A DAW interface illustrating the use of various audio plug-ins.

Meet the Audio plug-in: Your start-up kit

An Audio plug-in is specialized software for better music-making with your DAW, and plug-ins serve a variety of purposes to flavor, enhance, and add to the breadth of your home studio recordings.

If you’re even remotely involved in producing, recording, mixing, or mastering music, chances are you’ve heard the term “plug-in” quite a bit. Audio plug-ins are powerful digital tools that can enhance your music-making and track-crafting capabilities in all sorts of ways.

What exactly are plug-ins? Think of them as specialized software programs that integrate with your main recording software (or sometimes stand on their own) and give you enhanced abilities to perform new feats of sonic magic, both subtly under the radar and unmissably explosive.

Here are a few examples of the categories of plug-ins you might encounter in your work while recording and mixing.

Instruments

From drums to synths to full symphony orchestras, instrument plug-ins can give you huge amounts of new sounds to play with, all digitized and at your fingertips. Personally, I’ve gotten great use out of Synthogy’s Ivory series, which gives you wonderful-sounding virtual piano tones, and MOTU Ethno, which provides access to a wide variety of traditional (virtual) instruments from an equally wide range of countries and cultures. And those are just the beginning.

Effects and amp emulators

Many amplifiers, stomp boxes, and miscellaneous grit-inducing effects have been turned into digital audio plug-ins, so you can add a huge range of distortion and overdrive effects to your music with a click of a button. While some plug-ins aim to perfectly mimic, say, a rare vintage Fender tube amp from the 1960s, others are designed to break new sonic ground and create fresh, ear-catching flavors of dirt and distortion that nobody has ever heard before.

Analog tape

Running sounds through analog tape machines can give them warmth and depth, but not everyone has access to the increasingly rare vintage hardware needed to make it happen. That’s why many indie artists turn to plug-ins that emulate the sound of analog tape, giving you the sonic benefits without the physical footprint. One leader in analog tape emulations is Universal Audio. I’ve written about their Oxide Tape emulation, their virtual Ampex ATR-102 machine, and other plug-ins for the UA Blog, and I’ve used these tools extensively in my own music making.

Dynamics

Tools like compressors and limiters can help ensure all your sounds come through with proper volume and gain without getting too loud or distorting (unless that’s what you want). Depending on the plug-in, they can also give your sounds distinct colors and flavors, especially if you’re using digital emulations of vintage analog hardware.

Reverb, echo, delay

Do you want your drum kit to sound like it was played in Royal Albert Hall or your female lead vocal to sound as if it were sung in an intimate cabaret — even though both were tracked in your basement? Adding the right audio plug-ins, with the right settings, can give your tracks a unique sense of space and three-dimensionality. Similarly, echo and delay effects can help you create sounds that range from subtle to crazy, adding motion, texture, and nuance.

Modulation

Adding effects like flangers and phasers can bring intrigue and movement not just to your guitar sounds, but to nearly anything else. One of my favorite modulation plug-ins is an emulation of the classic Leslie speaker, the rotating speaker that gives the Hammond B-3 organ its famous warble; I’ve used it on everything from vocals and synths to bass and drums, with interesting and often surprising results.

Pitch

Pitch-related plug-ins can do everything from making out-of-tune vocals sound more in-key to dramatically shifting the pitch of any sound higher or lower. Whether you want to subtly tweak your lead singer’s track, create dozens of interesting harmony parts, or see what your cello track sounds like when played three octaves higher, pitch-related plug-ins can open up worlds of sonic possibilities.

EQ

Tweaking the frequencies of different sounds can have subtle or huge effects on how well those sounds soar or punch, simmer or spread, whether you’re deploying them live or in the studio. Many equalization plug-ins exist to allow you to adjust frequencies of individual sounds or whole tracks with surgical precision or broad strokes.

Of course, this is far from a comprehensive list when it comes to the types of audio plug-ins you can find and integrate into your music-making. What are some of your own favorite categories of sound-enhancing plug-ins? Tell us in the comments below.


Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download through iTunes, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.

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