BPB proudly presents the best free VST plugins released this year. The list below covers virtual instruments and effects that are compatible with major plugin platforms (VST/AU/RTAS/AAX) on Windows, Mac OS, and Linux.
Compared to our previous lists from 2015, 2014, and 2013, we’re noticing a much larger number of Mac-compatible plugins, as well as the dominance of 64-bit platforms. Not a single plugin on this year’s list is limited to 32-bit operating systems. Please note that this only includes the VST plugins released in 2016. For a larger selection of virtual instruments and effects, visit our main VST plugin directory.
In addition to the 25 main entries listed below, you’ll find a bonus section dedicated to guitar amp modeling plugins. Also keep an eye on the various additional recommended plugins that are mentioned throughout the text, as well as the honorable mentions that are featured underneath each section. Feel free to share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section. Let us know which VST plugins were your personal favorites this year.
Most importantly, don’t take the order in which the plugins are presented too seriously. This article is meant to provide an overview of the highest quality freeware VST plugins released this year, rather than comparing them to one another and determining which one is “better”. Enjoy using these fantastic audio tools and be sure to make some epic new music in 2017!
- Synister (VST/AU)
- Cobalt (VST)
- Sinnah (VST/AU)
- the qyooo (VST)
- Grooove BPB (VST/AU)
- Digits 2 (VST/AU)
- Orion Sound Module (VST/AU)
- HY-Mono (VST/AU)
- Ample Bass P Lite II (VST/AU/AAX/RTAS)
- RePro-Alpha (VST/VST3/AU)
- Honorable Mentions – Instruments
- Krush (VST/AU)
- Track Control (VST/VST3/AU/AAX/RTAS)
- PTEq-X (VST/AU)
- Spaceship Delay (VST/AU/AAX)
- Lagrange (VST/VST3)
- HY-Filter 2 (VST/AU)
- OrilRiver (VST)
- Brandulator (VST)
- Filterjam (VST/AU/AAX)
- Panagement Free Edition (VST/AU)
- Honorable Mentions – Effects
- SpectrumAnalyzer Free (VST/VST3/AU/AAX)
- Youlean Loudness Meter (VST/VST3/AU)
- Oscarizor (VST/VST3/AU)
- MOscilloscope (VST/AU/AAX)
- Contra Free (VST/VST3/AU/AAX)
- Honorable Mentions – Utilities
Use the menu above to jump to different sections of the article. More info about each plugin available below. Enjoy!
Free VST Instruments
If you’re a synth head, chances are you’ll find something cool for your plugin collection in the list below. 2016 brought us a number of quality freeware synthesizers, including a couple of 80s-inspired synths and a decent selection of virtual analogs. There’s only a single freeware sampler on this year’s list, though, but it’s easily one of the best free drum samplers around.
Call me old fashioned, but subtractive synthesizers are still my favorite kind of noisemaker. Sure, FM synths are great, wavetable synths are all the rage nowadays, yet something about the simple combination of basic waveforms, filters, and modulation keeps me coming back to the plain old virtual analog synthesizer time and time again. That is one of the main reasons why a lovely VA synth called Synister caught my attention earlier this year, although certainly not the only one.
Synister comes with a respectable set of features. It has three oscillators, two filters, three envelopes, three LFOs, four built-in effects, and a genius step sequencer. The modulation architecture is brilliant, with the majority of sound engine parameters having modulation source and amount assignment controls right next to them. The feature that steals the show, though, is the built-in 8-step sequencer which is one of the most user-friendly implementations of a sequencer I’ve ever seen in a synth. Apart from the standard step speed and length controls, it also features a sequence generator, a real-time sequence randomizer (that spits out a chaotic, randomly evolving sequence as you go), and a handy preset manager for saving and recalling your favorite sequences.
And that’s not all. Synister is a side project by a group of Technische Universität Berlin students, so it gets bonus points for introducing new developers to the VST plugin scene. It is both PC and Mac compatible, with an unofficial Linux version available for free download via LinuxMusicians. It is also an open source project, with the source code freely available on GitHub.
Still, Synister is not a perfect virtual instrument. The tabbed user interface is probably its biggest flaw and a hindrance to the otherwise perfect modulation system. The routing is another aspect that could be improved. More versatility in this regard would be a very welcome improvement for a future version of Synister, given the number of available modules on offer. Finally, the CPU usage is somewhat higher than I’d like to see in a subtractive synthesizer. But the potential to become one of the best freeware synths on the market is there. And being an open source project, I’m hoping that Synister will be maintained and further improved in the future. Most importantly, Synister’s ranking on this year’s list of freeware VST instruments is also our way of supporting these young developers and encouraging them to keep doing what they’re doing!
More info: Synister (32-bit & 64-bit VST/AU plugin format for Windows, Mac OS, Linux)
“Don’t call it a comeback,” as LL Cool J would say, because Cobalt has been here for years. But it was re-introduced back to the scene with two significant upgrades this year. Firstly, the price was reduced from $35 to free (as in free VST). Secondly, compatibility with 64-bit DAWs on Windows was added to the feature list. And that’s not all, as the user interface has also received a facelift to ensure better compatibility with modern high-resolution screens.
If you’re a fan of the digital hybrid synthesizers of the 80’s, Cobalt will knock you out with its impressive set of 26 custom-made oscillator waveforms that replicate the ones found in hardware synthesizers of the era (such as the Ensoniq ESQ-1 and Korg DW series). Pairing these purely digital waveforms with a set of analog modeled filters, Cobalt successfully evokes the nostalgic sound of 80s hybrid synths. The instrument’s sonic vibe is digital in the best way possible, oozing with a particular sort of warmth that is hard to come by in modern digital synthesizers. Also worth mentioning is that each of the 26 available waveforms supports PWM, adding a lot of potential for creating rich and exciting timbres.
Cobalt was Leslie Sanford’s only re-release in 2016, following 2015’s re-introduction of Sanford Delay, Sanford Reverb, and Bass Tightener after a long break. Here’s hoping we’ll see more stuff from Leslie in 2017!
More info: Cobalt (32-bit & 64-bit VST plugin format for Windows)
Taking third place on this year’s list of virtual instruments is Sinnah, a subtractive synthesizer for the musical experimentalists and sound designers among us. Sinnah’s entire oscillator section comprises a single complex oscillator that can generate all sorts of unusual noises and otherworldly timbres. The antialiased oscillator features five waveshapes, each with adjustable noise and harmonic levels. The oscillator’s output is passed through a delay matrix and then sent to a multi-mode filter that is followed by a built-in reverb effect. The delay matrix works tremendously well for creating evolving sounds and drones, whereas the reverb helps to round them up a bit and add a sense of width to the resulting patch.
Sinnah is a synthesizer that is very fun to program, partially thanks to the well-designed user interface that looks clean and well organized. The GUI is also fully vectorized and therefore resizable. To help you get started with Sinnah, sound designer Julian Ray has provided a set of 50 premium quality patches that can be downloaded completely free of charge from the product page linked below.
Also worth mentioning is Noisetar, NUSofting’s entry in KVR Developer Challenge 2016. It is a noise-based virtual instrument that is designed primarily for creating sound effects and background sounds, although it can also be used for recreating the sound of certain wind instruments and even some types of percussion.
More info: Sinnah (32-bit & 64-bit VST/AU plugin format for Windows & Mac OS)
Another KVR DC 2016 entry on the list, the qyooo by Full Bucket Music is a relatively complex subtractive synthesizer featuring an impressive Scene Morphing section that is intended for modulating its three zero-delay feedback filters. The user can input four different states for the three available filters (these are labeled as scenes A, B, C, and D). The four scenes can then be morphed, either manually or via the qyooo’s modulation sources, using the XY pad located in the Scene Morphing module. The synth also offers a large number of possible routings for the filter section, including multiple parallel and semi-serial modes.
The oscillator section is equally impressive with its three oscillators, each with pulse width modulation, dual frequency modulation, and ring modulation capabilities. A noise generator is also included, along with a rich sounding chorus effect.
The qyooo’s biggest drawback at the moment is the lack of available presets. Being a synthesizer that is somewhat harder to program due to its elaborate feature set, having a larger number of included patches would provide a much better starting point for new users. The developer is working on creating new presets that will be contained in an updated version of the plugin, though. A couple of unofficial user-made preset banks and skins are already available for free download via KVR Audio.
More info: the qyooo (32-bit & 64-bit VST plugin format for Windows)
The only sampler instrument on this year’s list is Grooove BPB, a drum sampler developed by Bruns And Spork and proudly released by Bedroom Producers Blog. Based on the commercial edition of Grooove, it features dual drum pads which can hold up to two samples at the same time. These come with per-sample controls for pitch, volume, pan, and start/end times.
The coolest feature, though, is the pad modulation section which makes it easy to modulate parameters like pitch, filter cutoff, or sample start time via note velocity or one of the built-in LFOs. Modulating multiple parameters simultaneously using note velocity can make sampled drums feel almost like a real-life instrument that responds to your playing intensity.
The instrument can also work in standalone mode, in which case it can also playback MIDI files (in case you want to load a sequenced drum loop). Finally, Grooove BPB can export your customized drum kits (along with the samples) and save them for later use.
And here’s a quick reminder about BPB Cassette Drums, a freeware bundle of three miniature drum romplers crafted by Crimson Merry, featuring the sounds of classic Roland Drum Machines. These are also available for free download from our website, along with the sample packs that they’re based on.
More info: Grooove BPB (32-bit & 64-bit VST/AU plugin format for Windows & Mac OS)
If Cobalt caught your interest, make sure to check out the Digits 2 synthesizer as well, as it is another terrific source of 80s synth nostalgia. Inspired by the CZ series of hardware synthesizers manufactured by Casio, Digits 2 brings phase distortion synthesis to the masses in the form of a freeware virtual instrument for PC and Mac. This synth can do anything from FM-like bass sounds to punchy percussion and lush pads (just add a fair bit of reverb on top), as you can hear in the One Synth Challenge entries that used nothing but Digits 2 as the sound source. It is a joy to use, very easy to program, and certainly a great first step for users who would like to start experimenting with other forms of synthesis after growing tired of the old virtual analogs.
Unfortunately, the synthesizer
only supports 32-bit VST plugin hosts on Windows (UPDATE: A 64-bit version for Windows is now also available!). However, it is compatible with both 32-bit and 64-bit DAWs on Mac OS and Linux.
Also worth mentioning is Extent of the Jam’s entry in this year’s KVR Developer Challenge, a virtual drum machine called Slam. It models the analog drum machines of yesteryear and works very well in tandem with virtual synthesizers like Digits 2 and Cobalt.
More info: Digits 2 (32-bit & 64-bit VST/AU plugin format for Windows, Mac OS, Linux)
Orion Sound Module is a virtual sound module featuring 3 GB worth of sample content and a total of 97 instrument patches. What’s really interesting, though, is that all included sample content was gathered from a variety of public domain sources. How cool is that?
Being that the instrument uses public domain samples, it’s only fair to assume that the sound quality is not on a very high level. Chances are you’ll be positively surprised by how good Orion sounds, though. And for the price of $0, it’s an obvious must-have for users who are in the process of building their virtual studio from scratch. This virtual sound module packs a very decent collection of samples, covering most of the basic acoustic instruments, orchestral instruments, and even a range of percussion.
Another similar plugin that is worth considering is Serpo by JD TECH, one of the entries in KVR DC 2016. It comes with a smaller set of patches, but covers some of the sounds that can’t be found in Orion Sound Module.
Orion Sound Module and Serpo are both Maize Sampler based plugins, meaning that they feature simple user interfaces with a limited range of controls for altering the included sounds. All the major plugin platforms are supported, though, meaning that both PC and Mac users will be able to add these two capable virtual instruments to their arsenal.
More info: Orion Sound Module (32-bit & 64-bit VST/AU plugin format for Windows & Mac OS)
Tadashi Suginomori of HY-Plugins was, undeniably, the most active freeware plugin developer of 2016. Among the ten (!) freeware plugins he released over the past twelve months, the only virtual instrument is HY-Mono, a monophonic virtual synthesizer for Windows. Regarding functionality and overall sound, HY-Mono closely resembles the Oberheim SEM hardware synthesizer. It shares the same dual-oscillator architecture, two ADS envelopes, a single LFO, and even a very similar color scheme.
Speaking of color scheme, HY-Mono’s interface design caused a fair bit of debate among its user base, as the total numbers of people who love it and those who absolutely hate it are almost equal. I find the GUI to be decent looking (although not necessarily beautiful) and the fact that it is fully resizable is a big plus.
The most important thing, of course, is the sound quality. HY-Mono does admirably in that department, particularly for delivering wonderfully fat bass sounds and juicy resonant leads. Usability is also one of HY-Mono’s strong points, as the interface is clear and easy to grasp. Using a monophonic synthesizer in 2016 (especially a virtual one) might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but less is often more in music (and in many other aspects of life, for that matter). For monophonic parts of your projects, especially analog style basslines, HY-Mono is a synth that is well worth having in your toolbox.
More info: HY-Mono (32-bit & 64-bit VST/AU plugin format for Windows & Mac OS)
Ample Bass P Lite II is the second sampled instrument on this list, and it made the cut with good reason. It stands out as a high-quality, reliable virtual bass that is based on the sounds of a 4-string Fender Precision Bass. The included bass guitar samples themselves sound great. They’re clear, raw, and ready for your custom processing. Ample Bass P Lite II also features a set of tonal controls on the front panel, as well as a built-in sequencer for your bass parts.
Although a decent range of dramatic bass slide sounds is included, I find myself missing the subtle sliding between notes that a real player would incorporate into the phrasing of the bass part. However for most applications, especially for rock and pop, the free version of this plugin will serve you quite well. The free version has a few limitations, but it is still very usable. These limitations include a lower sample count, fewer round robin samples, and a limited note range.
Everyone needs a decent bass guitar plugin at some point, and Ample Bass P Lite II is exactly that. Not a breathtakingly innovative plugin by any means, this lightweight virtual instrument by Ample Sound is just your bread and butter virtual bass guitar with a decent sound and all the necessary features. And I like that.
More info: Ample Bass P Lite II (32-bit & 64-bit VST/AU/AAX/RTAS plugin format for Windows & Mac OS)
RePro-Alpha is a unique synthesizer for several reasons, both good and bad. Let’s start with the bad. Firstly, it is an unfinished (alpha) version of a commercial synthesizer; Merely just the first step in U-He’s effort to recreate the Sequential Circuits Pro-One synthesizer in virtual form. Secondly, it is an extremely CPU hungry virtual instrument (and intentionally so, more info available here) that will consume around 20% of available resources per instance even on high-end computers.
On the other hand, this synthesizer sounds incredibly good. Seriously, if you’re looking for a synthesizer that sounds as close to analog as possible while being free to download and use, this is the one to try. When a simple pair of detuned saw waves passed through a low pass filter already gives your a rounded, punchy bass sound, you know that the synth is a serious deal.
It goes without saying, RePro-Alpha won’t fit any conventional music making workflow as it will bring most DAWs to a halt. But for those of us who don’t mind bouncing tracks and resampling virtual synthesizers to reduce the CPU hit, RePro-Alpha is a freeware synth like no other. I’ve had a long internal debate with myself on the topic of whether or not RePro-Alpha should be included on this list. No matter how good it sounds, it’s still an alpha version of a commercial plugin. The CPU usage is through the roof, and the synth will probably never be updated. But it was one of the most exciting plugin releases for me this year, partly because I was there during the initial presentation at Superbooth in Berlin, and partly because the instrument is based on the interesting idea of asking the users to vote for their favorite filter model.
I still hope that we might see a future update to RePro-Alpha at some point, one that will at least reduce the CPU usage by making the filter modes not run at the same time. Looks highly unlikely at the moment but hey, “Rebellions are built on hope.”
More info: RePro-Alpha (32-bit & 64-bit VST/VST3/AU plugin format for Windows & Mac OS)
Lord Of The Springs almost made this year’s Top 25, but I had to make the cut somewhere. This is a wonderful sounding physical modeling synthesizer that will fill your studio with lush tones generated by the 641 active spring systems.
IVOR2 is a freeware microtonal synthesizer developed by Xen-Arts. Compared to the previous version of the plugin, IVOR2 comes with a vastly improved user interface and the brand new modulation source generator which is used for creating more complex timbres.
Nocturna by Electric Cafe is another great virtual instrument released this year. It is a versatile wavetable synthesizer that is, unfortunately, only compatible with 32-bit VST plugin hosts on Windows.
Sweetcase is a sample-based electric piano VST plugin, released as a free download back in May this year by Noiseash. Despite being a very simple instrument on the inside, it delivers sweet and warm sounding electric piano tones that are worth having in your instrument arsenal.
OB-Xd, one of our top picks back in 2014, was adopted for further development by discoDSP. It’s great to see that this great (even though still unfinished) freeware synthesizer has a bright future ahead.
Free VST Effects
When it comes to freeware effects, 2016 was the year of delays, apparently. We have two excellent delay VST plugins on the list, and another one included as an honorary mention. Plenty of quality reverb effects were released as well, although only one ranked in our Top 25 list. The thing that blew us away, though, was the impressive effort by HY-Plugins, who released nine amazing freeware VST effects this year.
Apart from ranking as the #1 effect in this year’s roundup, it’s safe to say that Krush also takes the title of the best freeware bitcrusher plugin on the market. Released back in March this year, Tritik’s first venture into the world of freeware VST plugins (and hopefully not their last one) took everyone by surprise with its polished user interface and impressive feature set. It was set to be picked as the best free effect released this year from day one.
More than just a bitcrusher, Krush is a versatile distortion tool with more advanced controls than most other similar plugins on the market on the market. Apart from the basics such as downsampling, bitcrushing, and distortion, it also features a resonant low-pass filter module. All of these parameters can be modulated by an LFO with a choice of four waveforms (one of which is white noise). The LFO can run in sync with the host tempo, or in free mode. The modulation range is instantly visualized on each modulated parameter, ensuring that the user doesn’t lose track of what’s going on underneath the hood. With such a straightforward and well-implemented modulation scheme, Krush can be very useful for creating rhythmic distortion effects or modulated filtering effects which follow the project’s tempo.
The plugin also has a Dry/Wet control that lets the user dial in the exact amount of the effect that is needed, making parallel processing easy to pull off within a single instance. When test-driving Krush, you may want to start experimenting with one of the 25 included presets so that you can get a feel for the power and flexibility of this bitcrusher, clipper, and distortion tool.
More info: Krush (32-bit & 64-bit VST/AU plugin format for Windows & Mac OS)
TrackControl, introduced by DMG Audio in December this year, is an all-in-one channel strip plugin that has the potential to save you some time and some headaches as well. It provides the most useful mixing utilities in a single, easily accessible interface. These, of course, include what one would normally expect to find in a channel strip such as trim, gain, and a high-pass filter. However, TrackControl also provides M/S conversion, phase inversion (per channel), stereo width control, and channel delay adjustments (both forward and backward).
These features open up some exciting creative possibilities, such as using TrackControl at the end of your effects chain as a stereo imager. It can also be used for artificial double tracking, by slightly delaying the duplicate tracks. Channel Strips like this can also be used as the first insert of your channel to automate the gain for leveling the source material before it hits the compression stage. It’s a handy little plugin that ticks all the right boxes and that you may find yourself going back to again and again.
More info: Track Control (32-bit & 64-bit VST/VST3/AU/AAX/RTAS plugin format for Windows & Mac OS)
Based off of the legendary Pultec Equalizers, Ignite Amps released a freeware plug-in equalizer which boasts the authentic Pultec sound paired with a lightweight CPU load. For those unfamiliar, the classic Pultec EQ consisted primarily of two different units: one for the highest and lowest frequencies and another unit for the mid-range frequencies. PTEq-X emulates both of these units (named the EQP-1A and the MEQ-5). Once the target frequency is selected, the user can either “boost” or “attenuate” it. Since there is a separate knob for each function, one could boost AND attenuate the same frequency at the same time, a trick that is often used for improving the focus in the bass region.
PTEq-X has a very similar layout to the original Pultec EQs, but it combines both units into a single interface, potentially improving the workflow. It also includes an added emulation of a filter called the HL3C Filter, expanding the possibilities of the original hardware. We’ve been somewhat spoiled by the quality of Ignite Amps’ previous releases, and PTEq-X continues that trend by being the finest freeware Pultec emulation on the market.
More info: PTEq-X (32-bit & 64-bit VST/AU plugin format for Windows & Mac OS)
Spaceship Delay and Lagrange (the next entry on the list) were neck and neck in KVR Developer Challenge 2016, Lagrange taking second place with Spaceship Delay right behind it. So we’re switching things up in our best-of-2016 list because Lagrange has BPB branding on its user interface, making this ranking shift, in a way, the gentlemanly thing to do. Both plugins are fantastic delay units nonetheless and saying which one is “better” is entirely up to one’s personal preference, really (as is the case with most other entries on this list, to be fair).
The delay made by Musical Entropy models the filters found in Korg’s MS-20 synthesizer and MeeBlip’s Anode and Triode synths. It also models the spring reverb found in the Dynacord Echocord Super 76 tape delay. These models are combined with additional features such as a built-in tube preamp, a phaser, a bitcrusher, a freeze switch, and an array of modulation options. The result is one of the craziest sounding and most versatile delay effects on the freeware market. It is obviously inspired by the Korg Monotron Delay, but it brings a lot more options to the (virtual) table.
More info: Spaceship Delay (32-bit & 64-bit VST/AU/AAX plugin format for Windows & Mac OS)
Lagrange is the second delay reverb on the list, equally fun to use and versatile as Space Delay, although based on a set of completely different algorithms. Essentially, Lagrange is a granular delay effect with a twist. To quote Bryan Lake who did an excellent review of Lagrange on our website:
“Lagrange is a highly sophisticated stereo delay that uses granular methods – but don’t be mislead by that terminology! This plugin is not a “grain delay” that will loop a set point in the delay buffer. Instead, the audio stream within the delay buffer is processed in very much the same way that a granular sampler engine would cherry pick “grains” (i.e. small bits of audio) within the sample and then play them back in accordance with a control signal of some kind.”
In Lagrange, this process is happening in real-time, resulting in an organic sounding and wonderfully unpredictable delay. Being the first-of-its-kind type of effect, Lagrange demands a fair bit of experimentation with the different controls and algorithms at hand for a new user to fully comprehend how the thing works. But once you’re in the driver’s seat, Ursa DSP’s superb granular delay effect becomes a sound designer’s dream come true.
More info: Lagrange (32-bit & 64-bit VST/VS3 plugin format for Windows)
I usually tend to include one plugin per developer in these round-ups. The problem is, Mr. Tadashi Suginomori has released so many plugins this year that I simply had to make an exception this time.
Of all the great HY-Plugins releases we saw this year, the one that totally blew me away was HY-Filter 2 Free. Even though it features only a fraction of the features available in the full version of the product, it is still versatile enough to cover a broad range of filtering tasks. From its resonant state-variable filter to the crazy comb and formant filters, and even a telephone filter, HY-Filter 2 will surely become one of the go-to mixing tools for many producers.
All of the signature HY-Plugins features are included as well, so expect to find a fully resizable user interface, a preset manager, a patch randomizer, a real-time waveform display, and even a built-in clipper effect, followed by a brickwall limiter. If I were to take a single filter to a desert island, HY-Filter 2 would be the clear #1 pick for me (a water filter would probably a far better option in this unlikely scenario, but us electronic musicians are weird like that).
More info: HY-Filter2 (32-bit & 64-bit VST/AU plugin format for Windows & Mac OS)
OrilRiver is a contender for being one of the nicest sounding freeware reverbs around, despite being tremendously easy on the CPU. Our writer Ben Bishop shares his thoughts on the plugin:
“Personally, I like reverb effects that have very natural tails and put you in a particular space. Although purely programmed with delay networks, this plug-in does just that. And because it’s not using impulse responses or physical modeling, it uses a fraction of available CPU resources. A big plus for a reverb plugin.
If a subtle, natural reverb is not what you’re after, there are controls for decay length of up to 20 seconds, room size, stereo width, EQ, damping and diffusion for added customizability. The user can click and drag these parameters to the right value, or they can be typed in manually to save time and enhance precision.
While testing OrilRiver, I preferred it on sound material with slow attacks and softer transients such as vocals and electric piano. Drums and percussive sounds create some artifacts in the reverb tails that I hear in almost all digital reverbs, so I don’t fault this particular plugin for sharing the same issue. Overall, I can see myself trying this one a lot in future mixing sessions. I appreciate how customizable it is and I love the natural sound it creates.”
We saw several other interesting freeware reverb effects being released in 2016, including the superb PA1 Dynamic Plate by Physical Audio. It is a great sounding plate reverb which, unfortunately, only works on Mac-based digital audio workstations. Also worth checking out are the super-simple yet sweet sounding Reverb SOLO and Dimension Plus plugins.
More info: Orilriver (32-bit & 64-bit VST plugin format for Windows)
Now here’s the plugin that might be the most unusual one on this year’s list. It is the Brandulator effect by Vasily Makarov. You could think of this tool as a tempo-synced vocoder that can add motion and interest to different elements of your mix. This freeware VST plugin for Windows takes any source audio whether it be drum loops, pads, or vocals, and runs it through a series of parallel comb filters that are set to a particular scale or chord. The result is an unusual but very pleasant and musical sounding effect that is hard to achieve with other plugins.
Any tool that can transform sounds into something completely new is worth a try in my book. I particularly like the concept of arpeggios and tempo-synced effects that can turn a simple sound into a complex moving part of a track. Although the initial version of the Brandulator was reportedly quite buggy, Vasily has released an improved release that is far more stable.
More info: Brandulator (32-bit & 64-bit VST plugin format for Windows)
Unlike the previously mentioned HY-Filter2 which is an excellent all-around filter effect, Filterjam is a unique type of multi-band resonant filter that is unlike any filter you’ve used before. It divides the processed signal into four bands that are then summed or multiplied with one another. Depending on the active filtering mode, Filterjam can go from being fairly mellow and tame to sounding like a ring modulator gone bonkers.
Filterjam is the kind of effect that will instantly turn a boring, static sound into something much more sonically interesting. The trick, though, is to keep this plugin tame and try not go too overboard with it. But if you’re not a dork like myself, you can go full YOLO with Filterjam and mangle the living hell out of the source signal. The control scheme is extremely simple, featuring only the filter cutoff and resonance controls along with a mode selector. Also included is the mix parameter which is essential for controlling the amount of chaos applied to the dry signal.
More info: Filterjam (32-bit & 64-bit VST/AU/AAX plugin format for Windows & Mac OS)
Another unique freeware plugin released this year, Panagement Free Edition is a tool that’s meant to help with controlling the stereo space of a mix more efficiently. The plugin features a Binaural Panner and a Distance Fader which, when used in tandem, do an excellent job of emulating the loss of volume and frequency roll-off caused by a sound source’s distance relative to the listener. The developer recommends using Panagement Free Edition together with a reverb effect to ensure the most natural sounding result.
A paid version of the plugin is also available, adding features such as a phase scope, a tilt filter, and a built-in LFO meant for modulating the plugin’s parameters. However, the freeware version is fully functional as-is, providing the necessary tools for more efficient stereo control.
More info: Panagement (32-bit & 64-bit VST/AU plugin format for Windows & Mac OS)
Voxengo Tempo Delay 2 is a BPM-controlled stereo delay plug-in that comes with several standout features. First off, it has multi-mode filters and tremolo effects for each of the left and right channels. There also are timing controls for the first initial delay separate from the timing control of all other delays. Instead of being synced to the host DAW, the BPM in the Voxengo Tempo Delay 2 is set internally and can also be automated up and down if desired which creates pitch-shifting effects reminiscent of tape delays. They have even programmed some helpful keyboard shortcuts to streamline editing the left and right channel controls together or independently.
Roth-AIR is a superb freeware effect developed by Rothmann, design for adding presence and air to the processed signal. It combines subtle saturation and multiband compression for boosting the harmonic content in the higher frequencies without making them sound unpleasant. Roth-AIR was one of the highest ranked entries in this year’s KVR Developer Challenge.
SaschArt was, along with HY-Plugins, one of the most active developers this year. Even though his plugins aren’t included in the main list, you should absolutely take a look at the superbly ModulatedFilter and EasyLimiter plugins which provide a decent set of features and solid sound quality while consuming almost zero CPU resources.
STC-3 by RAZ Audio is another hidden gem, a capable stereo expander effect which also allows the user to convert the bass frequencies to mono. The plugin is compatible only with 32-bit Windows hosts at the moment, although 64-bit compatibility should be introduced in a future update.
Free VST Utilities
What good are the virtual instruments and effects if your current monitoring setup doesn’t allow you to get the best possible sound out of your mix? To help with analyzing your projects and tweaking them to perfection, here’s a selection of the best monitoring and visual analysis tools from 2016.
SpectrumAnalyzer Free is a multi-channel analysis tool featuring a full-screen display of up to two discrete channels of audio. A spectrum analyzer like this shows the magnitude of the input audio versus the frequency. The display considers the entirety of the audio including harmonics, bandwidth, power, and dominant frequency which in some cases would not be present on a typical waveform.
The coolest thing about SpectrumAnalyzer Free, though, is its ability to show the real-time analyses of two audio sources at the same time, side-by-side. Very helpful for fine tuning the EQ on clashing audio sources such as kick drums and bass guitars. The plugin also features both FFT and analog display options (although the analog resolution is somewhat restricted in the freeware version) and allows users to manipulate peak monitoring, hold time, RMS analysis, transparency, and fully customize visual effects of the display.
For those wanting more channels and advanced control options, the paid version of the plugin can display up to four channels of audio simultaneously. The free version operates like any other freeware plugin, though, without any watermarks, pop-ups, or time limitations.
More info: SpectrumAnalyzer Free (32-bit & 64-bit VST/VST3/AU/AAX plugin format for Windows & Mac OS)
The winner of KVR Developer Challenge 2016, Youlean Loudness Meter is an excellent freeware multi-channel meter for measuring the loudness a project. Data from the Youlean Loudness Meter is stored within the session file so it can be recalled at any point. One of the unique features of the Youlean Loudness Meter is that it can measure a specific part of the audio material without resetting the measurement result of the entire file. This feature has the potential to save a lot of time while making spot adjustments to your project without needing to remeasure the whole thing.
The Youlean Loudness Meter is available in VST and AU plugin formats for PC and Mac and can provide loudness measurement for broadcast, movie trailers, ADR, and other playback media. The primary display includes measurements such as Short Term LUFs, Long Term LUFs, and Loudness Range. It expresses loudness in many international standards and features a blue and red histogram display.
More info: Youlean Loudness Meter (32-bit & 64-bit VST/VST3/AU plugin format for Windows & Mac OS)
Next on our list is the Oscarizor Free, a multi-mode metering plugin developed by Sugar Audio. It’s available as freeware in VST and AU plugin formats. Oscarizor Free is a 3-in-1 visualizer, sporting a spectrum meter, an oscilloscope, and a goniometer. You can also resize the display, allowing it to be tucked away in the corner of the screen for easy reference, or shown in full screen on a separate monitor.
For those users wanting a more detailed look at their audio, the Pro version of the plugin side-chain another reference input, allowing for multi-channel monitoring. Also, the BPM sync feature in the Pro version may prove useful while working with more rhythmic audio sources.
More info: Oscarizor Free (32-bit & 64-bit VST/VST3/AU plugin format for Windows & Mac OS)
MOscilloscope is an oscilloscope plugin done right. It is a simple plug-and-play utility which works almost flawlessly without requiring any fine adjustments on the user’s part. It isolates a single cycle of a waveform successfully most of the time, making it the perfect tool for close analysis of a synthesizer’s output. The user interface is resizable and fully customizable to suit your preferences.
The only major drawback is the fact that MOscilloscope comes in a rather large installer which contains a large number of other plugins developed by MeldaProduction. These can be deselected during the installation process, of course, but MOscilloscope would easily be our #1 utility pick this year if it came in a compact, standalone installer.
More info: MOscilloscope (32-bit & 64-bit VST/AU/AAX plugin format for Windows & Mac OS)
Making the right decisions during a long mixing session can become quite hard to pull off due to ear fatigue. Contra Free is a utility that can provide some help with this issue by allowing the user to easily create blind tests for comparing multiple plugins, or A/B testing the settings of a single plugin.
The free version of Contra comes with three slots for loading different plugins. During playback, Contra will loop a part of the project while switching between the active slots, allowing the user to determine which option sounds the best. Contra can also save its current state for later use, making it a convenient way of storing your favorite FX chains as presets.
More info: Contra Free (32-bit & 64-bit VST/VST3/AU/AAX plugin format for Windows & Mac OS)
Midi Choir is a freeware real-time pitch shifter that is useful for creating faux vocal harmonies. The effect works surprisingly well, considering its apparent simplicity. Also, the processed vocals sound more then convincing enough if the pitch is kept relatively close to the root note. This effect is probably best used during live performances, as part of the vocalist’s FX chain.
Insta Looper is another freeware VST plugin that can come in handy during live performances, especially for DJs. It features four FX slots which can hold any of the built-in effects (bicrusher, autopan, high-pass filter, phaser, and time expander). Once triggered, the plugin loops the incoming audio signal while also applying the active effect.
tcArpGen is one of those weird but fun plugins that will keep you tinkering with different settings for hours on end. It is an algorithmic arpeggiator that determines the note order and direction based on a set of pre-determined rules. The plugin is still in early development, which is the main reason it isn’t ranked higher on this year’s list.
Softamp PSA is a new freeware virtual guitar amp developed by AXP. It is a virtual emulation of the SansAmp PSA-1.1 analog tube amplifier. The plugin features five distortion stages, followed by a noise gate and a compressor.
bx_rockrack V3 Player is a free, feature-limited version of Brainworx’ flagship virtual guitar amplifier for PC and Mac. The free version is basically a preset player, but it can still provide some very good sounding guitar tones. The only unlocked control is the Master Output knob, although you can control the amp’s response to an extent by placing a gain control in front.
Audified has released the lightweight GK Amplification 2 LE virtual guitar amplifier as a “pay what you want” product. The plugin emulates the Gallien-Krueger MB150 amplifier and is available for both PC and Mac based host applications, as well as a standalone program.
Tubes Creamer 808 Core is a very decent freeware emulation of the legendary Ibanez Tube Screamer pedal. The plugin sounds excellent, but the CPU usage is a bit higher than expected.
MSW1 by SoundSpot is a simple, yet incredibly useful stereo imaging utility. It is normally priced at $29, but you can grab it completely free of charge by December 31st.
Positive Grid is giving away the BIAS Pedal Distortion effect for PC and Mac. The plugin is normally priced at $99, but it’s available for free download until January 2nd.
Find more deals and freebies in our Holiday Season Free Software Round-Up.