I am a big believer in less is more, and can get overwhelmed by a lot of the new software products that come out EVERYDAY. That is not to say that I don’t find some of them useful, fun or interesting, but yes I much prefer to spend time getting good recordings and save myself plenty of time at mix down, than I do fiddling around with plugins once the session is a distant memory.
Unfortunately, that seems to be coming more of a luxury as a lot of music I work on has a very tight time constraint usually due to limited budget (even if I do like to throw in a deal every once in a while..;), and even though I am very thorough, I do still occasionally find myself listening back to a part and thinking “if I only could have spent a bit more time with placement…blah blah.”, and in those moments it is reassuring to know that I have some indispensable software that I can turn to in a moment of need. Even better, when I know that I haven’t had to pay a fortune for the privilege. As I have become more aware, recently spending a lot more time in the control room mixing than anything else, a lot of the plugins I rely on to do my work didn’t cost me anything at all!
So, with that said, here is a list of 5 plugins that I use pretty much everyday, and the best thing? They are all free!*
*except the last one. Sorry.
Elysia Niveau EQ
I have a lot of Plugin Alliance stuff; Vertigo is my go to for transparent compression (although not entirely without colouration or tonal character – it is an emulation of the hardware after all) and the MAAG fixed band EQ is great for acoustic guitars and adding ‘air’ to vocals or strings without being too harsh; However, the one plug-in I use on every session is a free one, the Elysia Niveau EQ (which comes separately, or bundled with the Brainworx bx_cleansweep, Brainworx bx_solo, SPL FreeRanger).
As the website states, this is the EQ section from the Elysia Mpressor plugin and the centre frequency can be shifted between 26 Hz and 2.2 kHz, or when the x10 button is activated, between 260 Hz and 22 kHz.
I also really love that the EQ can be used as a high or low pass filter by setting the EQ gain to it’s most extreme setting either left of right, respectively.
The one thing I use it for is vocals and the image shows a typical setting I would use (usually somewhere between 50-60Hz) to push a vocal forward in the mix. In a track with an intimate vocal, that wasn’t recorded quite close enough, I have found that this EQ helps to close that gap, and then some, in a quite magical way. And did I mention it was free?
Available from Plugin Alliance. Don’t forget it comes in a bundle with other free plugins. Which leads me onto my next freebie…
A very simple plug-in which lets you solo out any section of your mix (L + R, Mid or Side) to give a perfect picture when working in M/S modes.
Usually when I’m coming to the end of a mix I will pop this last in my chain on the master out, checking in stereo and mono for any weird noises or phasing issues. I do tend to do a little mid/side processing with a linear phase EQ or gain but this all usually comes off before a track goes to master (occasionally followed by the preset file).
Comes in the Plugin Alliance bundle, or separately.
Blue Cat’s Gain (dual)
I love the Blue Cat stuff (especially the freeware), this being the one I use the most. A very simple gain plug-in available in mono, stereo or M/S modes.
Also, you can link multiple plugins in a session together using the link or group feature which means you can control the gain of those tracks simultaneously using only one knob!
The plugs are available separately or as part of a bundle of freeware.
Compressor plugin from the elusive Cocell Productions and based on the 8X (or Distressor EL8X) from Empirical Labs. To be fair to Cocell, it does state on the website that this was a Facebook group project with Pensado’s (Dave?) students, so I’m sure if I used Facebook at all I might have more information about the plug-in, and not be so easy to portray them as some sort of subsidiary of the Umbrella Corporation.
Anyway I digress, at no point on the website do they say this is an emulation of the Distressor, the key word being ‘based’, and at first glance the plugin controls don’t seem to mirror the EL8X’s that closely at all; however, it does have a NK ratio setting which I am taking to mean ‘NUKE’.
So, I’m not even going to attempt a like for like comparison here.
As this thing is sensitive and can get aggressive really quickly, I rarely use it on a ratio higher than about 4:1 (I did use on a parallel compression buss a couple of times), and never more than -2dB gain reduction. It can impart a nice tonal characteristic and even at a moderate setting does add something nice to instruments, especially programmed drums with dirty high hats, giving them a firm and focused up-front sound. I especially like the Distortion settings D1 (odd harmonics) and D2 (even), and the High Pass filters D and A come in handy to reduce the amount of low end harmonics added by the distortion.
Not for everything, and probably not that close to the sound of a real EL8X, but pretty good in it’s own right.
To say it is free is a white lie as the free version resets when closing and reopening the session. They ask for the donation of $1 to get the ‘full’ version, which I did, and I haven’t looked back. Check it out here.
Ok, this one is a bit of cheat, so I apologise in advance for leading you down this path (*you led yourself a bit too; see above). The Ultrachannel WAS free for a few months but now it costs $249, a pretty clever promotional offering on behalf of Eventide, and when I’m using it sometimes I do consider myself lucky that I added myself to their mailing list last year. Having missed out on Soundtoys Little Microshift and Devil-loc in the previous two years, I feel that this makes up for it (but only slightly).
I like this plugin a lot, and really just for the microshift from the H8000 (as opposed to the Soundtoys little microshift plugin based on the H3000 hardware). Actually, if this had only been a free microshift plugin I would have been happy just for that, but it is much more. It includes; a 5 band EQ, gate, compressor, o-pressor, stereo delay and output transformer, which I use quite often to add some saturation to the signal, and these can be moved into any configuration in the signal chain/channel strip in order of preference.
Anyway, I’ll stop going on about it. It isn’t free anymore. I don’t work for them, and to prove it I will leave you with this; I demoed the Ultrareverb the other week and found it pretty bland and uninspiring.
Conclusion: Lots of great free plugins out there, including the stock ones that come with the DAW. Logic beats Pro Tools for the stock plugs IMO, I love using the Tape Delay on a 0 setting for the saturation and Bitcrusher is all over the cymbals and high hats in any mix I do.
Please feel free to comment or contact me by email.
Take care and thanks for reading!