Getting your music to sound ‘pro’ used to be one of the dark arts of music production, a process only known to a few top-flight mix engineers and producers with access to a mountain of expensive outboard gear and even more expensive recording studios. Thankfully, with today’s latest software plugins, we all now have access to incredible effects and mix tools that can, with a little knowledge and advice, help turn your unfinished mixes into great, pro-sounding tracks that can stand proud with the best of them. That's where this guide to the best Waves plugins comes in.
Waves (opens in new tab) is at the forefront of this plugin development and has been producing incredible plugins used by producers and engineers the world over for the better part of three decades. The company's vast range of plugins covers everything from virtual recreations of classic outboard processors through to ultra-modern production tools. If you're not sure where to start, this guide will steer you towards the essentials for your home studio tool kit, imparting advice for best use practice along the way, and ensuring you have the right tools to help you mix better and faster.
With an ever-growing roster of analogue emulations and newer, cutting edge tools, it can be tough to know which Waves plugins to throw into your virtual shopping cart, which is why we’ve rounded up the best here. For each plugin in our roundup we have also conducted an in-depth test, which is linked to at the end of each summary, so don't forget to read these more comprehensive reviews before you buy.
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Best Waves plugins: Our top picks
It's fair to say that Waves has a plugin for every task, as our round-up amply demonstrates. However we do have our favourites, although whether these are your top buys very much depends on your mixing requirements right now, so do check out our full list. For now, here is a selection of varied top buys.
We'll start with a biggie: Waves CLA mixHub (opens in new tab). Not only does this emulate a channel strip on a legendary SSL desk, but includes great functionality and flexibility to allow you to apply its great sounds to all manner of mix parts and groups, with ease.
For contemporary vocal production, nothing out there matches Vocal Bender (opens in new tab) in terms of simplicity and speed. Its UI positively invites you to get in there and process your vocals to the max, and there are many more creative possibilities under the hood.
Having a muddied low end when mixing is a very common problem, especially in contemporary music production, and we have to say that Waves' Submarine (opens in new tab) plugin is great at helping define the bottom end of a mix and the components within it.
If it's the sound of a classic room you are after, then they don't come more classy than Abbey Road Chambers (opens in new tab), a great emulation of one of the most famous echo chambers in the business.
Finally, Brauer Motion (opens in new tab) attempts to – and largely pulls off – the expansion of your stereo field into a third dimension, and is great for experimentation in this extra 3D space, something that is looking like (again) becoming the next big thing in mixing.
Best Waves plugins: Plugin guide
MixHub is an emulation of a full channel strip from Grammy-winning engineer Chris Lord-Alge's SSL 4000 series mixer. Incredibly, it lets you access up to 64 instances of the plugin via any single one of them, so a full SSL console is effectively recreated in a single window within the host DAW, conveniently grouped into banks of eight channels at a time, called ‘Buckets’.
The multitrack functionality is nothing short of revelatory, feeling like a natural replacement for the standard DAW mixer. Jumping between Buckets and modules is fast and intuitive, and there’s a real sense of empowerment that comes from being able to apply such high-end processing to the individual elements of a whole drum kit or vocal group.
CLA MixHub also sounds superb, exuding analogue warmth, depth and focus. Just like a real SSL, the EQ is easy to work with, while the extended Dynamics section gives plenty of enveloping options. CLA MixHub’s channel-aggregating approach works very well indeed, bringing your entire mix together in a single interface, and sounding fantastic along the way.
Read the full Waves CLA MixHub review
Vocals that – to varying degrees – modify in pitch and intensity, distort, stutter and loop can be found almost anywhere and in many genres. Vocal Bender offers up speedy, real-time pitch-shifting and instant access to some of the modern vocal producer’s tricks, all controlled via an intuitive UI. The basic simplicity of this UI invites immediate experimentation but there is a significant amount of complex and utterly unique programming potential here.
Once you reveal the modulation and automation options, vast creative scope presents itself. But the aim of the game with Vocal Bender is really getting that professional-sounding vocal manipulation at speed. We’re happy to report then, that not only does Vocal Bender provide that within minutes, but that there is absolutely no processing lag. We can dramatically scale the pitch of our backing vocals on the fly during track playback, and experiment with modulating our vocal in order to get the right tonal qualities without any CPU slack.
Vocal Bender is certainly one of the slickest plugins we’ve experimented with and delivers all you need to shape your vocals with no stress.
Read the full Waves Vocal Bender review
While regular equalisers or bass-boosting plugins simply enhance a signal’s existing low frequencies, a subharmonic generator – as the name implies – synthesises entirely new bass content based on the input signal’s pitch.
Waves are no strangers in this department, having released various bass enhancement tools in the past, but Submarine could be their best yet. Using their proprietary Organic ReSynthesis tech, Submarine analyses the incoming audio’s carrier, pitch, formants and dynamics, then uses this information to generate two independent sub-bass signals, one and two octaves below the original pitch.
While there aren’t loads of tweakable parameters on Submarine’s front panel, there are enough to tailor things to taste: use the Min and Max sliders to restrict the span of triggering frequencies at the input; sum the new sub-content to Mono for stereo compatibility; customise Dynamics with a one-knob compressor; and dial in harmonic distortion with the Drive knob. An onboard EQ and envelope follower would be nice additions for extra tone- and dynamics-shaping but aren’t sorely missed.
As you’d imagine, Submarine particularly excels at bolstering low-end instruments such as kicks and basslines, adding clean and defined low end where needed – but the plugin also comes in useful for fattening breakbeats and beefing up special FX. A must-own for sound designers and sub-bass junkies.
Read the full Waves Submarine review
Back in the day, the only way to apply reverberation to a recording was by playing said signal through a speaker in a reflective, reverberant room (an ‘echo chamber’), then recording the results with a microphone placed in that room.
One of the most famous echo chambers of all time is the one found at the iconic Abbey Road Studios’ Studio Two – an environment recreated by Waves in their Abbey Road Chambers plugin.
Abbey Road pioneered the STEED (Send, Tape, Echo, Echo, Delay) signal path, all meticulously modelled in Abbey Road Chambers. Impulse responses handle the reverb side of things, while speaker/mic models and a tape delay emulation complete the classic chain. For versatility, other rooms, speakers and mics can be swapped out, too.
For those seeking authentically vintage ambience unachievable with other plugins, this specialised spatialiser delivers on all fronts.
Read the full Waves Abbey Road Chambers review
Phase alignment isn’t the sexiest mixing subject, but get it wrong and your mix will suffer. When two recordings of the same signal (from, say, a multi-miked drum kit) don’t line up perfectly, the waveforms may partially cancel each other out, resulting in phase cancellation and nasty comb-filtering artefacts.
Phase problems are generally avoided at the initial tracking stage, but if you do have to fix alignment issues come mixdown time, Waves’ clever InPhase plugin can correct them in ways other plugins can’t.
The plugin comes as eight ‘components’, each used for slightly different phase-correcting scenarios: mono and stereo instances of the ‘main’ version; ‘LT’ light mono and stereo versions; and four ‘Live’ latency-free versions of the aforementioned components.
InPhase is predominantly designed for three scenarios: nudge the phase of two mono tracks (say, a DIed and amped guitar signal), shift the left and right channels of a single stereo track (useful when mastering, for example) and align a stereo track to a sidechain source (eg, for locking stereo drum overheads to a snare top recording).
Phase is visualised via the dual waveform displays and correlation meter. Using these as a guide, you shift either track’s phase manually earlier or later in time. If more complex, frequency-specific alignment is required, you can also reach for the onboard all-pass filters.
As you’d expect from the most comprehensive phase-alignment plugin out there, InPhase comes with a bit of a learning curve. Once mastered, however, it’ll become your go-to problem-solver for fixing out-of-phase audio.
Read the full Waves InPhase review
Drums are the backbone of any track, and although they don’t always have an obvious pitch, correct tuning is vital nonetheless. Fail to tune your drum kit properly before hitting record, and you’ll have a nightmare repitching them to fit the rest of your music.
Enter Torque. Adopting the same Organic ReSynthesis technology found in Submarine, this unique “drum tone shifter” plugin tracks the input signal’s amplitude, carrier and formant content, allowing you to shift the drum hit’s pitch in real time, with a degree of artefact-free cleanliness and precision unachievable through other means.
Operation is simple. Set the Focus slider around the drum hit’s fundamental or second harmonic on the display, then sweep the main Torque knob to retune. Threshold lets you home in on only louder sounds in a recording, while the Speed slider is used to adjust the onset of the shifting – if you want to keep the transient intact, for example.
Though extreme shifting will introduce noticeable artefacts, Torque generally preserves transient detail and tone at low to medium settings. And with zero-latency operation, the plugin is just as useful in live scenarios as in the studio.
Read the full Waves Torque review
A fully-featured delay plugin is an essential tool in any DAW-based musician’s toolbox, giving you the ability to create everything from straight-up repeats and wild dub echoes to modulation effects such as flanging and phasing.
H-Delay may be a decade old, but it's still one of the best Waves plugins around and still admirably holds its own compared to more modern peers. Delay time can be set in milliseconds, BPM or synced to your DAW’s tempo. There’s no ‘stereo’ effect as such, but you can flip the polarity of the left or right channels, or engage Ping-Pong mode for left-to-right action.
As part of their Hybrid Line of analogue-inspired tools, H-Delay has a hardware flavour in both its sound and simplicity of operation. Sweep or automate delay time, and the delay line’s pitch changes in real time, facilitating wobbling, dub effects. Dial in Modulation Depth and Rate to modulate time (and therefore the pitch ‘wobble’) with the onboard LFO, hands-free.
Need more analogue vibes? Engage the LoFi button for a downsampling-style tone, and ramp up the Analog knob to dial in outboard-esque noise and flavour.
H-Delay has an extremely broad sweet spot, and especially excels at high-feedback ‘dub’ and lo-fi echo effects. It’s not the cleanest-sounding plugin around, but stands out when you need a simple-to-use delay with analogue mojo.
Read the full Waves H-Delay review
Developed with Grammy-winning producer/mixing engineer Andrew Scheps, this multifaceted channel strip brings together five modules – Pre, EQ, DS2 (gate), Comp and Gate – that can be reordered and tweaked to taste.
Flexibility is the order of the day here. Each module can operate in stereo, dual or mid/side mode; reordering is as simple as drag and drop; and you even get a bunch of Scheps-designed ‘Focus’ presets that highlight key controls for handy starting points.
And if this isn’t enough, you can also load one additional Waves plugin from your collection anywhere in the signal path – including another instance of Scheps Omni Channel! Meta-level usefulness indeed.
Read the full Waves Scheps Omni Channel review
Like any transient shaper, Smack Attack enables independent boosting and/or attenuation of the attack and release portions of the transients in the incoming signal - the hit of a drum, pluck of a string, etc - in order to give it more or less impact and punch. However, it’s in the detection of those transients and shaping of the gain control envelope where Smack Attack really sets itself apart.
The Sensitivity and Shape controls are fantastic for detailed defining of transients, the display is genuinely assistive, the Mix control is joyous, and coming from Waves, it almost goes without saying that the sound quality and precision are exceptional. Drums are by no means the only valid target for it, either - it does a sterling job of fronting up (or down) basses, pianos, guitars, synth plucks, and anything else with a transient component.
Probably the deepest transient shaping effect ever committed to code, Smack Attack requires a bit more engagement than other equivalent plugins, but the results it delivers are well worth the effort.
Read the full Waves Smack Attack review
Another Grammy-winning engineer collab, this time created alongside Andrew Brauer (Coldplay, Florence & The Machine), Waves Brauer Motion is a “circular stereo auto-panner” that not only automatically moves your source signal back and forth in the left-to-right ‘2D’ field, but also employs psychoacoustic trickery to manipulate front-to-back motion.
In a nutshell, two independent, identical panners can be LFO-modulated around the colour-coded spherical display in unusual ways. Triggers (including an external sidechain signal) define the motion’s start, stop and change in relation to the input signal.
Unusually for an auto-pan plugin, there’s also a basic Dynamics section, with input boost (via the Drive knob) inducing distortion. A tone-shaping Filter is onboard, too.
While Brauer Motion could be considered overkill for bread-and-butter left-to-right effects, it’s probably the most fully-featured and ambitious plugin available for stereo sound design. A real head-spinner.
Read the full Waves Brauer Motion review
API’s 2500 is known to be one of the most versatile bus compressors around, and Waves’ official software recreation does a stellar job of emulating the original hardware’s revered design, behaviour and tone.
Like the original, this is a VCA design. The Tone section is where you choose between feed-forward or feed-back modes, and also like the hardware 2500, there’s plenty of scope for customising the input sidechain signal, with three Knee settings and a trio of Thrust options for unique ‘tilt’ filtering.
In use, the API 2500 often excels where other compressors can’t, imparting individual sounds, sub-mixes and masters with sculptable punch and ‘glue’, ably assisted by its array of customisation options.
Every producer needs a fully-featured parametric EQ on hand for surgical frequency-sculpting tasks, and they don’t come much more powerful than F6 Floating-Band Dynamic EQ.
Not only can its six “floating” bands be used for static boosts or cuts, but each is also dynamic, meaning that each can be turned into a frequency-specific compressor or expander, triggered by the level of the input signal (or via an external source).
You also get wet/dry options for parallel processing; a customisable FFT-based spectral analyser; and solo monitoring per band.
The sound of analogue tape can impart digital signals with much-needed warmth and character, which explains why tape emulation plugins are so… ahem, hot right now.
Waves’ offering, created in collaboration with pro engineer Eddie Kramer, models his custom Ampex 350 ¼-inch machine, complete with linkable Record and Playback levels for setting input and output gain. Wow, Flutter and Noise controls, meanwhile, let you dial in tape ‘instability’ and response.
Classic tape delay effects can be dialled in, too: set Delay Time, switch between Slap and Feedback settings, and engage a low-pass filter – perfect for dubbed-out echoes and time-based effects.
Capable of everything from subtle tape smoothening through to crunchy saturation, this much-loved tape plugin is a go-to tool for imparting DAW-based signals with analogue warmth and ‘push’.
Read the full Waves Kramer Master Tape review
Best Waves plugins: Buying advice
Which Waves plugins should you choose?
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Whatever DAW you use will undoubtedly come with several great mixing plugins which should enable you to create good mixes, so you might be wondering why on earth you need to invest in more software for your mixing. Third-party companies like Waves specialise in creating tools that focus on either reimagining vintage hardware to exacting component detail, or creating bespoke tools that are designed for very specific studio tasks. In that way third-party plugins offer more precise solutions over broad-stroke, bundled DAW plugins; they are highly focussed and very good at doing what they do!
What's more, Waves plugins are an almost permanent sale, delivering massive discounts which often increase the more plugins you purchase. It’s rare, then, to have to pay full price for Waves plugins, so use our prices as a guide only – expect to pay a lot less!
In terms of which to buy, this is very much down to any issues you are currently having when mixing and what you are lacking when it comes to your bundled DAW plugins. Most mix engineers have a go-to compressor and EQ that they like to turn to, over and above those supplied in their DAW. These might have their own character, adding a certain colour to the sound, or they might be based on a favourite piece of outboard vintage hardware that has simply become too expensive or too impractical to use in their current studio setup. Using a third-party plugin can therefore give you the sound of a classic piece of gear at a fraction of the price and with the convenience to slot it into a modern DAW-based studio.
Overall, while buying certain plugins is very much a personal choice, having a good range of plugins – a vintage channel strip or compressor and a workhorse ‘clean’ set of tools – is a good idea, just to give you flexibility when it comes to mix down. With that in mind, then, perhaps use your DAW plugins as the workhorse tools, and use your third-party choices to give you that extra character and finesse, a perhaps elusive pro sound or a character that can be yours alone, taking your music above and beyond that produced in DAWs with stock plugins. And remember, this pro sound or edge need not cost as much as you might think – all of the plugins above are currently on sale (or soon will be!).
Find out more about how we test music gear and services at MusicRadar.
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