One of the most frequent questions I get asked by other producers is what my favorite plugins are - anyone who’s ever been in the studio with me knows I’ve tried or bought just about everything out there, from Synths to EQ’s and Compressors. One of the most valuable things I’ve learned is that the price of a plugin rarely has anything to do with it’s quality, and with that in mind I give you a list of the absolute best plugins you can get for free that will substantially improve your mixes if you learn how to use them well.
This thing might be the best compressor I have, even better than my Slate Virtual Buss Compressors, Vintage Warmer, Kush UBK-1, and some of the other more expensive plugins I’ve bought. It’s absurdly good on the mixbuss, and has the kind of weight only hardware typically has. What makes this plugin unique (definitely read the manual on this one!) is it’s dual release stages: unlike your typical compressor, the TDR II uses a blend of both short and long release times to give you super smooth compression that’s a blend of Peak and RMS. It’s got a parallel channel built in, High Pass Sidechain, and by far the coolest feature to me is the “Delta” button - click this and the plugin will only play you the compressed component of your audio signal, so you can literally hear exactly what the compressor is touching and what it isn’t. Especially when you’re new to compression, that can be very hard to figure out, and this plugin is as good as it gets for any price.
If you’re deep in the plugin game you know Klanghelm dropped one of the best (and cheapest) compressors last year with the DC8C. The IVGI is a free version of their upcoming Console/Saturation plugin, and it is ridiculously good. Set the trim knob so the loudest part of your synth is just tapping the red part of the meter, as you would on an analog desk - and compensate up or down with the output knob. Turn drive to between 1 and 3, set Asymm to 7-10 (Asymm is basically a “transparency” knob - the higher you set it, the more subtle and clean the saturation will be), and turn crosstalk up if you want to enhance your stereo field a bit. The best part? The Frequency Response knob on the lower right hand corner. Turn this a bit to the right, and you’ll hear your highs saturate and come to life in a way no EQ can do - turn it to the left and it will do the same for bass frequencies.
I can’t say I use this as my master limiter, because FabFilter’s Pro-L and a good clipper are better. But for a free plugin, it’s excellent. It’s got a master buss compressor, and most importantly, a good hard clipper with oversampling. A few dB’s of clipping (not clipping your DAW’s output - using a proper hard clipping plugin) before your master limiter will help you retain punch and squeeze an extra couple dB’s of loudness out of a track without pumping. Unlike limiting, clipping does not destroy or round off your transients - in fact a good clipper distorts and saturates transients in a pleasing way - so it allows you to retain punch.
Flux makes probably the best plugins around - their multiband compressor Alchemist is from another planet - but most of their plugins also run upwards of $500 a pop. Luckily they decided to give away the transient designer section of Alchemist, called Bittersweet, for free. If you’ve never used a transient enhancer before, I’d say they’re almost as essential for electronic music as compression and EQ. Unlike a compressor, which can enhance transients if set correctly, a transient designer does not modulate the amplitude of a sound above a certain threshold - it just enhances the attack or release phase of a sound’s envelope. Put this on any sound you need to get some more punch out of - drums, sharp synth cuts, pluck sounds - and turn the knob right to increase the attack of the sound.
TAL makes a lot of awesome plugins, and their new synths are some of the best you can buy. Luckily some of their effects, including their reverb and chorus, are completely free. Their chorus is hands down the best one you will find anywhere - free or paid. Their reverb isn’t the best I have, but it’s really really good, CPU efficient, and by far the best thing you can get for free. It’s easy to set unlike a lot of reverb plugins and it’s got a great overall width and tone to it.
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