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Plug-in effects are your best friends for all manner of music-production tasks – from composing to mastering. In our latest Essential Guide instalment, we cover both the history and the variety, and offer a three-page buying guide…




Plug-in effects have become the most important tools in a modern producer’s studio setup. Not monitors, you say? Or synths? What about microphones? Yes, all of those are very important, but the plug-in effect can do literally everything: from adding a gentle touch of reverb to your vocals to mastering a track; from helping to compose a tune to actually mixing one for you. At every stage of the production process – and for a lot of applications outside of standard music production – there is a plug-in effect. Actually, there are hundreds of plug-in effects for every stage of music making, the sheer number of which we will deal with later. But first, a little history…


As with the virtual instruments before them, plug-in effects were developed to replace expensive hardware. There’s one theory that states that digital recording just wasn’t cutting it back in the early 1990s. This was because all of those expensive analogue pieces of outboard gear that were used for recording throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s were ditched in the 80s to ‘do’ digital recording instead. The results were harsh and very, well, digital. Early plug-ins were made possible thanks to the increased speeds of computers, so the first thing developers tried to do was emulate the capabilities of the (then very expensive) hardware analogue synths and effects that had risen to prominence in studios over the previous decades.

Waves Audio lays claim to having produced the first plug-in effect with its 1992 release, the Q10 Paragraphic Equalizer. However, it wasn’t until later in that decade that Steinberg invented Virtual Studio Technology – the commonly used VST format. This enabled anyone to create plug-ins for the standard – and suddenly, everyone and his dog got involved. Other plug-in formats emerged and today, we have VST hosts that include Steinberg’s Cubase, Propellerhead Reason, Ableton Live and FL Studio. The Audio Units format was developed by Apple to run on its desktop and, more recently, its iOS devices, but also works on Live on a Mac. AAX (Avid Audio eXtension) was developed by Avid and is the latest plug-in format for Pro Tools; the older one being RTAS (Real Time AudioSuite). There are more, but this lot cover most of the popular DAW platforms we’ve listed below. So those are the formats, but what are the types of plug-in effect you can run on them?

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About MusicTech

Emulating the artists that inspired us in our many music-making ventures is as much about rekindling those feelings as it is knowing how the sounds were created. In our cover feature this month we show you how to get impossibly close to the sonic signatures left by your musical heroes. Continuing the theme we present our newest feature ‘Recording Spotlight,’ where we speak to Peter Franco, engineer on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, and gain insight into the complex, painstaking work that went into creating this modern classic. Additionally, we sit down with dance-music producer Stefano Ritteri and rising UK production star Rhiannon Mair, get into the meat of Cubase 9.5 and get hands-on with all the latest gear, tech and software. We hope you enjoy the issue…