10 Essential Plugins For Your Desert Island Studio

In his 1983 book “Making Music,” the late producer George Martin predicted that recording would move to hard disk. That was laughable for many back then, as most computers boasted the processing power of a toaster oven.

But my, how right Martin was.

The digital audio workstations of the 21st century might not match the glorious heft of 2-inch tape run at 30 inches per second. But hooey to the compromise: They allow anyone with a few thousand dollars to record unlimited tracks in sparkling audio quality.

Nor does one need stacks and stacks of outboard gear. What once took up the volume of a refrigerator tipped on its side now uses zero physical space: Behold the mighty plugin!

For the initiated, plugins are “programs within a program” that you can insert into a digital audio channel to change the sound. Anything you can do with a physical setup—flange it, delay it, EQ it, compress it—you can do with plugins. Generic a few decades ago, plugins now emulate the best pro audio gear produced, with each generation getting closer to the real deal.

Below I’m listing 10 plugins I’d take with me to a digital desert island. And since you, dear Reverb readers, comprise a discerning lot, I welcome any additions to this list. (Note: You’ll need to purchase an iLok 2 license manager to use advanced plugins.)

Bomb Factory BF76

Bomb Factory BF76

Bomb Factory BF76

My recollection is that back in the day—help us out, Reverb readers!—this plugin was the only emulation (or imitation) of Universal Audio’s famous 1176LN limiter. The former Bomb Factory 1176 ticked off UA, and thus was renamed the BF76. Our research finds that Bomb Factory as a separate company is no more, but its free plugins remain a part of the Pro Tools suite.

I’ve heard the BF76 described on some gear forums as “juvenile.” But it uses minimal digital signal processing (also known as DSP)—and if it’s really “juvenile,” then call me a kid in a sandbox. It’s quick, dirty and especially fun at both the 4:1 ratio and the “four-button-in” setting that delivers Hulk-smash compression.

Bundled with Pro Tools

DBX 160

DBX 160

DBX 160

Of course, there are more colorful compressors than the BF76 out there. I think of this one when I hear the thumpy, creamy piano on Chicago’s "Saturday in the Park”; I have no idea whether they used this compressor but it’s been around since 1971, the year the song was cut.

The DBX 160 has a lo-fi, hi-punch factor unlike any compressor I’ve ever used. (The hardware version is ranked number 12 in Attack Magazine’s Best Compressors of All Time). It takes the shrill high end off tracks in a way guaranteed to tickle a fickle ear. In that sense, it’s a compressor that, more than any other, I can aim at instruments with one specific intent in mind.

Waves version: $149

Universal Audio version: $199

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Massey DRT

Massey DRT

Massey DRT

To know Steven Massey is to love the guy and his versatile, affordable plugins. Don’t be surprised if he answers your emails directly, and among the many kick or snare sampling options, this one easily ranks as my fave. There are YouTube tutorials you can check out, and the plugin delivers surgical precision to substitute weak drum sounds with more assertive samples. My go-to move using the DRT is to copy the kick drum track, for example, replace it with a sample, and then mix that alongside the original kick to produce a drum that doesn’t sound processed—just focused.

Direct from Massey: $96

Soundtoys Devil-Loc Deluxe

Soundtoys Devil-Loc Deluxe

Soundtoys Devil-Loc Deluxe

Based in Burlington, VT, Soundtoys is doing creative, crazy work with one-of-a-kind plugins such as the Crystallizer (a pitch-shifting reverse echo). The Devil-Loc Deluxe is based on Shure’s Level-Loc, a tool that audio engineers found they could abuse by overloading it to produce an over-the-top, low-fidelity squash.

I use the Devil-Loc Deluxe on drum room mics to get a big-studio feel, but take note: The nature of the Devil-Loc Deluxe (not by way of any defect) is that it makes cymbals sound harsh. When appropriate, I have drummers record crash and ride cymbals separately so I can smash the crap out of the room track. Big-drum bliss, folks.

Direct from Soundtoys: $129

Antares Auto-Tune 8

Antares Auto-Tune 8

Antares Auto-Tune 8

My promise to you: I will never, ever use this plugin to create overly processed “Cher effect” robotic vocals, now the R&B equivalent of shouting, “Freebird!” Rather, I employ Auto-Tune gently, setting the retune speed to a very conservative 80 or higher.

As an early adopter of Auto-Tune, I’ve seen it grow in focus and efficiency over the years, and I find it most useful not to airbrush a vocal, but shave unpleasant rough edges off. It ain’t perfect, though: Be careful it doesn’t pitch notes on the fence in the wrong direction. And you shouldn’t be perfect, either, so leave enough off-center pitch in there to keep your vocals human and warm.

Direct from Antares: $399

Tech21 SansAmp Driver PSA-1

Tech21 SansAmp Driver PSA-1

Tech21 SansAmp Driver PSA-1

In various columns, I’ve raved about the SansAmp Bass Driver, used by the likes of Los Lobos, Crowded House and the Black Keys to distort snare drums and everything else. The plugin version comes with tons of presets, which I like using as foundations to find my own funky formulae. Though I haven’t had much luck pushing vocals through it, I’ve found it very useful on drums—especially to fix wimpy and washed-out guitar tracks.

Bundled with Pro Tools

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Ampex ATR-102

Ampex ATR-102

Ampex ATR-102

This plugin version of the immortal two-track mixdown tape deck belongs on your master fader, period. I’ve yet to use this on a session without it bolstering overall sound quality. In particular, the Stephen Smith mastering presets are fabulous, giving you user-friendly options for tape speed and width. Yes, it’s a pricey plugin, but it often goes on sale.

Direct from Universal Audio: $349

Waves Reel ADT

Waves Reel ADT

Waves Reel ADT

Mere hours after Abbey Road engineer Ken Townsend invented artificial double tracking (ADT), the effect started finding its way onto Beatles recordings. The Waves version faithfully recreates Townsend’s breakthrough, and was created in conjunction with Abbey Road. Of the many flavors it offers, one that splits a mono signal into stereo creates ear-opening dimension on vocals, guitars and organs, for starters.

Direct from Waves: $249

Sonnox Oxford Inflator

Sonnox Oxford Inflator

Sonnox Oxford Inflator

It’s hard work to make mixes louder without ear fatigue and over-compression. Through some magic dust not even Harry Potter can recreate, London-area Sonnox makes the Inflator to glue mixes and boost level while preserving dynamics and fidelity. I almost don’t want to write about this one, as I consider it a secret weapon. But I’m guessing my secret’s safe with you.

Universal Audio version: $179

Direct from Sonnox: About $100 (Native version) or $170 (HDX version)

AKG BX 20

AKG BX 20

AKG BX 20

Introduced in 1970, the BX 20 is a spring reverb that, if you can find one, will likely cost at least $2,000. This plugin, exclusive to the Universal Audio collection, is modeled from a pristine unit owned by uber-producer Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Kanye West, Spoon). It delivers spring that’s frighteningly close to the really thing. Though obviously not used on the Doors’ debut album, it reminds me of that sound: a butterscotch, cherry and whisky flavor. In more plainspoken language, producer-engineer Kyle Joseph hails the BX-20 thus: “I don’t think there is a spring emulation out there right now that is anywhere near close to this one.”

Direct from Universal Audio: $199; currently on sale for $149

I could list many more plugins that I use continuously. Living on a desert island is tough, though, and the digital backpack only fits so much. Or does it?

Maybe I need a bigger hard drive.

Questions? Advice from me? Advice for me? (I’m already good at jumping in a lake.) Email me anything that’s on your home-studio mind.

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