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MYR’s 5 Favorite Free Plugins

In this article, I will be describing my top 5 best free plugins for FL Studio.  Some of these are alternatives to paid or hardware plugins, while others are entirely unique to themselves.  I find myself reaching towards these plugins in many of my projects, and my latest FL Studio masterclass in Uplifting Trance uses most of the following (I did this so people who follow the masterclass will not need to pay for any additional plugins).  Each of these plugins is available for Mac and PC, and supports VST3 and AU.

5. SPAN from Voxengo

Type: Spectrum Analyzer

Link: https://www.voxengo.com/product/span/

SPAN by Voxengo (short for SPectrum ANalyzer), and it does exactly what it says: displaying the spectrum or frequency content of your mix so.  It was Uplifting Trance producer James Dymond who first told me about this plugin, and I love it so much I make sure I put it on the master channel on each of my projects.  What this plugin allows me to do is look at the frequency content of my songs to see if my tracks are balanced, especially compared to reference tracks.  

SPAN has a few unique features that help it stand out above similar plugins (including the Spectrum Analyzer plugins included in most DAWs).  The first is that by default, the spectrum is “Weighted” for a -4.5dB/Octave down tilt, which corresponds to what is pleasing to the human ear and the way most mastered pop tracks achieve.  In other words, if your track looks relatively “flat” on SPAN, it will tend to sound like other tracks in the same genre.  As a bonus it also has a correlation meter and peak levels too.  

I generally start by looking at my reference tracks through SPAN and then playing my track through SPAN and seeing how I can get a similar shape.  In whatever genre you are producing, it can be helpful to use a spectrum analyzer like this on tracks you think are mixed well to get an idea of how to adjust your mix to sound similar.  Of course, you want to be mixing with your ears and not your eyes, but this plugin can help give you an idea of where your track differs if you do hear differences.  Another great feature is the “mode,” which you can change between default and “high res.”  The “High Res” mode shows the individual notes better, while the “default” mode is good for seeing the overall levels.  Use this plugin to ensure you have a balanced mix and adjust the levels of your low, mid and high elements accordingly.

4. BusterSE by Analog Obsession

Type: Bus Compressor

Link: https://www.patreon.com/posts/busterse-42658623

BusterSE is an emulation of the legendary SSL G-Comp that came out in the 1980s, a hardware unit that is famous for adding “glue” to sounds.  There are a countless number of emulations of this unit due to its popularity and sound, including offerings by SSL, Waves, Native Instruments, UAD, and others, some of which are over $300.  If you are an Ableton Live user, you can also use the Cyotomic’s “Glue Compressor” (a variant of its own emulation called “The Glue”), however this emulation by Analog Obsession has a few extra features that are worth mentioning, in addition to being free.

The first is it can be used for sidechain, which is a nice touch.  Additionally, it has a “turbo” button that causes the signal to focus on the entire spectrum, rather than just the mid frequencies.  When the turbo button is off, you can use the filtering controls to adjust which parts of the signal trigger the compressor, however I prefer leaving it on because this is similar to the original hardware.

ReOrder and I both use a G-Compressor emulation like this on our Lead bus to both “glue” the individual leads together as well as “glue” the reverb to the leads themselves (we often use two instances: one before the reverb one after).  Attack times set from 3-10ms can allow a bit of “punch” to cut through while still controlling the overall dynamics of your leads.  For uplifting trance, this can really help control the mid frequencies of the sound as well as tame the decay of each note, keeping it from being too sharp but also allowing the transient of each note to push through.  Every producer should have an emulation of the SSL G-Comp in their mixing toolbox, and Analog Obsession has provided a free emulation so everyone can at no cost.

3. STFU by Zeek

Type: Volume Shaper/Sidechain Emulation

Link: https://zeeks.app

Zeek advertises STFU is the “best free volume shaper available,” and I’d have to agree.  Volume Shapers are used to control or shape the volume/gain of the sound over time.  While one can do also do this with automation, volume shapers make it easy to sync the shaping to the host’s tempo so the volume is controlled on a more micro level.  I use plugins like this for everything from trance-gated pads and vocals to an emulation of sidechain compression/the “pumping” effect you hear in EDM.

Many producers use paid plugins like Xfer’s excellent LFOTool and Nicky Romero’s “Kick” for this task, but STFU has more than enough features to do everything from sample-accurate sidechain compression to wacky, gated patterns.  It can even output a CV to control external hardware which is a nice touch.  A few things that are worth noting about STFU: the first is that one can use the volume slider on the right-hand side as a dry/wet control (useful for fading the effect in and out), and the second is that it has a MIDI trigger mode, so the gate can be retriggered with a MIDI track, once suitably routed (see my video on how to do this).

The most common way I use this plugin is for sidechain compression emulation, and as Deadmau5 mentioned, volume shapers like this are often a better alternative to direct sidechain compression because you can draw exactly the curve you want the sound to follow.  I will typically have dozens of instances of this plugin for every project, either on bus channels for Leads, Midbasses, and Pads as well as on individual FX channels to make room for the kick drum.  I prefer using this plugin in “note trigger” mode so the timing is locked, and I do not have to automate the volume to turn it off during the breakdown.  Since I prefer my breakdowns to not have any sidechain compression, to turn this plugin off, I can simply remove the MIDI notes that trigger the envelope rather than having to disable each plugin instance on each channel.

2. Luftikus by lkjb

Type: EQ

Link: https://www.kvraudio.com/product/luftikus-by-lkjb

When I got started producing trance, I always wondered why my leads did not sound as bright or full as other producers’ tracks.  When I tried to use a parametric EQ to boost the highs, my leads would sound harsh and thin, not full and bright.  It turns out the solution was using the legendary Maag EQ4, a plugin loved by trance producers like James Dymond, Adam Ellis, ReOrder, and many others.  The MaagEQ4 is a simple EQ with only a few knobs, but its “high frequency” knobs gently boosts the high frequencies of your sound in a pleasant way.  

The Luftikus is a VST emulation of this plugin, with a few unique features that help it stand out from even Plugin Alliance’s official emulation (which is also worth picking up, especially when it goes on sale for $30).  When it comes to EQs, sometimes less is more, as the Luftikus (like the Maag EQ4 that inspired it) is limited to a few fixed EQ bands with adjustments restricted to 0.5dB increments.  

The best feature of this plugin is the “keep gain” control, which will even out the volume to aren’t being tricked into thinking your changes are improving the sound simply because you are boosting the overall volume (louder usually sounds better).  In other words, with “keep gain” on, adding a boost at a certain frequency will decrease the gain of the overall signal to match the input signal.  Likewise, cutting a certain frequency will turn the overall volume up to account for the dip.  While this plugin works great on acids, vocals, midbasses, and percussion, I always use it plug on my leads.  The “high boost,” set to 20kHz or even 40kHz, adds “air” or “sparkle” that, while often subtle, helps them shine and cut through the mix.  The Maag EQ4 hardware unit has a fantastic reputation for a reason, and this great emulation belongs in any electronic music producer’s toolbox.

1. Vital by Matt Tytel

Type: Waveshaping Synthesizer

Link: https://vital.audio 

While this list is in no order, if I had to choose my favorite free plugin of all time, it would hands-down be Matt Tytel’s excellent free synthesizer Vital.  Furthermore, if you have been around Ready for Masterclass, you likely know how much we love Vital – we have a Vital Bank, a Vital Masterclass, and as well as sound design videos in Vital on our YouTube channel.  Furthermore, all the sounds in my FL Studio Uplifting Trance course come from Vital as well.  So what makes it so great?

The first is its interface: Vital has a wonderful visual modulation system that replaces the traditional “mod matrix” with little rings around each parameters (although there is still a mod matrix you can access if you like).  The interface reacts to modulation, meaning if you attach an LFO to an oscillator’s wavetable position, you can watch the wavetable morph in real-time.  This really helps while you are learning sound design because you can “see” the changes you are hearing.   Next up, Vital boasts a flexible interface with 3 Wavetable Oscillators, a sample oscillator, 2 multimode filters (that can be routed in series or parallel), and up to 8 LFOs and 8 Envelopes.  It also contains a full-featured FX section complete with a great sounding reverb and delay.  Finally, Vital has its own standalone mode, which is great for creating presets without needing to open your DAW.

Vital also has its own unique features, like stereo LFOs (LFOs that affect the left and right channel separately), a set of “random” generators that can be used for traditional things like Sample and Hold as well as wacky Perlin noise modulation, and spectral warping that can really change the way oscillators behave.  I like to describe Vital as a hybrid between Xfer’s Serum and Native Instruments’ Massive, two of the best software synthesizers of all time.  Vital is flexible enough to sound digital or analog, though I often find it easier to get a “warmer” tone compared to other wavetable synths that tend to sound more sterile.  

This warmth, however, comes at the cost of making it a bit more difficult to make edgy and gritty sounds, like acids (part of this is due to its distortion unit, which takes a bit more coaxing to really “scream”).  Still, Vital has more than enough features to keep you busy, and can easily do all the standard “bread and butter” synth sounds.  See my video on 5 Hidden Vital features to learn even more about this fantastic software synth.

This ends the list of my favorite free VST plugins, however there are many more free plugins out there that either did not make the list or I simply have not heard of.  What are your favorite free VST plugins?  Do they replace other plugins you often use, or do they do something entirely new?  I would love to hear from you – and of course keep making music.

 

We made something special for you

These free plugins our very powerful tools if you know how to properly use them in your projects. Pre-order our new upcoming masterclass and watch MYR demonstrate how to apply these as he shows you how to make an uplifting trance track from scratch in FL Studio. 

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