Beyond Stock Sounds: 10 Essential Plugins You NEED to Add to Your DAW

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DAWs have come a long way in recent years, and the included plugins that come with them rival after-market commercial options in many cases. However, your DAW’s standard EQs, compressors, and extra goodies may not always make the cut for intense audio work. Even now, there are some things that stock plugins often won’t do.

For that, there’s always third party plugins. And there are a lot of them out on the market. From Waves, Slate, and McDSP to lesser-known companies like Valhalla and Stillwell Audio, there is an overwhelming amount of options.

To help narrow down the choices, we’ve put together a list of essential third-party plugins that can help fill in the gaps you’re still likely to find in your DAW of choice.

Fabfilter Pro-Q 2

The Pro-Q 2, from Fab Filter offers some useful options that most stock EQs still don’t.

Even with a great abundance of stock plugins available, at least two Fabfilter plugins always seem to make it into every single mix I do. One of them is always Pro-Q 2.

This EQ is like your stock EQ on steroids. Fabfilter has essentially taken every part of an EQ and turned it up to 11, offering incredible flexibility to meet almost any setting.

Starting out, Pro-Q 2 offers up to 24 bands that can be placed anywhere across the spectrum. While you should probably never need 24 bands of EQ, the option is nice to have for bragging rights.

Pro-Q 2 is also a filtering powerhouse. Each of the 24 bands can be set to a Bell, Notch, High/Low Shelf, High/Low Cut, Band Pass, or Tilt Shelf with slopes up to 96 db/octave.

Additionally, Pro-Q 2 brings Zero Latency, Natural Phase, and Linear Phase modes, as well as options for applying separate EQ to Left and Right channels or Mid/Side channels.

Going over everything that Pro-Q 2 has to offer would require an entire article in itself. Ultimately, Pro-Q 2 becomes an essentialpluginin your arsenal because of all of these options. The versatility that this pluginoffers is unmatched by any stock plugin, and it seems that Fabfilter has thought of just about everything that you’ll ever need for EQing.

Pro-Q 2 is my go-to EQ (as well as for countless other engineers out there) so if you’ve ever found your DAW’s EQ lacking, make sure you download the demo to try it out for yourself.

Slate Trigger 2

The Slate Trigger is one great option for adding a capability that few DAWs have built in with any degree of success.

Think what you want about samples, but there’s little denying that the use of samples to augment or replace a drum performance is an essential technique in many modern styles of music production.

Unless you just love hitting Tab, CTRL+V over and over again, you’ll probably want a piece of software to do the heavy lifting for you.

While other options exist, DAWs are usually lacking in this department, and I have found nothing on the market that works quite as well as Slate Trigger. Using this plugincan be as simple as just throwing a sample on a drum and letting it do its thing, or as complex as allowing you to completely overhaul a drum performance (and your sample) to fit your track perfectly.

The eight available channels allow blending of multiple samples, whether they’re one-shots or multi-sampled dynamic .tci files. These eight channels also allow for dynamic control, filtering, and more.

Even when I want to completely replace a drum performance with samples from a Kontakt library, I still load up Trigger to take advantage of its MIDI capture feature. This allows you to play through the performance and drag a MIDI track from it, mapping hits and velocities perfectly.

Trigger is an indispensable tool for any modern engineer, and you’ll forget the cost of it in a couple of weeks with how much value it brings. Combine that with th3 library of included Slate samples, and Trigger is one pluginthat is essential to have in my book.

Synchro Arts VocAlign

Try finding a time-saver as effective as VocAlign under the hood of your DAW.

Keeping with the theme of plugins that will save you a lot of time, there are few out that will save you quite as much time as VocAlign will if you work in genres that require extensive vocal editing.

VocAlign does exactly what the name implies and rarely fails at it. The plugin just seems to work every time I use it, and it’s a backbone of building up modern vocal tracks that sound huge.

Thankfully, VocAlign makes searching for the chaotic transients of vocal takes obsolete, allowing you throw a couple of takes in and line them up with your defined flexibility.

Despite its name, vocals aren’t the only thing that benefit from this treatment. Often, when tracking DI’d guitars, I’ll edit one take on the grid and then just Vocalign the double to that, cutting my guitar editing time in half.

While I don’t personally work in ADR, Vocalign is an indispensable tool for lining up tracking voiceovers to scratch audio. If you need even more options, Synchro Arts Revoice takes VocAlign to the next level.

While there isn’t much flexibility in deciding how Vocalign functions, it performs exactly how it should 95% of the time, making the $150 it costs seem like chump change.

Slate Virtual Tape Machines

Convincing analog tape saturation is a must-add for many mixers.

Jumping back into the mixing end of things, most DAWs on the market fail to bring subtle and accurate tape saturation to the table with their stock plugins. While a few of them have tried, it seems that tape modeling for stock plugins is still in its infancy.

That’s where Slate’s Virtual Tape Machines come in. While many other plugins try, there’s nothing that sounds quite as “right” to my ear as VTM does.

This plugin lives on my mix buss, and often I’ll use it across individual tracks to bring a little more character to them, breaking free from the mold of “stock” plugins.

One of the most useful ways I’ve found to use VTM is in a transient-shaping context. Take for instance, a snare drum which has had a lot of its top-end boosted, and then throw VTM after it to cut off the top of the transient, so it can stay bright without poking out too much in the mix.

While there are many engineers still don’t like the idea of “simulated tape”, Slate has undeniably created a fantastic plugin—one of the best of its class. It may not emulate tape perfectly, but frankly, I don’t care. I do know that it sounds incredible to me, and there’s not a single mix that I’d do without it.

Soundtoys Decapitator

Satisfyingly savage saturation often requires a third party option, like the Decapitator from Soundtoys.

If Slate’s VTM is distortion at 1, Decapitator is distortion at 11.

Much like with subtle tape saturation, you’re unlikely to find any stock plugin inside of a DAW that gets heavy distortion quite right. Fortunately, Decapitator hits that nail of the head.

This plugin can be shaped from subtle saturation to feedback-inducing distortion, with very few combinations of the controls sounding “bad”.

You can throw it on a mix buss for some subtle saturation, or use it full-out for distortion on a guitar track in combination with an impulse response. It’s that versatile, sacrificing very little at either end of the spectrum.

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  • Nice list! Event Horizon wasn’t on my radar but it is now. Any thoughts on UA’s series of plugins and preamp emulators?

  • bamaclt

    I’d add Izotope Neutron to the list. The track assistant analyzer is amazing.

  • Franz Kindermann

    Event Horizon is actually shipped within the Reaper DAW (all the Stillwell plugins are). There is just no GUI but simple controls. The algorithms are the same.

  • Nick Osher

    I would have to agree. All very useful plugins. Maybe stick the Waves Pultec on the list as well and, maybe a N1073? Both can be heard on virtually every mix for the past 15 yrs

  • Jacob Roach

    I use the Slate and Kush Neve emulations all the time.

  • Jacob Roach

    I’ve yet to really dive into Neutron. Looks like an awesome innovation.

  • Jacob Roach

    Event Horizon is great! Not many good clippers out there.

    I like the UA stuff, but it’s just hard to recommend it as “essential” when requiring so much money just to get the DSP. I tried get a system running and cost in light of how many usages I had was a bit shocking to me.

  • Jacob Roach

    I didn’t know that! I tried Reaper once or twice, but couldn’t break my PT habit.

  • Franz Kindermann

    Hi Tony, as jacob mentioned before it is hard to recommend UA plugins as one is more expensive as a full blown DAW (e.g. Reaper). Anyway, I let you know what turns out as essential to my preferred sound after a few years using the UA platform.

    Preamp/Channelstrip: API Vision Channelstrip
    Tape: Studer A800
    Master-Limiter: Sonnox Ocford Limiter
    Bus-Compressor: SSL G Series Stereo Compressor
    Reverb: EMT 140 Plate Reverb
    Room: Ocean Way Studios
    EQ: Harrison 32EQ & Mäag EQ4
    Compressor: 1176 AE (Anniversary Edition)

  • Nick Osher

    I like your style Franz. I like your plugin dream team. I find myself using the harrison eq’s all the time.
    Love the 32c on strings and Bgv’s.

    Ive been wanting to try the Maag but havnt found a reason to use it yet.
    I think the API Vision sounds awesome. I dont know why it never gets any love in discussions.

  • Franz Kindermann

    Thanks Nick. Yes, the Harrison is great on Strings, Piano and Drums (sits on my Drum-Bus) too. It softens the source and makes it larger than life. So musically.
    Well, the Mäag is the one EQ which works best on Vocals for me. To lift them out the final bit of the mix. But so subtle and not changing the source too much.
    The API is an awesome swiss-knife. I know what you are saying. It seems everybody is using SSL Channelstrip plugins. The API has just such a nice workflow and sonic capability.

  • Nick Osher

    Thanks for the input. Ya im going to have to try the Maag. Haha hey if that API does what the E chnl can do , id be amazed. I have an SSL Alpha channel with the G series eq and IMO , Its cuts through like an E ch, but MUCH more transparent.Anyhow, as i ramble, im always in need for some API color and better workflo

  • Nice list! Ever since I picked up the Apollo 8, it’s been a plug-in rampage. Haven’t played with the channel strip. That’s next on the list. Thanks for the recommends!

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  • Johannes Mazur

    And once again a list of someone who isn’t *forced* to look for the best bang for the buck. Let me tell you something from another point of view: I am an educated audio engineer with decades of musical practice and engineering experience. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people like me in my hometown but the number of studios doesn’t increase simultaniously, so you better get a regular job to ensure a monthly income. I didn’t quit to make music, instead of working for a commercial studio I started to make it an unpaid hobby. I guess most people reading this are closer to me than to guys like Graham Cochrane, Joe Gilder, Warren Huart…you name them. So the really interesting, essential list would be one listing plugins which get you equally good – if not better – results for faaaar less money. Plugins of really talented people, coding out of passion rather than out of cold economical considerations. I will name five names which stand for top quality despite an ridiculously low price tag: Sknote, Klanghelm, DDMF, Meldaproduction, Sonimus. There you go. In case you have Reaper, (btw which includes many Stillwell effects as the makers are the same as in Cockos Reaper’s team) you REALLY have anything together to run big sounding productions.

  • Jacob Roach

    Sure! A lot of these plugins cost quite a few bones. However, I also own all of them off of my own dime.

    Valhalla and Stillwell are both very inexpensive, and the rest on the list can be found for pretty cheap. I looked for plugins that did more than just what a stock plugin could. Basically, they beef stock plugins up.

    For example, there is nothing out there quite like Pro-Q 2, and there is nothing out there quite like Slate Trigger (that doesn’t cost more anyway).

    I do like the idea of listing plugins that give the best bang for your buck, though! I think that would be an interesting list in addition to this one.

  • Johannes Mazur

    Thanks for your kind answer! Just in case you are interested:
    Instead of buying fabfilter for 150,- get this one for a fraction:
    Instead of buying Slate’s drumtrigger, learn this:
    And enjoy the possibility of endless possibilities