There are a friggin’ ton of options when it comes to plugins these days. And for someone just getting started, it can be utterly overwhelming. Or worse, it can throw the unwitting soul into the infinite black hole that is gear lust. But with all the gadgets and tools out there, there is actually very little you need to have in order to get your mix to the 95% kick ass level.
So with that thought in mind, let me list my favorite “go-to” plugins. It is very possible to deliver a pretty solid mix using only these.
1) Waves SSL Channel
Oh man. I hate giving Waves any credit. Their years of overpriced plugins and horrible “update plan” really turned me off to this company. With that said, their prices have come down and this plugin is absolutely rock-solid. It is my number one EQ, compressor, and gate. All in one processor friendly, low latency plugin.
This plugin finds itself on about 80% of my tracks. The sound is nice, but the convenience is unbeatable. If I had to mix a track with only one plugin, this would be it.
Yes, I spend a lot of time mixing through a limiter. No, I don’t give a shit if that offends the audio purists. This particular limiter (as with most Massey plugins) is an incredible set-it-and-forget-it type of plugin. I have yet to find a limiter that so easily can crush a mix (if needed/wanted) without sounding like a pumpy, horrible sack o’ balls. The sound is wonderfully transparent and I typically only play with the threshold knob. I let the plugin do the rest.
In the many years I’ve been using this plugin, I’ve found very few occasions where I’ve needed to use anything other than the “loud” mode with the release set to “normal”. The less I have to think about plugin details, the more focus I can put into the mix. Love it.
While we’re on the subject of the incredible Massey plugins, I should mention the ultra-sexy TD-5. If you’ve been reading this blog for a bit, you know my utter fascination with all things distortion. And this delay delivers just enough grime to really dirty up a delay. If you pop this baby into “multi-mono” mode and change up the settings between left and right, you get a glorious and wide delay from the heavens. As with all delays, this one takes a bit of fiddling to make it work. But once you hit paydirt with your setup, this delay really brings the vocal to another level.
Being forced to only choose one “tape saturation” type plugin is no fun. But, as far as overall ease for adding a bit of subtle “grit” to whatever you want; the PSP Vintage Warmer 2 can’t be beat. As much as I adore the Massey TapeHead plugin, I find that the VW2 is a touch more versatile. This saucy little plugin has been on the master bus of probably 98% of the songs I’ve mixed in the last 3 or 4 years. I love it that much.
Not only can it add a bit of girth to a thin mix, but I love using the VW2’s EQ to add in a bit of 150-250hz to a mix. Just for some extra balls down below.
This plugin (or it’s little cousin the “Microwarmer”) tend to end up on one of my drum busses and the my vocal chain as well. Subtle distortion for all!
5) Digidesign Lo-Fi
Speaking of distortion…right here, my all-time favorite plugin for dirt…and it’s a freaking stock plugin. Who needs the most expensive piece of gear to mix? Lo-Fi has been on damn near every single rock mix I’ve ever done.
Though I’m happy to throw this plugin on wherever it is needed, my favorite guitar trick of all time is using Lo-Fi to “crunch up” big distorted guitars. Do it and all the girls will come running. At least that’s how it works in my head.
6) Digidesign SansAmp
Sticking with the stock plugin theme, I’m putting SansAmp on this list. Why? I have never found a plugin that even comes close to rivaling how amazing SansAmp sounds on bass guitar. I mean, it’s like SansAmp is Tyson in his prime and the next best amp plugin for bass is Floyd Mayweather. Mayweather, you are amazing, but Tyson would stomp you.
And I’m not talking just for massive rock songs either. I use SansAmp on every bass. It could be for a gentle country song and that bass is gonna get at least a little hit of that wonderful mid-range crunch SansAmp brings to the table.
I’ve found much better distortion plugins for huge guitars, vocals, etc…but never a better one on bass. Use it and try not to jizz in your pants.
Haters, hate all you want. I often use samples on kick and snare (and sometimes toms) to augment the drums. And this plugin, even with it’s awkward layout and weird quirks (“Detail”?! Just call it “Threshold”. Words have meanings after all.) is really, really great.
The samples that it comes with are pretty damn sweet and with it’s even more awkward-er “Instrument Editor” and some googling, you can get your own samples in there, too.
There is a bit of a learning curve on this plugin, but it’s worth it in the end to get some epic kick/drum combos.
Honorable Mention: Superior Drummer 2
If I could mix only drums recorded immaculately by seasoned engineers, I would freaking love it. But ya know what? Those days are coming to an end folks. I mix a ton of bands and in the last several years, more and more of them are using fake drums. You can fight against it or you can go with the flow. I’ve chosen the latter.
So now when the artist has recorded (or programmed) electric drums, I ask them to send the midi file and I pop that into my trusty Superior Drummer 2. Instant epic. Well programmed drums (which means when every note isn‘t 100% on the grid and they aren’t all the same velocity) can come pretty damn close to the real thing. And if I had a choice between horribly recorded drums and well programmed Superior Drummer drums…well, I’ll choose SD in a lot of cases.