There are literally thousands of plugins available to producers and mixers today. Some of them come stock with the license you purchase for your DAW. Others come as part of a bundle or a la cart. Even more still are available on a subscription basis. With so many incredible options out there, it’s still a shock to see innovation and inspiration leading to new concepts for plugins each and every year.
While there are plugins that can do just about any task now from tuning a not-so-pitch-perfect vocal to authentic tape emulation in your DAW, there are really five essential tools that any mixer worth their salt need to have available for every session they work on. With these five tools alone, you should be able to take a well-recorded song and turn it into a radio success.
Do you know what they are?
The first thing I check out when opening a new DAW is what the stock EQ looks and feels like. EQs are an essential part of any mixer’s toolbox. It’s the one thing that can give us control over the frequencies that combine to make each and every sound. While an EQ might not be complicated, it’s been a tried and true solution to countless mix problem.
Having a great EQ available just makes your workflow easier. By having something that you can reach for that you’re intimately familiar with, you’ll know exactly how to get the sound you want with it. EQs are great starting points whether you need to cut a problem out of your track or boost to help something shine through the mix. Between panning, fader levels & EQ – many mixes can be 90% finished before we even move to the next plugin on our list.
If the EQ is your hammer that forces your frequencies into shape, your compressor is the nail that ends up holding it all together. Just like EQs, compressors don’t have to be complicated to be effective. Having a threshold that you can set and a ratio to compress by is a start. Having control over the attack/release takes it a step further, with many modern compressors adding even more features.
In the case of our Bus Glue series, we decided to take the approach that compression could be even more tailored toward specific instruments, especially in a bus compression setting. By having compressors available that are built to handle whatever specific use case you throw at them, your tweaking becomes almost second nature as the plugin picks up the guesswork for you.
As modern mixers, we also can’t overlook the parallel capabilities that compressors have afforded us. Nearly every radio mix today is taking compression to the extremes, but we’re doing so in an innovative new way. Rather than decimating our dynamics, mixers are opting to use parallel processing (or a mix control if their compressor has one) to create a crushed tone that’s balanced with the unprocessed signal. The end result is something that’s punchy and clear while retaining a sense of dynamism.
Reverb has always been a huge part of the music recording process, but it wasn’t always as digitally accessible as it is today. Even today, major studios will still rely on “classic reverb” techniques using natural spaces or expensive outboard hardware to get the ‘verb they’re after.
There isn’t a mixer out there that doesn’t have a go-to digital reverb though. The stock plugins alone will now give you access to hundreds of spaces from plate reverbs to small rooms to churches to stadiums. Couple some of these stock options with a great convolution reverb and some impulse responses, and you can literally load up any space you want right inside your DAW.
If a compressor pairs perfectly with EQ, than a delay is the perfect accompaniment for a reverb. Both time-based effects are used to create a sense of space around your audio and put things in the same virtual room as each other. A great delay is going to give you control over so much more than just the length and number of repeats, and the options seem to be growing every day.
For me, delays are as much a way to repeat a sound, as they are a way to modulate them. Using a tape delay like Soar gives me the flexibility to change the way the plugin changes and alters my sound while retaining all of the controls that a stock delay might offer. The end result is some non-linearity that sounds like analog without the analog price tag.
Saturation is the number one plugin that gets overlooked by many engineers, but it’s more essential than ever if you’re looking to create a mix that can compete. Modern vocals are almost always saturated, whether by a preamp or after the fact in the box, and the engineers that are recording them are finally opening up about the techniques they use. What’s even more impressive is that saturation doesn’t just stop with the lead vocal – there are dozens of instruments that can make use of some saturation too!
For me, capturing a signature saturation sound was my main priority when starting JST. Gain Reduction helped my take all of the things that I loved about my vocal processing chain and combine them all into one amazing saturation plugin. I’m positive we’ll see other saturation options pop up, but having my own tone ready to go from one plugin has been such a great timesaver that I can’t see switching to anything else.
How Many Did You Get?
Did these plugins line up with what you would consider the must-haves of the mix world? If we didn’t include on that you’re sure should be on there, come let us know about it over on the JST Forum on Facebook.
If you’ve got everything you need already – congratulations. You have all the tools you need to make a killer mix. The only thing left is to learn how you should be using them and getting feedback about your work. Both of those are offered to JST VIP members. See how you can get all of the knowledge and experience being shared with members by starting with a one-month membership today.