Whether you are looking to just share your music with other people or make a career with your music, your sonic creations will inevitably end up in digital format…if it doesn’t start there first. You could be an up and coming beat smith cranking out songs onto SoundCloud, a singer/songwriter uploading cover songs to YouTube or a DIY band promoting your music thru BandCamp, your sounds will be converted into digital format at some point along the way.
In this post I’ll share with you some free tools that will help you take those sounds, once their recorded or produced (digitally), and give them that polished feel before you send your music out into the world. The easiest, most affordable and accessible way to get your sounds to a professional level of quality is through the use of plugins! Plugin manufacturers are doing a great job of creating high quality audio processing plugins, at affordable prices, that integrate with any digital audio workstation (DAW) on the market. An added benefit for you, the user, is that in order to entice new customers, a lot of plugin companies are giving away some of their top plugins for FREE!
I had a friend ask me one time, “If all these plugin do the same thing then why are there so many different kinds of them?” The easiest answer is that each plugin is created using different coding procedures. So the sounds going into two very similar compressors will be calculated and processed differently, which will give you a different sound coming out of those plugins. Also, some plugins are modeled after real analog equipment while other plugins are designed to exploit the advantages offered by the digital world. Both styles of plugins offer their own pros and cons but I’ll save that for another post.
Here are the 7 free tools for better sounding music. Each of these have their own job for getting your music sounding fuller, warmer, brighter, cruncher, louder, and any other adjective or adverb you might use to explain the sound you’re after! However, they can be used in combination to really take your music to a new level. All the plugins listed on this page are Free and you can find links to take you to the page where you can get your free plugin!
If you want more clarity in your mix, then EQ is where it’s at! Using EQ in the right way will help to clear out what’s often referred to as “mud” in the mix. Applying some good EQ techniques can quickly and easily give the sounds/instruments in your song some room to be heard.
You’ll find EQ plugins are standard in every DAW these days. I came across the TDR VOX Slick EQ and it has some nice presets that you can make use of. I like the fact that it offers some saturation along with 4 different styles of EQ. This just means that you can have the same settings but get a slightly different sound out of the same plugin if you change the style between American, British, German or Soviet.
Not every EQ on the market includes a filter, although it is becoming a standard for an EQ to have both Hi and Lo pass filters. Hi-Pass Filters are the best for cleaning up your mix. I use them on pretty much every track, even the kick and bass! Plugin Alliance offers a free bundle of plugins for EQ and Filters, which includes:
- bx_cleansweepV2 – hi/lo pass filter
- bx_solo – M/S mixing technique
- niveau filter – filter that cuts lows when boosting highs and vice versa
- free ranger – 4-band graphic EQ
Compression can make drums hit harder, it can give your song movement, and it can help things like vocals really “pop” or stand out in the mix. It can also make your song sound lifeless when it’s over used, so be careful not to crush your sounds! Get this right and your song can sound full and dynamic. Compressors are also used pretty heavily as effects in dance and electronic music to create a pumping sound. This is done through a technique called side chain compression.
Klanghelm and Tokyo Dawn Records both offer free compression plugins that work great. For being free plugins these work just as well as some of the plugins I’ve paid for. I wouldn’t say free is better than paid or vice versa. They’re all tools, it’s just a matter of how you use them. A hammer in the hands of a skilled carpenter can accomplish more then the same hammer in the hands of someone with no carpentry experience.
These work great when you want to remove unwanted noises while still keeping the sounds you want. They can also be good as an effect for chopping up long sounds through the use of side chaining similar to side chain compression. Gates work great for live recordings, especially for drums in a live band recording situation or maybe a DIY home recording.
You can use a gate to remove some unwanted reverb off of an instrument/vocal or to tighten up a sound. If you make sample based music, a gate could be useful for cleaning up a sample in order to use it in your track. You can also use a gate to cut out bleed from other microphones. For instance, when you have a recording of a kick drum but the snare is bleeding into the kick mic. A gate could be used to remove the snare sound, while still maintaining the sound of the kick.
Gates are pretty standard tools in every DAW. Some compressors have a gate included in the same plugin, like in the Waves C1 compressor/gate plugin. Not too many companies have gone out of their way to create specialized gate plugins since they are pretty standard tools. However, I managed to find one that is a rhythmic gate. You can set this plugin to create patterns, allowing the gate itself to maybe bring a stale sound to life. For instance, applying this to a droning pad sound that doesn’t change much. This can be fun to play with for some new creative ideas.
These are my go to plugins when I want to get things sounding fuller, meatier, bigger, etc. Distortion can be used as a cool effect if you lay it on heavy. However, it can also be used to thicken up a sound if you just add a little bit of distortion. You can look at saturation sort of like you would with a sponge. You can soak up a lot of water with a sponge, to the point that it is dripping wet. You can do the same with sounds by over saturating them which can add some extra color, warmth, and all kinds of other good things. You can also use saturation to the point that it begins to distort the sound. This would be similar to the sponge analogy where the sound has reached its saturation point and is now dripping (or distorting).
Soft Tube offers a free saturation plugin called the Saturation Knob and this has become my go to plugin when I want to fatten up a sound! Klanghelm offers the IVGI, which I haven’t used too much because the Soft Tubes saturation knob is extremely easy to use, since it’s just one knob and a switch. But if you want a little more control over how you are saturating the sound then the IVGI is a better choice. I like using the Saturation Knob when I’m
producing and the IVGI more so for mixing.
producing and the IVGI more so for mixing.
Reverb can make things sound very real. However, it can also make things sound very fake, in both good and bad ways. Some reverb plugins can have a steel or tin sounding quality to them which makes the reverb sound fake when you put it on your tracks. A great tip I learned for removing some of that tin or steel sound is to use a low-pass filter and cut out the frequencies between 3KHz to 5KHz and above. This helps make the reverb sound more natural. However, if you’re looking for an unnatural sounding reverb then forget about that tip. 🙂
Delay effects are great for a lot of reasons. Delays are often used for adding the echo effect at the end of a note or word however, I’ve found that they can be used in other ways. Delays can also be used to add some natural sounding acoustics to a song by adding a very short delay, also known as a slap back delay, to a reverb. This can make it sound like your in a small room. It’s sometimes better to do this with a delay plugin along with a reverb plugin, instead of trying to do both in one plugin. Reverb plugins will often have a pre-delay setting but they don’t always offer a delay setting. These are two different effects and will give you very different sounds when you apply them.
Delay effects can also give you that really cool Dub Reggae sound if you’re looking for that. It can also be used to add some thickness to vocals by using a short delay without a lot of feedback. It makes it sound like there are extra layers to the vocal. Delays are great for instruments as well. One really cool delay plugin I’ve found is by Valhalla and its called FreqEcho. I recommend checking out the rest of Valhalla’s plugins as well. (There are only six total) For the price, ($50 each) these are some of the best sounding effects plugins that I’ve heard. Most of the effects plugins I like to use start at $150 and can get up to $350 per plugin.
I put these three into one because they essentially are the same thing, just applied in slightly different ways. They use phase relationships in order to create effect. I won’t get too deep into what they do here. I’ll save that for another post. These are great for adding movement to your sounds. You can add a phaser or flanger plugin in order to add movement to a sound. These usually work best for pad sounds, backing vocals, or any other sort of sustained sound.
These plugins can also make things sound fuller. Chorus plugins in particular are good for this. They do pretty much what the name suggests. They add layers to your sound by taking one sound and making it sound like two or three different sounds. If you want to make something sound fuller then this would be a good plugin for that.
Blue Cat’s Freeware Plugin Bundle offers all three of these plus a few extras.
MeldaProduction also offers a plugin bundle that is jam packed with just about everything I shared on this list plus others not included on this list. They offer over 20 free plugins! You don’t have to get all of the plugins either. You can choose which ones you want before you start the download!
You can also stay connected to sites like DontCrack.com who sometimes offer free plugins from different manufacturers along with discounts. SoundToys.com doesn’t have any free plugins however, they sometimes have fun little contests or give-a-ways for their plugins. I love my SoundToys plugins and I use them in pretty much everything I create or mix!
The tools I talked about in this post are all tools I’ve come to know and use over the years for improving the quality in my own music and other people who I’ve worked with. Other engineers and producers, who I’ve either learned from or have worked with directly, use all of the seven tools mentioned here as well.
Have you tried out any of these plugins? Drop a comment below to let me know which ones you like to use and what you are using them for.
Pro Audio Enthusiast And Digital Marketer
With A Tendency To Bust A Move