The Top 5 Must-Have Plugins for Sound Designers

From an industry veteran sound designer

As a professional sound designer, Plugins are vital to your everyday life.  Early in my career I don't think I truly realized how important plugins were to great sound design.  Yes, the actual sound asset is incredible important.  But, with the right plugins, you can make sounds really come to life.

When I started as a sound designer, there wasn't much information out in the world of sound design.  I struggled by trial and error to figure out how to get that "Hollywood" sound.  With this article, and others to come, I hope to shed some light on how professional sound designers create those incredible sounds.  But first, you must start with some basics: Plugins.

After working professionally for over 10 years, and collaborating with some of the best sound designers in the world, I have a list of must-have plugins every sound designer should have in their toolkit.  I happen to be a sound designer for video games, but these plugins are universal to every medium in the sound design world.  With these 5 plugins alone, you'll be a force to be reckoned with!

1. Analog Channel

Analog Channel is a emulator of tape machines.  So, this plugin tries to create that great tape saturation sound.  Back in the days of analog, you could really slam a compressor and you would get a nice saturation/distortion sound.  It is sometimes pleasing to the ear, and creates some unique sounds.  Basically, people love that sound, and there are a whole line of analog plugins that try to replicate that (this being one of the best).

I use this plugin when I'm trying to get a sound to be bigger and generally louder (AKA a compressor).  Unlike other plugins that breakdown digitally when you try to overload them, this bad boy will go to the limit!  If you need to give your sound a boost in the mix, this is your man.

2. Oxford Transmod

Oxford Transmod is such an amazing plugin!!!  When you want that extra punch to your sound, look no further.  As the name suggests, this plugin exaggerates the transients of your sound.  In other words, it can control the attack of your sound.  If your sound is dull, boom, put on this plugin and it can become bright with a nice attack.  The control you have over your sound is incredible with all the knobs.  There are other transient plugins out there, but this one takes the cake in variety and sound quality.  The waves transient plugin, for instance, is good but REALLY colors the sound when you max it out.  This plugin is very transparent and incredibly powerful.  If you don't use a transient are absolutely missing out.  This is a must have!

3. SoundToys Decapitator

The Decapitator plugin is a great resource when you want to color a sound effect.  This plugin, like analog channel, is emulating an analog pre-amp.  Decapitator is a bit more temperamental with it's settings than analog channel.  If you drive your sound loud enough, it's going to distort in nasty ways.  Sometimes, that's actually a good thing.  

On the bottom of this plugin (A-E-N-T-P styles) there are different pre-amps to choose from that color your sound in different ways.  You also can EQ your sound and change the tone.  I mean, it's just amazing the variety of things you can do with this plugin.  Plus, you have the mix knob at the end that lets you determine how much of this "analog"-ness you want for your sound!.  

I made a sound effects library of punch sounds recently.  You can check it out here.  When I came up with the "Indiana Jones" style punch, this was the plugin that gave me that distortion I needed to sound like the punch from the movie.  So, if you need anything old/analog, this might be the perfect plugin to use as well.

I know sound designers like David Farmer and Charles Deenan are big fans of this plugin.  With good reason, this plugin can really differentiate your sound.  If you want to go to the next level, this is a must-have.

4. RBass

Renaissance Bass is my favorite plugin for getting more lows out of your sound.  I'm not usually a fan of the waves plugins.  I feel like there are just better plugins out in the world.  But, I've tried all the plugins that create more low-end to your sound, and this one is just the best in my opinion.  If you are creating anything big or meaty, this plugin is a must.  The only issue with this plugin is that the lows last for the whole sound duration.  That can create tubby-ness in your mixes.  So, I would suggest splitting up your sounds into separate tracks and using this plugin for your attacks only.  

A LOT of sound designers use this plugin.  Not much else to say about this plugin, except that you got to use it!!

5. Blue Cat's Chorus

What!?  A freeware plugin in the must-have's?!  A Chorus plugin?!  Yep.  This plugin is a great addition to your arsenal.  While attending foley recordings for some of the games I've worked on (working with some of the great foley artists in film), I learned that foley artists use Harmonizers to beef up the sounds they are recording.  With that in mind, this plugin can add just a little bit of that to your sound effects without having that "chorus"-y sound.  

If you take the delay down all the way, all you add is a bit more level and depth to your sound.  It just beefs up your sound a bit.  It sounds nice without adding a crazy harmonic into the mix.  It's really transparent.  If you are looking for some sci-fi elements, just mess with the delay and depth.  Also, it's free, so it gives you a start to some great sounds on a budget!