20 Top Plug-Ins For Music Production

If you’ve ever searched for free plug-ins you’ll know there are a LOT of them out there. You’ll also have quickly realised that just because something is free, it doesn’t mean you’re going to want it - there are a lot of… how can we put this… pretty awful plugins out there! However, there are also plenty of genuinely useful, high quality offerings, along with oddities you won't see a major developer releasing - it’s just a matter of finding those diamonds in the rough.

In this article, we list twenty of our favourite free plug-ins - including useful utilities, hardware emulations, virtual instruments and FX. If you’ve come across any hidden gems in your audio travels, we’d love to hear about them. In the meantime, we hope you find something useful here…

TDR Nova is a highly functional mixing and mastering tool, offering parametric EQ, dynamic EQ, frequency-conscious compression (useful for de-essing), multiband compression and wideband compression. Considering this is a free plug-in, the feature set and amount of control on offer is truly exceptional with enough musicality to stop it sounding clinical – particularly in the HF. A real swiss-army knife EQ that will come in handy for all sorts of applications.

Need a quick way of creating dub-style delay effects? FreqEcho is a simple-to-use, high quality delay that adjusts the frequency of each repeat. This thing really comes alive when you start automating the parameters, capable of all sorts of sonic weirdness to add interest to your tracks.

Metric Halo Thump is a great way to add weight your tracks. Essentially a sub-harmonic synthesizer, Thump analyses the pitch and dynamics info in your audio and uses it to synthesize low frequency content – fattening up your tracks and building low-octave support for kick drum, tom, snare and other percussive tracks – perfect for recreating the sounds of classic drum machines like the TR-808.

Comprised of a 2-band equalizer combining a passive bass equalizer, an active treble section and a germanium based preamp, this plug-in is designed to provide the sonic character of germanium Class-A transistors. As with many ‘vintage-style’ circuits, the sound is warm and sweet, although the sampled unit is of recent manufacture. If you’re looking for rich harmonics, velvety ‘air,’ and a little bit of saturation, this is the plug-in for you. It shines on vocals, drums (especially snare drum and the whole drum bus), bass, acoustic guitars and pianos. Acustica plugins use the free Aquarius host app which you'll need to download first...

This powerful modular synth package contains 22 modules and over 150 presets. In addition to the broad range of included modules, this infinitely expandable soft synth sounds very impressive, inviting many hours of exploration. A great way to feed your modular synth habit when you aren’t near your hardware rig.

As the name suggests, this plug-in is used for seriously stretching your audio – like 50x times the original length! Using “spectral smoothing” algorithms, this plugin turns any audio into unusual textures that can be used as pads, or for sound design etc. Unlike other time-stretch plugins designed to retain audio accuracy over a limited range, Extreme Sound Stretch is optimized for exaggerated stretching, creating gorgeous ethereal textures from the most mundane source material.

A spectrum analyzer is a very useful visual tool for checking your mixes. Voxengo's Span Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) analyzer gives you all the essential tools in an attractive, well laid out package. It’s probably fair to say this is one of the better analyzer plug-ins out there, the fact that it’s free is just icing on the cake!

There are plenty of great sounding emulations of the classic “big boy” Marshall amps – Plexi Super Lead, JCM800 etc – so it’s nice to see a plug-in version of their late 1980’s Lead 12 solid state amp. Audiority have enhanced the original feature set with a “Contour” knob for a more scooped tone and an additional “Boost Overdrive” stage. An integrated cab simulator means you can get very useable tones, very quickly. A little gem of a plug-in!

This is one of those plug-ins that can fundamentally change the character of your tracks – adding lo-fi vinyl effects – including dust, scratches, warp and mechanical noise - for instant 80’s hip-hop vibes or sound design FX.

Voted KVR Reader’s Choice favourite free virtual instrument, it’s easy to see why this versatile hybrid synth is so popular. This is a HUGE, beautiful sounding synth with powerful oscillators, a stack of modulation options and great sounding filters. When it comes to free synth VI’s, Surge really does stand out from the pack. You can lose a lot of time getting lost in Surge and with regular updates that have introduced heaps of new features since its introduction way back in 2005 it never gets tired!

A “lite” version of Klanghelm’s MJUC variable-mu compressor plug-in, MJUC jr nails the smooth, natural and musical character you expect from this type of compressor design. Particularly good on mix bus for gently gluing your tracks together. Klanghelm’s two other free offerings – IVGI saturation plug-in and DC1A “character compressor” are also well worth checking out.

This emulation of a Fender Precision Bass is a great way to get bass parts down fast. Easy to navigate and quick to get results from, Bass P Lite offers a surprising number of articulations for authenticity including Sustain, Palm Mute, Natural Harmonic, Hammer On & Pull Off, Legato Slide, Slapping, Popping and more…

Krush combines bit crushing and downsampling algorithms with a warm drive stage, analogue-modelled resonant filters and a modulation section to add an extra creative dimension to your sound. From modulated crunch to the gnarliest digital nastiness, Krush is great for sound design, emulating the sound of old 8- and 12-bit samplers and more.

Another high-quality offering from Valhalla, Super Massive creates huge, gorgeous spatial delays and reverbs that evolve over time. Perfect for adding movement to pads, creating swirling textures and more.

This great emulation of Roland’s JX-8P – or rather the PG-800 programmer that controlled it – really nails the sound of this classic 1980’s 6-voice polysynth. An analogue synth with digitally controlled oscillators, JX-8P was used extensively by Gary Numan, Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis and many more. In a world of increasingly complex soft synths, sometimes it’s nice to deep dive into a single instrument with simple, familiar controls.

This compressor plug-in has been around for 10+ years and, with over half a million downloads, continues to be one of the most popular dynamics plugins available. A forward-sounding processor with vintage-style warmth, Version 3 adds an external sidechain input, a “Full Bandwidth” switch that bypasses the built-in warming filter and more accurate metering. Useful for all sorts of compression duties, but perhaps best on drum bus and pumping rhythm tracks.

When a plug-in designer is backed by Eventide, you know you’re looking at a quality product. Pendulate is a unique “chaotic” monosynth based on a double-pendulum oscillator. A hugely powerful software synth capable of creating original basses, leads and textures like you’ve never heard before. Check out the demo video to get an idea of what Pendulum is capable of…

Remember how bad cassettes used to sound? If your tracks are feeling a bit too polished and shiny, Cassette 2 will add crunchy lo-fi cassette tape effects including wow & flutter, noise and saturation. A very useful texture capable of adding personality to your audio, this plug-in is a lot of fun!

A highly accurate plug-in emulation of Roger Schult’s W2395C Baxandall EQ. Featuring controls for low and high frequencies alongside a semi-parametric mid-band filter, the plug-in version offers more functionality than the hardware unit with an additional drive control to add saturation to what is otherwise a very clean and natural sounding EQ.

One of this writer’s favourite plug-ins - free or paid - LABS is an ever-expanding series of unusual software instruments. You’ll need to download the LABS “shell” then you can simply add instruments as you prefer. With 40 instruments currently available, LABS manage to add an unusual twist to each sound, making them a fresh source of inspiration when writing or adding an extra dimension to existing tracks.

This plug-in is about as simple as it gets – a smooth 2nd order Butterworth low-pass/high-pass filter that provides a super-quick way of topping and tailing audio tracks. Placing it in your first DAW mixer insert slot allows you to remove unwanted LF rumble and HF hiss before the audio hits the rest of your signal chain – and sometimes that’s all you need for cleaning up a track without having to get into detailed EQ. Not hugely exciting, but very useful!