Third Harmonic Studios. I’ve had a tough time choosing only one of the several cool virtual drum machines which were released this year, so I’ll name them all here. If you’re a drum machine fan, definitely check out DrumBurst X-824 by HG Fortune, VR-08 by ALIPAPA, Dream Drums Beta by Odo Synths, and CBW01 by Saltline. They’re all worth a look and it’s not impossible that you’ll prefer one of them compared to the one included in the list.
What made EXD-80 stand out from the crowd in my case is the fact that it’s capable of generating some pretty quirky and lo-fi sounds. I love layering a drum synthesizer sequence underneath the main drum loop and modulating several parameters to add interest and motion to the overall groove. The EXD-80 works great for that purpose, although it can also perform very well as the main drum instrument in a track.
This virtual analogue drum machine features 8 individual drum modules (kick, snare, open hats, closed hats, and five percussion sounds), paired up with 4 stereo outputs. Having multiple stereo outputs is a neat feature if you want to further process your drum sounds inside your DAW’s mixer channel. It supports VST host automation (quite an important feature in my case) and user definable MIDI mappings, which is a nice feature to have at your disposal when working with hardware controllers.
EXD-80 was the first ever and still the only release by Third Harmonic Studios. I hope to see them expand their product arsenal in 2014.
Demo Video: http://youtu.be/nlFXRRsM-UE
Download: EXD-80 (32-bit VSTi plugin format for Windows)
#14 sforzando by Plogue (Mac, Windows)
Without any bangs and whistles, the streamlined sforzando by Plogue deserves its place on this list as the first fully featured freeware sampler which was designed to work with the SFZ format. We have several good SFZ players in the freeware world, but sforzando is the only one which was designed specifically for use with this format. It’s also a great tool to use when developing your own SFZ instrument patches.
So, what’s the big deal about the SFZ format? In short, it’s a powerful and completely royalty free file format developed for use with sample libraries. Anyone can use it to create patches for a group of audio samples, and distribute the patch file completely free of charge. The format is very easy to learn and it’s well documented. Everything you need to learn this format is listed at the Cakewalk website.
With sforzando, you can develop your SFZ instrument patches inside a single program. Load up a SFZ patch and test it, then open the built-in text editor and fix any issues or bugs. Save the patch and test the results right away. The plugin also features a format converter, enabling the user to drop an SF2 or WAV file and have it instantly converted to the SFZ 2.0 format.
Demo Video: http://youtu.be/O62kISpCN9Y
Download: sforzando (32-bit & 64-bit VSTi/AU/RTAS plugin for Win & Mac)
#13 Dream 64 V2 by Odo (Windows)
After a long break, Dutch developer Odo Synths has finally returned to action this year with a great freeware release. His new Dream 64 V2 virtual synthesizer is easily one of the best freeware Commodore 64 VSTi plugins around. Based on the sound and functionality of the legendary SID chip, this unique virtual instrument is all you’ll ever need for creating those classic super fast old school arpeggios and blippy chiptune leads.
The heart and soul of Dream 64 V2 is the brilliant wavetable editor which was a big part of SID chip’s magic. The SID chip wavetable editor was used to create the signature Commodore 64 drum sound pioneered by Rob Hubbard.
Luckily for the non-tweakers among us, the instrument comes with a great library of factory presets covering all basic Commodore 64 video game sounds. If you’d like to create your own sounds using the wavetable editor, here’s a good place to start your journey.
Another great Commodore 64 synthesizer released this year is basic65 by de la Mancha. While not intended as a faithful copy of the original, it can produce some great chiptune sounds and comes with a lovely set of factory presets.
Audio Demo: http://soundcloud.com/odosynths/demo-dream-64
Download: Dream 64 V2 (32-bit VSTi plugin format for Windows)
#12 T-Force Alpha Plus by Mastrcode Music (Win)
Mastrcode Music has completed (at least for the time being) their T-Force series of trance inspired instruments and effects with the release of T-Force Alpha Plus virtual synthesizer for Windows.
A gift from heaven for trance music producers, the T-Force Alpha Plus provides all the tools one would need for creating classic trance leads, pads, and bass sequences. The instrument features subtractive and FM synthesis, 3 multi-wave oscillators, a neat 32-step trance gate, and a nice set of built-in effects including delay and bitcrusher. All of this in an easy to use interface with five separate control panels.
For more trance tools by the same developer, take a look at the T-Force Trance Gate and the T-Force Alpha TS virtual synthesizer. Another great freeware choice for trance music producers would be the TranceDrive virtual synthesizer with an additional set of presets provided by Maik Menz (who is also the developer behind this cool instrument).
Demo Video: http://youtu.be/Z1C64Ky5rso
Download: T-Force Alpha Plus (32-bit VSTi plugin format for Windows)
#11 SX36 by J1000 (Windows)
J1000 has developed a nifty collection of free mastering grade effects for Windows. His most notable release in 2013 was the SX36 freeware 3-band equalizer with M/S processing features.
This plugin is the perfect tool for controlling the stereo image of your audio tracks. Adjust the frequency crossover points according to your needs and use the M/S equalization technique to get a more defined and stable bass sound and better stereo spread in the higher frequency ranges. Due to its great set of features and easy workflow, SX36 is also included in our list of free mastering VST plugins.
If you’re on a lookout for classic equalizers, grab the PQ33 parametric EQ and the QX24 parametric equalizer which also acts as an exciter. Another great choice would be the MQ57 parametric mastering equalizer.
Demo Video: http://youtu.be/OuYpj7LX7LE
Download: SX36 (32-bit VST plugin format for Windows)
#10 Venom VB-303 by antto (Windows)
The middle position belongs to the most controversial freeware plugin on the list. After years of development and months of beta testing, the long awaited Venom VB-303 by antto was finally released in April this year. Praised for its fantastic sound and blamed for the archaic workflow faithful to the original instrument, this is without question the best freeware Roland TB-303 emulation in existence. The instrument is a must-have for all acid fans.
When it comes to sound, Venom VB-303 comes incredibly close to its legendary hardware counterpart. Here’s an audio comparison of the two instruments. You’ll have to admit that it’s hard to notice a significant sonic difference between the two.
The problem lies within the fact that Venom also copies the workflow of the TB-303, making it a hard bargain for inexperienced users. Still, we don’t see such detailed emulations of hardware instruments in the freeware world very often (SQ8L comes to mind, among the very few) and that is why Venom VB-303 gets the well deserved 10th place on this list.
Take your time to learn the controls and you’ll soon have a fantastic acid bassline machine in your instrument arsenal. The tutorial video linked below is a good place to start!
Video Tutorial: http://youtu.be/ZDipw_F-VD8
Download: Venom VB-303 (32-bit VSTi plugin format for Windows)
#9 Lisp by Sleepy-Time DSP (Windows)
Sleepy-Time DSP has released several simple yet incredibly useful freeware plugins in 2012, quickly gaining the reputation of a very talented and responsive developer. His only release in 2013 was Lisp, a superb freeware de-esser which instantly became my go-to freeware tool for cleaning up sibilant noises in vocal tracks.
What makes this free de-esser stand out from the crowd is the fact that it uses a somewhat different approach to tame those pesky ear piercing sounds. Lisp uses quick frequency detection paired up with a transient detection algorithm to quickly identify sibilant noises and reduce their amplitude. The effect is already pre-tuned to the human vocal range, so less time is needed to tweak the plugin to optimal settings. The processed vocal tracks sound natural and free of the drowned upon lithp effect (which is often the result of pushing a de-esser too hard).
To make things even better, Lisp is greatly optimized to reduce the CPU load thus allowing many instances per project without affecting the overall performance. It is also possible to work in M/S mode, as well as to process individual stereo channels. If you like Lisp, take a look at the free STR Legacy Bundle by the same developer. You’ll find a wonderful selection of freebie tools for your software studio.
Demo Video: http://youtu.be/fYUkuIy9-xo
Download: Lisp (32-bit & 64-bit VST plugin format for Windows)
#8 Luftikus by lkjb (Mac, Windows)
Developer lkjb has returned to the scene in 2013 with the release of Luftikus, a freeware analogue style equalizer for Windows and Mac. The plugin was well accepted on audio forums such as KVR Audio and Gearslutz and was often described as a pretty decent freeware alternative to the Maag EQ4 by Maag Audio.
Luftikus is a great sounding 6-band parametric equalizer. The secret is in the 6th band labeled High Boost and often regarded to as Air Band on similar equalizers. This frequency band can be set from 2500 Hz all the way up to 40 kHz and be used to add sparkle and shine to your mixes. Some time after the initial release, Luftikus was updated with a great looking GUI provided by one of the users.
The same developer has also released PitchedDelay, a neat freeware delay effect with pitch shifting. It was released as an entry in the KVR DC12 developer contest, reaching the 23rd place on the list.
Demo Video: http://youtu.be/59iqDE5PWE4
Download: Luftikus (32-bit & 64-bit VST/AU plugin for Windows & Mac)
#7 Aalto Solo by Madrona Labs (Mac, Windows)
Here’s one for all modular synthesizer aficionados out there! The Aalto Solo is a fantastic semi-modular synthesizer by Madrona Labs, released as freeware in January 2013. It is basically a monophonic version of the acclaimed Aalto virtual instrument.
It was released as a Facebook exclusive freebie at first (along with Einklang LE by Eisenberg), but it is now available as a free download for everyone on Beat Drive. You’ll need to register for an account at Beat Drive, but the process is easy and completely free.
It’s easy to spend hours upon hours experimenting with this awesome freeware synthesizer. You’ll have loads of fun exploring all the possibilities and come up with some intriguing sounds in the process. Get Aalto Solo right away if you’re a modular synth fan and get ready to find yourself lost in the magical world of intoxicating patches and endless flows of modulation sources. Wait… what? I’ve obviously spent too much time playing around with this thing.
Demo Video: http://youtu.be/Nlt98IdOh1c
Download: Aalto Solo (32-bit & 64-bit VSTi/AUi plugin for Windows & Mac)
#6 Supercharger by Native Instruments (Mac,Win)
The only non-freeware plugin on this list is Supercharger by Native Instruments. It isn’t freeware, but you can still get it for free until December 31st, 2013!
This place also belongs to several other fantastic plugins which were free for a limited time this year, including Renaissance Bass by Waves, Single Mault SE by FXpansion, and Mono Bass by Boz Digital Labs. Actually, you can still get Mono Bass for free if you hurry up!
Supercharger is a great sounding compressor with a simple one knob workflow. The algorithm adapts the attack and release times of the compressor to the characteristics of the audio signal on the input, making it super easy to find the compression sweet spot. The plugin also features a handy Mix parameter for easy NY style compression and a nice Drive mode for added saturation. It works great on the drum bus, but it can also be used on bass tracks and other sound sources.
Once the promo period ends, the regular price of $49 will become active. Hurry up and get this brilliant compressor for FREE while you can!
Demo Video: http://youtu.be/AveqJ0_nd4s
Download: Supercharger (32-bit & 64-bit VST/AU plugin for Windows & Mac)
#5 sixtyfive by de la Mancha (Windows)
After the unfortunate crash of his website last year, de la Mancha has surprised everyone with some great freebie re-releases in 2013! One of his formerly commercial plugins which are now re-released as freeware is the brilliant sixtyfive compressor inspired by the famous dbx 165A hardware unit.
According to this audio test by RHYTHMINMIND, the sixtyfive compressor comes amazingly close to its hardware counterpart. This freeware RMS compressor is a great choice for subtle use on your master bus, as well as for adding glue to drums and other percussive elements of your mix.
I’ve had a hard time choosing between all the great freebies de la Mancha has released this year, so I’ll list them all here. You should definitely check out the basic65 synthesizer inspired by the SID chip, the truc2 multi-effect plugin, the PULS chiptune synthesizer, the amazing dirty harry lo-fi synthesizer, as well as the juicy GTA compressor!
Download: sixtyfive (32-bit VST plugin format for Windows)
#4 IVGI by Klanghelm (Mac, Windows)
At the time of releasing the commercial SDRR saturation effect, Klanghelm has also released the freeware IVGI saturation tool which is based on the same set of algorithms. It is a compact tool with simple controls and a great sound.
The plugin is designed as a soft saturation device, suitable for use on individual audio channels, as well as on the stereo bus. It features 4 parameters which can be used to alter the character and transparency of the applied saturation. You can either go for mild saturation, or push the effect into overdrive zone. IVGI is also included in our free mastering effects round-up.
Speaking of Klanghelm, you can enter our Christmas Giveaway 2013 for a chance to win their magnificent DC8C compressor effect. I would also recommend its little brother DC1A which is one of my go-to compressors for vocals. This brilliant little compressor is used in every single one of my projects.
Demo Video: http://youtu.be/8kYYBfFtm_E
Download: IVGI (32-bit & 64-bit VST/AU/RTAS plugin for Windows & Mac)
#3 FireBird 2 by Tone2 (Windows)
The highest ranking freeware virtual synthesizer this year is FireBird 2 by Tone2 Software. This highly acclaimed commercial virtual instrument went full freeware in 2013 and instantly earned its place as one of the best freeware synthesizers in the world.
Tone2 Software has decided to re-release FireBird 2 as a freeware product after 7 years on the market. Some new instruments have taken its place in the Tone2 Software product line (the brilliant Saurus in particular), however FireBird 2 still has a huge amount of synthesis horsepower to offer. As opposed to similar VA synthesizers in the freeware realm, the instrument is based on Harmonic Content Morphing synthesis which defines its sound properties and workflow.
This unique virtual synthesizer features 84 oscillator types containing 18,000 morphable waveforms and an array of 38 different filter types. To get you started, a great collection of 437 factory presets is included. The plugin also features 21 arpeggiator types and 13 built-in effects.
You can get Tone2 Software’s magnificent Nemesis virtual synthesizer for free in our Christmas Giveaway 2013. It’s a user friendly FM synthesizer based on an innovative approach to FM synthesis.
Demo Video: http://youtu.be/MO_sjF7RX7w
Download: FireBird 2 (32-bit VSTi plugin format for Windows)
#2 Feedback Compressor II by TDR (Mac, Win)
Building upon the foundation set by its critically acclaimed predecessor, Tokyo Dawn Labs has released the final version of TDR Feedback Compressor II in April 2013. The plugin went through a long Beta stage in 2013 and ended up as one of the best mastering compressors in the freeware scene.
In simple terms, TDR Feedback Compressor II analyzes the audio signal at the output stage, rather than on the input. This approach (also known as feed-back compression) results in a highly transparent sound, suitable both for mixing and mastering tasks. The updated version of the plugin introduces new and improved compression algorithms and a completely revamped control scheme. Read a detailed review of TDR Feedback Compressor II at Lean Audio.
Tokyo Dawn Labs has released another great freeware mixing tool called Proximity. It was developed in tandem with VladG Sound who is the developer behind Molot, one of my favorite freeware compressors.
Demo Video: http://youtu.be/AdVejqwn704
Download: Feedback Compressor II (32-bit & 64-bit VST/AU plugin for Windows & Mac)
#1 ThrillseekerVBL By VOS (Windows)
The title of the best freeware plugin released in 2013 as chosen by BPB goes to the amazing ThrillseekerVBL by Variety Of Sound. It is the latest release in the brilliant Thrillseeker series of freeware effects for Windows.
This broadcast limiter type of effect uses the Stateful Saturation algorithms developed by Variety Of Sound to provide authentic analogue sound in a digital environment. ThrillseekerVBL works fantastic for gentle leveling and can add depth and warmth to a variety of sound sources. A detailed review of the plugin is available at Modern Mixing.
I often use it on bass and drum tracks, but it can also work well for leveling vocals and other kinds of sounds. Use it to add character and make your sounds stand out in the mix.
Bootsie went a bit silent during the past couple of months. Too silent for my taste! I sincerely hope that he’s preparing some nice freeware surprises for us in 2014. In the meanwhile, I’ll enjoy mixing my tunes using the rest of his brilliant Thrillseeker series and all the great freeware released so far by Variety Of Sound.
Demo Video: http://youtu.be/5anSimIe7d0
Download: ThrillseekerVBL (32-bit VST plugin format for Windows)
Needless to say, these weren’t the only notable freeware VST plugins released in 2013. Some brilliant developers have released a variety of very cool freeware tools and I will list them all below, in no particular order. Kudos to all!
German developer WOK has released several very useful freebies in the so called One Trick Pony series. These plugins were designed to perform a single task with maximum simplicity. Take a look at the Tapebrake tape stop effect, Emonizer micro-pitch shifter, Instaback audio reverse effect, and the nifty REFO-D reverse delay.
Legendary xoxos remained active in 2013 with the release of Stoooner, a peculiar percussion sample mangler for Windows. You should also take a look at his commercial Bong drum synthesizer. It’s a great instrument based on the Roland TR-909 sound.
HG Fortune has generously re-released a large number of his previously commercial synthesizers as freeware in 2013, as part of the Nearly Forgotten Gems series. My favorite ones are Alien Space Weaver Pro and AlioNoctis, but you should definitely check out the rest of the NFG series if you’re looking for cool atmospheric synthesizers.
Several pretty useful guitar effects were released by AXP who stepped on the scene in early 2013. His CharBooster effect is pretty neat, as well as the SoftDrive GV distortion effect based on the Guv’nor pedal by Marshall.
More guitar goodies came from TSE Audio, who has released the TSE X50 virtual guitar amp based on the Peavey 5150+ amplifier. It works fantastic for getting high gain guitar sounds. Great stuff! I’m also a big fan of his TSE B.O.D bass guitar pedal which was updated to v2.0 in late 2012.
The updated Zampler RX by Beat Magazine (developed by Synapse Audio) is a great freeware instrument which supports the SFZ format. There are numerous sample libraries available for free download on the official website, including Commodore 64 Synthesizer Sessions DELUXE by BPB and Rhythmic Robot.
Chokehold entered the development scene in 2013 with several useful sample based instruments. My favorite one is the Tiny Metal Impact percussion instrument. Another cool one is the Les Paul Custom SG guitar instrument featuring samples provided by Kriminal.
Rating other people’s hard work is never easy. I’ve tried to be as fair as possible, but in the end, the plugins on this list are ranked according to my own preferences. My favorite plugin could easily be your #10 and vice versa. We all have different tastes!
Do you agree with this list? Have I missed any great freeware release from 2013? I’d love to see your suggestions in the comments section. Posting your own Top 20 list in the comments is more than welcome!
Once again, thank you all for visiting BPB and contributing to this blog. I hope we’ll all enjoy more great freeware releases by the generous and talented developers in 2014 and use them to make some fantastic music.
In the meanwhile, please share this article on your favorite forums and social networks and help BPB reach more people. Spread the news! Thank you all so much and see you again in 2014!