The ultimate guide to VST plug-in effects
"Effects, I've had a few..."
Over the past couple of months, MusicRadar has been briefing you on nine key areas of effects processing: delay, reverb, distortion, filters, modulation, pitch, dynamics, EQ and stereo FX.
As part of this, we’ve also been recommending some of our favourite plug-ins in each of these areas (both free and commercial), and we’ve now collated these into a single, one-stop guide. So, if you’re looking to upgrade your processing arsenal in any of these areas, you know where to come.
NEXT: Delay plug-ins
Delay VST plug-ins
FabFilter Timeless, £69
Now in its second incarnation, Timeless is maxed out with all manner of modulation. At its heart it's a classic stereo tape delay, but FabFilter has added filtering, time-stretching and its magnificent modulation matrix. Tap tempo is supported, or Timeless can sync to the host.
Read FabFilter Timeless 2 review
Artificial Audio Obelisk, €99
A wonderfully advanced multi-effect built around a spectral delay. Incoming audio is separated into multiple frequency bands which are treated independently. LFOs, spectral filter and gate are included to warp your sound, and modulation can be 'drawn' into the Analyzer Point View. Neat!
Read Artificial Audio Obelisk review
PSP Audioware Lexicon PSP 42, $149
One of a trio of delays built around its classic hardware units, the PSP 42 adheres to Lexicon's design and is approved by Lexicon. A stereo unit with a very retro sound, it has all the original's modulation options plus the ability to invert the feedback and delay channels.
Find out more about PSP Audioware Lexicon PSP 42
Togu Audio Line TAL-Dub, Free
Togu Audio Line has provided yet another brilliant freebie with this vintage-style delay effect. There's a 12dB filter on board, along with the ability to set independent delay times and feedback for each channel (though these can be linked if you want). It can be used as a plain old filter too.
Reverb VST plug-ins
Audio Damage Eos, $49
Audio Damage is an expert at wringing a classic hardware sound from a plug-in, and Eos does the trick with not only a pair of awesome plate algorithms, but also a dense, rich 'Superhall' algorithm that sounds for all the world like Brian Eno giving an Eventide what for. This sort of rich, moving texture is not available when using convolution 'verbs.
Rob Papen RP-Verb, £129
If you like your effects to fall into the 'set it and forget it' category, you can rule out Rob Papen's awesomely interactive RP-Verb. But if you like effects that can be teased, tweaked, modulated and manipulated, this baby's for you. MIDI controllers are supported, and there are some unusual inclusions such as distortion and ensemble effects. Clever stuff.
KResearch KR-Reverb Fs, Free
This is a dead-simple reverb plug-in culled from KR's commercial KR-Space. You get control over early and late reflection sizes, diffusion, decay and a whole lot more, and it'll support host sample rates up to 96KHz. KR-Reverb FS is cross-platform - there's even a Linux version.
Download KResearch KR-Reverb Fs
Acustica Audio Nebula3, Free/€80/€119
Nebula3 is a convolution-based multi-effects processor that can emulate a wide range of natural spaces and classic hardware devices. There are three versions, including a free one. Many impulses are bundled with the plug-in, along with N.A.T.3, which enables you to build multi-sampled impulse collections into Nebula3 patches.
Distortion VST plug-ins
IK Multimedia AmpliTube 3, €269
AmpliTube is IK's name for a technology applied to a wide range of products, from bundled freebies to iPhone apps. All these gadgets have one thing in common, though: they provide world-class amplifier simulation and distortion effects designed with the guitarist in mind. There's even an optional pedal board controller. Neat stuff.
Read IK Multimedia AmpliTube 3 review
Native Instruments Guitar Rig, From €179
Like AmpliTube, this is an entire suite of tools aimed at guitarists. Again, there is a lot more here than distortions and amp sims, but there are shedloads of both. And yeah, there's a hardware foot pedal controller. The emulations are top-notch, and we can't imagine that you'd be running out of distortion options any time soon.
Read Native Instruments Guitar Rig 4 Pro review
Meatscience Bitsmacker, Free
This Mac plug-in may look like a plain Jane, but it can dole up the most delightful digital distortion. You can dial in bit depths ranging from 0.01 to 32 bits, EQ is available on both the input and the output, and there's a drive function to pump up your signals. You can also crank the sample rate all the way down to 50Hz, making this your go-to plug-in for urban and chip-tune styles.
Download Meatscience Bitsmacker
Togu Audio Line TAL-Tube, Free
Togu Audio Line seem to make a habit of creating awesome analogue emulations and setting them loose at no charge, and you've gotta love 'em for that. TAL-Tube, as you will no doubt have guessed, is a tube saturation simulator, and with its controls boiled down to four self-explanatory knobs and a pair of buttons, it's about as user-friendly as you're going to get.
Filter VST plug-ins
Sugar Bytes Wow, €79
Sugar Bytes' appropriately named Wow will leave you saying exactly that. A combination of traditional filtering with the addition of formant filtering (which is used to create vocal-like vowel sounds), this little red devil is a real knockout.
TAL-Filter II, Free
Togu Audio Line has made it a mission to provide professional-quality effects for musicians on a tight budget. TAL-Filter looks deceptively simple, but the reserved GUI hides a highly flexible multimode filter with overdrive, dynamic panning and more. It's all designed to sync up with the host DAW's tempo, making it a cinch to whip up rhythmic modulations.
XILS-Lab XILS 3, €220
Do it the old-school way! Many vintage synthesizer emulations can be opened as effects plug-ins, allowing you to route your tracks through their filter sections. XILS 3 was inspired by the EMS VCS3, just like the one Brian Eno used to process his bandmates' instruments in Roxy Music.
Ohm Force Frohmage, Free
An oldie but definitely a goodie, Ohm Force's Frohmage is a free serving of creamy filtering with a potent punch that's sure to leave you gasping for air. The controls are pretty cryptic, but that's part of the fun - discovering new and unusual timbres.
Modulation VST plug-ins
u-he Uhbik-F and Uhbik-P, $199 for a bundle of nine effects
Part of the ever-growing Uhbik collection, Uhbik-F and Uhbik-P are the set's flanger and phaser plug-ins respectively. The flanger models both tape-based and stompbox-style flangers and throws in a gorgeous chorus effect for good measure. The phaser is no slouch, either, providing a staggering 14, 28 or (gasp!) 42 stages.
d16 Group Fazortan, €35
Fazortan combines retro-style modulation effects with modern niceties such as dual LFOs, each with selectable waveforms. You can change the phase of each LFO, which results in a more dramatic stereo image. It's a fully professional design with loads of knobs. It might seem like overkill at first, but the sound is rich and inspiring – well worth the meagre asking price.
Schwa Oligarc, $60/$40
Coming from the makers of the intentionally cryptic Olga synthesiser, you'd expect Oligarc to be entirely over-the-top - and it is. Oligarc combines a filter and drive section with a chorus and a phaser and wraps 'em all around a kooky modulation section that converts the incoming audio signal into control signals that can drive the other effects.
Blue Cat Audio Chorus, Free
Looking very much as if it were inspired by Eventide Clockworks' 1970s effects, this terrific freebie comes in a wide variety of plug-in formats and provides a terrific-sounding chorus with a reserved but flexible smattering of controls. A random mode generates presets if you're not inclined to set them up yourself, and both mono and stereo versions are included.
Pitch VST plug-ins
Celemony Software Melodyne, €349-€699
It might not be the most famous pitch-correction tool, but it may very well be the most sophisticated. Melodyne can examine your recordings, extract the timing and the pitch and make them available to you on a timeline-style grid. You can adjust the timing and pitch of each syllable, even creating complex harmonies from monotone lines. Amazing.
Read Celemony Software Melodyne Editor review
Antares Auto-Tune, $129-$399
The name has become synonymous with pitch correction and outre pitchshifting: Auto-Tune, when used tastefully, is a miraculous time-saver for the desktop producer, and when used in a more over-the-top fashion, it can be a hit-maker.
Read Antares Auto-Tune Evo review
GVST GSnap, Free
If you're on a PC and on a budget, you might want to avail yourself of the free GSnap VST plug-in from GVST. It can handle all of the basics, from subtle correction to more outlandish Auto-Tune-like warbles. You can tell it which notes to ignore and which ones to fix, and thanks to the built-in gate, it'll even ignore any background noise that crops up during the quiet bits.
Find out more about GVST GSnap
Roland V-Vocal, N/A
This clever little fellow is bundled with the Studio and Producer Editions of Sonar. It provides pitch and time correction along with full malleability of your track, and will be very familiar to users of Roland's VariOS system. It's easy to use and great fun, too.
Dynamics VST plug-ins
PSP Audio Vintage Warmer, $149
It's a bit of an oldie, but Vintage Warmer still sounds terrific even when held up to newer plug-ins. Multiband compression and brickwall limiting are on offer, as well as PSP Audio's gloriously retro sound, thanks to the included tape saturation simulation. It's fairly easy to use, though it isn't exactly spartan in design. A once and future winner, this one.
Cytomic The Glue, $99
Here we have another classic vintage compressor, meticulously modelled and given a few extra features. Combining the best of the E and G series SSL 4000 bus compressors, The Glue sports a super-fast attack time and a range knob to control the amount of compression applied. There are loads of other controls, plus sidechaining to boot.
FabFilter Pro-C, £129
If there's anyone who knows how to wrangle a classic hardware sound from zeros and ones, it's FabFilter. Its Pro-C compressor earned rave reviews when it was released, and with Clean, Classic, and Opto modes on hand, this dynamic dynamo can handle anything you throw at it. Better still, it's actually easy to use and comes with an excellent collection of presets.
Solid State Logic LMC-1, Free
This is an emulation of the Listen Mic Compressor, modelled from the famous E-Series consoles. The original was meant merely as a means to prevent overloading the console's talk-back mic, but was made famous when it was used to record Phil Collins' drums on Peter Gabriel's Intruder. This brief flash of inspiration shaped the sound of the following decade.
Download Solid State Logic LMC-1
Audio Damage BigSeq2, $49
The original BigSeq featured a pretty cool gate effect, but the second version blows the lid off. It's got ten effects that are arranged in six 'blocks', each with its own step sequencer, modulation sequencer and timing. The idea is to sequence the gate effects and modulation for some outre sounds. As always with Audio Damage, it's anything but run-of-the-mill.
Read Audio Damage BigSeq2 review
AraldFX StormGate, Free
StormGate offers a different approach to gating. Instead of relying on a sidechained signal to trigger the process, it allows users to create dynamic patterns by drawing shapes into a large display area. These gate patterns can be looped and synchronised to the host's tempo. There's even support for swing to give your rhythms even more vibe.
digitalfishphones Floorfish, Free
This slippery little morsel is included in The Fish Fillets suite, along with the cool Blockfish compressor and Spitfish de-esser. Here, though, the focus is on expansion and gating. Stereo support is on tap, and you can tweak the attack and release settings. Use Floorfish to block out noise or to expand the incoming signal - it's a must-have utility for any plug-in folder.
Download digitalfishphones Fish Fillets
Destroy FX MIDI Gater, Free
Taking the gating idea far beyond its roots, this plug-in is more like an instrument in that it responds to incoming MIDI notes. The idea here is MIDI-controlled gating, but with a twist - you see, MIDI Gater is polyphonic. A new copy of the incoming signal is produced for every incoming MIDI note, and each copy responds to velocity. Strange stuff, but good fun!
EQ VST plug-ins
Leftover Lasagne Pushtec 5+1A, Free
This Windows-only plug-in looks very much like the Pultec EQP-1S, an extended version of Pultec's legendary EQP-1A3, possibly two of the most sought-after (and costly) EQs on the vintage market.
The Pushtec provides five bands, all of them adjustable. It may not make your track sound like it was mixed at the Power Station, but it will do a fine job and look darn good doing it!
Find out more about the Leftover Lasagne Pushtec 5+1A
Linux DSP CH-EQ Parametric, £10
Another EQ that looks for all the world like an old Pultec - this one, however, is strictly for the Linux crowd.
In any event, this little fella sounds every bit as good as it looks. You get low, high and a pair of mid-frequency knobs (one for gain, the other for frequency selection), and you can adjust the bandwidth of the mids.
Very nice, and the price is certainly right.
Find out more about the Linux DSP CH-EQ
BIAS Repli-Q, $149
This gem from BIAS is a 'smart' equaliser, meaning it can analyse the spectral character of one recording and apply it to another.
This allows you to match your overall sound to that of your favourite recordings, but more importantly, it allows you to learn how they differ and to adjust your recordings accordingly. You can save your spectrums for later use, as well.
Find out more about BIAS Repli-Q
DDMF IIEQ, Free
IIEQ looks like a graphic EQ with knobs, but it's actually a parametric affair with a full ten bands, the first and tenth of which are shelving.
The shelves have gain and cutoff frequency knobs, while the remaining eight are peaking filters with gain, centre frequency and Q controls. There are VU meters to keep you out of trouble, and with +/-20dB of gain on offer, you might need 'em!
Stereo FX VST plug-ins
Wave Arts Panorama, $199
As mentioned above, there are some processors designed to give the illusion of a three-dimensional sonic vista using only stereo channels. Panorama is such a plug-in - using specialised DSP technology, it can give the illusion that a specific sound is placed to the left, right, up, down, front, or back, near or far from the listener. Pretty convincing, and great fun to use.
Read Wave Arts Power Suite 5 review
Flux:: Stereo Tool, Free
It doesn't get much simpler than Stereo Tool, a plug-in that's designed to give you visual feedback of your stereo image. You can control the left and right level individually, invert the phase for each channel, and tweak global stereo pan and width. An essential tool for the mastering engineer, but also quite useful for any stereo tracks at mixdown (think drum overheads or stems).
Brainworx Music bx_solo, Free
Designed as a means by which to accustom yourself to the intricacies of mid-side mic techniques, bx_solo allows you to solo each of the various elements of a mid-side recording. Left and right, mono sum and stereo difference channels are all available, and they're phase-corrected, too. A stepped mid-side stereo width control is included as well.
Download Brainworx Music bx_solo
Cableguys PanCake, Free
As you'd expect from Cableguys, PanCake is a wacky, customisable, over-the-top stereo panner - it's autopanning taken to loony extremes. Instead of the sine or triangle wave LFO seen on traditional autopanners, PanCake lets you create your own waveforms. Up to ten can be stored, and you can sync the lot of them to your DAW's tempo.