MUSIC PRODUCTION SOFTWARE:

The Definitive Guide (2019)


You may already know that there's thousands of different options when it comes to choosing music production software.

So how can you make the right choice?

What software should you download?

What's best for your needs?

Here's the thing: If you want music production to be less frustrating and confusing, then you need to pick the right tools.

In this guide, I'm going to show you the best music production software and how to choose it.

Let's go.

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Table of Contents

Ready to get started? Click one of the chapters or keep scrolling to read the article from start to finish

1 - CHOOSING THE RIGHT DAW

Most producers and musicians spend too much time trying to decide which DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) to use.

This is time that could be used to make music.

Choosing a DAW doesn't have to be difficult, as long as you keep in mind the following:

  • You can make professional music in any popular DAW
  • It doesn't matter what other people use
  • Testing is better than reading

Let's unpack these in detail, and then look at which DAWs might work for you.

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Any popular DAW will do

A lot of new producers and musicians who are looking to purchase a DAW worry about whether it will meet their needs.

Here’s the thing: most popular DAWs can do everything you need and more. That’s what they’re designed for. And unless you’re making ultra-complex or highly-technical music (in which case you wouldn’t be reading this guide), then you shouldn’t have any issues with any of the big 3.

The big 3?

Ableton Live, Logic and FL Studio. We’ll get to these in a moment.

The DAW you choose is not going to make or break your career as an artist. It’s not going to be the “one thing” that increases the quality of your music tenfold. Your DAW is only as good as the time and effort you put into making music. It’s simply a tool.

Don't pay attention to what others use

When I was starting out as a producer, I had one burning question...

Do I use Ableton Live or FL Studio?

I spent hours upon hours doing research. Specifically, I was trying to find which artists used FL Studio and who used Ableton.

After all, I wanted to be like my favorite artists. I thought the way to get there was to use the same DAW as them.

But this is a waste of time.

For every full-time, successful artist that uses Ableton Live—there’s another one that uses FL Studio, or Logic. Just goes to show that all these DAWs have the potential to output great music (if the user is skilled).

Testing is better than reading

Instead of spending hours upon hours researching which DAW to use (that includes reading this guide, by the way)—download a trial version of a DAW and start playing with it.

Some DAWs don’t offer trials, but Ableton and FL Studio do. So start with them.

If you hate the interface of one, try another. If you hate the workflow, try another. But spend some time with each one, especially if you’re a new producer. DAWs take time to learn and become proficient in.

The Big 3

Ableton Live
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FL Studio
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Logic Pro
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Ableton Live

Ableton Live is probably the most popular DAW in the electronic music production space for two reasons:

  1. It’s highly intuitive to use (at least for most people)
  2. It offers live performance capabilities

It’s also the DAW we use for most of our training and education here at EDMProd.

  • Lots of educational resources and material for new Ableton Live users
  • Flexible and versatile (used by musicians and electronic music producers alike)
  • Capable of being used as a live performance tool
  • Offers strong connection with Native hardware like Ableton Push 2 (for hands-on producing or live performance)
  • Great selection of native synths, sounds and audio effects

5 artists who use Ableton Live

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Skrillex
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Diplo
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Flume
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Deadmau5
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Odesza

Which version should I get?

Ableton offers three versions of its software: Intro, Standard, and Suite.

I recommend avoiding Intro (it’s severely limited and you’ll grow out of it quickly).

Suite is worth the money, but you can always upgrade from Standard when you feel ready. So, start with the Standard version and then upgrade to Suite later on if you feel the need.

How much does it cost?

  • Ableton Live Standard -  $449
  • Ableton Live Suite -  $749

FL Studio

It’s a favorite among hip hop and electronic music producers for a few reasons:

  1. It’s easy to understand and start using straight away (compared to Ableton which is more complex)
  2. It looks great
  3. There are a lot of educational resources online for learning FL Studio
  • Cheaper than some other DAWs
  • Lots of educational material on YouTube and elsewhere
  • Easy to understand and get started with
  • Looks great

5 artists who use FL Studio

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Martin Garrix
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Madeon
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Lex Luger
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Feed Me
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Afrojack

Which version should I get?

I highly recommend going for the Signature version if you can afford it. It will keep you busy for long enough.

If you purchase the Producer version, you will encounter limitations fairly early on. Don’t purchase the Fruity edition (same reason for not purchasing Ableton Intro—it’s too limited).

How much does it cost?

  • FL Studio Producer Edition - $199
  • FL Studio Signature Edition - $299

Logic Pro X

Logic Pro (Mac only) is popular among electronic music producers and also many musicians and engineers for its more traditional workflow and great mixing plugins.

Unfortunately, it’s only available on Mac. So if you’re a Windows user, you’re out of luck. Otherwise, it’s a serious contender with FL and Ableton.

Worth using if you’re planning on doing a lot of recording and/or mixing. Ableton and FL can also handle this, but according to most, they’re less suited for it.

  • Affordable (no upgrades needed)
  • More traditional workflow (great if you have past experience)
  • Great for mixing, recording, film scoring—anything that’s more pro audio oriented

5 artists who use Logic Pro X

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Disclosure
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Hardwell
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Hyperbits
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Calvin Harris
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David Guetta

Which version should I get?

Logic Pro X comes in only one version. Despite this, you won't find yourself limited as it includes a great variety of synths and effects.

How much does it cost?

  • Logic Pro X - $199.99

Other DAWs

Cubase

Cubase almost makes it into the big 3, but not quite. It’s still incredibly popular among producers and musicians but doesn’t appeal much to the young bedroom producer (possibly due to its positioning towards the more professional crowd).

That said, it’s a well made piece of software that boasts impressive features. There’s a reason why Hans Zimmer, Dodge & Fuski, Noisia, and Amon Tobin use it.

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Cubase almost makes it into the big 3, but not quite. It’s still incredibly popular among producers and musicians but doesn’t appeal much to the young bedroom producer (possibly due to its positioning towards the more professional crowd).

That said, it’s a well made piece of software that boasts impressive features. There’s a reason why Hans Zimmer, Dodge & Fuski, Noisia, and Amon Tobin use it.

How much does it cost?

  • Cubase Pro 10 - $559
  • Cubase Artist 10 - $310
  • Great for vocal comping and processing (VariAudio is a plus)
  • Decent native plugins

Pro Tools

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Pro Tools is the most used Pro Audio DAW. If you enter a professional recording studio, you’ll likely see Pro Tools on the screen.

It’s the industry standard for pro audio technicians and engineers, but it’s not as common among electronic music producers or hobbyist musicians. This is likely because its MIDI editing features pale in comparison compared to the Big 3.

Matt Lange is one electronic music producer who does use Pro Tools (almost exclusively as I understand). We talk about it in this interview.

  • Professional audio editing: great for mixing, mastering, post-production, etc.
  • The industry standard software in pro audio (you’ll find a lot of educational resources as a result)
  • Great stock plugins

How much does it cost?

  • Pro Tools - $299 per year

Reason

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Reason functions differently to most DAWs. Open it up and you’ll see what looks almost exactly like Hardware racks, which allow you to drag cables and set up complex signal flows.

For some producers and artists, it’s overwhelming and complicated. For others, it’s highly intuitive.

Until recently, Reason didn’t allow third party plugins, which practically removed it as a contender in the bedroom production space. Now that you can use third party plugins with it, however, it’s back on the radar and has some serious features.

  • Incredible instruments and synths right out of the box
  • Great native effects
  • Excellent audio manipulation

How much does it cost?

  • Reason 10 - $399

Studio One

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With its new “rent-to-own” plan on Splice, allowing you to get started for just $16.99/month, Studio One is a serious option for producers and musicians alike.

It’s easy to learn, simple, but also powerful.

  • Chord track feature (intelligently detects chords in your audio files)
  • Easy to learn

How much does it cost?

  • Studio One 4 Professional - $399.5 or $16.99/month for 24 months on Splice

Bitwig

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Bitwig was developed by two ex-Ableton developers and has quickly build up its reputation as a decent option for creative electronic music producers.

It’s still early days, but the future is promising.

  • Works on Linux
  • Beautiful user interface
  • Highly modular (endless creative possibilities

How much does it cost?

  • Bitwig Studio 2 - $399 USD

Garage Band

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Garageband is a free DAW that comes on OSX. You’ve probably played around with it at some point.

Honestly, it’s a great tool to get your feet wet with, but it won’t take you far. It doesn’t have the audio and MIDI capabilities or various other features found in professional DAWs.

If you like the interface and workflow, I’d suggest upgrading to Logic Pro.

  • Easy to use
  • Great to get started with
  • Free

Reaper

Reaper built its reputation as a functional, affordable DAW.

It’s doesn’t look or feel amazing. It doesn’t have a great selection of effects or instruments. But is affordable.

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Reaper built its reputation as a functional, affordable DAW.

It’s doesn’t look or feel amazing. It doesn’t have a great selection of effects or instruments. But is affordable.

How much does it cost?

  • Reaper - $60
  • Very customizable
  • Good online community
  • Affordable

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2 - THE BEST SYNTH PLUGINS

While most modern DAWs have great native synth plugins, it’s always worth having 2-3 third party synths in your library.

Not only do you (usually) get a high quality sound when you buy a third party plugin, but if it’s a commonly used synth like Serum, you open up a world of presets and possibilities simply due to its popularity. Producers want to sell and give away presets to build their brand and income—Serum is a popular synth, therefore they make presets for Serum. That benefits us, the end user.

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What to look for in a synth plugin

Choosing a synth plugin doesn’t have to be hard. It all comes down to your needs as a producer or musician.

There are three things to consider when buying a synth plugin:

  1. Cost
  2. Ease of use
  3. Application

Cost

The cost of synth plugins can range anywhere from free (TAL Noisemaker) to expensive (Omnisphere - $499)

Now, the average producer probably doesn’t need Omnisphere. But they also probably want something more complex and developed than TAL Noisemaker (even though it’s a great synth).

Expect to spend anywhere from $50 - $200 for a quality third party synth like Serum or Spire. Splice allows you to purchase some synths (Serum included) on a rent-to-own plan, which I recommend.

Ease of Use

Software synths can be inherently difficult to use and understand if you haven’t had much experience with them. There’s a learning curve regardless of which one you choose.

But you still don’t want to purchase a synth that’s unnecessarily complex for your needs. You’ll end up frustrated and feeling like you wasted money.

Application

Finally, you want to choose a synth based on your needs.

If you’re a musician who just wants the odd synth sound in your track, then opt for something simple like Sylenth1.

If you’re a dubstep producer who wants to create complex, intricate sounds that impress everyone else, then Serum is a better choice due to its complex features.

Our Top 10 Recommended Synth Plugins

Xfer Records Serum

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Developed by Steve Duda (Xfer Records), Serum was launched in September of 2014 and took the production community by storm.

As taken from their website:

“The dream synthesizer did not seem to exist: a wavetable synthesizer with a truly high-quality sound, visual and creative workflow-oriented interface to make creating and altering sounds fun instead of tedious, and the ability to “go deep” when desired - to create / import / edit / morph wavetables, and manipulate these on playback in real-time.”

The great thing about Serum is that once you’ve figured it out, you can create practically any sound you like. It’s versatile.

If you just want a simple pluck sound, easy. If you want a complex, self-evolving, multi-layered pad? You can do that too.

Cost

Serum retails for $189, but you can get it through Splice’s Rent to Own program starting at $9.99/month.

Ease of use

Serum is a complex, multi-faceted synth. It looks complicated, and can be overwhelming to those new to synthesis.

But despite how powerful and complex Serum is, it’s relatively easy to pick up and learn. There’s plenty of YouTube tutorials to help you, along with the well-written manual.

Application

I recommend Serum for every type of producer and musician. It’s a key part of my workflow, and many others can say the same.

  • Can import custom wavetables, noises, and LFOs.
  • Easy to use. Logical interface. Well designed.
  • “One size fits all” synth. Extremely versatile.
  • Huge community, lots of educational resources.

Native Instruments Massive

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Before Serum was a thing, Massive was the “go-to” synth among electronic music producers (next to Sylenth1 which we’ll get to in a moment).

It’s a wavetable synth that boasts a ton of great features, including a comprehensive LFO and performer module (allowing you to create intricate patterns and evolving sounds), excellent-sounding wavetables, and some handy FX.

Cost

NI Massive retails for $149, but look out for occasional discounts if you’re interested.

Ease of use

Massive has a slightly steeper learning curve than Serum (in my opinion), but I think this is largely due to the interface. It’s a bit harder to understand. That said, once you get it, you get it.

A few tutorials and some reading of the manual will get you up to speed in no time.

Application

Massive is popular among dubstep/bass music producers due to its wavetables. It’s arguable that Serum has “replaced” Massive in this regard, and if you’re stuck on the fence, we recommend Serum over Massive.


Note: NI have announced that Massive X is coming out soon (February 2019).

  • Over 85 unique wavetables
  • Great modulation capabilities
  • Creative effects
  • Easier on the CPU than Serum (generally speaking)

Lennar Digital Sylenth1

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If you’re looking for a simple synth that sounds great, does the job, and doesn’t overwhelm you with tons of intricate features—Sylenth1 is the synth for you.It’s been around for years, and continues to be a favorite even if it’s lacking in features compared to Serum and Massive.

Cost

Sylenth1 sells for 139 euros (~$160 USD), but you can also pay this in installments.

Ease of use

Sylenth1 is incredibly easy to use. It’s subtractive synthesis at its finest. We highly recommend this to new producers or anyone who needs a simple solution.

Application

Sylenth1 won’t be able to provide you with the complex, intricate sounds that can be created in Massive or Serum, but for anything else? It’s great.

I recommend this to every producer who’s not interested in purchasing Serum or Massive (due to their complexity), but still wants a high quality synth.

  • Great sound
  • Tons of presets available
  • Easy to learn and use. Intuitive. Can create sounds quickly.

Reveal Sound Spire

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Spire was released in 2015 as the first real, modern competitor to Sylenth1. We think it just that, as it’s been adapted by a ton of professional producers. It has a fantastic oscillator section fueled by a powerful waveshaping matrix, as well as a powerful modulation matrix that gives you total control over the synth.

Spire has a powerful and raw sound that offers a distinct sonic palette, making it comparable (but not necessarily better or worse) than Sylenth1.

Cost

€139/$189

Ease of use

Spire is a great tool for beginner and pros alike. It may take a few days to get used too, but once you’re inside it’s extremely intuitive and easy to use.

Application

Spire is great for big, modern EDM sounds. It’s not your best option for bass-heavy sound design, but a great option for powerful chords, leads, and basses.
  • Powerful oscillator section
  • Flexible modulation matrix
  • Strong onboard effects

Audiaire Zone

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Zone is a new entry into the competitive synth market, but offers certain features that other synths can’t touch. It’s a sequencer driven synthesizer that allows you to map nearly every parameter to a sequencer. It also contains all of the features you’d expect from a modern powerful synthesizer.

Cost

£99/$139

Ease of use

Zone’s beautiful GUI can take some time to get used to, but that’s in part by design. It’s a synth built for producers who want to get their hands dirty with complex sound design.

Application

As powerful as Zone is, it’s sonic palette isn’t for everyone. Rather than tell you who it’s for, we’d rather you check out the demo sounds and hear for yourself.

  • It’s a niche synth that isn’t for everyone

Sonic Academy ANA 2

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ANA 2 is Sonic Academy’s follow up to their fan favorite (and budget-friendly) plugin, ANA.

ANA 2 features an redesigned graphical interface, a powerful 3D oscillator section, and intuitive graphic envelopes. Other features include custom wavetables, the ability to import your own samples, 24 on board effects, and a creative MIDI tool section.

Cost

£140.00/$178.51, but you can often find it on sale (while I’m writing this it’s only £84.00/$107.11)

Ease of use

Part of ANA 2’s draw it’s simplicity. It’s a modern, powerful synthesizer with a beginner friendly interface.

Application

ANA 2 works well for just about any genre. I’d say if favors four on the floor genres, such as trance, deep house, progressive house and techno.
  • Powerful wavetable  
  • Creative MIDI tools
  • Tons of presets
  • A great deal when on sale

u-he Diva

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Dubbed “the spirit of analog”, Diva is an extremely powerful virtual analog synthesizer. It models the oscillator and filter sections of 8 of the most famous vintage synths.

If you’re need of a warm, vintage texture in your music, you simply can’t go wrong with DIVA.

Cost

179€/$203

Ease of use

Diva can take some time to get used to, especially if you’ve never dealt with an analog or virtual analog synth before. However, the interface itself is easy to navigate.

Application

Diva shines the brightest with warm, vintage sounds. Whether you need a lead, chords, or a baseline, Diva has got you covered.
  • Arguably the best virtual analog synth on the market
  • Straightforward, intuitive interface
  • Great sounding presets

KV331 Synthmaster

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Synthmaster 2.9 is truly the swiss army knife of plugins. Even better, its priced like an actual swiss army knife, making it one of the most affordable synths on the market.

It features multiple types of synthesis including virtual analog, additive, wavetable, pulse width modulation, and much more.

It’s perfect for a budget-friendly producer who wants an all in one synth that isn’t as common (looking at you Serum)

Cost

$99 but you can nearly always find it on sale (while writing this, it’s 30% off)

Ease of use

The UI of synthmaster has continued to develop, but it’s still a bit clunkier than its counterpart. Like any synth, once you’re in it for a while navigation is an ease.

Application

1250+ presets help you get off the ground running with this synth. Given it’s range of synthesis types, it’s applicable for nearly every style.
  • Clean, professional sound.
  • Very reasonably priced
  • Plenty of quality presets

Native Instruments FM8

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FM8 is a high-quality FM synth from the team over at Native Instruments. While FM synthesis is a mystery for many, FM8 features a readily usable and capable interface. 

Cost

$149

Ease of use

As mentioned above, FM synthesis can be tough to wrap one’s head around. Those comfortable with FM8 boast its modulation and morphing capabilities.

Application

FM synthesis as a whole offers and wide palette of sounds that’s hard to replicate in a subtractive or wavetable synth. From harsh growls to beautiful bells, FM8 has you covered.
  • Can create powerful and gritty sounds or soft and smooth sounds.
  • Excellent preset library
  • Plenty of education resources on how to use FM8

FAW Circle 2

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Circle2 is a beautifully crafted semi-modular subtractive synth from the team at FAW. The key focus of Circle2 is it’s usability - it boasts a elegant, simple interface that makes sound design less of a head-scratcher.

Cost

Circle retails for $129, but you can get it through Splice’s Rent to Own program starting at $7.99/month.

Ease of use

As mentioned above, ease of use is the name of the game with Circle2. It’s a modern powerful synth without the GUI headache.

Application

Circle 2 is perfect for the preset-dependent producer who’s looking to venture out on their own with sound design. It’s applicable for nearly every style of music.
  • Beautiful and playful GUI
  • Easy
  • Quality and unique effects

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3 - THE BEST SAMPLER INSTRUMENTS

Sampler instruments offer a sonic flexibility that simply isn't possible with synthesizers.

Instead of directly synthesizing sound (as with synthesizers), sampler instruments contain recorded samples that you can play back. This allows you to bring the realism and dynamic behind acoustic instruments into your DAW.

From orchestral instruments to grand pianos to analog synths, sampler instruments provide you with hit-ready sounds out of the box.

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What to look for in a sampler instrument

The quality and scope of sampler instruments is nothing less than extraordinary. For a few hundred bucks, you can have access to a professionally recorded orchestra at the click of a button.

Given this, it's helpful to identify why you want a sampler library.

Do you want realistic sounding string libraries? Check out NI Kontakt and the East West libraries.

Do you want radio ready EDM synths? Check out Nexus.

Do you want creative, unique sampled instruments? Check out Omnisphere 2.

Cost

Sampler libraries can get pricey quickly. Most sampler instruments come with stock libraries, and you can purchase additional libraries from either the developer or third party companies.

In other words, if you want a few more pianos for Kontakt, it'll cost you.

Ease of Use

Since sampler instruments are sample based (duh), the general playback will be straightfoward.

Most instruments provide you with a streamlined interface up front with detailed control behind the hood.

Application

As mentioned above, sampler instruments are a great way to bring realistic acoustic elements into your music.

Our Top 5 Recommended Sampler Instruments

Native Instruments Kontakt 6

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Kontakt is the industry leading sampler instrument. It’s stock library features 55+ GB of professionally sampled instruments with powerful editing capabilities.

Kontakt’s boasts an extremely vast library - guitars, symphonies, orchestral drums, vintage keyboard synths, brass instruments, choirs, and much more. It also serves as the foundation for many native and third party sampler libraries.  

Cost

$399 outright or as part of the $599 Komplete 12 Bundle (keep an eye out for sales)

Ease of use

The front end interface of Kontakt is extremely friendly. Those that want more control can get lost behind the hood, where Kontakt gives you detailed control over the expression of it’s instruments.

Application

Kontakt 6 is for perfect for producers who want to add sense of dynamic realism to their music.

Spectrasonics Omnisphere

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Omnisphere 2 is one of the most capable and flexible virtual instruments on the planet. While it’s $500 scares off many producers, it’s value is beyond incredible.

It boasts a powerful synthesis engine, over 14,000+ sounds, and 57 on board effects. Very few instruments sound as out-of-the-box good as Omnisphere’s.

Cost

$499 / €399

Ease of use

Omnisphere 2 gets a 8/10 in my book for ease of use. The preset browser is very easy to navigate, but dialing in a precise sound can take some time to get a hold of. It’s one of those plugins where even seasoned veterans learn something new every day - there is so much more than meets the idea with Omnisphere.

Application

No matter what genre you produce, odds are a handful of Omnispheres 14,000+ sounds can add to your sonic palette. It’s a approach to sampling and synthesis isn’t straight down the middle. In other words, you’re not going to get a clean concert piano, you’ll get a vintage piano dropped down a well plane by thumb piano.

East West Composercloud

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ComposerCloud is a subscription service that gives you access to 40,000+ instruments across 63 different products. It features beautifully recorded pianos, drums, orchestral instruments, guitars, choirs, and much more.

Cost

$19.99 - $29.99 per month

Ease of use

The design of their sampler instruments are a bit dated but fairly straightforward.

Application

ComposerCloud is designed more for Hollywood movie scores than EDM bangers, but is perfect for producers looking to incorporate realistic textures into their music.

reFX Nexus

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reFX Nexus2 is the most popular rompler for EDM producers. A rompler is an instrument that plays back audio sampler, rather than synthesizing them (like Serum or Sylenth1 do).

The advantage of romplers is their sounds are designed to sound great out of the box. The sounds in Nexus2 are just that - quality preset and preset. The disadvantage is this limits your control over the sound, since they’re only samplers. This means you’re working within the box of sounds other people have created, as opposed to designing sounds from scratch, making them your own.

Cost

$249 for the started package, $3999.99 for the complete package.

Ease of use

Simplicity is what’s Nexus is all about - top quality sounds in just a few clicks.

Application

Nexus2 was popularized among the EDM bubble producers thanks to its low effort, high quality sounds. It’s less popular than it was 5 years ago, but it’s still a handy tool in many producer’s creative arsenal.

Spectrasonics Keyscape

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From the same team that built Omnisphere 2, Keyscape is a phenomenally sampled virtual instrument library featuring some of the best pianos and keyboards you’ve ever heard.

Cost

$399

Ease of use

Keyscape interface is friendly and straightforward. It'll be easy to integrate it into your production workflow.

Application

Keyscape is all about creative and dynamic expression. If you’re a piano player, you’ll truly appreciate the realism these instruments give you.

Overall, it’s perfect for producers who want a top-quality selection of both standard and unorthodox keyboard libraries.  

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4 - THE BEST EQUALIZERS

Equalizers are one of the most important mixing tools for producers. While stock EQs can get the job done, third party EQs can often get the job done better. Many professionals reach outside of the DAW for EQ'ing, using third party equalizers to make their mixes cleaner, fuller, and warm.

Whether you're looking for digital clarity or analog warmth, it's worthwhile investing in a third party equalizer.

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What to look for in a EQ

Equalizer plugins generally fall into one of two categories: analog-modeled or digital.

Analog-modeled equalizers are exactly what they sound like - equalizers modeled after popular outboard gear. These plugins emulate the controls and capabilities of outboard equalizers, hoping to capture their analog warmth and character.

Digital EQs are focused on giving you enhanced control over the frequency response of a sound. These plugins are focuses on high-quality processing paired with an easy to use interface.

Cost

The price of an EQ can range from free (there are plenty of great free EQs) to $300.

Ease of Use

Functionality is key with all plugins, EQs especially. While analog-modeled EQs have a warm, smooth sound, they're not as intuitive as some digital EQs.

Every plugin on this list is a great plugin, but not every one will integrate well into your workflow.

Application

Since each EQ offers it's own unique set of features, it's important to ask yourself what you need in an EQ.

Do you need a precise digital EQ to help with sound design and creative processing, or do you want a warm, musical EQ to give your track more of an analog feel?

Our Top Recommended Equalizers

Fabfilter Pro Q 3

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Fabfilter’s Pro Q3 is one of the most popular EQ’s on the market, and for good reason: it pairs a beautifully designed interface with a extremely high sound quality.

It offers all of the basic features you’d expect from an EQ, as well as more advanced features such as linear phase and dynamic phase modes, a dynamic EQ mode, mid/side processing, solo’ing, and more.

Cost

$179

Ease of use

ProQ3’s tagline sums it up nicely: “Highest possible sound quality, unrivalled interface workflow”.

Application

Whether your shaping an individual track, a group bus, or your master bus, ProQ3 has got you covered.

DMG Equalibrium

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DMG Equilibrium is an amazingly versatile and flexible EQ. You can fully customize to UI to help build your own workflow. It’s feature-packed, sonically clean, and CPU friendly.

Cost

£174.99 (~$221)

Ease of use

Since you can fully customize the UI of Equilibrium, you’ll find it easy to work into your workflow.

Application

DMG is the swiss army knife, meaning it can tackle just about an EQ job you throw at it.

Photosounder Spine

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Spline in a linear phase EQ with a creative approach to filtering. INstead of the traditional bells and notches, they use “spline curves” which allow you to essentially draw in the shape of each filter. As the photo above displays, this gives you an unparalleled control over the shape of a sound.

Cost

$29 (There is also a free version with only 4 bands)

Ease of use

Spline's approach to equalizing is unique, so it can take a few moments to get used to it's interface. Outside of this, it's interface is well designed and easy to use.

Application

Spline is an extremely powerful equalizer, making it great for intense sound design and post processing.
Many popular mixing plugins are emulations of classic hardware units. For the next few plugins, we’ll do a roundtop of the top emulations of classic hardware equalizers . Many engineers favor analog modeled EQs because they process sound in a very natural and musical way.

SSL Style EQ's

Our first grouping of EQs are emulations of EQ found on classic SSL 4000 analog mixing console.

SSL style EQs are known for being surgical and aggressive. They’re useful tools to add character and tone to a mix.

Our 3 Favorite SSL-Style EQs

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Slate FG-S ($19 per month via their VMR subscription)

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SSL Native Channel Strip ($329 or $19 a month via their subscription bundle)

Many popular mixing plugins are emulations of classic hardware units. For the next few plugins, we’ll do a roundtop of the top emulations of classic hardware equalizers . Many engineers favor analog modeled EQs because they process sound in a very natural and musical way.

Pultec Style EQ's

API Style EQ's

API-style EQs are a balanced middle ground between the surgical SSLs and the smooth Pultecs. They can be used as both problem solves (cutting out nasty frequencies) and enhancers.

Our 3 Favorite API-Style EQs

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Slate FG-A ($19 per month via their VMR subscription)

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Neve 1073 Style EQ's

The tone of the Neve EQ and Preamp is one of the most sought after in the industry. It’s adds a rich, warm character that is present on countless hit records

Our 3 Favorite SSL-Style EQs

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Slate FG-N ($19 per month via their VMR subscription)

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Scheps 73 ($199)

Maag Audio EQ4

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The Maag EQ4 is another analog emulation of a classic hardware equalizer. It’s widely known for its “air” band that adds top-end sheen without the harshness.

Cost

$229

Ease of use

The 6 band EQ is easy to pick up and apply to your workflow.

Application

The Maag EQ4 is a “musical eq”, meaning it does a great job adding tone and color. As mentioned above, it’s air band is worth the price tag alone.

Izotope Ozone 8 Dynamic EQ

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While not an EQ in a traditional sense, Izotope’s Dynamic EQ is a great tool to have in your mixing arsenal. Dynamic EQ’s combine the precision of an equalizer with the processing of a compressor.

Izotope’s Dynamic EQ gives you focused, detailed control over the spectral dynamics of a sound.

Cost

$249 via Ozone 8 Standard

Ease of use

As with all Ozone module, the dynamic EQ has a simple, intuitive interface.

Application

Dynamic EQs are precision mixing tools, useful for both mixing and mastering.

Sound Radix SurferEQ2

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“SURFEREQ is a ground-breaking pitch-tracking equalizer plugin that tracks a monophonic instrument or vocal and moves the selected bands with the music.

SURFEREQ tracks the pitch of a monophonic instrument or a vocal source and can adapt its bands' frequencies relative to the music in real-time, maintaining the natural harmonic balance of the sound source and making it possible to shape the source's timbre relative to the notes being played..” (via SoundRadix)

Cost

$199

Ease of use

Great UI that’s easy to understand.

Application

SurferEQ2 is great for producers looking for an extra edge in their mixdowns and sound design.

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5 - THE BEST COMPRESSORS

Compressors are essential tools that can shape the tone and dynamics of a mix. Every DAW comes with a few stock compressors, but most engineer's prefer using 3rd party compressors.

Why?

Third party developers put more time into making their compressors smoother and more musical. Most emulate the compression styles of classic analog gear, giving you access to vintage style tones strictly in the box.

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What to look for in a compressor

Most popular compressors excel at a few specific tasks. Some sound great on vocals, others on drums, and others on group busses.

The key is to identify where in the production process you need a higher quality compressor. Once you've got that down, find a compressor who can fill that role and who's sound you like.

Cost

The price of an compressor can range from free (there are plenty of great free compressors) to $300+.

Ease of Use

Most compressors are straightforward and easy to use (given you actually know how compression works).

Application

As mentioned above, narrow down where your mixing needs the most help. Is it your drums? Is it your vocals? Is it your mix buss?

Our Top 10 Recommended Compressors

Fabfilter Pro-C 2/Pro-MB

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Fabfilter Pro-C 2 and Fabfilter Pro-MB are two of the most popular plugins on the market. Similar to their Pro-Q3 counterpart, they pair a powerful and capable sound with a beautifully designed interface.

Pro-C 2 is Fabfilter’s high quality compressor. Featuring 8 different compression modes, it’s a flexible compressor that excels at both subtle and aggressive compression.

Pro-MB is a beautifully designed and intuitive multiband compressor. It takes the guesswork out of multiband compression, making it easier to dial in the tight, controlled mixes.

Cost

Pro-MB - $199, Pro-C 2 - $179

Ease of use

As with all Fabfilter plugins, Pro-C 2 and Pro-MB are intuitively designed, making it easy to integrate them into your workflow

Application

These are modern, powerful compressors that can be understood by beginners and are used by the pro’s.

Many popular mixing plugins are emulations of classic hardware units. For the next few plugins, we’ll do a roundtop of the top emulations of classic hardware compressors. Many engineers favor analog modeled compressors because they process sound in a very natural and musical way.

LA-2A Style Compressors

LA-2A style compressors are smooth, versatile compressors that sound great on vocals, guitars, and drums. They feature a warm and transparent sound that can add texture and vibe to nearly any sound.

Our 3 Favorite LA-2A Style EQs

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1176 Style Compressors

1176 style compressors are known for their character and punch. Most emulations feature pre-amp modeling that will introduce additional saturation and harmonic to a sound. While they shine the brightest on drums, they sound great on just about everything.

Our 3 Favorite 1176 Style Compressors

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Waves CLA-76 ($249)

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Slate FG-116 ($19/month via their VMR subscription)

API 2500 Style Compressors

The API 2500 Bus Compressor is on of the most widely used stereo bus compressors. They’re known for their ability to glue mixes together, giving them both warmth and energy. While they’re right at home on a mix bus, they can be used to sculpt individual tracks.

Our 3 Favorite API 2500 Style Compressors

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Fairchild Style Compressors

Fairchild style Compressor/Limiters can add that sought after tube warmth and character to your mixes. They’ can add presence and warmth to vocals, drums, and stereo busses.

Our 3 Favorite Fairchild Style Compressors

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SSL Style Compressors

SSL style compressors are known for their ability to “glue” mixes together. They’re a great tool to use on your stereo bus, as well as on individual groups (especially drum groups). If you’re looking to add tightness and cohesion to your mixx, look no further than an SSL

Our 3 Favorite SSL Style Compressors

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Slate Digital FG-401 ($19.99/month via their VMR subscription)

EL8 Distressor Style Compressors

The Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor was a “late” arrival to the mixing world, introduced in the early 90s (as opposed to it’s 60’s counterparts). It’s a creative tool that can be used to radically shape the character and dynamics of a sound.

Our 3 Favorite EL8 v Style Compressors

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Slate Digital FG-Stress ($19.99/month via their VMR subscription)

Klanghelm MJUC

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The Klanghelm MJUC is a top-quality compressor at an unbeatable price. It is a “frankenstein” compressor, featuring coveted features from three classic eras of compressors. It offers three different compressor models, giving you enhanced control in one simple interface.

Cost

24€ (~$27)

Ease of use

MJUC offers a sleek, easy to use interface.

Application

The three unique compressor models make it capable of tackling just about every compressor job.

Waves Renaissance Vox

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Renaissance Vox is a simple, streamlined compressor designed specifically for vocal tracks. While plugin might look basic, it’s sound is not - it’s been a go-to choice for award winning engineers since it’s release.

Cost

$79

Ease of use

With three controls (one of which is output gain), it’s easy to dial in great vocal sounds.

Application

For that full, present, professional vocal sound, you can’t go wrong with RVox.

Oeksound Soothe

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Soothe is incredible new plugin can effortless cut harshness and resonance from a sound. Billed as a “dynamic resonance suppressor”, soothe can help clean up vocal sibilance, fret noise, synth brightness, and more.

Cost

149.00€ (~$170)

Ease of use

Soothe’s interface is clean and simple, making it easy to dial in the sound you’re looking for

Application

As mentioned, sooth is designed to cut out mid and high harshness from sounds.

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6 - THE BEST REVERBS

Reverb is one of the most important tools at your disposal. It's central to adding depth and space to a mix.

Since mixes depend the careful use of reverb, its worthwhile investing in a few high-quality third party reverbs.

Third party reverbs will make it easier to add density, dynamics, and clarity to your mixes.

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What to look for in a reverb

Most popular compressors excel at a few specific tasks. Some sound great on vocals, others on drums, and others on group busses.

The key is to identify where in the production process you need a higher quality compressor. Once you've got that down, find a compressor who can fill that role and who's sound you like.

Cost

High quality reverbs range from $49 (Valhalla Room) to $995 (Altiverb XL)

Ease of Use

While most modern reverb algorithms are high-quality, it's your job as a producer to make that work well in context.

That means a friendly UI is critical to integrating a reverb into your workflow.

Application

Simply put: the image and space of your mix depends on reverb. A high-quality reverb is an easy way to level up your mixes.

Our Top 10 Recommended Reverbs

ValhallaDSP ValhallaRoom

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“ValhallaRoom is a versatile, true stereo algorithmic reverb. It features twelve original reverberation algorithms (including the latest Dark reverb modes, Nostromo, Narcissus, Sulaco and LV-426), and produces a wide range of natural reverberation sounds.  Sounds range from tight ambiences and rooms, through traditional hall and plate sounds, all the way up to vast modulated spaces. The algorithm designs have been influenced by some of the “classic” room simulation boxes, as well as state of the art modern theory.” (from the developer)

ValhallaRoom is one of the most popular reverbs on the market. Since many stock reverbs come off sounding cheap, third party reverbs are used by most professionals.

ValhallaRoom is an outstanding algorithmic reverb at a great low-price. It’s a straightforward, quality reverb that allows you dive in deep for more versatile sounds.

Cost

$49

Ease of use

It’s clean interface gives you five big sliders for the most important controls, making it simple to quickly dial in the right settings.

Application

ValhallaRoom is great for rich, dense, hyperrealistic reverbs.

Fabfilter Pro-R

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Fabfilter Pro-R is a rich, powerful reverb presented by the classic user-friendly Fabfilter interface. It offers a more “musical” approach to reverb, giving users control over settings such as brightness, character, and distance. Pro-R features an industry first “Decay Rate EQ” that allows you to set EQ dependent decay times.

Cost

$199

Ease of use

Pro-R’s unique features will take some getting used to, but as always with Fabfilter the interface is elegant and well-designed.

Application

Pro-R is a dynamic, flexible reverb capable of nearly any production task

D16 Toraverb 2

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Toraverb is a “concept algorithm reverb”, meaning it features a new algorithm that isn’t based off a classic reverb unit, such as a hall, spring, or plate reverb. The result is a unique, distinct sound that is highly programmable. It’s a great tool for producers who want more creative control over the space of their mix.

Cost

€69

Ease of use

Toraverb’s UI looks great but it’ll take some time to fully adjust to it.

Application

Toraverb is an extremely flexible and dynamic reverb. It won’t become your go-to vocal reverb, but it’s dense, rich sound is sure to find a way into your workflow (Tycho, who’s known for his lush, warm mixes, is a big fan of Toraverb).

Lexicon 224 Style Reverbs

“From the moment it was unleashed in 1978, the Lexicon 224 Digital Reverb — with its tactile, slider-based controller and famously lush reverb tail — single-handedly defined the sound of an entire era.

From Talking Heads' Remain In Light to U2's The Unforgettable Fire, the Lexicon 224 remains one of the most popular digital reverb units of all time.” (via Universal Audio)

Given the 224’s popularity, several developers have released plugin emulations. I’ve rounded up my favorite emulations below.

Our Favorite Lexicon 224 Emulations

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Slate Digital Verbsuite Classics FG-224 ($19/month via the Slate Everything Bundle)

Waves H-Reverb

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“H-Reverb is a pioneering FIR reverb based on innovative Finite Impulse Response reverberation technology, providing richer, deeper reverb tails that sit beautifully in the mix while breathing crisp air into your tracks.

The FIR engine that powers H-Reverb lets you shape and customize the reverb decay envelope beyond the standard linear forms, resulting in perfectly gated, real reverse, and dense reverb tails that don’t muddy up the mix. Taking things one step further, H-Reverb incorporates Waves’ advanced analog modeling along with a drive control, offering signal behavior that until now was found exclusively in high-end hardware reverb devices. This unique design also enables input drive, a technique favored by many top engineers.” (from the developer)

Simply put, H-Reverb is the most popular reverb from one of the most popular plugin companies for a reason.

Cost

$329 but it’s often on sale (it’s $29 as I’m writing this)

Ease of use

Personally, H-Reverb takes a lot of the guesswork out of tweaking reverb parameters. It’s visual GUI show you how adjustments affect its sound in real time.

Application

H-Reverb is great for lush, rich tones. Due to its unique modeling engine, it’ll work on nearly any sound.

Audio Ease Altiverb 7

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“Altiverb 7 is the industry standard convolution reverb plug-in for Mac OS X and Windows. It features top quality samples of real spaces to create reverb, ranging from Sydney Opera House to the cockpit of a Jumbo Jet. Altiverb 7 is efficient on the cpu, offers many parameters to tweak the reverb, it is total recall automatable, and it has 64 bit support.” (from the developer)

While I disagree with it being cpu efficient, Altiverb is a behemoth of a plugin. Convolution reverbs allow your put your audio into nearly any imaginable space. They feature impulse responses from vintage reverb gear and rich musical spaces, as well as more experimental responses.

Cost

$595.00

Ease of use

Altiverbs user friendly UI gives you easy access to the controls you need to dial in the right parameters.

Application

Given the flexibility of convolution reverb, Altiverb can produce an astounding range of sounds.

Audio Damage Eos 2

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“Eos consists of four high-quality custom-designed reverb algorithms, made with the modern production environment in mind. Three different plate simulators and our own Superhall algorithm give you a broad palette of reverb, and the easy-to-understand interface makes adjusting the algorithms to suit your track incredibly simple.

Want a traditional dark plate reverb? Eos can do that. How about a short, dense room sound for your drum buss? Not a problem. But where Eos really comes in to its own is when you drop Superhall on your piano or synthesizer tracks. The incredibly long modulated hall sounds of Eno-style ambience are where Eos thrives, something that is not possible with convolution 'verbs.” (from the developer)

Cost

$59.00

Ease of use

Eos is one of the easiest reverbs on the market to use.

Application

Eos specializes in plate and hall reverbs, meaning its can help add warmth and color to the space of a mix.

UAD AKG BX 20 Spring Reverb

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“Introduced in the late 1960s, the AKG BX 20 reverb was a high-water mark for AKG’s esteemed engineers. An ingenious assembly of mechanical and electronic componentry, the BX 20 offered the glorious depth and color of spring reverb without any of the limitations.

The AKG BX 20 Spring Reverb plug-in for UAD-2 hardware and Apollo interfaces is exclusively endorsed by AKG Acoustics, Austria and envelops your sources in gorgeously dark, dense ambience that only spring reverb can provide.” (from the developer)

Cost

$199

Ease of use

If you know your reverb basics, it won’t take you long to get running with this reverb.

Application

Spring reverbs offer a unique, warm character that differentiates itself from other types of reverbs. It sounds great on vocals, guitars, percussion, and more.

UAD EMT 140 Classic Plate Reverberator

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The UAD EMT 140 is an emulation of the legendary EMT 140 plate reverb. Plates are known for their rich, warm sound, and few are as coveted as the sound of the EMT 140. Whether it’s added to vocals, instruments, or percussion, it’ll add a rich density and texture to your mix.

Cost

$199

Ease of use

EMT 140 is easy to pick up and work into your workflow.

Application

Plate reverbs have a distinct sonic character that is the part of many artists sounds. It’s not an “all-purpose” reverb, but it does it’s job extremely well.

ValhallaDSP Valhalla Shimmer

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“ValhallaShimmer is an algorithmic reverb designed for BIG sounds, from concert halls to the Taj Mahal to the Halls of Valhalla. All of the sliders have been designed to be tweaked in real time and have a smoothed response to avoid clicks when changing settings or automating the controls. At the same time, the algorithm has been highly optimized, so you get a huge reverb sound without straining your CPU.” (from the developer)

No written explanation of shimmer’s sound can do it justice. It’s combination reverb/delay/pitch-shifter that produces some fantastic sounds.

Cost

$49

Ease of use

Shimmer features clean, friendly interface consistent with all Valhalla plugins.

Application

Shimmer is great for rich, dense soundscapes. I love using it to add texture and ambience to my mixes.

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7 - THE BEST DELAYS

Similar to reverb, delay is an essential tool for adding space and dimension to a mix.

While stock delay devices work well, third-party delays offer enhanced creative control over the space of a track.

Whether you're look for a vintage analog style delay or a modern creative delay, this list has you covered.

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What to look for in a delay

Most delay plugins feature multiple delay algorithms, giving you the tone and sound of several delays in one plugins.

Also, many feature creative post-processing effects such as phasing, chorusing, and pitch shifting.

The key is to find an interface that's easy to navigate and a tone that fits your sonic pallete.

Cost

High quality delays range from $49 (Izotope DDLY) to $199 (EP-34 Tape Echo)

Ease of Use

Almost more important than the sound of a plugin it's the friendliness of it's UI. Download a few demo's and find a plugin that fits your workflow.

Application

Similar to reverb, the image and space of your mix relies heavily on your use of delay.

Our Top 10 Recommended Delays

Soundtoys Echoboy

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Echoboy is a rich and flexible analog modeled delay plugin. It features 30 different echo styles modeled after classics hardware devices. It also includes several analog-inspired effects such as tape saturation, tape flutter, and chorus. Echoboy has become and industry standard that’s used by the biggest names in music.

Cost

$199, or $499 as a part of the Soundtoys 5 bundle.

Ease of use

Echoboy’s interface is simple and easy to use. Soundtoys also has a streamline version called Echoboy Jr, which is also included in the Soundtoys 5 bundle.

Application

Vocals, guitars, synths, you name it - Echoboy has you covered.

Waves H-Delay

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“From real old school PCM42-style effects like filtering, flanging, and phasing, to slap-back echo, ping-pong delay, and tempo-sync with modulation, H-Delay delivers the goods, controlled by a super intuitive interface that lets you get right down to business.” (from the developer)

H-Delay is great because it can produce clean, modern delay as well as analog, lofi inspired delays. It’s the delay of choice for plenty of top mixing engineers.

Cost

$179

Ease of use

H-Delay’s friendly UI makes it easy to dial in the perfect delay parameters for a sound.

Application

H-Delay shines brightest on vocals, but also sound great on guitars, synths, and percussion.

Native Instruments Replika XT

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“Five deeply modeled delay modes span crisp digital repeats, analog warmth, and experimental textures. Advanced options offer fast ways to open up your mix with pinpoint creative control. And an elegant interface puts new possibilities right before your eyes. From single instruments to entire mixes, REPLIKA XT will add new character to your music.” (from the developer)

Replika XT features five beautifully modeled delay modes paired with an elegant UI. It includes seven powerful on board effects, such as a chorus, flanger, pitch shifter, and frequency shifter.

Cost

$49

Ease of use

Replika XT features a clean, straightforward interface that’s easy to pick up and use.

Application

Replika’s powerful delay engine and creative onboard effects make it a great tool to craft more unique and interesting spaces.

Soundtoys Crystallizer

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“Crystallizer is an otherworldly creative effect that transforms instruments using a combination of pitch shifting and reversed echo. Based on the Eventide H3000’s innovative “Reverse Shift” algorithm, Crystallizer brings granular echo slicing, old-school pitch shifting and powerful new features together into one inspiring tool.” (from the developer)

In other words, Crystallizer is a delay plugin that lets you repitch the delayed unites. It’s a great creative tool that I personally use in every track.

Cost

$149

Ease of use

Crystallizer’s 200 presets make it easy get a grasp of its sound and capabilities (such as it’s reverse delays).

Application

Crystallizer isn’t your everyday instrument or vocal delay. It’s a fantastic creative tool that can turn basic sounds into rich, textures soundscapes.

Fabfilter Timeless 2

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“FabFilter Timeless 2 is not only a perfectly modelled classic tape delay. Its unique high-quality filters and many creative options turn it into the ultimate sound-mangling machine! Create echo, chorus, flanger, phaser, scratch effects and much more.” (from the developer)

Cost

$129

Ease of use

Timeless’ feature packed interface can make it tough to dive right into.

Application

Timeless is an extremely versatile and flexible tool that serves as the go-to delay for many engineers.

Izotope DDLY Dynamic Delay

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“DDLY Dynamic Delay responds to your track's musical dynamics to create versatile and intriguing delays. It's a one-of-a-kind effects plug-in that delays the signal differently depending on the character of the sound, without turning your track to aural mud. Adjust the threshold to split your signal based on transients, then send it down two separate analog or granular delay paths.” (from the developer)

I love DDLY because it’s not another standard analog modeled delay plugin. It’s dual-delay capabilities can add an extra level of depth and dynamics to a mix

Cost

$49

Ease of use

DDLY’s presets make it easy to get your hands on this out-of-the-box delay plugin.

Application

DDLY can work as either a standard everyday delay or as a dynamic creative effect.

D16 Repeater

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“Repeater features 23 authentic emulations of classic delay machines ranging from classic oil cans and tape machines to vintage digital designs – it’s packed with sounds and new features that will add depth to your mixes, and it comes with a user interface that’s immediately easy to understand and tweak..” (from the developer).

Cost

€89 (~$100)

Ease of use

If you’re familiar with analog modeled plugin interfaces, Repeater will be easy to pick up.

Application

With 23 unique delay algorithms, Repeater is an extremely flexible delay device.

Audio Thing Outer Space

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Outer Space is an emulation of the Roland Space Echo RE-201. This delay unit is highly coveted for it’s dual tape echo and spring reverb.

Tape Echo is a faithful emulation that models the warmth and tone of the original device.

Cost

$69

Ease of use

Tape Echo’s friendly UI makes it easy to dial in settings you need.

Application

Tape Echo lends itself towards vintage tones, whether it be on guitars, vocals, or synths.

Softube Tube Delay

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Softube’s Tube Delay is “a tasty echo effect that can go from clean to rude by overdriving its three modeled tube stages. Create anything from realistic room echoes to rockabilly style slap backs—or take it all the way into dub reggae echo madness.”

Cost

$89

Ease of use

Tube Delay gives you the sound of an old school delay with a clean modern interface.

Application

Tube Delay is great for rich, vintage delay tones.

UAD EP-34 Tape Echo

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“The EP-34 Tape Echo plug-in for UAD-2 hardware and Apollo interfaces gives you an exacting emulation of the legendary tape echo device used by Jimmy Page, Brian May, Chick Corea, Eddie Van Halen, Eric Johnson, and Andy Summers. Vintage Echoplexes are legendary for their idiosyncrasies — including distortion, wow and flutter, self-oscillation, squelch effects, and other random analog goodness. The EP-34 Tape Echo plug-in emulates all of this, and more.” (from the developer).

Cost

$199

Ease of use

The EP-34 interface isn’t the most intuitive, but thankfully there aren’t too many controls to get lost in.

Application

The EP-34 has been used by some of the greatest guitarists of all time. While it’s most commonly used on guitars, plenty of other sounds could benefit from its warm, vintage tone.

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8 - THE BEST SATURATION & DISTORTION PLUGINS

As our friend Hyperbits puts it, "saturation is THE most effective way to add analogue edge and warmth to your music – often meaning the difference between sounding digital, flat, & dead, versus analogue, warm & alive."

Whether you're looking for some analog warmth or digital dirt, it's worthwhile investing in a few third party saturation and distortion plugins.

Since the warmth and energy of your mix depends on saturation, you want the best tools at your disposal to bring your mix to life.

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What to look for in a saturation or distortion plugin

I like to group saturation and distortion plugins into two categories: warmth and color.

Some plugins are designed to add analog-style warmth to a sound. In essence, they make a sound less flat and digital.

The other side of distortion is color. These are plugins that transform a sound, taking a boring saw wave and turning into and gnarly bass sound.

You'll most likely want tools that can add both analog warmth and digital color to a sound.

Cost

There are plenty of great free saturation and distortion plugins, such as Softube's Saturation Knob and Camel Audio's CamelCrusher. Top of the line saturators will cost you closer to $200.

Ease of Use

Saturation and distortion plugins come in different shapes and sizes. There plenty of great plugins with barely any controls (e.x. Sausage Fattener, Faturator), as well as others with detailed, precise control (e.x. Trash 2, Saturn).

Application

Each saturation and distortion plugin has it's specialty, so it's important to know what you're looking for. Most of the plugins on this list come with a free demo, so see for yourself if you genuinely like the workflow and sound of that plugin.

Our Top 10 Recommended Saturation/Distortion Plugins

Izotope Trash 2

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Trash 2 is one of the most powerful and capable distortion plugins on the planet.

It's a multiband distortion plugin, meaning it allows you to process individual frequency bands separately. Trash 2 features 60+ distortion algorithms, giving you a wide range of tones and textures.

It also features two filters, a convolution reverb, multiband compression, and a delay. These allow you to push the dynamics and tone of a sound even further.

Cost

$19

What it's good for

Trash 2 is an absolute powerhouse from heavy, transformative distortion.

Soundtoys Decapitator

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Decapitator is one of the most popular distortion plugins thanks to it's simple interface and rich, warm sound.

It features five different saturation models, giving you a wide range of analog style tones.

Few plugins truly capture the "warmth" of analog gear as does Decapitator.

Cost

$199

What it's good for

Decapitator can give you mixes warmth, body, color, both in a subtle and a dramatic fashion. Engineers throw in on literally everything, from vocals to synths to drums to mix busses.

Fabfilter Saturn

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FabFilter Saturn is an industry-favorite multiband distortion and saturation plugin.

It's one of the most flexible saturation plugins, offering everything from subtle tape saturation to heavy guitar amps to bit-crushing.

While the concept of multiband distortion might scare some people off, Saturn brings this concept with in reach to the masses.

Cost

$154/€129

What it's good for

Saturn is a fantastic all around distortion unit. As mentioned above, it can provide subtle, warm tones as well as heavy, aggressive tones.

PSP VintageWarmer2

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As the name might give away, PSP's VintageWarmer is all about adding analog warmth to a sound.

It's a simple, effective tool for adding color and saturation to a sound. It works well on individual sounds as well as on groups and busses.

Cost

$199

What it's good for

VintageWarmer offers a unique style of analog style warmth. While it's not my personal go-to saturator, it still finds it ways into most of my mixes.

Dada Life Sausage Fattener

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If you're looking for a plugin that's also a meme, look no further than Dada Life's Sausage Fattener.

Developed in partnership with the production Duo, Sausage Fattener is a simple but powerful distortion plugin.

While the production may seem like a gimmick, I'm all in favor of simple tools that can make a sound better.

It's lack of features is what makes it this plugin great. Sausage Fattener is a simple plugin that can help speed up your production workflow.

Cost

$39

What it's good for

Any sound that needs "fattening".

Ohm Force Ohmicide

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Ohmicide is a bit dated, but it's still a powerful, well designed multiband distortion unit.

Featuring testimonials from Skrillex and Armin Van Buuren, it's a combination multiband distortion, EQ, filter, and compression plugin.

With over 80 distortion algorithms, you're signature sound might be hiding somewhere in the depths of this plugin.

Cost

$112/€99

What it's good for

While this plugin isn't as powerful as Trash 2, I see that as a good thing. It's a powerful plugin that offers a unique and distinct sound.

CamelAudio CamelCrusher

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CamelCrusher is a fan-favorite distortion unit because it's free, easy to use, and sounds great.

While the plugin like look simple, it's sound is not. CamelCrusher and it's big sibling CamelPhat are used by top industry professionals.

The creators (CamelAudio) no longer exist, but you can still download this plugin elsewhere.

Cost

$0!

What it's good for

CamelCrusher is great for both subtle saturation and heavy distortion. Similar to Sausage Fattener, it's a simple plugin with a great sound.

kiloHearts Faturator

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Faturator is another "simple but effective" distortion plugin. It's great tool for adding modern, heavy distortion to a sound.

It's playful, fun interface makes it easy to dial in the right parameters for a sound.

Cost

$59

What it's good for

Faturator is good for anything that needs warm, fuzzy distortion. I especially love it on basses.

D16 Devastator 2

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"For such a simple plugin, Devastor 2 produces a wide variety of effects and sounds great on almost any signal. 94 presets showcase some of this potential, but you can take it much further.

Whether used for stylised mixing effects (broken radios, damaged megaphones, etc), parallel-processed oomph, aural excitement or straight up signal-crunching, it's a powerful weapon with many applications in every genre. Just be aware that if modulation is on your checklist, you'll need to look elsewhere (via MusicRadar)."

Cost

€49/$55

What it's good for

Devastator 2 is a great choice for heavy, amp style distortion.

Native Instruments Crush Pack

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The Native Instruments Crush Pack is a combination of three powerful distortion plugins.

  • "Bite" is a high-quality bit crusher. It's great for adding sampled grit and crunch to a sound.
  • "Dirt" is a powerful and elegant distortion unit. It's a modern approach to a classic sound
  • "Freak" offers three different modulation types. It's sound ranged from lo-fi style modulation to intense metallic textures.

Cost

$69

What it's good for

The Crush Pack packs up three classic effects into three elegant and powerful plugins.

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9 - THE BEST MASTERING PLUGINS

Proper mastering is what turns a good quality mix into a polished, release ready track.

Because mastering is so important, many developers offer plugins designed plugins specifically for both mixing and mastering.

These are plugins that react well to multiple transients, operate at an extremely high-quality, and can add subtle adjustments to a sound.

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What to look for in mastering plugin

Each mastering-focused plugin serves a specific purpose. You'll find bus compressors, high-quality limiters, transparent EQs, and more.

It's important to identify what mastering issues you have, then to find the right tools to solve those issues.

Many companies offering mixing/mastering plugin bundles, giving you a wide range of tools at a deep discount.

Cost

Mastering focused plugins tend to cost more than the average plugin. Standalone plugins will be around $100-200, while comprehensive bundles can run into the thousands.

Ease of Use

Just because (insert artist here) uses a specific plugin doesn't mean it'll work for you. Download the demo's and see if you like both the sound and workflow of a plugin.

Application

It's not that stock plugins can't be used in the mastering process, it's that third party plugins generally will do a better job.

Our Top 10 Recommended Mastering Plugins

Izotope Ozone 8

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Ozone 8 is industry standard mastering suite. It contains 12 top-quality modules that cover all of the mastering essentials - multiple EQs, multiple saturators, multiple compressors, and imager, and a limiter.

Ozone 8 is extremely popular because it sounds fantastic and it's easy to use.

It's modules are designed with the modern produce in mind, offering precise, detailed controlled with a intuitive, friendly interface.

Cost

$499 for Ozone 8 Advanced or $249 for Ozone 8 Standard

What it's good for

Ozone 8 is an all-in-one mastering suite that can handles every stage of the production process.

Fabfilter Pro-L

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FabFilter has made it nearly every chapter in this guide, so it's no surprise seeing them again here.

Pro-L 2 is a high-quality, transparent mastering limiter. It contains 8 different limiting algorithms, each with their own character and tone.

As with all FabFilter plugins, it's clean UI is packed with helpful metering information

Cost

$199

What it's good for

Pro-L 2 is a modern, transparent mastering limiter.

A.O.M Invisible Limiter G2

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The Invisible Limiter G2 is hands down one of the most transparent brick-wall limiters on the market.  Simply put, it allows you to push the input gain an astonishing amount before the input heavily distorts.

It's features include 128x oversampling, manual attack/release times, a dry/wet mix, and much more

Cost

$199 or $49 for a year lease.

What it's good for

The Invisible Limiter 2 is great for in your face dance music loudness.

UAD Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor

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The Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor plug-in is one of the most revered compressors on the planet.

It's a phenomenal master compressor, taming transients and wild dynamics with ease. Trust me, this plugin sounds better than it looks (and it looks pretty sleek).

Cost

$299

What it's good for

The Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor is a great tool for adding glue, color, and cohesion to a mix.

UAD Ampex ATR-102 Mastering Tape Recorder

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"The ATR-102 Mastering Tape Recorder plug-in for UAD-2 hardware and Apollo interfaces can provide the final “analog polish” to your music, turning songs, into albums. Fully authenticated by the Ampex Corporation, the ATR-102 plug-in faithfully captures the unique dynamics, colorful frequency response, and tape saturation of the original hardware." (from the developer)

Since I purchased this plugin, I haven't mastered a single track without it. It's a "secret sauce" mastering plugin if there ever where one.

Cost

$349

What it's good for

The Ampex ATR-102 can add color, body, and tone to a master unlike any other plugin can.

Sonnox Oxford Inflator

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The Oxford Inflator is a one-of-a-kind plugin that increases loudness without sacrificing dynamics. It's a simple but powerful tool for adding warmth and power to a mix.

Cost

$179

What it's good for

As Universal Audio puts in, the Oxford Inflator is "the professional standard for adding power and punch — without squashing."

Slate Digital Virtual Buss Compressors

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The Slate Digital Virtual Buss Compressors are a combination of three powerful mix-bus compressors.

Rather than put all of your money into one mix-bus compressor, Slate provides you with three in one sleek interface.

It features emulations of the SSL 4000 G-Series Buss Compressor, the Focusrite Red 3 Compressor/Limiter, and the Fairchild 670

Cost

$149 or $19/month via the Slate Everything Bundle

What it's good for

The Slate VBC bundle is trio of three powerful analog-modeled buss compressors.

Waves Kramer Master Tape

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"Developed in association with Eddie Kramer, the Kramer Master Tape plugin is modeled on a rare vintage 1/4" reel-to-reel machine. With adjustable tape speed, bias, flux, wow & flutter, and noise parameters, the Kramer Master Tape provides comprehensive control over the contours of your sound. And to top it off, we’ve added a flexible slap & feedback delay, ideal for rock, dance, dub, you name it. For recording, mixing, mastering, and more, bring the richness and warmth of real tape saturation to your DAW with the Kramer Master Tape plugin. It’s the reel deal." (from the developer)

Cost

$199

What it's good for

The Kramer Master Tape plugin is a great tool to give you master that "analog" polish.

Slate Digital FG-X

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The FG-X is a high-quality loudness maximizer with phenomenal transparency.

It includes features such as "Intelligent Transient Preservation", which uses looks ahead at your mix and optimizes its saturation curve for incoming transients, as well as "Lo Punch" and "Detail", two handy controls that can add low end or hi end detail back into your mix.

Cost

$129 or $19/month via the Slate Everything Bundle

What it's good for

Slate's slogan sums it up nicely: "loud, punchy masters without the mush".

Brainworx bx_masterdesk

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'The creation of Brainworx owner Dirk Ulrich, bx_masterdesk gives you a high end analog mastering system in a single plugin.

Containing every component you need to create professional results, bx_masterdesk allows you to master your own material with a minimal learning curve. Even if you are not a professional mastering engineer!

With a clearly defined workflow and pre-tuned processing chain, you’ll find the entire mastering process extremely intuitive. From setting the perfect level and compression settings to dialing in the right tone for your mix, using bx_masterdesk is as easy as 1-2-3." (from the developer)

Cost

$299

What it's good for

The bx_masterdesk is a high quality mastering chain in a simple plugin.

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10 - OTHER HELPFUL PLUGINS

While the previous chapters cover the bulk of the software market, there are plenty of useful plugins that don’t fall well into any of the previous categories.

This includes drum synthesizers, drum samplers, MIDI tools, volume tools, multi-FX plugins, and more.

Let's look at a roundup of the most popular plugins we've missed so far.

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Drum Synthesizers

Sonic Academy Kick 2

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Kick 2 is a fully customizable kick synthesizer. It's friendly UI allows you to easily adjust the amplitude and pitch of the kick. It also features 3 separate click areas that allow you to add sample clicks to the kick.

Other features include compression, limiting, multiple distortion types, and a sub harmonic generator.

Cost

$63.21

What it's good for

Kick 2 is great for punchy, dance floor ready kicks.

D16 Punchbox

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PunchBox is an extremely intuitive and powerful bass drum synthesizer.

Starting with a  classic bass drum emulation or a custom sample, you can use PunchBox's powerful built in effects to shape and sculpt your sound.

Cost

$90

What it's good for

If you're looking to dive deep into the drum design rabbit hole, look no further than D16's PunchBox.

Vocal Processing

Izotope Nectar 3

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Nectar is an all in one vocal processing tool from the team at Izotope. It contains powerful, modern effects that can add professional clarity and polish to vocal.

It also includes a feature called Vocal Assistant that listens to your audio and applies a custom processing preset.

Cost

$249

What it's good for

Nectar is a sophisticated vocal processing tool designed for the modern bedroom producer.

Waves CLA Vocals

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Waves features a few all-in-one vocal processing plugins, the most popular of which is CLA Vocals.

Designed in collaboration with grammy winning engineer Chris Lord-Alge, it contains all the effects you need to give a vocal that professional polish.

Cost

$149

What it's good for

The CLA Vocals plugins is a professional quality vocal processing plugin at a Waves friendly price (i.e. it's regularly on sale, only $49 as I'm writing this).

Izotope Vocal Synth 2

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Vocal synth is a powerful, creative vocal processing tool.

5 different modules allow you to completely change the sound of a vocal (or anything else really).

It contains classic effects such as a vocoder and a talkbox, along with effects that allow you to control a sound's pitch, timbre, nasality, and more.

The signal chain rounds off with seven stomp box style effects, allows you a wide range of in the box sounds.

Cost

$199

What it's good for

Vocal synth is great for creative and unorthodox vocal manipulation.

Soundtoys Little Alterboy

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Little Alterboy is a simple but powerful formant and pitch shifting plugin.

Feature such as hard tuning and tube saturation (from Decaptitor) make this a useful little plugin.

Cost

$99 but it's often on sale.

What it's good for

Little Alterboy is great, simple vocal pitch and formant shifting plugin.

Utility

Xfer Records LFO Tool

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LFO Tool allows you to create custom LFO shapes and apply them to parameters such as volume, panning, or a custom filter.

It's most common use is as a "sidechain" filter, allowing you to design a custom LFO shape to duck a sound against a kick.

Cost

$49

What it's good for

Other than "side-chaining", LFO tool can be used as an auto-pan, trance-gate, tremolo, and more.

Cableguys VolumeShaper5

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"VolumeShaper lets you shape the levels of any audio signal in pinpoint detail.

From multiband sidechain compression effects to extreme gating, from tempo-synced stutter to precise sample-shaping — VolumeShaper provides a wealth of creative musical effects with a visual approach to volume.

VolumeShaper features multiband waveform-based editing, a comprehensive selection of preset curves, a precise oscilloscope, a big spectrum view and an updated preset library. It runs sample-accurate in sync with your DAW, in Hz mode up to the audible range or retriggered via MIDI " . (from the developer)

Cost

$199

What it's good for

VolumeShaper is a creative, musical tool capable of detailed volume-ducking and a whole lot more.

Pitch-Shifting

Antares Auto-tune Pro

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Auto-tune is the industry standard vocal production tool used on countless hit records.

You know the sound, now you the know the plugin that's responsible for it.

Cost

$399

What it's good for

Auto-tune is the industry standard pitch and time correction tool.

Melodyne 4

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Melodyne is the industry standard pitch correcting plugin. It allows surgical control over the pitch, length, timing, and timbre of vocals.

Cost

€99 - €699

What it's good for

While autotune is more suited for "general" vocal tuning, Melodyne is better for detailed, precise vocal tuning and manipulation.

They're two different plugins with different specialities.

MIDI Effects

Xfer Records Cthulu

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Cthulu is a chord generator and arpeggiator from the creator of Serum (although Cthulu proceeded Serum by a few years).

Its an inspirational plugin that contains a great collection exciting chords.

Cost

$39

What it's good for

Cthulu is a quick and easy way to get down interesting and unique chord progressions.

Captain Chords 2.0

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Captain Chords is an intuitive, easy to use plugin that helps you craft interesting chord progressions. A simple drag and drop interface allows you to craft chord progressions with ease.

Cost

$79

What it's good for

Captain Chords is good for "rushed" producers that can't be bothered to learn songwriting.

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