The 10 Most Essential VST plugins

Plugins come in a variety of formats. VST (virtual studio technology) is one of the most common. They used to be pretty exclusive to Windows-based recording systems, but things have changed.

During the course of the music production process you’ll find yourself needing different types of tools for different situations. How you use them is up to you So let’s break down the 10 most useful VST plugins into different categories, talk about their unique features, and why they made the cut.

Creativity - Soundtoys 5 Suite

Soundtoys Suite

“Creativity” seems like a pretty broad topic, right? But sometimes you just need something unique to spark your muse and create some happy accidents.

Soundtoys’ 5 Suite features 21 effects in a single GUI. The interface is laid out like a classic analog recording studio rack, complete with wood framing! You’ll get Soundtoys classics like Decapitator, EchoBoy, DevilLoc, Microshift, and 17 more.

You can chain the signal however you’d like. Effects can be synced to the session tempo. There’s a global blend so you can mix the dry/wet signals. And if you want to add a little controlled chaos, the Recycle control routes the output back into the input section.

This suite isn’t just for music production. It’s great for film, content creation, and sound design. Every type of plugin you need is included, and the fact that you can mix and match them to taste lends it endless versatility. It’s not exactly inexpensive. But the level of value it provides makes the price tag make sense.

Mastering - Izotope Ozone 10

Izotope Ozone 5 Mastering Suite

Izotope plugins have been an industry-standard mastering tool for a while. And for good reason. Ozone 10 provides a complete toolkit that will give your masters the balance and shine they deserve.

It’s powered by different modules that control things like limiting, imaging, EQ, and dynamics. Reference mixes are a huge boon when putting your productions together. Ozone 10’s Master Assistant gives you deep insight into the EQ, dynamics, and stereo imaging of your favorite recordings.

The metering is easy to read and lets you make quick, informed decisions. The extent of Ozone’s capabilities is amazing. It might have a steep learning curve, but if you’re looking to invest in a single mastering VST plugin you have no better choice.

Subtractive Synth - U-he Diva

U-he Diva Synth Plugin

Diva was created to provide 50 years of the best mono and polyphonic synths in a versatile and easy to use VST plugin. You get an analog synth sound brought into the digital world. You can customize your layouts, and it’s easy to pull in sounds from yesterday or mix and match for something entirely new.

Triple envelope models and five oscillators and filters let you tailor your sounds. You can use two stereo effect slots to process the sounds that include reverb, delay, chorus, phase, and rotating speaker.

Dual LFOs can be tempo-synced to create an interesting sound dichotomy. You’re able to adjust the rate, swing, and multiple other parameters.

More than 1,200 presets give you a great starting point. But the spirit of all synth plugins is to provide the creative palette so you can sculpt the sound you want.

 

Wavetable Synth - Serum

Xfer Serum Synth Plugin

Wavetable synths take a sample (pre-recorded sound) and use that to drive each oscillator. What makes a wavetable synth unique is the ability to shape the sample and the tools that allow you to do it.

Serum is a top-level plugin for a reason. The UI and UX are designed to be both visual and sound based which allows for more intuitive operation. Considering the extent of what it can do, Serum is a game changer.

The built-in wavetable editor lets go so deep as to create separate waveforms from imported audio. It has 10 effects that you can chain together how you’d like. If you’re into synths, Serum is a must-have.

Delay - Waves H-Delay

Waves H-delay FX Plugin

People look for different things in delay plugins. Some want an easy-to-use interface, some want simple sounds, and some want additional features. Waves H-Delay is all of these.

You get up to 3500ms in delay time with optional modulation and filtering. You get controls over delay, feedback, output level, and wet/dry blend. It can be synced to the tempo of your session, or you can tap in the tempo. The analog feature has four different settings, or it can be disabled altogether.

No matter how you set up your delays in your sessions H-Delay will fit into your workflow. The variety of features provides a way to sculpt your delay sounds that would usually require multiple plugins. It can cover old-school analog delay sounds or crisper, more modern ones. It’s also fully MIDI compatible.

Compression - FabFilter Pro C 2

FabFilter Pro C2

Compression is one of the most important processors in audio. You want something with versatility. Some compressors color the sound, some are transparent, some can do both. If you’re going to go with just one compressor you want one that can get you a range of sounds.

Pro C 2 can give color or be as transparent as you’d like - and everything in between. It doesn’t identically model compressors like the 1176 or LA-2A. But it does provide a range of tonal options that can fit any production.

Equalization - FabFilter Pro-Q 3

FabFilter Pro Q3

FabFilter plugins have long been a standard in recording. Simply put, Pro-Q 3 is a must-have equalizer. It’s a fully parametric EQ that is just as good at making surgical cuts as it is for wide, flavorful boosts. It’s highly visual, with multiple pre and post EQ options.

The built-in spectral analyzer is fully customizable. You can isolate what’s being equalized to get a better context, and there are multiple listening modes. And it’s useful in every stage of the music production process.

It might not be a first choice mastering EQ, but it’s perfectly tailored for it. Another powerful feature is that it can perform mid/side processing, something that makes it perfect for mastering. It’s also Dolby Atmos compatible.

Limiter - FabFilter Pro-L 2

FabFilter Pro L2

There’s a reason why another FabFilter plugin made the cut. Some limiters are just designed to make audio louder. But with Pro-L 2 you can carefully create the exact final stage of your production.

Metering is key during mastering, and Pro-L 2 offers multiple ways to make sure your levels are right. You get peak meters that provide a real-time readout of gain reduction and output level. You can also tailor the level to different standards Eight different settings ensure that any part of the process is doable.

Think of Pro-L 2 as a limiter and loudness meter combined. It can get as dirty as you’d like, but it’s intended to create the cleanest masters.

Reverb - Valhalla VintageVerb

Valhalla VintageVerb FX Plugin

Reverb is one of those effects that hasn’t really changed much since its inception. Sure, there are some that offer innovative features. But for the most part all of this is achievable with automation or plugin stacking.

VintageVerb isn’t expensive, but it is versatile. You get 19 different reverb sounds that can take you from the smallest room to the largest hall. Three color modes let you paint the sounds even further.

The sounds are based on some of the most popular digital hardware reverbs from the 70s and 80s. But they never sound outdated. The GUI is easy to navigate, and it provides a number of sound options without seeming cluttered. You also get a number of plugin skins to sift through.

Overall VintageVerb will give you every reverb sound you could want. It’s simple, easy to navigate, and sounds great.

Filter - Sugar Bytes WOW 2

Sugar Bytes WOW FX Plugin

Filtering is an interesting topic. It’s a broad term. Equalization is a type of filtering. So with this category let’s examine something more unique. Many filtering plugins are a take on analog models.

WOW 2 is all that and more. You get 21 different filters in an interface that is easy to navigate. One of the most important control aspects is over distortion, and it gives you a variety of ways to shape it.

But it’s not just normal filtering effects that it does. The Vowel Filter gives you nine different vocal sounds from vocoder to talk box and everything in between. WOW 2 is a unique filtering plugin that gives you a lot of options without being overwhelming.

There are a number of modulation controls and ways to create novel sounds. “Creative Multi-Filterbox” is right.