My 21 Top Plugins of 2021
Here’s my list of the 21 plugins I used most this past year (in no particular order). I’ll admit, it was tough to come up with such a long selection; the more I mix, the more streamlined my process has become and the fewer plugins I use. Still, these are the ones that show up on almost every mix.
I use this one all the time to add thickness and weight to my mixes. Sometimes I insert it directly on the mix bus, but more often I run it in parallel. I send my entire mix to an aux return with the ATR-102, boosting the “record” level and adjusting the bias and tape formulation until it starts to break up. I often follow it up with iZotope’s Imager plugin to add width, then sneak the processed signal back in with the rest of the mix.
This plugin has been on almost every mix I’ve done in recent memory. Some typical uses include:
Parallel vocal saturation/distortion using the preamp gain – for vocals that need a bit of bite, I often run this unit in parallel, distorting the vocal at the preamp stage (modeled after a Neve 1073). I frequently add Avid’s Mod Delay III (see below) to spread out the signal before blending it back in with the main vocal.
Adding air — the high shelf on the EQ (1084 mode) is great for adding air to vocals, acoustic guitars, and pianos. I usually set it at 16k but 12k and 10k aren’t unheard of. The top end is silky and smooth, but rarely harsh.
Parallel compression — I reach for this one a lot if I’m parallel compressing live drums (especially kick and snare). I’ll get some grit from the preamp module and then work the threshold until things are hitting right. “Recovery” is almost always 100ms. Sometimes I engage “nuke” and/or “niveau” modes too depending on the program material.
My go-to utilitarian EQ. Play around with the “processing mode” at the bottom. It makes a big difference, especially on vocals.
This plugin can be a bit of a swiss army knife, but I built one specific preset that I use all the time as a long vocal verb. It’s a tweaked version of the “Large Random Hall & Stage” program (in the “Random Halls” bank), with the reverb time set to 7.5 seconds and a medium/long pre-delay. I find it adds lots of apparent depth and atmosphere without being particularly dense or discernable as REVERB.
I think this is one of the best saturation plugins on the market. It’s versatile, easy to use, and sounds great on a wide range of sources. I typically put it on individual tracks or run it in parallel. Common uses include synth bass, pads, and horns.
I also love using the key input and envelope follower to modify the drive parameter. One common example is using it to up the distortion on a bass or pad each time the kick drum hits.
I love this one for tight, grainy room reverbs. I usually have it set to a “small” “ambient” reverb type with a short decay and a bit of pre-delay. Common uses are vocals, drums/percussion, and acoustic guitar.
This one is my utilitarian spreader (Haas effect). I generally set the dry/wet value on one channel to zero while slightly delaying the other channel (typically 10-30ms). Sometimes I also dial in a bit of subtle modulation for a stereo vibrato effect. And it's free with Pro Tools!
I use this as my dedicated vocal slap, but it’s one of the most versatile delay plugins on the market. Very easy to get a good sound quickly with this one. I especially like the “TelRay” and “EchoPlex” styles. If I really want to get into the weeds with a delay unit, this is where I start.
This plugin has tons of character. The compressor is aggressive and gluey, and the EQ is great for bringing out midrange bite and presence. I most often use it in multi-mono mode to even out wide-panned doubled sources. For me, that usually means background vocals. It’s also great as a parallel drum or bass compressor.
10. EMT 140 (UAD)
For me, this one goes hand-in-hand with LiquidSonics’ Seventh Heaven (see below). In my template it’s set up as a medium mono plate reverb. I also have the Seventh Heaven (an emulation of the Bricasti M7 hardware unit) set similarly. If I want a wide plate reverb sound on a vocal, I send the signal to each reverb, panning one send left and the other right. Since the settings are similar, the reverb doesn’t feel distracting, but the characteristics of the two units are different enough that the composite reverb signal sounds nice and wide.
For me, this one goes hand-in-hand with UAD’s EMT 140 (see above). In my template it’s set up as a medium mono plate reverb. I also have the EMT 140 set similarly. If I want a wide plate reverb sound on a vocal, I send the signal to each reverb, panning one send left and the other right. Since the settings are similar, the reverb doesn’t feel distracting, but the characteristics of the two units are different enough that the composite reverb signal sounds nice and wide.
This is my go-to mix bus compressor for groove-based music. Almost always slow attack/fast release and not too much gain reduction. I find it adds cohesion and excitement (when used appropriately).
This one is great for serial vocal compression (usually the second compressor in a chain). I love the presence and vibe it can bring to a vocal. Also helps smooth things out. I often run it with the mix knob not fully “wet.”
I don’t use this on every mix, but when I need it, there’s nothing else quite like it. Works wonders on boxy or resonant sources and reduces what I might otherwise have to do with loads of multi-band compression or automated EQ to a few simple clicks. It can be a bit dangerous though – too much reduction of certain resonances sometimes makes others stick out.
This used to be on almost every mix, although these days I’m doing far less mix bus processing than I once did. That said, when I do need it, I’m rarely disappointed. I tend to use it in M/S mode to add air to the sides and spread things out a bit.
Like the BAX EQ (see above) this one is great for adding air/presence to a mix. I sometimes use it on my mix bus, but it’s also great on individual sources like synths and acoustic guitars.
Just the standard out-of-the-box UAD 1176. Sounds great, easy to use…it’s a classic for a reason. For vocals and other program material that needs to feel grabby and exciting, my typical approach is a slow attack and fast release.
18. RBass (Waves)
This is a great tool for rounding out the bottom of kicks and basses. I have a bunch of plugins for getting extra juice out of low-end sources, but this one seems to be the one I reach for the most. A little goes a long way; I usually set the intensity pretty low.
19. RDeEsser (Waves)
This is one of the most transparent de-essers I’ve used. On vocals, I usually have it set to “wide” mode. In my experience, “split” de-essers (where the attenuation is frequency-specific) can often sound unnatural — I’d rather an entire “S” sound be reduced evenly than just the high frequencies. Sometimes if I need more control, I’ll reach for the FabFilter Pro-DS, but this is almost always the first one I try.
I like blending loads of different reverbs, but if I could only have one, this would be it. It’s wildly affordable, versatile, and sounds great. I love the “Concert Hall,” “Chamber,” and “Dirty Plate” reverb modes in particular, but there are loads more to play with.
This one’s not technically a plugin, but I rely on it so much that it deserves a place on the list. I use it to route all the audio from my computer to my DAC. The best part is that it allows me to insert plugins on the system audio.