It’s been 5 years since I posted my Top Ten Tools. It’s been the most popular page on my site in that time so I thought I’d do it again, outlining the creative tools which have been of most use and inspiration in that half decade. Again, I’ve focussed on software as that is still the main focus of my studio, and the hardware side I’ve put up on the Studio page for those interested in such things. So, in no particular order:
1. Madrona Labs – Kaivo
Kaivo is Madrona’s second synth and is all about physical modelling, covering sound generators such as strings, chimes and springs and modelled acoustic bodies such as metal plate, frame drum and wooden box. It has an ultra-weird LFO that can provide shapes such as ‘Knight’ (like the chess piece’s movements) and ‘Rain’, as well as the most full-featured noise generator of any synth I know of. Not only that, but it also has a granulator as input device, capable of loading your own samples in to provide texture or even more classic oscillator waveforms. Like Aalto, it can also operate using scala alternate tunings which is increasingly important to how I write. A wonderful instrument.
2. Soundtoys – Primal Tap
Soundtoys make really outstanding effects, full of character and warmth, and this is their latest. It roughly emulates a 1970s Lexicon digital delay called the Prime Time, and as such excels at crusty digital downgrading. A digital delay doesn’t sound exciting but it’s this colouration of the audio that makes it endlessly useful as a general processor, simulating the effect of halving the audio quality as you double the sample length. It also has a freeze function for capturing incoming audio and a gritty overdrive on the input for added flavour.
3. Spectrasonics – Omnisphere II
I’ve been familiar with Spectrasonics since their earliest days, as probably the most ubiquitous creators of sample CDs, beloved of film and TV scorers everywhere. The quality was always exceptional, and they went to great lengths to capture genuine performances from musicians, as well as exploring the more esoteric end of sound design. More recently I’d come to associate them with “in the box solutions” such as Stylus, where all the fun stuff was done on your behalf, and I’d loosely shoved Omnisphere into that same corner of my brain which says “not for you”. However I was wrong, again. It is the single greatest source of original sounds there is. There is the huge library of presets of course (many of which are very beautiful, especially the modified acoustic sources), but the main attraction is the vast selection of raw sources, taken from everything from classic synths to the sound of a man scraping his knee with a chisel. It is one of my go-to options for sounds of texture and originality.
4. Valhalla – Reverbs
The one effect that every producer needs is reverb, to provide space and distance, and to seduce the brain into liking music more. And there are a huge range of reverbs out there satisfying the demand for endless variety, from old school emulations of analogue gear to accurate snapshots of real spaces. And many are excellent. However I can confidently assert that Valhalla have it in the bag, and all of their reverbs are truly exceptional, very user friendly and incredible value for money. The GUIs are clean and direct, so it takes no time to dial in the sound you want, and that sound is always ‘right’. They also cost just $50 each. I’m sure many people buy emulations simply based on how they look, so if you can sacrifice the pretty picture, these come highly recommended.
5. Xils Lab – Xils V+
The Roland VP-330 was a vocoder and synth, especially focussed on lush strings and human voice synthesis. This Xils emulation really is incredibly warm and rich, and a go-to for sounds of that kind. The effects are excellent,as always with Xils, the ensemble and stereo enhancer in particular adding even more to the presence of the sound, and the arpeggiator finishes the run of useful musical features. Like any good instrument, it is not so much about the features as it is about its character, and it just has loads of it. Not for everyone maybe but a cracker none the less.
6. VladG & Tokyo Dawn – Limiter No6, Nova EQ & Molot Compressor
Vlad G makes really great software, including the Limiter No6, Nova EQ and Molot compressor. All are incredibly rich in features and sound as good as nearly anything else out there, and all that for no money. Tokyo Dawn have also taken some of these designs and slickened them up with clean interfaces, and provided paid versions with added features. The limiter in particular has 6 stages of various types of limiting, so will probably mainly appeal for mastering applications, but for that purpose it is unrivalled.
7. Tronsonic – System1000m
This thing is banging. It is as good an analogue synth emulation as anything else out there, being based on sampled waveforms from the original synth and coded for Kontakt in the most complete way imaginable. Whilst you very quickly forget that you are using Kontakt at all, you also have access to Kontakt’s additional scripts if necessary so you can add additional esoteric functions of your own. The other thing which makes it stand apart is the randomise button – instant wonky inspiration.
8. Brainworx – BX Console
Last time I did a list of my favourite software, the analogue emulations were starting to get genuinely close to the character of real equipment, but when pushed often started to show their digital roots. UAD made great sounding plugins even then, but these days it isn’t necessary to own a DSP card to run the best software, and the BX Console is a good example. Basically this thing sounds as good as anything else out there, being modelled on every channel of a 72 channel Neve desk and providing EQ, compression, gating, expansion and limiting. The thing which sets it apart is the way each instance can be made to sound very slightly different, by modelling a different channel of the desk, and thus providing the accumulative effect of a true analogue mixing desk. The effect is subtle, but totally unmistakeable: a 3 dimensional sheen and a removal of any sense of digital brittleness. Being able to alter multiple settings in real time still gives hardware an edge, but sonically it’s all but impossible to tell.
9. Spitfire Audio – Strings
I’ve always used a lot of orchestral sample libraries and they all have their own merits, depending on the application. But since Spitfire appeared on the scene, these are the orchestral samples I generally reach for. The musicality of the playing, and the genius of the scripting makes these libraries as close to the sound of orchestral instruments as it is possible to get in software, and I have demoed or owned most libraries out there. You generally get 4 or more mic types to choose from, including room mics and each providing slightly varying sonics, as well as the ubiquitous round robins to prevent machine-gun repeats of samples. Very inspirational.
10-1. Arturia – Farfisa V
The Arturia V Collection has been around a fair while now, increasing in scale and scope with each iteration, and now encompassing 16 of the world’s best software instruments. And they really are amongst the very best. I’ve only just got the new version, which includes the Oberheim Matrix 12, Synclavier, Oberheim SEM, Yamaha CS80, ARP 2600 and a whole host more. But so far the instrument I’ve been most inspired by has been the Farfisa V, based on a portable organ from the 60s, beloved of various bands of the psychedelic scene, amongst others. When you have a collection of some of the world’s greatest synthesisers, it’s surprising even to me that the one I’ve found most inspiring is this small organ, but it just has the most incredible tone. Again, simplicity is the key to its appeal, and the quintet of effects pedals that Arturia have included with it compliment it perfectly. The other major bonus for me is the ability to tune the individual notes of the scale, via MIDI if necessary, to provide microtonal tunings. A round of applause to all involved.
10-2. AAS – Chromaphone 2
Physical modelling has increasingly become the flavour of the month, and has always been a particular favourite of mine ever since owning a Nord Modular many years ago. Things have come a long way since then in terms of software, and the Chromaphone represents something of the cutting edge of physical modelling. The main innovation in software is the interaction of the 2 separate physical modelling sections, in which a model of a pipe, for example, interacts with the model of a drum head, thus providing a superior model of a drum skin over a pipe. Nearly every facet can be tweaked and yet the interface is benign and approachable, which is always such an important factor in making you want to use an instrument. It excels at straight stuff like marimbas and log drums, and is even better at otherworldly percussion which doesn’t exist.