Jump to audio examples
I am a plugin addict. As a studio owner, I own many of the popular audio plugins such as the Waves Gold Bundle, the Bomb Factory plugins, and Line 6 Amp Farm. Though I routinely use all of these “utility” plugins, it's the more esoteric plugs that I turn to when I'm being creative. In this article, I'll introduce the ones I find most inspiring.
Plugins come in two forms: virtual instruments and effects. Virtual instruments allow you to load and play sounds by connecting a MIDI keyboard or other MIDI controller to your computer. They come in all varieties: pianos, drum kits, strings, orchestral instruments, organs, brass, synthesizers, and much more. Effect plugins come in endless types as well: EQ, compression, delay, reverb, filters, beat-slicers, distortion, and twisted combinations. To use a plugin, you load it into a host program such as Digidesign Pro Tools or Apple GarageBand.
As a musician and songwriter, I look for three things in a plugin:
My process of songwriting (and thus choosing plugins) is not for everyone. I think about music first and technology second. When I’m writing pop songs, I’m thinking primarily about chord structure and lyrics or about the song itself, not so much the production. That’s why I wouldn’t choose a complex interface that would require my technological brain to interrupt my musical brain. I want a sleek, simple interface that can get me the sound I want in as little time as possible. I can always replace the sounds I write with, because for me, inspiration is a precious resource--one I try to nurture as long as I can without getting off on a technological tangent that kills my vibe.
That said, if I'm writing a techno piece or a soundtrack, I will spend more time on the production and the sounds I choose to write with, because the production is so much a part of these kinds of music for me.
In the following list, you may notice the lack of geekier analog synth emulation plugins. I love the sound of the old analog gear as much as anyone, and though I have spent quite a few stoned hours patching cables on a real modular Moog synthesizer as well as Arturia’s plugin version, I must admit that the majority of analog synth plugins do not excite me when I’m writing songs. I do use plugins like the Arturia or the amazing Rap Papen plugs, but I usually bring out this breed if I’m writing techno or after I've written a song and can be distracted with adjusting decays, filters, and waveforms.
Nor do I come from the school of “If you don’t create the sound from scratch, it sucks.” I’ve been on music technology panels where the producer huffs, “I don’t believe in presets. I make all my own sounds.” I think I’m supposed to be impressed, but I never am. I would rather choose a great preset and write more songs than pitch my tent in the no-presets camp. That’s not to say that I don’t edit presets or add a funky effect to the sounds I choose. But again, I gravitate towards spending more time in my musician/songwriter headspace and less time thinking like a technician.
So, given the dream task of writing amazing music with an unlimited budget, these are the plugins I would choose. I have listed them in order of my personal favorites.
Atmosphere is one of my all-time favorite plugins. I use it on probably 85 percent of my songs. Designed by sonic genius Eric Persing, this is a pad lover’s dream. Atmosphere is chock-full of lush pads, vintage analog synths, evolving textures, synth basses and strings, and ambient bells. For pop music or film scores, Atmosphere is a must in your plugin arsenal. Retail price: $399.
Ivory, designed by a former Kurzweil soundware developer, is, in my humble opinion, the best sounding virtual piano on the market. The user interface is simple and elegant as well. With a 40GB sound library, you’ll need some free hard drive space, but hearing truly is believing. The pianos include several different Bösendorfers, Yamaha grands, jazz pianos, rock pianos, and a simple way to layer synth pads and strings. This plugin is a dream to use and an even bigger dream to play. Since buying Ivory, I rarely record real pianos anymore. Retail price: $329.
Stylus RMX is an all-inclusive beat machine featuring a 7.4GB sound library. You can play eight different parts at once, mix them with the internal mixer, add some built-in effects using four aux sends, and then try the Chaos Designer that randomizes beats. (Check out the O’Reilly tutorial.) You can buy RMX Expander Packs to add to the already amazing choices of loops and drum sounds, or import your own sounds in Propellerhead REX format. The Stylus RMX sounds tend to be on the pop side and have a somewhat processed vibe. If you’re looking for more acoustic drums, go with Best Service Artist Grooves (Pick no. 8, below). Retail Price: $299.
For bass sounds, there is nothing that compares to Trilogy. This 3.5GB library will blow you away. I have actually replaced real upright bass on two albums with Trilogy’s virtual upright. Not only is this plugin simple to use, it’s also very versatile, with practically every model and style of bass from picked, muted, fretless, upright, and fingered, to deep, complex synth bass patches. If you’re a songwriter and want to lay down some bass parts, this is your plugin. Retail price: $350.
This is my software sampler of choice. I have tried all the others and for ease of use and aesthetic design, MachFive is my favorite. It includes a 4GB library with some excellent sounds and a simple utility called UVI-Xtract to convert any sample into Mach Five format. The sampler has drag-and-drop support and an easy-to-use effects section, freeing up more processing power for your host program. [Ed. Note: The “five” in the title refers to another of the plugin’s groundbreaking features—the ability to play 5.1-channel surround-sound samples.] Retail price: $395.
This is a collection of four classic electric pianos, the Fender Rhodes MK I and MK II, the Hohner Clavinet, and the Wurlitzer A-200. They are sampled from the actual instruments, producing a gorgeous, clean-sounding collection that I use all the time. A good friend whose ears I trust prefers the Scarbee Rhodes, which I haven’t tried, so you may want to check that out as well. Retail price: $229.
This plugin has a great user interface, is very simple to use, and features 8GB of symphonic instrument samples. The entire orchestral gamut is covered, with a huge selection of orchestral percussion, flutes, violins, violas, cellos, contrabasses, tubas, trombones, French horns, pianos, harps, and even organs and flugelhorns. There are also several amazing ensemble patches such as brass ensemble, contrabass ensemble, cello ensemble, viola ensemble, and a violin ensemble. And considering the price of other orchestral libraries, this one is a bargain. Retail price: $295.
Artist Grooves features loops from some of the world’s most accomplished drummers, including Kenny Aranoff and Dennis Chambers. Each bank is separated by individual drummers and contains loops, fills, and a few hi-hat and kick/snare loops. The sound quality is superb and the loops are designed so that they can easily transition from one section to another, making them perfect for songwriting and drum-track demos. Best Service also offers a collection called Artist Drums that features the individual drum hits so you can do your own programming. Retail price: $199.95.
If you do sound design or film scoring, Xtreme FX is essential. It is one of the lesser known but most amazing plugins, with an 8GB library of editable sounds and a versatile effects engine. The sounds range from Foley effects to atmospheric textures, edgy drones, and some very musical patches such as tuned mallets and ambient bells with endless echoes. This plugin is great when you’re lacking inspiration and want something a little different. Retail price: $149.
I couldn’t decide which organ I liked best, so I included them both. The Native Instruments B4 costs a little more but gives you more flexibility with two MIDI-controllable octaves as well as bass pedals. Charlie has some great presets and some thick, edgy sounds that I also use frequently. For more natural organ sounds, I usually go with B4 and for more edgy processed organs, I choose Charlie. Retail price: Charlie $149; B4 $229.
The best way to buy most effect plugins is in a bundle; you’ll save a lot of money over buying them individually. I have so many personal favorites that whittling this list down to ten items was hard. I chose these specific plugins based on which ones I felt give you the most bang for the buck, ease of use, and versatility. Again, I listed them in order of preference.
Sound Toys makes my all-time favorite plugins. This little bundle of joy is my magical bag of tricks; it can make even the blandest track come to life. The Native Effects Bundle contains six supremely creative plugins: Echo Boy, Filter Freak, Phase Mistress, Crystallizer, Tremolator, and Speed. Echo Boy is my favorite delay plugin; the presets alone will keep you amused for hours on end. Filter Freak, Phase Mistress, Tremolator, and Crystallizer are unique, edgy, and sometimes weird (in a very good way). Speed allows you to alter the pitch and tempo of a track. All six plugins have a similar user interface, making them easy to use while imparting their own distinctive sound. If I had to give up all my plugin collections but one, I would keep my Sound Toys. Retail price: $495.
All of the plugins in my Top 20 list are copy-protected. Some companies use simple serial numbers, some use the iLok USB dongle, and some, like Native Instruments, use their own systems of trading a series of numbers back and forth through the internet to prevent piracy. Regardless, plan on jumping through a few hoops to get most of these plugins up and running.
I am a big fan of copy protection because these companies lose so much money from pirated software. However, because few musicians can afford to drop $500-$1,000 frequently, I think there would be far less piracy if the plugin companies provided a rent-to-own system that charged musicians each time they used a plugin until it was paid for.
I’ve been trying to convince companies of this idea, to no avail. Digidesign does provide rentals for many of its plugins, but the rental fee doesn’t apply toward the cost of owning the plugin. I am hoping that as the home studio market grows along with internet speeds, plugin developers will come up with a more innovative way of allowing users to acquire their plugins and sound libraries. Do we really need a 40GB piano library on our hard drives? Why not access the sounds as we need them from a server on the internet and pay for that one use?
In the meantime, you’ll just have to save your pennies and your disk space, and buy and install plugins the old-fashioned way.
VocAlign is one of my most used plugins. It’s an AudioSuite plugin that allows you to take one track and align it to another rhythmically. Its most common use is for doubling vocals. You highlight one track and capture it, then highlight the track you want to align it to and click on the Process button. It’s that simple. I use this plugin mostly on vocals, but I’ve also used it to line up a snare with electric guitar hits or line up kick-drum downbeats with bass downbeats. It comes in very handy in most every session. Retail price: $299.
I love this plugin! I don’t just use it on guitars; it’s great on background vocals and drums as well. Guitar Rig is the ultimate toolbox for any guitarist. Featuring a sexy new hardware foot controller that connects to your computer with USB, Guitar Rig gives you a software rack full of guitar amps, cabinets, distortion pedals, delays, multi-effects, and even a built-in tuner, metronome, and loop recorder. The plugin features an expansive preset list, but the true beauty of Guitar Rig is creating your own patches by combining amps and effects and changing the order of the signal chain. It’s very easy to use and very well designed. (See the O’Reilly review.) The only caution is that it uses lots of processing power, so make sure you have at least a 1.5GHz computer to run it. Retail price: $499.
This plugin bundle is one of the best values for the money. With Waves’ exceptional Renaissance compressor, EQ, Multitap delay, and some incredible vocal plugins, the only thing missing in your mixing arsenal is a high-quality reverb. Retail price: $200.
If you use a blow dryer, are you deceiving people about the natural look of your hair? If you use a spell-checker, does that mean you’re stupid? If you use make-up, does that mean you’re ugly? If you use a calculator, does that mean you can’t add? If you have a navigation system in your car, are you directionally impaired? Get the point? I have had many spirited conversations with people who think using Auto-Tune is cheating. If you can’t sing, then absolutely, I agree it’s cheating.
There are people who overuse this plugin due to lack of pitch and lack of vocal talent, but I view it not a crutch for the untalented, but rather as an amazing tool for the talented. It’s a vocal spell-checker that just double-checks your pitch and corrects it for you. If you’re going to edit your drums and your guitars and quantize your MIDI tracks, what is so different about tuning a vocal? I do not depend on this plugin as a vocalist or as an engineer, but I would not want to have a studio without it. Retail price: $399.
If you bought a Digidesign 002 audio interface, you should already have this bundle; if you have an Mbox or M-Audio interface, it’s one to seriously consider buying. Producer Factory Pro consists of 12 plugins: the Moogerfooger Analog Delay, JoeMeek Meequalizer VC-5, JoeMeek SC-2 Photo Optical Compressor, Cosmonaut Voice, Digidesign Maxim, Bomb Factory BF-3A Classic Compressor, Digidesign D-Fi , Tel-Ray Variable Delay, SansAmp PSA-1, Moogerfooger Ring Modulator, Voce Spin, and Voce Chorus/Vibrato. It’s a great little Swiss army knife of creative effects. Retail price: $399.
This bundle of seven proven Waves plugins includes the L1 Ultramaximizer, TrueVerb, De-Esser, SuperTap 2-tap, Q10 Equalizer, C1 Parametric Compander, and S1 Stereo Imager. The L1 is an amazing dynamic limiter for individual tracks or the entire mix bus. TrueVerb is a really nice, easy-to-use reverb. The de-esser and the EQ and stereo imager are exceptional as well. For serious mixes, this is a great bundle to consider. Retail price: $500.
This is a high-dollar plugin for most musicians, but if you think about what you would pay for a hardware reverb unit, it’s actually a great deal. Altiverb is one of the most advanced reverb plugins available. It features an amazing collection of editable presets and very versatile parameter controls, while maintaining the important ease-of-use factor. The reverb patches, derived from analyses of actual acoustic spaces, range from the Sydney Opera House to the inside of a fire truck. This is my favorite reverb. Retail price: $595.
This is a more affordable reverb than Altiverb with fewer frills and a bit less creative flexibility, but it’s a great all-around reverb unit. TL Space has a straightforward user interface and some great reverb sounds sampled from real acoustic spaces. Retail price: $495.
I’ve owned this plugin for years. It’s something you don’t use every day, but it’s a great creative choice for some pop and techno tracks. It’s easy to figure out and sounds like the real thing. (See the O’Reilly vocoder tutorial.) Retail price: $245.
McDSP makes some amazing products with exceptional sound quality. The interfaces are simple and elegant. This bundle features four diverse EQ and compression plugins: Analog Channel, Compressor Bank, Filter Bank, and the MC2000. This is a powerful arsenal to have on hand when it’s time to mix. Retail Price: $795.
Even though street prices are lower than the retail prices listed above, most of us can’t afford to purchase all of these plugins. So what do you do? I always buy what I am going to use the most. As a piano player, I could not live without Ivory, but with that said, Mach Five has a great Bösendorfer piano, and you get many more instruments plus the ability to add more samples in a huge variety of formats. So although you wouldn’t have the choice of pianos, the additional orchestration options might make up for it.
If I had to pick three plugins from each list that would give me the most bang for my buck, they would be:
In choosing what to buy, you really have to weigh what’s most important to you. Is it your main instrument or your palette of instruments? For effects, do you use more natural-sounding effects like the Waves bundles or do you like more diverse collections like the Sound Toys bundle?
Check out the plugin developer websites and download the demos or play their demo sounds online. But do me a favor: don’t pirate software. These companies are working hard to create these inspiring plugins and should be paid for their product. Each one of these plugins has played a huge role in my own inspiration and creativity. I hope they inspire you as well.
This is a quick a cappella vocal I sang. One mix is dry (any pitch mistakes were made on purpose). The other was processed with Antares Auto-Tune, Waves TrueVerb, Sound Toys Echo Boy, and Prosoniq Orange Vocoder.
This is a very short piece I threw together for this article to illustrate a piece of music that uses only plugins—no live instruments or vocals. It features USB Charlie and Xtreme FX; Spectrasonics Stylus RMX, Atmosphere, and Trilogy; Synthogy Ivory; and Sound Toys Echo Boy, Phase Mistress, and Crystallizer. The screenshot shows how the plugins were arranged.
This is the demo version of a song called “No Rules” for a project I’m writing and producing with German producer Oliver Adolph. The drums are all Stylus RMX. Bass is Trilogy. I used Auto-Tune and VocAlign on the vocals. I’m playing Native Instruments Elektrik Piano and Synthogy Ivory. For effects I’m using Echo Boy, Waves L1 Compressor, McDSP Filter Bank and Compressor Bank, and Audio Ease Altiverb. The only live sounds in the song are the vocals and guitars, although guitarist Kim Carroll played through Native Instruments Guitar Rig plugin.
Return to digitalmedia.oreilly.com.