No matter your personal preference, the world of pro audio has continued to move towards digital. Tape machines have transitioned to DAWs, analog consoles have slimmed down to control surfaces, and CDs have been replaced by streaming services. With little more than a laptop, you can create music that would have taken a team of professionals over a week in a world-class studio just 30 years ago, all thanks to the magic of audio plugins.
Plugins are kind of like apps for your DAW. Each plugin serves a specific purpose for making your recordings sound better, like equalization, compression, reverb, delay, and more. Simply load the desired plugin on a specific channel (like the kick drum, the guitar track, or the lead vocal) to change the sound of that instrument.
Each plugin has its own interface, and can be used on multiple tracks with different settings. You can even save and instantly recall settings to speed up your workflow. Plugins have come a long way since their inception. Most modern plugins offer studio-grade sound and low-latency processing, but they certainly didn’t start that way…
The History of Audio Plugins
The history of plugins begins with the inception of digital audio. In 1979, a company called Fairlight developed a sampler and digital synthesizer with a built-in CRT monitor called the Computer Musical Instrument.”The CMI featured a hard-disk recording system operated by the MFX series digital audio workstation.
By the early 80s, personal computers were all the rage. Computers such as the Apple II, Commodore Amiga, and Atari ST even had enough processing power to support music production. In 1983, Roland demonstrated their innovative MIDI format, which opened up a whole new world of digital signal processing.
In 1985, Atari released the 520 ST computer, which included built-in MIDI ports. That same year, Digidesign released Sound Designer, a digital audio workstation designed to edit samples for keyboards. By 1989, the company had developed the technology for two-track digital recording and changed the name of the software to Pro Tools.
In 1992, Waves Audio debuted the very first audio signal processor plugin: the Q10 Paragraphic Equalizer. The following year, Pro Tools added integration for third-party software, and several companies began making their own custom plugins.
It didn’t take long for engineers and producers to see the benefits of mixing with plugins. Instant recall and the ability to use multiple instances of each plugin sparked a digital revolution in studios around the globe. However, some engineers missed the familiarity of their favorite outboard processors.
In 2006, Waves Audio released the SSL 4000 Collection, one of the first analog-modeled digital signal processors. It featured two channel strip plugins to emulate the classic sound of the SSL E-Series and G-Series consoles with faithful reproductions of the filter, EQ, and dynamics processing sections. The bundle also included a standalone G-Series equalizer and the G-Master Buss compressor. Since then, countless companies have created authentic emulations of classic analog signal processors, including the Neve 1073 preamp, Universal Audio 1176 compressor, and EMT 140 plate reverb.
The Difference Between Analog Hardware and Audio Plugins
You may be wondering why anyone would bother with analog hardware when the most popular pieces of outboard gear are available in plugin form. There are some fairly noticeable differences between analog hardware and digital plugins. It’s not that one is better or worse than the other; they’re just different.
The biggest difference is how each format affects your workflow. Analog hardware can only be used on one track at a time and must be set manually. Some engineers prefer this tactile, hands-on approach, while others prefer the flexibility offered by plugins.
Most modern plugins do a great job of emulating the sound of the hardware they’re based on. Universal Audio pride themselves on creating hyper-accurate emulations using their innovative component modeling techniques.
There’s an old saying in the audio industry: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Hear the difference between analog and digital signal processing in this video, where we put a Neve 33609, Chandler Limited EMI TG12413 Zener Limiter, Neve 1073, Tube-Tech CL 1B, and Universal Audio 1176 to the test with their digital counterparts.
Types of Audio Plugins
When it comes to the different types of plugins, there are almost too many to list. With so many options to choose from, we're breaking them down by category and covering how they can be used in the studio. If you prefer to buy a single collection of plugins instead of picking and choosing from the list below, you'll find quality options with the Avid Complete Plugin Bundle, Waves Gold Bundle, McDSP Classic Pack Bundle Native V6, Apogee FX Rack Bundle or a custom bundle from Universal Audio.
Mic Pre Audio Plugins
Microphone preamp plugins are designed to emulate the sound of vintage analog consoles from Neve, API, SSL, and Trident, as well as classic standalone designs from companies like Telefunken.In addition to modeling the sound of the preamp, many plugins also emulate the sound of the entire circuit for truly authentic tone. It’s common for preamp plugins to include controls for phase, filters, and stereo processing. Some models, like the Neve 1073, SSL E-Series, and Trident A-Range even include EQ.
Suggested Mic Pre Audio Plugins: Slate Digital Virtual Tube Collection, Universal Audio Neve 1073 Preamp & EQ Collection, Universal Audio V76 Preamplifier, Arturia Preamp Bundle, Waves EMI TG12345 Channel Strip, Antelope Audio V76, Antelope Audio Gyraf Gyratec IX, Antelope Audio BAE 1073, Antelope Audio BA-31
EQ Audio Plugins
Whether you’re using an analog-modeled equalizer like the SSL E-Series or a custom digital EQ like the Waves Q10, they all work essentially the same way. By adjusting the frequency response of a signal, you can alter the tone of an instrument.
EQs are great for correcting problems from the recording phase, like removing harshness caused by cheap condenser microphones. They can also be used to enhance the pleasant elements of an instrument, like the shimmering high-end of an acoustic guitar. EQs can be used to carve out space in a mix by cutting a frequency range in one or more tracks to make room for another instrument. And sometimes we use EQs just to make stuff sound weird, like putting a telephone effect on a vocal, or giving an 808 kick drum a lo-fi vibe.
There are several different types of EQs, each of which excel at different tasks. Fixed EQs were typically found on vintage analog consoles, and offered three to four bands of EQ with selectable frequencies. Hours of research went into determining which frequencies should be used, which is why fixed EQs are often praised for being easy to use and having a very musical sound.
Semi-parametric EQs typically feature four bands: a fixed low shelf, a fixed high shelf, and two midrange bands with fully variable frequency controls. Semi-parametric EQs are commonly used in modern consoles and analog signal processors for their versatile design.
Full parametric EQs are digital equalizers with multiple bands (usually 7 to 10) for precise control over any sound. Each band offers fully variable frequency and “Q” controls for advanced tone shaping capabilities. Parametric EQs are great for cleaning up recordings with subtractive EQ, but they don’t share the same color and character as analog-modeled EQs.
Graphic equalizers are slightly less common in studio settings, but combine the tone shaping capabilities of a parametric EQ with the musicality of a fixed EQ. Graphic EQs typically feature 8, 16, and most often, 32 fixed frequency bands. Simply boost or cut various bands to create virtually any EQ shape.
Suggested Audio EQ Plugins: FabFilter Pro-MB, Waves SSL G-Equalizer, Waves PuigTec EQs, Waves API 550 EQ, Waves SSL 4000, McDSP FilterBank HD V6, Sonnox Oxford EQ, Universal Audio API 500 Series EQ Collection, Universal Audio Manley Massive Passive EQ, Antelope Audio BAE 1084, Antelope Audio NEU W492, Antelope Audio VMEQ-5, Antelope Audio Lang-PEQ2, Avid EQ III 7-Band, Avid Pultec EQP-1A, Apogee Pultec EQP-1A, Apogee ModComp
Compressor Audio Plugins
Compressors are easily the most commonly emulated hardware devices. With hundreds of options to choose from, it can seem overwhelming at times. The good news is that every compressor has something unique to offer that can help you improve your sound.
While EQs adjust the tone or frequency response of a signal, compressors adjust the volume or dynamic response of a signal. Compressors are most commonly used to control the dynamics of a performance. On a base level, compressors make loud sounds quieter and quiet sounds louder to create more consistent dynamics.
With a little practice, compressors can be used to accentuate the transient or attack of a sound like a drum hit. They can be used to tame the attack of a pick hitting the strings of an acoustic guitar. They can be used to keep bass notes from clipping and causing distortion. They can even be used to increase the perceived loudness of a track. You can also use compressors to shape the tone of a sound.
There are four basic types of compressors, each with their own unique sound. Tube compressors are the oldest design. They use vacuum tubes to apply compression to a signal, giving them a warm sound with a slow response time, perfect for gluing tracks together. The Manley Vari-Mu is one of the most highly sought-after tube compressors for its innovative program-dependent controls.
Another vintage design, optical compressors use light to trigger gain reduction, which gives it a very slow attack time. Optical compressors have a variable ratio based on the incoming signal, which gives them a very musical sound. Optical compressors like the LA-2A are commonly used for smoothing out inconsistent levels in vocal and bass recordings.
Designed to recreate the sound of vacuum tubes in a digital circuit, FET compressors are much faster than tube and optical compressors, giving them a punchy, aggressive sound. Known for their signature color, FET compressors like the Universal Audio 1176 are often used for adding excitement to vocal tracks and drum busses.
VCA compressors are the most modern design and feature the fastest response times with the cleanest tone. These versatile compressors can be used to add punch to percussion tracks or smooth out dynamic bass performances.
Some compressor plugins offer multiple modes for modeling tube, optical, FET, and VCA designs, making them a popular choice for any situation. And some compressor plugins, like the Fab Filter’s Pro-C 2, deliver their own unique compression algorithms for all new sounds.
Suggested Audio Compressor Plugins: Waves CLA Classic Compressors, Waves dbx 160, Waves API 2500, Slate Digital FG-Stress Compressor, Softube Weiss Compressor/Limiter, Softube TubeTech Collection, IK Multimedia T-Racks Vintage Tube Compressor Model 670, McDSP 4030 Retro Compressor HD, Universal Audio API 2500 Bus Compressor, Universal Audio Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor, Universal Audio Variable Mu Limiter Compressor, Universal Audio 1176 Classic Limiter Collection, Universal Audio Fairchild Tube Limiter Collection, Universal Audio Chandler Limited Zener Limiter, Fab Filter Pro-C 2, Antelope Audio BAE 10DCF, Antelope Audio Impresser, Antelope Audio Tubechild 670, Avid BF76 Compressor, Avid Smack, Avid BF-3A, Apogee Opto-3A, Apogee ModComp
Reverb/Delay Audio Plugins
In the earliest days of analog recording, the only way to add more depth to a record was to move the microphone further away from the sound source. Thankfully, ever since EMT released the EMT 140 plate reverb in 1957, a variety of tools for simulating space in your mixes have been developed.
In addition to analog-modeled plate and spring designs, reverb plugins also offer an array of algorithms to simulate the sound of halls, rooms, churches, chambers, and more. Some reverb plugins can be used to simulate strange environments like massive silos and tiny tin cans, while others use impulse response technology to accurately simulate the exact reverb response of a specific environment, like the legendary Blackbird Studios in Nashville.
Delay plugins work similarly. Some are emulations of vintage tape delays, while others, like Soundtoys’ Echo Boy, introduce all new algorithms for sounds and effects that could only be achieved by a computer.
Suggested Reverb/Delay Audio Plugins: Audio Ease Altiverb 7, Waves Abbey Road Chambers, Lexicon PCM Native Reverb, Waves H-Reverb, Waves Renaissance Compressor, Exponential Audio Stratus 3D Reverb, Softube Spring Reverb, Universal Audio Capitol Chambers, Universal Audio Lexicon 480L, Universal Audio AKG BX 20 Spring Reverb, Universal Audio EMT 140 Classic Plate Reverberator, Universal Audio Cooper Time Cube MK II Delay, Korg SDD-3000 Digital Delay, Soundtoys Echo Boy, Avid AIR Dynamic Delay