On this site, we have many different posts on the various types of mixing plugins available…
This, admittedly, can be quite confusing and daunting to a beginner producer who simply wants the essentials – The information that will get you started in the right direction.
That’s what this post is about.
We will be setting you on the right path, so that you’ll know, moving forward, what are the best mixing plugins to buy.
But it’s also an essential guide to the various types of mixing plugins out there, and categorically determine the right choice for you.
If you’re visiting this page, most likely you have little to no knowledge of mixing or mixing plugins. And quite frankly, there are copious amounts of mixing plugins available. The fact is… many of them are actually very good. As our options here will seem a lot when you take it all in, it will still be only just a tip of the iceberg … practically any you find on the market will be a good choice for you if you use it properly. But you need to know what you need. And this guide is designed to educate as well as suggest.
So sit back, relax, and enjoy the read!
Note: This is a fairly long guide, so it makes sense to bookmark it for when you need it in future!
Table of Contents
- i. Audio Mixing – What is it?
- 50 Best Mixing Plugins
i. Audio Mixing – What is it?
Before diving into the wealth of plugins available for mixing, we need to understand what mixing is, and what it entails.
Audio Mixing can be defined as the process by which an engineer combines two or more sound channels or wavelengths into a single, compact track. Learning how to mix properly takes years of experience, as a seasoned engineer has trained ears that can pick up imperfections in a project that may not be as obvious or noticed at all by a beginner musician.
Mixing engineers use specific methods in order to produce a sound more auditorily pleasing to its listeners. Audio mixing can be done in a live setting, or during post-production in digital audio software, or a DAW. In general, audio mixing can be broken down into three main processes:
Leveling refers to a mixer’s balance of amplitudes or peak volume levels throughout a project. Each tracks’ volume must be set carefully so that all instruments can be expressed in the final track.
For example, when using a DAW, it’s common to set a kick drum to a peak amplitude level of -10 dB as this level range is known to be most beneficial for the nature of the kick.
Leveling is also done in live settings: In this instance, a sound mixer might adjust the levels of a band’s microphones so that the input of their noise isn’t overbearing when performing. A mixer may have a higher level on vocals over say the drums, as vocal need much more help with amplification.
In order to make room for all instruments in a mix, an engineer might employ the process of cutting out certain frequencies to make room for others.
For example, if the high-end frequencies of a kick were overlapping the high-end frequencies of a hi-hat, a mixer would EQ the kick to cut out the unnecessary information and sound from the high-end frequencies of the kick.
Since a kick is known for its lower frequencies, in some case the high-end information is unnecessary. In addition, by cutting out some of the high information from the kick, the hi-hat now stands out and is more present within the mix.
Although cutting is mainly done in DAWs, carving out frequencies to make room for more sound is an important part of being a great mixer.
A mixer is largely responsible for adding in effects to elevate the mood, create suspense or transitions, and help the overall mix to flow properly.
For example, a mixer might add in reverb to give a vocal a more roomy effect. These effects, in turn, alter the overall balance of the sound, so it’s important that this step is taken on with cutting and leveling in mind.
ii. The Various Types of Mixing Plugins to Use
As we’ve alluded to before, there are copious amounts of mixing plugins. But we’ll try to break it down into 6 major categories, and define which type of plugins fit into this category, suggesting good examples for you to buy for each.
1. Dynamic Effects Processors
Dynamic Effects Processors – sometimes referred to as dynamic effects – are used to alter the loudness or amplitude of a signal.
They are typically used later in the mixing process, and sparingly, as they are very sensitive and can greatly affect your mix.
You use dynamic effects processors typically during the leveling stage of mixing to bring out sounds that are too low in a mix.
They should be used in conjunction with EQs (see filter plugins section) in order to carve out room for a particular sound: Overuse of dynamic effects processors can cause a mix to feel overbearing and muddy.
The main plugins within this category are as follows: Compressors, Limiters, Noise-Gates, and De-Essers.
a. The Compressor
An audio compressor is one of the most common plugins that has a bevy of applications – from vocals, to guitars, to keys, to drums. It’s one of the most essential tools in your producer’s mixing toolkit and cannot be left out.
In general, a compressor’s job is to reduce the peak levels of an audio signal, thus creating a more elevated average amplitude.
For example, if a snare track was to peak at -9db but mainly have an average amplitude around -11db in all other areas of the track, a compressor would work to create an average amplitude of -10db for the entire track, thus reducing the peak while enhancing the rest of the signal’s amplitude. This produces a more consistent sound, which is commonly used to tighten vocals and drum busses, as these signals are known to have sharp transients or peaks that can be jarring to a listener if left untouched.
Recommended Compressor Plugins
Compressors come in all shapes and sizes… but a few of our favorites include:
FabFilter Pro-C is an extremely versatile plugin. It offers a real-time view of your original vs. compressed signal – A visual learner-producer should have no problem seeing exactly what is happening to their compressed sound. FabFilter Pro-C also has a separate section of the UI dedicated wholly to sidechaining, so it allows maximum control for producers looking to create space in their mix, allowing you to select the exact frequencies to be compressed.
If you’re more into vintage sounds that sound authentic and modeled on the classic compressors of old, check out Waves PuigChild. It employs more of a hardware feel (both in sound and look), and offers both a stereo and mono compressor within the plugin for maximum versatility.
Smart:comp on the other hand is a great all-purpose compressor for those visual artists out there. It has a very sleek design and a live view on the input signal. It features spectral compression, which allows you to place your bands virtually anywhere across your signal. There’s also integrated sidechaining making this a great pick for techno and electronic producers. Notably, this compressor features a spectro-dynamic compressor meaning that the plugin will analyze the input in collaboration with the producer’s changes to ensure that the output is smooth and professional. It’s fairly affordable for an all-purpose compressor and the reviews for this plugin only glow with its ability to get the job done effectively and efficiently.
You can also read our other guides on compression plugins below, based on your requirements:
- Compressor Plugins for Vocals
- Compressor Plugins for Drums
- Compressor Plugins for Bass
- Multiband Compressors for Mixing & Mastering
Features of a Compressor
- Ratio: Dictates how much compression is applied. 2:1 ratio is not as compressed as a 4:1 ratio.
- Attack: How quickly the signal is altered when entering the compressor
- Release: How long the compressor’s effects last after entering the compressor
- Threshold: Sets at what peak point a compressor begins to alter amplitudes
Compressors can also be used to reduce – or “duck” – the volume of one track below another, which is commonly referred to as “sidechaining”. This technique is especially useful in techno and electronic genres where a kick drum and bass are competing for the same frequency range.
Since kicks and bass both have a lot of low-end frequency information, it can be difficult to hear each one properly when played simultaneously. An engineer would use a compressor to duct the volume of the bass every time the kick is played, thus giving the kick a perceived higher amplitude or volume. That way, the kick can be expressed and heard without the mix becoming too muddy.
b. The Limiter
Whereas a compressor creates more of a gradual edit to perceived volume…
a limiter places a hard stop – or “limit” – on where the audio peaks.
Think of a limiter as big “speed limit” for music – accept, instead of not exceeding the speed, we don’t want to exceed a certain volume.
Why would this be necessary? So that we can increase the volume of the quieter parts of our track, therefore increasing the perceived loudness of our music, without actually going above the limit.
Technically speaking, limiters are essentially a more intense version of a compressor, the threshold ratios usually beginning around 10:1 versus a standard compressor’s 2:1 starting ratio.
Since you are reducing the dynamic range of an audio signal, limiters help protect against clipping, which is defined as waveform distortion as a result of the overamplification of an audio signal.
If you’re in the market for a good limiter, here are a few we can recommend:
The FabFilter Pro-L, like the Pro-C, is another great go-to option with great visual feedback. You will see all over the place, so it has to get mention here. Bother beginners and pros alike consider this a “safe” plugin that can handle all your limiter plugin needs.
Waves L1 Ultramaximizer
The Waves L1 Ultramaximizer limiter is great for multiple purposes and skill levels as well. It can analyze audio by digital signal resolution and level, as opposed to the entire file. This makes it particularly efficient for many different purposes.
PSP Audioware Xenon
We also love PSP Audioware Xenon limiter as it offers real-time analysis and unique features, such as word length reduction. This limiter is full-band, meaning it is best suited for mastering purposes, but can certainly be used for mixing.
TDR Limiter 6 by Tokyo Dawn Records
Finally, is TDR Limiter 6 by Tokyo Dawn Records. This indie plugin is known for being a bang for your buck! TDR Limiter 6 is a limiter and compressor combo with 4 separate processing modules. Each of the modules can be rearranged with a couple of clicks, and you can create a compression audio effect chain within the plugin. There are four different embedded limiters: High frequency, Peak, Output Protection, and True Peak; so you can be sure clipping will be eliminated. Just remember to use this plugin with caution. Too much compression can distort your mix and counteract the point of compression in the first place.
If you’re interested in mastering limiters, take a look at our Mastering Limiter Plugins guide.
Features of a Limiter
The limiter usually has an attack, release, threshold control just like a compressor, and often includes a visual level output so you can see where your track ends up peaking after being processed.
There’s also usually a makeup gain section which add to the final amplitude. Makeup gain will add volume to your entire track, but note that the additional energy has not been compressed, meaning this feature should be used sparingly to prevent clipping.
You’ll also sometimes see a “look ahead” or analyze a section of the limiter which means the plugin is equipped to analyze in real-time, making it particularly efficient at producing consistent levels even with the contrast of a chorus versus a verse.
c. The Noise-gate
Noise-gates are similar to compressors in that they alter the overall dynamics of a sound based on a specific threshold. However, unlike a compressor – which attenuates or reduces the level of sounds above the set threshold – a noise gate attenuates sounds below a certain threshold.
Noise-gates are used primarily to reduce unwanted sounds, noises, or hums in the mix.
A noise-gate is useful for many applications, but one of the most common uses is when cleaning up an audio vocal. You’ll find that, when recording vocals, the highly sensitive studio microphone may make it difficult to isolate unwanted background vocal sounds completely. Hence, a noise-gate plugin can help reduce any minimal background noises in a vocal, oreven reduce the level at where a singer may take small breaths or pauses. This way, you don’t need to go in and cut them out yourself in the mix.
Noise-gates are also useful when recording anything live- including guitars, drums, and so forth. For example, a guitar may have a tiny buzz or twang in between notes or phrases. A noise-gate can be set to reduce these small yet noticeable imperfections.
Recommended Noise-Gate Plugins
There are a few options you can keep in mind when shopping for a good Noise Gate plugin. Here are two:
Gatekeeper by Polyverse
We opt for Gatekeeper by Polyverse music as one of our favorite noise-gate choices. This interface is especially useful for visual people, as you can draw out your noise-gate threshold curve to align perfectly with your signal’s particular waveform shape.
Sonnox Oxford Drum Gate
Another great option is the Sonnox Oxford Drum Gate. This plugin is a bit more simple in design but is known for its power and reduction particularly on drum busses and individual percussive tracks. You can also import your own presets, which makes noise reduction simple if you tend to rely on the same equipment from project to project.
Take a look at our related guide for Noise-reduction plugins.
Features of a Noise-Gate
The way noise-gates work is that when the sound signal goes below the set threshold, the “gate” closes, so that the signal comes through either less or not at all. Whenever the signal’s amplitude is above the set threshold, the gate is open, and all frequencies come through. However, the minor hums or hisses are not as noticeable in conjunction with the sound of the singer or instrument.
Noise-gates typically feature an attack, release, and threshold controls much like a compressor. Often, there is an additional “hold” feature which is used to further define the gaps in which a noise gate is closed or open. For example, you may set a shorter hold if your audio signal has short spaces in between unwanted noises and desired sound.
d. The De-Esser
Coming off the same concept of a compressor and a noise-gate, de-essing – sometimes called desibilizing – works to reduce the sounds of harsh noises in vocals.
Examples of sounds a De-Esser may reduce are “s”, “t”, “z”, “ch”, “j” and “sh” noises. These noises are sometimes referred to as sibilance. This dynamic processor focuses solely on the human voice and its tendencies to create harsh imperfections or pops throughout a mix.
A de-Esser is a compressor catered directly to attenuating sibilance.
How the De-Esser Works
Usually, the annoying sibilance noises come from the higher end of the frequency range. Because of this, De-Essers target the high end of the signal usually anywhere between 2-10 kHz. Unlike EQs (See filter plugins), De-Essers are able to smooth out the vocal without affecting any tonal qualities since the De-Esser is only designed to affect amplitude.
Recommended De-Esser Plugins
Some of our favorite De-Essers include:
Waves DeEsser, despite being extremely affordable, is one of the starting plugins for many professional producers. The interface is pretty simple, but don’t let that fool you… this DeEsser certainly does its job and has an output meter so you can ensure your compression isn’t going overboard. There’s a number of embedded presets for the drum to vocal tracks, so you’ll at least have a starting point even if you aren’t familiar with DeEsser plugins. With hundreds of glowing reviews, there’s no doubt that this DeEsser holds up to professionals while still remaining accessible to those just starting out.
You’ll note the FabFilter brand around a lot. However, this Pro-DS offers a friendly UI and single/group modes which makes it handy for tracking multiple vocals.
ERA 4 De-Esser
The ERA 4 De-Esser on the other hand allows you to quickly see exactly which sections you’d like for the De-Esser to target. This is excellent, as it encourages the engineer to use the De-Esser sparingly to create a more professional-sounding mix.
You want more options, take a look at our guide for the best De-Esser plugins.
Features of the De-Esser Plugin
A typical De-Esser will have a frequency range that can be adjusted according to your particular signal, a threshold, and an output level. There’s also usually a monitor button that allows you to solo the frequencies you’re attenuating, i.e help you ensure that you’re reducing the sibilance and not the actual vocal. Since De-Essers are used on most vocal tracks, they are useful for all genres and types of music sans instrumentals.
While De-Essing helps create a clean vocal when used correwactly, it can also cause your mix to sound choppy or flat when used at an overly aggressive threshold. Some engineers will create a small boost of higher frequencies using an EQ (See filter plugins) in order to help a De-Esser sound more natural in the mix.
Note on Using a De-Esser:
Make sure when you use De-Essers you place them in the vocal chain before any external effects (See effect plugins). Since De-Essers are used to fine-tune the raw signal of a vocal, they should be as close to the vocal as possible in terms of the sequence of mixing. Where you place effects in the chain does matter, as one effect will affect the effect below it. Simply put, audio effect/mixing chains build on top of each other.
In general, it’s best to record as if De-Essers didn’t exist. Although they can be extremely helpful tools, they should definitely be used sparingly to preserve the quality and smoothness of a vocal track.
2. Time Based Effects Processors
Time based effects processors manipulate the sound of the original audio signal over a period of time – hence the name.
The most common and fundamental effects to pay attention to within this category are reverb and delay.
In general, these processors will add or extends the sound of the signal, often enhancing the listener’s perception of space within a mix. Basically, a portion of the original input is captured, delayed in different increments, and then played back as a blended sound with the original track.
You’d typically use these on vocals, drums, guitar, and piano parts… the sky’s the limit. In general, they help out significantly with stereo imaging (i.e filling out the space of your mix).
a. The Reverb
Reverb is one of the most common and powerful tools for producers and mixing engineers. We naturally get a sense of reverb in the physical world.
For example, if you were to sing in a bathroom or empty church hall, your voice will sound much more roomier. Reverb plugins recreate this effect by emulating the process by which sound reflects off of different surfaces. It is produced through a formula called the Sabine Equation.
The main use of a reverb plugin is to provide depth and space to the listener. Reverb also accentuates the natural harmonics of a sound, so it can be used to add warmth or smooth out rough edges of harsher signals.
Recommended Reverb Plugins
These plugins come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but a few that we can recommend are:
Waves Abbey Road Reverb Plates
The Abbey Road Reverb Plates by Waves was created to emulate the studio sound of the famous Abbey Road, arguably the most famous studio in the world. It’s where all the great classics (especially out of England) were engineered… so if you’re a Beatles fan or just love a warmer, intimate sound, this audio effect will take you there without any hassle.
WA Production Mutant Reverb
Mutant reverb is designed to convert a mono reverb to stereo, giving the plugin an intense widening effect. There’s a built-in high pass filter as well as a whole separate section dedicated to sidechaining labeled as “ducking”. Notably, you can adjust the tail of the reverb on the top portion of the interface to ensure that your processed sound doesn’t bleed too much into the signal itself. For stereo imaging, you can toggle the size of the space the reverb is in as well as “smooth” the sonic landscape.
Waves H-Reverb Hybrid Reverb
If you’re looking to get extra technical with reverb, Waves offers the H-Reverb Hybrid Reverb, which has all the shiny bells and whistles you could possibly want. This reverb has combined synthetic reverb (the earliest version of the audio effect) and more modern-day convolution which employs the sampling of physical rooms and blending the resonance with an audio signal. There’s a bunch of other added goodies, like compression settings, a built-in EQ for the reverb, stereo to mono modes, and the plugin is designed to take up minimal CPU. You can draw out the reverb curve for maximum control, and for all of its embedded features, this plugin is pretty affordable.
Finally, XenoVerb has 10 different reflection types alone, so it’s bound to offer you flexibility regardless of what genre or instrument group you’re focusing on. It’s definitely a worthy mention if the demos from the link below suit your fancy.
SP2016 Reverb by Eventide
This high-end reverb mostly caters itself to seasoned producers, or engineers ready to invest heavily in achieving a professional, roomy sound. The SP2016 is based on a legendary piece of hardware, the world’s first programmable effects box, first introduced in 1982. The plugin offers 6 different rooms or settings of reverb and all of the controls are front panel with slider knobs, paying homage to the hardware piece. You’ll definitely have to rely on your ears to use this one, but for its catered audience, that’s no problem. If you’re looking to take reverb to the next level, SP2016 is your friend.
We have a couple other guides on reverb plugins, check them out:
Features of Reverb Plugins
It’s almost a given that some level of reverb is placed on vocal tracks and busses, but the type and intensity vary based on genre.
Generally speaking, each reverb plugin would have a few parameters you want to pay attention to:
- type – refers to what room you’re emulating. eg. cathedral, hall, or room-specific reverbs to name a few.
- size – allows you to expand or compress the size of your sonic room.
- decay – how long the processed signal will run.
- pre-delay – pre-delay sets the amount of time in between your unaltered waveform and the combined reverb signal.
There’s usually a dry/wet knob as well so you can set exactly how much of your signal you want to reflect in your sonic space.
Reverb is often added to drums and other instruments to give them a livelier feel. They will also cause the original audio signal to feel much wider, making it an excellent tool while mapping out the physical locations of sounds within a track.
b. The Delay
A delay plugin, functionally speaking, takes a selected portion of the original signal, and plays it back (repeatedly), usually with less intensity, for a period of time.
Delay is essentially the studio version of an echo.
To think of it in terms of the physical world. If you were to yell your name in a cave, you’d hear your name back within a number of seconds at a lower volume level.
Delays are used on virtually everything: Vocals, instruments, drums, and are one of the oldest effects incorporated in digitized music.
Delay Plugin Features
Although this concept is fairly simple, there are several different types of delays each with their own various uses. Here are a few of the most common types:
Analog/Tape: Analog or tape delays are known for their retro, vintage feel. They refer to the type of delay used before the digital era, where physical magnetic tape was spliced in between sections to create a delay effect. Luckily for us, now plugins are able to do the heavy lifting. However, the sound of an analog tape delay has become extremely popular in modern music production. So having a plugin with the convenience of software, but with the vintage feel of analog is a good consideration.
Looping: Looping delays are continuous and do not have decay like other delay types. These delays can be recorded to create unique audio effects or serve as transitions between sections of a song.
Slapback: Slapback is very similar to an echo you’d experience in your day-to-day life. It’s a bit more subtle than other forms of virtual delays, and will commonly be set to reiterate a particular phrase once instead of multiple times in succession like other delay types. Slapback is commonly used on drums to give them more punch.
Ping-Pong: Ping pong delay plays with panning and sends two separate delay tracks to your right and left ears.
Doubling: Doubling gives the audio a thicker appearance with a very short delay time. It feels as though your signal is being played and echoed from two separate points in a room, making it a great way to widen your mix or make certain tracks stand out.
Recommended Delay Plugins
Considering the above features, what tape delay plugin should you get? Here are a few options:
Waves H-Delay Hybrid Delay
If you want a great quality delay plugin, with many of the features we mentioned above, we suggest H-Delay Hybrid Delay by Waves. It’s a great choice as it offers slapback, doubling, simple, and ping-pong delay within a relatively cheap plugin without sacrificing quality.
Waves J37 Tape
Also by Waves is the J37 Tape. This is essentially a saturation plugin (see harmonic effects section), but offers that analog saturated feel that you might want from a tape delay plugin used back in the ’60s.
WA Production Mutant Delay
Mutant Delay by W.A Production is another great option for the following reasons…
You’ll find delay is essential for vocals. But one major problem with them is when the delayed signal (the “echo”) interferes with the singer’s vocals and lyrics. This normally leads the engineer to add sidechain compression to duck the delayed signal below the original.
For convenience Mutant Delay by W.A Production combines sidechaining with delay, making it a great tool for beginners, but powerful enough to hold its ground with the pros.
Creative Intent Remnant
Finally, Remnant by Creative Intent is a digital grain delay with one of the coolest User Interfaces out there. It’s made for weird, atmospheric soundscapes, sometimes with the deliberate glitch or two. There are two-grain engines that alter your signal by pitch, frequency, envelope, and time spent attenuating. The controls may take a bit to figure out, but once you got them down Remnant is pretty efficient. You may not use this tool for your typical, run-of-the-mill delay, but if you’re looking to make some unique sounds, especially within the techno or electronic scene, this is a great buy at a relatively affordable price.
3. Filter Plugins
Filter plugins are used to alter the loudness or amplitude of a signal in real-time.
For example, a producer may use an auto filter plugin to modify the sub-bass, making punchier in the mix during a chorus rather than the verse.
In addition to being useful automation tools, filter plugins can reduce or cut off unwanted frequencies in a mix. EQs are an essential part of mixing, and cutting out unnecessary low-end information from a hi-hat can allow more room for a kick or bass (instruments who shine with low-end frequencies).
Therefore, filters are essential in crafting individual track clarity throughout a mix.
a. The EQ
The EQ or equalizer is one of the most essential parts of mixing and crafting the sound of a track, it’s right up there in importance with the compressor.
The job of the EQ is to reduce or boost certain frequencies in a mix.
Most professional engineers focus much more heavily on the reduction side rather than boosting.
You can think of an EQ as a way to carve out space for other frequencies within the track.
For example, say your vocal was unfortunately recorded with some unwanted background noise. You can use an EQ to target the frequencies of the unwanted noise and therefore make space in your sonic room for other instruments to shine.
Recommended EQ Plugins
There are tons of great EQs on the market, but we’ll just suggest three that we like:
One of the best all-around EQs is the Pro-Q by FabFilter. This equalized is known for its incredibly detailed UI that displays frequency alterations in real-time. The EQ also had multiple phase modes and integrated MIDI mapping, making it great for live situations as well.
Waves PuigTec EQ
The Waves PuigTec EQ is also a great option as it offers a more retro feel, and creates what is known as a resonant shelf. The plugin works to reduce signals and boost simultaneously, giving the sound some unique character.
Waves is known for creating high-quality plugins at an affordable price point and the F6 EQ is no exception. This 6-band EQ has live view of your input signal making it easy to see exactly how you’re altering the sound. Many users use F6 for compression, De-essing, and expansion along with the standard equalization. There’s 4 different filter shapes and built-in sidechaining. If you happen to have a computer integrated with a touch screen, this plugin is compatible so you can alter your band curves with the swipe of a finger. In general, this is a great all-purpose EQ for beginners.
If you’d like to see more options, take a look at our other guide:
EQing Techniques to Keep in Mind…
For clarity, there are two main umbrella types of EQing:
Corrective EQ: Method used to remove unwanted elements in tracks.
Creative EQ: Balancing or boosting a sound to fit better in a mix.
EQs can also make up for lost frequencies by adding a slight boost at different levels. For example, a producer may boost a vocal that’s been treated with a De-Esser around the high-frequency range to counteract the dulling side effect that sometimes comes with using a De-Esser.
Different instruments and sounds have separate known frequency ranges, and an EQ helps the engineer to balance out the density of the ranges. If the overall sound is too low-end heavy, you have the option to cut down low-end EQ frequencies in some instruments rather than remove the tracks all together.
b. The Hi/Lo Pass Filter
High and Low pass filters (also called HPF and LPF) act as a more intense version of an EQ. They are designed to cut off unwanted sound much like a limiter is a compounded version of a traditional compressor.
As the name suggests, you have two type of pass filters:
A high pass (or low cut) filter focuses on cutting out low-end frequencies, hence only higher frequencies will “pass” through the filter.
A low pass filter does the opposite, and focuses on removing high-end frequencies, letting only lower frequencies stand out.
You would use a high pass filter to bring out higher sounding instruments and remove any unnecessary information from the low-end the track- Vice versa for low pass filters.
In addition to carving out space in the mix, this filters can serve as a creative way to produce interest and suspense throughout a track. Modulating a high or low pass filter to sweep through a mix is a great way to build up tension when anticipating a chorus or climax of a song. Much of that “underwater” effect you find in Drake type beats are produced with a sweeping high pass filter.
Demonstration of a typical filter.
Recommended Hi/Lo Pass Filters
A fun and fully-functional filter duo in this category is FilterFreak by Soundtoys. This effect gives you access to both hi and lo pass options and allows you to modulate in a way that produces vintage analog-sounding sweeps.
Cable Guys FilterShaper
For a more everyday hi or low pass filter, check out FilterShaper by Cable guys. In addition to a sturdy hi and low pass filter access coupled with an intuitive UI, there’s also two LFOs in this plugin for further experimentation.
Audio Damage Filterstation2
Filterstation2 is a great all-purpose filter plugin that consists of an LFO, envelope, and two multimode filters. There are 12 different filter modes alone, so you can definitely find what you need within Filterstation2. Notably, you can drag sweeps or sound modulation on an X/Y axis, making it easy to visualize your music in an intuitive way. You can input sidechain with any stock compressor, although there’s no embedded sidechain or ducking controls. Users loved the flexibility of this plugin for an affordable price. The UI is pretty simple to follow making it easy to get your sound efficiently and effectively.
Kuassa Efektor WF3607
Efektor WF3607 is pretty simple, but works very well: The plugin is designed to create the classic “wah-wah” sound you usually achieve with guitar pedals. Staying true to the vibe of a guitar pedal, there’s no graphic visualizer, simply knobs to alter the Q and filter shapes. There are 6 different embedded settings and a handy pedal position knob for you to place the processed sound exactly where you want it in the mix.
These filters will alter the tone of your sound drastically as you’re actively removing large chunks of frequency information. Because of this, these filters are great to bring spatial variety to your mixes giving your listener a sense that the sound is further away than it may actually be.
4. Harmonic Effects Processors
Warmth and color effect plugins – sometimes referred to as audio saturation plugins – are designed to add “character” to your mix.
With saturation and harmonic distortion, you’re essentially processing your sounds as if they’ve gone through an analog processor or circuitry. Such as any analog hardware plugins, or a summing mixer.
The warm sounds created by passing audio through vintage tubes, circuits, and tapes often give the listener a feeling of a fuller mix, adding a vintage touch through what is referred to as “soft clipping”.
Soft clipping produces a form of light compression, making warmth and color effect plugins an excellent way to bundle individual tracks together in an organic-sounding way.
a. The Saturation Plugin
You’ll often hear producers talk about searching for “warmth” within a mix. This term may be a bit confusing to the untrained ear, but when you apply saturation to a mix, you’ll understand what that engineer is talking about.
Saturation plugins work to recreate the classic analog sound digitally.
Although now we rarely incorporate analog hardware into our mixes, our ears still crave the warm and full sounding processes produced by them.
Recommended Saturation Plugins
There are admittedly many to choose from. And many of them are very good. But if we were to pick three, we’d suggest:
RC-20 Retro Color by XLN audio
RC-20 Retro Color by XLN audio has 16 different options for mechanical noise alone, and has a very intuitive UI so you can get the sound you want quickly and effectively.
It emulates a tube saturator, and has built-in vinyl distortion so you can add that extra punch to all of your retro-inspired tracks. There’s also a bunch of presets to get you from point A to point B, even if you’ve never used saturation before.
Bad Tape by denise
If you’re looking for tape saturation on steroids, plugin Bad Tape by denise is a great pick. This saturator is designed to emulate extreme tape harmonics, giving you the experience of a proper tape deck with toggles such as “Wobble & Shake” and “Noize and squeal”, which won’t just add the classic artifacts, but also slightly detune your sample, true to its hardware muse.
Softube Tape is a tape emulation machine, which we mention in our guide on tape emulation plugins here. As with many other saturation plugins on the market, it emulates classic tape machines to produced the flavor that you’d from a hardware analog plugin. Out of the ones mentioned here, it tends to be mildest when offering saturation. That said, it’s also the most “musical” sounding to our ears and to those who’ve used. Definitely worthy of a mention, especially for its reasonable price. Check it out!
If you’re looking for further options, check these tape emulation plugins.
Where to use Saturation?
There’s a number of applications for saturation as it’s generally used to bulk up any sound or bus. Producers and engineers alike commonly apply saturation to vocals, drums, and individual instrument tracks.
However, it’s important to use saturation with caution, as you would a limiter. Too much saturation can easily make a mix overbearing and unpleasant to listen to.
Types of Saturation
Usually, the different types of saturation are named after the hardware piece they’re working to emulate. For example, there’s tube saturation, tape saturation, and transistor saturation which all have their own particular character.
With the boom of retro-inspired and lofi music, saturation is increasingly important as being an accessible tool within the studio. Since it’s versatile enough to be used on individual tracks, buses, and during the mastering process, it’s definitely a plugin you’ll want to get to know.
b. The Distortion Plugin
Very closely related, and oftentimes confused with saturation, is distortion.
This is a double-edged sword: Most of the time it’s something you’d like to avoid in your mixes… but when added tastefully, distortion can add a lot of character and shimmer to your mix.
The effect is defined as a form of audio signal processing that produces a buzzing or gritty tone by increasing the gain, or overall amplitude of a signal.
The audio effect got its start with electric guitars but has expanded way beyond its original means since then.
In fact, distortion is now a standard effect on many hardware amps. Engineers now use this effect on drum busses, individual instrument tracks, and the occasional vocal.
It’s technically defined as an alteration to an electrical sound during the transmission of a sound wave. Therefore, many other audio effects may be considered under the umbrella of distortion, though usually distortion refers to the classic buzz or fuzz noises.
Recommended Distortion Plugins
There are literally tons of distortion plugins out there, but there are a few that you can start with:
FabFilter is a name you see a lot, but there’s a reason for that. With this plugin, Saturn, we have a full distortion unit that will have a unit will provide everything from a cleaner sound to a totally destroyed, Trent Reznor style track. You will even get some saturation, making it one great all purpose harmonics effect plugin. One of the great things about this plugin is simply the bevy of presets that are available to play with, many of which categorically emulate real world distortion. Definitely a recommend.
For an extremely affordable all-purpose distortion, we recommend Ravage by Soundspot. This plugin has 6 different types alone including tube, digital, diode, rectify, zero sq and lin fold distortion types. You can pan the distortion within the plugin, and the output volume is synced with the gain control so that you won’t have to worry so much about overdoing it. This plugin is definitely worth a try for its minimal cost.
iZotope Trash 2
Although it may have a misleading name, Trash 2 by iZotope is certainly worth your time and offers pretty much all you could want out of a distortion plugin. Trash 2 offers 8 different distortion types and 2 separate distortion modules for you to plug and play with. iZotope has integrated a multi-band distortion, so you can easily set points throughout the mix you’d like to highlight, much like an EQ. In addition to distortion, there’s added delay and dynamic controls. It’s definitely more of an investment than Ravage, but if you plan on using distortion pretty regularly, Trash 2 is a great choice.
D16 Group Decimort2
If you’re a lofi producer, it’s essential for you to have a bit crusher plugin. Decimort2 by D16 Group can add a lot of character to instruments and vocals alike, and it’s a great way to create soft distortion to help your mixes stand out. In the classic D16 way, the plugin resembles a hardware mount. Decimort2 has 4 different filter types and notably over a 100 built-in presets. It’s light on your CPU and pretty affordable based on the amount of embedded presets alone. Although you probably won’t use this plugin on all of your mixes, it’s certainly worth having Decimort2 in your toolbox.
5. Pitch Modification Plugins
As you might have guessed, pitch modification plugins are used to alter the pitches in an audio signal.
Most of the time, these effects are applied to vocals and vocal busses but on occasion, they could, in theory, be used to correct the pitch of a guitar or other instrument that was recorded live; however, it’s always better to fix in the recording process rather than during production. Alternatively, producers have used these plugins to take a sample and create melodies from them.
Pitch plugins can also be used to “double” or “multiply” a sound, making it feel more full and oftentimes, warmer.
There’s also harmonizers that create artificial harmonies by warping the original audio signal.
a. The Pitch Shifter/Corrector
Pitch correction plugins are pretty self-explanatory…
These audio effects are primarily used to tune up vocals and vocal busses that are slightly out of key.
Usually, a pitch correction plugin will have a section that analyzes your input signal and auto-detects your key, though you can manually input the key into most plugins just incase the reading is off.
From there, you can smooth out the vocal, select how much of the vocal you want to be processed in relation to the dry signal, and choose how much power you want the plugin to work with.
Recommended Pitch Modification Plugins
Through the rise of the AutoTune by Antares plugin by artists T-pain and Cher, these plugins are used more and more often to create odd, quirky audio effects to run alongside someones’ vocal and occasionally on other live instruments.
AutoTune brought pitch correction plugins to the mainstream and for good reason- This plugin is known for setting the industry standard for vocal tuning.
Some pitch correction software is advanced enough to show you a visual representation of your raw signal and allows you to physically remove notes or unwanted noises from the spectrograph. A great example of this is the popular Melodyne by Celemony. Outside of its great pitch-correction, this plugin is known for professional-grade noise reduction and harmonization, even fixing intonation issues.
Devious Machines Pitch Monster
Pitch Monster has up to 64 voices, which is largely unprecedented in the world of pitch-shifting plugins. You can select up to 8 notes on the keyboard section of the interface to create a chord, or map your MIDI controller to the compatible plugin. The UI is very sleek and friendly, so you’ll be able to get the sound you want quickly.
Ultimately, pitch correction plugins should be used as a last resort or as a fine-tuning for finishing touches. Whenever possible, try to resolve pitch issues during the recording stages of the process.
b. The Harmonizer
Oftentimes, the difference between a harmonizer and a pitch shifter or corrector is that a pitch shifter will take a single signal and output to one signal, whereas a harmonizer will take one signal and convert it to multiple different pitches and waves. In other words…
A harmonizer is a type of pitch plugin that creates a harmony of 2 or more notes.
This can be done to vocals and vocal busses, but can also be used for more general uses in order to thicken or detune sounds.
What is harmony, and why may you need it in a plugin?
Harmony is technically defined as two or more different notes playing simultaneously, yet it is now more synonymous with certain patterns or families of notes.
For example, in Western music, the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of a major scale are often played in harmony with one another. This produces a major chord, which the ear accepts as an auditorily pleasing combination of notes.
… Not to get too much into music theory, but a harmonizer is able to replicate this process in real-time.
You can learn more about music theory as it relates to music production from these resources, or by searching YouTube for great music theory tutorials.
Recommended Harmonizer Plugins
Our two options:
Octavox by Eventide
One of our favorite harmonizers is Octavox by Eventide. With Octavox, you can use 8 different notes at once, which is perfect as most scales consist of 8 notes.
Usually, you wouldn’t play all notes at once, but you can use the extra voices to accentuate particularly tones. There’s panning for each individual voice. If you’re a theory buff, there’s a score toggle on the interface for you to place each individual voice.
However, if you’re not in theory, no worries, there’s also a drop-down menu for you to select different pitch-shifting options per voice so you can get everything you need to get done efficiently.
Quadravox by Eventide
Quadravox by Eventide has 4 different voices and is super easy to get up and running. For each voice, there’s separate panning, delay, and pitch modules. There’s a notation grid so that if you’re familiar with the theory side of music, you can quickly produce the chord you’re looking for.
However, there’s also a drop-down menu where you can simply select the desired processed note. Next to each note, there’s also a Hz reading which can inadvertently work as an extra learning tool. For rich harmonies at a relatively affordable price, Quadravox gets the job done.
Also, Celemony Melodyne, which we mentioned above, acts as a great harmonizer when you get into its more advance features.
c. The Doubler
Doubler plugins deal mainly with stereo imaging and vocals. These plugins are used to add depth to vocals, often creating an effect as if the vocal is sung from two separate points simultaneously.
A doubler analyzes the original input signal and creates copies and shifts them to slightly different frequencies, much like a harmonizer.
However, whereas a harmonizer will shift notes full half and whole steps, a doubler will shift the vocal by minuscule fractions of a semitone, otherwise known as “cents”. These cents are then shifted throughout the sonic landscape in order to create an effect that makes the overall vocal track seem larger.
Why would you need a doubler?
One of the engineer’s secret-sauce-weapon in the studio is vocal doubling. You can do it directly by asking your singer to sing over their own recording.
When you apply multiple takes of the same performance, and pan them hard right, left, and middle, you give the vocalist an immense presence in the mix, or otherwise a cool effect. This is usually done during choruses or emphatic moments of the music.
However, maybe you have only one recording to take care of. No worries, snap a doubler on it and now you have more than one vocal take!
Recommended Doubler Plugins
So which doubler should you get? Here are a couple options to try out:
VoxDoubler by Sonnox
One of our favorites is the VoxDoubler by Sonnox. This plugin is a very simplified doubler and widens the vocal by creating two duplicate mono signals and panning them left or right of the original vocal. You can edit the saturation or panning position of the signals by playing around with the “widen” knob.
Another great option with more flexibility is the Doubler by Waves. This doubler has 4 different voices, and you can manually input the cent alteration for each separate voice, as well as drag each voice where you’d like it in your sonic field. You can also alter the delay of each voice making the VST perfect for creating odd and quirky effects.
6. Modulation Effects Plugins
Modulation Effects Plugins constantly alter certain properties of an audio signal in different ways. Why? Well, to produce desired effects….
Ever heard of the audio effect of jet plane passing over head from sound from a synth? Well, that is the product, in part, of a modulation effects plugin.
A guitarist would often control his modulator with a pedal. But if you’re familiar with synth keyboards, I’m sure you’ve see a “mod wheel,” usually to the far left of the keys.
This control will “modulate” any desired parameter of sound – for instance, an EQ filter with a resonance peak (see filter plugins above).
For the producer however, a modulation effects plugin is usually a combination of modulators such as LFOs (low frequency oscillators), step sequencers, and standard envelopes.
Keep in mind, these effects are usually applied during the production stage instead of the mixing phase, as their effect is drastic and completely alters the character of the original signal.
However, for the engineer mixing a track, they can be effective in getting certain instruments to blend well with each other. This thanks to some modulation plugins being able to “comb out” frequencies that will otherwise interfere with each other.
a. The Chorus Plugin
A chorus effect occurs when individual tracks or sounds are played simultaneously at very similar pitches. It gives processed sounds a “shimmering” quality and makes it so the slightly altered pitches do not seem out of tune. The altered track is played with a slight delay, making the chorus very similar to the flanger effect.
Although chorus effects were originally created for the lead guitar, bass, and rhythm guitar, they are now used with more fluidity and added to vocal tracks and busses as well as other individual tracks.
It gets the name “chorus” from having similar effects to the sound of a choir in comparison to a raw vocal.
It’s somewhat of a harmonizer but on a smaller scale and a lower level of precision. The digital pitches of the raw signal are altered by an LFO, which can be toggled based on the desired intensity. Chorus can add depth and space to a mix, making it very useful during stereo imaging.
Recommended Chorus Plugins
As you can image, there are several good option out there for chorus plugins. Here’s two:
A great chorus plugin is MChorusMB by MeldaProduction which has 10 different voices to add atop of your original raw signal. There’s a 6-band shaper embedded in UI, so you can draw the exact curve at which your chorus attenuates the sound. There’s also built-in tub saturation and a bunch of other goodies for you to play around with.
D16 Group Syntorus
If you’re looking for a more analog feel, Syntorus by D16 Group has the boutique’s classic hardware appearance with a double delay line to create the chorus effect, instead of the standard single line as it appears in most digital processors. There’s a built-in tremolo effect and you can map your midi controller to this plugin for maximum control. This plugin is pretty affordable for all that it offers, so it’s definitely worth a try.
b. The Flanger
Coming off a similar principle to the chorus plugin, the flanger effect is created by mixing two copies of the same audio signal with one of the signals playing at a delay usually less than 20 milliseconds.
However, a flanger is different from a chorus effect in that it has shorter delay times.
Some engineers describe the effect of a flanger as whooshing or sweeping sound. But the flanger does not add altered pitches unlike chorus.
The name comes from the technical use of the effect on hardware. In the 60s, an engineer would press the rim of the tape deck (the “flange”) to slow the output slightly and play it simultaneously with the original tape.
Flangers were originally used on guitar tracks, but now they’re used on anything from individual instruments to vocals. You’ll typically find depth and rate toggles on a flanger plugin.
Recommended Flanger Plugins
If you’re in the market for a flanger plugin, take a look at these three options:
Eventide Instant Flanger MK 2
One of our favorites is the Instant Flanger MK 2 by Eventide. This plugin is pretty affordable for all that it offers from a well-trusted brand. The flanger has the standard depth and rate toggles, along with an oscillator attenuator and envelope follower. It has the classic hardware rack appearance and you can save your own presets for easy use.
denise Space Invader
denise plugins always have some sort of fun flair to them, and Space Invader hits that description to a T. Space Invader is essentially a flanger with a couple of added bells and whistles. There’s an “analog flutter” feature to widen your flanger and give your processed sound a wide 60s feel. You can also tempo sync this plugin to your sound and retrigger the effect until you get a sound that fits your needs. The UI is pretty clean and aesthetically pleasing and this little tool will definitely add a little extra sparkle to your sound design.
D16 Group Antresol Flanger
Another great option is the D16 Group Antresol Flanger. It has two different processing modes, so you can alter from left to right or mono to stereo. There are 3 different LFOs for extra power, and you have integrated MIDI mapping for ease of use.
c. The Phaser
A phaser is an effect that causes the original audio signal to sound high and low over time, giving the sound a feeling of movement.
When you hear a phaser, your ears will hear the signal as if it is coming closer to you and then moving further away.
As you know, sound is made up of waves that oscillate over time. Changing the position of these frequencies alters or attenuates the position of sound frequency’s peaks and valleys, thus altering the sounds volume (it’s the same principle found in phase cancellation). Combined with an LFO, phasers create their signature sweeping effect – often times, it has a way of making a natural sound appear “synthesized.”
Usually what a phaser does is take two duplicates of a signal and runs them parallel to one another. One signal is processed with filters, while the other one is filtered heavily. The juxtaposition of the two sounds makes for a synthesized sound, highly reminiscent of popular 80s guitar tracks.
Recommended Phaser Plugins
There quite a number of phasers to choose from, but here are our favorites:
Eventide Instant Phaser MK2
A great phaser to start with is the Instant Phaser MK2 by Eventide. This phaser has separate sections of the UI dedicated to the envelope and oscillator making it very user-friendly. Moreover, there’s built-in sidechain to spice up your tracks.
Soundtoys PhaseMistress is another crowd pleaser. It’s model on that classic analog circuitry, with LFO that syncs to MIDI, tap tempo, or BPM. There are lots of controls on this thing so you’ll definitely have fun work with it.
On the other hand, if you want to do the opposite, and looking to get rid of phasing while recording, pick up MAutoAlign by MeldaProduction. This handy plugin will automatically analyze the delays of the microphones in your interface so you can be sure you’re not unintentionally creating phasing in your mix.
If you’d like to see our full list of phase plugins, check our handy phaser plugin guide here.
Though you see phaser commonly used on the guitar, the effect has branched out and is used on anything from synths and pads to vocals. Sometimes phasing is unwanted when recording on two separate microphones for instance, but with proper microphone placement and sometimes additional software this can be eradicated.
iii. General & Helpful Mixing Tips to Keep in Mind
Now that you know exactly what each plugin does and some of our starter recommendations, here are some important tips to keep in mind while mixing!
Balance your sound, don’t crank it
Beginner mixers have the tendency to turn up the volume of individual tracks way too high. If you can’t hear a particular sound in your mix, focus on lowering whatever sound may be in your way.
Not only will this give you a smoother track after the mastering process, but it will also help you balance out your levels in a much more productive way. There are a ton of tutorials online regarding the general volume levels while mixing tracks (For example, a kick drum usually rests right around -10dB), which can be extremely helpful and give you a starting point to work off of.
You can also try reaching out to your local studio proposing to sit in on a session or two. Careful observation can help you learn a lot more than you would expect. Be careful about your levels, and focus on lowering amplitude rather than raising it in most cases.
Be consistent, but give your mix time
As a beginner, it is difficult to stay engaged with the mixing and production process as there is such a steep learning curve, but don’t be discouraged! If you stick it out, you’ll be proud of how far you’ve come in such a short period of time.
Be consistent and practice your production and mixing skills regularly, but also make sure you give your mix time to marinate. Coming back to a mix after a couple of days can often introduce a whole other perspective within yourself that you didn’t know was there about the song. Be sure to test your mix out on different speakers to make sure it performs consistently.
Finding this difficult balance is easier said than done, but it will pay off in the long run if you’re focusing on it from the beginning.
Use reference tracks
Not only important for beginners, but even seasoned pros rely on reference tracks.
Reference tracks are important for any project, but especially for beginners. By having a track you admire readily available to refer to, you’ll start to see exactly where you need to improve. Ear training is one of the most difficult parts of the process, and this will only expedite that journey.
Don’t drown your mix
It’s tempting to drown your mix in all of your ultra-sleek newly acquired effects… but resist the urge. Too much of anything is a bad thing, and the most talented mixers know that simplicity with a touch of sparkle makes for the most impressive results.
Always add effects deliberately, everything in your track should have a purpose. Be lean and mean whenever possible.
There’s no substitute for experience
As much as I’d like to believe that a new plugin bundle will magically make me Jack Antonoff or Grimes, that’s not going to happen.
The best way to learn is by painstaking trial and error, consistency and passion over a long period of time. Learning all the less exciting technical aspects of mixing may not be the most riveting, but it’s essential to your growth.
Know that your hard work will eventually pay off, as long as you continue to commit to it.
And there you have it! Our comprehensive mixing plugin guide. Hopefully, you found this helpful and feel armed with the information you need to get in the studio.
What motivates you to create? How has mixing improved your tracks? We’d love to hear all about it in the comments below!
50 Best Mixing Plugins
For ease of reference, here are the best mixing plugins we recommend you should have:
- FabFilter Pro-C
- Waves PuigChild
- FabFilter Pro-L
- Waves L1 Ultramaximizer
- PSP Audioware Xenon
- TDR Limiter 6 by Tokyo Dawn Records
- Gatekeeper by Polyverse
- Sonnox Oxford Drum Gate
- Waves DeEsser
- FabFilter Pro-DS
- ERA 4 De-Esser
- Waves Abbey Road Reverb Plates
- WA Production Mutant Reverb
- Waves H-Reverb Hybrid Reverb
- Audiority XenoVerb
- Eventide SP2016 Reverb
- Waves H-Delay Hybrid Delay
- Waves J37 Tape
- WA Production Mutant Delay
- Creative Intent Remnant
- FabFilter Pro-Q
- Waves PuigTec EQ
- Waves F6
- Soundtoys FilterFreak
- Cable Guys FilterShaper
- Audio Damage Filterstation2
- Kuassa Efektor WF3607
- RC-20 Retro Color by XLN audio
- Bad Tape by denise
- Softube Tape
- FabFilter Saturn
- Soundspot Ravage
- iZotope Trash 2
- D16 Group Decimort2
- Antares AutoTune
- Celemony Melodyne
- Devious Machines Pitch Monster
- Octavox by Eventide
- Quadravox by Eventide
- VoxDoubler by Sonnox
- Waves Doubler
- MeldaProduction MChorusMB
- D16 Group Syntorus
- Eventide Instant Flanger MK 2
- denise Space Invader
- D16 Group Antresol Flanger
- Eventide Instant Phaser MK2
- Sountoys PhaseMistress
- MeldaProduction MAutoAlign