For a long time, it’s been easy to find a whole world of free VST and AU plugins on the web. But for users of Pro Tools – arguably the most popular professional DAW in the U.S. – pickings have always been a bit slimmer.
Due to Avid’s exacting standards, fewer plugins have been written for Pro Tools’ proprietary RTAS, TDM and AAX formats than more open protocols like VST. But fortunately, the ones that are available for the platform are usually among the very best.
Despite a slightly greater barrier to entry when it comes to writing code for Pro Tools, there still is a healthy crop of free tools and toys for the program. Today we present you with a detailed and up-to-date list of some of the most functional free plugins available in RTAS or AAX.
Some companies (most notably Massey Plugins) offer extremely generous demos licenses that border on free. But for this particular rundown, we’re looking at purely free software only. This is an evolving list, and we’ll be sure to remove plugins as they become irrelevant, and add new ones as they crop up. In the meantime, feel free to offer any of your favorites (and your own experience with compatibility) in the comments section below.
EQs & FILTERS
Plugin Alliance is responsible for four of the free downloads on this list. The first, elysia’s niveau filter, may be one of the simplest and most powerful free plugins around.
This EQ, which is culled from the innovative elysia mpressor, is essentially a semi-parametric Baxandall filter. In other words: a high-octane take on the classic hi-fi “tone” control.
The niveau filter is excellent for making broad, sweeping changes of EQ that still sound entirely natural. This unique filter allows you to select a center frequency, and then simultaneously raise bass and lower treble above and below that point – or vice-versa. In practice, this EQ can lead to subtly or radically new frequency curves, without some of the artifacts of a traditional parametric. It may be free, but the niveau filter can be extremely useful.
Another entry from Plugin Alliance, the brainworx bx_cleansweep v2 is a simple hi-pass and lo-pass filter combo. Technically, it doesn’t do anything to the sound that Pro Tools’ built-in equalizer plugin can’t do. Instead, what makes this free tool so useful is its unique joystick control that encourages creative and decisive strokes.
This simple and straightforward GUI also allows easy automation for time-based filter effects. Like the niveau filter, cleansweep is a simple, straightforward tool that’s surprisingly useful for reshaping sounds with elegance and ease.
Frohmage is a filter of a different variety. This free plugin from Ohm Force has less to do with the fairly transparent EQ plugins already built in to Pro Tools, and a whole lot more in common with the dramatic resonance filters you might find on a classic analog synthesizer.
This is a full-featured resonant low-pass filter that allows you to select your cutoff points by frequency or by musical note, and that offers detailed MIDI control. It can even add distortion and delay to each band, making the Frohmage an efficient and inspiring one-stop sound mangler.
Ohm Force warns that some users have reported issues with Pro Tools 10, but on my PT10 system, so far, so good.
The DDMF ColourEQ is a pretty straightforward parametric EQ. At first glance, it’s hard to tell why it would be worth a download, what with the flexibility of Pro Tools own EQIII, but DDMF has found reason to brag:
“Not just another EQ,” the company’s marketing materials relay, “With its custom-made 4th order IIR filter, ColourEQ sounds unlike any other EQ you have ever come across. It comes with five bands of “super parametric” peaking filters, which means that there is one more parameter in addition to the traditional gain/width/frequency set that can influence the curve shape. These shapes cannot be reproduced by ordinary IIR equalizers.”
Sounds fancy, but I have not been able to try ColourEQ myself as it is not yet compatible with Pro Tools 10. If you have an older system, give it a shot and let us know what you think.
Prosoniq’s North Pole is a free 4-band resonance filter with a built-in delay. It hasn’t been updated since 2011 and may not work for PT 10 users, but for those with older versions of the program, it’s worth a try.
The third entry from Plugin Alliance is a great sounding, easy-to-use 8-band graphic EQ. The catch? Only 4 of those bands are enabled: 40 Hz, 150 Hz, 1.8 kHz and 16 kHz.
It may not be as powerful as the first two PA plugins on this list, but the two low frequency bands on the FreeRanger can be very helpful in sorting out issues among competing bass instruments, and the upper bands sound about as good when boosting as any EQ can.
UNCONVENTIONAL SOUND SHAPERS
Softube’s Saturation Knob is easily one of the coolest saturators I’ve tried, and it’s free. Like all of Softube’s tools, Saturation Knob has a distinctive, convincingly analog character, a beautiful GUI, and is endlessly fun to use.
This simple and straightforward free plugin sounds full, rich and real at subtle settings. When it’s cranked up loud, Saturation Knob distorts like a real electrical circuit does – with squishy, ugly, satisfying grit. In addition to the eponymous knob, a single switch changes between three flavors of saturation. I’m a big fan of the “Keep Low” setting.
This is one of the newest freebies for PT, and it is AAX only. Pro Tools 10 users rejoice.
Flux’s Bitter Sweet II is a transient-designer type of plugin, controlled by a single all-purpose knob. At its best on percussion instruments, Bitter Sweet allows you to enhance transients, or to soften them, helping you to shape the attack characteristics of drums and other instruments without the artifacts or dynamic-range squeeze of a compressor.
iZotope’s Vinyl is a classic freebie that has been around for years. To iZotope’s credit, they have continuously updated it, and I’m happy to report that it works flawlessly for me on Pro Tools 10.
This plugin models the natural degradation and quirky EQ curves of real records, and you might liken it to an audio version of Instagram.
In the “1990s” settings, the affects are subtle yet meaningful, but crank that dial down to the “1970s” or below, and you can reshape your sounds and make your tracks lo-fi in a natural and organic-sounding way. You can even add mechanical noise, dust and record scratches if you’re so inclined.
I can’t begin to tell you what this free plugin does. All I can say is that it has one of the best GUIs in the known universe, and one of the coolest-looking installers I’ve ever run. As for the sound? Suffice it to say that with Cohmpost, yours will never be the same.
REVERB & DELAY
PSP’s PianoVerb emulates the reverb sound of the inside of a grand piano. You can adjust decay time, damping, and even the key of the sustain and the accuracy of the virtual piano’s tuning.
Try it on vocals, guitar amps, drums and all manner of stringed instruments. It may not suitable for every track, but rest assured, this free plugin provides an odd and memorable sound that’s occasionally the perfect touch. PianoVerb is another one of those classic freebies that has stood the test of time, and is still working seamlessly right up to Pro Tools version
Valhalla’s FreqEcho is a simple, clean sounding delay with one big bonus feature: An oversized “Shift” knob sits smack in the middle of the plugin’s 8-bit inspired GUI, which allows FreqEcho to deliver sounds that would be impossible with other delays.
The unusual “Shift” knob allows you to detune the pitch of the delay. This leads to fascinating sounds in and of itself, but things really get interesting when you let the FreqEcho feedback into itself, so that the pitch of each repeat gets further and further from your starting point.
I’ve enjoyed this plugin in past versions of Pro Tools, but at the current moment, I’ve had no luck getting it to run on PT10.
Three bare-bones GUIs. 3 inspiring, surprising, sometimes bewildering delays. Definitely worth a download. The possibilities are boundless.
Z-Room seems to be a friendly and effective little reverb. But you’ll have to let me know how it sounds, as it is not yet compatible with Pro Tools 10.
The free version of Amplitube 3 comes with two amp models: one that has a retro Fender vibe, and one that’s significantly more modern and high-gain.
The free version is not a full-featured amp simulator by any stretch, but it’s handy to have around, and both models sound fairly good. It even has a built-in tremolo. Not bad at all for $0. And if you like it, individual add-ons are available for purchase that promise to make this free and simple plugin an inexpensive and flexible one.
The light version of ampLion is free for RTAS users. It’s a bit limited and the GUI isn’t the most elegant I’ve ever used, but hey – Free.
Want a simple Marshall stack emulator for Pro Tools and want it to be free? Bam. Done.
SAMPLERS & INSTRUMENTS
Hey look, a free sampler! For Pro Tools! Load in your own sounds and enjoy. If you need some samples, the people at IK Multimedia may know where you can purchase a few good libraries…
THIS LOOKS COOL. I have not really tried it much yet. Let me know how it works for you. If it turns out to be half as charming as Frohmage, it’s certainly worth a whirl.
The drum sampler is free, the extra samples aren’t. Still, a valuable product for the right type of person.
METERING & MASTER FADER TOOLS
Brainworx’s bx_solo does a very interesting thing: It allows you to solo just the sides or just the center of your stereo image. You can also solo left and right individually, fold mixes down to mono with the turn of a knob, or even expand the width of your stereo field by up to 400%. You may not use it every day, but I can’t think of a good reason not to download this compact and compelling little tool.
A free, full-featured stereo metering and manipulation tool. Definitely worth a download, even if you only need it for the phase vector scope.
Want vintage-style VU meters for Pro Tools? Well here they are. PSP’s VintageMeter may seem a little redundant at first glance (what with Pro Tools’ built-in BF Meter and all) but it’s certainly more flexible than the stock tool.
I’m not exactly certain that I’ve discovered the value of this freebie yet, but who am I to judge? You want a big honkin’ master fader GUI? You got one.
A free chorus, flanger, phaser, EQ, “gain suite” and – perhaps most importantly – a simple and effective frequency analyzer. Worth a download even for that plugin alone. And if you want something more robust, Blue Cat makes some of the most full-featured frequency analyzers known to man.
Delay Trio, which we mentioned earlier in this list, isn’t the only complementary set of plugins from Soundhack.
The Freesound Bundle offers another suite of surprisingly useful no-cost tools. +compand is a compressor/expander plugin, +decimate reduces bit depth and sample rate to creative effect, +matrix is a free mid-side encoder/decoder, and +phasescope is a exactly what it sounds like.
Hofa offers three unconventional metering tools including ProjectTime, “a simple plugin that shows you the time which has passed during a DAW project.” They mean that in the largest sense: you can use ProjectTime to track how long – in cumulative hours, minutes or days – you’ve had your project open.
ODDS & ENDS
Here’s one that may or may not be useful to you. According to the company:
“MuteTone is a freeware utility plugin designed to work around the inability to shut off input monitoring in Pro Tools. It has no sound on its own. It just cuts the input signal whenever Pro Tools is recording, allowing you to use your external console, or soundcard mixer for live monitoring.”
That’s all we’ve got for today. If you hear of any new ones (or want to share your own compatibility hiccups or victories) the comments section lies below.