Once you’ve got all those synths, utilities and basic effects however, you’re going to want more. Even if you’re a seasoned user, it’s still possible to hit a wall with the plug-ins you’ve already got, and new ones generally don’t come cheap.
While you can always buy new plug-ins to inspire you, some of the craziest effects out there are completely free, ranging from stuttering arpeggiators to plug-ins that turn basic synth pads into glitch-filled backdrops in seconds. A lot of them are pretty old, but still have a lot to offer if you want to have some fun mangling audio.
As before, this list isn’t the most complete list of free effects software on the web, but everything here is compatible with both Windows and OS X environments, and will work on 32 and 64-bit systems (with the exception of one). Whether you’re a novice or a pro, there’s bound to be something here to sink a few hours of studio time into.
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”. It’s the only piece of software on this list not compatible with 64-bit Macs yet, but the company has promised this will be rectified soon.