There are tons of free plugins out there. In fact, there are so many that it can be downright overwhelming to find the true gems while looking through hundreds of options.
That being said, some free audio effects are so invaluable that they’ll make great additions to any producer’s library. In this guide, I’ve listed some of my favorites that no paid software can replace for me. I use them all the time- and so should you!
iZotope’s Ozone Imager is the best stereo widening tool I’ve ever used, hands down. Not only do I use it on my mastering chain, but I also often apply it to my synth pads and background vocal layers as well. I even use it to disperse ambient reverb effects more evenly sometimes. It glues my mix together like no other, and it’s incredibly easy to use.
Another free offering from iZotope, this vinyl emulation plugin will add that warm, lo-fi touch to your lifeless MIDI instruments. I use this one mostly on synths, but it works wonders on virtual strings, woodwinds and brass instruments as well. If I’m looking to change the tone of an instrument because it’s not sitting well in my mix or it sounds way too pristine, I give iZotope Vinyl’s “Year” options a try, which help highlight certain frequencies while concealing others. I also enjoy playing around with the “Warp Model” and “Warp Depth” parameters for sound design purposes. All in all, Vinyl may be advertised as an audio-aging product, but it really does go beyond that.
Cableguys’ free panning modulation plugin is a huge time saver. If you want a specific repeating panning pattern that you yourself design without automating the pan knob on your channel, look no further. This plugin can be tempo-synced to your DAW, it allows you to draw the exact shape of the panning modulation you want and even choose how frequently it repeats. I love using this one on just about anything, but it works especially well on beats. Running hand drums and shakers through this thing can inject a multi-dimensional and immersive feel into your groove. Just make sure you insert it on a stereo channel, since it doesn’t work on mono.
I’m a huge fan of Valhalla’s reverb and delay plugins in general. No one produces frequency-shifting time based effects like the way they do, and the Freq Echo is no exception to this rule. It offers a great range: you can go as subtle or psychedelic as you want with it. It comes with a wide delay note division sync selection and gives you the option to EQ echos as well. But the most exciting parameter is the “Shift” knob, which helps you shift the frequencies of the echos, adding a lot of depth to any instrument that feels a little too one-note or robotic. If I’m working with a hi hat and I just know I need to add some excitement and variation to it, Valhalla Freq Echo is my first stop.
In the past two months, Valhalla has added two more free effects to their collection: Valhalla Supermassive and Valhalla Space Modulator. Both, unsurprisingly, sound incredible and are especially great for creating massive soundscapes.
Tritik’s bit crusher is so fun to use, not only because it’s essentially a multi-effects plugin, but also because it comes with a really exciting preset selection to help you get started. If you’re into glitchy and grainy sounds, this plugin will be your new best friend. Since it’s an amplitude-based effect, it will manipulate the volume of your signal when you use it, just like most distortion and bit crusher plugins do. In other words, it might take a minute to get it to sound right in your mix. However, its versatility will surprise you once you get used to it. Most recently, I used it on a return channel right before a long plate reverb to add a sparkly touch to my vocal mix. Never thought it would work so well- but it did!
This granular delay plugin from Soundhack’s freeware bundle has a very specific sound. The glassy, almost crystal-like, fast moving pitch shifted echoes that it produces may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but those who are into sound design will be impressed by the results. Like Tritik’s bit crusher, Soundhack’s Bubbler, too, sounds really good with a ton of reverb and it can be a great fit for any electronic production from ambient to EDM. Its unique settings might look a little confusing at first, but it’s the kind of software you just dive into and learn by doing. I often use the “Grain Size”, “Octave” and “Octave Variation” knobs more than anything else.
Bubbler’s cousin Pitch Delay is another favorite of mine from Soundhack’s freeware bundle. It looks simpler, but it can create dramatically altered sounds. While controlling the pitch via ratios might be difficult to work with in a really musical production, the “Octave” and “Cents” parameters will produce echoes that are easier to fit into the key of your song. Like the Bubbler, the Pitch Delay requires you to just dive in and explore. My advice: try working with a short, one-note sample at first to accurately assess what these Soundhack plugins can do.