You don’t have to look far beyond the Ableton website to find fantastic VST plugins, instruments, and effects to make the music of your dreams. If you haven’t explored Max for Live already, you’re in for a treat – and we’re going to show you the best of the free.
Here’s how Ableton describes Max for Live:
“Max for Live is a platform to build your own instruments and effects, tools for live performance and visuals, and much more. You can open up any of Live’s Max devices, see how they’re built, and change them to meet your needs. You can build your own from scratch using the same components. And you can even use Max to change the way Live works, including the properties of tracks, clips and scenes.”
As an extension to Live, it gives you heaps of new incredible instruments and effects – all driven by a global community of producers and sound designers.
Let’s explore some of the best free Ableton-specific plugins you can find in 2021, starting with Inspired by Nature.
1. Inspired by Nature (by Dillon Bastan)
Want to take your inspiration to the next level? Get Inspired by Nature and enjoy a great collection of six Max devices and a whopping total of 195 presets.
This free set of Ableton plugins describes as “producing generative soundscapes, unpredictable melodies and evolving modulations with devices inspired by physical forces and the natural world," and we're bound to agree.
You get three vector devices, FM, Grain, and Delay, including a mind-bending synthesizer, a granular looper, and an experimental delay that you can use for super-interesting effects.
Emit, a visual granular synthesizer takes your sound and slices it into particles. These particles are yours to do whatever you wish with – let them bounce against walls or fly indefinitely through the sonic atmosphere.
And have you seen that creepy YouTube video of a guy playing piano with bouncy balls? Well, that's precisely what Bouncy Notes does, minus the creepiness. The effect is gravity-based and throws your set of bouncy digital balls on your MIDI keyboard.
Set it up so only notes in your scale or go completely experimental – this effect can create some extremely cool arpeggiators and evolving sequences.
Finally, you get Tree tone, which creates sounds inspired by the fractal patterns that plants grow in. Each branch represents a new resonator in a different amplitude, frequency, and decay, giving you some very interesting results.
Let your trees and creativity grow!
2. PitchLoop89 (by Robert Henke)
PitchLoop89 is another powerful Max Device with a total of 18 presets, which allows you to create cool glitch effects, pitchy shimmers, and awesome vibrato.
This Ableton plugin is inspired by the DHM 89 pitch-shifting delay from 1979 but comes with many new features for ultimate effect control.
Its foundation stems from two pitch-shifting delays and a multitude of effect controls. Use vibrato, position the two delays differently in different pitches, and control the pitch-bending with the LFOs.
The result is an out-of worldly sound that works as well on experimental vocals as drums and layering leads.
Get pitch shifting!
3. Stray Cats Collection (by Max for Cats)
Here’s another massive Ableton plugin and Max for Live connection that gives you a total of eight plugins with 111 presets – Stray Cats Collection.
Starting out, the instrument of this collection is called MSE and consists of three different components, the MSE synth module, the Quad, and the SEQ8.
The synth module is simple to use but very powerful and works great for basses. The Quad takes four of the MSE synths and stacks them together for a richer sound, and the SEQ8 is an analog-style step sequencer with eight steps and swing that you can use with both software and hardware synths.
Then you get a MIDI effect called ConChord, which you can use to create rhythmic and melodic patterns with ease. Set your sequencer, and your sound will play along with your chosen set of notes or chords – with variable pulse counts, time, swing, and play direction parameters.
Finally, you get a beautiful set of powerfully creative delays, reverbs, and saturation as audio effects. The saturator or sound texture device Color is especially interesting. Use it to introduce vinyl noises, hiss, wobble, analog warmth, and the wobble you hear in old-style music. It sounds remarkably realistic and gives your track an instant vintage feel.
4. Probability Pack (by Sonic Faction)
Do you want to introduce more surprises in your music? Then you need the Probability Pack – a creative set of sequencers that give your sounds probability and a chance of interesting things happening.
In five Max Devices and 60 presets, you can control everything from the probability of surprise melodic notes to rhythm and arpeggiators. Each of these devices allows you to set your key, allowing you to control your randomness completely.
Step Divider and Dr. Chaos are two other sequencers that introduce unpredictability or glitchy and chaotic results. Perfect if you make darker-style music or want to explore new ideas.
With custom presets made by Sonic Fraction, throw them on your favorite sound and see what happens.
Chances are you’ll probably love it. (see what I did there?)
5. Creative Extensions (by Ableton)
Creative Extensions is a beautiful selection of instruments, MIDI, and audio effects that help you make music easier – with a more creative flare.
Suppose you have trouble drawing interesting melodies in your piano roll. In that case, you will love the MIDI effect Melodic Steps, which creates beautiful, evolving melodies pretty much by instantly throwing them on your sound.
Select your scale and root chord and start getting inspired. Your next hook is only a few clicks away, with controls for octave, transpose, length, velocity, and chance.
The audio effects range from pitch hacks to gated delays, a color limiter, ghostly spectral reverbs, and more. All devices are extremely easy to use and are incredibly high quality to take your sound to the next level.
Finally, you also get two instruments – Bass and Poli.
The Bass is pretty self-explanatory, but oh, so powerful. Many producers resort to a default sine or saw patch two build their basses. If you’re trying to get ‘that’ analog sound, you’ll love the Bass device. It’s analog-style and gives you a complete palette of bass sounds, including an option to add sub-bass.
Use Poli for classic, vintage polyphonic chords, and phrases. It sounds beautiful from the start and is also very easy to use.
Extend your creativity and get these beautiful free Max Devices.
6. Convolution Reverb (by Ableton)
Do you want to emulate the impulse responses of real acoustical places and things? Then the Convolution Reverb will make you very happy.
The idea behind a convolution reverb is that it takes a sample from a real-world space, works its magic, and simulates that same reverberation on your sound.
Because it's made in collaboration with Alex Harker from Huddersfield University, the quality is strikingly realistic and generates with zero latency.
Overall, it includes well over 200 different real-world samples or impulse responses (IR) from a wide range of spaces, vintage hardware, experimental sounds, and more – in the world.
Get spacious with the Convolution Reverb.
Max for Live is filled with inspiring free Ableton plugins to take your music production to the next level.
And from pitch loopers to granular effects and heavy FM synths, you now have a list of the best free Max for Live plugins and collections to try out.
As a great next step – check out Ableton’s website and try them all out.
If you want to spring for other paid versions, check out the other paid Max for Live collections on the Ableton website.
Happy music-making, and stay creative!
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Thanks for reading, and see you in the next article.
About the author
Pelle Sundin is a Swedish music producer and writer, active with his chillout project PLMTRZ. He also produces psytrance. When he's not producing, he surfs, skates, and chugs coffee.