Free Guitar VST (plugin) Collections - Free Your Amp and the Rest Will Follow
The best part about having unique interests or being a part of a passionate group of people is that you occasionally get the spoils of the subsequent growing base of product or service developers of that particular interest. Guitar amplification VSTs and cabinet simulators are nothing new, but there is a growing community of independent designers of software instruments that are offering their products for free. There are too many to cover here in one article, so I’ve collected and tested 17 of the best sounding, best looking, and most widely known free amp simulators and tested them through a static speaker simulation consisting of the KeFIR cabinet simulator with Catharsis cabinet impulses.
In the case of Audiffex’s ampLion free an onboard speaker simulator was used as it could not be bypassed. My goal was to provide examples of the sound contrast between each amplifier in a high gain setting. To accomplish this, I have produced 2 videos of a heavy guitar riff, one in a complete mix and one with isolated guitars. What follows is a chronological description of each individual amp as it appears in each video.
A word on cabinet sims, mixing, and distribution
While I largely have no preference in cabinet simulators, the most popular among other simulation enthusiasts seem to be Voxengo’s Boogex, and LePou’s LeCab2. Both of these are option rich in terms of sound shaping with equalization, filters, and panning. For my particular project I chose KeFIR because it worked more efficiently in my DAW for this particular project and presented the cabinet impulses without coloring them. I chose one impulse with more lower mid range response and one with more high end and then panned one to each side to simulate an actual mix scenario. No post processing has been used on the guitars. In a mix scenario, it would be ideal to find two or more contrasting amplifiers, cabinet impulses, or other simulated dynamics like microphone or room simulations to broaden the EQ spectrum of the guitar signal. Multitracking the guitar and contrasting low, mid, and high end tones while panning them to taste in the stereo spectrum is a very effective way of getting a great tone to sit well in a mix.
Some developers unfortunately disappear for various reasons so some of these VST’s may be harder to find than others because of broken links. With that said, in terms of acquiring these free VSTs, I want to state that I think it’s important to actually visit the original developer’s website or download area whenever possible. I think it’s important to support these independent developers and reward their hard work by at least visiting their site and familiarizing yourself with their products and business goals. If you like their product and the option is available, it’s always helpful to donate to these developers. This helps facilitate future projects and more awesome VSTs! There are MANY more free guitar oriented VST’s then mentioned in this article, but let’s take a look and have a listen to some of the more popular and readily accessible free amp VSTs.
17 Free Guitar Amp plugins (VSTs) in Heavy Mix
17 Free Guitar Amp plugins (VSTs) High Gain Examples - isolated guitars
THE AMPS IN ORDER
LePou LE456 is a dark but focused sounding preamp sim that ranks as one of my favorites. Based on a “famous German” amplifier, it excels in high gain and low midrange tones with loads of punch. There are 2 channels with 2 modes per channel. The clean tones have plenty of body that’s fit for thick jazz leads or lush chords. The crunch tones in low gain mode have JCM 800 style low end thump and percussiveness. The high gain is fit for all genres of modern metal and can be fine tuned with the focus, bottom, and bright switches that are also applicable for each channel.
LePou Legion is a midrange monster with great definition and plenty of high gain tone options. Legion has the best sensitivity to it’s tone shaping knobs in this collection. Legion by itself can providegreat tones for a complete high gain recording. Again, 2 channels and 2 modes per channel with tones ranging from classic metal to modern djent. Legion has a very active presence knob that can help shape very colorful lead tones. Legion is a great workhorse for metal when paired with the right cabinet impulses.
LePou Lecto is a very accurate representation of one of the most popular U.S. made high gain amplifiers. Lots of low end thump and a ton of gain. It has 2 channels with 3 modes per channel and a resonance knob that effects the relationship with the speaker cabinet. Lecto was great for huge, chunky high gain power chords but was a bit one dimensional. I found the best use of Lecto was in tandem with another amp like Legion that emphasized more midrange. Lecto sounded great with an overdrive sim like the TSE 808 (by The Serina Experiment plugin developers) in front of the Lecto signal. This gave it a more focused low end and a bit more percussive attack.
LePou SoloC is a 3 channel tube preamp simulator with midrange emphasis and less gain than the 3 previous amp sims. It excels in note articulation but needs post processing or a series of heavier voiced impulses to coax out any bottom end. Again, this would pair nicely with the LE456 or Lecto for a balanced sound in a high gain mix. By itself, the SoloC would be great for an alternative rock style mix or dialed back for blues tones.
LePou HyBrit qualifies as the most versatile and possibly the overall best sounding amp sim on the list. As it implies, the HyBrit is a hybrid of 2 styles of British amplifier with the ability to blend between the voicings of the 2 styles. I wouldn’t consider HyBrit a high gain sim, but it has plenty of gain that doesn’t squelch the huge character of the British power amp sound. The EQ is very responsive and the blending adds very unique dynamics. The power amp section sounds big, warm, and punchy. The HyBrit would sound great by itself in almost any style or pair seamlessly and charismatically with almost any other amp sim for a huge presence.
Nick Crow Lab 7170 is a very modern sounding high gain amp sim with a simple yet responsive interface. 7170 has a great balance of low end and midrange attack that cuts through a mix without low end flub. 7170 has gain to spare and a huge power amp sound that adds an element of percussiveness to the high gain tones. The overall tone lends itself to more note articulation than punch for a sort of modern gain version of a “brown” sound.
Nick Crow Lab 8505 adds top end and more gain for a more lead oriented tones. 8505 has a bit more scratch and crunch in a rhythm setting. 8505 has a healthy low end that doesn’t overwhelm and sits naturally with a bass in the mix. If you were going to use the 8505 exclusively in a track, plan on using a bit of EQ and possibly a filter to get some of the scratch out of the tone. Both of the Nick Crow Lab amps reacted very well with post processing and/or an overdrive unit in front of it for modern metal tones.
The Serina Experiment TSE X50 for my taste and musical applications ranks highest on my list of high gain amp sims. Coupled with the TSE 808 overdrive plugin by The Serina Experiment, the X50 is almost flawless for achieving any range of modern metal and rock sounds. The X50 has a healthy and flexible amount of EQ frequency range, a great sounding power amp, and ample gain that doesn’t overwhelm the tone shaping process. If I had to pick one of these amp sims to complete an album length recording with, it would be TSE X50. The Serina Experiment developer puts a great deal of detail into being able to choose between 4 different power amp tube types, an optional “mod” for its RED channel, a tube bias knob, and the ability to disable the power amp section. TSE also produces the TSE X30 preamp which is a high gain monster and deserves recognition as well.
Ignite Amps NRR1 is a 3 channel tube preamp simulation. NRR1 has a big sound with a healthy low end that doesn’t lose it’s articulation. The EQ section is a bit more subtle in its tone shaping and though it does have a boost option, the gain seems a bit more British voiced than modern. NRR1 had a great clean channel with warm low end.
Ignite Amps Anvil is the more brutal big brother of the NRR1 providing more gain, punch, and presence. Anvil is also more versatile in its tone shaping options and EQ response. Anvil provides thick high gain rhythms and the ability to shape great lead tones as well. There is a much more “live” feeling to the midrange and a very deliberate edge that can be dialed in or dialed back.
Acme Bar Gig C-15 was probably the biggest surprise of the collection that I reviewed. It has a decidedly modern high gain that I would say is the most accurate dynamic representation of an actual tube amp in a live setting. That is to say, when playing my guitar through my monitors, the C-15 felt very authentic in its percussive response. It sits well in a mix without post processing and dials in several quality high gain sounds across the EQ spectrum. It’s as effective with leads as it is rhythms. It doesn’t claim versatility. This thing is for heavy tones, plain and simple, and it does it VERY well.
Acme Bar Gig Series 60 is an amp that I’m not sure how to approach in terms of describing it sonically. The best way to describe Series 60 is an amp designed for extreme metal. This amp would exceed in an old school death metal mix or in a “grind” style setting where single note rhythms are more prevalent. The EQ section is moderately responsive but ultimately, this amp is more focused on delivering an extreme amount of gain. Even when using different impulses, the characteristics of the Series 60 overwhelmingly dictated the tone more than the impulses.
Acme Bar Gig Dick Head perhaps doesn’t belong in a high gain collection, but it has enough gain to make an impact in a metal setting. It truly excels in a blues, jazz, and classic rock format. What most stands out is how it responds to volume and power amp gain increase and how you can feel the response in your playing. It has a treble booster onboard that acts more like an overdrive to push the gain into metal territory. In a mix, Dick Head might be more appropriate in a mix with a heavier sounding amp. By itself, it makes a great classic rock and blues amp with an emphasis on lower midrange tones.
Acme Bar Gig Shred Suite is a collection of 6 different amp heads with interchangeable characteristics. You can combine components from 6 different amplifiers to create your ideal tone. While there are many good tones to be had, it was a bit difficult to coax a convincing heavy tone out of the Shred Suite. It’s easy to forgive considering the absolutely awesome high gain tones from C-15. Except for high gain, the Shred Suite was a lot of fun to work with and offers a lot of options for those seeking great classic rock, blues, jazz, and alternative tones.
Kuassa’s Amplifikation Lite gets the “hidden gem” award in the collection. It has a surprising range of tones, a responsive EQ section, 3 channels, and it’s own internal speaker simulator that is bypassable. Amplifikation Lite works splendidly by itself or in tandem with another amp for high gain tones. It also has enough gain and EQ versatility for very effective lead tones. Dialing back the gain gave a great hard rock tone. It was hard to get a bad tone out of Amplifikation Lite. It’s very presence rich and has a thick gain that doesn’t get muddy or scratchy.
Audiffex ampLion Free is a simulation of a high gain American amplifier with 5 channels, 2 cabinets, 2 variable position microphones, a noise gate, and automatic output volume setting. AmpLion Free was capable of delivering great high gain tones and the interface was intuitive and fun. It provided great alternative and classic rock tones as well. It lacked a bit of punch but had a wide dynamic response with the help of the onboard speaker cabinet simulator. With a bit of post processing, ampLion free is very capable of sitting nicely in a heavy mix.
BTE Audio’s Juicy 77 gets the “less is more” award for a very simple interface that deceivingly provides a huge tone. Juicy 77 has a warm sounding power amp that adds body and grit that’s accentuated by the “Thump” knob that adds low end punch and articulation. The preamp provides plenty of gain but never thins out the sound. Juicy 77 also has it’s own onboard cabinet simulator with some great sounding impulses. What really surprised me was the note articulation at higher gain and overall musicality of Juicy 77. It’s not the heaviest in terms of gain, but one of the more realistic sims in terms of tone.
So in conclusion, there are a lot of very talented developers making life very easy for guitar players and the landscape is just starting to form. I could produce a whole other series of articles based just on effects and cabinet impulses. Much of what I wrote in this article is highly subjective based on taste and our respective gear, but the idea is to introduce cost effective alternatives to getting a great guitar tone. Many of these developers have other quality amp sims and effects for sale that rival the quality of the big name developers. I hope we can keep this community growing by supporting these independent developers in any way we can. Here are some links to the developers in this review.
LePou - http://lepouplugins.blogspot.com/
The Serina Experiment - http://www.theserinaexperiment.net/plugins.html
Kuassa - http://www.kuassa.com/
Acme Bar Gig - http://www.acmebargig.com/
Audiffex - http://www.audiffex.com/
Ignite Amps - http://www.igniteamps.com/
Nick Crow Lab - https://sites.google.com/site/nickcrowlab/
BTE Audio - http://www.bteaudio.com/index.html