In this series, we talk about Virtual Studio Technology for your Digital Audio Workstation. It’s the future. Hardware is great, but great plugins are better. Ok, they're both great, but the focus of this column is the best of the best plug-ins, because we’re experiencing a bit of a renaissance in this realm, and while some are OK, some are amazing. So, we break it down for you while keeping it simple — if a plugin is on this list, it’s certainly worth it.
To be fair, there are a decent number of spring reverb varieties out on the market, and sure, some stock plug-ins are up to the task, but how many of them actually sound like they should? You know what I mean. You throw the reverb on and it begins -- first it’s five minutes, ten minutes, and then you start considering that it’s too much tinkering — maybe a different plug or even a different effect altogether would be better.
That process ends with RO-SPR. Black Rooster Audio did it. RO-SPR sounds so fresh out of the gate it’s inspiring — just like when you route audio through traditional hardware and there’s that spark the moment you hear the sound come through. The mainstay of RO-SPR is six selectable, incredibly unique springs that have been modeled after various spring units spanning four decades of tech — wonderfully, marvelously low-tech, really, but tech that absolutely revolutionized the world of music.
The RO-SPR GUI is even dazzling. It defaults nice and large and there’s genius in the graphic design — somehow, even with a mouse, it feels like you’re interacting with hardware (obviously not, but pretty close to it). You’d be surprised just how many recordings employ at least a little bit of spring verb — RO-SPR brings spring verb into the modern era. It’s truly special and incredibly musical. Dialing in the perfect sound is easier than most spring verb plugins. It has great sonic qualities and plenty of options to help filter and stage the signal. At this point, it’s clear Black Rooster Audio is a symbol of incredible quality and value — some of my absolute faves. A home run from Black Rooster Audio, again, adding RO-SPR to their already impressive lineup. Price: Intro: $59 Regular: $129
When discussing plugins that are truly worth it, Tupe (a/k/a Tube + Tape) is a clear contender. It’s genius and simply sounds amazing. Tupe is one of those plugins that I continually reach for above most others. Why? Multiple instances of Tupe are relatively light on CPU. Tupe has great presets for inspiration. Goodhertz (Ghz) has fun baked into their culture and software design. And, Tupe boasts layers upon layers of simulated analog warmth and saturation. Goodhertz put some soul into software on this one, and this plugin is extremely versatile.
Inspired, I asked Ghz Principle DSP Engineer / Co-Founder Devin Kerr about the ethos behind its development and learned that Tupe originally started as a collection of existing Goodhertz saturation algorithms crammed into one prototype plugin by Goodhertz co-founder, Rob Stenson. After using that Tupe prototype for a while, the team quickly realized that there was something essential about that all-in-one combination — tubes, tape, & flexible filtering — that warranted a dedicated Ghz tube/tape plugin.
“With all of its modules working together, Tupe has this magical, more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts quality where it can sonically transport you to specific eras of recorded music: the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, etc., which all had signature sounds and distortions. All of Tupe’s 'Historical' presets, for example, are just iconic recordings,” said Devin Kerr.
It’s true. While I use Tupe to add color, vibe, and fullness to all sorts of instruments, it’s particularly fun to add Tupe to a vocal, guitar, bass, and drums and cycle through the vintage sounding presets for inspiration. From there, it’s a super tweakable plug-in, with all the parameters ergonomically placed, enabling fine tuning and near infinite levels of sonic exploration.
“Unlike many plugins, Tupe isn’t trying to copy specific analog hardware, though we did spend a ton of time in the lab on modeling. Instead, Tupe is more about providing different levers of coloration and saturation that allow an engineer to achieve a certain sonic result. Something like the Emphasis section in Tupe is totally new in the world of saturation but incredibly handy when you need to shape the tone in a specific way,” said Kerr. In true Ghz fashion, Tupe is a perfect combination of fun and utility. Price: $129
Two things: Overstayer M-A-S is serious business. Softube is softly crushing rivals. With that out of the way, in my opinion, saturation plug-ins are like potato chips, you can’t just enjoy one. We all know this, because saturation is too important to the engineering process and too much fun to use. Above-all, Overstayer M-A-S is an absolute beast, truly excelling at adding nuanced levels of hi-fi saturation, tone sculpting, and peak bending to productions.
The original hardware Overstayer M-A-S is handmade in Los Angeles, California, by artist Jeff Turzo and is a secret weapon of in-the-know mix engineers. It brings energy to tracks, glues buses, and enhances mixes and masters. Most of us aren’t going to have much experience with the hardware unit this plug-in emulates and expands upon. However, for those that do, some say this plug-in actually improves the hardware since Softube’s Overstayer M-A-S Extended version offers finer controls over filtering than the original unit.
With the addition of Softube Extended Features, Softube’s latest update added easy-access panels with workflow innovations like metering, headroom control, and level matching to over 60 of the company’s most popular plugins.
Composed of four versions: M-A-S, M-A-S Extended, M-A-S for Amp Room, and M-A-S for Modular, Softube's officially licensed Overstayer plugins and modules are incredibly versatile, especially if you’re a fan of the Softube ecosystem (highly recommended). I enjoy Softube’s Overstayer M-A-S in all of its various forms. I have particular fun implementing Overstayer M-A-S for Modular as a module in Softube’s Modular synth plugin, where I’m able to overdrive tones and waveforms and add some color and heat to custom sound design projects. The tonality is unique and adds a fiery touch. I also really love Overstayer M-A-S as a replacement drive insert in Console 1, where Overstayer M-A-S’s tone fattening qualities really shine through. Try Overstayer M-A-S on individual tracks in a mix for cumulative benefits. Put it all over your productions. Price: $249
4. Sonnox Claro
Claro is traditional EQ elevated. It’s remarkable in the level of insight it provides to your mixes. It displays your EQ in three distinct modes: Produce, Tweak, and Mix, following the traditional order of operations when producing and engineering.
Produce encourages broader sweeps based on what you’re hearing (and seeing, thanks to a super cool “energy” based visual display). Tweak then takes your corrective EQing and allows for finer granularity, adding more visual components to help you make good mix and sound design decisions — differences aside, Tweak will look familiar to Pro-Q lovers while adding even more visual cues to help keep your focus on the sound.
The nicest part about Mix mode is it shows all your instances of Claro in one window while highlighting areas where frequencies might be clashing among tracks in a mix session. Although this feature is somewhat available in other EQs, I’ve yet to see it done quite like this and it’s damn near perfect.
All in all, Claro takes the workflow of traditional EQing (M/S included) and makes it visual in a way that supports your ears, not overriding them like many “AI” based smart EQs do. Claro is a perfect balance between smart and traditional EQ and it’s one of few plugins that provides a refined, yet simple union between future forward programming and tradition. It’s interface is rather novel, so it may take a minute to get used to, but once you try it, you’ll feel you’re missing something without it, especially the Mix functionality. Price: $99