Plugin Alliance has united some of the most renowned international audio companies under, what they refer to as, a “virtual roof.” On their official website, they state that “Plugin Alliance empowers world-renowned analog hardware companies with a digital strategy and provides software developers with services that allow them to develop products with increasing quality and quantity.” Essentially, they’re working with some of the greatest audio companies on earth to provide an assortment of high-quality analog modeled plugins.
Plugin Alliance’s partner companies include Acme Audio Manufacturing Co., ADPTR AUDIO, Black Box Analog Design, Brainworx, Chandler Limited, Dangerous Music, Dear Reality, Elysia, ENGL, Fiedler Audio, Lindell Audio, Louder Than Liftoff, Mäag Audio, Millenia Media, Noveltech Audio, Pro Audio DSP, Schalltechnik Dr.-Ing. SCHOEPS, SPL, Unfiltered Audio, and Vertigo Sound.
Before getting too heavily entrenched in this list, I recommend that you sign up for Plugin Alliance’s newsletter (found at the bottom of their website). They regularly send out insane deals that drop their products down to as much as 90% off. Another excellent buying tip is to bundle their products together, which can save you up to an additional 60% on your order. You should wait until a number of the plugins you’re interested in go on sale, bundle them together, and then purchase a handful of them at once. In some situations, you can even add cheaper plugins to your cart, which will discount your bundle below your previous total.
The plugins a part of this list are tools that I use regularly. These aren’t merely alternatives to other devices that I own; they’re the go-to tools I’m using for the functions they perform. If a product doesn’t provide significant value beyond what’s available from other plugin distributors, it didn’t make the list. Each one of these plugins is free to download and demo for 14 days, so you can test them out for yourself!
The Black Box Analog Design HG-2 is a tube processor that will find itself right at home on your stereo buss. It’s used to add significant color and distortion to your audio signal, ranging from subtle to heavy processing. Start crafting mixes that sound rich, full, loud, big, and punchy, all without altering the peak level running into the HG-2.
This unit allows you to make use of four different vacuum tube stages combined in series. It also uses parallel circuits to color your sound with additional harmonic content. The HG-2 has separate gain controls for its pentode and triode tubes, and a particularly useful Density knob that lets you drive both tubes harder without changing the relative balance of either knob.
Although there aren’t that many controls on this device, there are so many parameter combinations you can create, that the results you can expect will range from dark to bright, clean to distorted, etc. The HG-2 definitely has a signature sound, but it provides a wide variety of tones, which is what you want from a quality color box.
The Brainworx bx_digital V3 is a mastering-grade mid-side EQ. It has 11 bands with various filter types including parametric bells, high- and low-shelves, and high- and low-passes. These filters can be applied to each channel; mono, dual-mono (L/R), stereo and mid-side. Also included in this EQ are imaging, monitoring, and metering sections that make it perfect for mastering.
New to version 3 is a high-frequency band that reaches up to 40 kHz, a dynamic EQ module, API-style Proportional Q filters, and six notch filters in total. There are Bass and Presence shifters which apply one of three different tilt filters.
I reach for the V3 when I’m working on a transparent master. Many clients like the quality of their mix, but just need some clean stereo buss processing to format their song appropriately for it’s desired playback medium. This device has a transparent sound thanks to its minimum phase design that reduces phase shift and frequency masking.
While many limiters are made for mastering and help you to compress your audio signal into just below the ceiling of your DAW, some limiters like the Brainworx bx_limiter are explicitly made for individual tracks and busses. The thing I like about this limiter is that it allows you to apply gain reduction without simultaneously increasing the output level of your signal.
An example of when I may use the Brainworx bx_limiter is when I’m processing a group of Pop vocals. I might have a thick vocal stack summing together that I need to control somehow. Once I’ve processed and set all the individual track levels for the buss, I’ll sometimes choose to apply a limiter to the end of my buss processing. This acts to tame any transients that result from the individual tracks summing together, making setting the level of my vocal buss against other busses slightly easier.
Another feature on this limiter that I particularly like is the “XL” saturation knob. It applies a warm form of saturation up to about 40-50% that seems to lend itself well to many applications. Beyond the halfway mark, you can expect tones more useful for creative sound design.
There are lots of metering plugins available from other companies, but I’m a huge fan of the Brainworx bx_meter. I mainly like it because a majority of the critical metering values that I’m concerned with are presented to me in a compact, sleek interface. Other plugins can do the exact same thing, but I just happened to prefer how this device is laid out.
This meter provides peak, RMS, and dynamic range metering, peak hold and RMS functions, stereo, link, and M/S modes, balance and correlation meters, solo buttons for left, right, mid and side signals, A, C and K weighted filters, and floating dynamic LEDs. I'll usually toss this onto my stereo buss and keep it open on a separate monitor while I’m mixing. This allows me to quickly refer to essential track information without disrupting my workflow.
Providing a mono signal with stereo width can sometimes prove to be quite challenging. The issue is that, depending on the device or technique you use, you can run into phase issues. Phase issues are something to look out for any time you start widening elements in your mix. Even if your mix sounds great in stereo, when the left and right channels sum together through mono playback systems, your mix may not hit as hard as you had intended, or you may experience complete phase cancelation (silence).
The Brainworx bx_stereomaker allows you to add stereo width to a mono signal while maintaining mono compatibility. It creates a virtual side signal with analog style filters using Brainworx M/S stereo algorithms. The plugin allows you to adjust the stereo width added to the mono source signal from 0-300%. There’s also a Hi-Damp knob that lets you to tame harsh high-end frequency content. One of my favorite features on this plugin is the Mono-Freq knob. It allows you to keep your low-end in mono, up to 250 Hz, and then spread the frequency content above the crossover point you've selected.
If you’re looking for a new drum buss or stereo buss compressor, you just found it. This plugin seeks to emulate its analog counterpart built in 1978 that was created with components supplied by Solid State Logic (SSL). I find this compressor has a somewhat warm sound, but it still manages to maintain the punch and shimmering top-end of the signal that you run through it.
When color is the goal, the Brainworx bx_townhouse Buss Compressor is an excellent option. It works well on synths, pianos, guitars, drums, and full mixes. It’s also a great option if you’re looking to perform New York style compression since you can crank the ratio up to 10:1. This plugin expands on the features of the original hardware unit by including an internal sidechain and Dry/Wet mix control.
Many mastering limiters use a single band to compress the entire audio signal, while other use multiple bands. However, not very many limiters allow you to compress your mid-highs, mid lows, and sides independent of one another. This is how the Brainworx bx_XL V2 works, and it will enable you to improve mix clarity and maintain punch at the final stage of your mastering process.
By making use of X-Phase crossover filters, the Brainworx bx_XL V2 splits the plugin’s input signal and lets you limit, level adjust and saturate each signal independent of the other. That’s right, you can saturate each signal using the same “XL” saturation found in the Brainworx bx_limiter. With all these features packed into one unit, the Brainworx bx_XL V2 is the perfect mastering limiter for achieving high volume masters that don’t sound squished or distorted.
The Dangerous Music BAX EQ is a mid/side and left/right minimum phase EQ suited for tracking, mixing, and mastering. It will allow you to make broad EQ adjustments, affecting wide frequency ranges. It’s marketed at as “smooth” sounding EQ, but you shouldn’t confuse that for “transparent.” As soon as you add this EQ to your signal chain, it’s going to color your input signal. In most cases, it actually has quite a desirable sound.
I’ll often use this EQ while mastering to balance out a mix that I think just needs a little more/less low-end presence, or more/less top-end shine. You’re not going to be able to perform surgical processing with this unit, and that’s not what it’s intended for, but if you’re looking for a tone shaping tool the Dangerous Music BAX EQ is a great choice.
The Elysia Alpha Compressor is a 100% discrete class-A analog modeled software compressor. It’s a real smooth compressor, perfect for putting the final touches on a mix. This unit provides you with the ability to compress your mids and sides independent of one another when you deactivate “Channel Link,” and engage “M/S” mode.
You’re not going to get a really crushed sound from this compressor because the Alpha won’t allow for it. Its controls more than subtly indicate what the device is intended for: mastering. Attack times range from 0.01 ms to 150 ms, release times range from 60 ms to 1800 ms, and the ratio of both compressors maxes out at 2.4:1.
This compressor provides oversampling, selectable feedforward and feedback designs, sidechain filters, parallel compression, soft clip limiters, and warm modes that are modeled after the switchable Transformer circuits of the hardware unit. All around, this is an excellent, semi-versatile mastering compressor that will suit a wide array of mixes.
If you’ve recorded vocals with a microphone that has provided a tone that’s somewhat darker than you had intended, there’s a good chance the Noveltech Vocal Enhancer can help you out. It applies many different forms of processing, based on your input signal, to enhance your vocals or other instruments. This vocal enhancer sculpts and emphasizes characteristics that are present in your original signal, but it doesn’t create content that wasn’t there before.
I have no doubt that you could perform processing similar to this plugin using various other devices, but the thing I like about this is that it’s quick and easy to use. I’ll usually start by dialing in the Enhancement knob’s amount, then I’ll focus in on the frequency I want to affect with the Focus Frequency knob, and finally, I’ll set the low and high crossover frequencies so that I’m only affecting the specific range of frequencies that I want to target.
The Vertigo VSC-2 is a quad discrete VCA compressor intended for buss compression. This has what I would describe as a slightly more aggressive, and heavily weighted sound than the previously mentioned Townhouse Buss Compressor. I don’t think it’s quite as versatile as the Townhouse, but it certainly serves a purpose on your drum buss or on bright acoustic material. I could see this compressor performing quite well on a Rock mix as well.
When you set the ratio of this compressor to 10:1, it has a very apparent “squashed” character that I absolutely love when applied in parallel. If you’re feeling really wild, you can even engage the unit’s “Brick” mode which causes the unit to function like an analog limiter by cutting off peaks at the set threshold level.
You can choose between 60 Hz and 90 Hz sidechain filters, which will cause only the frequencies above the cutoff point to trigger the compressor’s threshold. Engaging the SC Filters will allow the compressor to breathe a little bit, and not respond so aggressively. The final notable feature on the Vertigo VSC-2 is the stereo/mono switch that switches the unit between stereo and dual mono mode.
I like saturation just as much as the next guy, but there aren’t that many mastering grade saturators that I’m drawn to outside the realm of tape machine emulations. There’s something about the Vertigo VSM-3 saturator that is clean enough to not significantly alter a mix but still provide the color I’m looking for.
The VSM-3 has two independent virtual circuits, that provide two kinds of color, ranging from subtle to heavy distortion. Engaging the 2nd Harmonic FET Crusher will result in warm, rich saturation, and engaging the 3rd Harmonic Zener Blender will result in bright, clear saturation. It’s possible to route the Crusher and Blender either in parallel or serial with one another, providing significantly different sounds.
Like other plugins on this list, you can apply processing to the entire stereo signal, mid signal, or side signal. The VSM-3 provides you with enough control to make use of it at a mastering level, and it also serves up enough features to use it in your mix. It sounds great on drums, bass, synths, and anything else that could benefit from some sizzling saturation.
Whether you mix and master your own music, or do work for others, the tools in this list are going to help simplify and streamline your workflow. Each one of these plugins is free to download from the Plugin Alliance website, and you can demo each product for 14 days. Spend some time with these plugins and figure out which ones work for you.
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