In order to create great music and art in general, you must first make sure you have the proper tools of the trade.
Whilst I often discuss the virtues of a ‘less is more’ attitude and the philosophy of ‘it’s not what you have, it’s how you use it’ in this magazine, it’s worth stating that a painter can’t get very far without any paint or brushes!
We live in exciting times as music producers, as the equipment required to make music has never been more accessible. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of plugins, where free offerings seem to be around every digital corner.
However, lots of said free plugins are not very good - to continue with our painting analogy, it’d be a bit like handing Picasso some crayons and a blackboard and asking him to produce the next Guernica!
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t genuine diamonds in the rough however and we’ve taken it upon ourselves to point you in the direction of these gems of the cyber-desert - this article will focus on tools you can use for mixing and mastering purposes, with a follow-up piece covering modulation and processing coming shortly.
All my picks are offered in both VST and AU format, so you don’t need to worry about compatibility with your Windows or Mac OS - check out the 6 free mixing and mastering plugins I think you’ll actually use below, download and get, er, painting with sound today!
When it comes to mixing and mastering, arguably no tool is more important to the shaping of your sound than EQ. You can turn a boring, dull sound into something lively and bright, or something harsh and thin into a more rounded, balanced affair.
In my opinion and probably despite my own previous advice, EQ and spectrum analysis should go hand-in-hand - the latter can be used alongside careful listening to better and more quickly identify problem areas that need to be addressed with cutting or boosting.
This is why Tokyo Dawn Records’ Nova plugin is such an excellent option here - a beautifully simple, clear interface lets you analyse the incoming signal, then you have handy features like soloing filter bands to further dig down into exactly what is going on with your sound.
It’s an unusually deeply featured plugin for a free offering, also providing dynamic processing options so the EQing only applies at particular gain thresholds and so on.
In a word, essential!
In my book, the plugin you should probably be reaching for after EQ when it comes to mixing and mastering, is compression. This plugin lets you iron out lumps and bumps in the gain of your sounds, as well as addressing everything from sonic ‘body’ and ‘fullness’ to ‘punch’, ‘presence’ and beyond.
FXpansion’s DCAM FreeComp is an excellent option here, primarily as it is circuit-modelled on actual vintage hardware. This means the plugin’s code has been carefully constructed so as to mimic the effects of sounds running through a classic, physical compressor unit, delivering an organic, real-world quality often lacking in purely digital processing.
It’s an extremely simple setup but offers all the classic controls you’d want from a compressor, plus the little VU meter is a classy touch that keeps you informed of how much work the plugin is performing on the input signal.
Compressors come in a range of different varieties but they can be broadly split into traditional units which act on every frequency being fed into them uniformly, or devices which apply different amounts of compression to different frequency regions.
The latter type are known as multi-band compressors, and are particularly useful when working with instruments and tracks that overlap in frequency, such as kick drums and basses. You can use multi-band compression to tame just a particular set of frequency for a given sound or on a master bus, giving you a great degree of control over the dynamics of your project as a whole.
Xfer Records are probably most famous for creating the superb Serum soft synth, but amongst their other tools is a rather handy, and gloriously free, multi-band compressor plugin called OTT.
As the name suggests, this unit can be used to create in-your-face, maximalist walls of sound, particularly on huge synth bass or lead parts, but it’s versatile enough to be useful in more subtle situations too!
4. iZotope - Ozone Imager (Stereo Imaging)
With the quest for ever louder mixes has come a related desire for ever wider sonic possibilities, as producers seek to push the boundaries of mixing and mastering into unchartered territory.
As such, a raft of stereo imaging tools have begun to appear on the market, enabling you to widen, or narrow down, the perceived stereo width of sounds or even your overall mix.
As this is a relatively new technology, some DAWs do not yet offer in-built tools that can be used to affect stereo width and so searching for a suitable 3rd party solution can become pretty important for some.
Thankfully, iZotope, makers of the ubiquitous Ozone mastering suite of plugins, have made the stereo imaging component of that very plugin range available as a free download.
With just two controls at your disposal, it’s an incredibly easy tool to use and the graphical interface offers real-time analysis of stereo imaging and phasing, which makes it fun to watch too!
Use this plugin to narrow down your bass parts, or give your pads and synths the widescreen treatment!
Whether you’re sending your music off for professional mastering or having a go yourself, you’ll almost certainly want a limiter placed as the final plugin on the master channel within your DAW.
It needn’t be doing much actual limiting, but it will at the very least ensure there’s no clipping if you make any bounces to check out on your playback system.
Of course, many modern producers push their limiters pretty far, slamming sound into them and hoping the device can cope with lopping off the peaks without too many detrimental artefacts being introduced.
This requires sophisticated programming and indeed modelling, as much can be learned from the saturating qualities of hardware limiters pushed to the limit.
D16 are known for their meticulous modelling of vintage processing units as well as analog synths (their Roland 808 and 909 software clones are amongst the absolute best I’ve encountered), and their free adaptive limiter, Frontier, is no exception.
Offering extended features such as soft clipping for added saturation and a release speed setting, it’s a wonderfully characterful plugin that offers the features of a paid-for device - again, another no-brainer!
Honourable mention goes to MeldaProduction’s almost stupidly versatile MFreeFXBundle, which has dominated the free plugin market for years now.
In fact, I mentioned it in the very first article I ever wrote for this magazine (over 5 years ago now!), but the fact that Melda have continued to update and add to the collection warrants another mention here.
A plethora of processors are offered in this bundle that it’d take an entire other article to cover - for the purposes of mixing and mastering however, you have handy tools such as the MEqualiser, MCompressor, MStereoExpander and even the MLoudnessAnalyzer at your disposal, in other words, everything you need to knock-up very respectable sounding mixes indeed!