2021 was a solid year for plug-ins and I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to move onto the next! Here, I present the 10 VST plug-ins and instruments I felt most fond of in 2021. Don’t ask me why – I don’t understand the process very well myself. This list comes from the heart! But what does it take to captivate us as musicians, engineers or producers? Well, distortion certainly gets my ol’ corason going! But there’s more to the list than elaborate audio manglers, I assure you. Here are my Top 10 VST plug-ins and instruments in no particular order:
BOOM Library Enrage
Enrage makes it possible to stack up to 6 effects in parallel, and up to 8 effects in serial for a total of 14 processors having their way with your unsuspecting audio. The modulation options are predictably extensive, too. You can modulate effects parameters while modulating the modulators themselves. And why not trigger some of the action yourself via MIDI or sidechain input? Sure, be yourself at home! Enrage is powerful and flexible enough to make whatever it is that you need out of it. If you don’t know what that is, the preset browser certainly helps!
BOOM Library Enrage – Video
Tonsturm SPCTRL EQ
If you think filter sweeps are cool, SPCTRL EQ unlocks the rest of an equalizer’s unsuspected creative potential. It lets you edit up to 4096 individual frequency bands from a highly flexible curve editor, and switch things up with modulation and DAW automation.
The plug-in has a lean and intuitive user interface with several modes. Most of the fun happens in Vector Edit mode, where the vector curve editor lets you free-draw custom EQ curves over the frequency spectrum. Overall, SPCTRL EQ is the most fun I’ve ever had with an equalizer. The freedom to mess with and modulate EQ shapes is astounding, but the plug-in is so quick and intuitive that using it never feels daunting.
Tonsturm SPCTRL EQ – Video
Steinberg SpectraLayers 8
Steinberg introduced AI (artificial intelligence) for the first time in SpectraLayers 7. Just 10 months later, the Cubase and Nuendo developer’s spectral editing software doubles down on AI-driven features and enhancements to spar with iZotope RX 9 for the crown of ‘our AI overlords’. For example, there’s AI De-Bleed which helps reduce microphone bleed from isolated instrument tracks. Reverb Reduction also gets an artificial brain boost for better results. There’s also the new Voice Denoiser feature which uses AI to recognize and isolate the human voice. There’s more where that came from, so be sure to check out SpectraLayers 8 for spectral editing!
Steinberg SpectraLayers 8 – Video
Minimal Audio Rift
I don’t know about you, but my brain likes distortion. Heaps of it. And Minimal Audio’s Rift distortion plug-in is exemplary with it. Rift uses bipolar processing for distorting and manipulating the positive (upper) and negative (lower) halves of a waveform separately. The two are then mixed and modulated in various ways . I like everything about Rift, especially the advanced sound design tools it offers while maintaining a producer-friendly workflow. It’s basically the iZotope Trash 3 that we never seem to be getting!
Minimal Audio Rift – Video
KUSH BLYSS mastering equalizer
BLYSS is as much of an EQ as it is a “soundgoodizer” that makes things sound lush. To that, the plug-in employs multiple cascaded saturators alongside a 6-band EQ and a mastering-grade compressor. Getting around them is as straightforward as possible, owing to KUSH’s ‘less is more’ product philosophy. Then again, the saturation stage does feature the interplay of modeled input, interstage, and output transformers plus 3 discrete op-amp stages. But all it takes to get them going is two knobs (saturation, blend) and one meter. That’s a self-contained mastering chain if I have seen one!
KUSH BLYSS – Video
Acon Digital DeVerberate 3
Acon Digital’s reverb removal plug-in gets to play with a brand new neural network trained with thousands of voice and spatial recordings. Accordingly, DeVerberate 3 can distinguish between speech and reverberation to split the incoming audio signal into direct sound and reverb components. You can dial in how much you want of each. DeVerberate 3 also features an early reflection filter and reverb tail suppression functionality. I think Acon Digital is really pushing the envelope with DeVerberate and I’m seriously digging their work.
Acon Digital DeVerberate 3 – Video
Claro offers three distinct views that focus on different aspects of EQ. Produce view is about quick, broad frequency adjustments with a bit of mid/side action posing as simple stereo adjustments. Tweak view is the ‘nerd’ EQ where you can edit the most obscure frequency ranges in 0.1db increments. You can also let Claro highlight resonances and proceed to correct them. Finally, Mix view is where you can specifically address frequency masking between tracks. Claro is a well thought-out EQ plug-in and I honestly wouldn’t expect less from Sonnox!
Sonnox Claro – Video
NUGEN Audio Paragon ST
Paragon ST takes the original Paragon’s powerful IR + resynthesis surround reverb engine and streamlines it for stereo. Contrary to most IR-based reverb plug-ins, Paragon ST does not use time-stretching, which results in artifact-free reverbs. It does not ship with a multi-gigabyte IR library, either. However, the customisation options are deeper than what you’d get from standard convolution reverbs.
For example, Paragon ST includes settings for stereo-width and modulation. Other parameters, such as pre-delay, can be synchronized to the host tempo. Another point of interest is the Mic Distance Control that lets you place the virtual microphone forwards or backwards in the simulated space to define the early reflections’ sound and response.
NUGEN Audio Paragon ST – Video
Cableguys made a plug-in for mixing in a bunch of noise! That’s NoiseShaper, which combines that with the usual features of ShaperBox plug-ins. You can wield the noise and chaos by using LFOs – designed yourself and running freely, or sync’d to tempo. A ducking mode and an envelope follower are also available, as well as functions such as trim, mono, high and low-pass filters. You can also trigger noises from three frequency bands.
Cableguys NoiseShaper – Video
Arturia SQ 80 V
For its first Ensoniq emulation, Arturia chose the SQ-80 and took it into the 21 century with thoughtful upgrades wherever possible. Think of 16-voice polyphony (2x the original), 8-voice unison (for massive chords and stabs), and 2 additional envelope modes. These are the DADSR mode which adds a delay stage to the traditional ADSR points, and the MSEG mode which provides a fully customizable looping function generator. The instrument is sublime crunchy digital synth fun!
Arturia SQ 80 V – Video
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- Boom Library wants you to enrage your productions.: Boom Library/YouTube
- SPCTRL EQ Transform Mode: Tonsturm
- Steinberg Spectralayers 8 : Steinberg
- Rift's Curve View caters to your inner expressionist.: Minimal Audio
- KUSH Audio BLYSS: KUSH
- Acon Digital Deverberate 3: Acon Digital
- Sonnox Claro EQ plug-in: Sonnox
- NUGEN Audio Paragon ST: Nugen Audio
- Cableguys Noiseshaper: Cableguys
- Arturia SQ 80 V: Arturia