Free VST vs Paid VST

Today I'm going to discuss something very controversial among many producers: do you need to pay for VSTs at all? This is something which you will find many polarised opinions on, though usually, the consensus comes down to the fact that a skilled producer will be able to make the most out of whatever tools they have. Of course, this is just skimming the surface, so I decided to look into it deeper to figure out the perfect balance point on the subject.

This guide wil discuss the differences and whether they are an essential upgrade for producers

To start with, I will give you some insight into my history of working on audio. I started off properly when I got my hands on Reaper. Admittedly, for many years, I couldn't afford the paid version (this was at school). For the first few years I used exclusively free plugins and was able to learn a lot, but I always wanted to be able to buy good quality plugins and software.

My first purchase was the Reaper licence, this was followed by several plugins at discount, then I jumped into the deep end and bought Native Instruments Komplete 11 Ultimate. More recently, I decided to invest in Ableton Live 10 Standard, and will upgrade to Suite in the coming months.

Reaper is an extremely powerful DAW but it doesn't come with as big an effects library. You also won't find any sample packs or instrument plugins.
The reason I am telling you this is because I came from not being able to use paid plugins and software for the bulk of my learning phase. The biggest thing I noticed was that I sort of stagnated. After the first couple of years of learning, I hit a bit of a rut, which ultimately made me choose to buy some plugins.

Ableton session view with project and effects rack.
Ableton, on the other hand, like many of the more expensive DAWs, comes with built-in effects and instruments. These offer a much better start, and you will only need to download a few free/paid VSTs at first.
Having been stuck in place for a while, I found that buying some new plugins really gave me a boost, every time I purchased something new. I would like to think that this is due to 2 main reasons:

  1. Paid software offers significantly better sound than free alternatives.
  2. The act of investing money into software (or anything) incentivises me to work to get the most out of it.
The second reason is perhaps the big one here, it's like when someone wants to learn to play the guitar, if you let them invest in something cheap, then there is less incentive to learn than if they really go out of their way to buy something that will work with them even as an advanced player.

Native Istruments offer a massive VST pack with all sorts of premium effects, instruments, and sound banks.
Recently with an update to version 12, Native Instruments Komplete is one of the best bundles for software instruments and effects. It is very pricey, but it is a massive library and a worthwhile investment if you have the money!

Obviously, the subject of paid plugins being better than free plugins is contentious, and for many tools, such as EQ, there is very little difference in high-quality free plugins and their paid counterparts, but for certain things, like synths, there is a definitive quality difference.

Let's use Xfer Serum for example, one of the most advanced software synths on the market. It offers more than just phenomenal sound quality, it also offers a well designed professional interface that is easy to use.

I wrote an article a while back comparing Serum to Massive, both similarly priced, high-end synth plugins.

This is potentially the biggest difference between free and paid plugins. While the function can be very similar, even just the graphical layout can give you a huge boost in creativity. Obviously, this is where many people will jump in and say that it is the skills of the producer instead of the look of a plugin, but most people will probably remember when they were learning to use compression. The plugins which visualise what the compressor is doing to the audio are the ones which are easiest to get the hang of.

This was certainly the case for me, and it is also what sets some paid plugins aside from other paid plugins. We can compare Massive and Serum for instance. Both work on wavetables, however, Serum actually offers a visual representation of what scanning through the wavetable does, whereas Massive offers no graphical visualisation.

Another point to consider is that many of the VSTs available for free are created by producers like you or me. Producers who have their hands on software such as SynthEdit, colloquially known as "Save As" programs, can make and release VSTs at a fast rate with no quality control.

A free trance synth VST with multiple oscillators. One of the best beginner synths to download.
T-Force Alpha Plus is one of the few truly wonderful synths available for free. It is well made and while it does sound much shallower than the high-end software, it offers a huge range of sound for beginner producers to get to grips with basic synthesis.
These plugins offer little support or insight into their quality, and while most are amazing - especially if you choose the ones with great reviews, many can fall short. In this sense, the free plugin "market" can be a bit of a minefield. With paid plugins, this is obviously still a potential threat, but the chance that you will find a commercially successful plugin which is garbage is significantly lower for obvious reasons.

So what should producers do? In my opinion, it all depends on your budget and the right mindset. As long as you follow the mantra that:

"A good producer will be able to make a hit with whatever tools are available"
- Everybody Ever 
...then you will probably have the right attitude for learning.

For beginner producers, I don't recommend you purchase any plugins until you are creating songs at a reasonable quality. It is very easy to muddle the lack of success with a failure of technology when you still haven't grasped the fundamentals.

If you are a beginner producer with a substantial budget, your best options would be to purchase a DAW such as Ableton or Logic with high-quality stock effects and instruments built in. The tools offered by the high-end DAWs are literally all you will need to create a professional sound.

Much like Garageband, Logic Pro offers a range of instruments and effects built in.
Much like Garageband, Logic Pro offers a range of instruments and effects built in. Of course, the available options with Logic, are far broader than what Garageband can offer.
If you are starting off on a DAW such as Reaper, I recommend you familiarise yourself with the stock effects and grab yourself a few free synth/sampler VSTs to start with. Until you learn the fundamentals of synthesis, a pro-level synth such as Serum would be wasted anyway.

Once you become a bit more proficient, however, this is where things start to change. This is the time you should be looking at demos of more costly plugins and selecting the ones which will offer something you can't get for free.

My three favourite paid plugins are Xfer Serum, NI Supercharger GT, and Waves Pusher by Infected Mushroom. Each of these was carefully selected as plugins which I could not easily replicate the sound of with stock plugins.

If you are an advanced producer, aside from the fact that you wouldn't be taking my advice here, then the best option would be to purchase a plugin bundle. The reason for this is simple, if you are earning money from customers to produce their tracks, you do not want some free, basic looking GUIs across your screen. You also want to be able to say you have good quality gear (virtual or otherwise).

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