Learn about the most useful free plugins for music producers. Enhance the capabilities of your DAW without spending a dime.
There are plenty of free audio plugins that you can download but only a handful of them are worth your time. In many cases, the stock audio effects included with your DAW will outshine most free plugins. As a result, we’re going to focus on the 10 best free VST plugins for music production that will augment the capabilities of your DAW.
10. Aglae Software’s Tune It
Oddly enough, some DAWs don’t include a tuner effect. You can use a free tuner plugin called Tune It to tune guitars, basses, and drums prior to recording. It’s also important to retune instruments throughout a recording session. As a guitarist or drummer plays their instrument, it will become detuned. You don’t want the recordings captured at the end of a session to sound flatter than the recordings captured at the beginning.
Pitch correcting monophonic recordings like lead vocals and guitar isn’t too difficult; I show you how to do this using free pitch correction software in my Music Production for Beginners course. Although, pitch correcting polyphonic recordings requires the use of expensive pitch correction software like Melodyne so it’s best to preemptively avoid this using a tuner plugin like Tune It.
9. Voxengo’s MSED
Voxengo’s MSED is an audio encoder-decoder plugin that can encode (split) an incoming stereo signal into a mid-side signal pair. It can also decode a mid-side signal pair into a stereo signal. One of the perks of MSED is that you can adjust the gain and panning of mid and side channel content without using multiple plugins.
MSED lets you flip the phase of mid and side channels by 180 degrees, allowing you to extract mid or side channel content. There’s also a built-in “plasma” vector scope meter, stereo correlation meter, and balance meter that make it easy to monitor the stereo information that’s present within your audio signal. This free utility plugin comes in handy while mastering songs.
8. Cableguys’ PanCake
Cableguys’ PanCake is a free plugin that provides wacky and flexible panning modulation. It allows you to construct your own modulation curves. They can be drawn using soft or hard control points, allowing you to create gentle transitions or sharp bends in the waveform. PanCake’s LFO can be beat-synced with your DAW—from fast 1/128th note modulation up to 32 bars. It can also be set up to free-run from 0.02 Hz to 5.24 kHz, and triggered via MIDI. A precise display of left/right channel volume provides helpful visual control.
PanCake’s big sibling, PanShaper, kicks things up a notch with multiband editing, stereo width controls, multiple panning modes, a preset library, and fast access to a comprehensive selection of preset curves for $34.
7. TBProAudio’s mvMeter 2
TBProAudio’s mvMeter is a multivariable meter including RMS, EBUR128, VU, and PPM measurement. mvMeter2 is the successor of mvMeter and adds a single/dual meter display, adjustable reference level for all meter modes, adjustable meter delay, and preset management. There’s a gain matching feature, 64-bit internal processing, five different meter themes, and free GUI scaling up to 400%.
All of these features are great, but what do you typically use a VU meter for? A VU meter displays average volume as opposed to peak volume. Applying this information, you can use a VU meter to balance the level of your kick and bass relative to one another. To do this, solo your bass and adjust its level until your VU meter is displaying a value of -3. Next, solo your kick and bass. Adjust the level of your kick so that the VU meter displays a value of 0 each time the kick plays. By setting your levels in this way, your kick and bass should play back at an equal volume.
6. Xfer Records’ Dimension Expander
Xfer Records’ Dimension Expander is a unique-sounding chorus/spatial expander, based on hardware from the late 1980s. It’s a four-voice chorus with extended delay times. Two of the voices are out of phase with the other two.
Dimension Expander is a simple plugin, providing an On/Off switch, a Dry/Wet knob, and a Size knob. Add it to a track, increase the Size value, and then dial back the Dry/Wet knob to taste. It can help widen vocals, guitars, synths, and more. I typically set the Dry/Wet value to 50-100% when applied to background elements, and somewhere around 25% if I’m looking for a subtle widening effect on lead sounds.
5. Klanghelm’s IVGI Saturator
Klanghelm’s IVGI can deliver soft and subtle saturation that feels at home on the master buss but it’s equally capable of dense and dirty distortion effects that you can use to spice up single tracks. This free plugin reacts dynamically to its input signal, resulting in a natural sound.
Without a doubt, Klanghelm’s IVGI is one of the best free saturation plugins on the market. If your DAW’s stock saturator doesn’t provide the warmth and character that you’re looking for, IVGI is a great alternative. As a testimony to its greatness, I demonstrate how to mix any song in my Music Production for Beginners course using just 5 audio effects—one of them being the IVGI.
4. Xfer Records’ OTT
Ableton has an audio effect called Multiband Dynamics. There’s a particular Multiband Dynamics preset called “OTT” that dubstep and electro producers have grown to love. The preset applies a combination of aggressive upwards compression and downwards compression to the signal that you run through it. In moderation, this effect can make your mixes sound bigger, fuller, and louder.
Xfer Records has re-created this popular Ableton effect, making it available as a free plugin called OTT. Regardless of the DAW that you use, you can now access the sound of Ableton’s OTT preset.
3. iZotope’s Vinyl
iZotope’s Vinyl is a free vinyl plugin that simulates the dust, scratches, warp, and mechanical noise of beloved vinyl records. Apply this free plugin to your stereo bus and make your music sound like records from decades ago. Achieve a vintage sound instantly.
Vinyl now includes a lo-fi effect. Apply the saturated, worn timbre of late-80s hip-hop in an instant. Sampled records from this era have a unique tone created by the gear of the time period. Lo-fi enables you to color with the character of secondhand vinyl to add a soulful, nostalgic feel to your music.
2. Youlean Loudness Meter
Youlean Loudness Meter is a free LUFS meter that helps you find the true perceived loudness of your audio so that you can prepare it for distribution to streaming services. This plugin helps you achieve an appropriate loudness level for Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, etc.
Most importantly, Youlean Loudness Meter allows you to avoid crushing the dynamics of your music while still hitting loudness targets. In my Music Production for Beginners course, you learn exactly how loud to master your music for streaming services using Youlean Loudness Meter.
1. Matt Tytel’s Helm Synthesizer
Helm is a free 32-voice polyphonic software synthesizer plugin developed by Matt Tytel. It provides most of the bells and whistles you’d expect from a modern soft synth. Helm provides two main oscillators, a sub oscillator, a noise module, an amp envelope, a filter envelope, LFOs (2 monophonic and 1 polyphonic), and a step sequencer. There’s also a built-in arpeggiator, stutter module, distortion module, delay module, and reverb module.
Helm is available as a paid Unity asset, which is very cool if you develop video games; this allows you to create musical games using Helm as a native synthesizer. You can turn physical actions into sounds in-game. Choose from over 300 presets or create your own. Whether or not you’re a game developer, you’ll want to check out the following video to see Helm in action.
Want to learn how to write, record, mix, and master music at home? Check out Music Production for Beginners: The Complete Ableton Course. You’ll produce three songs from start to finish and learn how to write, record, mix, and master music at home.