What is a plugin? | The Basics


A plugin is a piece of software that operates inside of a DAW program to alter sounds, act as a virtual instrument, or perform other functions on a total or per-track basis. Common plugins include equalizers, compressors, reverbs, effects, synthesizers, and even emulations of classic vintage gear.

Almost every DAW comes with a free set of stock plugins for basic effects and instruments, but many more are available for sale online. A special button found on each track will open a menu of plugins to choose from (or a list of plugins activated on that track), and multiple instances of a plugin can be used on multiple tracks. Each plugin can display a small pop-up window with a graphic user interface, which will show its controls and allow for loading presets and saving patches.

Types of Plugin Effects

Virtually every conceivable effect can be obtained with plugins. Some common categories include:

  • Equalizer plugins can be of the graphic, parametric, spectral, or hardware-modeling types.

  • Compressor plugins can have very advanced parameters and displays for maximum control or a simpler layout of a few basic knobs, like those found on hardware units.

  • Reverb plugins can be anything from the simplest algorithms with limited controls to fully tweakable convolution engines that emulate real spaces.

  • Delay plugins can do much more than pedals. Some include extensive quantization settings for rhythmic delay patterns.

  • Channel Strips combine virtual preamps, compressors, and equalizers, typically based on those found on famous recording consoles.

  • Other effects like chorus, phasers, flangers, and harmonizers are all available in plugin form.

BeatSkillz MAX1 Compressor

Virtual Instruments

Virtual instruments give DAW users access to an infinite palette of sounds, programmed or played in real time with MIDI controllers and easily edited, arranged, and looped.

  • Synthesizer plugins are hugely popular, running the gamut from classic keyboard emulations to powerful, infinitely customizable synth engines.

  • Sampled instruments such as pianos, organs, vibraphones, and orchestras are made by recording multiple soft and loud samples of each note on a physical instrument.

  • Drum kit plugins allow non-drummers to program their own beats, swap out kits, and sometimes even adjust the room sound.

Dexed DX DX7 Emulator
Beatskillz Beatfactory Drums

Other Types

  • Amp simulators can be played in real time with a DI guitar or applied to a pre-recorded track to emulate the sound of real amps, cabinets, and pedals.

  • Metering plugins don’t affect sound, but instead display useful information like track levels, dynamic range, spectrograms, and phase graphs.

  • Utility plugins perform a variety of other functions, such as Behringer DeepMind 12 App, which is a virtual editor and preset manager for the DeepMind 12 from Behringer.

Behringer DeepMind 12 App
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