Is there a definitive top ten audio fx plugins?
No. Simples. There are thousands of products out there, from freeware through donationware to paid for (modestly priced to eyewatering!), not to mention the generous bundles of plug ins that come with your DAW of choice. The options available can be downright bewildering. There is no definitive top 10, so this is merely my top ten go to plug ins. I’m sorry that I’ve left so many favourites out, but who wants to read a Top 100?
I’ve been making music on computers professionally (I like to think) since computers could act as full production suites, and have been through many ‘favourite’ plug ins over the years. My old Performa 6400 was a pocket calculator next to my (current) 2015 trash can Mac Pro.
Back in the day, one had to be very careful with plug in selection (and how many instances used), as the power just wasn’t there, and things could (and would) slowly grind to a halt. These days, plug in developers are more mindful of CPU efficiency. My Mac Pro rarely falls over these days.
My favourites have changed (evolved?) as computers have become more powerful and plug in developers have been able to harness that power to create ever more capable plug ins.
Somebody once said, ‘a good producer can make good music with mediocre plugins and a mediocre producer makes mediocre music with the best plugins.’ Spot on. Don’t expect any of these plug ins to turn pig’s ears into shiny silk purses. The rule is always ‘shit in, shit out’.
There are many, many products out there that are emulations of classic gear – the painstaking modelling of the rarest thing known to humanity etc. Many are really good, but don’t expect them to ‘solve’ everything, to suddenly transform your material. For the purposes of this blog, I’ll call these ‘character’ plug ins. ‘Transparent’ plugs are not necessarily seeking to emulate anything – just to be tools for improvement.
The following ‘top 10’ are products are in no particular order of merit – you can’t compare a reverb to an eq! These are merely ones that just get the job done for what I do.
1. FabFilter Pro-Q3
They say –
‘An equalizer is probably the tool you use most while mixing and mastering, so you need the best of the best. With FabFilter Pro-Q 3, you get the highest possible sound quality, a very extensive feature set, and a gorgeous, innovative interface with unrivalled ease of use.’
Price - £134, or part of a bundle – demo available
I love this eq – it’s my meat and potatoes. Really powerful features, easy to use and very transparent. It sports a great, non-fussy and intuitive GUI, and doesn’t eat CPU. I often use character eqs later in the chain, but this is my first. It’s great for surgery, and using the intelligent solo feature to sweep for what you need is invaluable.
2. Waves H-Delay Hybrid Delay
They say –
‘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.’
Price - £ variable, as Waves constantly have flash sales. Currently around £25 – demo available
I really like the sound of H-Delay. Again, it has a very simple, intuitive GUI and is easy to use. It does all of the expected delay duties, but I particularly like the modulation (in moderation) and the lo-fi switch.
Waves have a habit of building in an ‘analog’ switch or pot, which usually just adds hiss or hum. Pointless, IMO. Watch out for it if you’re dialling up presets and do yourself a favour – turn it off!
I’d say you should pretty much always use a delay send fx, so ‘character’ will always be there. It’s the nature of the beast.
3. SoundToys Decapitator
They say –
‘Saturation—it’s the essence of what makes analog hardware sound so musical and pleasing to the ears. The sound of tubes, transistors, and circuitry being pushed to the limit has long been the key ingredient in great-sounding analog recordings. Engineers use saturation to beef things up, thin them out, give them edge, add warmth, pull elements out of the mix, and create signature sounds.’
Price - $199 or part of a bundle – demo available
I like this plug in for its subtlety – great at just adding that natz of drive, and the tonal shaping is highly effective too (although it’s perfectly capable of tearing a whole in the fabric of sound if you want). The thump switch can be a useful thing, for beefing up a tired kick drum or adding some meat to a snare, for example.
If you’re looking for something more extreme, try its beautifully evil sister, Devil-Loc Deluxe.
All of the SoundToys plug ins are good – your 30 day demo includes all of them.
4. LiquidSonics Seventh Heaven
They say –
‘Perfect for rapid workflows and lower budgets, Seventh Heaven is the perfect distillation of Seventh Heaven Professional. Made without acoustic compromise and a focus on simplicity, it is the most affordable and easy to use simulation of the Bricasti M7 available.’
Price - $69 – pro version - $299 – no demo
Reverbs always have character, and this one is absolutely lovely – and cheap in the very useable cut down version. If you’ve got deep pockets, the pro version offers more control and options, but this is a great reverb.
While we’re on reverbs, honourable mention must also go to Valhalla products (https://valhalladsp.com/). Excellent, cheap, and some of them are free. We like free.
5. FabFilter Pro-L 2 Limiter
They say –
‘A true peak limiter is an essential tool for every mastering or mixing engineer. Are you looking for a professional, feature-packed limiter that is loud and transparent at the same time, equipped with extensive loudness metering? Then FabFilter Pro-L 2 is your weapon of choice!’
Price - £149, or part of a bundle – demo available
I don’t work for FF, honest. They’re another developer that seem incapable of making bad sounding plug ins. Super easy to use, clear GUI and very transparent. I use this for managing the loudness of my mixes – so I always use it last out on the mix bus (although it can be very effective on a drum bus too). As with all peak limiters, though, watch pushing your mix too far and too often into the red.
Worth every penny.
6. Kazrog True Iron
They say –
‘True Iron accurately emulates 6 classic line transformers, known for their use in many of the biggest names in vintage analog outboard sound processing. These transformers add weight, heft, and girth to your mixes and masters. The plugin features adjustable strength, input impedance, wet/dry ratio, and a special “Crush” control to add fat transformer saturation to tracks and buses. Plus, the CPU usage of the plugin is low enough that you can add it to every track or bus in a mix for added virtual analog warmth across your entire mix.’
Price - $49.99, or part of a bundle – demo available
I sometimes try plug ins on a recommendation or review when I really should be working. Most often, I delete them and just get on with what I should be doing. When I tried this one, it blew me away. I bought it within 10 minutes.
It’s 110% character, I’m not sure quite how it does what it does, but it’s a mainstay now. It thickens, it drives, it seems to make everything bigger and more….there! As with all character plug ins, use with care not by rote. I love the voodoo of this one.
7. Celemony Melodyne
They say –
Melodyne grants you unrivalled access to all the musical details in your recordings and samples – note by note. This is made possible by a sophisticated analysis that delves deeply into your recordings and samples, and recognizes and understands the musical relationships within them: the individual notes and their characteristics, the scales, keys and chords, the timing, the tempo, the tone colour. And with Melodyne you can edit all these things intuitively. With vocals, but every type of instrument as well – including polyphonic ones, such as the piano and guitar.
Price - $699 – no demo
Just about every DAW these days ships with a bundled pitch correction plug in. So why should you spend this much on one?
Put simply, Melodyne is better at everything it does. If, like me, you spend a lot of time with vocals, this is an indispensable tool – I wouldn’t be without it. Total control over every nuance of every fraction of every note. I’m anal like that.
Pitch correction will never be transparent, but used with care, this is as near as it gets.
8. Izotope RX 8 Advanced
They say –
‘RX 8 Advanced continues to be the industry-standard audio repair tool to restore damaged, noisy material to pristine condition. Get full control over your audio, whether it’s restoring high-end frequencies for streamed dialogue, or removing dialogue reverb—all in multichannel up to Dolby Atmos 7.1.2.’
Price - $1,199 – 30-day demo
During lockdown, I spent a lot of time cleaning up audio for virtual conferences, cleaning up podcasts, and recording and editing two audiobooks remotely. This baby saved me. I can’t even begin to detail what it does – go have a look. It’s unique.
Now I’m back on music production, it’s indispensable there too. Every vocal I record or edit gets run through RX –plosives, mouth noise, rustles, thumps all gone. The new guitar de-squeak in RX is also a lifesaver.
9. Softube Console 1
They say –
‘The revolutionary and award-winning system that redefined mixing in the DAW, Console 1 gives you the best of all worlds: the feeling of analog hardware and the freedom of software. Far beyond a simple DAW controller, Console 1 features real console sounds from legendary brands like Chandler Limited, SSL, Weiss, Empirical Labs, and Summit Audio, plus one-to-one control over EQ, compression, and more.
With plug-ins, channel strips, and the Console 1 Fader hardware unit, you can expand and customize Console 1 to your heart’s content. Can an analog console do that? Give your eyes—and your mouse—a rest. Cross over to the future of analog mixing with Console 1.’
Price - £350 – no demo
Another product that changed my life.
OK, it’s not just a plug in, it’s a hardware controller with a mixing environment that meshes seamlessly with your DAW of choice. Apart from Softube’s great sounding software, the eye opener to me was the GUI. I can load in eqs and/or compressors (including many of my UAD ones), and they…..all look the same! Not pretty.
Hey presto, I’m mixing with my ears again, and not my eyes. Genius.
10. Sonarworks Reference 4
They say –
‘Reference 4 software calibrates your studio monitors and headphones, so you can trust that every mix will translate.’
Price - $249 (software only) - $299 (with measurement microphone) – demo available
In true anti-Hollywood tradition, I left the least ‘sexy’ plug in until last.
You’re probably asking yourself ‘do I really need this?’. Yes, you do. I was gobsmacked.
I have a professionally designed room, and always thought that it was pretty close to ‘reference’. The above picture is my room after calibration. The result? Everything that comes out of my studio sounds great outside the studio. This really does work.
I’d highly recommend buying the version with the bespoke measurement microphone.
One last thing: please don’t use cracked software. We’ve all gotten used to free (or nearly free) software, but these deep deep apps take a lot of work for the girls and boys who make them to develop and maintain. They have to eat too. Besides, cracked software is unsupported and could fall over at any point. Probably just before you put that vital mix down….