These days, we all know the big players in our respective styles and corners of the music software market. For example, Serum, Pro-Q, and Sylenth always seem to find their way into our tracks and channel strips, and for good reason. But what about the thousands of other plugins out there?
Looking just beyond the plugins that perhaps garner most of the limelight and discussion, we can find some very valuable production tools that are relatively underused.
While of course it’s important to have a designated set of tools that you know front to back, it’s equally as important to explore new ones. In today’s production landscape, there is no shortage of producers. But many are using only the most popular tools or currently trending sounds, so one way you can make it easier for yourself to stand out and develop sonically unique music is to discover new tools. This is one of the best ways to evolve your sound and your personal workflow into something distinctive.
That’s why we’ve compiled a list of 10 plugins that could give you a fresh perspective on certain aspects of production, synthesis, or your own creative and mixing processes.
This is by far the biggest hidden gem of them all, as far as I’m concerned. The sound designing possibilities that this spectral additive synthesizer offers is unparalleled by any other synth on the market. Not to mention that the advanced additive engine outputs an extremely high resolution sound that brings any musical production to life. Digging deeper into the interface, you can see that NI made sure to incorporate new ways to shape the sound. Frequency specific panning, unique formant filters and oscillators, and pitch following reverb are just a few unique processing effects that the synth offers. NI’s design team clearly had the electronic musician in mind when when creating this plug-in, as a 3D graphic display is placed front and center on the GUI. This display morphs to each and every knob that is turned in the synth, giving you the possibility of visually designing your sound as well. Great! It has all these fancy bells and whistles, but what kind of sounds can I make with this synth? The synth’s additive architecture enables you to create compelling sounds for all the elements in your productions, but really excel in creating heavy and tense bass sounds, track defining leads, and sci- fi like soundscapes.
Why choose Razor?
Serum, Sylenth, Spire, & Omnisphere 2 are unique and powerful in their own right, but still do not posses some of the functions that Razor does. We already mentioned that this synth has an extremely high resolution output and a 3D graphic display, but it also has certain waveforms that are unique only to Razor, such as the Primes wave and the synced noise wave. Other features unique only to Razor are the parameters used to shape each Oscillator and filter. For example, when you select the duo saw wave, you are presented with a parameter called beatings. This is a hybrid chorusing and detuning effect that is native only to Razor. When it comes to the filter section, the vowel filter offers a greater level of control than any other filter in a synth, as you can morph between 3 vowel tables and adjust the intensity of the singing.
Each filter lets you modulate each and every parameter. The obvious choice would be to use an envelope or an LFO, but what if we decided to use the echo step as our modulator? Setting this effect up to modulate a main parameter, such as the cutoff filter, gives your sound a specific type movement that LFO’s and envelopes simply cannot replicate.
Razor Producer Tip
When sound designing, don’t be afraid to hit the record button, as this synth is notorious for coming up with unexpected sonically interesting sounds. After you record out your sound design session, you can go back to the audio clip and take out the parts you like.
Variation and creativity are essential to writing a compelling production. These both can be in short supply, as we can sometimes quickly run out of ideas in order to progress the track and make it interesting. Looperator tackles this problem head on. This multi-rhythmic FX processor morphs your sound as subtly or dramatically as you like, with its flexible filters, slice and stutter effect, distortion, vinyl scratching, and various other effects. Each of these effect units is fully customizable with it’s numerous parameters. Also, there are plenty of dynamic presets for you to scroll through and hear exactly what this plug-in is capable of.
Why Choose Looperator?
There are similar plugins on the market such as Illformed’s Giltch 2, but looperator has proven to be a superior plugin as it offers a greater range of high quality effects such as its time stretching, vowel filters, and envelope shaping. Also, the programming of Looperator is quite seamless and intuitive as there are numerous keyboard shortcuts and helpful sequencing tools available to get your ideas down faster.
Using the ready-made effects is a great place to start, but having precise control of the shaping of your sound is necessary at times. This is where the four user configurable effects come in handy. Click on the gear and “U” symbol on the left side of the GUI to open up the custom effects menu and get to programming!
Looperator Producer Tip
Throw looperator on your master or group channels. Then adjust a couple of effects or use a preset, and turn it on and off during the transitions of your arrangement. This save time and CPU as only one plugin will be needed to spice up your transition.
While there are no shortage of harmonic enhancers out there, few deliver the clarity and brightness that Vitamin does. This high quality 5 band harmonic tone shaping tool’s intuitive design will allow you to boost the punchiness, bring out elements in your mix, and blend the enhanced results, all without having to dive into numerous menus and tabs.
Why Choose Vitamin?
There are a countless amount of harmonic exciters out there right now, but they are just harmonic exciters. Stereo imaging is an integral part of mixing that no one should ignore and the designers over at Waves understood this. That is why they included frequency specific stereo imaging controls to go along with the harmonic exciting. Having this high quality frequency enhancing and precise stereo imaging in one plugin is invaluable for anyone looking to get the most out of their mix!
Tucked away in the upper right corner of the interface is the “punch” control. It’s easy to get caught up in all the frequency and stereo enhancing and forget about this important feature. The punch control allows you to add presence to transients in order to get a punchier, crisper sound, or to attenuate the presence of transients in order to get a warmer, smoother sound.
Vitamin Producer Tip
Vitamins versatility makes it a perfect choice for mixing your individual elements all the way to mastering your song. One area that it specifically excels at is mixing your synths or instrument group. Put Vitamin on this group and adjust the crossover points to cover the most dominant frequencies of your instruments. Then adjust the stereo width and harmonic enhancers to taste. This track specific frequency enhancing will make the mixing process go much smoother.
Reverb. We all use it and we all have our favorite one. However, that may change after you hear about this power house algorithmic reverb. Aether is an award-winning, superior quality, self- modulating algorithmic reverb. It is essentially two plug-ins in one with an early reflections engine and a late reflections engine. What does this mean? It means that the sound design possibilities for this reverb are endless as you have complete control over each individual space. Not an expert in algorithmic sound design? No problem. The 451 presets available give you the full sonic pallet of the effect.
Why Choose Aether?
No other reverb on the market has the in depth control of the early and late reflections as Aether does. Also, the plug-ins ability to replicate real spaces with precision and create new ones with just a couple of clicks, makes this reverb a must add to your collection.
This reverb provides a greater number of parameters for you to morph the sound, so creating something unique can easily be achieved. One hidden feature that will spice up your realistic sounding reverb is to change the size and cascade of the early reflections. This will create irregular reverb response envelopes and therefore giving your sound an interesting timbre that can only be created with Aether.
Aether Producer Tip
Be sure to experiment with the filtered, granular, modulation, and resonant presets to create spatial effects that you probably have never heard before!
If there is one type of plug-in that is over saturating the market, it would have to be compressors. It seems like everyday a new compressor is hitting the market and you probably already have a dozen of them on your computer. Well make room for Compassion. This is by far the most configurable dynamics processor out there. It truly is the jack of all trades. Sticking true to DMG audio’s design, you can keep the processing as simple or as complex as you want. This compressor boasts a fully configurable topology to sound like any type of compressor out there, Mid/Side processing, a Transient Shaper, clip limiter modules, side chain EQ’s, and plenty more! One of my favorite features of this incredible dynamics processor is its large intuitive waveform display. With this unique display, you can gain a better understanding of how the compressor actually effects the audio, making the visual a reliable reference tool.
Why Choose Compassion?
Compassions extreme flexibility makes it an excellent choice for ALL your compression needs, from individual instruments all the way to your master channel. This really cannot be said for any other compressor out there, so get your copy and get to mixing!
Modern music requires a clean upfront sound. Since this compressor is fully configurable we can navigate to the ratio parameters in the advanced menu and adjust our compression accordingly. Turn on the upward expansion and adjust its ratio and hear your sound pop out in the mix!
Compassion Producer Tip
As mentioned before, this compressor also has the option to transient shape. Take advantage of this. Throw it on your individual drum hits and get into the advanced features. Navigate to the transient shaper, turn it on, and start configuring the parameters to taste. You’ll be surprised at the quality of this shaper.
Having trouble writing chord progressions? Cthulhu handles this task with ease. This plugin-in is firstly a chord player, which allows you to create and rework chord progressions with a single-note press. It also comes with 150 presets that give you an endless amount of musical-sounding progressions at your finger tips. In addition to having a chord module, it also has an arp module. This unique pattern based arpeggiator, allows the incoming notes or chords to be transformed rhythmically. Its 8 tab step sequencer even allows you to turn a single note into a compelling rhythmic riff!
Why choose Cthulhu?
Other sequencers out there such as Cream and Midi Madness are excellent, but do not have the flexibility that Cthulhu has. It’s intuitive chord arranging modes, wealth of presets, and intricate 8 tab step sequencer, make constructing compelling and unique arps and progressions a breeze.
On the top of the interface you can clearly see the different options for transforming the sound such as note select, octave, velocity scale, etc. What is not so obvious is that each tab has it’s own sequencer length, so creating new and complex patterns can be programmed with ease. All you have to do is adjust the skinny green line that is running the length of the sequencer graph.
Cthulhu Producer Tip
For more keys and scales, you can download a whole other bank of presets here.
Sculpting the transients of your sounds is key to achieving a well balanced mix. If you have a sound that is too transient heavy, it will overpower the mix and eat up all your headroom. If your sounds lack transients, then your mix will probably sound dull. Transify works wonders for manipulating the dynamics of your mix. It allows for total control of the sustain and transients of your sound with its four frequency bands that are available for independent transient processing. Most transient shapers out there effect the entire sound, but frequency specific enhancements are needed most of the time as boosting low frequencies is not always ideal.
Why choose Transify?
Simply put, no other transient shaper out there has the transparency and 4 band control that Transify has.
Transients still not coming through as much as you’d like? Click the phase button in the upper right hand corner. This will invert the polarity of your sound and fix many phasing issues that may occur, especially if the plug-in is on a group channel.
Transify Producer Tip
Put Transify on your drum group and instrument group as well as your individual drum hits, to really tighten up your mix and make sure everything is having the impact it should.
Alloy often gets overlooked as Ozone and Neutron take center stage, but this powerful mixing tool is not to be overlooked. You get 6 tools in one with this plug-in. An equalizer, dynamics processor, exciter, de-esser, and a transient shaper and limiter, making this a perfect plug-in to throw on your group channels and even individual instruments. This tool’s power lies within its exceptional sound quality, which carefully balances between vintage emulation and digital precision.
Why choose alloy?
Few all-in one mixing tools have the range that this one does. With 6 high resolution mixing tools, mixing presets for all elements of your track, and the advanced metering that allows you to visualize your mixing decisions, this plug-in is a must have.
Navigate to the bottom half of the plug-in and click options. This opens up a menu for all the modules where you can customize how the plugin processes the sound and enable helpful mixing meters. In this menu you can change the character of the EQ, the number of bands on your frequency exciter, and spectrum time (which can be useful for pinpointing problem frequencies).
Alloy Producer Tip
Group your kick and snare, put Alloy on the group, and try out the punchy kick drum preset. This will ensure that your kick and snare are mixed front and center and the loudest elements in the track, as many of today’s electronic songs adhere to this mixing principle.
Many electronic producers ignore phase cancellation as they seem to think this can only occur from multiple mic recordings. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. With all the processing and layering of sounds that is involved in modern productions, phase cancellation is inevitable. While the phase cancelling may not be glaringly obvious, you can bet that it is taking away the power of your tracks. MAutoAlign finds the ideal delays and phase inversions and automatically corrects them.
Why Choose MAutoAlign?
The only other comparable plugin on the market right now is SoundRadix’s Pi. While this is an excellent plugin, you don’t have the range of controls that MAutoAlign has, which is necessary to ensure there is no phase cancellation. With theMAutoAlign, you can change the type of algorithm that processes the sound, the noise floor, delay, maximum delay, latency, and high and low pass filtering. These parameters along with the real-time graphics display help you make the most accurate mixing decisions.
Most delays that cause phase canceling are very short. Turn the “maximum delay” knob to the shortest time possible to avoid any delay problems.
MAutoAlign Producer Tip
Put MAutoAlign on a drum group and synth group as punchiness is critical here. Probably the biggest use I have found for this plug-in is to put it on your sub. Having your sub hitting exactly when the note plays makes all the difference. Your track losses most of its power if your sub is not aligned, so throw it on and hit analyze.
Like compressors, there is no shortage of limiters on the market. Limitless takes limiting to a whole new level with its cutting edge peak limiting algorithm. Its dual-stage dynamic processor leaves your mix sounding more transparent and louder then ever before. Like compassion, you can keep your manipulating of the plug-in as simple or as complex as you like.
You can go as far as controlling the dithering and the type of clipping that occurs.
Why Choose Limitless?
Limitless is designed around modern loudness standards. Its two stage limiting and multi band approach allows you to get a louder signal than any other limiter, without audible distortion. Need I say more?
Navigating to the advanced section of the plug-in, we come to a specific parameter called “weighting.” This encourages Limitless to change the amount of gain reduction that is occurring in the low and high frequencies. Increasing the weighting will give you a greater perceived loudness without needing to adjust the threshold.
Put Limitless at the end of the chain on your masterchannel. Before you do any limiting, go into the advanced settings, Turn the clipping on to “swell” or “swell 2″, and turn the drive and amount up until you see a couple dB of gain reduction. This will pre-clip your channel before it even hits the limiter, so you can tame your highest peaks. This ensures that your next stage of main limiting will give you the loudest and cleanest results.
What are your favourite plugin synths and effects that perhaps don’t get as much regular recognition as they deserve? Let us know in the comments below!
Daniel Strongin is a DJ, producer, engineer, sound designer, and entrepreneur. He is the creator of SoundShock, a site dedicated to the modern electronic music producer with free samples, presets, tutorials, artist interviews, and articles.
For lots more tips and techniques on making the best use of your plugin instruments and effects and enhancing your tracks to a professional level, don’t forget to check out the Ultimate Guides:
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