Although your DAW no doubt has a raft of great plugins built in, the third-party effects market is replete with more interesting and characterful alternatives, many of them completely free. Here, we’ll let you in on half a dozen of the best mixing-orientated plugins money doesn’t need to buy, covering the channel strip essentials of compression, EQ, saturation, and gating.
Melda Production MCompressor
One of 37 plugins in Melda’s utterly unmissable MFreeFXBundle, MCompressor is as full-featured as many paid-for compressors on the market, furnishing you with everything you need for dynamic contouring and control of drums, vocals, basses, guitars, and any other instrument you care to throw its way, as well as bus and even master compression.
Indeed, the innovative Envelope Graph, which enables total customisation of the compression curve, actually lends it a distinct ‘selling point’ all its own. Beyond that, you get all the expected controls – Threshold, Ratio (up to 20:1), Attack, Release and Knee – plus the ability to adjust the RMS window size for a smoother or sharper response, sidechain input, and all the standard Melda inclusions: oversampling, excellent metering, AGC (automatic gain compensation), etc. Amazing.
Klanghelm DC1A and MJUC Jr
Klanghelm’s DC8C and MJUC compressors are go-tos for many in-the-box producers, serving up a wealth of compression styles and flavours at pocket money prices, but when even €24 is too much, each one also comes in a free version that, while cut down in literal terms, is still wholly viable as a dynamics processing solution in its own right.
DC1A essentially takes DC8C’s input-dependent ‘Punch’ mode, adds to it with a Dual Mono routing scheme and negative ratio switch, and boils the interface down to two self-explanatory knobs: Input and Output. Compression really doesn’t get any easier than this, and DC1A works a treat on drums and basses in particular.
MJUC Jr takes a similarly reductive approach, removing all of MJUC’s controls apart from the big Compress and Make-Up (gain) knobs, and providing three preset Attack/Release settings (Fast, Slow and Auto), but retaining every bit of its big sibling’s thick, warm vari-mu character. While MCompressor is certainly the better option when you need detailed control over the minutiae of compression, what sets Klanghelm’s dynamic duo apart is their glorious analogue colouration and effortless operation.
Blue Cat Audio Triple EQ
Blue Cat’s uniquely specified three-band EQ features high and low shelving bands and a parametric mid band, all of which work together rather like a composite filter that can be adapted to form any response curve. This makes Triple EQ supremely versatile, able to turn its hand to everything from the most surgical of cuts to the smoothest of broad-strokes profiling.
The handles at the edges of the editing display set the shelf gains (at 20Hz and 22kHz), and moving the point around in the graph adjusts the centre frequency and gain of the parametric band, and the corner frequencies of the shelves. The parametric band width is narrowed or widened with the mouse wheel, and the overall gain can be set to peak at 0dB. Not only that, but Triple EQ can also operate in dual mono and mid-side modes, alongside plain ol’ mono and stereo, making it ideal for stereo-conscious equalisation.
Tokyo Dawn Records NOVA
A no-holds-barred dynamic EQ that truly pushes the limits of what should be expected from a free plugin, NOVA is a must-have frequency-shaping workhorse that could happily find a place on every channel in any mix.
Four parametric bands reach all the way from 10Hz up to a dog-bothering 40kHz, and are topped and tailed with low- and high-pass filters. Shaping the response curve can be done directly in the graphical display and/or using the knobs below, which switch function to reflect the selected band. Dynamic equalisation – that is, the modulation of band gain levels by the input volume, akin to the action of a multiband compressor – is easy and effective, and can be keyed off an external signal via the sidechain; while the handy Wideband mode flips that into reverse, compressing everything but your selected frequency ranges.
There’s almost no conventional static or dynamic equalisation task that the free Nova couldn’t handle, and we can’t recommend it highly enough, but it can be expanded beyond its formidable base feature set with two extra bands and more by upgrading to the €60 Gentleman’s Edition.
Softube Saturation Knob
Applying a touch (or a lot!) of distortion can give almost any sound more presence in the mix, and this gratis gift from analogue emulation specialists Softube makes beneficial roughening as easy as… well, turning a knob! Simply select one of three Saturation Types, targeting the effect at the high or low frequencies, or the full range, then crank the dial to overdrive the input signal to your desired extent.
The authenticity of the modelled circuitry is incredible, the CPU hit is low enough to allow numerous instances in a project, and this is yet another freebie that might well become a fixture in your default channel strip preset.
Dead Duck Software DD Gate
A quality noise gate is a must for eliminating background noise (guitar amp hum, drum mic spill, etc) in live recordings at the mixing stage, and Dead Duck’s offering is a doozie. Just one of many free effects in the developer’s catalogue, DD Gate keeps things straightforward with two switchable Threshold ranges (-80dB or -40dB to 0dB); 0.1-200ms Attack, 0-1s Hold and 50-1000ms Release times; and a high-pass filter on the sidechain, which can be keyed off the input or an external signal.
Unfussy and neatly functional, DD Gate is just the ticket for tidying up messy channels, tightening up drums, reining in reverb tails and more.
Together, these six plugins add up to a hugely empowering mixing toolbox, but there are plenty more fantastic free effects out there waiting to be discovered, so get your Google on – or head over to the definitive database at KVR Audio – and see what you can find.