There are so many great instrument and effect plugins already on the market that it's easy to wonder what music software developers could possibly have left to achieve, but year after year, they delight us with new products and improved versions of existing favourites.
2020 has been no exception, with a steady flow of releases keeping us entertained in our locked-down studios.
Based on your votes, here are the finest new plugins and pieces of music software that the last 12 months have had to offer...
1. PSP Audioware PSP oldTimer MB
Released in 2010, PSP Audioware’s original PSP oldTimer still ranks as one of our favourite vintage-style ‘analogue’ compressor plugins.
It was followed up in 2011 by the more versatile PSP oldTimer ME, and now, almost a decade later, there’s an, er, new oldTimer on the block in the shape of the MB edition (VST/AU/AAX/RTAS).
This is, essentially, a multiband PSP oldTimer ME, racking up three frequency-limited instances of the compressor for more complex dynamics processing tasks than ME’s single band might be able to handle.
Powerful, versatile and palpably ‘vintage’, PSP oldTimer MB scales up the established PSP oldTimer architecture without compromising its sound or spirit in the process.
2. oeksound soothe2
Released in 2016, the original soothe was billed as an “automatic dynamic frequency notcher” designed to effortlessly eliminate harshness and overly bright top end in any instrumental or vocal signal.
In a nutshell, it’s a dynamic EQ plugin that employs spectral processing voodoo to detect unpleasant and intrusive resonances, then dynamically attenuates them through the application of numerous level-sensitive notch filters.
soothe2 marks a complete rewrite of the plugin from the ground up, so as well as the new features and improvements, it now also claims less system overhead and faster UI rendering. For many users, the headlines with soothe2 will be its extended processing range, and the improvements made to the EQ controls.
Improving on v1 in ease of use, adaptability and transparency, soothe2 is a dynamic EQ that no producer should be without.
3. Roland Zenology
2020 saw Roland unveiling a significant update to its Cloud subscription service, introducing a new three-tiered pricing structure largely modelled around a single new instrument - Zenology.
Rather than just offering an emulation of a single classic from the brand’s past, as most previous Roland Cloud instruments did, the Zenology plugin is an expandable sound engine capable of creating everything from pianos and organs to drums and percussion.
While the plugin itself is new, the tech behind it - Roland’s ZEN-Core engine - first appeared last year, in several instruments including the MC-707 and Jupiter X. Zenology is effectively a straight port of that same sound engine, making use of a mix of PCM samples and virtual analogue synthesis in order to generate sounds.
Zenology isn’t particularly flashy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not useful. Although it’s essentially little more than a preset player with an effect unit attached, the 3000 patches are generally excellent, and as a convenient and relatively cheap source of bread-and-butter sounds, this has a lot going for it.
4. iZotope Ozone 9 Advanced
There’s no denying the sonic and functional excellence of Ozone, which has become the de facto software mastering standard in pro and home studios alike.
Predictably, version 9 continues the good work, with the new features adding to this already excellent package. Master Balance is one of the most powerful spectral processors we’ve ever used; Low End Focus is useful; the Master Assistant, Imager and Match EQ improvements are great; and none of the ‘unimproved’ tools have lost any of their lustre in the last year.
In summary, for mastering in the box, nothing else comes close to Ozone 9’s dazzling combination of user-friendliness, depth, feature richness, and – most importantly – knockout sound.
5. Toontrack EZBass
Toontrack‘s EZdrummer 2 and EZkeys virtual instruments give music producers everything they need to create authentic-sounding drum and keyboard tracks, and now the band is one step closer to completion with the introduction of EZbass.
At the heart of EZbass are two multisampled electric bass guitars - a ‘Vintage’ Fender Jazz and a ‘Modern’ Alembic, totalling around 2GB of samples – each of which is used as the basis for a variety of presets that, in typical ‘EZ’ style, incorporate fixed effects racks.
EZbass absolutely delivers on its promise of making utterly lifelike b-lines a snap to put together. The two multisampled instruments sound fantastic and contrast well (and we don’t doubt that expansion packs will add more in the future), and the sequencing tools are first class - it’s essentially a complete mini DAW for electric bass. Another EZ win for the Toon’, we can’t recommend EZbass highly enough.
6. Arturia OB-Xa V
Aside from being a faithful rendition of the original Oberheim OB-Xa (and bits of the X), OB-Xa V adds some lovely touches in terms of some modern modulation and effects. But it’s the brilliantly simple way that both are implemented that is a huge highlight.
It could have been that these would detract from the authentic recreation but, as they are almost bolted on (but in a much better way than that expression implies), you can enjoy the purity of the original synth and then explore its modern options at your leisure.
There are other options if you want the OB-Xa sound, from freeware right up to huge and expensive hardware. However, the OB-Xa V does give you a great marriage of old and new, and overall, we can see it being a synth we return to again and again for a wide variety of functions, not to mention quick sound design and inspiration.
7. iZotope RX 8 Advanced
Two years on from version 7, RX 8 seeks to go above and beyond the call of audio clean-up duty. Its new modules - Guitar De-noise, Spectral Recovery, Loudness Control and Wow and Flutter - are joined by improvements to multiple modules.
RX 8 adds valuable new modules and noticeably improves others, although the overall experience of the package is starting to overwhelm with both its size and layout and parameters of some modules.
8. Wavesfactory Cassette
With a straightforward, clean interface modelled on the look of a classic tape deck, Cassette is a deceptively simple-looking effect. You’d be forgiven for writing this off as a one-size fits all novelty effect - a simple processor you can slap onto a channel insert in order to make things sound ‘a bit retro’.
Looks can be deceiving though, as this is a plugin that takes tape emulation seriously, with a copious amount of parameters allowing users to really dive into the nuances of cassette effects.
It all adds up to a plugin that is far more than a mere gimmick. By going in-depth and seriously studying the effects of tape recording, Wavesfactory has produced a tool that allows users to precisely capture the individual nuances of tape. The results sound great on pads, drums and mix buses. It's an excellent and well-priced tool.
9. Output Thermal
Asa with Output's previous effect, Portal, Thermal is designed to strike a balance between ease-of-use and creative depth. The core concern here is distortion, with algorithms ranging from analogue-emulated overdrive through digital clipping and various forms of wavefolding.
There is, however, such an abundance of additional processing tools here that it would almost be more accurate to describe Thermal as a multi-effect plugin.
As with Portal, Thermal uses a two-level UI. Upon opening it, users are greeted with a straightforward interface focused around a stylish XY pad, two corresponding macro controls and a dry/wet slider. A click of a tab switches Thermal to its Advanced View, opening up full access to the inner workings of the multi-stage effect processing.
The 250+, well organised presets mean there’s plenty of inspiration at hand, and this is the sort of creative, flexible effect you’ll find yourself turning to when you need to overcome a creative roadblock. Recommended.
10. Spitfire Audio Ólafur Arnalds Stratus
The fourth collaboration between lauded Icelandic composer and musician Ólafur Arnalds and Brit sampleware giants Spitire Audio is a Kontakt Player engine based on Arnalds’ self-developed software, which triggers rhythmic note patterns on two identical self-playing pianos using “sophisticated MIDI algorithms”.
The pianos themselves - plus his Korg PS3100 and Roland Juno-60 synths - have been captured in 15GB of recorded performances, curated by the man himself.
The headline acts are the eight Stratus instruments - four piano-based, four synth-based - but you also get a collection of supplementary NKIs that put various heavily processed “Warped” versions of the main sounds at your fingertips in the simple and intuitive Mercury interface.
While it could be described as a one-trick pony with a decidedly idiosyncratic sound, that trick is very cleverly and effectively implemented – and endless in its permutations – and the sounds that Stratus makes are truly sublime.