Ever wanted to jump into the world of distortion, bitcrushing and saturation without breaking the bank on expensive hardware or VSTs? Well, you've come to the right place. Nowadays, there are so many spectacular plugins available to experiment with that are totally free. Today, we'll be taking a look at some of the best free Distortion VSTs available right now.
Every VST mentioned in this list works on both Mac and Windows, and covers a vast array of distortion plugins, from guitar pedal and amp simulators to subtle saturation tools.
First on the list, is a distortion guitar pedal by Ignite Amps. A company renowned for their free IR loader for amp cabinets (NadIR) and amp head simulators. The pedal was actually created to emulate one of their hardware distortion pedals of the same name.
The PRO F.E.T creates high gain distortion using tube-like saturation to create rich harmonics (using their very own JFET modelling engine), whilst giving the user the ability to shape their tone using the 4 EQ Knobs. The fact that you’re able to control the low and high mids separately is a notable feature, as it’s something often missing from many pedals (in both software and hardware form). A gain and volume knob are also included, as expected.
The interface is appealing to look at whilst also being simplistic. It resembles a real pedal, so if you know your way around a real distortion pedal, then you’ll feel right at home using this one.
Not only can the pedal be used as a preamp, but it can also be used after a clean amplifier in the effects chain. This gives so much versatility, enabling you to mix and match it with different amp sims and cabs until you find that monstrous metal tone that you’ve been searching for.
Here are some additional features that haven’t already been mentioned:
- A preset management system with import and export functions.
- The ability to automate controls, enabling for tone changes on the same track.
- A shape switch for additional tone manipulation.
- Support for both mono and stereo processing.
- Input and output level controls.
Download: Ignite Amps
This one is a plugin from Nimble Tools designed to emulate Logic Pro`s clip distortion. Though minimalistic in its design, it comes with additional features that sets it apart from Logic’s stock plugin. Think of it as the ‘pro’ version of the clip distortion in Logic.
It comes with 4 different distortion knob types:
- Soft Clip, for a warm analog sound suitable for acoustic drums.
- Hard Clip, for adding interesting harmonic qualities to your track.
- A Resonance knob for controlling the bass response of the distortion. Increasing it will result in a much warmer sound.
- Bitcrush, for downsampling and creating extreme and otherworldly noises.
The fact that all four of these distortion types can be used and blended in one place is incredibly intuitive and gives you so much to work and experiment with. It also comes with a symmetry knob to control asymmetrical waveforms, for a more fine-tuned distortion. There’s a DC filter to remove unwanted noise typically created by hard distortion and a tone control. Finally, there are both pre-distortion and post distortion tone and gain controls to play around with.
Download: Nimble Tools
Boogex by Voxengo
Boogex from Voxengo has certainly earned its place on the list. This is due to the fact that it comes packed with so many features that it can achieve a plethora of sounds, even outside the realms of distortion. Boogex is a full on amp simulator, complete with both a head and cabinet emulator.
There are three knobs to control the lows, mids and highs, just like any amp head. Along with a drive knob to control the level of overdrive. It’s important to note that although there is a drive setting, Boogex aims to create more subtle distorted tones suitable for jazz, blues and rock rather than metal. Though this could be changed when the ProF.E.T from Ignite Amps (mentioned previously in this article) is added to the signal chain.
The cabinet emulator is absolutely fantastic for a number of reasons:
- It comes with a huge range of cabinets to choose from, each using different dynamic and condenser mics coupled with all kinds of cabs.
- When the ‘DYN’ button is activated, you can choose to blend two different cabs at the same time, for a huge wall of sound.
- The amp mix knob allows you to blend between the head and cab sound.
Additionally, there’s an emphasis EQ which can shape the tone of the signal before running through the cab and a really extensive stereo reverb, called OldSkoolVerb). Here you can control the Pre-delay, Space, Time, Width and gain of the reverb. There’s really so much you can add to your distortion with this plugin that it’s hard to believe it’s completely free.
Saturation Knob by Softube
With a simple and slick design, Softube’s Saturation Knob can achieve beautiful saturation and distorted tones for use on many instruments. From drums to vocals and anywhere in between, this free VST has so much potential.
There’s a large knob for controlling the amount of saturation on your instrument or bus, along with three saturation types. This is where things get interesting.
The neutral setting will affect the whole signal, perfect for beefing up guitars or making vocals creamier.
The keep high setting will maintain the sound of the higher frequencies, whilst adding saturation to the lower frequencies. This could be used on a guitar to give a distorted low end without losing clarity or adding harshness to the higher frequencies. It could also be used on synth sounds for the same purpose.
If you select the keep low setting, then lower frequencies will be maintained whilst the higher frequencies are distorted. This would be perfect, say, for squashing a drum loop without losing the original sound of the bass drum and muddying up the mix. Another application would be on a bass guitar, for having clean low frequencies with added bite to the higher frequencies, helping it to stand out in a mix with a lot of low end.
The Saturation Knob is good on pretty much anything, as long as you spend some time experimenting with the balance and saturation settings.
Analog Obsession provides so many excellent free plugins, and Zupaa is one of them. With an extremely simple design, the plugin comes with just two knobs and an on and off switch. One knob controls the amount of volume going into it whilst the other is a comb filter.
When fiddling around with the settings, the utilization of harmonic generation given by Zupaa can make for some interesting sounds. Be careful, though, as this plugin is a wild beast to tame. Due to its lack of tone controls, it’s best suited for use on singular instruments as opposed to busses.
Regardless, this plugin is capable of producing some exceptionally unique harmonics that could add a whole new color to your instrument, taking its sound up a notch (or 11).
Download: Analog Obsession
With a stunning user interface, this isn’t the only thing to rave about when talking about Temper by Creative Intent. Temper is a digital distortion plugin that features a unique phase distortion and a rich saturation gain stage. It’s a very diverse plugin and can be used on busses and individual tracks alike.
There are seven knobs included in the software. Here’s what they do and how they affect the sound:
- The saturation knob adds warmth and bite to your audio source.
- A resonant lowpass filter to control what parts of the frequencies are being distorted
- A feedback path that can control the intensity of the tone.
- There’s a drive knob for overdriving the signal.
- A Cutoff knob for removing unwanted frequencies from the final sound.
- The Curve knob manipulates the waveform entering it, adding different harmonic qualities.
- A level knob to control the overall volume of the sound.
What’s more, is that Temper comes with a graphical representation of how the sound is being manipulated. A visual reference is really useful, especially if you are new to mixing as it gives you an idea of how a plugin affects the sound.
Something else that’s great about Creative Intent, is that they make a lot of their code open source, so if you’re into that sort of thing, you can use it to make a modded version of the plugin or even for something entirely different.
Download: Creative Intent
Mercuriall is a great example of a company that has a wide range of free plugins on offer, mainly for emulating real guitar pedals in the form of VSTs. Greed Smasher is an attempt to emulate the Mesa/Boogie® Grid Slammer, and it does an incredible job at doing so.
It comes with a Low and High quality setting (called ‘Lo’ and ‘Hi’, found in the top right corner), and helps to reduce CPU load on lower spec computers. It’s also good if you’d like to use it in real time before tracking something, as the latency will be much lower on the ‘Lo’ setting.
Like the pedal that it’s modelled after, it comes with three knobs:
- A level knob to control the volume of the signal.
- A gain knob for controlling the distortion itself.
- A tone knob for blending the lower and higher frequencies.
If you’re a fan of the Grid Slammer, but don’t have the money to buy the real thing, or just want a software version for ease of use, then this is the perfect solution for you (and it’s free!).
Next on the list, is a freeware plugin from Damaged Records called Dystroyed. The interface is very large, which makes a change as many plugins are small and unable to be resized, making it difficult for people like me to see the names of each knob. It also has a cool-looking graphical representation of the levels, shown as circles as opposed to a curved line (like on most other VSTs).
But it’s not just the looks that Dystroyed has going for it. On top of distortion, it also has built in compression that can be controlled using the ‘Distression’ knob. It’s so much fun to be able to mess around with compression and listen to how that affects the distortion.
The plugin also comes with various knobs that shape the tone in different ways:
- A Bitcrush knob to get some wacky sounds.
- For downsampling or upsampling, a Samplerate knob is included.
- Envelope controls to add low or high pass filters or frequency boosts. The three knobs (Env Attack, Env Release and Env amount) can control which frequencies are cut and boosted, the level and aggressiveness.
- Sidechain high cut and Low cut knobs which create cuts based on other instruments such as vocals or kick drums.
Additionally, there’s a preset button to give you some wildly different sounds to work with. They can also be used as starting points for creating your own sounds and learning how to use it. After, you can save your own presets for use in the future.
Download: Damaged Records
SGA1566 by Shattered Glass Audio
The SGA1566 by Shattered Glass Audio is an emulation of a vintage tube preamp that uses two 12AX7 amplification settings. There are some excellent features on this plugin, especially considering it’s free.
Firstly, there’s a high and low CPU switch. The low setting works well on lower end computers with more compatibility and less latency, whilst the high setting creates a more accurate representation of the tube circuit. Having both options means that this distortion is useable whether you have a simple or powerful machine.
There are two EQ knobs which can boost the bass and treble frequencies and as the plugin uses two tube gain stages, there is a switch which lets you control whether the EQ is applied during the input or output stage. Below these, there are three knobs to control the input, output and gain of the tube saturation.
The oversampling switch can give you an even more realistic tube sound, with the cost of using up more CPU. One tip to not have to use this setting all the time is to bounce your track with this setting turned on (once you’re happy with the sound, of course) and then disable the plugin. That way, you will get the plugins full potential without putting your computer under too much hassle and crashing your system.
Another great little feature is the stereo switch, making it useful for both mono instruments (such as bass, vocals and guitar) and busses (like drums or panned guitars).
For synth bass sequences and drum loops, the SGA1566 works especially well because of the way it adds color to an audio source. It has a lot of potential for use on guitars, bass and drums too, to add sparkle and depth.
Download: Shattered Glass Audio
Tube Sat Vintage by Wave Arts
Here’s another tube amp simulator, only this one is from Wave Arts. It’s a free reissue of their Tube Saturator plugin. Just like the SGA1566, it emulates two 12AX7 tubes but differentiates itself by having the ability to control the mids, along with the bass and treble frequencies. This plugin really goes above and beyond to capture the sound of real vintage tube amps by emulating the circuitry that can be found within them.
Along with the typical EQ knobs, there’s a drive knob to control how saturated the sound gets and an output knob to control the level of the signal coming out it. There’s an on and off switch for the EQ, so if you’d prefer to use an EQ with more bands, there’s the possibility. Also, there’s a switch called FAT which switches the bias circuit of the initial preamp stage. This produces a more distorted and ‘fatter’ sound.
This tube amp emulator can be used in combination with a cabinet simulator, to create an authentic vintage tube guitar amp sound. But it can also be used on its own to add some analog warmth on the master bus, or even as a saturating peak limiter for making acoustic drums sound punchier and gluing them together.
Download: Wave Arts
Krush by Tritik
This bitcrusher VST by Krush will keep you entertained for hours because of how many sounds you can get out of it. Krush has earned itself a good reputation over the years, mainly due to its way of making your workflow very streamlined within a compact, yet versatile package.
It has four main effects:
- Drive for controlling the distortion.
- Crush, which controls the level of bitcrushing on the audio.
- Dwsp, which reduces the sample rate of the audio.
- Filter, for affecting the frequencies that are being distorted.
With these four main effects, comes a dry and wet level meter. This is excellent as sometimes bitcrushing can be a little too aggressive and hard to control sometimes. Having the ability to control the balance of the dry and wet signal means you can have some subtle bitcrushing going on in the background, whilst letting the sound created before adding Krush to be the main focus of the sound.
One of the most incredible features are the modulation effects that take up half the UI of the plugin. There are the same main effects mentioned before, with an additional resonance and rate knob that can be set to sync (to modulate in time with the track) or free (to modulate at any tempo you wish). There are also some different waveforms to select for different modulation types. When combining this plugin with automation, you can switch between modulation types on one track to create a wide range of sounds throughout the song.
Although simple in its design, Distortion by Mathieu Carre offers something that many other distortion plugins do not. Because of its graphical interface, you’re able to draw in and create new shapes with it using the 5 moveable dots. Changing the shapes of the sound created by the distortion. It’s another really useful tool for beginners to understand how distortion affects the sound of your instrument or track.
As there is a graphical interface on this plugin, there are only three knobs. Two for the drive and gain (typical of distortion plugins, as seen in the list), and a cutoff knob that acts as a low pass filter, to remove any harshness that could’ve been created by the distortion.
Download: KVR Audio
Gorgon by Inear Display
Finally on our list, is this absolute monster of a plugin called Gorgon by Inear Display. This plugin has so many knobs to play around with, you can build a massive arsenal of presets and use it in a multitude of applications. If it were a paid plugin, it would still be well worth getting (but it’s free!).
Here are some of the features that make Gorgon one of the best free distortion plugins out there right now:
- An optional oversample rate of up to 8x for reducing aliasing (recommended only for powerful computers)
- Lowpass and Highpass filters accompanied by Morphing Control
- An incredibly powerful ring modulator with FM
- 25 presets created by Inear Display themselves, a great starting point for beginners.
- The ability to add delay and control the volume of it.
- Dry/ Wet controls to add subtle or intense distorted tones.
- Updates for those that register to Inear Display (for free, of course).
Additionally, all the levels of the envelopes can be controlled individually, accompanied by attack and release knobs. Because of having so much to play around with, you can add subtle warmth to a bass guitar or morph the sound of a synth to something completely unrecognizable to what you started with. The sky really is the limit with this one.
Download: Inear Display
So there you have it, 13 of the best distortion pedals. With these pedals added to your arsenal, you’ll have the ability to create all kinds of distorted tones. Whether it be subtle warmth for acoustic instruments, complete chaos for synth sound design, or anywhere in between, these plugins will have you covered. This will broaden the soundscapes you create and bring your mixes into new territory.
Top Free Distortion VST Plugins, Final Thoughts
So there you have it, the best free distortion plugins on the market. While some perform better than others, all of the top ones on this list can do the job.