There are a butt-ton of audio plugins out there in the world.
And they all promise to change the way you mix forever. That they’ll add “life” and “vibe” to your mixes, and help you sound more like the pros.
But as a mixing engineer or producer, you have a limited amount of money to spend.
So the question is – what’s actually worth your time and hard earned cash?
What’s Inside Your DAW?
Whether you use Pro Tools, Logic, Ableton or Studio One – your DAW came with a slew of plugins.
Is there something wrong with those plugins?
I use Logic, and it comes with a fantastic EQ, compressor, reverb, and many other plugins. And I use them constantly.
But my DAW doesn’t have a solution to everything.
These days, I only buy a plugin if it solves a problem in a unique and quick way for me.
“Analog vibe?” Pfff – I’m over the hype.
A plugin that tunes my monitors to my room for a more accurate mix experience?
Uh, hell yes.
So today I want to share with you the top 5 plugins I couldn’t imagine living without.
Disclaimer: all the plugins below will cost you. Unfortunately none of them are free.
But each of them provide a beautiful solution that my DAW doesn’t have quite yet. And my mixing life is much happier for it.
1. Hornet’s VU Meter MK3
By far the cheapest plugin on the list, the Hornet VU clocks in at 4.99€, or $5.96 USD.
The Hornet VU Mk3 is a gain plugin that automatically gain-stages for you.
Simply place the VU meter on every track in your session. Set your desired VU level, which is the best level for any analog emulating plugins in your chain.
Then set your the max peak value. That’s the max level you want your track to hit on your peak meters, regardless of VU level.
I typically leave the Hornet VU set tp 0 VU and a max peak of -1.
Make sure to enable the Auto button, and hit play.
By the time your track finishes, the Hornet VU will have gain-staged every track to the appropriate level.
Like I said, any analog emulating plugins you may use also emulate how much volume is optimal for that “device.”
0 VU tends to be the standard.
Aside from that though, gain-staging is also great when you’re mixing more than one song.
For example, a drummer won’t play with the same intensity every song. Some songs are more exciting, and some are more laid back.
When the performance volume changes from song to song, your plugin chains constantly need re-tuning. Which is a total pain.
But when you gain-stage each drum track in each song to 0 VU, something happens. All your tracks are set to the same comparable volume.
The result? Once you mix one song, you’ve pretty much mixed them all. Aside from some minor tweaks, your life got way easier.
2. IK Multimedia’s ARC 2.5
Acoustics are such a pain.
In the last two rooms I’ve worked in, I’ve gone through great efforts to analyze and study them.
There’s now one thing I know more than that the sun will come up tomorrow. And that’s that your room has more influence on what you hear than anything else in your mix set-up.
Acoustic treatment is a must if you want to do a good job. But even after investing time, money, and energy into treatment and placement it can still be tough.
Enter IK Multimedia’s ARC 2.5. A system that analyzes and corrects your monitors phase and frequency response in relation to your room.
ARC doesn’t replace acoustic treatment. But it sure is a huge help!
I’ll never forget how hard my jaw dropped when I first heard the results after running ARC’s analysis. As I turned ARC on and off, I could hear my mixes shift in and out of focus.
The vocals audibly leaned to one side of the stereo spectrum when ARC was off. The guitars sounded phasey as hell.
But when ARC was turned on, everything shifted into focus.
The system is simple – start up the stand-alone ARC software. Plug in the included microphone, and follow the steps to analyze.
Once finished, ARC creates an EQ plot to correct each speaker. Load up the ARC plugin on the Stereo Output in your DAW. And away you go!
For $199, this was a huge jolt to my mixing. And was well worth the cost.
3. Mastering the Mix’s Reference
Referencing is crucial for getting mixes that can hang with the pros.
But referencing can also be a pain. Even if you load references into your session, there’s an annoying dance of:
- Matching volume
- Flipping and finding the parts you actually want to reference
- Soloing and unsoloing tracks
- Comparing the frequency balance
That’s where Mastering the Mix’s Reference comes in.
Reference makes light work of all the above tasks. Like, ridiculously easy.
Load your tracks into the top part of the plugin. Then click the simple level match button to match all reference volumes to your mix.
Have a section you want to reference specifically? You can highlight any section you’d like by simply clicking and dragging over the waveform.
The best part though lies in the Trinity display in the bottom part of the plugin.
As you listen to your track, the Trinity display shows you how your mix stacks up against your reference tracks. The white center line of each band floats around depending on how much energy your mix has in those frequency ranges.
For example, say your track is super heavy in the lows. And your reference track doesn’t have nearly the same girth in the low end.
The white level line will float towards the top of the display to show you how heavy your mix is.
And the same goes for the mids and highs.
Reference also shows you stereo width based on frequency band, and compression levels!
Reference is your sherpa to well balanced mixes. It guides you, and warns you before you go off the deep end.
4. Mastering the Mix’s Levels
Another hit from Mastering the Mix. This time with a superb metering plugin.
Mastering the Mix is a relatively new plugin company. But they brilliantly carved out their niche with metering plugins that are easy to understand.
Levels is like a nagging parent wrapped up in a plugin. Though that sounds awful, it’s actually really helpful.
Say you’re about 80% through a mix, and you wanna double-check your work. All you do is load Levels on the Stereo Output, and hit play.
Levels will measure your mix based on 4 main categories:
- Headroom, or the amount of room you’ve left for your mastering engineer.
- Stereo Field, or the left/right balance and phase balance.
- Dynamic Range, or the level of compression on your mix.
- Bass Space, or the low end balance of your mix.
As your mix plays, Levels will shimmer with one of two colors for each category:
- Green for each category that’s well-balanced, or
- Red if any category is out of balance
So say you’re whacking your mix with way too much compression. The Dynamic Range icon will change from green to red. From there, you’ll know you need to lay off and give your mix some room to breath.
It’s honestly brilliant. And between Reference and Levels, you’ll have all your bases covered to keep your mixes in check.
5. Acon Digital Restoration Suite
Audio can be tricky! Amps make weird noises. Bad edits can result in pops or clicks. Bad electrical mains can cause gear to hum.
And it can be a real pain to fix these problems once they’re recorded and the session’s over.
That’s why I love Acon Digital’s Restoration Suite. I sort of cheated on this one. But the Suite comes with 4 wonderful plugins that solve these annoying issues:
- DeClick – removes pops and clicks in audio
- DeClip – restores audio that’s distorted due to analog or digital clipping
- Dehum – removes hum and buzz
- Denoise – removes broadband noise, such as hiss or ambient noise
Let’s be clear – Acon Digital isn’t the only company on the block with a restoration suite.
But it is a great company with a great product at a fair price. For the $99.90, you’re getting 4 awesome plugins for $25 each.
I often use Flex-time in Logic to edit drums. And the only gripe I have with Flex-time is that it doesn’t place flex markers at the zero crossing before the transient.
Translation – a flex marker could very well sit in the middle of a kick drum hit. When you tighten your drums and bounce the tracks, many kick drum hits will have a pop or click.
Now I do my best to adjust the flex markers. But even then sometimes a pop or click can occur.
Thanks to DeClick though, I can literally remove pops and clicks in less than a minute.
Got a guitar amp that just won’t stop making noise? Record some of the noise, and use DeNoise to remove it instantly.
What once was could be a complete nightmare is now barely an inconvenience.
It’s not my goal to talk you into spending tons of cash.
But it is my goal to help you crank out awesome mixes. And after spending lots of money and time on plugins, I can honestly say these plugins have been huge:
- Hornet’s VU Meter Mk3
- IK Multimedia’s ARC 2.5
- Mastering the Mix’s Reference
- Mastering the Mix’s Levels
- Acon Digital’s Restoration Suite
What plugins have changed your mix life? I’d love to know! Drop your top choices in the comments below 🙂