While your DAW provides the canvas where you form your musical masterpieces, the plugins are the tools which allow your masterworks to take shape.
So in this article we’ll go over what are some of the essential types of plugins you’d need to pay attention to.
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If you’ve been producing for at least a little while, you’ll know that it can be overwhelming to decide on the right plugins to use.
It’s like a beginner carpenter looking at an expert toolshed. There are a plethora of tools available to you, but which one to use? And for what purpose?
The music production software world is saturated with software plugins. Every week there seems to be a new plugin or plugin update that offers some new or enhanced features. It can get overwhelming, either with excitement or confusion, when deciding on what plugins to use.
Does this mean that the plugins that you find in music production online stores are unnecessary? No, but you do need to understand what VST plugins are, and also very importantly, what it is you’re trying to achieve in your music in the first place. Then you can decide on what other plugins want to use in your music making and recording.
If you start from the simple basics, you’re sure to advance according to your needs.
The Essential Plugins You Should Use
If you don’t know what plugins to choose from, quite likely you will end up wasting a lot of money and hard drive space on trying out unnecessary plugin software.
It is best to stick the basics of what you need. From the basics, you should seek to achieve sonic mastery by becoming competent in the essential tools.
When you break it down, there are only a small portion of essential VST plugins that you need to handle the necessities of recording and editing any audio.
What are the essential plugins?
All the essential plugins you need will come in just four general categories:
- Virtual Instrument Plugins – also called VSTi
- Effects Plugins – sometimes referred to as Effects processors
- Dynamics Plugins – sometimes referred to as Dynamic processors
- Emulation Plugins
Of course, we’ll need to break it down and we’ll find that these two categories consist of subcategories. So let’s take a look at those.
Virtual Instrument Plugins
VSTi’s are plugins that emulate actual musical instruments. They come in a few different types:
- Drum Machines
What these plugins do is emulate the sounds of a real live instrument in your digital audio workstation. You can “play” these virtual instruments using a midi controller/instrument, or you can write the notes into your piano roll using your mouse.
A sampler takes samples of recorded sound and plays them back. These tend to require the largest amount of GB space in terms of size, simply because they require lots of audio files to be saved onto your system. These audio files are what will be retriggered for playback within your DAW, usually via MIDI controller.
A sample could be anything from a drum kick to a note on the piano. The high-quality ones record them at various “velocities” (soft or loud). Once you trigger a note within the VST from your MIDI controller or from your DAW’s piano roll, the sound sample will be reproduced.
A soft synth takes up far less space, but will use up more CPU power.
Softsynths are software synthesizers (hence the name) that work just like your analogue synthesizers, employing various methods of audio synthesis to produce digital audio.
With a synthesizer, you can construct and create new sounds. Practically any sound you like can come from a synthesizer, you’d just have to first learn how to use the various parameters of a synth. Once you do, a whole entire world of sound design will be open up to your fingers and ears, with limitless possibilities and potential.
A drum machine VSTi is just as the name suggests. It is a drum emulation software that creates looped beats and grooves. They are usually more often used in the electronic music genres, like house, but can be utilized in other styles of music as well.
The basic function of a drum machine is to create groove beats and rhythms that can be looped over and over. A good drum machine VST will give you good sounds to use, whether synthesized or sampled. It will have the ability to alter the effects of those sounds using EQ and other effects. You should also be able to create multiple loops that you can trigger to play at various points in your track.
We have just covered the first broad category of plugins. Now we will take a look at the second category, the type of plugins that don’t (usually) make any sounds of their own, but will go a long way to enhancing the sound of your virtual instruments and audio recordings.
Effects plugins are used to change or adjust the sound of the audio coming in and going out of your digital audio workstation.
Generally speaking, but not always, effects processors work in the “time domain,” meaning, they alter the way the sound is perceived or produced within time, to produce a desired effect.
They are essential plugins to have, if you want to get any satisfactory sound from your music. Examples of these are:
- Reverbs and Delays
- Flangers and Phasers
Reverbs and Delays
Reverbs and Delays adds an extra tail of sound to your audio. Reverbs are called upon to add more room and space to your sound, like the sound of singing or playing in a small room or a large theater. They can be very important for vocals, giving the singer presence in the mix. In the studio context, this usually means recording them “dry” and then using either a software or hardware reverb plugin to add the desired effect of space and room.
Some reverbs, like spring reverb plugins, act simply as an effect. They work by thickening a sound and providing more presence to drums, vocals, or guitars.
Delays are also called echoes because they produce an echoing feedback effect on a sound. Similar to reverb if you want to add space to your sounds.
Choruses double or multiplies your audio signals to make it seem as if there are multiple instruments or voices being played back. Also a good effect for adding presence when you use it right.
Most likely, the DAW that you’re using has all of these plugins already. In many DAWs like Studio One, Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Reason or Ableton, the plugins that come with the software would already be enough to use. Especially if you’re just starting out, but even after you’re an advanced DAW user, you can still rely on the plugins that come with your DAW.
Flangers and Phasers
Flangers and Phasers give audio an unusual “wah-wah” effect to your audio. These are usually effective in cutting out some frequencies and allowing the instrument to sit well in a large mix. But you can also use it for the effects they provide.
Dynamic VST Plugins
Dynamic plugins are dynamic processors that alter the amplitude of the audio signal to provide desired results. This means, the will either boost or cut parts of or whole frequency sections of an audio signal to change the way it sounds, or otherwise change the way the signal’s loudness is perceived.
Some examples of dynamic processors are:
- Equalizers (or EQ for short)
- Compressors and Limiters
EQs and Filters
Equalizers allow you to adjust the amplitude of specific or ranges of frequencies in your audio. That means, you can make the lower end (bass) louder or softer, narrow in on certain sounds you’d rather not hear, or boost, or reduce or increase very high sounds in your audio.
These plugins are essential when mixing vocals, or any other instruments, since they carve out spaces for each audio signal to occupy in a mix. That way, one’s fighting for space to be heard. You can find here some examples of professional third party EQs for vocals. Otherwise, the ones that came with your DAW should suffice if you’re just starting out.
Also, filters, another type of plugin, work like EQs, but they allow you to “filter out” entire ranges of frequencies. This can be a useful effect when combined with software automation within the DAW.
Compressors and Limiters
Compressors and limiters are essentially the same things. They both affect the perceived loudness of audio by reducing the volume of loud sounds in your music, or amplifying the quiet sounds. Doing this “compresses” the audio signal’s dynamic range to just a small difference between loudness and softness.
Limiters do the same things, except that it reduces the volume attack (transients) much faster, giving quieter sounds and frequencies the ability to amplify more, therefore increasing the perceived loudness.
There is also another kind of compressor called the “de-esser,” which is designed specifically for those frequencies where you have that “SSS” sound. This removes sibilance from vocals and also from instruments like hi-hats, guitar and bass slides.
Because we work on digital audio files, there’s a tendency for music purely mixed on a DAW to lose that the sort of character that a great sounding mix would normally have.
In this case, you reach for an emulation plugin that, like the name says, “emulates” the sound of analog hardware studio devices.
Some of these plugins come in the form of equalizer or delay/reverb plugins that we mentioned above. But if you can use a plugin to add the sort of warmth that recording on a tape machine would provide.
Though not entirely “essential,” to some, these plugins are a must have, especially when you get into mixing and mastering music.
A similar plugin is also the harmonic exciter. While not an emulator, both these hardware and software variants provide that brilliance often necessary in a dry digital mix.
How many plugins do you need?
The best advice is to start with the very basics of each plugin type. If you keep your choices down to the bare essentials, and learn to use these plugins well to do all the things you need for your production, mixes, and recordings, you’ll have an easier time with keeping yourself from “plugin overload”.
Does this mean that every other plugin you find on the internet is going to be useless? No, maybe even the opposite, because starting with the basics, you have a solid framework of what you’d like from a plugin, and what works for you and your music.
Here’s the thing, if you don’t even know how to use a basic plugin to its full potential, you’ll get lost in all the other features that come with more advanced plugins with all its fancy bells and whistles.
As you can see, these are just an essential set of VST plugins that you need to use. The plugins that were mentioned will be enough to do all that is required in your production or mix. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can move on to other advanced third-party stuff, or experiment with using a different type.
Naturally, each plugin comes with its own style and way of doing things, so you may find that you develop your own favourites over time.
In the end, continue to have fun. You can give yourself permission to play with your own plugins, and get some new plugins to try out. But as you do so, remember to keep things simple. There’is an acronym for that, actually: KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid.