One of the hardest parts of starting off music production, is picking what plugins to have. Whether you are on a budget, or don't want to overload on free plugins too soon, selecting the essentials is important. I've chosen ten types of VST, including examples, which will get you started.

As this is a beginner's article, I've added definitions to some common abbreviations. These are found in Orange and if you hover over them, the definition will appear!

1. Subtractive Synth

There are plenty of subtractive synth options available, these are most people's go-to instruments for most sounds. They come in all different shapes, sizes, and prices, so the choice is yours to make.

T-Force Alpha Plus is a powerful, free subtractive synth.

One I'd highly recommend! 

A few things you should look for when searching around for a good synth are:

  • A good selection of oscillators - these are the "sound" generators which play when you hit a note. A good amount to go for is three oscillators which you can mix and match different wave types (e.g. sine, saw, etc.). The more flexible the oscillators, the more complex your sound can be. Some synths also offer wave tables (where you can choose or even edit the shape of the wave in much more complexity) 
  • Good filters - You should have several filter types ranging from LPFs, HPFs, and BPFs. These subtract the frequencies which you don't want carving the sound. This is in essence what subtractive synthesis is. 
  • Modulation Potential - You should be able to modulate parameters such as volumes and filter cutoffs using ADSRs and LFOs.
  • Good Presets - There is no better way to get to know a synth than to look through it's presets and tweak them. Starting a sound from scratch is hard, using presets means you can really see the effect of each parameter on a sound that's already made. Factor in the availability of presets if you need to.

On the other end of the spectrum is Native Instrument's
Massive, an insanely powerful synth capable of most
sounds.

2. VSTi Instrument Plugins

Of course, not everyone wants to program synths, and oftentimes, for convenience you just want to sketch out an instrument part. This is where these instrument plugins come in handy. They almost always are significantly simpler with much less control over the sound however they tend to be dedicated to instruments. Whether it is a piano emulation or drum kit, these are great for quickly getting ideas down and even using them in songs!

Jazz Baby is one of the simplest, it is a free piano plugin

with no controls which sounds like a piano. Great for practicing

or trying new ideas.

When looking out for these plugins, first identify what instrument/sound you want and then look out for these things:

  • Reviews - These plugins are often of varying quality, as you have much less control, you are counting on the sounds created or recorded by others. This means you are best checking the reviews of it to see if it all works to your standard.
    • It's Purpose - Figure out if you need it as a lead instrument, in which case quality and some control parameters may be wanted.

    Cellofan is a great Cello VST instrument

    ideal for background string reinforcement

    DSK instruments are a great brand which offer

    plenty of free instruments modelled on both

    common and obscure instruments.

    They are often free.

    3. Sampler

    You will never go wrong with having a sampler, whether it's to easily combine samples from packs and make beats from them, or to load up instruments from SFZ files.

    Some things to look out for when picking a sampler are:
     

    • It loads multiple sounds - A good sampler should allow you to load several sounds all at once, this allows you to load various notes or drum samples and assign them to different keys. It means you can jam out beats on your keyboard and means the instrument notes won't be heavily pitch shifted when playing notes far away from the original sample.
    • It loads SFZ files - This saves you assigning individually recorded notes to each key. SFZ files automatically assign themselves and are widely available to download. There are thousands of free SFZ files ranging from synths to orchestras, on top of that there are plenty more with (usually) small costs attached to add to your collection. SFZ files really allow you to extend your instrument range and are a viable alternative to recording real instruments.

     

    Grace is a free sampler which allows SFZs to be loaded in from

    the browser in the plugin.

    On the more advanced (and costly) side, Kontakt is an advanced

    sampler where you can load in Kontakt instrument packs

    as well as perform advanced sampling.

    4. Reverb

    Unless you are totally unfamilliar with music design, you will know about reverb. It is the effect which mimics the space an instrument plays in. Not only does it thicken up your sound, it adds life and spacial dimention to your instruments and sounds. I can't think of a track which doesn't make use of reverbs (be it natural or otherwise). A bad reverb will make your track stand out in a bad way, as will bad reverb mixing, so you want one that sounds good and allows you to have plenty of control.

    SIR is a free convolution reverb with excellent reviews, 

    it allows you to load in reverb impulses,

    these files are freely accessible.

    • Control - Reverb is an effect where you want control. Whether that is gained by having the option to use reverb impulses in a convolution reverb plugin, or plenty of "time", "damping", and "EQ" controls, you will benefit from the ability to tweak things.
    • Wet/Dry - People apply reverb differently, if you use a separate for reverb, which you send instruments to, you will want to have control over muting the dry signal. If you add it directly to each individual instrument, then you will want to have control of the Wet/Dry mix. I'm not going to say which way is correct as each has it's merits but be mindful of what is appropriate for the plugin you pick.

    Ambience is my favourite free reverb as it sounds great and

    lets you control all te essentials as well as adding an

    EQ section which is great for removing the muddiness

    often associated with adding reverb. 

      5. Compressor

      Compression is one of the scary processes to beginners, it is a hard concept to understand and to start with, can be hard to use. For these reasons, I recommend starting with an easy compressor to use. There are so many different compressors to use and so this section will cover only single band compressors, keep reading for other types.
       

      ReaComp is one of Reaper's stock plugins, available for free for

      all DAWs. While not pretty it is very clear how it works and so

      is the perfect choice for a beginner. The meters are easy to

      understand. For my guide on it, click here.

      Simplicity - is all you want to look for unless you know how to use a compressor. It is one of the things that only gets easier when you use it frequently and practise. Don't worry about complex features if you are a beginner, just look for a plugin to get you to grips with the terms and uses.

      • Sidechain Compression - Your compressor plugin should allow you to sidechain, this is essential for electronic music in particular.
      • Parallel Compression - Your compressor should ideally have a Dry/Wet feature so you can parallel compress without using separate busses.

      6. Multiband compressor

      Multiband compressors are simply compressors dedicated to different frequencies on a track, they split the sound into several frequencie bands (normally controllable) and allow you to individually compress them. This type of compresor is ideal for de-essing and gluing a mix together.

      For it's sheer simplicity, OTT is a great free

      multiband compressor.

      Look out for:

      • Presets - If you have trouble using single band compression, this will be much more daunting and so presets are a great way to still use it to improve your mix. 
      • Controllable Bands - If you are more advanced, or brave, you may want to control the frequency bands yourself. This is great if you want to get surgical and really cater the compressor to the sounds at hand.

      Another stock Reaper plugin, ReaXcomp has a small but

      fantastic selection of presets which really to improve the mix.

        7. Limiter

        A limiter is a compressor with a ratio of anything above 10:1. While you could just use your compressor plugin, there are many reasons why you should use a dedicated limiter. One reason is that they are designed to still sound good while compressing a signal really hard. Another is that they tend to add some nice characteristics to the track, especially the good plugins.

        Frontier is one of the best free plugins I have ever used in
        terms of sound quality. It is a fantastic limiter which adds
        character to the track. Simple, but with great results!

        Look for:

        • Clean Limiting - Check the reviews and make sure it will do the job without ruining your audio. Of course, sometimes you may prefer to look for...
        • Subtle Colouration - Lots of good limiter plugins have modes where they colour the signal, adding very gentle saturation and soft clipping. This is great for livening up your sound with a bit of warmth.

         

        Loudmax is a superb free Brickwall limiter

         

         

        8. Saturation

         

        While a limiter is great for adding a certain kind of saturation, oftentimes you just want a bit more grit. Whether it is applied directly onto a track, or subtley mixed in parallel, a good saturation plugin is essential for the coarser parts. 

         

         

        CL36 is free, with multiband soft-clipping. It is a

        very well favoured plugin.

         

        Look out for:

         

        • Something for your needs - This may be a bit obscure but just read the descriptions of plugins and see if it would reflect your music. For example, if you want a gentle fuzz on your guitar part or synth, you don't need a ultra-hard-clipping destroyer of sound. Look for one with vintage distortion or valve emulation. On the other hand, if you want complete dirt, look out for ones which will give you some.
        • Multiband Distortion - While not essential, having this available is important if you want to really design your distortion. If you want a quick fix, go for something simpler but look for a plugin which will really let you distort exactly the bits you want. Multiband distortion can be great on vocals where you want a more controlled saturation.

         

        Tridirt is another multiband distortion unit which has

        some pretty good presets to get you started. It is easy

        enough to play around with and

        get the sound you need.

         

         

         

         

        Ferric TDS is one of my favourite saturators, it is based on tape systems

        and mimics how they process dynamics.

         

         

          9. Harmonic exciter



          Saturation adds harmonics by squaring of the sound waves, a harmonic exciter, on the other hand, often adds synthesised harmonics and band-compression to a sound. This is great for a dull sounding track and I rarely leave one out of my mastering chain. Most exciters have a high and low frequency exciter, where the high frequencies tend to be the most used. One great use of exciting the low frequencies is for cinematic rumbles or voices where the added boom is desired. A lot of exciters are present as part of larger mastering plugins, which incorporate a number of effects into the one unit.

           

          La Petite Excite is an excellent free exciter which also has a

          control ("CV") for de-harshing the resulting sound

          Infected Mushroom's Pusher is a multi effect mastering

          tool, it's "magic" knob is one of the nicest 

          exciters I've ever used!

          Look out for:

          • High/Low Control - While much of your exciter work will be on the high frequencies, you'll no doubt come across a time where the low frequencies need exciting. Grab a plugin with both.
          • Decide if you want standalone - there are plenty of standalone exciters, and plenty as part of a mastering plugin. While mastering plugins are excellent, you may find some things only need the application of an exciter and nothing else that a mastering plugin offers. Perhaps try both.
          • Bypass - Exciting can be overdone very easily, make sure you can easily bypass the effect to see the difference it's made. I often add an exciter and render, after waiting a while, i find I've added too much high frequencies. Be willing to take a break after setting the exciter so you can come back and see if it's too much.

           

          MHorse P3, by Terry West, is a mastering plugin with a nice

          exciter, I highly recommend this free plugin to everyone.

          10. Music Analysis

          These tools don't have an effect on the sound of your track, they simply highlight the deatils and statistics of the sound. They are great for finding problem areas and viewing data such as dynamic range and problem resonances.

          There are so many types I won't list things to look out for, just a few of my favourite plugins to use.

          Voxengo Span is an FFT spectrum analysis plugin, you will see it frequently mentioned and recommended on production forums across the web.

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