I am a plugin addict. As a studio owner, I own many of the popular audio plugins such as the Waves Gold Bundle, the Bomb Factory plugins, and Line 6 Amp Farm. Though I routinely use all of these “utility” plugins, it's the more esoteric plugs that I turn to when I'm being creative. In this article, I'll introduce the ones I find most inspiring.
Plugins come in two forms: virtual instruments and effects. Virtual instruments allow you to load and play sounds by connecting a MIDI keyboard or other MIDI controller to your computer. They come in all varieties: pianos, drum kits, strings, orchestral instruments, organs, brass, synthesizers, and much more. Effect plugins come in endless types as well: EQ, compression, delay, reverb, filters, beat-slicers, distortion, and twisted combinations. To use a plugin, you load it into a host program such as Digidesign Pro Tools or Apple GarageBand.
As a musician and songwriter, I look for three things in a plugin:
My process of songwriting (and thus choosing plugins) is not for everyone. I think about music first and technology second. When I’m writing pop songs, I’m thinking primarily about chord structure and lyrics or about the song itself, not so much the production. That’s why I wouldn’t choose a complex interface that would require my technological brain to interrupt my musical brain. I want a sleek, simple interface that can get me the sound I want in as little time as possible. I can always replace the sounds I write with, because for me, inspiration is a precious resource--one I try to nurture as long as I can without getting off on a technological tangent that kills my vibe.
That said, if I'm writing a techno piece or a soundtrack, I will spend more time on the production and the sounds I choose to write with, because the production is so much a part of these kinds of music for me.
In the following list, you may notice the lack of geekier analog synth emulation plugins. I love the sound of the old analog gear as much as anyone, and though I have spent quite a few stoned hours patching cables on a real modular Moog synthesizer as well as Arturia’s plugin version, I must admit that the majority of analog synth plugins do not excite me when I’m writing songs. I do use plugins like the Arturia or the amazing Rap Papen plugs, but I usually bring out this breed if I’m writing techno or after I've written a song and can be distracted with adjusting decays, filters, and waveforms.
Nor do I come from the school of “If you don’t create the sound from scratch, it sucks.” I’ve been on music technology panels where the producer huffs, “I don’t believe in presets. I make all my own sounds.” I think I’m supposed to be impressed, but I never am. I would rather choose a great preset and write more songs than pitch my tent in the no-presets camp. That’s not to say that I don’t edit presets or add a funky effect to the sounds I choose. But again, I gravitate towards spending more time in my musician/songwriter headspace and less time thinking like a technician.
So, given the dream task of writing amazing music with an unlimited budget, these are the plugins I would choose. I have listed them in order of my personal favorites.
Atmosphere is one of my all-time favorite plugins. I use it on probably 85 percent of my songs. Designed by sonic genius Eric Persing, this is a pad lover’s dream. Atmosphere is chock-full of lush pads, vintage analog synths, evolving textures, synth basses and strings, and ambient bells. For pop music or film scores, Atmosphere is a must in your plugin arsenal. Retail price: $399.
Ivory, designed by a former Kurzweil soundware developer, is, in my humble opinion, the best sounding virtual piano on the market. The user interface is simple and elegant as well. With a 40GB sound library, you’ll need some free hard drive space, but hearing truly is believing. The pianos include several different Bösendorfers, Yamaha grands, jazz pianos, rock pianos, and a simple way to layer synth pads and strings. This plugin is a dream to use and an even bigger dream to play. Since buying Ivory, I rarely record real pianos anymore. Retail price: $329.
Stylus RMX is an all-inclusive beat machine featuring a 7.4GB sound library. You can play eight different parts at once, mix them with the internal mixer, add some built-in effects using four aux sends, and then try the Chaos Designer that randomizes beats. (Check out the O’Reilly tutorial.) You can buy RMX Expander Packs to add to the already amazing choices of loops and drum sounds, or import your own sounds in Propellerhead REX format. The Stylus RMX sounds tend to be on the pop side and have a somewhat processed vibe. If you’re looking for more acoustic drums, go with Best Service Artist Grooves (Pick no. 8, below). Retail Price: $299.
For bass sounds, there is nothing that compares to Trilogy. This 3.5GB library will blow you away. I have actually replaced real upright bass on two albums with Trilogy’s virtual upright. Not only is this plugin simple to use, it’s also very versatile, with practically every model and style of bass from picked, muted, fretless, upright, and fingered, to deep, complex synth bass patches. If you’re a songwriter and want to lay down some bass parts, this is your plugin. Retail price: $350.
This is my software sampler of choice. I have tried all the others and for ease of use and aesthetic design, MachFive is my favorite. It includes a 4GB library with some excellent sounds and a simple utility called UVI-Xtract to convert any sample into Mach Five format. The sampler has drag-and-drop support and an easy-to-use effects section, freeing up more processing power for your host program. [Ed. Note: The “five” in the title refers to another of the plugin’s groundbreaking features—the ability to play 5.1-channel surround-sound samples.] Retail price: $395.