Music production is now more accessible than ever before. Once an expensive hobby, free software like Audacity (along with powerful Audacity alternatives) make it open to all. Some of the biggest tracks in the last few years have been made by bedroom producers using cheap equipment.
While most music software has its own built in instruments and effects, learning how to use external VST (Virtual Studio Technology) provides you with thousands of tools to take your sound to the next level. Many of these VST plugins are free, and they can make a free setup sound like a professional studio.
Today we’ll look at 12 of the best free VST plugins.
1. Piano One
Sound Magic’s Piano One is arguably the best free acoustic piano VST available. The samples come from a Yamaha C7 Grand piano, captured using Sound Magic’s own Hybrid Modeling Engine technology. The free version lacks features but makes up for it with its incredible sound.
Download: Piano One
TAL-Noisemaker is a fully featured synthesizer with three oscillators, along with an array of effects and options. It is as comfortable creating soft and lush pads as it is creating harsh EDM lead lines and even drums.
The synth panel is intuitive, easy to use, and there are an array of presets bundled with it to help you get started quickly.
3. VK-1 Viking Synthesizer
The VK-1 Viking Synthesizer is a lovingly created emulation of an analog monophonic synthesizer. On top of three oscillators, two modulation channels, and an LFO, accurate transistor ladder filter emulation give this synthesizer an authentic sound that is hard to match.
VK-1 is a “pay what you want” product, and therefore technically available for free. At a time when Moog is releasing $30 iPad synthesizer apps, trusting the user with the price is a bold move.
Download: VK-1 Viking Synthesizer
4. Spitfire Audio: Labs
It’s impossible to feature a single instrument from Spitfire Audio’s Labs project. Each one is unique, ranging from overdriven cellos to high-quality live drums, to strings recorded on vintage mics from a professional ensemble.
They are all available as easy-to-use free VST plugins.
Download: Spitfire Audio: Labs
5. Guitar Rig 5 Player
Guitar Rig has been the go-to name in all things amp simulation and guitar FX emulation for years. Guitar Rig 5 Player edition brings some of the functionality of the full program to a free VST download.
While limited compared to the Pro version, the Native Instruments Factory Selection library makes a powerful tool for guitarists lacking in hardware. Even non-guitarists will find this plugin perfect for making screaming synths and dirty sounding drums.
Download: Guitar Rig 5 Player
The CamelCrusher plugin is known and loved by producers with good reason. A deceptively simple combination of distortion, compression, and filtering add up to some meaty results. Presets ranging from “Annihilate” to “Tube Warmth” give great options for radically changing your sound quickly.
Camel Audio stopped distributing CamelCrusher after Apple acquired them, but the original version of the plugin is still freely available from third party VST sites.
7. TAL Reverb 4
Free, simple, and almost universally loved, the TAL Reverb 4 is a great free plugin to give your sound some space. Based on the classic sound of vintage reverb units, it is capable of a lot more than its simple interface suggests.
Download: TAL Reverb 4
8. Glitchmachines Hysteresis
Glitchmachines make VST plugins and packs for those who love modern, sci-fi sounds. Hysteresis is a delay unit with a difference. Its primary design is to take any input sound and morph it in a variety of crazy ways—often leaving sounding radically different to the source sound.
While this VST will primarily be of interest to electronic music producers, the plugin can also be tamed to give more standard delay effects too. As with all of Glitchmachines VSTs, things get really interesting when you spend a little time in their documentation learning superuser tricks.
Download: Glitchmachines Hysteresis
9. Glitch 1.3
Illformed (also known as DBlue) is a name many producers know well. The Glitch VST does precisely as its name suggests. It takes your sounds and glitches them in a variety of mind-melting ways. Sounds get reversed, reshuffled, bitcrushed, and repitched, along with many other controllable presets.
Glitch 2 is now available, though Illformed still offers Glitch 1.3 for free, bundled with the excellent Tape Stop, Crusher, and Stretch effects.
Download: Glitch 1.3
10. 4ormulator Vocoder Extreme
Vocoders have gone from fringe devices used in experimental music to mainstream instruments used in hit songs. 4ormulator’s Vocoder Extreme allows users to emulate these sounds, along with some extra features you wouldn’t normally see on a free instrument.
By adding a variety of effects and resonators, the Vocoder Extreme can be used as an instrument in its own right. This is the perfect effect to learn the basics of vocoding, or, as 4ormulator say, create “…musical entropy generators, ambient chaos fields, or even resonant soup machines!”
Download: 4ormulator Vocoder Extreme
Reaper is a fully fledged DAW, and one of the best alternatives to Garageband.
What many people do not realize about Reaplugs (Reaper’s VST suite) is that they can use them with other programs. Reaplugs contains powerful compression and EQ tools, along with some unique ideas.
12. MSI Stereo Buss
As the only purely mastering VST on this list, the MSI Stereo Buss is special. There are many free VST mastering plugins, modeling old analog sounds to give that final mesh and punch to tracks. The MSI Stereo Buss does it nicer than most.
Originally paid software, Minimal System Group re-released Stereo Buss as freeware in 2014, and it is still one of the best simple mastering tools out there.
Download: MSI Stereo Buss
Plugin and Play
Free VST plugins can completely change the way you create music. Almost all free music production software supports using them. This list should have helped you find new sounds to build tracks, or tools to make them sound better. There are however, many more out there waiting to be discovered.
Alternatively, if you are starting out with Ableton Live or another big name DAW, you’ll be glad to hear that these will work perfectly there too.