Since you’re geeky enough to be interested in what I use to make music, I figured this might be a good place to recommend some excellent freeware stuff. This is not intended to be a comprehensive list. It’s just the plugins I personally use, and as my needs are kind of niched it covers just a small portion of the huge freeware VST market.
“Honorable mentions” lists plugins that I use more infrequently. They should be considered recommended, though I’m not familiar enough with them to provide detailed descriptions of their strengths.
This ageing soundfont player is my main sampler, believe it or not. It was soundfonts that got me started with using sampled instruments, and I’ve stuck with the format despite it being relatively unsophisticated compared to more modern stuff. sfz+ is a 16 channel multi-timbral soundfont player with eight outputs, excellent sound quality and plenty of tweaking options. It might seem a little dated compared to modern samplers you might come in kontakt with but it’s rock-solid stable over a 32 bit bridge and combined with REAPER’s scripting engine it lets me do everything I need.
After the old rgc:audio SFZ Player went the way of the dodo I kept hoping and wishing for a modern successor to emerge; a simple but full-featured sfz player with x64 support and disk streaming. And finally it happened. Plogue’s Sforzando is everything SFZ Player was and more.
I’m usually a bit iffy about free offerings from big developers as they’re often everything but free except in the “gratis” meaning of the word. It’s usually just crippleware designed to lure users into buying sample libraries and/or upgrading to the full-fledged product. Admittedly Alchemy Player falls into this bait-and-switch category as well, except for a couple of major differences: it has a large selection of cool and highly usable presets (especially with the addon available for registered users), plus it can function as a basic SFZ player.
Honorable mentions: TX16Wx
I wasn’t even aware of this plugin until maybe a year ago (as of this writing) when it was released as part of a Beat.de magware bundle. This is, and I kid you not, probably the best free all-round synth you will find. Extremely versatile, loads of presets, and the sound quality is miles above anything else in the free realm except for maybe TyrellN6. It’s one of those synths that will captivate and inspire you when just browsing through the presets.
Don’t let it’s mundane name and two-oscillator setup fool you; this is a monster of a synth with almost limitless possibilities. It can do anything from classic pads and leads to crispy FM stuff and plain noisy weirdness. I usually turn to it when I’m looking for modern lead sounds or disturbing, dark electronic sfx. The default skin is terrible though, I recommend the Limeflavour ones instead.
This is the granddaddy of all free VST synths. Synth1 might seem unremarkable and unsexy at a glance, but it’s actually a very versatile little instrument. Not quite as versatile as Oatmeal or Dune perhaps, but a lot easier to program. And for those who aren’t /really/ into programming synths — I admit it, I’m one of you — there is a huge amount of preset banks available for it.
I have the “official” Minimoog V Original offered by Arturia as freeware sometime in 2012. I still turn to MinimogueVA when looking for Moog sounds. Nuff said.
I have no experience with the Ensoniq hardware synth that SQ8L is modeled after, so I can’t say how close this emulation is. But for aliased retro-digital synth sounds, SQ8L is excellent. It’s also extremely light on CPU so layering two or more of these babies is not a problem if you find that a single instance won’t yield the sound you’re looking for. Can be tedious to tweak though, as the interface focuses more on emulating the hardware than being user friendly.
NuBiLE + SpinnerLE
Coming from a prog rock background, my virtual instrument collection would feel incomplete without a good organ VSTi. For those moments when I want to add some retro dirt to my songs, NubiLE and its Leslie-simulator sibling SpinnerLE are my weapons of choice. As I’m not an organ nerd I can’t describe to you what exact features make this combo better than other plugins, but it has always given me some really good results. It can do everything from cheesy 60’s-style organs to roaring Hammond B3 goodness.
REAPER’s native EQ is all I need. I look at EQ as a purely surgical editing tool and honestly, character EQ’s with unpredictable ways of handling various frequency bands really don’t make sense to me. Maybe because I’m firmly rooted in the digital world and have no firsthand experience with (nor nostalgic connections to) classic high-end mixing consoles.
I’m very picky about reverbs and I must say that there is nothing in the free realm that I would normally choose over my three fave reverbs (ValhallaRoom, ValhallaVintageVerb and Reverberate). Still, as I sometimes need to share projects with people who don’t have the same plugins as me, there’s a few gems that I want to mention.
Freeverb3 ProG & Hibiki
Please don’t dismiss the Freeverb3 package because of its 1997-looking UI and low level of user friendliness. It has a number of great-sounding algo reverbs, ProG and Hibiki being my favorites. On a desert island with only freeware to choose from, Hibiki would be my go-to orchestral reverb.
Tila2 is the best free room ambience reverb around, period.
When I need zero latency convolution reverb and true stereo operation is not crucial, Reverberate LE is what I turn to.
Just like all of REAPER’s native plugs, ReaDelay looks basic at a glance but has a whole wealth of options when you dig into it. It can do anything from just delaying a signal by [n] amount to all sorts of echo effects.
Really good and versatile plugins have a certain way of defying attempts to describe them. Is it a chorus? Is it a delay? No, it’s NastyDLA! As a matter of fact it’s both, joined at the hip. NastyDLA isn’t my first choice for either basic chorus or delay as it’s kind of finnicky to tweak and can turn your mix into a mush if you’re not careful. But for adding life and motion to, say, a clean guitar or a synth lead, it’s brilliant.
This puppy is something as rare as a highly configurable chorus effect. Most VST choruses rarely let you do any tweaking beyond what your standard stompbox offers (depth/speed/mix). But CH-2 puts you in control of how many delay lines you want, where they should be panned and much more. This means that you can get creative and use it for a lot more than 1980’s guitar effects. Most often I just want a standard chorus. But I like to keep CH-2 handy for those moments when a standard chorus just doesn’t cut it.
When I want something more straightforward than NastyDLA or CH-2, I turn to Dust Bucket. Excellent for watery, shimmering clean guitars but it will of course handle any type of chorusing duty.
My go-to compressor. It’s clean and highly utilitarian. Most often that’s the kind of compression I want.
This Russian-developed beast with its industrial Soviet-style interface not only looks really damn cool, Molot — which means “hammer” — is also a kickass character compressor. Definitely not something I would use for transparent compression, as Molot isn’t really about that. It colors everything you feed through it, and colors it in a good way. In a rock scenario where a bit of analog mojo is never bad, Molot works on anything.
This oldie may not be the subtlest and prettiest compressor out there, but that’s part of its charm. Great for “effect compression” i.e. when you want to squish the living crap out of something in a non-subtle manner. You could probably get near-identical results from other dirty compressors (like Molot), but due to its straightforwardness I still find myself reaching for Blockfish every now and again.
Honorable mentions: Density Mk II, RedPhatt Pro
A lot of goodies in this package for those who use midi a lot.
Kjaerhus Classic Auto filter
Unlike the rest of the Classic series this weird plugin has found a permanent home in my setup. I love it. Great for creating strange synthetic textures from basically anything, but particularly nice on drum loops and distorted guitars. I wish it came as a guitar pedal!
I really, REALLY hate autotuned vocals. But autotune can be useful for other things, especially touching up wind instrument parts. GSnap is great for this. In fact, most of the section winds/brass patches in SSO featured a lot of GSnap.