5 Plugins No Guitarist Should be Without

Love of analog tone tools is something that binds us; as both readers and writers enjoy getting their hands on real buttons, knobs, and switches that change real electronic circuits beneath our feet. If we didn’t, I probably wouldn’t be pining to write about every piece of electronic junk (or otherwise) I can get my hands on, and you wouldn’t be awaiting Fridays with bated breath, constantly checking your emails to see if a sparkly new issue of Tone Report has graced your inbox.

In this world, technology is inescapable. We need it to do our work, our taxes, and to communicate with our friends, family, colleagues, and coworkers around the world. While I’m sure a few of our older readers would like to go back to the golden days of the ‘60s and ‘70s, where vinyl was king, magnetic tape flowed like water in the studios, and the amp stacks towered over audiences and fired out powerful waves of rock over the smoke-filled crowds. So I say to the naysayers, why escape it? Embrace it! Now, I can see those people who know how much of an analog whore I am roll their eyes as they read that last statement, but I would like to try and make a case for going *gasp* direct in. No amps, no pedals, no sims; just you, your guitar, your PC, and a few plugins to help. In today’s piece, I’m going to detail a few of my latest favorites in the plugin world, and show that good sound and tone can be achieved with only a computer program.

PLUGIN #1: REVERB

Ah reverb. The livelihood of a shoegazer’s existence, a surf rocker’s lifeblood, and of a bluesman’s life-giving water. Without reverb the sound of the guitar as we know it would be, quite dry. Reverb is not only important in guitar tone, but in every imaginable part of the recording chain as well. In many mixes, both classic and modern, reverb can be found on almost every instrument and voice, because it adds just the right amount of spatial wetness to any given tone. When going DI, reverb is even more essential. Guitarist no longer have the extra harmonics or warmth of a tube amp to lean on; the signal is dry, as bare bones as can be. For this demo, I chose the new Abbey Road Plates plugin by Waves. The four EMT 140 plate reverbs modeled in this plugin are meticulously designed in conjunction with Abbey Road right down to the very last tension spring. Each different plate exhibits its own response, and it sounds buttery and huge. Fans of any record recorded in Abbey Road Studios at almost any given point in time will have mostly likely heard these plates in action. This demo is recorded in stereo, so headphones or studio monitors are required for proper listening:

PLUGIN #2: MODULATION

So, we have our spatial effects, and now it sounds like our guitar has a little more life to it. Sometimes, however, reverb can easily drown a guitar tone, especially in a crowded mix—some don’t like reverb and just find it trite. Luckily, there’s a way to add space and movement without dousing the guitar in swampy cavernous ‘verb. When it comes to modulation, players either love it or hate it. One camp of guitarists thinks the other is trying to recreate every single clean guitar tone from the ‘80s, or every single chorus-drenched shredfest that made up a guitar solo back then. It was during this time that engineers and musicians could not keep their hands off the chorus, and they would liberally paint it on everything from vocals to drums, and of course, guitars. The chorus effect, among bright and wide digital reverbs are what defines the sounds of the ‘80’s: a sound that many today would call dated. Whether one is from the camp of chorus-free or awash in the liquid, they can find a tasteful use for chorus in the DI guitar tones, or mic’d guitar tones, to add space and movement to a stiff track. Used subtly and tastefully, this effect is almost indispensible for clean rhythm work. For this demo, I have used Valhalla DSP’s Ubermod, a wonderfully rich stereo modulation that can do everything from Leslies to sea-sickening deep chorus. I love this plugin, and I have used it on quite a few recordings of my own. Have a listen here:

PLUGIN #3: COMPRESSION

Compression is a favorite among chicken-pickers and bluesman, or to anyone who likes to add snap and punch to their tones. Compression was originally invented to normalize volume levels in a mix, but it imparts its own character onto your track depending on how it works. Optical compression is compression in one of its earliest forms, and is characterized by a more soft and subtle sound. Solid-state compression is a later form of compression, and is characterized by its punchier and “harder” edge. Still don’t know how a compressor works? Allow me to explain:

Imagine there is a man standing next to your guitar amp with his hand on your volume knob. The venue says to this man: “If he goes above a certain volume level, turn down the volume, and if he goes under a certain volume level, turn up the volume.” The threshold is at what volume level the venue tells him to turn the volume knob, the attack is how quickly he reacts to the sudden change in volume, and the release is how fast he goes back to the original setting. By setting a compressor to a fast attack and a higher threshold, you can add a nice thump to your pick or finger attack, and add more perceived dynamics by picking harder or softer. Compression is also used by engineers to make things appear louder than they actually are, but I won’t go into the logistics of that, for reasons of wanting to keep this short and sweet.

For this demo, I have used Softube’s FET Compressor, a compressor inspired by the Urei 1176, which is considered the holy grail of solid-state compressors. This compressor sound is smattered all over recordings throughout the decades, but you can hear it most famously used on David Gilmour’s awesome DI solo, Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)

PLUGIN #4: DELAY

We all know and love delay, and this effect needs no explanation nor introduction. Everyone has their favorite flavor of delay, whether it be warm and bubbly or pristine and clear. In the plugin world, there are quite literally hundreds of delay plugins from which to choose, ranging from basic to downright trippy. However, in the eyes of many audio engineers and studio owners, there is one king that rules over the rest since its inception, and that is the Echoboy, by Soundtoys. Many recording guitarists claim to ditch their expensive hardware delays in favor of this lovely plugin for the mixing stage, and for good reason. This delay sounds positively huge, fat and warm. It’s incredibly versatile, and features a bunch of different delay modes from crisp and clear studio tape delays to dark and cavernous Echorecs. I cannot sing enough praises for this amazing plugin, and if there is only one plugin from this list players absolutely must buy, this is my recommendation. Here’s why:

PLUGIN #5: THE MIXING BOWL

All together, we now have the different sonic ingredients for our glorious cake of sound. But before we serve it up to the people, we need to mix it, taste it, add different flavors or spices, and then bake it, decorate it and spruce it up. Nobody takes all the ingredients, throws them in a bowl and dumps them on a plate in front of customers with a smile and expect them to pay for it. Mixing is the process of baking and polishing the sonic ingredients together into one cohesive product. While there are many different ways to do this, I’ve chosen an all-in-one solution that is hard to beat, and that is Harrison Mixbus. This software is its own full-featured DAW, with a mixing section carefully crafted after the response of Harrison’s most well-loved analog consoles. I simply cannot get enough of this sound, and it makes my mixes jump forward with a presence that is hard to beat. I took all of the above tracks and mixed them together with a simple drum track, applying Mixbus’s built in EQ and saturation to each track. Have a listen:

Listen to how each track has its place in the mix. By EQing each track and varying the volume levels, each guitar part had its own space. The drums are fuller and punchier, and the delayed guitar almost sounds like a harp. I hope readers enjoyed our little foray into the world of plugins, until next time!

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