Audio Recording Plugins/VSTs on a Budget
First, the freebies
While many free plugins are both old and used to be sold, they can still find their way into your lowest budget home studio. They may never be the optimum choice, but they are a choice and, depending on what you're recording, might be perfectly suited to your needs.
Kjaerhus Classic Series - This is an incredibly popular set of plugins, or was back when I first found them. There are various modulation effects: chorus, flanger, and phaser. There are plenty of these three types of effects through a plethora of manufacturer titles. These tend to be considered dated and aren't particularly competitive against newer VSTs. I do like them, however, and continue to find uses here and there for them. The Delay, Compressor, and Master Limiter are generally revered, even now, by regular consumers. There are better options for all three available, but none of them are free.
TAL Audio Chorus LX - TAL also offers a free plate plugin, which should at least be honorably mentioned for what it is. The Chorus LX (or 60, they're both still around) is unique, however, as it is a replication/emulation of the Juno synth's chorus effect, but outside of having it solely on the keyboard. I'm very fond of this little guy, when I want a very specific type chorus like this, nothing else really compares. Certainly not for free.
Cobalt Chorus - Apparently, I enjoy the chorus effect in all its variety. Much different than the TAL in what it does, but the background story is uncannily similar: it also is derived from a synthesizer. It handles flange and vibrato effects better than a lot of things I've used, and I find it my go-to for these effects. The best thing is how different it is from the TAL, making both situational and coexistent.
Voxengo Oldskoolverb - While I've moved on from this more recently, it does seem to have a sort of 60's vibe to it, and various settings can get a really solid surf rock sound for you. It's definitely a colored sound, and I advise finding something better for reverb if you wish to avoid this. I've made it work on some more retro material.
AcmeBarGig DIG 2.0 - Go ahead, scratch your head. I am probably the only person who still sings praises to this amp simulator. The caveat with it is how much work you have to put in to tweaking it. There are a lot of ways to subtly change tonality, between gut options and cabinet shaping, to equalization in various places. The real saving grace for weirdos like me is that there is a Rockman preset. Definitely not something anyone these days is jumping in line to use, mind you, but there's not really anything else like it, and thru DIG it can be considerably versatile and easy to mix. While this can be a surprisingly good tool, it can also go sideways very badly into fizzy digitization.
MeldaAudio Free Pack - There are a lot provided in the free package, and much of which I've not used a whole lot. The compressor seems solid, I've had fun with phaser, flanger, and vibrato, and the analyzer is useful. I've avoided the limiter, as my results were never satisfying.
Leftover Lasagne Pushtec EQ - Another effect I've used less over the years, but for free you might not find anything comparable to it. The presets here are actually pretty well thought out, and good launching points for tweaking your sound.
fxPointAudio Spinner LE - I love leslie rotating speakers. This is a pretty solid option to emulate that effect. Benefits here include not having to actually own and maintain a physical leslie.
Utopian Dreams Flange - I'm obviously a fan of modulation effects, and this flanger is one of my favorites when it can do the job I need doing. It has on board reverb and EQ (3 band), and the flange effect itself is what you would pretty much expect it to be.
BTE Audio TS' Secret Vintage Overdrive - I'm picky about overdrives and distortions and usually do not like any VST versions outside of some amp sims. The only one I've found myself going back to (for certain applications) is this little TS9 inspired plugin. It has its own set of issues and really seems to thrive in only a couple environments, but it does what it does and, when set correctly, can deliver results.
HY Filter - this isn't the only free plugin HY offers, but other than the chorus/flanger, this is really the only one I use frequently. It's sort of a Q-Tron emulation, but has quite a few other things it can do like formant and telephone filters.
AudioDamage FuzzPlus 2 - last freebie for mention and another overdrive/distortion VST that somehow manages to interest me for longer than a glance.Like the Vintage Overdrive, this does one thing well and when that application is needed, it should be there to do its job. I've always looked at fuzz as a guitar-oriented effect, but there are plenty of musicians using it for a lot of other instrumentation.
I stumbled upon this brand of VSTs through an ad, which I don't usually succumb to. I had been looking for a way to help curb some of the digital edge that comes with your typical home recording, in many ways attempting to emulate a more analog sound. This is, of course, impossible at the moment, but there are a few ways to get closer than you would have been able to get roughly a decade ago.
My first dip into their catalog was the KClip2 Pro. It has gotten surprisingly positive reviews and has become somewhat of a "secret weapon" for budgeted studios. It allowed for better clipping of tracks while pledging to keep transients and overall punch/sonic quality. The key ingredient is stated to be the use of oversampling, a higher rate than competitors offer.
It did take somewhat of a learning curve, and some trial and error, before I settled in with it. I now use KClip3, released earlier in 2018. It has improvements on its predecessor, and offers new types of clipping and various other settings I've found very useful. The 3rd release requires a considerable amount of CPU, which can be a deterrent for people with dated or inefficient computers.
Kazrog also offers the Thermionik Amp Sims and Recabinet. I have all the amps and the cab modeler. My mention earlier in this piece of DIG 2.0 is a great frame of reference for just how far software amp simulation has come in a very short time. While I'm still fond of the free DIG for some instances, the general Thermionik collection is probably a lot more in tune with the hardware itself. Recabinet, in general, has a plethora of applications beyond just guitars or basses. It can help shape sounds of keyboards and synthesizers, and for someone who plays harmonica (as I do), can be invaluable to get certain types of harp sounds without needing to own 50 amplifiers (and have space to keep them). Much like DIG, there are just a lot more parameters to toy around with than you'll find on the hardware (unless you're really into rewiring amps, which obviously has an edge in any situation). The guitar collection comes with 5 stompbox modelers as well, emulating the TS9, Big Muff Pi, Centaur, HM2, and Sansamp Bass Driver. All of these have proven to do exactly what you'd expect them to do, and combined with the other tools in the set, can quite honestly be convincing.
Their MasterDither gets a mention, if only because digital music really lacks this very small yet important flaw: the hiss. This plugins inserts a very low volume hiss that helps smooth out the brittle edges of a digital recording, and while you probably won't really hear the difference, it will help carry the recording across various systems with a better quality output.
Finally, Kazrog has the ValvEQ, a bandaxall inspired mix/mastering EQ with 3 bands. I've personally found I prefer simpler EQ systems, that having too many bands leaves you with too many margins of error. The smooth and valve-emulating effect of this plugin are invaluable, and quite possibly the plugin is the real dark horse in Kazrog's arsenal. I use it for most of my equalization, but occasional need a different tool to get things fine tuned. On the master bus, this is definitely a really useful effect to have at your disposal.
This is a very popular brand at this time. Simply browse the professionals on their website that use their plugins, and you'll be shocked at some of the people whom you'll see. There's got to be a good reason for this, which is why I started following them. They've had annual giveaways of their stuff, in 2016 I got the Tremolator, and in 2017 I got Little Plate.
The Tremolator is the best tremolo I've ever had the joy in using. Most everything else I currently have are based in Hz, which can be a lot of work dialing in to the tempo of a song. Tremolator uses BPM, however, and that has really been a time saver. The variety of tremolos, classic and modern, are quite fun to experiment with and can really make some songs move. There are a lot of less-than-conventional rhythms, too, and those tend to be the most enjoyable.
Little Plate is now my go-to reverb. I've got a soft spot for plates, and they generally don't have an intrusive nature while remaining noticeable in a mix. The best thing about this plugin remains that it doesn't color the original signal, something a lot of older reverb VSTs have an issue with. It's not grainy or muddy, has a high pass filter (can set as high as 1000 Hz), and a mod switch that adds a small bit of chorus onto the decay.
After trying out their free stuff, I had to look into some other options from their catalogue during a significant sale. It's usually recommended to get the bundle, and I'm not saying I shouldn't have, but I wasn't sure how much of that bundle I would use regularly and, like it or not, they suck up a lot of CPU by proxy to their peers (little plate is notoriously slow for me).
First, I settled on their Crystallizer, an offset from the famous Eventide H3000. This hardware is used by a lot of artists, and once you recognize the effect, you can hear just how prevalent it remains to this day (Animal Collective's infamous Merriweather Post Pavilion is rife with this toy). Soundtoy's version has a bit more to it (of course, that's their M.O.), and can create subtle echoes to extravagant psychedelia. I've used it to slightly alter the spacing around things like vocals, folk instruments, et al, or get crazy and avant garde reverse delays. This has definitely been one of my favorite purchases of just about anything I've ever bought for my studio.
The Echoboy was next in line. It is often considered the best delay plugin currently on the market, and I tend to agree. Where older delays were hard to get the exact sound you desired, and had considerable limitations in ability and quality, the Echoboy really delivers. There are probably too many presets,but a lot of their models (like the Echoplex) are very useful and they also have settings for spaces. It has the ability to incorporate a bit of chorus/flanger, which for me is pivotal when I pit this against the other options I have to choose from. The saturation knob is often regarded as one of the best features it offers, and while overdoing it can be a bit much, the subtlety it can bring is very good.
I have yet to explore a good bit of the more popular brands out there. I tend to like the underdogs a little bit more, as they are still proving themselves and what they might not have in reputation, they make up for in their quirks and uniqueness. It's all too easy to go plugin insane these days, and limiting oneself with some measure of self control is not a bad thing.
You want to find tools that compliment your sound, not dominate it. You want these tools to refrain from distorting or muddying the quality of your recordings, and enhance them--if possible--with little flairs of color that make them seem more on-par with the bigger recording artists out there. This is difficult, but not impossible, to do with a limited budget.
Understand however that everything worthwhile takes a lot of work and probably some money. I've never espoused the "you get what you pay for" mantra....but....you do. Most of the time. There are plenty of ways to dump a lot of money into something that definitely does not mirror in quality what you paid for, so a little discretion and research is always recommended.
Also, the more prevalent plugins are much easier to recognize, not unlike synthesizers and guitar amps/effects. If you're going for that typical sound, you will want to target it with tools that are specific, and quirky lesser-known plugins won't replicate these. If you're looking to develop an individual identity through the tonality of your music, a lot of these mentioned tools will be very useful and deliver you with quality that is on par with these better known brands.