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.

Oeksound Soothe


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.

I am, like most other people, becoming slightly disillusioned with lists. Everything now seems to be broken down into comfortable bite-sized chunks so we can easily scan through the detritus and come up with the gold, but of course many of us are looking in the same places for advice on where to find the cultural treasure. This list is no different, and most things on it could hardly be described as having been mined from the underground, but hopefully it will lead people in a few interesting directions. I’ll probably add to it as I remember things too.

Inspiration in 2014


under the skin

Under The Skin – Jonathan Glazer -This undisputedly future classic was my favourite film of the year by a mile. Creatively inspiring and visually unsettling in equal measure, for me this sets the benchmark for modern horror films. The fact that it features real life in Glasgow is an added bonus.


The old ways

The Old Ways – Robert Macfarlane – Not a new book but my favourite read of the year. It captures the lure of the wild and the history of humanity’s interaction with it, the intersections of religion, trade and nature. And it’s beautifully written.



Sonno – Alessandro Cortini – Beautiful spacious music. To quote the press release: “‘Sonno’ was recorded in hotel rooms, using a Roland MC 202 through a delay pedal, recorded direct, sometimes into a small portable speaker system”. Simplicity.



Noyzelab Aphex Twin Interview – Dave Noyze – The Syro album came with a glut of new Aphex interviews and press coverage, but this is something different. Essentially a rambling email conversation between two friends, Aphex covers a tonne of bases and talks about anything that interests him, largely to do with music-making and synths. What comes across really is just the sheer enthusiasm for creative processes and thought, rather than the usual more self-conscious and press-savvy persona. The article is technical, personal, deep and very inspiring. It was taken down shortly after, in typical Aphex fashion, but you’ll be able to get it through Google cache.



Anna Meredith – A new discovery for me this year, and a great example of the breaking down of the boundaries between composition and electronic music, orchestral instruments and machines. There were two electronic EPs over the last 2 years and a fair amount of composition, and it’s all pretty free in terms of its direction and influences, with maybe the 80s being the most obvious marker. Check out the ‘HandsFree’ composition for the Proms, pleasingly un-stuffy considering the venue and brilliantly imaginative.


Mr Turner

Mr Turner – Mike Leigh – Was totally blown away by Mr Turner. It’s the combined work of hundreds of people, working at their highest pitch, that creates a film as good as this. It is as close as it is possible to get to walking into the past. Timothy Spall is outstanding, the direction is unfussy and classic, the score is excellent. Great film.



Advanced Yoga Practices – Easy Lessons For Ecstatic Living – Yogani – Not a new book, even to me, but I’ve included it in my list due to its ongoing importance to my creative life. Encompassing the whole of yoga (including meditation, breathing techniques, mental practise), this is the ultimate aid in leading a happier, more artistic life. It takes discipline of course, but the point is that it follows a system that anyone can follow, and that it works. I imagine it will take me a decade to work my way through everything in the book, and there is another volume after that, but it can be taken at whatever pace suits and even the first two practices in the book will make vast changes over the long term. For anyone who has been tempted by TM, this is almost identical but without any of the culty money-soaking restrictions in learning.



Lindell Plugins – I bought relatively little software this year, probably because I have most of what I need already and unless something is providing something new I can probably live without it. One area however where computers are still improving rapidly is in providing ever more analogue-sounding solutions. For me the Lindell plugins are another jump down the road towards plugins that sound like hardware. The 6X-500 pre-amp has a musicality that is lacking in all my other software, with the possible exception of the Soundtoys plugs, and at $100 each they are great value. The EQ and compressor are also excellent and probably only the UAD plugs can match them. My UAD no longer works though thanks to UA and Apple’s ludicrous upgrade program so it’s all about the native stuff from now on.


Feeling Romantic Feeling Tropical Feeling Ill – Micachu – Another high point in Mica Levi’s year, this is a cassette release for Demdike Stare’s excellent label that luckily comes with a download version. There are hints of the Under the Skin score here and there and a wealth of other sonic experiments all melded into a rambling ambient mood-piece. It works on the level of stream of consciousness, constantly engaging your mind with new ideas and new timbres. Highly creative and pretty esoteric.



Braids, Grids, Elements – Mutable Instruments – My wee modular synth is the greatest gift to creativity this year, and although every johnny and his dog has one, the beauty of them is that they reward hard work, and that no two are exactly alike. Mutable Instruments make modules that just seem to fit with my way of thinking. They are dextrous and flexible, but simplified in their operation so that every element counts; the essence of good design. Braids is my only oscillator but can produce a staggering array of tones, and a wild array of control signals too, whilst the upcoming Elements module fits exactly with my personal taste in physical modelling. The company also has a great open-source ethos and brilliant customer support.



Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes – Thom Yorke Of all the hype albums this year, most have left me cold or underwhelmed, the focus on novelty over musicality now having reached an apparent high-point. Some of it has been technically and texturally fascinating, and some certainly breaking new ground, but all of it has lacked the ability to hold the attention. Thom Yorke’s album got a pretty mixed reception, presumably because it just seemed too simple for today’s demanding hacks, but it is its simplicity which is its strength. Straight songs, some beautiful chords. I really don’t need much more.



Kaivo – Madrona Labs – I made no secret of my love for Madrona’s Aalto. It pretty much formed the sonic background of all my material last year, including the Wraetlic album, and re-inspired me after a long period of ill-health. Kaivo is the follow up and occupies totally different sonic territory, covering physical modelling and granular synthesis, and doing so in a way unlike any other software synth. It has maintained the uncluttered interface style of Aalto that encourages experimentation and makes it such a pleasure to use, and also offers microtonal scales unlike most other synths. There is a new Madrona synth out this year and it promises to be just as ground-breaking. Great software.


Hidden In Plain Sight – Andrew Thomas – I like a bit of physics, and have read a fair bit over the last few years, some bafflingly complex and some refreshingly straightforward. I do better with the straightforward stuff. Anything which addresses humanity and human consciousness’ place in the universe is infinitely fascinating, and understanding just how bizarre and limitless our universe really is puts all those dogmas in perspective. This book comes from humble roots, being written by a physicist better known for his website (www.whatisreality.co.uk) than his Nobel-winning papers, but it elucidates something that has wrapped many physicists in knots for decades. Namely, why and how the two largest areas of physical theory are mutually exclusive in their areas of description. Quantum physics covers the tiny, relativity covers the massive and both are useless at describing the other. This book simply posits a theory as to why that is and how both theories are connected, and what that tells us about existence, and I found it entirely convincing. A great addition to any concept of existence.


Jodo DUne

Jodorowsky’s Dune – Frank Pavich – Like all the best documentaries, it isn’t just that the story grips you, but that the themes are inspiring or moving on a deeper level. There is no doubt that Jodorowsky’s film of ‘Dune’ would have been amazing, but it is the sheer creative audacity and energy of the man that is most inspiring. There are always lessons to be learnt from older, wiser, more mental practitioners, and Jodorowsky is one of the great originals.


What DO ARtiists

What Do Artists Do All Day – BBC – My favourite TV series for a few years now, it follows a single well known artist over the course of a few days, usually leading up to a particular exhibition or show. It really is the most inspiring thing in the world just to watch artists go about their business and create. All the methods, all the approaches, all the attitudes are so different but all lead in the same direction: the need to create something meaningful. From comic art to taxidermy to photography, the full spectrum of art is represented.


mica levi

Under The Skin – Mica Levi – Absolutely perfect this score. Reinforcing the off-kilter oddness of the film, but also softening it where necessary, it is refreshing to see filmmakers using left field musical options rather than just yet another dull-as-fuck straight-from-orchestral-sample-library copy-paste bore-score with added taiko drums. Favourite album of the year on its own too.



A Field In England – Ben Wheatley – Frankly mental film about English Civil War soldiers being used by an alchemist to find treasure whilst out of their minds on magic mushrooms. The kind of film you just have to let absorb your attention and roll with, to sink on to its own plane, and not ask too many questions of. Beautifully shot in black and white and ending with one of the best trip sequences ever put to film, it bursts with creative endeavour. Oh yeah, and it also had several of the best film posters of the year.