Plugins, Plugins, And More Plugins!
So let’s talk plugins: The sheer expense of getting into sound design is one of the largest hurdles that beginners must overcome. But, it doesn’t have to be a dead end! If the Sound Design Santa didn’t leave all the plugins you wanted under the tree, I’ve pulled together a list of free and cheap plugins to get your sound design juiced up without breaking the bank. These are some great tools, at an affordable $50-or-less price point. It’s important to keep in mind however, that the plugins don’t make the designer! These are tools, and at the end of the day, how you use them is more important than what you’re using. Nobody ever got a gig simply because they owned the Decapitator. With that in mind, and without further ado…here’s what I’ve got for you!
Off the bat, here are some excellent vendors who have generously given out either cheap or freeware bundles of their software:
- Blue Cat Audio – Blue Cat Audio has a superb freeware pack that includes 6 plugins. Among them, the Frequency Analyzer is particularly important to any toolkit, and the 3-band EQ also boasts a frequency response chart. I also appreciate the Gain Suite for the ability to link multiple instances of the plugin together, providing easy control over multiple tracks.
- Melda Production – Melda Production also has a generous freeware pack. The pack includes a whopping 30 plugins, with some standouts: the MCompressor, a 6-band EQ, noise generator, tuner, and an excellent utility rack. It can be upgraded for €49 to add a few extra features.
- Variety of Sound – VOS offers sixteen free plugins. Of note, the FerricTDS tape saturation and ThrillseekerVBL compressor are great. Most importantly, the preFIX preamp/alignment tool should not be missed if you ever work with mic arrays.
- Toneboosters – For about the cost of a large two-topping pizza, you can grab the Toneboosters Essentials Suite. It includes a saturation module, all-in-one modulation plugin, bitcrusher, 6-band EQ (with spectrum analyzer!), de-esser, noise gate, reverb, and compression unit. An absolutely outstanding set of plugins for only €20.
Willing to pay for a subscription service? The Slate Digital “Everything” Package costs around $20 a month as well. I love being able to turn off my subscription when I don’t need it at a given time. It’s also nice to purchase perpetual licenses for the plugins that are consistently relied upon. I also HIGHLY encourage checking out Stillwell Audio. Stillwell offers an impeccable lineup of tools that are both fairly priced and cripple-free. Of course, though, please do the right thing and pay for them if you like them.
EQ is arguably the most important category of them all. There’s a ton of stuff out there, as you’re probably aware…but here’s a few that caught my eye, and that I rely on on a regular basis.
- Tokyo Dawn Labs “VOS Slick EQ” (Free / $30) – the VOS Slick EQ is an excellent 3-band EQ with 4 different modes, covering some of the major colors of EQ: American, British, German, and Soviet. You can upgrade it to the Gentleman’s Edition which offer some extra saturation modes, a tilt-EQ, and some additional filters.
- Photosounder “SplineEQ” ($29) – Up to 60 bands on a colorful linear phase EQ. Double click to create a band, drag it into place, adjust the handles to change the curve. Couldn’t be simpler. You get up to 60 bands with up to 60 decibels of cut or boost at your disposal to create razor-precise edits.
- Sonimus “SonEQ” (Free / $59 upgrade) – The free version of the Sonimus SonEQ is a perfectly serviceable, 3-band EQ. It includes high and low cut filters, a soft Drive knob for saturation and supports a resolution of up to 192kHz. Definitely an excellent addition to any sound designer and music producers virtual EQ shelf.
If EQ is the most important category, Dynamics is certainly hot on its heels. There’s no shortage of options out there, ranging from musical emulations to imaginative and physically impossible models:
- Stillwell Audio – “The Rocket” (Free / $39) – Stillwell makes some great stuff, and this 1176 clone is no exception. It’s what you’d expect out of an 1176: Extremely quick attack and release times, with four ratios to select from. As a bonus, you also get the famous “All Buttons In” mode, and a convenient mix knob for instant parallel compression. Like everything else Stillwell offers, it’s on the honor system. Free to take, cheap to buy.
- Klanghelm – “MJUC” (€24) – This is a variable mu compressor, emulating the behavior of vacuum tubes to limit the signal. As the input hits harder, the compression ratio deepens. The MJUC exudes a bit of a great, old-school, vintage vibe, for a ridiculously low cost.
- Audio Damage – “Rough Rider” (Free) – Unlike the other two, this is not an emulation of a real processor. The Rough Rider is capable of an insane 1:1000 ratio, and really highlights the name of the company: Audio Damage. It’s fairly transparent at the lower ratios, but is absolutely ruthless when cranked.
Reverb is my personal favorite category of plugin. So much that can be done with the right reverb. From gluing together a mix, to creating an otherworldly sense of space, reverb is an essential tool. There are two major kinds of Reverb out there. Impulse Responses (or “Convolution”) reverbs record a transient or sine sweep in a space in to measure its natural resonances. The measurement is then applied as a reverb to a new source. Then there are algorithmic solutions, where the developer has painstakingly programmed all the nuances of the sound into the plugin. Algorithmic reverbs can seek to emulate real units, or fabricate new ones from scratch. Here’s a few options that I love:
- SIR Audio Tools – “SIR1” (Free) – Freeware from SIR Audio Tools. This is an Convolution reverb, where you load your own impulses. You’ll then have access to standard envelope tools, pitch stretching, and EQ as well. The newer SIR2 Reverb introduces a zero-latency mode, a higher-quality engine, and Mac support. Websites such as OpenAirLib and EchoThief have put together incredible free collections of spaces for use in your convolution of choice, and thousands more are just a Google search away.
- TAL – “TAL Reverb 4″ (Free) – Togu Audio Line’s Reverb 4 is well venerated. It’s incredibly simple with just a few knobs, but produces a great effect on synths especially. The unit is taken directly from the TAL Sampler instrument. It’s not quite capable of subtlety, but it’s still a wonderful reverb.
- Valhalla DSP – “Valhalla Shimmer” ($50) – The name of the company is a tip-off. Shimmer is ALL about huge, airy effects. It produces an lush wash that shoegazers everywhere would be proud of. If you’re not looking for that kind of hugeness, the Valhalla Room is an excellent alternative, sure to fit your taste.
Distortion is somewhat antithetical to everything that is studio sound design. Studios are pristine – attempting to capture every nuance of the sound perfectly and without blemish. Enter the distortion, intentionally clipping and breaking of the signal so hard fought for. When done well, distortion can enhance the sound, giving life and character. When done wrong, however, it saps your bottom end, destroys your clarity, and can reduce your tone to something resembling white noise. High quality distortions are hard to come by, but I’ve collected a few a few cheap-ish and free plugins that I enjoy:
- Variety of Sound – “FerricTDS” (Free) – As mentioned above, the Variety of Sound package is absolutely exquisite. This unit is something I’ll reach for time and time again, especially when I need to saturate more than I need to distort.
- Klanghelm – “SDRR” (€22) – Stepping up the gain a little bit is another Klanghelm product, this time the SDRR. If you want a free option, the IVGI is also available. The IVGI breaks off just the saturation module from this channel strip and let’s you use that on its own. With both units, you can dial in an asymmetric distortion that ranges from subtle warm to a nearly overdriven state. If you find the IVGI useful, the extra utility of the SDRR is well worth the cost of admission.
- TSE Audio – “R47” (Free) – Klanghelm wasn’t enough? Need some full-on audio destruction? Look no further than TSE Audio. TSE R47 is an emulation of one of the most important guitar distortion pedals of all time: The ProCo RAT. There is also a phenomenal rendition of the Ibanez Tube Screamer (The “808“). Bassists aren’t left out in the cold either – the “BOD” is a Bass Overdrive based on the TECH21 Sans-Amp.
Delays don’t get enough respect, despite their utility. Put the wet signal up at full blast and introduce a short delay with one repetition of around 75ms. You’ve now created a unison shred guitar solo. Drop the level a bit and increase the delay time to about 85ms and you’ve got a tape echo. Up the delay a little more, add a few repetitions and you have a reverb-like wash. Poly-rhythm junkies know the power of setting different delays to different clicks. Delays are great! Here are a few of my favorite:
- Valhalla DSP – “Valhalla FreqEcho” (Free) – Another fine plugin from Valhalla. You can coax out anything from tape delay to glissandos. I like Valhalla because the simplicity of the user interfaces encourage deep experimentation. Feel free to slap this on a track and see what comes of it.
- Variety of Sound – “NastyDLA” (Free) – The NastyDLA is already a staple on my VST rack. It’s got a variety of settings, offers a ton of different modes, and most importantly, it just sounds good. You can get a variety of chorus and echo type effects, with a nice type-style filter on two independent delay lines. VoS has a penchant for quality, and the NastyDLA is no exception.
- Genuine Soundware and Instruments – “WatKat” (Free) – Feel like getting a bit weird? The WatKat is an homage to the famous Copicat delay. Only four knobs, emulating the real thing. It’s definitely a bit noisy and lo-fi – fairly unpredictable, too. Because it models such an old unit, it doesn’t include a tempo button or anything of that nature – you’re locked to the position of the three tape heads. Still, it’s possible to get endless repeaters and fairly vibrant delays. I’ve found it to be wonderfully inspirational when just fiddling with it.
Modulation is where all your phasers, your filters, choruses, flangers, and etc. live. This is a super broad and expansive category of plugin. Here’s a few of my picks:
- Togu Audio Line – “TAL Filter 2” (Free) – On this page you’ll also find the free TAL Filter 1. The TAL Filter 1 is an algorithmic filter, controlled by a few knobs and an LFO. Conversely, TAL Filter 2 is graphical and lets you draw in a filter curve by hand. Both are excellent additions to your lineup!
- FLUX – “Bittersweet v3” (Free) – The Bittersweet is a transient designer, and it really couldn’t be simpler. If you need to sharpen the attack on a source, turn the big knob toward the “Bitter” side. If you need to mellow it out, swing the dial toward the “sweet” side. Simple.
- Distorque Audio – “Azurite” (Free) – The Azurite is one of the best chorus plugins ever made. It generates up to 8 voices, which can be synced to tempo, and provides for up to 7 LFO shapes to choose from. It features a dedicated feedback knob, and over two dozen presets built in. There’s also a control randomizer to help you find some extra inspiration.
- Phuturetone – “Filteroid” (Free) – The Filteroid is a monster. It’s can cleave out either as huge a swath from your audio, or as fine a frequency, as you please. Controls for two resonant filters, harmonic offset, AM and FM modulation, plus LFO controls are just the tip of the iceberg. It also accepts external input and has a variety of built-in mod sources to choose from.
- Smart Electronix – “SupaPhaser” (Free) – Developed by Bram at the Smart Electronix group, the SupaPhaser is a combined saturation/distortion/phaser unit all rolled into one simple plugin. Notably, it can have a ridiculous 23 phaser stages added.
A small disclaimer here: I rarely use pitch shifting plugins outside of the one offered in my workstation. There are some nifty plugins out there like the QuikQuak Pitchwheel with some great features to them, but if you’re just looking to fill out your plugin’s list on the cheap, you’re likely not interested in spending money on them.
- Aegean Music – “PitchProof” (Free) – I like this plugin for it’s Keyboard Force mode. This mode bends every incoming pitch to the pitch of the last-pressed MIDI note. Combined with the blend knob you can get some really great and wild not-quite-a-harmony drones. It’s excellent for sound designing as well! I’ve had some great success using it on monster voices. It also works just as you’d expect if you just set it up like any other pitch shifter, attempting to modulate an incoming signal into the notes of a given scale.
Restoration is not just a plugin, it’s an indispensable necessity for the DIYer who doesn’t have clean audio coming into their system. It may be true that you just can’t take a Shure SM58 and have it compete with a Neumann 87. But, what you can do is make sure that your SM58 comes into your workstation as cleanly as possible. And you do that with restoration tools. This is the one plugin area that should not be an afterthought. Can’t afford the iZotope RX5 package? Here’s my recommendation.
- ACON Digital – “Restoration Suite” ($99) – At a hundred dollars this is by far the most expensive plugin on the list. But, considering you’re getting four plugins in the pack, they’re still cheap. You’ll get a DeNoise, DeHum, DeClick, and DeClip. Use the DeNoiser to sample a few seconds of noise from of your audio to create a filter that can be used to cancel the noise out, leaving your audio much cleaner. Use the DeHum to clean up ground hum loop noise and other noises created by poor electrical conditions. The DeClicker can help remove impulse noises like bass thumps from an accidental mic stand bump, or errant cable crackles. DeClip is for times when you’ve accidentally red-lined and really can’t afford to redo the take.
If, for some reason, you’re dissatisfied with whatever Dither is included with your particular D.A.W., or just want to try a new one, you have a few options. (Disclaimer: Unlike pretty much everything else on this page, I’ve not used either of these, however!):
- ToneBoosters – “TB Dither” ($20) – This is not included with the TB Essentials Bundle I linked to earlier. I can’t say I understand the (optional) feature for drawing in the noise-shaping curve as if it were an EQ, but it’s there for you to use. Much cooler, in my opinion, is the availability of 7 (!) industry-standard curves for those of us who are really picky. I imagine that they would also be a great starting point if you decided to dial in your own curve.
- Goodhertz – “Good Dither” ($20) – A simple interface goes a long way. Goodhertz backs up their software with numerous charts explaining why Good Dither is Best Dither. Between these two options, I’d probably lean toward this one. Additionally, it includes preset support and auto-blanking.
Another underdog category, since we’re nearing the end of the list now. The Harmonic category is meant for things that change the harmonic content of a signal without modifying the underlying fundamental frequencies…or something like that. Typically, you’ll find dedicated saturation units and harmonic sweeteners in this category.
- Softube – “Saturation Knob” (Free) – One knob. One switch. One Effect: Saturation. Can’t get any simpler than that.
- Fine Cut Bodies – “La Petite Excite” (Free) – La Petite Excite is a harmonic exciter. It brightens up your top end and helps tracks cut into and through the final mix. Use with caution because putting this on multiple tracks tends to hype your mix up quickly.
- Dada Life – “Sausage Fattener” ($40) – A downright ubiquitous plugin in most EDM and Metal circles. It’s similar to the La Petite, but much more aggressive. Put it on your track, make the sausage angry, and damn, that’s a fat sausage. Like the La Petite Excite, make sure you’re using this one with care. It’s very easy to over-process a track and lose sight of the overall production you’re going for.
Again, this is a category so wide that I could not possibly hope to reach any sort of depth with it. But here’s a few nice-to-have plug-ins that don’t fit the other categories quite as much:
- VescoFX – “FreeHaas” (Free / $5 suggested donation) – The Haas effect is a psychoacoustic effect whereby two sound impulses that are sufficiently short appear to fuse together. It’s great for thickening up the sound of a guitar or making mono sources sound a bit bigger and wider.
- HOFA Plugins – “4U+ Blind Test” (Free / €40 upgrade version) – Having trouble discerning which distortion you like better? Is this EQ better? Or is that one? Which Reverb do I actually like better? Take your pick. I especially love using the Blind Test for auditioning different microphones on instruments.
- VescoFX – “FreeOutsider” (Free / $5 suggested donation) – The Outsider is a phase inverter. The single control switch selects a root channel, and the dial let’s you mix between inversion states. Not particularly useful in music, but for sound design, occasionally an inspiring tool to have.
- iZotope – “Vinyl” (Free) – Need to impart some magic from the golden age of music? Add Vinyl and you’ll instantly add some of the vinyl hum, dirt, scratches, and artifacts that every critical listener knows is essential for proper and professional music production.
Plug-Ins aren’t just limited to manipulating audio. They can also be full instruments in and of themselves. Enter the VSTi! Here’s a sampling of some of my favorite free/cheap VSTis to peruse:
- Artifake_Labs – “Redtron_SE” (Free) – This is less of a VSTi and more of a sampler. The Redtron uses actual samples from a 500 series Mellotron and lets you load two units at once, with the ability to crossfade between them. ADSR parameters, global pitch and reverb are all accessible. Overall, a decent (and free) representation of the unit if classic vibes are what you’re after.
- Togu Audio Line – “TAL Noisemaker” (Free) – I’m a fan of TAL if you haven’t noticed 🙂 The TAL Noisemaker is a versatile instrument if lo-fi is what you’re after. 3 Oscillators, 2 LFOs, a filter, an envelope, a few effects, and a master section – doesn’t get much simpler than this.
- Sound Guru – “The Mangle” ($20) – The Mangle is a granular synthesizer. Drop a sample into the editor, and upon playback, the synth creates tiny “grains” of audio. Those grains are then stitched together to create a new texture. You can sculpt out an endless variety of sonic ambiences from short samples, or absolutely mangle (heh) a drum loop. I use it religiously in my sound design.
- ChordSpace – “ChordSpace” (Free) – I am particularly bad at music theory. If you are too, ChordSpace is a great assistant for you. It allows you to generate MIDI chords for use in *other* VSTi synths or samplers. It takes a minute after working through the manual, but it’s a useful piece of software in the right hands.
Mastering is the art of putting the finishing touches on a record. It’s a bit nebulous, but to me, Mastering is about taking your mix and gluing it all together. It’s increasing the levels to a commercial, standardized volume, and giving the entire work just a sense of cohesiveness and clarity. What mastering is not is simply smashing your mix through a limiter and making it loud as you can go. Here’s some tools I’ve used in my chain in the past:
- Tokyo Dawn Labs – “TDR Kotelnikov” (Free / $40 Upgrade) – The Tokyo Dawn Labs stuff is really good stuff. This particular wideband mastering compressor is notable for it’s clean sound. It also oversamples to avoid inter-sample peaks, and has a “Delta” mode to compare affected and original signal. The modest $40 upgrade adds an equal-loudness mode and high-pass filter option. This is a must-have plugin.
- Vladg/sound – “Limiter №6” (Free) – An excellent limiter system. I call it a system because instead of just having just ONE limiter, this unit is actually several, each with a different character and function. The idea is to use each module in sequence to slowly ramp up the amount of gain applied. This is opposed to doing it all at once in one stage and potentially getting some nasty artifacts.
- Variety of Sound – “Baxter EQ” (Free) – Yet another Variety of Sound plugin makes the list. The reason I like the Baxter is that it offers both L/R stereo or M/S mid-side modes, switched between with the flip of a switch. Need to a bit of excitement to the high end of the overheads? Need to boost that central kick drum? You got it. A great sounding EQ available for a very, very affordable price.
More Is Always More?
And there you have it. But I feel the need to reiterate what was said at the beginning of this article. Sometimes, inspiration doesn’t come from having 200 different compressors at your fingertips. Sometimes, inspiration comes from being limited and stretching those few tools you have to their absolute limits. But either way, with that word of warning: Get cranking!
You’ve got no excuse to not have the tools for the job now!