Though most of us enjoy the concept of something being free, the majority of the time there are two common reactions to ‘free’ things. The first type elicits the response “I’m not surprised it’s free, I wouldn’t pay for that rubbish.” The second type attracts suspicion: “Why is this free? What’s wrong with it? What do they really want?”
Such derision and suspicion is not always warranted, and this is very much the case in the world of VST/AU effects. You may wonder why, after having spent four figures on compressors and EQs, you would worry about anything that is free. Surely it can’t equal that expensive, shiny stuff that’s just made your credit card buckle?
Well, I think it can. I use a lot of free effects in my mixes and also when mastering – whether it be scoring or electronica. Many of the effects I’ve paid for (although I won’t name names) are often replaced by free alternatives. So, here are some of what I consider to be the best VST and AU effects out there right now, starting with the VST only ones.
VST Only Effects
It is the nature of the beast of developing freebies that they are more likely to be PC-based, simply because of the hardware overheads. Also, the market at that ‘price level’ contains far more PC users than Mac users.
There’s only one place to start when it comes to quality free VST-only effects and that’s at Variety of Sound. Bootsie has been developing quality plug-ins for a few years now and has racked up a solid collection of excellent VST effects. Among the highlights is the new Density MkIII. This brand new incarnation of his mastering compressor is a wonderful piece of software. It’s predominantly designed to help glue all the elements of your mix together as a coherent whole, but has rather an impressive ability to do more than that. Applying to a mix adds punch and depth, a clarity that may have been missing. And whilst it doesn’t aim to emulate any classic gear, playing with the ‘color’ feature adds some nice vintage saturation – although be careful how far you dial it up. I highly recommend the ‘summing’ and ‘non-lin amp’ presets as starting points to discovering what this can do.
Other highlights in the Bootsie/Variety of Sound range include BootEQ MkII, Thrillseeker LA and Ferric TDS. BootEQ MkII provides two modules: the main EQ and also a preamp, allowing you to accurately mould some frequencies whilst also adding a little vintage warmth. Thrillseeker LA is a stereo leveling amplifier/compressor with a subtle character that I highly recommend for use on misbehaving vocals. Ferric TDS is, as you may have guessed from the name, a tape saturation effect. Everyone likes that feel of tape saturation on their tracks and here, via four very simple knobs (recovery, dynamics, saturation and limiter), you can dial in anything from gentle warmth up to track-chomping distortion.
As well as sounding fantastic, Bootsie’s effects have a habit of looking stunning too – the GUI’s being beautiful and simple to navigate. It is worth mentioning, however, that they are only 32-bit at this stage. Anyway, enough fanboi gushing, there are many more freebie treats out there.
An all-time classic, one of the first effects I ever used when I got into computer music, is dblue Glitch. Glitch is a lively and slightly erratic, sequenced multi-effects unit that is capable of some remarkable feats of audio manipulation. There are nine effects, all of which have a dedicated filter: tape stop, modulator, retrigger, shuffler, reverser, crusher, gater, delay and stretcher. Mangle, mangle, mangle. That’s what this effects machine does. Despite its potential to make a vast array of weird and wonderful noises with whatever source material you run through it, it is surprisingly simple to programme, especially with its ability to be controlled by MIDI. It can literally save you weeks of wave editing and is absurdly feature-packed for a freebie. It is Windows-only though. Cry into your mochaccinos…
VST and AU Effects
And now on to those that we can all enjoy.
Audio Damage have a reputation for quirky and original effects units, and they have only one free effect on their site. Fortunately it happens to be brilliant. Rough Rider is not exactly a ‘lite’ version of Rough Rider Pro, it is more of a compressor in its own right, aimed very specifically at that classic New York-style of ‘pumping’ compression. It really comes into its own when applied to any rhythmic material; not just percussion but also basslines, guitar riffs and synth sequences. It can really slam whichever channel you apply it to and is absolutely perfect for making the snare in a drum sequence crack. A one trick pony perhaps, but it does it magnificently.
Another area of effects that freeware handles very well is distortion and amp simulation. Camel Audio, the geniuses behind such treats as Alchemy and CamelSpace, have a little thing called CamelCrusher. Whilst they describe it as a ‘colouring’ effect, it’s forte is adding vintage crunch to whatever you apply it to. There are two types of distortion that you can mix, ‘tube’ and ‘mech’. Tube adds some subtle saturation, whilst mech tries to kill everything in its path with noise. Hurrah for that. You also have a simple low pass filter and a compressor to help shape the sound. Or indeed you can switch off the distortion module and just play with the filter and/or compressor. A clever little tool with a wide range of applications and absolutely no scrimping on the usual processing quality of Camel Audio products.
An honourable mention should also go here for Le Pou and their collection of amp sims. Not only do they sound terrific, but the range is steadily growing and covering a lot of different guitar sounds – Le456 has a particularly nice metal sound. For their quality and price, we can forgive them the rather difficult to navigate Blogger website they use.
Now, have you ever spent money on a spectrum analyzer? Yes? Then you’re an idiot. How rude of me. I’m sure your spectrum analyzer is great and you love it and use it with joy in your heart. But, is it better than Voxengo‘s Span? Probably not. Is it cheaper than Span? Definitely not. Since I’ve been so rude, I should probably explain why Span is so good.
Firstly, it is extremely accurate. You can re-size the GUI depending on the how much screen real estate you have, allowing you to look into every nook and cranny of the sonic spectrum of your track. If you have a smaller screen, it allows you to zoom into the specific areas you want to check out. It also has a band-pass filter that allows you to listen to the frequency band you want. It’s an ideal way to discover where your mix is terrible and to check whether your attempts to improve it are working. All this for free? I know. Crazy.
I have, of course, missed out numerous other gratis gems that I use all the time. Space on the internet may be limitless, but your attention span is not and I’m sure I’ve already run it aground.
Please do share your favourite free effects below and tell us why you love them so much and what highly expensive gear they’ve ended up replacing. It’ll be like Gear Lust Anonymous. Share the pain.
I shall hopefully return with an article on my favourite free synths. More free stuff? Truly, we are living in a new Renaissance.