“If I just buy this one plugin, my music will sound awesome!” – sound familiar? 🙂
Unfortunately, in the last two years, I think I have bought over 30 new VST plugins. So in order to save you from going trough the same, sometimes fun, but useless experience… I wanted to share with you what I have learned.
You usually don’t need new plugins
Before you continue reading – let me give you the best TIP of this entire article: please, be skeptical about how VST plugins are marketed.
If I would guess, about 80% of all the VST plugins that are our in the market are not worth their money. These are not necessarily bad; but they will not offer a lot of value over what you already have within your own digital workstation. It has happened more than once that I would buy a new plugin, happily use it for a while, only to find out that I could have done the exact same thing with what I already had. Sh* 🙂 What I did wrong was: I never took the time to really use the tools I already had.
And I have to admit, at least for my sake, it is so easy to be seduced by awesome sounding demo’s and video’s, convincing you that this is the secret sauce you have been missing for your recipe. Just remember that a lot of time goes into producing these sounds, and that one synth or effects plugin will just not sound like that when you use it out of the box.
What makes a good plugin?
Am I saying I should never buy plugins? No, of course not. Apart from being a lot of fun to play around with, there are a few reasons that justify building up a minimum arsenal of sound toys (no affiliation or pun intended ;))
- improve the efficiency of your workflow: some plugins offer features that can save you a lot of time. For example: a reverb plugin that already automatically ducks and distorts the output signal. That basically saves you the hassle of setting up the side chain compressor and distortion to achieve the same effect. Do you need that? No, of course not. Even worse: if you end up always using that plugin because of it, it may also keep you from being creative and learning about other reverbs out there.
- strapped for budget: plugins can be a good alternative towards hardware synths and effects. Most of the time, hardware will sound better (if properly used), but these are also a lot more expensive. You could be amazed about the sound you could create by using a simple synth, and combining that with a few well tweaked effects.
And at the end of the day: you can just click save in your DAW, and all settings will be exactly the same when you open your project again later.
- building for variation : once you do master your DAW and existing plugins, you may want to experiment a bit more with other plugins. Distortion plugins, for example, tend to sound very different although they basically do the same thing: they destroy your audio signal 🙂
If you are starting out with music production, it is likely that (for example) all distortion or compression plugins will sound the same to you. But once you master them, you start to notice the subtle differences between them. Only then does it make sense to start experimenting with trial versions, see what sounds good in your productions, and shortlist them for when these are on sale.
What do I use?
So after two years of experimenting, what are the few plugins I use on every production? In order to be on on my list, these plugins have to:
- form a crucial part of an audio production – meaning, basic effects you will always need
- save me a lot of time, instead of combining stock plugins
- be inexpensive
- sound better than what is offered within by DAW – apart from saturation and reverb/delay effects, most of the tools in your DAW are already good enough
Here is my current top-5 shortlist… Please do note that I am not affiliated with any of these software companies, and that this is based solely on my own meandering experience 🙂
Baby Audio – Parallel Agressor (~49USD)
Especially in electronic music production – this plugin is a side-chain-compression-multitool. It is incredible easy and quick to use.
Spank will basically help you accentuate those between-kick-highs, while the heat will get that raw-sounding kick trough. I use it on my drum buss for that extra spice where needed – just don’t overdo it.
Waves – Sheps Omni Channel (~38USD)
I have as many channels strips as women have shoes. But this one eventually survived all others. There are a few reasons why I like the design of this plugin.
First, it is quite completed: pre-amp saturation, low/high pass cutoff filters, very well designed gate, expander, two dynamic EQ/DeEssers, a 4-band EQ with mid/side ability and the ability to solo/audit a specific frequency, different types of compressors with mid/side and sidechaining, and a brick-wall limited – eat your heart out SSL stip! To top it off, you have an extra wildcard insert at the end you can use if you want.
Second, it has a real VU 18dB FS meter built-in, so it becomes real easy to balance your channel sound before it is being processed by your compressors etc.
And finally, because WAVES offers 40% discounts all year long – it is not expensive. If you ate still learning about music production, I can recommend you this one. It has all the features you need to understand before buying any other more advanced and expensive plugin 🙂
Valhalla – Delay and Vintage Verb ( ~50USD)
The people behind Valhalla create very efficient, high-quality plugins. For some reason I don’t understand myself, these effects just sound better than my stock plugins, or even more expensive ones (such as raum or replikate) for that matter.
They are, however, not very easy to use. Let me rephrase: you will be able to get a good sound of it, but you really need to understand all the different parameters and sound algorithms (modes) offered by this plugin to be able to produce something really good with them.
So as you may have guessed, my advice: learn your stock plugins first, and once you understand what delay and reverb does, start experimenting with these.
Waves – Abbey Road Saturator (~38USD)
To be honest – I don’t like the user interface of this plugin at all 🙂 I am not a vintage airplane enthusiast and it is not very easy to use. However, how it lacks in UI design, it makes up in sound by a LOT.
The compander acts as some type of multi-band compressor. If will soft-limit compress the signal with the predefined ratio, apply the illustrated low/high pass filters and then expands the signal again – leaving only the mid-band more or less in its original state. The blend meter mixes this with the original signal.
The saturator adds low-to-crunching distortion and harmonics to your audio signal.
It’s a difficult plugin to really understand and get a hang of it, but I tend to at least use one or two of these in my productions – mainly to make my low-end come out on smaller systems, or to beef up my vocals.
Before I had this plugin, I often used Chow Tape Model for saturation and tape effects. Which offers a great alternative that is even FREE. Still, the versatility and quality of the Abbey Road Saturator is just a bit better.
There are a lot of great VST plugins out there. In any production, you will need compressors, channel strips / EQs, echo, delay and distortion/saturation effects. But those are always included in your own DAW – so why do I need to buy plugins that do the same thing?
Well, in all honesty – you don’t really need to. Stock plugins usually do a good job, if you know how to use them. Buying extra VST plugins to get that better sound into your production, usually doesn’t help. You need to learn how to use the tools you have first.
Only after you really understand your existing tools, will it become a good idea to invest in new ones.
- you will understand what you are missing, and not make the mistake of buying new ones you didn’t actually need
- you will be able to experiment and use that new tool faster, and avoid to be let down
The plugins listed above give you a good idea on what you could use: tools that make you work faster and more efficient, sound good, and are actually not that expensive at all. But in the end, you should not always copy what other people do, but try find the plugins that work for you and your workflow.
Is there something you use all the time? Leave a comment and let us know 🙂