Nowadays it is as easy as sitting down at a computer to make a good song. Sound design has been democratised with it no longer being necessary to have a full studio to create. However, whilst plugins are important, how you use them is also as significant. And choosing the correct plugins is not simply a matter of picking those which you like the look of or feel would work for your chosen genre. Just as plugin design involves taking something abstract such as a soundwave and combining it with the technology which can alter or modulate it, so does choosing plugins mean some thought is needed about what kind of sounds from real, live studio recordings you want to bring to your DAW. As guitarists, our physical instruments mean we are operating somewhere between digital and analogue even when working with a DAW – and the plugins featured in this article reflect this. Read on to find out this year’s top picks.
Mimicking Analogue Sound: How to Recreate a Full Studio on Your Desktop
Much goes into the process of designing plugins and it is a fine art to translate real life sound from amps and guitars onto a DAW. Some plugins even go as far as to use circuit modelling technology to precisely recreate the components within a physical stompbox or other piece of gear. These plugins below aren’t verbatim copies of real life stompboxes, but they all use creative ways of translating analogue soundwaves to digital FX and are great pieces of gear in themselves. Although roughly arranged by genre here, they are nevertheless all very versatile. Below is some inspiration and the best current FX on the market for those who wish to create studio tone from the comfort of their desktop.
Best For Indie:
PhoenixVerb is a brand-new collaboration between Exponential Audio and iZotope. iZotope was originally founded as a company aimed at musicians as opposed to engineers and so balanced the technicality of its products with easy-to-use interfaces which meant that musicians could simply focus on being creative as opposed to figuring out all of the mechanics of the product.
This shows through in PhoenixVerb’s distinctive dials and frequency display – it also has over 900 presets to help the musician on a time budget but also allows a sound designer to get deeper if desired with independent output controls for attack, tail, and early reflections. The verb’s frequency display is real time responsive to even the smallest changes and Exponential audio have modelled the sound to allow the musician control over every component of a soundwave, allowing for maximum independence and direct connection to the world of real studio sound when mixing and mastering.
Specifications: Runs on Mac OSX Mountain Lion (10.8.5) to Mac OS X Catalina (10.15) and Windows 7 to Windows 10
Price: 99 USD
Best For Blues:
Waves Abbey Road Saturation – Waves Abbey Road Saturation FX plugin would be welcome for all genres, but for the rounded, warm, fuzzy sounds of blues, it is beyond comparison. It’s flexibility allows it to be used for all kind of warm sounds, whatever your niche may be, from rockabilly, blues, pop rock, or simply for adding a bit more warmth and depth to guitar recordings. Waves is modelled of the Abbey Road exclusive patented TG12345 desk distortion and has been dubbed the ‘compander’, compressing inputs and expanding outputs for a super-rich sound. As well as with its REDD distortion, it can be cranked up to add some grit and distortion proper to your heavier sounds or kept in the background adding layers of nuance.
Specifications: Runs on MacOS 10.14.6, 10.15.7, 11.6.2, and 12.3. Also runs on Windows 10 64 bit and Windows 11.
Price: 29.99 USD
Best for Pop and Rock:
Chowdhury DSP – Chow Phaser. Made by independent American FX designer Justin Chowdhury, the Chow Phaser is modelled after a legendary piece of 70s analogue gear – the Schulte Compact Phasing ‘A’. This plugin is designed to have both mono and stereo features and prioritises roughness and warm to create nonlinear, multi-layered waves. The original Schulte Compact Phasing was used by artists as diverse as Kraftwerk, Ritchie Blackmore, and Pink Floyd. It’s interface allows for an incredible amount of fine tuning but it is the way this plugin mimics the warm sounds of the era it was based on that means it really brings the best of both worlds to your FX rack.
Specifications: Available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. Another great feature is full source code is also available on the designer’s website
Price: Free download from the designer’s website
FabFilter Saturn 2 – This plugin is currently one of the most talked about on the market and it’s modelling after real amps and FX is one of the things which has made it’s warm tone so appealing to many guitarists. The diversity of waveforms allows any musician to tune their FX to their satisfaction. It is also available for a 30-day free trial, meaning that you have plenty of time to test the FX to see which ones work for you before purchase. Saturn 2 also works with tape saturation but comes into its own when used for distortion overall.
Specifications: Windows 7-11 or Vista, MacOS 10.12 or higher (64-bit only)
Price: Free trial for 30 days and then 129 USD as single
Lastly, Krush by Tritik is a fantastic middle ground between the sharp noises of the digital real and the rich, fuzzy tones analogue afficionados look for. It contains both bitcrushing and an extremely flexible modulation centre which expands the number of sounds possible exponentially, enabling you to go from gritty high speed guitar to soft, ballad-ready overdrive. It’s analogue modelled low pass and high pass filters are a make it an unusual but therefore desirable sweet spot between the digital and analogue realms, offering the best of both worlds. Krush sits in a unique position where it can achieve some of the dirtier higher, and sharper sounds which you would expect from a digital VST as well as adding richness and depth from its analogue inspirations.
Specifications: Windows 7 or later and MacOS 10.9 or later
These are just some of the plugins on the market which are inspired heavily by specific analogue technologies – and though they span a wide range of prices and genres, the technology behind them shows how the sound of your favourite studio recordings can be translated to your own work. It’s no easy feat replicating the world of the studio for a DAW, but all these designers have done it extremely well and despite rough guidelines listed here, these plugins are worth investigation for guitarists of every genre and budget.