This can be more difficult to pull off than it sounds with electronic, grid-based music – How do you get the expressiveness into your synth and programmed drum parts that will really make them seem to come alive?
One popular solution that is commonly used in most electronic genres is using filters creatively to sweep through and slice out various frequencies of your sounds as the track progresses, giving them all the movement and expressiveness of a live instrument.
Part of why this works so well is that building anticipation, on any level, is so much about promising excitement to come – and then withholding that payoff as long as possible. Filters can do this on a sort of micro-level: they withhold elements of individual sounds, never quite revealing the raw sound in it’s entirety, keeping the listener engaged and wanting to keep listening in the hope that the whole sound will be unveiled and satisfy their curiosity (or dancing legs, in the case of a euphoric club drop where a sound or riff can finally be revealed in it’s entirety, for example).
Talking of which, I’ve recently been taking my own EDM production skills up a notch, and I made it a personal mission to once and for all (or at least, for this year) find out what the best and most inspiring plugins are for characterful and creative filtering effects. Needless to say the choice is huge these days, ranging from simple single-knob affairs to real monsters that can warp any input beyond all recognition.
Modelled On Hardware
What’s interesting is how, as with most other types of plugins, many filter plugins are partially modelled on some of the best or older, ‘classic’ hardware units. (I went into this in my lists of the best reverb and compressor plugins.)
In the case of filters, the Sherman FilterBank continues to inspire filter designers and users alike. Also, the filter sections of the whole range of classic Moog synths are regarded as a high-watermark of characterful, analogue filters.
For me, and I’m guessing for you too, each type has it’s uses, so I’ve included in the list below a little bit of everything available, both in terms of features and budget range.
What they have in common is they can all undoubtedly bring that much-needed drama and excitement to even the most basic synth riff or drumloop, or to complete mix stems or whole tracks: and you’ll be one step closer to mastering the Principle of Creating Anticipation and a sense of journey in your tracks.
Get the demos or full versions (in some cases for free) from the links provided below, and enjoy!
Filters: The Two Minute Jargon-Buster
Before we get to the list, here are a few key terms explained for the uninitiated:
Low-Pass (LP): Filters work by removing – literally filtering out – selected frequencies. So a low-pass filter lets low frequencies through, filtering out the high frequencies. Where the filter stops filtering is determined by the Cutoff control: if the cutoff is set at 200Hz on a low-pass filter, everything above 200Hz will be removed; everything below will be unaffected.
High-Pass (HP): The inverse of a low-pass filter, it lets through – ‘passes’ – everything above the Cutoff.
Band-Pass (BP): Let’s through only a selected narrow range of frequencies, removing everything above and below.
Notch Filter: The opposite of Band-Pass, it cuts out a user-defined range of frequencies. Sweeping a notch filter up and down the frequency spectrum can create some great effects for bringing additional movement to synth sounds etc.
Comb Filter: So-called because they consist of a series of regularly spaced frequency spikes (on a graph it looks like a hair comb), comb filters actually work by adding delayed versions of the source signal to itself, artifically creating sweepable ‘holes’ in the audio. (This actually recreates a natural acoustic phenomenon known as ‘standing waves’ that can be a real problem for acousticians, but used in a sound design context it can be very useful).
Resonance: Sometimes referred to as the Q setting, increasing the Resonance of a filter simply provides a boost at the Cutoff point. This may not sound that exciting, but it’s actually a key component of creative filtering techniques, and the particular character of a filters resonance controls is part of what makes some filter plugins a cut above the rest.
Poles: The number of poles refers to how steep the Cutoff Slope can be on a particular filter. The higher the number of poles, the steeper the Cutoff slope can be, which has the effect of a more extreme / precise distinction between the filtered and non-filtered frequencies. Generally, filter plugins are referred to as 2-Pole (filtering 12dB per octave) or 4-Pole (24dB).
The 10 Best Creative Filter Plugins – The List
My pick of filter plugins, where flexibility, characterful analogue-style sound and an inspiring interface all come together. Volcano 2 has four multimode filters that can be configured as low-, high- or band-pass; but on top of that, the filters can be linked so that you can control them together as one, making really complex-sounding effects easy to manipulate. The filters also self-oscillate like rich analogue synth filters, meaning if you draw the resonant peaks of each filter up high enough on the display you can create synth-style sound effects perfect for EDM.
I am also particularly drawn to the XLFO-led rhythmic and arpeggio presets that come with Volcano 2 – couple these with all the panning options (Volcano 2 includes an M/S switch so that as well as Left anfd Right, you could instead treat the Middle and Sides independently), and there are almost infinite possiblities for sonic exploration. Not for the faint-hearted then!BUY NOW via PluginBoutique.
2. Sonalksis Creative Filter
I’ve already raved about the Sonalksis single-knob Creative Elements series of plugins when I included the Über Compressor in my 10 Best Compressor Plugins In The World.
Creative Filter is an ‘Adaptive Resonance’ filter, “that automatically adapts resonance and saturation characteristics according to a psychoacoustic model.” It’s awesome fun to use, and is one of the few plugins that I know will always give me fast and dramatic effects that easily inspire further new ideas.
More info here.
Obviously similar to the Sonalksis Creative Filter, but with even more stripped back controls. Definitely worth checking out for DJs.BUY NOW via Waves.
I think I’ve included an Ohm Force plugin in every list I’ve put up on this site: they always deliver the goods, whatever the category. I got into using Quad Frohmage after noticing how great the filter/resonance section on the Ohmboyz delay was – Quad Frohmage is actually four of the free Frohmage plugins strapped together in one interface, expanding the modulation, routing and effects possibilities to cover pretty much every eventuality. And apparently Trent Reznor is a fan too.BUY NOW via PluginBoutique.
Regarded by many pros as the only analogue-style filter plugin they need, FilterFreak comes in two different versions. The FilterFreak package includes FilterFreak2 which is dual-filter version – the two filters can be run in parallel or series for a variety of effects.BUY NOW via PluginBoutique.
5. Tone2 biFilter2
A great analogue sound, but I also love biFilter for the huge list of filter types you can choose from, including some that aren’t featured on other plugins on the list such as formant filters, comb and Moog-emulating filters. Don’t underestimate how speed of setup can impact your creative flow – biFilter is great here.
More info here.
This plugin has an amazing and usable sound with very authentic-sounding analogue filters (including Comb and Band Reject or notch filter types). But what really sets WOW apart are the extreme flexible modulation options (Envelope Follower, Step Sequencer and LFOs), and of course the Vowel Mode: this sets up a sort of formant filter that adjusts itself to the incoming signal to create filtered speech effects with lots of movement – if you’re after that gritty-but-fat Dubstep filter sound, I believe this could be what you’re after.
Some other plugins would require a lot more setting up (or the addition of extra chains of plugins) to get similarly expressive sounds… Again, the ease of use / quality of results ratio here is excellent.BUY NOW via PluginBoutique.
For adding movement and highly editable modulation to your sounds, FilterShaper 3 is a huge development from the previous version (also featured here), and definitely worth checking out. It’s a lot of fun plotting modulation points on the graph interface, and perfect for Massive-style rhythmic envelopes on Dubstep basses and such-like. Not as phat as some of the other filters here perhaps, but flexibility is the name of the game here, and it’s easy enough to combine with a bit of additional distortion or saturation from elsewhere in the signal chain.BUY NOW via PluginBoutique.
Lots of great modulation and routing options here, and the interface in general is inspiring to use: There’s a great feeling that everything you’ll want is contained here and easily accessible/configurable.
There’s a nice roll-over explanation of the features and more info here.BUY NOW via u-he.com.
The successor to the PSP Nitro, N2O has been rebuilt from the ground up to take advantage of the general increases in processing power since Nitro was first developed. And you can see why: N2O is a ‘semi-modular’ filter plugin – you set up the features of each effect/module, and then build a custom routing structure with the main modulation matrix in the centre display (this reminds me a lot of the FM synthesis routing style, as found in FM8 for example). But if all that sounds like hard work you can of course use any of the 192 very cool presets for a huge range of ready-made effects.BUY NOW via PluginBoutique.
“Filterstation is the Audio Damage take on the classic serial/parallel/stereo dual filter topology, made famous (and some would say “indispensable”) by the Sherman Filterbank and its many clones.”
This one also features low-pass and high-pass filters modelled on those from the classic Korg MS-20 synth. Easy to configure with its very simple interface, but as with everything Audio Damage it delivers on sound.
More info here.
So there are my top picks for the best filter plugins available right now. As ever, leave a comment below if you find this useful, or if I’ve left out your own favourite… :)
For more tips and techniques for getting the most out of all of your plugins and studio gear in your tracks, don’t forget to check out the Ultimate Guides series:
And if you liked this list, you might also be interested in these: