Special effects. Distortion, flanging, phasing, echo, delay, reverb. There are so many toys and tools out there with which to build unique sounds. Are they completely necessary? Debatable. Are they fun to mangle audio with? Damn right they are. Here are a few of my absolute favorite “effect-y” plugins that I’m using on every mix.
We’ll start a little low-key. SoundToy’s Microshift is a plugin that emulates a few settings of the Eventide H3000 unit. Basically, it takes the original audio, pitches it up and down slightly in stereo, adds a little delay to each side, and depending on the mode you have selected, adds a little modulation (chorus/phaser). Sure, you can do all of that manually with infividual plugins, but I really like the one-stop shop that is Microshift.
I have 2 aux tracks set up with Microshift – one for vocals, one for guitars. With vocals, it’s usually blended in pretty subtly, just to add some thickness and width to a vocal, without it being an obvious effect. It helps me get that sort of “wide mono” sound; like it takes up more space, without an obvious chorus or double-tracked sound.
On the guitar aux, the effect is a little more audible, but not quite obvious. I use some more extreme settings to get more depth to heavy rhythm guitars – almost like a super-tight quad-track. It just helps the guitar sound more three dimensional. It’s a great little secret weapon.
SoundToys rides again (I’m a fan – and no, they’re not paying me for this). This time, it’s Decapitator. Decapitator is a saturation/distortion plugin. It has a few different emulations of different types of distortion, and some excellent tone-shaping options with the high- and low-cut knobs. But my favorite feature? The button that says “PUNISH.” C’mon, who doesn’t love that? Punish is, as Nigel Tufnel put it, “that extra push over the cliff,” taking a track from subtle smooth saturation to outright brutal distortion.
Decapitator manages to find its way into almost every mix I do, and it’s always something different.
When I made this list, prior to writing the little blurbs detailing what I love about each plugin, I was trying to make sure I had a good variety. The majority of my mixes rely on Slate Digital and SoundToys, so I wanted to toss another company in there. Enter FabFilter.
Saturn, much like Decapitator, is a saturation/distortion plugin. That’s about where the similarities end. Where as Decapitator lets you put one distortion over a whole track while sculpting the tone, Saturn allows you to split your audio into different frequency ranges – multiband distortion. Just as an example, you can put Saturn on a bass track, and distort just the midrange, leaving the low-end and top alone. Saturn has several different distortion models, ranging from amps, tube and tape saturation, and all-out audio destruction. Between Saturn and Decapitator, I have all of my saturation needs fulfilled.
More SoundToys!! I’m a guitar player. Guitar players love echo and delay. EchoBoy is arguably the gold standard for delay plugins. Already from the main view of EchoBoy, you can see a myriad of options for adjusting the sound of the plugin. But then you open up the “tweak” menu, and you may go a little cross-eyed. Whether you’re looking for a crispy-clean digital echo, a warbly vintage tape sound, or aiming for a “this thing is definitely broken” vibe, SoundToys has you covered.
Bonus: If the endless options in EchoBoy seem daunting, check out EchoBoy Jr. for a stripped back version that sounds just as sweet.
Slate Digital Verbsuite Classics
If you give me a delay plugin, I could sit there for days on end twisting virtual knobs, flipping pixelated switches, and I’d never get bored. Sit me down with a reverb plugin, and I just want to get a decent sound, and move on with my life (and the mix). Enter Slate Digital’s Verbsuite Classics, the newest kid on our proverbial block. In contrast with EchoBoy, Verbsuite gives you exactly what you need and nothing more. With several hardware reverb units emulated and bundled in, you’re sure to find something suitable in this package, whether it’s a short bright room, or a long lush plate (ask me how much I love plate reverbs sometime!), and whether it’s an old-school super-digital sound, or something more realistic. The little reverb that could.
Honorable Mentions: Waves H-Delay, and Waves Aphex Aural Exciter
Maybe I just felt like shoe-horning a few Waves plugins in here so they didn’t feel left out. I have a few on every mix I do.
Waves H-Delay (H is for ‘Hybrid’) is a great, smooth, vibey delay plugin. I adore it on guitars and vocals (though EchoBoy usually gets first crack at it). It’s pretty hard to make H-Delay sound bad.
Waves Aphex Aural Exciter is a unique one. It’s modeled after the 1970s hardware unit of the same name. Aural Exciter “excites” audio – basically crunches and distorts the mid-range and top-end. It can be a pretty harsh effect on its own, but I love putting it on vocals in parallel, and blending it in to the original vocal to add some, well… excitement. In a dense mix, blend the Exciter in just right, and it can help your vocal cut through the mix, especially in a chorus.