You don't need 3rd party plugins to get a professional sound. This is what I try to demonstrate with my Ableton templates.
But 3rd party plugins are fun, convenient, efficient — and they offer more creative options, texture, and character.
A quick example...
Ableton's Delay is awesome. It has a great filter. And a great modulation section.
But the Soundtoys EchoBoy, for example, has all these features PLUS different delay "Styles" that you can scroll through to find the delay character that sits perfectly in the mix. (EchoBoy also has tons of other customization options under the hood.)
Is it absolutely necessary to have these extra styles? No. But it's fun and it gives you more creative options.
So, while I love Ableton's plugins, when I need a different flavor, more customization options, and a "better" workflow, I reach for a 3rd party plugin. (Better, or course, is subjective.)
Below you'll find all the 3rd party plugins that I use on a daily basis.
The layout of this post is simple (click a link to jump right to that section):
D16 Group - Drumazon
Drumazon is a 909 drum machine emulation from D16 Audio Group.
I mostly use this for snare rolls because you have control over 6 different parameters for the snare so you can really dial in the roll that you're looking for.
But I also love it for rides and hats -- because they're super easy to tune here.
FabFilter - Pro-Q
This is my main EQ. I use this 90% of the time. I actually use the original "Pro Q" more than the updated Pro-Q 2 and 3. The later versions have a weird thing going on with the listening filter. But when you purchase Pro-Q 3, you get access to all the legacy versions as well so you can decide which you like best.
The reason this EQ is so awesome and popular has nothing to do with the sound -- it's a clean, transparent digital EQ. The reason it's so awesome is the workflow. You can double click anywhere to create a new EQ node. And the listening filter lets you zoom in on unruly frequencies fast.
Extra stuff: Q3 has a dynamic EQ. Q2 and 3 have a piano roll thing so you can make harmonic boosts and cuts.
There's more, but these features along make it worth the purchase.
Izotope - Ozone 9 EQ
Like I said, my main EQ is FabFilter Pro-Q -- BUT I love Ozone 9's match EQ feature. Pro-Q has this feature too, but I prefer Ozone's match EQ.
What is this? With match EQ, the Ozone EQ will create an EQ curve to help you match a reference track. Simple as that.
I always experiment with this in mastering, and most of the time I leave it on (in a subtle way).
I don't use match EQ to fix things -- but rather to diagnose frequency problems. Then I go back in the mix to make the fixes.
The EQ is just one of the brilliant plugins that comes in the Ozone suite. And if you plan on mastering your own music, Ozone is an absolute must.
Izotope - Ozone Dynamic EQ
This my mastering Dynamic EQ.
A great feature of the Ozone line is the mix assistant. Here Ozone will analyze your track and come up with an intelligent mastering preset. This is great for getting ideas in mastering.
But my favorite part of mix assistant is where it optimizes your mix for loudness using the dynamic EQ. By taming resonating frequencies, you can push your mix a little further in loudness.
This can take some time to get right if you do it "manually" -- and you might forget to do it! But Ozone's dynamic EQ takes care of this in seconds.
In the mix, I usually use the Waves C1 Comp-SC for dynamic EQ work. But I'll use the Ozone module when I need to get really surgical. (One time I used 4 of these on one vocal -- in my track "Synthetic.")
FabFilter - Simplon
This filter is awesome! It has great filter styles and some other neat little features like a mix knob, but there's one reason I use it:
The filters go all the way to to 5 Hz on the low end and 75 kHz in the top end -- which means you can leave it on!
Ableton's Auto Filter goes down to 26 Hz and up to 19.9 kHz so it affects the sound too much when you leave it on -- in my opinion. It takes away some top end. And it slightly alters the low end.
But the filters in Simplon get out of the way -- which just makes things easier.
Izotope - Ozone Maximizer
Ozone's Maximizer is one of the final limiting plugins I use in my mastering chain.
I always try a bunch of different limiters, but the Maximizer is usually the one that wins. There's tons of modes to try, so it's easy to find one that helps you drive your mix without causing ugly distortion or weird compression.
My favorite modes are the IRC III modes. And specifically, the Balanced and Pumping sub-modes.
Waves - L2 Limiter
The Waves L2 is a workhorse limiter. It's an old plugin, but it has stuck around for good reason. It sounds great and you can drive it hard.
Sometimes this ends up being my final master limiter.
But I ALWAYS use this limiter when producing and mixing -- I produce and mix into this limiter.
It's super light weight. So it doesn't cause any annoying delay compensation issues.
I also use this limiter on my sub-masters to create a ceiling and get a little more level out of each sub-master.
FabFilter - Pro L2
The FabFilter Pro L2 is one of the most popular limiters out there. And for good reason. Like Ozone's limiter, it has so many different modes and options to try in order to find the perfect settings for your track.
The real time display is super helpful -- as you can see when your your mix is peaking too much at specific times. Then you can go back into the mix and fix the build up in level.
An amazing detail is you can listen to the attenuated signal itself! This is another great way to identify problematic build ups in level in the mix.
Finally, it also has loudness metering built in as well, which is great to have while you're actually limiting -- that's the point right?
This limiter is worth having just for the diagnostic features. But it's amazing as a limiter too. And it's one that I always try along side Waves L2 and Ozone's Maximizer.
Waves - MV2
I use the MV2 for upward compression. Just turn the left slider up and that's it.
Like downward compression, it's typically used to reduce the dynamic range of a sound by bring the peaks and valleys closer together.
But where downward compression pushes down on the peaks, upward compression pushes up on the valleys.
I always use this on bass (or on the lows group with the kick), tops loops, and on the master.
It makes the bass fatter by slightly elongating the notes -- and bringing out any top end character.
It also brings out the "air" from tops loops and the master -- giving you that live feeling in the top end.
Izotope - Ozone Compressor
This one is pretty straight forward. It's just a great multiband compressor. And it's the one I use on the master.
I love that it has compression AND limiting. In general, I like to do a little limiting before compression -- and it's great that I can do for different frequency bands.
Other multiband compressors make a noticeable change to a sound when you load them. But this compressor is perfectly clean -- which is super important when mastering.
Softube - Tube Tech CL1B
The Softube Tube Tech CL1B sounds AMAZING on bass. It beefs up the sound and gives it a next-level character.
Sometimes I don't even use the compression, I just put the plugin on and it gives the bass a warm, deep, growly character that I can't replicate with anything else.
And that's exactly what I use it for: fatness.
Waves - C4 Multiband Compressor
Waves C4 is a simple multiband compressor. Waves has a fancier version in the C6, but I like the C4 for the simplicity.
C4, unlike the Ozone Dynamics module is lightweight and that's why I love it for mixing.
I use this guy by soloing the bands to find the natural crossover points for the sound in question -- e.g., a vocal. And then I simply drag down the threshold to get the right amount of compression.
Of course, you can make the gain up by ear, but this plugin has a great visual display that lets you line up the compressed signal with the 0 gain reduction line. This way, you can get a super accurate level match between the input and output.
Waves - CLA2A Compressor
This is one of the most musical compressors you can find. It has a relatively slow attack time and a program-dependent release so it just "moves" with your music.
Because of the slow attack time (by nature of optical compressors) you usually put a fast-attack compressor before hand to smooth out any unruly peaks.
That's why you have the classic chain of the 1176 and the LA2A. The 1176 takes care of the peaks. The LA2A takes care of the musical compression.
I typically use a limiter or a digital compressor in place of the 1176. But I always use the LA2A. It gives a subtle, professional sheen to sounds. And it rounds out the bass.
It really works on any sound: drums, bass, synths, and especially vocals.
Waves - Renaissance Compressor
The Renaissance Compressor gives you the best of both worlds from the precision of digital compression to the color of analog compression.
You can keep the signal clean with the "RComp" if you want. But that's not why it's fun. There's two switches at the top:
- Electro/Opto - changes the release character
- Warm/Smooth - changes the tone
And these help you subtle alter the behavior and color of the compressor. And that's what's fun about it.
One of my favorite uses for this is "body" compression instead of peak or upward compression. Here, with a low ratio (1.2) and fast attack/release time (5 ms), I get a constant compression amount of 3 db. And then I make the gain up 3 dB. This just flattens the signal a touch, and increases the RMS and perceived level.
I usually try this trick out on vocals, synths, and bass.
Waves - DeEsser
What can I say here? This is a DeEsser and it works. It removes the "esses" or sibilant frequencies from vocals or any other sounds, like high hats or tops loops.
You can split the compressed signal so it acts as a dynamic shelf kind of thing. Or you can compress the signal wideband.
You can also have the detection filter be a high pass filter or a bell filter. And you can use the "S Chain" Monitor to make sure you're using the right frequencies to trigger compression on the sound.
The point is that you have all the tools you need to accurately de-ess a signal and remove the harsh and unwanted sibilance. This is REALLY important for club music -- as sibilance on loud system can make people go deaf!
Waves - C1 Compressor SC
I really love this thing. It's so old, but it works so well! I use it as my "musical" dynamic EQ. Earlier I mentioned that I use the Ozone Dynamic EQ as my surgical dynamic EQ.
It looks kind of complicated, right? Well, I use it in the simplest way:
- I go to the "De-Esser" preset (because it has a fast attack and selecting the preset it faster than changing parameters around)...
- I select the frequency I want to compress and turn the Q all the way up...
- I turn the threshold down to get the right amount of compression.
That's it! It tames harshness and resonance better than anything else I've tried.
Waves - Renaissance Vox
This is a dummy-proof plugin and I love dummy-proof plugins. It's a vocal compressor.
On the left you have a dummy-proof gate. You just set the level where the gating will start. And it's super soft -- so you won't get awkward gating artifacts.
The compressor is also dummy-proof: you turn it down until you get the amount of compression that sounds good.
It automatically makes the gain up so you can clearly hear if the compression is beneficial or not.
I usually use 2 instances of this on a vocal. First, I use the gate early in the vocal chain. Second, if I want more presence from the vocal after limiting and the CLA-2A, I'll use the "RVox" for even more compression.
RVox also does some voodoo magic behind the scenes -- especially on the mid range. Maybe some excitement? Or saturation? Whatever it does, it sounds phenomenal on vocals.
Waves - API 2500
The API 2500 is my wide-band mastering compressor. It's early in the mastering chain and is used to introduce some subtle color, glue, and pump to the mix.
I almost always use a 30 or 10 ms attack and a 50 or 100ms release.
If I want to pump the mix, I'll use a 30 ms attack and a 50 ms release. This way the compressor lets the kick through and pushes down on the rest of the mix. But we need to recover quickly to get that pump!
If I want to squeeze the mix, I'll use a 10 ms attack and a 100 ms release. This way, everything is getting compressed. I'm clamping down on the kick and the rest of the mix recovers relatively slowly back to normal.
I always mess around with the tone section for kicks because each button subtly changes the sound of the mix -- and there's no way to know objectively what's going to happen.
But that's really it! Just make sure the Analog switch is turned on!
Soundtoys - Decapitator
My favorite knob of all time is the "Tone" knob on the Decapitator. You can completely EQ a whole sound OR MIX with that one knob.
I love the A and E styles the most. To me, A is warm and serious. Whereas E is hype-y and exciting. So those two flavors cover a lot of ground.
One of my go-to ways of using this plugin is turning the "Punish" on, choosing the style, and then mixing a little of that signal in.
Izotope - Ozone Exciter
The Ozone Exciter is my favorite module of the Ozone line. In earlier versions, you could only select one type of saturation type and adjust the "amount" and "mix" per band.
But now you can select different saturation types for each band. That's amazing! As you can imagine, the top end and low end might call for different types of saturation, and Ozone 9 now lets you do this!
How does it work? Select the band you want to saturate (My favorite is the low mids.) Then select the saturation type, adjust the amount, then adjust the mix.
Don't be shy with this one!
Sonnox - Oxford Inflator
The Inflator is one of those secret weapons of the pros. And it's one of my secret weapons too.
The beauty of it is that you get the best of what a compressor/limiter/maximizer would do like...
- Increasing loudness
- Adding power and presence
Without all the unwanted side effects like...
- Killing the dynamics
- Causing weird pumping
- Causing ugly distortion and over-saturation
Best part? All you have to do is turn up the "Effect" to experience the magic.
I mostly use it on the master bus and on the drum bus.
It seriously makes EVERYTHING sound bigger and better.
I don't know what's going on under the hood. But it's definitely something special.
Soundtoys - Radiator
The Radiator is a plugin version of the Altec 1567A — a tube mixer from the 1960s.
(Fun fact: The Black Keys had a custom console built using the Altecs — because they sound so fat and warm.)
Like the Inflator, this is a secret weapon of the Pro’s — especially on 808s and bass.
And I also use it mostly on bass, as you can see in this video — HERE.
For my bass sound, I like to crank the "Bass" and adjust the "Mix" (for gentle parallel processing).
And to control saturation/coloration, I drive the "Input" and level match with the "Output." Super fast. Super fat.
The problem with most saturation plugins is that there is a fine line between subtle saturation and ugly distortion. But you can drive and drive the Radiator and it only sounds better and better.
So whenever I want to add some grit, warmth and authority to my bass sound, I reach for the Radiator.
Waves - NLS (Non-Linear Summer)
The NLS is a “non-linear summer” which basically means that it adds all your audio together in a warm, analog way rather than a sterile, digital way.
But still…what does this mean?
Let’s say your song in Ableton has 50 channels. Maybe you have some groups and busses. But everything eventually gets “summed” down to the stereo master.
Well, all of this summing happens in a clean, digital way. You've probably never thought about this!
But on an analog console, a sound on one channel still has to travel down real hardware (metal, wires, etc.) before it reaches the stereo master. And this is true for all sounds on all channels. So...
Every sound gets a touch of subtle coloration before it reaches to stereo master.
And that subtle coloration is what the Waves NLS emulates. It models the sound of 3 different consoles:
- SSL 4000G (present)
- Neve 5116 (warm)
- EMI TG12345 (agressive)
The amazing thing about the Waves NLS is that you don’t have to use one console. You can pick the right console for the right sound.
How do I use Waves NLS?
I don’t typically put an NLS plugin on every channel — but you certainly could. After all, that's what happens in an analog console, right? Instead, I just put the NLS plugins on my sub-masters.
I personally love the Neve and the EMI consoles. Neve for the low frequency sounds — adding warmth and fatness. And EMI for the drums, vocals, and synths — adding presence and aggression.
Waves - Kramer Master Tape
I’ve never used a tape machine. So I have NO idea if the Kramer tape plugin faithfully emulates the real thing.
But I do know that this is one of my favorite plugins. And I also know that it sounds amazing!
I primarily put the Kramer on my Drum Bus (all the drums except the kick). And I also put it on the Vocal Bus and Music Bus (mainly synths and chords).
And I set the plugin up the same way every time — with some subtle variations.
First — I get the Record Level (input) hitting just before the red in the meter.
I usually leave the “link” between the Record Level (input) and the Playback Level (output) on because it does a good job of level matching the signal.
Second — Depending on the sound, I might tweak a couple extra things:
- Speed: 7.5 is a little darker, and 15 is a little brighter.
- Wow & Flutter: Usually 20 - 50 for vocals and synths. 0 for drums.
- Flux: This is basically compression and saturation, so I'll increase it if I want more aggression.
I honestly wouldn’t want to mix without this plugin. I’d feel like something was missing.
Waves - Renaissance Bass
I like to see what a company says about their own product -- to see how they "hype" it up. And Waves says this about the RBass:
"The industry’s favorite plugin for delivering a richer, deeper low end that translates even on small playback systems. A tried-and-true workhorse for countless Grammy-winning engineers."
To me, this is spot on.
I knew that the RBass was special, but I help off on purchasing it for a while -- until someone on Pensado's Place mentioned it. And I finally pulled the trigger.
The most "practical" part of Waves' product description is the last part of the first sentence:
"...low end that translates even on small playback systems."
Yes ... RBass is great for adding in the harmonics that let the bass poke out of laptops and small speakers.
But in a club, who cares, right? Well...
These harmonics (from about 100 - 500) are the harmonics that make the bass sound huge, fat, and warm -- they add a "growl" to a simple bass sound.
And that's mostly how I like to use it: start with a basic bass sound (sine wave, filtered saw, or filtered square), load RBass, and maybe adjust the Intensity. Done.
I typically like to fiddle with every parameter to get a "custom" sound out of it. And I did this with RBass when I first got it, until...
I realized that I couldn't really beat the default setting. It's already programmed to enhance bass in the "right" way.
Because of this, RBass is like the Inflator. There's magic under the hood. And it makes my basses fatter.
Soundtoys - Little Plate
This plugin basically has one knob: time. Yes it has a pre-reverb filter and a mix knob. But it's all about the big knob: time.
You could use this one plugin for all your reverb needs in a track and it would sound amazing. You're obviously limited in features, but the sound makes up for it.
Softube - TSAR-1 Reverb
This is the reverb I reach for when I need a "serious" reverb. Utilitarian reverbs like Ableton's are quick and useful. But sometimes you need something serious -- like "I need the PERFECT reverb here."
The parameters on the big guy are perfect for helping you dial in exactly what you need -- especially, density, tone, early reflection size and mix, and tone.
I absolutely LOVE the little guy (TSAR-1R). I recommend it for anyone that really wants to learn how you use reverb in the mix. Because it boils reverb down to the 2 most important parameters: time and tone.
Basically, reverbs are short (close) or long (far), dark or bright. So that gives you 4 combinations and natural spaces you can create in your mix.
Soundtoys - EchoBoy
Delay is easy to not care about.
After all, it’s just a delayed version of the original signal. And maybe it trails off into the distance.
This may be true at the surface level, but...
As you get more experienced, you realize one thing:
Just like every little sound has it’s proper place in the mix, so does delay.
The beauty of the Soundtoys EchoBoy is the “Styles” section. This is the #1 reason why I bought the plugin. And it’s the #1 reason why I continue to use the plugin. Let me explain:
EchoBoy gives you everything you’d expect in a delay plugin (and TONS more under the hood that I don’t have the space to write about), but it takes it 10X further by giving you the tones of different vintage delays.
Vintage tones from delays like EchoPlex, Space Echo, Memory Man, TelRay and more...
Now, like you, this didn’t mean much to me. I’ve never heard or used any of these old delay units.
But I know EXACTLY what they sound like inside EchoBoy...
So when I’m adding a delay to a vocals, synth, whatever, I have a good idea of what style is going to help the sound “fall” into the mix perfectly.
And if I don’t, I can just flick through the 30 different Styles of delay until I find the perfect fit.
In general, that’s one major benefit that 3rd-party plugins offer: more flavor. And once you have those new creative options, it’s hard to go back!
Waves - S1 Stereo Imager
When I want a stereo sound a little wider -- in a clean and transparent way -- I reach for the S1 Imager from Waves.
It just takes a sound and makes it wider. Job done.
Some examples: Imagine that you want a synth to "wrap" around a vocal just a little more. Just push the "Width" fader a little. Done.
Actually, this is also what I use to do the OPPOSITE: if I want to make a sound LESS wide, then I'll use the S1 Imager as well.
It's just a great utility width plugin.
Soundtoys - MicroShift
While the S1 is a great utility widener, when I want something with a little more character, a little more interesting, and a little more creative, I go for the Microshift.
And more often than not, I go for the little guy, the Little MicroShift:
This thing makes me happy. It works like a dream. And I use it on the "big" sounds in the mix that need more character and width.
I've mentioned what I'm about to say several times on this page, but I'll say it again: 3rd party plugins give you extra flavors. And as you can see, the MicroShift gives you 3 widening "Styles." And, if I'm not mistaken, they get progressively more aggressive.
YES ... the "big" Microshift has some awesome features to help you dial in exactly WHAT you're widening and HOW. For example, you can widen above certain frequencies (if you want to keeps your lows center). And along with the different width styles, you can also control the detune and delay amount of the slit signal. So FULL control over getting your sounds wide.
BUT ... like I said, I mostly use this for the "big" things in the mix -- and that means the midrange elements like vocals and synths.
So I just want to slap on the Little Microshift, pick the right widening style, and make a sound wide. It's so fast. And it sounds so good.
Waves - Center
I'm seriously surprised that I don't see and hear more people using this plugin. Maybe it's because people don't really know what it does?
But it's SO simple: it just adjusts the mid/side balance of a sound.
Now why is this so cool? And when would you use it?
Well, I use this mostly for automating the details of a mix. Let's say a vocal comes up the middle. But I had a wide synth with some center presence playing before. So to make more room for the vocal, but to keep the synth present (on the sides), I simply automate down the "Center" on the synth. (You could also do this using a MS EQ in a frequency-specific way.)
Another example of when Center comes in handy is during breaks. Sometimes you want to create a big "hole" in the mix during a break so you can "fill" it later in the drop. (This is a mixing version of tension and release. Tension because of the hole. Release when the hole gets filled later on.) So in the breaks. I'll bring the Center down on different sounds to create that hole -- to deemphasize the center of the mix.
I'll also use Waves Center when I clearly hear that the mid/side balance between a sound is out of whack. And instead of using S1 or MicroShift, it just makes more sense to use Center -- maybe cause the sound has a natural mid/side separation?
Anyway, I love this thing. And it's a no-brainer in terms of what belongs in your widening tool kit.
Izotope - Ozone Imager
This is about as detailed and creative as you can get with widening sounds...
The Ozone Imager is a multi-band widener (or single band if you want). So you have full control over how your entire frequency range of your mix is imaged.
And it's so simple. You set the bands to be imaged. And then you just use one slider to determine how much imaging is applied.
And if you want a little more customization, you can adjust the "Stereoize" slider at the bottom to get more or less extreme styles of widening. And there's also two different modes to choose from -- like the Styles in the Soundtoys MicroShift.
This is the imager that I use on the master and sub-masters. It's also the imager that I use for high frequencies instruments, loops, and groups. The last thing I want is any kind of "smearing" in the top end. And the Ozone Imager handles this delicate area perfectly.