Aside from having fun making sounds, there's a world of exploration to be had with effects. Their uses span the possibilities of the music they process - applying polish to mixes, subtly lifting specific instruments or providing creative tools for audio exploration and new directions. Let's take a look at some essential FREE audio effects available now:
Valhalla - Supermassive / Freq Echo [Win/Mac]
Leading the way in the free and the paid for categories, Valhalla offer some of the best free plugins with their Supermassive Delay and Freq Echo devices. Supermassive is a giant delay and reverb unit, offering galaxy-expanding washes and deep glacial waves to any signal - perfect for vocal elements, pads and extreme sound design. Freq Mod fuses together pitch shifting and echo effects to create anything from subtle sonic artifacts to barber-pole metallic phasing effects.
TAL - Filter-2 / Chorus-LX [Win/Mac/Linux]
TAL is a name synonymous with the finest free plugin lists with a superb selection of effects - the standout choices being TAL Filter-2 and TAL Chorus LX. The latter is based on the lush Juno-60 two-type Chorus, famed for adding an intangible fizz and lift to playback. Filter-2 is a host-synced filter module for automated gate and filter envelope modulation - which on the face of it seems simple, but can hugely alter and re-texturise any incoming part.
iZotope - Vinyl / Vocal Doubler [Win/Mac]
iZotope are known for their suites and high end plugins, as well as a number of high quality free effects which have stood the test of time. The Vocal Doubler comes highly recommended for fattening up lead or backing vocals and offering them a little more energy and richness. Vinyl is a long-standing effect which adds vinyl crackle, warping and mechanical noise to a signal, as if being played from a record. It's perfect for replicating dusty breaks and adding a nostalgic aged texture to anything which sounds a bit plastic.
Native Instrument Guitar Rig Player / Reaktor Player [Win/Mac]
Native Instruments have been at the forefront of plugin design for a number of years, and while they have given away some of their plugins (Supercharger, Replika and Driver have all been free new year gifts at one time) they now have a range of players which offer access to their incredible library of sounds with cut down features. The Reaktor Player and Guitar Rig Player are both impressive and diverse effects worth investigating with tonnes of high-quality presets to try out for free.
NI Reaktor - VHS Audio Degradation Suite [Win/Mac]
If you own the full version of Reaktor, you'll know the User Library is jam-packed with home made devices featuring all manner of synths, samplers, and effects crafted and designed by users. One effect which comes highly recommended is the VHS Audio Degradation Suite - a video cassette emulation plugin which adds 1980s style, wow and flutter to incoming signals. Perfect for lofi genres or adding ethereal texture to any instrument with loads of tweakable parameters. .
Polyverse Wider [Win/Mac]
Polyverse offers a selection of high-end effects endorsed by Psy Trance Pioneers Infected Mushroom. Their free plugin Wider is good as an all-encompassing mix tool to broaden the sound image or as a more creative utility to set the stereo field per instrument. It also boasts widening for mono signals and ensures any processed signal will remain in phase.
OTT by XFer Records [Win/Mac]
Xfer Records are well known for their flagship Serum softsynth, with some more functional other plugins available. OTT is part of their freeware collection and offers both upward and downward expansion over multiple EQ bands to squeeze and push volume in or out of an incoming signal. It's good for high octane genres but also has more subtle uses to sound sculpting and is a go-to device for many producers looking for 'Over The Top' dynamics.
UHE Protoverb [Win/Mac/Linux]
U-He come highly recommended in the free and paid for categories, but their Protoverb is a free experimental reverb engine which is referred to as 'researchware'. Rather than subduing room resonances it seeks to find them and build a sound around them, resulting in some interesting sonic characteristics and a subversive take on reverb.
Tritik Krush [Win/Mac]
This little bit crusher and downsampler module from Tritik is not only designed to add crispness and crunch but Krush combines the bit-reduction with a filter; always a winning combination! With options to drive the signal and modulate any of the above, it's a lofi pocket powerhouse which might evidently tempt you into an upgrade.
TokyoDawnRecords Nova [Win/Mac]
TDR are the makers of NOVA, an EQ which offers parametric and dynamic EQ, with multi-band, wide band and frequency selective compression. They also have a discontinued collection which is worth checking out for the compression and limiting plugins.
Softtube Saturation Knob [Win/Mac]
Softube deliver a range of excellent VST plugins and offer their Saturation Knob for free - bringing three levels of distortion to the table. It's ideal for drums, bass, and anything requiring a bit of analog-modelled warmth with a simple user interface. Here's a great tutorial:
AudioDamage Rough Rider [Win/Mac/Linux]
With over half a million downloads, it's clear that Rough Rider from Audiodamage is worth a look. It's a compressor which has recently been updated to include a side chain input and a full bandwidth option to bypass the warming filter.
Glitch Machines Fracture [Win/Mac]
Cableguys Pancake [Win/Mac]
Pancake is a creative wildcard entry offering out-there experimentation and audio practicality in the same breath. It'll automate panning subtle or to extreme levels - free or in sync to your host.
32-Bit Flashback: De La Mancha Truc [Win]
It would be impossible to complete this list without mentioning a suite of plugins which have been part of my collection for years. De La Mancha makes all kinds of neat plugins but Truc 1 and 2 take centre stage - both are multi-effect plugins with instant automation built into each patch. Prepare to add glitched up motions and crunchy lo-fi staggers, with a huge amount of fun and playful effects for all kinds of uses.
So, there we have our list! With so many freebies and hidden gems online, it's a tough one to whittle down. What are your go-to audio effects? Did we miss a favourite of yours?