If you dip your toe (or your whole leg) into mixing yours or someone else’s tracks, you’ll quickly learn that you can spend hundreds or thousands on plugin emulations without batting an eye. But do you have to spend a fortune to get a quality sound and improve your mixes? In a word … no!
Here are a few essential plugins to get you started, including a free secret weapon you may not know about. With a few exceptions, they are all under $100, with most under $50 or free. I’ve broken them out into categories for ease:
Klanghelm – MJUC jr. / MJUC
Compression is an essential part of nearly every mix. The right compression settings can take boring track and turn it into something that pops, grooves, pumps, or is simply more uniform. Grab MJUC or MJUC jr. from Klanghelm and instantly add space, level, control, and vibe to your tracks. Functionality is limited to one compressor style with the free MJUC jr. and you can’t modulate the tone, highpass filter, or mix knobs, but the vibe is all there! Give it a spin on your next lead vocal, or try it lightly on the mix bus.
Fabfilter – Pro-Q 3
If you’re going to spend more than $99 on a single plugin to start out with, this is the droid you’re looking for. Fabfilter’s Pro-Q 3 is a powerful and intuitive click-and-drag dynamic graphical EQ that is loaded with features and functionality. Most importantly though, it sounds great! From surgical cuts and boosts to complex curves and EQ-matching, Pro Q-3 is a nearly do-it-all EQ that will form a rock solid foundation to your toolkit.
Tokyo Dawn Records – VOS SlickEQ
Sometimes a broad or more subtle EQ curve can really make a big difference in the sound of a track or the overall mix. SlickEQ from Tokyo Dawn Records is a parametric EQ that delivers terrific results for little (or no) money. If you want to have the most control, grab the Gentleman’s Edition. Otherwise, grab the free version and start shaping!
The right space is essential for creating depth, width, presence, and mood for your mixes. Reverbs can make a sound larger than life or simply more authentic, and can help differentiate sounds within a mix. Delays offer a similar addition to your mixing arsenal, but without the “wetness” so often associated with reverbs. EchoBoy from SoundToys remains among the royalty of ambiance creation, and Valhalla gives you a number of ultra-low cost plugins to choose from when shaping the spaces within your mix. I’ve listed Valhalla Room and Valhalla Delay here, but also available are Valhalla Plate, Vintage Verb, and Shimmer. Try them all and see which ones you like best:
Valhalla Room/ Valhalla Delay
Now that anyone with a laptop and a DAW can record pristine, crystal-clear digital audio nearly anywhere, many find themselves missing the tone and vibe (eg harmonic distortion) that analog equipment adds to the signal. Never fear, there’s a slew of plugins that have been created to bring dirt, grit, and depth to your audio. Softube’s Saturation Knob is free, and is a great place to start. Klanghelm also has a free offering called IVGI, with a big brother version for just a few bucks called SDRR. If you want a broader palette and have a little more cash to spend, Decapitator from Soundtoys can do a lot, from light saturation to screaming distortion (it even has a Punish knob!):
SoundToys – Decapitator
Softube – Saturation Knob
There are literally hundreds of plugins that allow you to turn your tracks into any sound you desire, modulating all sorts of parameters from amplitude to pitch, to placement in the stereo field. Adam Monroe has a great free tremolo and panning plugin aptly called Adam Monroe’s Tremelo. Goodhertz has a ton of great affordable plugins, and their version of a tremolo, Trem Control, gives you even more options, without breaking the bank. SoundToys has created a cheeky little pitch and formant modulation tool called Little AlterBoy. See what you can do with these fun and powerful tools:
Adam Monroe’s Tremelo
Goodhertz – Trem Control
Soundtoys – Little AlterBoy
BONUS: Multiband Compressor / Secret Weapon
Nova from Tokyo Dawn is a fantastic (and free!) multi-band compressor, dynamic EQ, and tone-matching plugin all in one. The fact that it’s free makes it almost too good to be true. As with all TDR plugins, grab the Gentleman’s Edition for a few bucks to gain added functionality and control. And remember – keep it safe, keep it secret!
Tokyo Dawn Records – Nova
— Dave Sperandio is the owner of Vocal Mastering, based in Durham, NC.