12 of my Favorite Plug-ins (right now) for Mixing Creatively and Saving Time

12 of my Favorite Plug-ins (right now) for Mixing Creatively and Saving Time

Don't expect anything groundbreaking or "game changing" here. Instead, expect confirmation that these plug-ins are legit (even if they are free). These plug-ins are what I feel like highlighting at the time of writing, but all of these have proven some kind of longevity in my workflow.

This is also not to say that I have even explored every facet of these plug-ins, I learn new aspects and value about each one almost every time I work.

This list excludes virtual instruments (with one exception) because I’m talking about mixing, not composing or pure production.

I have no partnerships with any of these companies and didn’t get these plug-ins for free to write about them. I own about 100 3rd party plug-ins that I use for mixing, most of which I have hand-picked over the years during discount sales. Some stay in the rotation for a minute and lose their appeal. Others repeatedly show value.

6 Creative Tools

XO Drums (XLN Audio)

The only virtual instrument on the list, XO Drums is a drum sampler and sequencer but it is so much more than that. For me, the primary draw for XO Drums was the "Space" functionality, an interactive visual browser for browsing drum samples. The space automatically color codes and arranges any sound I add by the frequency information (high/low), length, and percussiveness. Text search, slider filters, and manually clicking into the space helps me sort through my sounds in a much faster way than through endless file name in a Mac Finder window. 

If I can pick out a sound that I like, but isn't quite what I want, XO can present to me the next most closely related sounds, which makes browsing even faster.

screenshot of XO drums "space" view

Another huge time saver is the beat randomizer, which allows me to "roll the dice" and come up with random patterns. This is really cool for shakers, hi hats, and other perc loops I want to create while still making something unique to me.

Even entire drum patterns can be altered by swapping the selected sounds out for new, similar sounds in one click.

That's all just scratching the surface of XO Drums. XLN killed it with this one.

Guitar Rig (Native Instruments)

Guitar Rig is like having an entire pedalboard and amp closet in your computer. The biggest mistake anyone with Guitar Rig is making, is not trying it on vocals and other instruments. When I want to create a never-ending delay/reverb throw Guitar Rig is my go-to. I have some channel strips with Guitar Rig presets I like in my template that I can always throw on when I'm aiming to make a creative statement. 

RC-20 (XLN Audio)

Another entry here from XLN, RC-20 adds vintage analogue flavor to any sound. Separate modules for tube saturation, vinyl noise, amp distortion, reverb, wobble, and flutter can all quickly fuck up a sound to make it unique.

One of my favorite ways to use this plugin is to use just a kiss of the digital module to break up the high end of something that needs to be rounded off a bit. While I could use AIR lo-fi for this, but I'm usually opening up RC-20 when I want to play around different textures quickly.

screenshot of TSAR-1R reverb by Softube

TSAR-1R Reverb (Softube)

Way back when I bought a Focusrite Clarett 8pre THUNDERBOLT (dating myself here), I downloaded the free Softube Time and Tone Bundle, which includes the the TSAR-1R Reverb. This reverb has character, is simple to use, and sounds unique. I frequently use it on a shorter "Room" length, with ~20-50 milliseconds of pre-delay to give percussion loops, dead drums, or anything organic some life, or to separate something from the mix/give contrast. I'll use it as a vocal reverb for a gang vocal, or for a backing vocal that needs to sound like it was recorded in an abandoned midwest high school classroom (more frequent than you'd imagine). 

J37 Tape (Waves)

This plugin is truly GOATed. I frequently use this on vocals with an 1/8 slap delay and saturation prior to sending to reverbs to get a chaotic aggressive emotion out of a vocal. I'll use a touch of Wow with a low speed to give keys or a synth loop some analogue life. I like using Formula 811 and modeled tracks 2+3 to get a vocal to pop through the mix. Can't say enough great things about this plugin.

Brauer Motion (Waves)

When I want to give a synth pad, mono synth, or ad-lib vocal some movement or dimension, I can create a bus track that first has Brauer Motion and then follow-up with a stereo reverb, delay, or even a saturation plug-in that heats up when Brauer Motion brings the sound forward. Blending that signal in parallel with my original sound is guaranteed to give it stereo life that it never had before. Playing with the timing of the side-to-side and font-to-back locations in the stereo field can help add groove to a sterile digital object.

screenshot of brauer motion by waves

6 Technical Tools

R-Bass (Waves)

Personally, I see R-Bass overly used. Like many "one knob" plug-ins (R-Bass is one slider), I feel that most producers will gravitate towards this plug-in for some instant gratification that they have "made progress". I say this because of the visual feedback the plug-in is offering, which can manipulate our ears to a certain degree. I choose to load up R-Bass only when I have already tried individual saturation, EQ, and Compression techniques, OR if the bass track I have has a huge hole in the middle of it. A little goes a long way in my opinion with R-Bass. When it works, it's like magic. R-Bass helps achieve a certain roundness that can help bass and 808's poke through under the vocals, synths, and drums.

FIRE the Clip (Acoustica)

This plug-in is the definition of a a tool in it has one use case - Clipping peaks. I learned the hard way that on my sessions, for whatever reason, this plug-in will do something to the stereo field that collapses it quite a bit. For that reason, I do not use this plug-in on any melodic instruments, stereo busses, or master bus. I will apply FIRE the Clip to a mono percussion element like a kick or snare to clip the transients and score an extra DB or two of headroom out of my mix. I carefully A/B and level match this plug-in to make sure I'm not doing any damage.

screenshot of FIRE the Clip by Acoustica

VocAlign Project (SyncroArts)

VocAlign is one of of those life-changing audio tools. Snapping stacks, dubs, harmonies, shakers, or whatever I need to a lead track with a couple of clicks is a time saver, and worth the money. I opted for Project as I already had pitch-correction software, and can't imagine scenarios for me where I'm aligning more than 30 seconds/1 minute at a time (I forget what the limit is). I have found it's best to copy the track I'm aligning to a playlist so I have a control, run VocAlign on the original, and then splice back in parts of the aligned take that feel more natural than what VocAlign is doing. 

F6 Floating-Band Dynamic EQ (Waves)

I'm anti C4/C6. I hear these plug-ins collapsing the stereo field, and I believe the F6 is just superior. The F6 is handy for stems with elements like delay/reverb printed onto them, printed loops with multiple elements like percussion and melody, and for creating space for vocals. The ability to select for individual bands mid/side, responsive to internal or external inputs, and dedicated attack/release gives me control over the sound.

Microshift (Soundtoys)

In a technical sense, I use MicroShift to give slight width to elements which are mono. I’m talking a less-than 15% wetness, because I don’t want the chorusing to be overly apparent. I love the "II" setting, and rarely adjust the detune/delay knobs. This plug-in is very creative in many other applications, like in use pre-reverb or post-delay on aux tracks.

screenshot of spiff by oeksound

spiff (Oeksound)

Spiff has given me hours of my life back on podcast/voiceover projects. I'm very picky with mouth clicks in my audio, I believe they are very unpleasing to the ear. spiff takes care of 95% of the clicks in a few seconds. I do not use spiff on vocals for singing or rapping, as I don't want to damage the dynamics or add additional heavy CPU processing like this when I don't need to - I'd rather fix mouth-clicks with the pencil tool. spiff is also perfect for clicky synths, or for giving some life back to an over limited/clipped two track. My recent favorite application of spiff was in sending a synth to a reverb - I appreciated the high end of the reverb, but had disdain for that reverb catching the attack of the synth. Adding spiff on the aux track pre-delay yielded a much smoother reverb, similar to adding a de-esser before a reverb in the case of vocals.

... Just SOME of the tools I use to mix music!

Technology is always changing... can't wait to see what this list looks like in a year. It will probably be full of "MixGPT" 😅😭

As for what's up like, 'RIGHT NOW' right now?

Picture of Vally at the Red Hook Tavern

It was my birthday - My wife took me to eat my favorite burger of all time at The Red Hook Tavern. The drink is a Last Word. Other highlights of their menu include these out-of-control Country Ham Croquettes, their Cavatelli, but you really can't go wrong here. IF it's on the menu, it slaps. Thanks to wifey for the pic.

If you want to work with us or just shoot the sh*t, hit our socials, send us an email, use our contact us form, whatever works for you!

Ciao ciao.