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.