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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.