Make Music is FACT’s new section devoted to making music anywhere, whether you’re a seasoned producer or a total novice, using an arsenal of analog gear or just your iPhone.
Buying software effects can be expensive, but there are plenty available on the web that don’t cost a thing. Scott Wilson picks some of the best free VST plug-ins ranging from extreme arpeggiators to distortion.
As we showed in our list of the best free music software, you can get everything you need to make tracks for no money. Once you’ve got a DAW and a folder of basic synths and samplers however, you’ll want to get some VST effects to help your tracks stand out – something you can also do without spending a fortune.
Free effects plug-ins are even more plentiful than basic software tools, but that means they can be even more difficult to find. Trawling old web resources for the hidden diamonds can be the sort of frustrating, labyrinthine task that might have you handing over a lot of money for a compressor you could otherwise get for free.
A lot of the free plug-ins out the are old, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth a look. Whether you’re a seasoned producer or just getting started, this list will give you a collection of wild and wonderful free VST effects compatible with both Windows and Mac systems that you’ll find yourself going back to regularly.
It’s difficult to say why the Frohmage looks like a block of cheese. While this effect is capable of giving bass the corny funk twang that might have inspired its name, it’s capable of lots more. It’s basically just a resonant low-pass filter, but the inclusion of distortion, phase-like effects and delay makes it capable of giving anything from drums to synths an instant bit of extra character you won’t get with a standalone filter effect. The Frohmage has been around for a long time, but it’s still one of the best free VST effects you’ll find anywhere.
The CamelCrusher is another classic of the free VST world that does one thing very well – beefing up sound. It lets you select from two different distortion tones, and contains a low-pass filter and a compressor. It’ll work a charm if you want to make your synths stand out, but where it really excels is drums – crank up the distortion and engage the compressor’s “Phat” mode and you’ll have kick that cuts through anything. Unfortunately Camel Audio closed for business earlier this year, but you can still get the CamelCrusher from other free VST resources.
If you’ve always wanted to have a studio like King Tubby but just don’t have the space to fit those bulky analog delay units, the Freq Echo is your solution. Its interface might look basic, but it’s perfect for making dub-inspired sounds and adding radiophonic ambience to anything you send through it. The Freq Echo’s secret is the addition of a frequency shifter to its emulated analog echo, which adds dynamics to any sound with minimal effort. Most of Valhalla’s effect plug-ins cost $50, so this is something of a bargain.
If you want to create wild glitch-type effects then Glitchmachines should be your first stop. The company makes some incredible paid plug-ins but Hysteresis is one of its free offerings, combining a delay with a stutter module in an effect capable of making robotic timbres and wildly malfunctioning rhythmic patterns. For example, add it to an 808 pattern and you’ve instantly got a whole new drum kit, or add it to a pad sound for a detailed cybernetic backdrop. Most free effects do one thing very well, but Hysteresis feels like an entire toolkit.
Guitar Gadgets doesn’t look like much, but packed inside this piece of software are 11 unique effects based on guitar pedals. The developer describes the approach as “ugly but fun,” containing effects like Niagara Falls for creating massive reverb and the Convoluter for making “weird sounds”. It’s aimed at guitar users but synth users will get just as much use out of it, especially with the self-explanatory “Crusher” and the tape recorder emulation of the Microcassette pedal.
Audio Assault’s Defacer is the most metal plug-in you’re likely to find, both in name and function. It’s basically a distortion effect, but one that totally mangles any incoming audio as opposed to just making it rough around the edges, and with a few twists of the knobs you can add pretty much any sound and be given a tinnitus-inducing blast of noise. When you need to make some noise but nothing else is quite cutting it, Defacer is one to try.
Fracture is another of Glitchmachines’ free effects. It works by buffering the incoming audio then sending it through a filter, three LFOs and a delay, a process capable of shaking your sounds apart. Its interface is a little less intuitive than Hysteresis, but it’s just as capable of creating hyper-detailed sounds. The fun to be had from Fracture is almost endless, but combining it with a saw wave to create massive iridescent lead sounds is probably one of the most fun things you can do with it.
If your standard arpeggiator has become a bit stale, then Hypercyclic is the answer. It’s an LFO-driven, “MIDI-mangling” arpeggiator designed especially for adding the randomness to a rhythm that grid-based compositions can lack while keeping things within the boundaries of a bar. It might not be the best thing for making conventional club tracks, but if you need something to help you think in a less linear fashion about your music, this is a good starting point.
Hadron Particle Synthesiser
Despite its name, the Hadron Particle Synth is actually a hybrid of several things – as well as being a synthesizer, it’s a sampler and an effect. Like other granulator effects it breaks down sound into tiny pieces, making it ideal for creating strange vocals as well as delicate distortion. Partikkel Audio is so confident this is a leap on from granular synthesis that the company has dubbed the technology “particle synthesis”.
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