What is a Plug-in Effect - Plugins Software Buying Guide
Effect Plug-in Topics
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.
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.
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.
Dynamics (Compressors, limiters, maximizers)