The Essential Guide to Plug-in Effects

Plug-in effects are your best friends for all manner of music-production tasks – from composing to mastering. In our latest Essential Guide instalment, we cover both the history and the variety, and offer a three-page buying guide… Plug-in effects have become the most important tools in a modern producer’s studio setup. Not monitors, you say? […]

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Plug-in effects are your best friends for all manner of music-production tasks – from composing to mastering. In our latest Essential Guide instalment, we cover both the history and the variety, and offer a three-page buying guide…

plug-in effects

Plug-in effects have become the most important tools in a modern producer’s studio setup. Not monitors, you say? Or synths? What about microphones? Yes, all of those are very important, but the plug-in effect can do literally everything: from adding a gentle touch of reverb to your vocals to mastering a track; from helping to compose a tune to actually mixing one for you.

At every stage of the production process – and for a lot of applications outside of standard music production – there is a plug-in effect. Actually, there are hundreds of plug-in effects for every stage of music making, the sheer number of which we will deal with later. But first, a little history…

A soft touch

As with the virtual instruments before them, plug-in effects were developed to replace expensive hardware. There’s one theory that states that digital recording just wasn’t cutting it back in the early 1990s. This was because all of those expensive analogue pieces of outboard gear that were used for recording throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s were ditched in the 80s to ‘do’ digital recording instead.

The results were harsh and very, well, digital. Early plug-ins were made possible thanks to the increased speeds of computers, so the first thing developers tried to do was emulate the capabilities of the (then very expensive) hardware analogue synths and effects that had risen to prominence in studios over the previous decades.

Waves Audio lays claim to having produced the first plug-in effect with its 1992 release, the Q10 Paragraphic Equalizer. However, it wasn’t until later in that decade that Steinberg invented Virtual Studio Technology – the commonly used VST format. This enabled anyone to create plug-ins for the standard – and suddenly, everyone and his dog got involved.

Other plug-in formats emerged and today, we have VST hosts that include Steinberg’s Cubase, Propellerhead Reason, Ableton Live and FL Studio. The Audio Units format was developed by Apple to run on its desktop and, more recently, its iOS devices, but also works on Live on a Mac. (Avid Audio eXtension) was developed by Avid and is the latest plug-in format for Pro Tools; the older one being RTAS (Real Time AudioSuite). There are more, but this lot cover most of the popular DAW platforms we’ve listed below. So those are the formats, but what are the types of plug-in effect you can run on them?

Top plug-in DAW hosts

Ableton Live
Price €79 to €599

Runs VSTs and AUs and comes with a great selection, if a little similar in appearance.

Apple Logic Pro
Price £199

Runs AU plug-ins, but comes with a huge library of effects. Some are a little dated, but there’s plenty of third-party support.

Steinberg Cubase
Price £80 to £439

The daddy of the VST format which most developers program for, so is obviously open to third-party plug-in support – but comes with a fantastic bundled set, too.

Propellerhead Reason
Price £49 to £289

Runs its own effects and Rack Extensions for third-party effects, but now loads in VST-based effects.

Tracktion Waveform
Price $99 to $250

There are loads more DAWs (Reaper, Pro Tools, Studio One, etc) but Waveform comes packed with effects and supports VST and AU.

Well, just everything…

You name a production task and we’ll come up with an effect to help you out with it. But broadly speaking, there are effects for mixing and mastering; more creative and dramatic effects for sound design and composing; and utility effects that basically fill in the (massive) gaps that our rather arbitrary categories leave. Think of your mixing and mastering effects as being a bit more subtle in their approach and the creative and utility ones as being more about composing than producing – or frankly, just think of some of them as being completely out there!

And forgive us for being a bit flippant on the subject of plug-in types, but in order to cover the huge girth of the plug-in effect industry, we’ve had to come up with some categories to condense it down and get it across in two of these features. So with that in mind, this month, we’ll cover mixing and mastering plug-in effects and next time, we’ll look at the creative and utility effects.

How different DAWs deal with effects

1. Many DAWs are like Logic, where you decide which effects you’re using and place them on a specific track of the song. In Logic, you go into the Mixer tab and choose the track you want to add effects to.

2. Then select one of the empty Send spaces to choose your effect from a drop-down window. You can usually set up Return effects, whereby several tracks can send to the same effect and you adjust its amount per track.

3. Some DAWs, such as Tracktion (as shown), enable you to add a complete signal chain of effects directly onto the track within the Arrangement window, and easily change the order of the chain.

4. In Tracktion’s case, you drag the ‘+’ icon onto whatever track you wish to add effects to and a list of possible effects appears in a drop-down menu. Yes, we have far too many plug-in effects on our machine!

5. Reason is very flexible with its effects, in that you can see so much of what is going on. Drag an effect from your available options onto a track and you can even re-route audio by flipping it around.

6. Ableton Live has one of the best Return effect setups. So as well as being able to drag an effect per track, you can set up Returns to have the same effect for multiple tracks… and it’s so easy to do and then adjust levels.

My DAW already has effects!

You might think that any DAW you buy is packed to the rafters with enough plug-in effects and you’d be correct… for the most part. All of the DAWs listed here have enough bundled effects to certainly get you up and running with all aspects of production and, in certain instances, have more than enough for everyone up to a project-studio standard. But there are several reasons to add to your DAW’s collection of plug-in effects…

Firstly, some DAWs come with collections made up of several third-party effects that may be long in the tooth, having been around for years. We’ve seen a few of these of late and while they are very good, there are better plug-ins out there. The same could be said for the bundled effects produced by the companies themselves. Apple’s effects, for example, are good, but many have been around the block for donkey’s years now and many producers have used and abused them over a long period of time. Following on from this, do you really want the same toolset everyone else has?

Effects are just like instruments and can offer you a whole new perspective or sound others might not have. Besides, you can now pick up very well crafted plug-ins, produced by programmers who – let’s face it – have dedicated their businesses to producing maybe one staggering effect rather than a load of bundled average ones – for a very reasonable outlay (in some cases, just a few pounds). Talking of
a very reasonable outlay, what about absolutely no outlay?

Freeware effects

All types of plug-in effect, you will be very pleased to hear, can be downloaded free via our fantastic freeware community: a band of developers who give their software away because they’re jolly nice people, or using it to advertise their services or other paid-for plug-ins. For the following Buyer’s Guide, we’re concentrating on paid-for plug-ins and especially on ones we’ve reviewed – so we can give you a properly informed opinion on each one. This doesn’t mean that freeware effects are bad – although, with some, you do get what you pay for. We’ll have a proper Essential Guide to the best freeware plug-ins soon.

Anatomy of a multi-effect: options, options…

A) A multi-effect

This is simply a plug-in that has multiple features or uses. MeldaProduction’s MPhatik certainly comes packed full…

B) Dry/wet controls

It features several effects, but one control common to each is the Dry/Wet dial, which controls the level of the effect on your sound

C) Global controls

This particular multi-effect features Global controls which operate on the output of the modules to restore dynamics

D) Bypass

Most plug-in effects feature a Bypass button which lets you switch off the effect, allowing you to compare the wet and dry signals

E) Convolution reverb

As you can see, there are several presets to load in different room types, which will give you a varied reverb sound

F) Amp sim

This effect allows you to add a vintage or modern amplifier sound to your audio, and you can select different models

G) Widening

Some effects are dedicated to giving you a wider stereo image for your mix (although in this case, it’s tied to the reverb effect)

H) Compressor

This is used to even out a ‘wandering’ signal or to add punch by adjusting the speed at which a sound starts

Mixing and mastering effects

Next time around, we’ll get more creative – but this time, we’re looking at mixing-and-mastering effects. Reverb is the original and most common effect and helps you recreate the sound of a room or hall in your recordings, giving a more natural sound to a recorded ‘dry’ vocal, for example. Convolution reverbs are more detailed and often allow specific rooms to be modelled, so you can make your piano sound like it was recorded in an actual concert hall.

Delays give you repeats or echos which allow for complex and rhythmic melodies, basslines or beats to be created simply by adding repeats, usually automatically in sync with your tune’s tempo. Dynamic effects (including compressors, gates and limiters) allow you to even out tracks with too much volume variation, add more punch, or gate audio you don’t want. They do this by limiting the volume level that a track can get to, and increase punch by delivering faster attack times.

EQ effects are probably the most important in your arsenal, allowing you to change very specific frequency components in your mix, allowing you to increase the punch in your kick drum, for example, or boost the mid frequencies of a vocal to give it more presence in a mix. Along with compressors and limiters, EQs are very much used in the final mastering process (which we’ll cover in a future Essential Guide).

6 popular types of effects explained

1. Reverbs are one of the most widely used effects, simply because they make everything sound great. But you can easily overuse them. Convolution reverbs, such as Logic’s Space Designer, model specific rooms.

2. Simplistically, an EQ is the thing that gives you extra bass or treble – but during mixing, becomes your best friend, as you’ll use it to lift or cut instruments of a similar frequency away from one another so they’re heard.

3. On a simple level, delays just repeat notes or beats – but delay plug-ins let you define how the repeat happens, how often, and how it acts over time. Some even let you pan, filter and edit the repeat in complex ways.

4. Compressors can even out the volume of an uneven audio track. You set a threshold to stop the volume going above a certain level; and a ratio, to determine how much it reduces the volume if it goes above that threshold.

5. Emulations can be of any of the other effects here, but are often software models of vintage – and usually very expensive – hardware, at a fraction of the cost. Here’s Universal Audio’s emulation of the incredible 1176.

6. Emulations can also be of more general pieces of hardware, such as guitar amps and pedals. Here’s Logic’s Pedalboard, which contains an entire array of guitarist goodness.

Filters are like extreme EQs in some ways, allowing you to sweep through Hertz at the speed of sound to great effect. Emulation effects model either specific pieces of classic hardware (compressors, EQs and so on) or more general hardware, such as guitar amps. They enable you to easily add classic compression to your mix, or some distortion to your guitar recordings or samples. Classic preamps – which allow a recording to be warmed up or boosted – can also be emulated as plug-in effects and we’ve included a few in our Buyer’s Guide, too.

There’s more detail about some of the most popular mix effects above and again, we’ll have an Essential Guide to mixing soon which will give you more detail on how to use specific effects for specific tasks. But here, we’ve detailed the best mixing and mastering effects we’ve reviewed. There are so many, we’ve limited it to the last four years – but there’s an effect for every occasion. Next time, we’ll look at more creative, out-there and utility effects.

We look at some amazing creative and utility plug-ins in part 2

We round up the best budget, midrange and high end mixing and mastering plug-ins


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