With the amount of virtual tech readily available to producers today, couple with affordable subscription plans, more competition and lower software costs, plugin overload is a real issue when working in the box. In the past, outboard gear was carefully selected due to the fact that most of producers didn't have the funds to afford more than a handful of choice pieces of gear. Today, a $24.99 subscription from Plugin Alliance will net you well over 100 top notch processors. The question is, do you really need them all? They mostly all have unique sonic flavours and are all great in their own right, but when confronted with so much choice, it can put you in a bit of a spin, stifling ones creativity.
As a Cubase user, I've been blessed with Steinberg's excellent plugin management system which allows you to build custom sets of plugins for different tasks. Recently, I've been working with a stripped down set of tools, reserving my full selection of goodies for scheduled 'play time' where I can just have fun learning the sonic qualities of each plugin and experimenting a bit.
So that brings me to the topic of this series of blog posts. I wanted to share my favourite essential plugins which always make it into the selection when I'm serious about getting stuff done in the studio. We'll cover other processors in subsequent posts, but for now, lets check out 5 dynamics plugins I can't live without.
Elysia Alpha Compressor
The Alpha Comp in association with Brainworx models the famed $10k+ mastering hardware from Elysia. It's usually my first port of call for mastering applications. It can be incredibly transparent, incorporates some clever functionality in the side chain, has fantastic M/S implementation, a soft saturation circuit and comes in two flavours, namely the standard mastering version and a single channel (or stereo linked) mix version which is super handy. Its one of the silkiest sounding analogue emulations out there in my humble opinion.
A staple due to its incredible flexibility. I does clean and surgical all the way to goopy and characterful through its selectable compressor models. If you had to buy one compressor only, this would be a top contender. The GUI is a joy to use with incredibly useful visual feedback and a wealth of features under the hood that make this one of the most versatile options out there at the moment.
Shadow Hills Class A Mastering Compressor
Modelled on a modified version of the famed mastering compressor, this new version features Brainworx's fantastic additions like M/S, sidechain filtering, headroom adjustment, parallell processing, the new ability to link controls, their 'monomaker' dial and their patented TMT modelling technology. There are other 'character' compressors in this category that I love equally, such as the Acme Opticon, Townhouse and SPL Iron, however, due to the fact that it features both Opto and VCA stages, the Shadow Hills compressor can be incredibly versatile. Don't let the word 'mastering' in the title put you off... its just as much at home on single channel material (run some vocals through the opto stage) as it is on a master bus. It's so well optimized as well, you can load these up for days without your CPU grinding to a halt.
ProAudioDSP Dynamic Spectrum Mapper V3
Highly underrated. While it'll take a bit to get your head around this one, nothing on the market works quite like this and it does an incredible job to boot. It's essentially a multiband compressor with signals being converted to FFT's before being processed and returned to the output. The compression curve can be 'learnt' from reference material fed into the inputs or side chain and applied to your own material. It also makes for an excellent limiter in mastering situations.
Newfangled Audio Elevate
My go to limiter for mastering applications. Like DSM V3, this also operates on a large number of bands over the frequency spectrum via specialized EQ's and crossovers. The bundle also includes separate instances of their Equivocate EQ and a transient shaper and clipper. Elevate gives you an insane amount of control over your audio and allows you to dynamically adjust thresholds and transients over all bands.
That's a wrap for my top dynamics plugins. Stay tuned for subsequent articles as we take a look at reverbs, delays, creative effects, synths and more.