Staple Plug-Ins


On my last post about home studio essentials, Sam asked if I could talk a bit about my go-to softsynths. I want to expand this to be about plug-ins in general, because 99% of the time I'm actually using only two synths! More on that later...

First I'll say this: I used to be a plug-in monster. I scoured the internet for hundreds of free VSTs, I bought lots of shiny "pro" ones and demoed many more. What I've come to realize is that there are very few absolutely unique plug-ins out there, despite what any of them might promise. A lot of them can produce extremely similar results. I have to laugh every time I get YouTube comments like "Ah, I can tell you used Zebra" - because they're invariably wrong.

But if so many things sound pretty close, why make this list? Well, besides good results, there's another very important thing to look for in a plug-in: workflow. The stuff that I use all the time has made the cut because it gets me where I want to go the fastest. Here are the plug-ins I use on almost every project:

Ableton Compressor. It's clean, flexible, precise, and has the simplest setup for sidechaining. This is my standard compressor for most jobs when I'm not looking for a lot of flavor.


Ableton Filter DelayAgain, it's simple but flexible. You have three delay lines based on different segments of the stereo field, followed by controls for filtering, timing, feedback, panning, and volume.

Native Instruments Guitar Rig. My go-to for any guitar and bass effects. There are plenty of others that are equal to it in sound, but Guitar Rig wins for having the best interface. Components and presets are tagged for easy browsing, and re-arranging the signal chain is as easy as dragging and dropping. Also, built-in tuner.

UAD Cambridge EQ. A super transparent EQ with some steep curves that will really get rid of the frequencies you don't want. I put this at the end of every channel to carve out low end space in my mixes, as well as for making any final adjustments.

UAD LA-2A. The best "character" compressor. There aren't a lot of settings to worry about; you can instantly dial in some rich, thick warmth.

UAD Lexicon 224. It's kind of seen as an "eighties" verb, but that doesn't give it enough credit. While you can definitely get those big digital washes on drums and vocals, there's a lot of flexibility in this plug-in to dial in lush spaces that sit beautifully in a mix.

Waves Renaissance Reverb. Aside from the occasions when I'll choose to get really fussy with a convolution reverb, this is the plug-in I pull up when I'm looking for realistic-sounding large spaces. Before getting the 224, I had RVerb on a return track in my default project template because I knew I'd always end up putting it on something.

And what were those two synths?

They're both from Native Instruments: Massive and Reaktor.

I'll say it again - flexibility. I like Massive because I know I can load it up whether I'm going after a twinkly bell, a soothing pad, or a dubstep wobble. The drag-and-drop modulation assignment makes so much more sense to my brain than disconnected knobs with drop-down menus. And as the name suggests, there's a ton to explore in this synth. You can get lost in all the tabs, or even in the sheer number of presets. But it's worth it!

And Reaktor is perhaps a cheat of an answer, because it encompasses so many cool synths and effects that have been built for it. Some of the official NI ones are fantastic: Razor, Monark, The Finger. But the user library is amazing as well - you can get thousands of homemade plug-ins for free. As far as I'm concerned, a lot of those are better than any of their expensive, professionally produced counterparts - Minimojo, MiniMoog, and Stephan V's Nords are some of the best vintage emulations I've ever come across; Laserbrew is some next level modulated reverb thing; there are countless samplers that will mangle your sounds beyond what any commercial plug-in would dare to. Not only that, but if you put in the time you can build some plug-ins of your own! (One of mine, "Kingdom Of Mod" is pictured above. I have a few others and they're all available exclusively through my Patreon.)

So those are my staples. Next week I'll talk about my "special occasion" plug-ins, and the week after that I'll reveal my mastering chain. In the meantime, I'd love to hear about what plug-ins you use in the comments!