Plug-ins are basically small programs that work within your audio software, such as Pro Tools or Logic, and provide you with a multitude of real-time audio processing and effects. The availability of plug-ins in the marketplace is dizzying, with many only a download away from being in your system. For this guide, we’ve concentrated on the traditional audio processing effects as opposed to the virtual synths and drum programming modules. We love those, too, but they deserve their own guide.
There are several formats and your system and software will dictate which ones you can use. Most of the more popular ones come in multiple formats and real time processing is a must have, so the real questions are, “What formats should I be seeking out and how much do I have to invest?” For the time being, there is little hope of a unified standard, so it’s best to know your formats.
RTAS – Real-Time Audio Suite
RTAS is Avid’s proprietary format and is available on Macs and PCs. There are many to choose from due to the widespread adoption of Pro Tools. Very few are free or cheap – some are even over $1,000! But as with Apple products, developers must be approved and thus plug-ins are more stable, and there are plenty at the $99 price point worth getting. You can use a wrapper or converter program to convert VST plug-ins to RTAS format for use in Pro Tools. Beware of destabilizing your computer, as independent developers may not have a proper uninstall option and you could end up with issues. Pro Tools also comes with free plug-ins (such as The Bomb Factory BF76 compressor and several great stock effects), which are quite good – especially when used quickly on-the-fly to get the sound under control.
VST – Virtual Studio Technology
VST was created by Steinberg and is available on Macs and PCs and is compatible with Cubase, Logic and other programs. This format is open source has been around long enough to have many free and affordable options available. There are just as many great choices in VST as there are in RTAS. However, be careful of what you install, as a rogue script could compromise your system’s stability.
TDM (Time Division Multiplexing)
This is for Pro Tools systems that have built in hardware. Though more expensive, these utilize hardware such as PCI cards which house the DSP so your CPU is not pulling all the weight. One mix with 40 tracks, all with audio processing, and you will probably bog down the system. This is a better design, which offloads the work to the card rather than your system, as opposed to RTAS and VST, which run “native” on your computer’s system.
Sonar, REAPER, Acid Pro and others use this format, but its Windows-only status can be a big downside for Mac-based studios. There are many available plug-ins in this format, and some good free ones depending on your needs. Originally, Microsoft developed DirectX for games and other multimedia.
AU – Audio Unit
Apple’s plug-in architecture is similar to VST, and there are several wrappers out there to translate VST to AU (such as FXpansion and Symbiosis). Some come already built in to Apple’s OS, but there are plenty of robust choices available (though not as many as an open source ecosystem can provide for). GarageBand, Logic Pro, Digital Performer and REAPER can use this format.
MAS (MOTU Audio System)
Digital Performer’s format designed by Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) and is only for the Mac. Performer can also utilize AU plug-ins.
Here is a cross section of some of our favorite plug-ins:
Pod Farm 2.5
Cost: $99 [VST/RTAS/AU]
Upgrading to POD Farm 2.5 is free for owners of POD Farm 2. This is made by Line 6, who has built their name by pioneering amp modeling, which is built into live guitar amplifiers and desktop PODs. Their amps sound great live, but we were curious if the sound quality would translate well under the higher audio requirements of recording. It does stand up well in the mix if you tweak it properly and start with a good source. Pod Farm 2.5 offers the essential effects for guitar, bass and vocals while the more expensive Platinum version offers a much greater set of options. One really cool feature is being able to use an AB router and run separate signal routes in a very user-friendly interface. You can also hook up your Line 6 devices and use them as long as they have a model pack. Also, they offer 64-bit support for software such as Cubase5, Sonar 8x and X1, and Logic 9.2.
WAVES-Renaissance Reverb Native
Cost: $49 [VST/RTAS/AU]
This affordable plug-in comes with 12 different reverbs and so many variables it is infinitely tweakable and with graphical controls (you just grab a node and drag it to increase the reverb tail or to dip the midrange EQ). It lists many different basic reverb types from Room, Plate, Reverse, Gated and more. If you just want to add some space on the fly, then use something like the stock reverb in Pro Tools, but once you get more towards a finished mix, you will want something you can have full control over. Although this one comes at a bargain, Waves plug-ins can be on the more expensive side but really give you what you pay for. Their design team just does it better and you can rest assured you will be getting a high quality plug-in every time.
AmpliTube 3 Live
Cost: $299 [VST/RTAS/AU]
A multitude of vintage amp simulators with EQ, presence, cabinet and mic modeling, swells, rotary speakers, delays – basically the works for guitar and bass. You can also add a series of pedal effects (stomp mode) including a tuner, delay chorus, tremolo, wah, etc. As a guitar player, you can’t just write off great tube and solid state amps and pre amps and a real mic’d-up cabinet, but using plug-ins gives you the ability to tweak all the way through to the final mixing stage and provides for great convenience. Also for home studios, you may not be able to rock in the wee hours of the night, whereas with headphones and modeling software, you can turn up to 11 anytime you want. You can even use MIDI control for automation of real time controls. The visual setup is just like a pedal board, and in amp mode it shows you what looks like an amp head, making the guitar player comfie with the setup and making it very easy to use. One trick is to record a clean guitar and then process it with AmpliTube, tweaking as you go and deciding later in the mix which effects work best.
Antares Auto-Tune EVO Native
Cost: $199 [VST/RTAS/AU]
Once you get it right, it can be a wonderful tool that can either be used as a noticeable effect (T-Pain, for example) or used more transparently to correct pitch and make your vocal more pleasing to the ear without sounding computer-like. The “retune speed” and “humanize” controls allow for flexibility over how it tunes your audio. You do have to have some idea of keys and scales, but at least a starting key and some time for trial and error can get you to a desired result. Some other auto-tunes may be more automatic but will likely afford you less control. Use with care or not at all, please.
Bomb Factory BF76 Peak Limiter
Cost: Free with Pro Tools [RTAS, TDM]
The Bomb Factory BF76 plug-in is modeled after the world-class classic 1176 Peak Limiter that so many studios have used over the years. We love the way it expands on an otherwise dull bass sound. Typically digital versions of classic hardware can’t replace the old boxes, but this is one example of a company truly capturing the character of the box in the software version.
FXpansion has created a VST to RTAS converter. You may run into compatibility issues now and again, however don’t expect all VSTs to work as RTAS plug-ins through this or any other converter/wrapper. But if you end up migrating systems to more robust software or are working out of different studios, you may find this a lifesaver when you want that favorite “go-to” plug-in, only to find it was designed for a different platform.
Depending on your system and DAW, there is no reason not to dive into the world of plug-ins and start tweaking away. Many great options (some affordable, some more expensive) are only a click away and can expand your recording capabilities beyond your imagination. So with that, we’ll shut up and let you get back to twisting those virtual knobs.