The Ultimate Plugin Guide for Electronic Music

The Ultimate Plugin Guide for Electronic Music

NOVEMBER 10th, 2017


“It’s so difficult, isn’t it? To see what’s going on when you’re in the absolute middle of something? It’s only with hindsight we can see things for what they are.” – S.J. Watson


Jack Canfield, one of the best-selling authors of all time (he wrote the ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul‘ books) said that he’s read over 10,000 books in his lifetime. And yes – that’s a pretty impressive amount of books. But here’s the kicker:

He thinks his time would’ve been better spent only reading 1,000 books, but knowing them like the back of his hand.

And the same is true with plugins in electronic music. It is far better to know a few tools really well, than to collect and stockpile plugins like an episode of TLC’s Hoarders. And so, let’s unpack this conversation: what plugins do we really need? (And if you think it “doesn’t matter” you’re ignoring the fact that tons and tons of producers struggle deeply with curating and collecting the right arsenal of plugins on a daily basis).

When is it worth investing in 3rd party stuff? Can you make professional music with JUST your stock DAW’s plugins? When, if at all, should you invest in Universal Audio plugins?

PDF: Download the Ultimate Plugin Guide

So, what plugins do I really need?

No one can actually answer this question – after all, what plugins you need largely depends on what kind of music you are creating. And because of this ambiguity, anytime a new producer asks the question “What plugins do I need” they are usually met with some simpleton answers that sound something like:

“There is no way to answer this”

“Noob. Go home.”

“Just use your DAW’s plugins”

“Do you really think someone could tell you what plugins you need? LOL”

And so on, and so forth. When in reality – if you look at this question deep enough – it’s actually a great question.

After all, what plugins do you really need? How many synths do you really need to produce commercially viable music? So, I did my best to answer the question based on not only my personal experience in music production, but in working with hundreds and hundreds of students and addressing their needs as well.

A few disclaimers/How to use this post

If you’ve ever read any forum about music production, there is always these dismissive assholes who assume they are god’s gift to music production. They’ve taken a few classes, watched a ton of YouTube tutorials, and can’t imagine how anyone could ever possibly break the rules of audio production.

Well here’s the thing…

Rules are meant to be broken. And the professionals break them every day. They just do it with a sense of purpose and reason. There’s nothing more wrong than telling you that one plugin is the best for all situations because frankly, in music production that type of ‘one size fits all solution’ doesn’t exist.

Instead, as time goes on you’ll find that certain plugins are really good for certain tasks. This guide is merely a way to simplify the vast possibilities of what plugins can be used into a simple set of guidelines to lead to success.

This post isn’t an all-encompassing list of the perfect plugins. It’s more of the approach I’ve seen work time and time again for developing producers.

Organizing the buckets

Different music, different skill levels…all sorts of differences make this a particularly difficult question, which is why we have to segment this into groups. For this I’ve used 4 of the 5 tiers from Sam Matla’s 5 Stages of an Electronic Music Producer article on EDMProd.

And just to clarify, the lengths below are estimates that I have modified for the purposes of this article. Some producers will move through the tiers faster or slower. The estimates represent the amount of time generally spent in that specific tier after the previous tier has been completed or defeated (for you gamer’s out there).

Tier 1 – Initiation (2-6 months)

This is the absolute amateur: you’re brand new to production, and still getting comfortable in a DAW.

Tier 2 – Exponential Learning (12-24 months)

This is where the fun really starts. Everything is new and exciting.

Tier 3 – The Dip (6-18 months)

You start to get pretty good, but this is easily the most difficult part in an electronic music producer’s journey. Production starts to become difficult and seems more time-consuming.

Tier 4 – Professional/Advanced (2-5 years)

You have “mastered” a genre, and invested thousands of hours into music production.

The plugin list & price problem…

We broke down the plugins we utilize in these groups:

  1. Synths/Samplers
  2. Dynamics (Compressors, Multi-band Compressors, Limiters)
  3. EQs
  4. Saturation/Distortion
  5. Reverb
  6. Effect

Regardless of your skill level, price can often be a HUGE factor in what plugins you own.

For this reason, I feel like it’s important to note that just because I mention a certain plugin (especially one that is expensive), you don’t have to use that plugin. There are plenty of plugins out there that do virtually the exact same thing as most of the plugins I will be talking about. Plus, you can always use built-in plugins.

The important thing to note here is that expensive plugins do not always mean they are better, and for that matter having a better plugin doesn’t always mean your music is going to sound better. At the end of the day, nothing beats out talent and perseverance. However, this post does highlight most of the plugins I’ve found can take you to exactly where you want to be.

Tier 1

Initiation (2-6 Months)

Synths/Samplers/Things that make noise

In Tier 1, you have very little idea what you’re doing, and even less knowledge about what synths to use. There are literally hundreds of them. In the beginning, it’s important to focus on developing your skills overall, and not on understanding the deep end of synthesis. For this reason, I recommend you take one fairly simple/quality synth and get comfortable using it. As you develop you’ll be able to add many more synths to your arsenal.

Choose one of the following three synths.

  • Xfer Records Serum
  • Lennar Digital Sylenth1
  • reFX Nexus 2

These synths on the surface level are very affective at plug-and-play. There are enough quality presets to sift through and copious amounts of free online tutorials to get you some pretty decent sounds at the beginning.

The trick here is to be simplistic. There is so much you have to learn in making a full-length song on a computer that if you spend too much time at the beginning worrying about synths and sound design, you’ll end up struggling actually writing songs and mixing. Plus, with the abundance of high-quality presets from these synths, you’ll have more than enough to get you started. Don’t worry too much here about sounding as good as the pros (nobody ever has at this stage).

Mixing Plugins

When it comes to this vast world of mixing plugins, it doesn’t really make much sense to invest in third party plugins when you begin your production journey. When you’re just starting out and getting to know your DAW, having to learn a the ins and outs of third party plugins can be super daunting. Give yourself a break and wait until you have a firm grasp on your DAW’s host plugins before moving on to the third party stuff.

For this reason, I recommend you stay away initially from buying a bunch of third party stuff until you become familiar with your DAW’s native plugins. So, when it comes to compressors, limiters, EQ, saturation, reverb, and effects, use what’s free and super easy to get started using. You’d actually be surprised how often I still use native DAW plugins in my mixes these days. One real benefit to using them is that they are extremely CPU efficient. When you’re new to the game you probably won’t have the most robust/lightning fast computer, so CPU concerns will be paramount.

That said, there are a few plugins that are either free or extremely cheap that I have always felt you could jump right in and download immediately. Consider these utility mixing plugins.

Even as a more advanced professional, it’s worth noting that I’m still using these plugins. Because they are so good, there hasn’t really been a need to upgrade these plugins over the many years I’ve spent producing. For that reason, they satisfy all 4 tiers for us. And here they are:

  1. Voxengo SPAN
    An extremely high-quality spectrum analyzer. Having access to this analyzer from the beginning really helps you to understand frequencies and their relationship to pitch.

  2. Flux Stereo Tool
    An amazing stereo imager and panning tool. Really important for Ableton users since Ableton doesn’t actually have the ability to do true panning.

  3. Oxford Inflator
    One of a kind plugin that essentially makes any sound you run through it sound louder and fuller. Definitely worth buying early and getting incorporated into your workflow.

  4. Xfer Records OTT Compressor
    A free tool (that also comes as a stock Ableton compressor) that can be used for coloration and a beautiful, commercial color and gloss that no other plugin can emulate quite as well.

That said, other than these four plugins we just highlighted (which really don’t have a cheaper or better alternative) stick to your DAW’s stock plugins until you’ve crossed into tier 2.

PDF: Download the Ultimate Plugin Guide

Tier 2

Exponential Learning (12-24 Months)

Synths/Samplers/Things that make noise

In this stage, you are going to want every plugin under the sun, but try your best to refrain.

Once you are comfortable inside of one synth, there is a natural tendency to want to move on and get your hands on the latest more colorful, shiny and robust synths out there.

Sure, diversifying your skill set can become pretty damn important – in fact, it can help fuel your sound, but at the same time, too many synths means you are also NOT mastering the details of a single synth.

At this stage, I’d recommend picking one of the following synths and diving into the manual. Learn the synth as best you can inside and out. Unlike the 1st tier, now you will be moving beyond just surfing through presets. You should start to really understand how these synths work and how you can manipulate sounds. Here are my 4 favorite synths to get to know on a deep level.

  • Xfer Records Serum
  • Native Instruments Massive
  • Reveal Sound Spire
  • Lennar Digital Sylenth1

It’s worth noting, these synths are deep…

After producing music for almost a decade, I’m still learning more and more things about these synths every day. That’s precisely why it’s so great to choose one of these – no matter how much you know about the synth, you’ll always be able to make new and interesting sounds.

At this stage, you’ll also start to hear fancy words like samplers and romplers. You’ll start to find out that not all electronic music is actually electronic. You’ll start playing around with more organic and non-synthetic sounds in your productions. And over time, you might even gravitate more towards using sample based sounds over digital synths.

There really is only one all-encompassing sampler you have to worry about – Native Instruments Kontakt is one hell of a beast. It essentially allows anyone with recorded content libraries to create a sample based synth. Again, there are thousands of libraries to choose from and all the sounds are so dramatically different.

In Tier 2, you’re definitely going to want some basic high quality organic sounds to work with. You’ll probably want a piano, some brass, some strings and potentially a unique vocal based library.

To get started, here are my favorite Kontakt libraries to get your organic needs satisfied.

  • Alicia’s Keys Piano
  • Symphony Essentials
  • Session Strings Pro
  • Output Exhale

The list above is just from my own experience with Kontakt. Because Kontakt is essentially open source, there are simply too many possibilities of potential libraries to choose from on your own. This guide is exactly that – just a guide aimed at helping you develop a high quality starting point, but by no means in this extensive or inclusive.

Mixing Plugins

In Tier 2, you start to think about the importance of mixing. You start to realize that your music sounds significantly worse than commercially viable. Because of that, it’s time to start investing in some quality third party mixing plugins.

Dynamics (Compressors, Multiband Compressors, Limiters)

You now know the basics of how a compressor or limiter works, but you’re still kind of confused about when to use a compressor and what exactly you’re doing with a compressor. You know most of the terminology and you definitely, well, put compressors on things. You understand that a mastering chain will feed into a limiter in order to achieve commercial volume, and you definitely attempt some pretty mediocre masters. You’re no Rick Rubin yet, but you’re having a ton of fun. Here are our go-to sounding dynamics tools for Tier 2.

  • Waves C1 Compressor and Renaissance Compressor
  • Waves L1 limiter

EQs

EQ is fairly well understood at this point. You use simple lo-pass, hi-pass, and parametric bell shapes to remove unwanted frequencies. For the most part, your stock EQ is all you really need, but you decide it’s best to get another third-party EQ just for some variation.

  • Built-in EQ
  • Waves Q (1-10)

Saturation/Distortion

Still mainly using only digital sounds, you find out that saturation is a great tool to warm stuff up. You want to find a couple of nice sounding saturators to spice up your sounds.

  • Softube Saturation Knob
  • Fielding DSP Reviver

Reverb

You decide you’re madly in love with reverb and want to make sure you have the best sounding one you can afford. You find out that the company Valhalla makes superb sounding reverb that is super affordable. What’s great about these reverbs is that you can continue to use them as you advance because they’re just so damn good.

  • Valhalla Vintage Verb
  • Altiverb

Effects

This is when effects start to shed light a little more. You find a couple cool tracks that use delay and pumping effects on chords. I’d recommend figuring out what sort of effect you like the best.

  • Nicky Romero Kickstart
  • Waves H-delay
  • SugarBytes WOW

Tier 3

The Dip (6-18 Months)

Synths/Samplers/Things that make noise

Very similar to Tier 2, you’ll be continuing to learn your favorite synths inside-and-out. However, now you’ll start to broaden your palette of synths and you’ll be ready for a greater variety to choose from. You’ll be constantly improving on your understanding of a synth and options will get more and more vast.

What you could do here is pick 1-2 new synths and treat them like you would a synth in tier 2. Learn it really well and use it all the time. At this point in your production journey you start to realize that your only real limitation to getting the sound you want is how well you know your synth.

But the other hand, why should you? If you can make pretty much any sound you want with just one synth then why spend tons of time (and money) learning new synths. You’ll also start to see that many synths are….wait for it… basically the same thing.

With the exception of having to understand a new interface, most synths generally work in a similar fashion. Sure, there are, of course, some subtle differences, but any great sound designer will tell you that synthesis is more limited by a lack of understanding in how the sound is made versus the synth itself.

That said, again, only when you feel like you know your synths from Tier 2 like the back of your hand should you move on to new synths. Here is a list of many synths worth checking out at this stage…

  1. Native Instruments Family
    • Absynth
    • FM8
    • Reaktor
    • Monark
  2. Sonic Academy A.N.A
  3. Spectrasonics
    • Omnisphere
    • Trilian
  4. Synapse DUNE 2
  5. U-he Family
    • ACE
    • Diva

At this point, you’ll also want to develop your sample based libraries a bit further. Unlike synths, different sample based sounds can’t be created from the same set of samples. At some point, you pretty much have to open Pandora’s Box and start experimenting.

It can be overwhelming with how many alternatives there are (even just within Kontakt), but I promise that some time spent fine tuning your taste will help you develop your own unique sound and improve your productions caliber overall.

Here are some additional Kontakt libraries I would get to know.

  • Session Guitarist
  • Abbey Road Collection
  • Studio Drummer
  • Scarbee Collection
  • Session Horns Pro
  • Action Strikes

PDF: Download the Ultimate Plugin Guide

Mixing Plugins

Dynamics (Compressors, Multiband Compressors, Limiters)

Here is where things get interesting. You find out that not all compressors sound the same, and that almost every single compressor out there adds a special type of coloration to the sound. You start to care more and more about the types of compressors you use, and you really start to look for ways to glue your synths together and fix dynamic problems. This is when you probably will fully understand when it’s appropriate to use a compressor or multiband compressor. You also realize that limiters make a huge difference when you’re competing with industry professionals.

  • Waves SSL Collection Compressors and API Collection
  • DAW native multiband compressors and Xfer OTT
  • AOM Invisible Limiter

EQs

This is where you really start to dig into EQ and achieving a balanced mix. You start to think about reductive vs additive, digital vs analog, and like compression, you realize that not all EQs are made equally. This is probably the most important mixing tool you’ll ever use, so it’s important to have high quality options available as soon as possible. You’ll also learn that there is no better EQ on the planet than Fab Filter Pro-Q2.

  • Fab Filter Pro-Q 2
  • Waves PuigTec EQP1A and SSLEQ

Saturation/Distortion

Saturation and distortion become crucial tools in your arsenal. You find out that simple sounds can be mangled with distortion to create some heavy, thick and rich tones. You also have started to saturate almost everything, because you know this will help make your track more full in the long run, without having to rely too heavily on limiting in the mastering stage.

  • SoundToys Decapitator
  • iZotope Trash 2

Reverb

If you follow my advice you’re still using Valhalla Vintage Verb, but you decide it’s time to work with all the different types of reverb available (room, plate, chamber, spring, etc.). Valhalla is still just so affordable and high-quality, I recommend just staying in the family.

  • Valhalla Room
  • Valhalla Plate

Effects

Effects infiltrate your music more than they ever have before. You use them to help guide transitions, put interesting movement into your tracks, and create moments with interesting texture and modulation. At this tier, it’s really beneficial to start investing in the SoundToys bundle. The Decapitator is definitely the crown jewel, but they have amazing sounding effects that I still use in almost every production. I’d branch out here and pick up a few more of these effects.

  • SoundToys EchoBoy
  • SoundToys Crystallizer
  • Xfer Records LFOTool

Tier 4

Professional (2-5 Years)

Synths/Samplers/Things that make noise

Well guess what? Now you’ve made it to the big show. Your understanding of the main synths you use is extensive, and you’ve essentially “mastered” the genre(s) you love to produce. I can tell you that at this point it becomes much more about what sounds you’re looking for that determine what you use. It will no longer be intimidating to pick up a new synth or find a new Kontakt library online that has the exact type of sound you are looking for. Things at this tier become much more about genre and what you’re going for sonically. All I can really say is that things blow up HUGE here. But, it’s also not universal. Every single professional producer has a different set of tools they use at this stage, and even more so with sound design.

So, after you’ve fully learned how to use the plugins you chose to learn from all three previous tiers, you can start to venture out into the world to find unique solutions to your creativity and musical style and genre.

Here is my current collection of synths and sample based synths used on almost every song I make…

  1. Xfer Serum
  2. Kontakt Libraries
    • Output Exhale
    • Output Analog Strings
    • Output Substance
    • London Contemporary Orchestra Strings (Spitfire)
    • Alicia’s Keys
  3. Spectrasonics Omnisphere
  4. U-he Diva

That’s it.

Pretty simple.

I spent years learning how to use Serum so well that I really don’t need any other digital synth to make sounds in my head. I’ve spent time collecting sampler libraries that match my musical taste and style. I’ve branched out and learned a few more synths and samplers so I have plenty of choice in the creative process.

It doesn’t have to be hard and you certainly don’t need to know it all.

Mixing Plugins

Dynamics (Compressors, Multiband Compressors, Limiters)

You know pretty much exactly what you’re doing with a compressor. Every single parameter that seemed daunting before is simply just a tool for you now. Now is when you finally start venturing into hardware and plugins requiring DSP. You will most likely have an Apollo interface and therefore start to get UAD plugins. There are so many great compressors and limiters out there, and your list will only continue to grow, but there are a few gems that just haven’t been beat yet.

  • Universal Audio Compressors (UA 1176 & Teletronix LA-2A)
  • Fab Filter Pro-C 2
  • Hardware Compressors
  • Fab Filter Pro-MB
  • Fab Filter Pro-L

EQs

EQ is now one of your strong suits. Not only do you have special EQs for additive vs reductive, but you also have much better ear training and can spot build-ups and gaps in frequency content. Your ability to hear the subtle differences in which EQ you use start to influence which EQ you grab in specific situations. I’d still say the best digital EQ out there is the Fab Filter Pro-Q 2, but now you’ll start to use analog emulated EQs for boosting certain types of sounds or removing unwanted frequencies subtly.

  • Universal Audio EQs (Pultec EQP-1A & Pultec MEQ-5)
  • Hardware EQs

Saturation/Distortion

Not only have you mastered using saturation to achieve the tonal sounds you want, but you also now incorporate more unique distortion and saturation to provide special characteristics to your tracks. This is where you really dive into tape emulation and excitement. You also start to use EQ and compression as a way of saturating and distorting sounds. There are plenty of great option out there to add to your catalog, but these two are my favorite.

  • Soundspot Halcyon
  • Universal Audio Tape Emulations (Ampex ATR-102)

Reverb

Reverb has been pretty satisfied to this point, but once you’re good with the Valhalla plugins you’ll most likely have a few more secret verbs up your sleeve. Analog reverb seems more and more pleasant but not all of us want to fork up thousands of dollars just for reverb. The UAD emulators are actually pretty amazing.

  • Universal Audio Reverb (RealVerb-Pro & DreamVerb)
  • Valhalla Shimmer

Effects

Now that you use effects on almost everything, at this time you should really just have the best. Other than unique hardware effects, the complete SoundToys bundle is definitely a must. Most of the UAD effects are also killer. They come so close to the real thing that you start to doubt why people even bother with the hardware versions…

  • SoundToys Complete Bundle (Tremolator, Little Alter Boy, Filter Freak, & MicroShift)
  • Universal Audio Effects (Precision Delay Mod, ADA STD-1 Tapped Delay, EMT 250)

I know that was a lot…

If that was too much to handle all at once, or for those of you who like to speed read, check out the PDF summary of all the plugins we recommend for each and every tier.

Again, this isn’t the ultimate solution to all your production problems, it’s simply the ultimate guide to what we know worked for us at each level.

PDF: Download the Ultimate Plugin Guide