If you want to make great hip-hop beats, you’ve got to have the right tools for the job. Stands to reason, right?
And if you’ve been hearing rumors that “sometimes the free stuff is just as good as the paid stuff,” well, you’re not too far off. There are some great free VST plugins out there, especially if you know where to look.
In this guide, we look at the best free VST plugins for hip hop.
TyrellN6 by u-he
Whether for riffs, melodies, or hooks, essential to every hip-hop production are gritty, saturated, versatile synth sounds you can shape and mold to your heart’s content. For better or for worse, though, free synths are a dime a dozen. That could be why u-he’s TyrellN6 stands out from the pack.
u-he is well-known for their premium and free products alike, and it’s not hard to understand why. The moment you add this synth to a channel and start auditioning sounds, you will feel like you’ve plugged in a classic, warm analog synth.
I don’t mean to talk it up too much, because inevitably someone will return later to tell me they don’t think it even compares, but TyrellN6 does sound quite good, and it comes with a ton of sounds that are well worth experimenting with.
TyrellN6 features two oscillators, noise, ring modulator, two LFOs with eight waveforms, host-syncable, audio source mixer with overdrive and filter feedback, twin filter (like one of their popular premium synths, Diva), ADSR envelopes (loopable or LFO triggered), customizable UI, and over 580 factory presets.
I had a lot of fun using this one on a recent film score I composed.
Zebralette by u-he
Electronic music producers of all styles will probably agree – you really can’t have too many synths. It’s kind of a facetious comment, sure, but some beat makers really do take their software synths seriously. Well, don’t worry, because we’ve got your bases covered here, either way – or, should I say, u-he’s got you covered.
Zebralette is an introductory synth that’s meant to lure you into the world of their premium Zebra2.
Where Zebra2 comes with four insanely powerful oscillators, Zebralette comes with just one (although it comes with a 16-slot waveset).
In addition, you get oscillator waveform editing (with geomorph, spectromorph, geoblend, and spectroblend modes), 24 special effects (filter, sync, scatter, phase distortion, and others), up to 16-voice polyphony, stereo VCA with pan and volume modulation, and VCA oscillator stacking with adjustable stereo width (single, dual, quad, and eleven modes).
As well – ADSR envelope with fall / rise (sustain slope) and velocity controls, modulation options (modwheel, velocity, pressure, breath, key follow, gate, etc.), two LFOs (global and one per voice), 32-stage MSEG (multi-stage envelope generator), three effects (chorus / phaser, EQ, delay), MIDI learn / unlearn, polyphonic aftertouch, 300 factory presets, scalable UI, and more.
Podolski by u-he
Originally created in 2005, u-he’s Podolski can still hold its own as a straightforward virtual analog synth that doesn’t eat too heavily at your CPU resources.
Its minimal design includes one oscillator, one filter, one envelope, and an arpeggiator / sequencer for good measure.
Altogether, Podolski comes with an oscillator with variable symmetry (sawtooth to triangle, PWM) and glide, up to 16-voice polyphony (mono, legato, and arpeggiator modes), four envelope modes (ADSR or HDSR, linear to exponential), and sustain with fall / rise control.
Also – a multimode filter (with lowpass, bandpass, or high pass with drive and FM), combination arpeggiator / 16-step sequencer with extra modulation source, a skinnable UI, and over 300 factory presets.
This one’s another winner.
Triple Cheese by u-he
u-he’s award-winning Triple Cheese is a “cheesy,” oddball synthesizer with no traditional oscillators or wavetables, no FM or phase distortion, and no analog modeled filters.
So, what does it come with?
Triple Cheese includes three comb filters, eight modes per comb filter (11 modes total), up to 16-voice polyphony, duophonic, monophonic (retriggered), or legato mode, VCA with amplitude modulation, pan, a skinnable UI, and 254 factory presets.
There are plenty of great synths out there, both free and paid, but some consider Triple Cheese one of the most impressive sounding free synths available. It has been around a while, though, so whether that’s still the case is up for you to decide.
As you’ll see in the video below, this thing sounds way better than you might assume from the description.
Vinyl by iZotope
When it comes to modern hip-hop, lo-fi effects are essential. Whether it’s to add character to your synths, make your pianos sound aged, or to give your entire mix some warmth, as overused as it has quickly become, oftentimes there just isn’t anything that compares with lo-fi.
iZotope’s Vinyl is fun, high quality, and easy to use. You can select from specific periods of vinyl – 1930, 1950, 1960, 1970, 1980, and 2000, depending on the degree of “vintage” you want to achieve.
You can adjust mechanical and electrical noises, dust, scratch, and warp until you’re happy with the results. As well, you can adjust other parameters like RPM, spindown, lo-fi, and wear to fine-tune the quality of the effect.
I’ve had some issues getting the interface to work properly in my DAW (the effect still works), but I am told it probably has more to do with my system’s “scale” settings than anything else. So, if you encounter the same issue, where the interface doesn’t display correctly, you may want to set scale to 100%.
Ozone Imager by iZotope
A competent stereo widening effect should be a part of every producer’s arsenal. At first glance, it may seem like a simple utility plugin, but its ability to make tracks stand out or enhance a mix is more surprising and drastic than you might think.
iZotope’s Ozone Imager lets you control the width of a track, whether narrow or wide. You can turn mono tracks into stereo ones utilizing the built-in “Stereoize” function, and Ozone Imager also lets you visualize what you’re doing to your tracks with three built-in vectorscope meters.
Sometimes, I leave stereo widening to mastering, but I still love having this plugin in my library, especially for guitar tracks. Ozone Imager will give you a taste of iZotope’s premium Ozone mastering suite, which is almost universally praised by producers who use it because of how automatic and easy it is to use.
Frontier by D16 Group
We like to keep an eye on D16 Group creations, as most are excellent, and some are stellar.
Frontier is what they’ve termed a “self-adaptive versatile limiter.” They aren’t lying when they say it’s “versatile,” though, as it’s well suited to single tracks, busses, and even the master out.
The addition of control input and soft clip parameters also take it well beyond a typical limiter plugin.
Its self-adaptive nature is especially handy. The automatic gain make up helps you get to desired results faster than if you were to tweak endlessly yourself.
Whether for mixing or mastering, getting the most of out your mix (i.e., its loudness) is key to competing with commercial releases. You need this tool.
Download: D16 Group
Saturation Knob by Softube
Besides lo-fi effects, another way to make tracks stand out in a mix or give them some added character is to use saturation. And while “saturation” is just another fancy term for distortion, there are certain types of saturation that are just so pleasing to the ear.
The modeled output distortion plugin Saturation Knob comes with three modes (keep high, natural, and keep low) and three types of distortion character you can use on vocals, drums, bass, and more.
It’s clear from the user interface that Softube was looking to create a plugin that could mostly be controlled with the use of one knob, and here they’ve succeeded in creating a simple VST effect that’s sure to be a favorite among hip-hop producers.
Graillon by Auburn Sounds
If you’re into hip-hop, there’s a very good chance you’re into auto-tune as well. It’s practically a staple in the genre these days.
Auburn Sounds’ Graillon is a freemium “live voice changer,” but the free edition includes more than just pitch correction, and even comes with pitch shifting functionality.
The point is obviously to get you hooked on this vocal processor, because the full version also comes with pitch-tracking modulation and a bitcrusher. If you want those extras, you’ve got to be willing to pay.
While it’s primarily suited to vocal tracks, it’s a fun creative tool for synths and other instruments too.
If you’re looking for a great free auto-tune, you won’t find better.
Download: Auburn Sounds
MiniSpillage by AudioSpillage
Whether it’s with samples and loops or a drum machine hardware console, there are a variety of ways to get great drum sounds on your productions. But one tool it can’t hurt to add to your toolkit is a compact drum synthesizer.
MiniSpillage is exactly that. This plugin comes with three drum synthesis algorithms as well as distortion effects and resonant filters for further tweaking.
There’s a single oscillator drum synth (with pitch sweep, internal FM, and harmonic controls), wood drum model synthesizers (with natural and synthetic sounds including toms and log drums), and a six-oscillator open and closed hi-hat generator (with noise source and dual resonant filters).
Simple to use and free to boot, MiniSpillage is well worth a look.
TAL-BASSLINE-101 by TAL Software
We don’t always like to talk about it, but can we all admit something to ourselves? As hip-hop producers, we’re all bass-aholics, am I right?
Good bass can be hard to find, admittedly, but we need our mixes to thump and boom to get the feel just right. Like auto-tune, it’s just one of those things you can’t do without.
Well, here’s one recommendation I don’t think you’ll mind. The TAL-BASSLINE-101 monophonic bass synthesizer (emulation of the Roland SH-101) comes up in conversations repeatedly as being a viable and competent free bass synth.
Compatible with Windows, Mac, and Linux, TAL-BASSLINE-101 comes with a self-resonating 24dB zero feedback delay low pass filter, MIDI learn / automation, alias free oscillators (44100Hz sampling rate), and an arpeggiator (with host, MIDI clock, and “not on” sync modes).
You also get RC and linear portamento mode, step sequencer with up to 96 steps, six-voice poly mode, sequence MIDI export with drag and drop, sequencer / arpeggiator MIDI out for VSTi version, de-clicker mode for slower envelopes, 300+ presets, microtuning support, and more.
Download: TAL Software
Valhalla Super Massive by Valhalla DSP
Lush, spacious reverbs and delays may not be top of mind upon beginning a production. But as you get into it, you will have those inevitable moments of “some reverb would add some nice atmosphere to this track.”
Most free reverbs aren’t that great. They’re not complete garbage, obviously, and if you’re willing to do some digging, you can find some hidden gems. But the good news here is you don’t need to waste a lot of time Googling, because you can go right to the source of echo effect favorite, Valhalla DSP.
Just as it sounds, massive reverbs and delays are but clicks away with Super Massive. There are 16 modes, including Gemini, Hydra, Centaurus, Saggitarius, Great Annihilator, Andromeda, Lyra, Capricorn, Large Magellanic Cloud, Trangulum, Cirrus Major, Cirrus Minor, Cassiopeia, Orion, Aquarius, and Pisces.
There’s really no point in getting into what each of these are. Download the plugin and get your hands dirty with this reverb. Trust me – it’s well worth it!
Download: Valhalla DSP
Valhalla Freq Echo by Valhalla DSP
Well, if it wasn’t enough that Valhalla DSP hooks you with their Super Massive, they also lure you in with their free Valhalla Freq Echo, for “psychedelic skull-melting chaos.” They say it’s perfect for dub, psychedelia, and Dr. Who.
This isn’t just an echo plugin though. It’s a Bode-like frequency shifter and analog echo emulation. Thanks to its versatility, you can create double tracking effects, chorusing, barber-pole phasing and flanging, infinite glissandos, runaway echoes, and more.
You might not use Valhalla Freq Echo for everything, but rest assured it is a cool effect, and you have nothing to lose by adding it to your VST folder.
Download: Valhalla DSP
MJUC jr. by Klanghelm
Sure, limiters can act as powerful compressors. But it can be nice to have standalone compressor options, especially considering how much most producers like to obsess over the qualities of their compression.
Based on their premium MJUC, Klanghelm’s MJUC jr. is a variable-mu compressor well suited to smoothing and even heavy pumping.
The software compressor features two gain stages, an interstage transformer simulation, three-position timing switch (controls the attack, release, slew rate, and timing). It combines neutral and dense compression with added harmonics.
MJUC jr. is available for Windows and Mac.
DC1A by Klanghelm
Based on Klanghelm’s DC8C compressor, DC1A delivers some of the best aspects of the DC8C while reducing the interface to two main controls – input and output. It does, however, come with deep, relaxed, dual mono, and negative controls for added fine-tuning.
From smooth to crunchy, DC1A can deliver anything you want, and it works nicely on all types of tracks too, whether vocals or drums.
IVGI by Klanghelm
For those seeking out another flavor of saturation, there’s Klanghelm’s IVGI, which delivers smooth and subtle all the way over to dirty and dense, depending on the application.
IVGI reacts dynamically to the input signal, and even the modeled fluctuations will react dynamically, and change based on the drive setting. Stereo tracks should benefit from the modeled crosstalk behavior.
IVGI also comes with controlled randomness, which adds some nice liveliness and realness to the saturation.
LABS by Spitfire Audio
So, you want to incorporate some realistic sounding orchestral instruments into your mix (even if you plan to degrade them or add lo-fi effects and filters to them later). It’s completely understandable. Sometimes, synthetic, inorganic sounds just aren’t what you’re looking for.
Spitfire Audio shows no signs of slowing down with their self-described “infinite series of free software instruments,” with one of their latest additions (at least as of this writing) being LABS – Vintage Drums.
But you’ve got plenty to choose from here, including basses, brass, choir & vocals, experimental, folk & world, guitars, hybrid, orchestras, percussion, pianos & keys, plucked, strings, synths, and woodwinds.
While these are mostly one-trick ponies, we think you’ll agree – they sound amazing.
You will require the Spitfire Audio app to download the plugins, and many do tend to take up a hefty gigabyte (sometimes more, sometimes less), but the sound quality you get in exchange is quite phenomenal.
Besides the LABS series, their BBC Symphony Orchestra Discover plugin is well worth a look, as it’s also free. Quite the hookup!
Download: Spitfire Audio
MFreeFXBundle by MeldaProduction
This isn’t just one VST plugin. It’s an entire bundle of free, powerful plugins. And no, it’s not some kind of thrown together, “we compiled a bunch of legacy VST plugins into a ZIP folder” kind of offer. MeldaProduction is the real deal, and the MFreeFXBundle is home to so many great tools.
The catch? Well, you’ve got to upgrade to get access to all the built-in features. But the cost is relatively nominal should you consider such an offer. You can, of course, use it for free indefinitely, without the extended features.
The 37 effects categories include – analysis, saturation & distortion, dynamics, equalizer, filter, mastering, mixing, pitch, reverb, and stereo – all essentials for mixing and mastering processes.
This bundle includes the likes of:
- MAutoPitch – automatic vocal tuning
- MBitFun – extreme distortion
- MCharmVerb – algorithmic reverb
- MSaturator – tube-like saturation
- And a great deal more
You could say those alone are well worth the price of admission for a hip-hop producer… oh wait, there is no price of admission. It’s free!
Free Kontakt Player 6 by Native Instruments
Well, this isn’t so much a free VST as it is a free, near comprehensive toolkit. But if you haven’t heard of Kontakt before, by oh boy, are you in for a treat. This baby runs all Native Instruments’ Kontakt instruments, as well as a growing number of third-party developments (free and paid).
The “Komplete Start” download comes with a variety of free instruments, effects, and samples – over 2,000 sounds and 6 GB+ of content. That includes acoustic instruments, basses, synths, pads and atmospheres, drums and percussion, and a great deal more.
As with some of the other tools we’ve looked at, the idea here is that you will get so hooked into the Kontakt system that you won’t be able to do without it, but as you may discover, that’s not such a bad thing.
Download: Native Instruments
Top Free Hip Hop VST Plugins, Final Thoughts
With all these free tools at your fingertips, there’s simply no way to lose. The only way you won’t get anywhere with your hip-hop beats is if you don’t put in the time necessary to hone your craft.
Rest assured, the best producers and beat makers in the world are in the position they are because of the hours upon hours of effort they’ve put into getting better at what they do. The time to get started is now.
Best of all, music production can be a lot of fun! So keep it light and easy while you’re experimenting, and when you’re ready to start working with clients, you’ll have plenty of experience to draw from to deliver the best possible results.