I have occasionally written blog posts on my favourite software tools, working out to be every 4 years or so. It is now 4 years since my last one so it seems a good time to revisit the best audio plugins and software tools currently available.
I have recently been focussing much more on mixing and mastering. Reflecting my increased interest in this, and the progress made by software makers in coding ‘analogue’ behaviour into their plugins, the list will lean heavily towards EQ, compression and pre-amp emulation. Let’s begin.
Acustica Audio – ALL
I finally replaced my 12 year old Mac Pro this year which means that certain new vistas have opened up. One of these is the world of Acustica Audio’s convolution-based hardware emulation plugins. They have always been very demanding on the CPU due to the vast amount of computations necessary, but the trade-off is a truly beautiful sound quality. It is easy to imagine that because they have fancy graphic renderings that maybe they lack in the audio department, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The EQs in particular have that certain ‘something’ that makes you feel like you’re using hardware, but the compressors too breathe in a way that is more ‘real’ than most software. Particular favourites are the ‘Ultramarine’ Fairchild and tube EQ emulation, and the ‘Ivory’ mastering EQ and compressor, but there’s something for everyone if you have the computer to handle it. 30 day demos are available for most things.
Pulsar – Mu
Another fine graphical rendering backed up by a classy sonic character, this is an emulation of Manley Labs’ pricey Vari Mu compressor limiter, and it sounds fantastic. In line with the uses of the original hardware, this is gold on buses and mixes in particular, creating solidity and cohesion without sacrificing transients. In this respect, I’ve not used a software compressor that can compete, and at about 1/25th of the cost of the hardware it represents great value.
Klanghelm – MJUC
The MJUC represents one of the great bargains of audio software, and if you are on a budget, this is the one. It is an emulation of 3 different tube compressors of different generations, from the 50s Fairchild to the 60s UA 176, to the modern Vari-Mu, and it does it all in a musical and incredibly flexible way. I find it especially useful as a tone shaper due to its drive and timbre controls, and this takes it beyond just the world of practical level control. €24 makes it a no brainer deal.
Kush Audio – ALL
I know about Kush hardware from friends with fine studios, but I hadn’t realised until recently that Kush had emulated nearly their entire range in software, as well as some unique processors that don’t exist as physical realities. Not only that, but they operate a subscription model where you can use all of them for $10 a month. Bargain. Greg Scott is the guy responsible and if you check out his ‘House of Kush’ Youtube channel you’ll get some idea of his highly musical approach to music gear, both hardware and software. This is the most musical of all software as far as I’m concerned, and it has a magic touch that is hard to describe. I am hooked on the AR-1 vintage compressor and the Clariphonic parallel EQ and am waiting for some of the others to be updated for Logic 10.5 and Catalina. Really really beautiful sounding software.
T-racks – Master EQ 432
While we’re on the subject of ‘musical’ software, I think T-racks is the other brand that embodies this approach. I find all of their software has a highly musical quality, and this emulation of the Sontec MES-432 mastering EQ is the epitome of that. The original EQ is at least £8000 if you can find it second hand so you may as well make your peace with the software. Although it really doesn’t feel like a sacrifice to settle for this EQ as it is truly incredible sounding. I keep it on my master bus for the final polish and at no time does it ever not improve things. Unlike the hardware it has an increased range of operation on all bands so you can use the same EQ curves in exaggerated fashion if necessary. Subtle, smooth and musical to the max.
Fabfilter – Pro Q 3
This EQ features in just about every “Top 10 EQs” – type list. The reason being that it is so incredibly flexible, so elegantly designed and always sounding smooth and controlled. For me the most-used feature is the automatic sidechain, where any channel that has the ProQ on it automatically shows up as a sidechain option in any other instance of the plugin, along with its audio spectrum. So you can instantly compare the spectrums of 2 tracks, and even add dynamic EQ to them as well. It’s a massive time-saver and a great workhorse EQ.
Tone Projects – Unisum
A perfect example of how modern software development has started to supersede the power of hardware, even in the most demanding situations. In the audio world, the mastering process probably has the most demanding clients and this compressor has impressed many more discerning ears than my feeble face-framers. It sounds incredible, capable of true subtlety combined with warmth when needed and ultimate tweakability.
Valhalla DSP – Supermassive
Yer man Sean Costello of Valhalla DSP clearly has principles, as this is yet another example of him offering world class software for small beans, or in this case, no beans. It is a reverb and delay processor aimed at the epic, and excels at eternal loops and vast washes of sound. I have found it an inspiring place to start in music creation, partly because its scale makes it dominate but also because it can trigger magic looping ideas from the tiniest starting points. A beautiful freebie.
Kazrog – True Iron
Now to the super subtle, this processor emulates the distortion in the transformer circuits of various classic audio gear, those hard-to-pin-down sonic characteristics which have often proved hard to emulate in software but which are so important to the hardware. You can crank it to create real destruction but it is at its best adding a certain 3D edge to sounds, especially in combination with other instances on other channels, forming a more aurally pleasing overall sound. ‘Analogue’ without being over the top.
Another plugin that sits in nearly every top 10 EQ list, and with good reason. It’s one of the new generation of devices that uses complex algorithms to solve problems that have dogged audio engineers forever, and it works almost invisibly. It’s probably best described as an automatic dynamic EQ, acting like a super flexible de-esser. There are a couple of physical modelling instruments I use that create very sharp resonances at frequencies which shift with every new note. Soothe automatically tracks the resonances and reduces them, where previously I’d have to compromise by using a whole range of notch filters that would alter the sound considerably. Again it’s a huge timesaver that also sounds much better than the previous solution.
Relab – Sonig Rev-A
Relab make outstanding reverbs, including the stunning Goldplate collaboration with Kush Audio and the full Lexicon 480L in software. Sonig Rev-A is their attempt to make a supremely flexible and approachable reverb for creating realistic ambiences of very high quality. And that is exactly what it achieves. It has a huge range of character options but with a stripped down range of interface elements to make dialling in the right sound as easy as possible. So usable and never less than outstanding. Alongside Valhalla DSP and a convolution reverb, this is all I really need.
TDR Kotelnikov GE
Another one of those incredible bargains to be found amongst smaller developers, whose focus is technical brilliance rather than marketing chutzpah or graphic design elegance (not that there is anything wrong with its unfussy interface). The Kotelnikov is a compressor aimed at mastering and bus compression tasks, and it excels at control with minimal character, unless wanted. The free version is just as outstanding but the GE has a multitude of clever tricks and subtleties available which take it into uniquely digital territories, much like the aforementioned Unisum. If you want to understand what it does then I refer you to Holger Lagerfeldt’s incredibly clear guide to its use, and every facet of compression in fact.
Plugin Alliance AMEK EQ 200
I use a fair number of Plugin Alliance plugins on a regular basis, especially the SSL 4000G channel strip, but for me this has been the most useful addition to their great value all-in-one bundle subscription. Inspired by classic GML and Sontec mastering EQs, it has a great musical character, and a huge range of valuable practical additions not available in hardware, such as the ability to solo bands as you work on them, added width controls, and the emulation of different channels as if it was one of many on an actual desk. The bands are also very flexible, with large overlapping ranges, which makes this a practical workhorse EQ going far beyond what the original hardware inspirations were capable of. It’s pricey at its full cost but PA has a large number of big discount sales and the aforementioned subscription options that bring it within the reach of most.
SSL Native Drumstrip
SSL wrote the book on modern mixing and their software emulates all of their most well-known hardware, from the ubiquitous G Bus compressor to the full SSL channel strip. The Drumstrip features everything you need to treat your various drum channels or drum bus, handling transients, low frequency and high frequency presence, gating and the Listen Mic character compressor. Everything sounds tight and accurate and straight to the point. Everything that SSL is known for.