Everybody has their favourites. Some sound designers have an indispensable rack of plug-ins that mangle sound in just the right way. Field recordists may rely on the same software to clean their nature recordings from problem sounds. Music producers are known to reach for that one plug-in over and over to give their tracks polish and shine.

They’re a sound pro’s addiction: audio plug-ins. It seems we never have enough; editors stock up on plug-in deals to add to their growing bank of reverbs, samplers, compressors, and EQs. There’s so much choice you may wonder: what’s the best plug-ins to add to your toolbox?

Today’s post is here to help. It shares 8 categories of plug-ins, each with top picks and a few runners up. You’ll find rock-solid reliable standbys, as well as some fresh ideas for new tools. Let’s learn more.

 

Top Audio Plug-In Picks

Fair warning: not every sound pro will agree with this list. That makes sense. After all, the needs of a composer will differ from a Hollywood sound designer or veteran nature recordist. So, in reality, each pro will have separate needs and favourites of their own. The best plug-in for you will depend on what you’re trying to achieve.

Just the same, some plug-ins are reached for again and again, regardless of the designer, producer, or recordist. This list is a tally of software that consistently delivers value and provides flexibility for multiple tasks:

  • EQ.
  • Reverb.
  • Compressor.
  • Limiter.
  • Sound design.
  • Metering.
  • Audio restoration.
  • Mastering suite.

 

EQ

You will be equalizing audio in every project you join. You don’t want to struggle with EQ every time you fire up a plug-in. So, a good choice is one that’s easy to use, sounds great, and doesn’t strain your CPU when you add a handful to your mix.

 

Pro-Q 3 repeatedly appears as the first choice for audio pros. Created by Holland’s FabFilter, it’s commonly cited as the best looking and smoothest sounding EQ on the market. The colourful interface and visual spectrum analyzer make it a pleasure to use. It’s has more than just good looks, though. Pro-Q 3 packs EQ Match, Spectrum Grabber, dynamic EQ, Auto Gain, mid/side processing and other features into the plug-in beyond the expected EQ slopes and notices. And it sounds great, too.

 

Reverb

It’s a bit tricky to single out an ultimate reverb plug-in. Every designer seems to have their favourites. It’s true that each reverb plug-in contributes its own character to a track, and fans prefer some sounds to others.

 

 

Made by one of the legends in reverb, Lexicon’s PCM bundle is consistently praised. Each reverb in the PCM bundle is modelled after classic outboard gear. For fans of convolution reverb, AudioEase’s Altiverb creates a more real-world sound.

 

 

Honorable mentions go to ValahalDSP’s and Eventide’s suites of plug-ins, as well as Soundtoys Little Plate.

 

Compressor

A compressor plug-in is a must-have tool in studios worldwide. A compressor reduces the dynamic range of a recording. It boosts the quiet parts and lowers the loudest ones so that the difference between them becomes smaller. It uses settings of threshold, ratio, attack, and release and more to control which sounds are lowered and which are boosted and by how much, and how quickly this begins and ends.

Why bother? Well, the performance of some instruments may range from quiet to loud. A compressor brings them closer together so they can be heard more easily amongst other tracks, and in different listening environments.

 

 

FabFilter’s Pro-C 2 blends a smooth sound, impressive feature set, and an informative UI. A notable free option is Tokyo Dawn Labs TDR Kotelnikov.

 

Limiter

A limiter plug-in is designed to do one thing: prevent a signal from going above a custom setting. In other words, the plug-in limits how loud a sound can be. This can be useful to prevent a signal from distorting or clipping.

 

 

One limiter that consistently stands out as a favourite is Waves’ L2. It’s a plug-in modelled after older outboard gear. Critics say its sound leaves a bit to be desired compared to more modern offerings, however it remains popular despite its age and more recently released models. 

 

For those that prefer other options, Voxengo’s Elephant, FabFilter’s Pro-L 2, and SlateDigital’s FG-X are good alternatives.

 

Sound Design

Need to create dragon vocalizations? Want to sculpt the sound of a robotic alien race? Sound designers use audio plug-ins to warp real-world sound into sci-fi and fantasy creations. Typical tools include delay, distortion, pitch shifting, filtering, reverb, and many more. 

 

 

One plug-in suite that consistently rises to sound designers’ “best of” list is Soundtoys 5. The American manufacture is know for creating some of the best plug-ins of their class with the Echoboy delay and Decapitator distortion modules. Pros rave about their ease of use, superb sound, and creative potential.

 

Metering

What’s the best way to keep an eye on your levels? What about your stereo field? Are things slipping out of phase? How does the mix compare to your loudness spec? It’s a vital to keep an eye on things. A metering plug-in does all these things and more.

 

 

iZotope Insight 2 covers these bases comprehensively. A customizable interface allows mixers to keep tabs on loudness, levels, sound field, history, spectrum, and spectrograph. It also adds an “Intelligibility Meter” that ensures dialogue remains clear within the mix. All of this is wrapped in an attractive interface.

Honorable mentions includes Waves Loudness Meter Plus, Branworx’s bx meter that, while not as full featured as Insight, are popular with the community for their no-nonsense displays.

 

Audio Restoration

Do you have line hum in your track? Perhaps you pushed your preamp too hard and your field recordings are full of noise? Maybe an actor’s nylon jacket added rustling to episodic dialogue. Audio restoration plug-ins are invaluable for salvaging and cleaning damaged recordings.

The undisputed king of audio restoration plug-ins is iZotope’s RX 7. It features tools to fix hum, buzz, clicks, pops, noise, excessive reverb, plosives, and many other troublesome audio problems.

While many other plug-in manufacturers offer noise repair options, the offerings from Waves, Accusonus, Sonnox, Antares, and others – while good in their own way – cannot match the power and depth of control that RX provides.

 

Mastering Suite

Need to give your mix a bit of polish before you send it out the door? This final step of mastering may involve adjusting overall EQ, maximizing the mix, adding an exciter, tweaking the stereo image, or other global options.

One approach is to apply a plug-in to the mix track for each of these tasks. Another intriguing option is to use a standalone mastering suite that performs each of these within a single plug-in.

There are a handful of these mastering chain plug-ins on the market. However, iZotope’s Ozone 8 rises to the top for its great sound and ease of use. Its Master Assistant is able to analyze a song, compare it to a reference track or a preset, and suggest settings for final tweaks. The results are intended as a starting point but are consistently impressive nonetheless. It’s a great way to save time and effortlessly shape your mix.