2023’s best new free plugins and virtual instruments

A roundup of our favourite freeware releases from across the year, including characterful instruments, cutting-edge effects, and powerful processors.

Producer working on music in home studio, photo by Kosamtu via Getty Images

Producer working on music in home studio. Image: Kosamtu via Getty Images

2023 was another stellar year for free software and plugins, with some superb releases from both smaller developers and big-name companies.

We’ve been selecting our top five favourites each month of the year, but here we select the ones that really stand out above the rest and are well worth checking out.

Bedroom Producers Blog – BPB 64

  • Mac and Windows
  • 64-bit VST/VST3/AU

Who doesn’t love a bit of chiptune? Bedroom Producers Blog and Sample Science’s BPB 64 features 37 multisampled instruments taken directly from the legendary Commodore 64 SID chip.

Three different SID chips were sampled and packaged into plugin form with full control over filter, envelope, glide, modulation, and built-in delay, reverb, chorus, and distortion effects. As it was sampled directly from the chip, you get all the grit and lo-fi crunch that the C64 was known for, with iconic synth sounds, leads and arpeggios.

Download: Bedroom Producers Blog – BPB 64

Baby Audio – Pitch Drift

  • macOs, Windows and iOS
  • 64-bit VST/VST3/AU/AAX

If you feel like your tracks are sounding a little sterile, then Baby Audio’s pitch fluctuation effect will be an instant download for you.

Pitch Drift has a single slider that lets you adjust the depth of the random fluctuations, from subtle, pitch instabilities, to more extreme out-of-tune effects. You can then hover over the central screen that gives you visual feedback to set the speed. The plugin is powered by the “Drift” algorithm from BABY Audio’s Super VHS, and can help your tracks to feel warmer and more organic sounding.

Download: Baby Audio – Pitch Drift

iZotope – Ozone 11 EQ

  • macOS and Windows
  • VST3, AU, AAX

iZotope has taken the EQ module from Ozone 11 and is giving it away as a standalone plugin. It has a beautiful resizable GUI, flexible filter shapes, Analog and Digital modes with adjustable linear phase per band, auto Gain Match, and hi-res metering.

What really makes it special is the new Transient and Sustain processing modes. Alongside the L/R and M/S modes, you can sculpt the transient and sustain portions of your signal separately, so you could tame a bass pluck whilst leaving the tail intact, or reign in a nasty kick drum knock. It’s available separately or as part of NI’s free Komplete Start instruments and effects bundle.

Download: iZotope – Ozone 11 EQ

Samplab – Samplab 2

  • macOS and Windows
  • 64-bit VST3/AU

Imagine being able to load a sample into a plugin and then split the instruments and edit the notes as though they were MIDI. You can do just that using Samplab 2, available as both a desktop app and a plugin.

Once you load a sample, the software has to connect to the Internet to work its AI-splitting magic, then you can edit in real time inside the DAW, or export audio or MIDI. There’s a free version that lets you work with mono audio files up to 10 seconds in length, with a maximum of 15 minutes worth per month. Alternatively, you can opt for the premium subscription version for $9.99 per month, which adds stereo files of any length, premium warping and note controls, and up to 180 minutes per month.

Download: Samplab – Samplab 2

Kazrog – KClip Zero

  • macOS and Windows
  • 64-bit VST/VST3/AU/AAX

KClip 3 has is revered as one of the best and most versatile clippers around. Kazrog’s free version lets anyone get in on the action, whether you’re trimming peaks on masters, busses or tracks to achieve transparent loudness or saturation.

Where KClip 3 has 8 clipping modes, this free version just has one, with controls for In, Out and Soften (for selecting between hard and soft clipping), and a Gain Link function. Don’t let its simplicity fool you though, as under the hood is mastering grade oversampling (2x online, 16x offline), making this a useful and pro-sounding tool.

Download: Kazrog – KClip Zero

Wavesfactory – Flash

  • Mac and Windows
  • 64-bit VST/VST3/AU/AAX

A transient shaper is an incredibly useful tool, and this excellent free one from Wavesfactory has a few useful features that help it stand out. Under the hood, it uses the same algorithm as Quantum to help separate the transient and sustain signals without the use of a threshold. You then have controls to increase or decrease the attack and sustain, plus mix and output dials, a built-in clipper and a meter so you can keep an eye on the peaks.

What sets this one apart, though, is the freely adjustable dial where you can select whether to apply the effect to the stereo field, mid channel or sides, or somewhere in between.

Download: Wavesfactory – Flash

Soundly – Place It

  • macOS and Windows
  • 64-bit VST3/AU/AAX

Soundly’s useful plugin uses impulse responses to emulate what your audio would sound like played on an array of speakers such as in-ear headphones, a laptop, a radio, a megaphone and more.

It then lets you place it in one of 40 environments such as a basement, an office, a vehicle or a cave. You get a dial for each, which controls the amount of the effect, plus a slider in the middle that muffles the audio to make it sound like it’s coming through a wall.

Download: Soundly – Place It

SuperflyDSP – Flying Reverb

  • macOS, Windows and Linux
  • 64-bit VST3/AU

SuperflyDSP’s has had some excellent freeware releases over the last year or so, including the Lost-Tapes, Lost-Vinyl and Lost-Sampler plugins.

This simple but effective reverb plugin, Flying Reverb, lets you simulate spatial reflections with room, hall and temple options. You can then choose from a cleaner Classic mode, a Shimmer mode for more ethereal sounds, or a Lost mode, which is essentially the Shimmer mode with added artefacts. Other features include a host syncable pre-delay, lowpass and highpass filters, and a wet signal tape modulation and overdrive.

Download: SuperflyDSP – Flying Reverb

HY-Plugins – HY-Slicer2 free

  • macOS, Windows, and Linux
  • 64-bit VST/VST3/AU

This cut-down version of HY-Slicer2 can be used as a fun and creative way to re-invigorate your loop library. You get 3 slicer units where you can load 3 different samples that get chopped into smaller pieces. These can then be sequenced in the Sampler Track where you can rearrange up to 16 slices. Things get a little more interesting when you start using the additional lanes which let you sequence things like chance, reverse, tune, pan, filter, FX sends and more. You also get built-in effects and master effects to refine your new loops, and a Pattern chainer to help develop longer ideas.

Download: HY-Plugins – HY-Slicer2 free

Polyverse Music – Filtron

  • macOS and Windows
  • VST, VST3, AU, AAX

Polyverse’s Filtron is an excellent, vibrant-sounding 12dB state variable filter plugin, with a state-of-the-art zero delay filter design. It can smoothly transition between lowpass, bandpass and highpass, is capable of self-oscillation, and includes a fat-sounding internal saturation.

There are also Cold and Hot post overdrive modes for some additional bite, and the parameters can be modulated via the sidechain signal. This means you can do some very cool CV-style modulation, and each channel in the stereo pair is treated as a separate modulation source.

Download: Polyverse Music – Filtron

Rewired Records – SideKick 2

  • Windows
  • 64-bit VST3

Create sidechain-style ducking effects and rhythmic trance gates with this free LFO shaping tool from Rewired Records.

It offers 10 presets to get you started, but you can easily edit shapes and patterns by clicking on the window to add points and curves to the LFO. There’s also a Mix dial so that you can control the amount of the effect, and a Sync section where you can choose from 1/1, 1/2, 1/4 or 1/8 of a bar for the loop.

Download: Rewired Records – SideKick 2

BFD Drums – BFD Player

  • macOS and Windows
  • 64-bit VST/VST3/AU/AAX/Standalone

BFD is well-known for its realistic, deeply sampled acoustic drum instrument BFD3. The company has now released the free BFD Player, which provides 5GB of high-quality drum sounds, 340 grooves in a range of styles, and a handful of pro-mixer presets. You can use the kit piece browser to swap out different drum components and then search for MIDI grooves using tags such as genre and tempo, or play in beats using a keyboard, controller or MIDI kit. It can run inside your DAW or as a standalone app, and you can purchase additional sound, preset and groove expansion packs.

Download: BFD Drums – BFD Player

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