Plug-in effects are important tools in your armoury and can also be used creatively in the compositional process. This month, we look at the best creative effects – plus some utility plug-ins that will help your mixes no end…
Last time, we detailed the history and importance of the plug-in effect in the world of music production. These common tools have become the glue that binds many processes in music making together and have gradually become essential to everything, from mixing to creative composition.
Plug-in effects run within DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) in a similar way to virtual instruments. You insert them on your instrument or audio tracks and open them up in the same way as a synth; and like those virtual recreations of classic gear, plug-in effects can also emulate old gear.
In fact, many of the early ones were developed to copy expensive analogue equipment again, just like virtual synths. However, now there’s a whole world of other effects available, from creative and compositional, to those that even do your mixing for you. Before we get into those, here’s a quick recap of what we covered last time…
In the mix
Your DAW probably comes bundled with a lot of free effects for music production: everything from reverbs that add a nice sheen to your sound, to compressors and EQs to help you take your final master up a level. In the first part of this Essential Guide, we looked at these so-called ‘mixing and mastering’ effects.
These are the effects that can be used, subtly, in both the mixing and mastering processes. As with many aspects of production, it’s this restrained approach that pays dividends – and most mix-and-master effects are designed for tweaks and light touches.
Other kinds of effects include those more creative processors and utility plug-ins that cover more day-to-day tasks, and it’s these two categories that we’re going to focus on this time around. Utility effects can offer quite ordinary – but essential – features like metering.
This helps you get a different visual representation of your music, perhaps allowing you to see how it’s acting over time within certain parts of the frequency range and therefore allowing you to make very precise EQ adjustments if you can see any anomalies. Another popular utility process is restoration, where a plug-in is used to repair or iron out any audio problems.
A vocal might be out of time with a video in a post production, or there might be audible glitches that need removing in either a track or a stereo mix.
A more recent and exciting trend in the area of utility effects is the reference plug-in. These offer several processes that enable to hear your music in different listening environments. They might allow you to compare your mix on different speaker setups, for example, all modelled within the software.
In this way, you can hear how your tunes would sound on different headphones or speakers, for example, or even on a car stereo. Some reference plug-ins also allow you to produce mixes for different online platforms, such as Spotify or iTunes.
Since each has a slightly different approach to compressing music, these plug-ins allow you to hear how your productions will sound on these platforms so you can compare mixes and produce different masters for each one.
Top 4 Freeware Utility Plug-ins
We’ve included all the effects plug-ins we’ve tested in our Buyer’s Guides. But there’s a world of freeware out there as well. Here’s a roundup of some of the best cost-free utility effects…
Mac, PC, VST/RTAS
A range-customisable vintage meter.
Blue Cat Audio FreqAnalyst
Mac, PC, VST/RTAS/AU
This spectrum analyser lets you get to the heart of your sound by allowing you to monitor its spectral content in real time.
Audio Vitamins Contra Free
Contra allows you to create presets that represent your favourite outboard gear and how it might be suitable for a particular sound.
An easy-to-use limiter that includes metering, look-ahead brick-wall limiting, and several onboard algorithms to provide transparent limiting.
When utilities get creative: 8 effects explained
1. One of the most common utility plug-ins is the meter which, on a simple level, lets you see your audio levels. In a more detailed way, as in this one, you can see the those levels across different frequency ranges.
2. An increasingly common utility is the reference plug-in – which either helps you master for different streaming services, or lets you hear your mix through different modelled options, such as headphones and speakers.
3. Pitch-correction plug-ins are utilities that do what they say on the tin and can alter incorrect pitch, or lock it to a certain key. However, this is where it gets interesting, as some pitch-correcting software has become creative…
4. Auto-Tune is probably the most famous ‘creative’ pitch-correction software, but Celemony’s Melodyne is also great for subtle (and not-so-subtle effects, as is zplane’s reTune, a real-time pitch-changing marvel.
5. Here’s another utility that has gone from simple taskmaster to something a little more creative. Stereo Width plug-ins help you get a more spacious mix and they used to do only that one job…
6. But now, plug-ins such as Cableguys’ PanShaper take stereo widths to new, er, heights, with exciting creative possibilities and all sorts of swirling action which can really add interest to tracks and even whole tunes.
7. Transient-shaping plug-ins have also become more common, more creative and really useful in a number of ways. They can control the envelope of a certain sound and help add attitude to beats, for example.
8. But effect plug-ins such as Eventide’s Physion (formerly known as Fission) have taken transient processing to a new creative level, while iZotope’s Neutron uses transient analysis to help improve your mixes.
Utility effects of days gone by might have included simple tuning plug-ins, but this is where it gets particularly interesting – it’s the area where utility effects cross over to become more creative – and one of the reasons we’re discussing both types together. When used and abused, some plug-ins can become more outlandish in their use. Auto-Tune, for example, started out as a simple way of keeping audio in tune, but now we hear it used as a vocal effect on lots of different current chart tracks.
There are other utility effects that can become more creative (and hopefully replace that Auto-Tune sound, as it’s become very overused). They’ve become excellent tools for more adventurous producers, and we list some of those on the previous page. Panning, for example, is a humble utility process, but plug-ins such as Cableguys’ PanShaper really take the whole process up a creative level.
Top 4 Freeware Mixing and Mastering Plug-ins
A selection of the best plug-in effects that you can download for free to help you achieve better mixes and masters…
A vintage-type compressor that’s very colourful, both in terms of its looks and the effect it will have on your sounds.
Blue Cat Audio Chorus 4
Blue Cat has a complete freeware bundle of effects that we recommend. Here’s its vintage-chorus module – it’s simple and effective.
Togu Audio Line TAL-Reverb-4
You’ll need a simple and effective reverb for your mixing, and they don’t come simpler than this. It’s great sounding and is really easy to use.
DDMF Colour EQ
A simple parametric EQ plug-in featuring five bands of EQ and Frequency, Gain, Q and Mix dials per band. A versatile studio tool and a great freebie.
So now we’ve touched upon some of these creative plug-ins, let’s run through some of the others on offer. Transient shaper plug-ins allow you to get to the heart of your sound for various purposes. The transient can determine the attacking characteristic of the sound and some transient shapers are particularly useful for changing the rhythmic nature of a sound.
Eventide’s Physion takes the transient approach up a notch by splitting the audio into its transient and tonal parts and processing each for some incredible results – a great example of how more intense and high-end processing can become more creative. iZotope’s Neutron uses some transient processing (plus a lot more black magic) to analyse a mix and suggest improvements to it. Yes, it does your mixing for you… Heavyocity’s Punish combines transient shaping with compression and a number of other effects, and puts it all behind one dial for a monster-sized result.
Other more creative effects include simulations of hardware such as guitar amps or rotary speakers (those Leslie cabinets that give you a superb swirling effect most used on organ-type sounds). The latest rotary effects have become incredibly versatile and can go way beyond what the original hardware offered when first used back in the 60s.
To round off our look at effects, we’ve included some of the more out-there effects that are supposed to be used with vocals or beats; or effects that morph between sounds and effect types.
Finally, when using plug-in effects of any type creatively, it’s always best to go off-road a little bit, so we included a tutorial on how to get even more creative with two of the freeware plug-ins that we’ve listed – Tritik Krush and Cableguys’ PanCake 2 – so you can have a go and see just what can happen when you push the boundaries of what these plug-ins are designed for. It’s all in the LFOs!
Top 8 Freeware Creative Effect Plug-ins
Finally, in our mini freeware roundups, we look at some of the more creative effects on offer out there, which you can download for nowt…
With plenty of presets and more being added, this plug-in sounds as good as it looks.
A bitcrusher with Drive and Krush dials, plus Frequency and Resonance filter controls. There’s a sync’able Modulation section, too.
A utility effect that crosses over to become more of a creative tool. PanCake is a lovely panner that enables you sync the effect to tempo.
Ohm Force Frohmage
A freeware filter that we wager you will love so much, you’ll overuse it. A great piece of software from a super company.
A1TriggerGate is a rhythmic-gate audio processor that can be used to emulate the popular effects heard in dubstep, house and almost all other electronic music.
Acon Digital Multiply
This is a phase-randomising chorus effect, so does a little more than your average chorus plug-in.
Atom is a filter with a focus on dynamic, tempo-synchronised modulation and is a great way to get rhythmic filtering into your music.
Camel Audio CamelCrusher
CamelCrusher is perfect for fattening up drums, vocals, synths and practically anything else you want to treat with it.
To buy or not to buy
Over the next few pages, we’ll list all of the utility and creative effects reviewed over the last few years. The roundup has all of the different types of effect that we listed above, including some pretty incredible reference plug-ins and some extraordinary transient shapers like iZotope’s Neutron.
We certainly hope we’ve included enough detail and options for you to understand how effects can impact and help with every stage of your production process – whether it’s simply sorting out your presets, or helping you compose complete tunes. And we also hope we’ve proved that it’s not just virtual instruments that should take the creative glory in the desktop studio. Effects rule everywhere along the production chain!
How to get creative with two effects you can try
1. You’d think that a simple panning effect wouldn’t be that creative. Thankfully, Cableguys PanCake is no simple pan plug-in and it’s free, so you can try it out, too. Route an audio drum loop through it, as shown.
2. The loop is shown from top to bottom and that’s how the plug-in pans with time – so here, it starts panning quickly from left to right and then slows down. So far, so, er, panning…
3. It gets very interesting with presets like Rhythm, where the tempo is synced and, as it cycles through in time and certain drums sounds are played out of one side, it’s almost like there are suddenly two drum kits.
4. And you can get even more creative by adjusting the speed of the LFO, so here, we’ve taken things to extremes – which introduces a distortion effect. This is just one of PanCake’s many features. Who said panning was dull?
5. That’s the beats sorted. Now we’re going to add a bit of attitude to a bass part with Tritik Krush – another freebie, so you too can try this at home. When you load the plug-in for the first time, this is what you’ll see…
6. We’re going to experiment with each of the main controls to see what they do. The Drive control is first. Increase it to 55% and your bass retains its original sound (just), but carries a lot more weight and attitude.
7. The Crush dial introduces a very distorted sound, almost guitar-like at first – and then it goes too far. You’re entering dubstep and Prodigy territory here. The DWSP dial loses all analogue, in favour of a digital crush.
8. You can very easily add movement with the LFO and modulators below. Here, we’ve set the rate of the LFO at 2.6Hz and the Drive amount at 69%: as you increase the Drive modulator, you’ll start to hear the bass wobble.