Edit 11/5/2010 – This list is about a year out of date! There have been a lot of great releases in the meantime, some things are no longer available, and I intend to recompile the list to make it again relevant. There are some nice plugins here, some tools that I do use often, but there are a lot of great releases since that deserve mention. In the meantime, you can check out my ongoing posts on freeware by searching “Free” on my blog roll search bar, or browsing the free software category.
A quick utility before I get to the VSTs: Acon Digital Media’s EffectChainer, a stand-alone VST host that allows you to load up all these effects for real-time processing. If you don’t have a DAW that can load VSTs, this will let you experience their sounds. It’s beyond the scope of this page to get into the specifics of how to work with all this stuff, but GuitarAmpModeling.com member MetalGod suggested I include this software and I thought it might be useful to some.
Now, on to the list!
Amp Modeling and Distortion Plugins
AcmeBarGig, easily the most prolific freeware developer EVER in terms of output compared to time, has tons of great sounding guitar amps and a bass amp or two, as well as some effects. I’ve got clips of some of their stuff on my blog proper, but if you trust my word, I can give it: Ken is a great programmer and he makes extremely high quality VSTs.
LePou Plugins includes one of the best (perhaps the very best) cabinet IR loaders around, as well as two great sounding amp sims so far with more on the way. Currently the two amps featured are SoloC which emulates a Soldano high-gain amp (with a very nice sounding, even clean channel that will crunch at higher settings), and HyBrit, a dual-model Plexi and JCM800 emulator. Both of them come in three forms: preamp, head, and full stack. The preamp does not have a power amp, the head has both a preamp and a power amp, and the full stack includes a properly skinned version of his LeCab cabinet loader as part of the VST. Very cool.
Voxengo Boogex was one of the better freeware amp sims around for awhile, though by now it’s getting a bit long in the tooth in my opinion – which is only to say that it’s lost some of its luster as commercial-quality freeware has become more mainstream thanks to the efforts of some of the other plugin makers linked here. Still, it remains a powerful simulation thanks to deep but intuitive tone shaping options, and its low-latency IR loader has served many as their main cabinet simulation in the past. Well worth putting in your collection.
Nick Crow Lab 7170 and 8180 heads as well as Nick Crow Wagner Sharp MkII and Nick Crow Simple Guitar Combo – all of these are programmed by Nick Crow, a very talented freeware analog modeling coder, and feature skins by the well-loved community skinner Requietus. Their work has resulted in plugins that are easy to use and nice to look at in addition to sounding amazing. Put the 7170 and 8180 heads up next to Peavey’s ReValver MkIII 6505 and 6505+ heads, I think you’ll begin to understand just how good freeware is these days
I would be remiss if, upon mentioning Requietus, I didn’t link you to his blog as well – he is not a software maker per se, but he does do some really advanced skinning and makes GUI wrappers for some of the most popular plugins around. Sometimes these wrappers add functionality, like stereo operation for mono plugins. I personally have downloaded everything he has ever put out, and I imagine after checking out some of his work, you might, too.
One of Requietus’ early projects that got him a lot of notice was adding functional GUI wrappers to the SimulAnalog Guitar Suite. This is one of the oldest good-sounding freeware amp and pedal packs around, featuring modeling technology that would eventually go on (in its fourth generation) to be used as the basis for the interesting and powerful Overloud TH1 commercial amp modeler. I definitely recommend getting the version available from Requietus’ blog, as the GUIs that he adds to them make them much easier to work with and also give the option of stereo operation, but I felt I should include the links to the originals as well.
On a similar note, BTE Audio has two great free plugins that are both fully wrapped/skinned by Requietus to have GUIs that match the quality of their sound. Once again I recommend getting the wrapped versions on Requietus’ blog above, but the originals are included here: TubeScreamerSecret (or TSS), my number one favorite overdrive pedal simulator ever and what I use to overdrive or boost any amp when I need it, and Juicy77, a Soldano simulator that isn’t related to the amp that LePou’s SoloC simulates (in other words, they don’t cover the same ground so they’re both worth having). Of the two of them TSS definitely gets the most use in my studio; I have used it on more tracks than any other single modeling-related software, just because it has a quality sound with which I am very familiar and which I find very useful for anything you could use a Tubescreamer for in the real world, from getting that flavor of overdrive into a clean channel all the way to hitting the front end of a modeled amp harder to drive it into massive distortion.
Aradaz’ Plugins are well worth the time to download, too. They have the honor of having been featured prominently on the two currently available albums of Dimitar Nalbantov, a guitar virtuoso who is committed to exploring the power and flexibility of software modelers. Aradaz has a number of amps, all worth checking out, as well as OUR Cabinet Simulator which – though only working with a number of built-in cabinets – is very easy to work with and can let you dial in a range of cab simulations for amps that need them even if you don’t have a big IR collection.
Auraplug Freetortion Series – Three dirt pedals, one great Digitech Whammy sim, and a knock-out Mesa high gain amp sim for free. Hard to go wrong with these. I’m pretty sure there have to be other freeware Mesa simulators out there, but none of them can compare to the Auraplug California Sun for getting the raw, tight, massive distortion of a cranked ‘Rec. The fact that you can now get a fully functional digital recreation of the Digitech Whammy for free is pretty incredible, too!
Fretted Synth makes the FreeAmp line of amp modeling software. While version 1 was, in my opinion, sub-par, the most recent release (FreeAmp 3) has come a long way. It is still not one of my go-to plugins, but some users are quite fond of it so I thought I would include it here. The maker is a very dedicated programmer and his work on guitar synths has been really interesting in the past – see FreeAmp 2’s most up-to-date version for what he has done in that regard.
Though the amp modeler they are drawn from, GreenMachine, is pretty well deprecated these days, the free plugins available from the author of that suite include a pretty decent noise gate and a free wah pedal that is surprisingly effective.
Finally, StudioDevil’s British Valve Custom, a straightforward and intuitive amp sim which aims at the hot-rodded British sound. StudioDevil is the software company behind the Virtual Guitar Amp, Virtual Bass Amp, and Amp Modeler Pro commercial simulations. This freebie was made to show what Virtual Guitar Amp can do, and while their newer technology has improved on the sound, it is still a competitive freeware amp. Give it a shot, it’s free and you might really dig it!
Effects and Tools for Mixing and Mastering
Togu Audio Line (TAL) Plugins – Some synth VSTis here that really kick some tail, but the star of the show for guitarists and bassists are the effects plugins. The TAL Reverb is a commercial-quality algorithmic reverb simulation with a light CPU hit but a very natural sound. Check out the whole line.
Bootsie’s amazing freeware at VarietyOfSound – Seriously, everything on this page could cost $99 a pop and it would be worth it. Of particular interest to instrumentalists should be EpicVerb, a fully-featured, sophisticated algorithmic reverb that absolutely competes with commercial software for sound quality; Density MkII, a compressor which is right up there with IKMM/UAD/SSL software for quality and works equally well as a tracking comp, a mixing comp, or a master bus comp to make everything “gel”; and BootEQ MkII, a “console” style channel strip preamp and EQ which, again, should be considered alongside commercial “character” EQs for sound quality.
GVST, a suite of plug-ins that includes utility plugins like a real-time, no latency chromatic tuner; modulation effects plugins including my favorite chorus plugin for guitar; a great, easy to use ducking delay plugin; compression plugins that are great tracking comps that behave more like traditional guitar compressor pedals; and much more besides. A must-have for a guitarist or bassist’s virtual studio, in my opinion.
Antress Modern suite, now in version 4.40; these plugins have a lot of mixing and mastering applications, but you will find them to be high quality and useful in whatever capacity you need them in. Between these and Bootsie’s plugins, if you’re on a tight budget you can still do a competent job mixing and mastering your own audio. Though truthfully I don’t think we can master our own audio, since a big part of mastering is the other set of ears on the job, but let’s call it “post-mix tinkering” – you can definitely do all the post-mix tinkering your heart desires. His site’s been getting hit hard the last few days since this is a recent update so keep trying if you can’t get it to load. Well worth the wait!
KarmaFX.net’s Plugin Pack 2.1 – Another set of high-quality tools, the real stand-out to my ears is the reverb which has an awesome, low-CPU Plate preset that with some slight tweaking sounds lovely for guitar. However in version 2.1 they are all great plugins. It never hurts to have the tools you need to get the job done – just like pedals are different in the physical world, different plugin makers do phasers, delay, etc. differently and you will find that you often prefer the character of this or that plugin over others for a specific task. Having a high-quality tool kit will let you get more professional sounding results, and this is another pro-quality pack that they’re basically just giving away (donationware, so give them a few bucks via paypal if you like them and use them a lot, but they don’t ever bug you to donate or anything – honor system).
Kjaerhus Audio’s Classic Series – analog-flavored, high-quality true classics (no pun intended) of the freeware world. This is another “tool set” that you’ll be glad to have around, because each plugin accomplishes its goal in a unique and colorful way that will be called for from time to time in your projects. These used to be pretty much THE best freeware plugins around, now they are among other more recent giants and so they don’t shine as brightly but they are still excellent and worthy.
(( vacuumsound )) is another small plugin maker that has a few REALLY nice plugins, available fully cross-platform and in 64-bit as well. The two big stand-outs are Poor Plate, a stereo plate reverb that’s resource light but sounds rich and warm like a plate should, and ADT (Artificial Double Tracking), a plugin which emulates the gear that was used for a special technique at Abbey Road Studios when recording the Beatles in the 1960s. While many “doubling” plugins are basically glorified choruses that sound like garbage, this one is subtle and realistic. It’s basically magic, try it on vocals or guitar and see if you don’t agree – it can be a huge time saver when you want to get a remarkable facsimile of the benefit of double-tracking without actually going through the process of doing it. The third plugin allows RIAA vinyl equalization in a few permutations, nothing I find necessary in my studio but I imagine it could be handy for some.
TinBrookTales’ Plugins, I especially recommend those in the “new tbt plugins” folder. The Pocket Limiter was indispensable in my own mixing before I got T-Racks 3, and even with T-Racks 3’s great Brickwall Master Limiter, I still reach for the TBT limiter sometimes for its unique and pleasant sound. Brilliantly programmed VSTs, it’s a shame the coder has moved on to other things. One thing to keep in mind about the TBT plugins is that the EULA has sometimes been interpreted as especially restrictive because it bans the commercializing of his free plugins. However, I’ve reviewed it carefully and I believe that his intent is simply to prevent people from making money on his plugins AS SUCH, in other words, from selling the plugins, including them in commercial packs, charging access for them, etc.; he specifically said that your creative works that are made with his plugins are yours to do with as you please. Thus it is my good-faith interpretation that you should feel free to use them in any capacity in your studio, even if you’re making money working on others’ projects, because you are using the tools creatively as intended and you aren’t commercializing them illegitimately.
Metering is an important aspect of working with real-time audio, and here are two plugins that will give you a better “picture” of what you’re working with. The first is one I’ve used for some time but which I forgot to include here; credit for reminding me goes to GuitarAmpModeling.com forum member 808: Voxengo SPAN, a multi-function FFT spectrum analyzer. The second is actually two plugins by the same maker that do mostly the same thing, but a bit differently, pick whichever speaks to you: uk-music’s Gonio2/3; that one allows you to easily visualize the phase relationships of a stereo signal, which lets you more precisely plan and consider where things sit in stereo space (also helpful because it lets you predict what will happen if the stereo mix is reduced to mono). These aren’t effects, per se, but are still tools you really need for mixing and mastering audio.
DSK Music Free Virtual Instruments, submitted by GuitarAmpModeling.com forum member MetalGod. This is another collection in the “why in the world are these free?!” category. Very nice VSTis for any occasion, including some really nice comprehensive sample libraries available in several formats.
Jeroen Breebaart’s Free VST plugins, submitted by GuitarAmpModeling.com forum member 808, who specifically recommends the Ferox tape simulator. There are many audio engineers who cut their teeth in the analog era and pine for the warmth and “mojo” that tape provided; commercial tape simulation can be expensive, and the physical hardware especially so, but Ferox does the trick admirably for free. It’s not perfect and even if it were, it wouldn’t be for everyone – I enjoy the pristine fidelity that digital affords, an empty canvas to fill with only what you desire – but when you want or need to add that special something that analog tape offers, Forex is a great tool to have. My favorite in the pack, though, is Omniverb. Voted Computer Music’s “best free VST 2008,” it’s another great sounding, very natural algorithmic reverb. We’re very lucky to have so many high quality reverbs around these days… and very lucky that the ’80s already happened so that we don’t feel the need to drench everything in them as though everyone’s performing in a grain silo with a very long hall adjacent 😀
Coyote Electronics’ Wah Plugin, recommended by GuitarAmpModeling.com member Lain-, is a simple, straightforward wah-wah plugin with full automation – in other words, you can control it with a midi pedal for real-time wah. Sounds great, and one of the few free filters explicitly aimed at creating the classic wah-wah sound.