What is the best compressor plugin

The Best VST Plugins: Tips for Buying Plugins

Tips from the safe factory
by THOMAS HANNES, ALJOSCHA MALLMANN,

Thomas Hannes and Aljoscha Mallmann run the Tresorfabrik recording studio in Duisburg. For us, the two professionals take a closer look at the range of plugins: For what purpose is it particularly worth buying which plugins? And where do the on-board resources of the DAWs perform best?

The basic equipment of modern daws

We work in the studio with Pro Tools, Logic and Ableton Live. In our opinion, none of the three DAWs has bad plugins on board, some are even excellent - an experience that, by the way, can be extended to the "usual suspects": Whether Steinberg Cubase, Cakewalk Sonar, Presonus Studio One etc. - it is everywhere On-board plug-in set extensive and qualitatively at such a high level that you get basic equipment with which you can work.

The equalizers and compressors in the basic DAW equipment can best be described as neutral and flexible tools that do their job unobtrusively without any ifs or buts. Most of the time, they are very resource-efficient and require little computing power - another reason why we use them on a daily basis.

In most cases, the plugins are not direct copies of well-known classics, but creations by the manufacturer that cover the most important functions in practice. Exceptions confirm the rule, for example the glue compressor in Ableton, which is modeled on the SSL G-Series bus compressor and, as the name suggests, is supposed to "glue" or compress the mix pleasantly.

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In many cases the plugins have accompanied their DAW mother ships for generations, although in our experience often only the user interface of the plugins (GUI) changes. There is also no shortage of usable delay plugins.

A small classic is the tape delay in Logic, which is unbeatably easy to use and is very musical. In the run-up to this article, we observed our own usage behavior and came to the conclusion that we often and gladly fall back on the DAW on-board tools for modulations (chorus, flanger, phaser ...). The little helpers also make everyday life easier for us: The trim plug-in in Pro Tools or »Gain« in Logic allow us to make quick adjustments or corrections with a minimum of CPU usage.

Can you work professionally with the plugins in the DAW? Absolutely. If this statement is enough for you, you can stop reading at this point. Why are we still so crazy and transfer large sums of money over the years to people who answer us with activation codes? Well, we believe that DAWs are missing a beat of plugins: noble reverb, compressors that make sound, saturation plugins, modern tape emulations and innovative EQs. If you should break it down to one sentence: DAWs lack some emotional plugins!

We mean plugins that really shape the sound and, last but not least, make an engineer's heart beat faster. Perhaps the ratio is comparable to a craftsman who the middle-class open-end wrench from the hardware store will probably also lead to and who still buys the nut box with forged heads made of vanadium steel.

In the end, the purchase is a personal decision. We speak of the "but" criterion. In other words: It usually works with DAW on-board tools, BUT it can be even better. If the "but" seems big enough, we buy. Abbreviated but true!

What you should avoid as much as possible is to flirt with a certain plugin and wish for the solution to a completely different problem: The drummer is dragging, but there is now really great Lexicon reverb on it. This is not going to work. If something sounds strange, most errors cannot be located internally, and probably no producer has missed the chart entry because he has not bought this or that compressor. Every manufacturer is happy about this fear - but more on that in another part of this practice series.

The plugins of the third part: a basic set of good things

There are these aha moments when you have finally found exactly the EQ that opens the highs wonderfully or the compressor that compresses the room exactly as you imagined. We usually have these experiences with products from third parties. In the following sections we explain why and where we use their plugins. As always, we strive to be neutral, but we also recommend a few pieces of cream. It should be said that every manufacturer now offers demos that run for a few weeks - time enough to make a decision for or against a plugin.

Equalizer

We differentiate here between two classes of EQs. The first allows us to make precise corrections to the signal and is usually located in front of the first compressor in the signal. We use the plugins to filter out booming frequencies from the bass, extract "nasty" high frequencies from vocal recordings or filter the signal using high and low pass filters. Most DAWs have good graphic EQs on board.

The big difference to the top dogs lies in the range of functions. In recent years the Fabfilter Pro-Q has become our tool of choice, the second version of which is fresh on the market. In contrast to many on-board EQs, the plug-in enables us to activate an unlimited number of bands simply by clicking, listen to them individually and carry out complex tasks in a matter of seconds. For us, the user interface in particular was a revelation, as it allows very fast navigation and you never lose track because all tapes are automatically sorted by color.

In addition, the plug-in has an uncomplicated function that allows you to edit the stereo center or the sides of the stereo signal (MS mode) individually. We would recommend the plugin to every newcomer because it is also ideal for "EQ learning" and is simply fun. An alternative would be the new Eiosis Air EQ that we are currently testing. The operating concept is different, but no less flexible.

The Air EQ can basically be placed exactly in the middle between analytical EQs for removing (and occasionally boosting) frequencies and the more colored equalizers with classic characteristics. We traditionally use the latter after the compressor in order to process the signal heavily. A good example here would be the Pultec Equalizer from Universal Audio, which is at home on UAD cards and interfaces.

The plug-in sounds really good even in extreme settings and is perfect for "opening" a signal or exploring the foundation of a track with low frequencies. As can often be observed with emulations, the Pultec Equalizer is available from different manufacturers, whereby each version sets different accents and, last but not least, is based on a different hardware unit or even a revision. A new tool in our arsenal is the Slate Digital VRM plug-in collection, which offers two really good EQ emulations, among other things. In addition to the replica of an SSL channel EQ, there is also a Neve replica on board. Both do the boosting of frequencies in very different ways and bring a lot of character across in their own way.

An electric guitar can handle a 12 dB boost at 8 kHz without sounding too shrill or thin in the mix. That would certainly be feasible with on-board resources, but the emulation of the well-known classics also sets the natural limits to bending that were already present in the hardware. We are therefore of the opinion that beginners should also take a look here, as corresponding emulations can certainly steepen the learning curve.

In addition to the individual tracks, we are also increasingly using »cosmetic« equalizers on subgroups or the sum. In our opinion, the Rolls Royce among software emulations is currently the Massive Passive, which is also at home on UAD cards. In contrast to many DAW's own EQs, this emulation also has the advantage that the parameters are already seasoned for the sound shaping, so to speak. An alternative would be the Elysia Museq, which sounds similarly classy, ​​but is extremely power-hungry. Sometimes the external processors are more than expensive dongles.

Compressors

The situation is similar with compressors. While some simpler dynamics processing tasks can be done very well with on-board tools, more brutal processing is usually only really fun with external plugins. We often use several compressors in series, each of which does little work and serves different purposes. Compressor 1 absorbs signal peaks with a reduction of 1 to 3 dB and rather fulfills the functional purpose of placing the signal better in the mix. The next compressor then brings color into play and intervenes vigorously. If there's one tool we can't do without, it would probably be an emulation of the Urei 1176, available from pretty much every plugin manufacturer.

Pro Tools comes with one, the Bomb Factory bf76. Our favorite is the Softube version (FET Compressor), as it offers a really useful mix control with which the original and effect signal can be mixed. Here, too, each version sounds different, the ballistics of the displays differ, and if we listen to our hardware versions for reference, there are clear differences. Not necessarily better or worse - different. In any case, the 1176 is also very suitable for learning about compression and using it musically. A must-have, so to speak, not just for spring.


 

In the video, Thomas Hannes introduces the plugins mentioned here and demonstrates them in the mix. Have fun watching!


 

With the exception of the Ableton Glue compressor mentioned, we also see deficits in the equipment of many DAWs with regard to the compression of subgroups and the total. We prefer emulations that intervene transparently and musically in our signal. A great example would be the Slate Digital VBC Suite, which brings three replicas of well-known devices (SSL bus compressor, Fairchild 670 and Focusrite Red) to the start.

We are also enthusiastic about the Alliance Vertigo VSC-2 plug-in. These representatives don't just compress the signal by 1 or 3 dB - they shape the sound. We also identify the need for investment in the limiter section. In our experience, the on-board resources are hardly sufficient here to comfortably add a few dB of loudness to a mix and limit the sum.

Fortunately, there are a number of ways to get cheap replacements here. Our tips: The Fabfilter Pro-L and the Voxengo Elephant. HALL & DELAY As already described, with the DAW delays we get very far and often even to our goal. If you want more, you will find what you are looking for with the Waves H-Delay, for example, which offers a wide variety of possibilities to bend, distort or saturate the repetitions of the delay.

Another classic in the category is the Soundtoys Echoboy. The exotic would be Siegmund from the D16 Group. Here you are overwhelmed with musical options that go far beyond the traditional areas of use of the delay in the mix. In our experience, the situation is different with reverb plugins. While some colleagues swear by DAW bolides like the Space Designer from Logic, we were never really able to get used to the possibilities of the scope of delivery.

Perhaps the sound of famous units like the Lexicon 480L is simply too much learned, and you only think you have reached your destination when your own signals have a similar coloration. Universal Audio offers an expensive but great Lexicon 224 emulation that we use for everything that should even begin to sound like the 80s. The Verb and Room plugins from Valhalla DSP, which are available for $ 50 each, are good and cheap. You can't do it yourself for that! And let's be honest: you sound great. If you are on a slightly larger budget, we also recommend the copies from Exponential Audio.

The satiated and the innovative

Many DAWs still show a shortcoming when it comes to really useful saturation plugins. Most DAWs are great at distorting, for example with the Sansamp in Pro Tools or the Overdrive plug-in in Logic.

Instead, the air becomes thin with subtle effects that give the signals a somewhat analogous texture, such as band simulations. Admittedly, the recommendations mentioned so far are higher up on our shopping list for ambitious beginners than, for example, the Studer emulation on the UAD platform or the Slate Digital Virtual Tape Machine (VTM).

 

In addition to the usual suspects, there is a whole range of special tools that we don't want to miss. For a long time, plug-ins for pitch correction were the domain of third-party manufacturers, above all Antares with Auto-Tune and the German company Celemony with their ingenious product Melodyne, which we have been using since the first version. The DAWs have caught up a lot here. Cubase offers something like that

very useful correction function that has certain Melodyne characteristics. So here an investment is not absolutely necessary if you can live with the slightly restricted range of functions. The market for sample trigger plugins, with which we help drums on the jumps, looks different. Our recommendation here is Slate Trigger, which fires samples in real time and comes with a sizable library.

We are not aware of a similar solution within the DAW, although there is of course the possibility of extracting beats as MIDI signals and then working with samplers. Logic has built in a replacement function for this. Compared to Slate Trigger, however, the procedure is not as intuitive and flexible.

The emulations

As you can see in the course of the article, many of the "popular" plugins are emulations of well-known hardware effects. In our opinion, there are two reasons for this. On the one hand, we associate a certain sound with some devices. There are a few sounds that we know from 1,000 records. Our ears have learned them, so to speak, and we consider them right or important. Emulations that come with the license of the original manufacturer and the corresponding front panel as a GUI suggest that they sound particularly "right".

And here we come to the second point: The manufacturers' marketing is getting better and better, and even the hardware manufacturers are reporting growing sales because the software versions of their devices have meanwhile become advertising platforms with a wide reach. For us, five strong YouTube films do not make a good plug-in, and we are constantly on the lookout for innovative products that mainly push small manufacturers into the market. The Fabfilter Pro-Q was such an example and it has established itself quite rightly, although a hardware template never existed.

Buy VST plugins

Last but not least, we want to focus on a few aspects that are less obvious. Buying a plugin is an investment. With appropriate maintenance, a hardware unit will still provide us with loyal service in 20 years' time.

When buying plugins, we therefore also pay attention to how future-proof the product appears. Some manufacturers offer free updates very regularly and shine with fast support and unbureaucratic solutions. At this point, for example, Slate Digital should be mentioned. The company may put off at times with its very American product videos with the over-charismatic founder Steven Slate, but inspires with short official channels and the answer sometimes comes from the boss himself. The price and upgrade policy at Celemony and Fabfilter seems just as fair to us. Other companies find it more difficult.

Waves regularly asks its customers to pay for updates (we're actually talking about updates, not upgrades), which is particularly annoying when the version of plugin interfaces changes. The somewhat bureaucratic service itself is sometimes tough, although recent reports show great progress and the patience tests are said to have become less frequent. The plugins themselves are impressive.

With very small manufacturers there is always the risk that production will be stopped and suddenly no further development will take place - this is not always dramatic, but it is definitely annoying. On the other hand, their plug-ins are often cheaper and the risk remains manageable. We have identified the neuralgic points of the DAW plugins and pointed out interesting alternatives. As a conclusion we only have to say: Load the demo, listen to it and let your ears decide!

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