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What is a Plug-in Effect - Plugins Software Buying Guide

Effect Plug-in Topics


What are plug-in effects?

Audio plug-in effects are a staple of every music production system, and reproduce the functionality of traditional, hardware-based effect units. The term ‘effects’ can bring to mind weird and wonderful sounds, but effects can also be much more subtle sound processors like compressors, EQs or even gating plug-ins. You could think of an effect as anything that changes a sound, regardless of the way in which it does it.


Why use plug-in effects?

The advent of plug-in effects really made it possible to produce music on a computer-based system. Hardware effects are large and relatively expensive, requiring multiple power supplies and rack units in order to work in your studio. In the majority of cases they can only hold one setting at a time, so if you want to use three reverb settings on three different tracks, you either need three reverb units or you need to bounce the tracks one by one through each preset, losing the ability to edit in the process. Plug-in effects are completely different, using up no physical space and letting you load as many instances as your computer can handle.

Software effects are much more flexible than hardware as far as most music producers and their budgets go. You can quickly store presets, update to newer versions and add new features. You can also take advantage of features like automation to get creative with your effects – something very fiddly to achieve in the hardware world. Software effects don’t require patching or routing (since they generally just slot into an insert or send module in your DAW), and they can be quickly copied and pasted, added or removed with a couple of clicks. As computers have become exponentially more powerful, plug-in limitations have reduced – so running out of power is a rare problem.

DAWs have also improved in the way they use plug-ins. They’ll handle 64-bit operation (something to look for if your system supports it), freeze effected tracks and suspend plug-ins during periods of silence. All this will help squeeze as much performance as possible out of your system. Dedicated DSP systems exist for running very high plug-in counts, or particularly taxing effects.


Different Plugin Formats

Plug-ins are often supplied in a variety of formats, and it’s relatively rare these days – though not unheard of – to find a model that only supports one format. These are the major formats:

VST: The original plug-in format, invented by Steinberg. Supported on Mac and PC. Cubase, Live and Reaper on the Mac and virtually every Windows DAW support VST.

Audio Units (AU): Apple’s own format, supported by the Mac-only Logic and GarageBand and also Ableton Live and Digital Performer.

RTAS: Avid’s own format for Pro Tools on Mac and PC. Most RTAS plug-ins are ‘native,’ meaning they will run on your own CPU. A few are ‘TDM’, meaning they run on dedicated Avid hardware.

MAS: MOTU’s own plug-in format, for the Mac only. Since Digital Performer also supports AU plug-ins, support for MAS is relatively limited among developers.

DSP: Some plug-ins such as those from UAD are coded to use dedicated acceleration hardware. These place no strain on your host computer, leaving it free to run the system and your DAW. Some plug-ins from Waves are also written to run on dedicated hardware.

Your DAW probably comes with some plug-in effects as standard, but the selection and quality on offer will depend on what you are running. Apple’s Logic for example has an excellent set of audio effects supplied, and Cubase’s selection isn’t bad either. Ableton Live has some built-in that have their own specialised interfaces, and Pro Tools comes with a decent set of Plug-in Effects for processing your tracks. FL Studio and SONAR for Windows are also supplied with a mighty toolbox of plug-ins, each one different but equally comprehensive.

Good though your bundled plug-ins might be, there are many cases in which you might want to add third-party models. For specific tasks like vocal processing or mastering for example, choose a dedicated suite like iZotope’s Ozone or Nectar, or Celemony’s Melodyne for advanced note editing. Or look at Auto-Tune from Antares for correcting vocal performances. For specialised guitar processing, you could look at IK Multimedia’s AmpliTube, or Steinberg’s Portico plug-ins for detailed tracking and mixing. The beauty of adding plug-ins one by one is that you can tailor them to exactly what you need to achieve.


Types of Plugin Effects

Dynamics (Compressors, limiters, maximizers)
Focusrite’s Midnight suite contains a compressor and an EQ plug-in based on classic hardware models. Less than £100 it’s a great way to add more professional sounding mixing tools to your setup in VST, AU and RTAS formats.

Lexicon’s PCM Native Reverb Bundle delivers seven legendary Lexicon reverbs with multiple algorithms that will bring amazing depth and clarity to your productions.

Guitars and distortion
IK Multimedia’s AmpliTube 3 is a great suite of guitar and bass effects containing over 160 pieces of modelled kit ranging from vintage equipment to ultra modern studio tools. As well as a plug-in, it runs as a standalone application so you can run it without a DAW.

Vocal plug-ins
Antares’ Auto-Tune 7 is a remarkable vocal processor capable of everything from detailed pitch correction to heavyweight auto-tuning for the popular robotic effect. It has advanced features such as the ability to deal with vibrato and define pitch using a MIDI keyboard.

DSP bundles
Universal Audio’s UAD-2 Duo DSP Accelerator package includes a PCI card containing dedicated DSP processors that open up the UAD world to you. You also get a number of top quality mix plug-ins to run on the hardware.