As another year is nearly over, we thought we’d get in touch with some of our composer & artist friends to find out which virtual instruments and effects plug-ins they have been using the most in 2016 and what they love about them.
To start us off, Howard Goodall reveals his top 5 (closer to 50 actually!)
Howard Goodall, CBE- Howard is an EMMY, BRIT and BAFTA award-winning composer of choral music, stage musicals, film and TV scores, and a distinguished broadcaster. His best-known TV & film themes & scores include Blackadder, Red Dwarf, Q.I., Mr Bean & The Vicar of Dibley but his works and achievements over the past 32 years span much further. Visit Howard’s official website here.
1) Whilst I am still, like everyone else I suspect, as likely as not to reach for the mighty Omnisphere 2 as anything else I own, this year my favourite synth has – without question – been UVI Falcon. We all get hung up on the features of plug-ins like this one – enormous tweakability, 15 oscillators, ability to integrate other libraries, intuitive interface and so on, but the fact is, as with Omnisphere, the sounds of Falcon are so thrillingly good that even if it wasn’t as fully-featured as it is, I’d adore it. Straight out of the preset box there is so much interest, musicality, breadth, depth, harmonic vitality and rhythmic subtlety, it’s a wondrous synth-thing of beauty, before you’ve twiddled a single knob. It’s a sparkling Christmas Tree on which every bauble and decoration is edible and irresistible. Bravo that team (honourable runner-up: u-he Hive).
2) For much of the past four years I have been creating the score for the West End musical Bend it like Beckham which interweaves Punjabi and Western styles and for which I’ve trawled high and low for Indian sounds (though we also, of course, had plenty of live Indian musicians & singers on stage!). Swiss-based Swar Systems have been a fantastic, easy-to-access, deep resource in this respect as is Garritan World Instruments, whilst Spitfire Audio’s Goldfinger Percussion is pure, tablatastic class, but probably the plug-in I’ve enjoyed most playing with is 8Dio’s Epic Dhol Ensemble. Alas the terrific, hugely improved re-boot this year, New Epic Dhol Ensemble, arrived just a little late for our West End opening; however I’ll be returning to the new version in 2017 as we prepare the musical for its Indian tour.
3) Since my early days of being a keyboard studio session player in London in the 80s I have had a slightly unhinged penchant for vocoders. It was (finally) discovered by a Red Dwarf fan this year that I had ‘hidden’ myself singing the words ‘Red Dwarf’ into a Vocoder on the apparently instrumental version of the theme tune, 27 years ago. Until recently I thought only hardware vocoders really cut the mustard but a few plug-ins in recent years have started to win me over (eg SoniVox Vocalizer Pro and XILS V+), the most recent and most impressive of which is iZotope’s Vocal Synth which also includes robot harmonies, computer voice and talkbox effects. Classy product form a classy company (whose Ozone mastering tool is a pretty essential part of my set up).
4) I am going to cheat here and throw in a few gems from what one might call the boutique end of the sample library under one chart position. These are the kind of quirky or authentic virtual instruments that I wouldn’t use on everything but can make a great individual impact. My 2016 roll of honour goes to Cinematique Instruments’ Upright Piano, Shruti Box and Ensemblia, Samplephonics’ Town Hall Organ (Leeds, in case you were wondering, and it’s SUPERB), Soniccouture’s super-expressive Xbow Guitars, Skiddaw Stones (Cumbrian prehistory on a keyboard – tyrannosaurusly eccentric) and unexpectedly exquisite Pan-Drums, Strezov Sampling’s Rhodope Ethnic Bulgarian Choir, Cinesamples’ Abbey Road Classic Upright Pianos, and Zero-G’s Ethera (every single note you play on this sounds utterly gorgeous).
5) I am sure I’m not the only keyboard-playing composer who still misses Steinberg’s old Virtual Guitarist (you can hear it, alongside two outstanding humans, strumming vigorously and uncomplainingly throughout my score for Mr Bean’s Holiday!) even despite the fact over the intervening years since it never made the leap to AAX there have been some excellent substitutes on the block like Vir2’s Acou6tics, acoustic sample’s GD-6, Ilya Efimov’s Acoustic Guitar, MusicLab’s Real Guitar 4, NI’s Strummed Acoustic and Ample Sound’s rich and expanding range, ditto 8Dio’s various guitar, ukulele and mandolin strummers. However this year Virtual Guitarist itself has been reborn (I’ve only got Amber so far) and it has in one stroke (as it were) put itself back on top of the pile. For non-guitar-playing composers like me this is the best gift possible, even if outstanding humans are still available at the end of a text message, for special occasions. I hope they do a 12-string and a mandolin next. Please.
Danny Byrd- British DJ, producer & musician. Danny is one of the very first artists to sign to the fledgling Hospital Records way back at the turn of the millennium, Danny Byrd’s own inimitable take on soulful, vocal Drum + Bass has become a staple in the scene. The Bath based, brandy-drinking producer has been responsible from some massive rave anthems over the years, which has gained him Radio One success and international recognition.
1) UAD Massenburg MDW EQ. Probably the least sexy plug in I own but the most useful. Coming from the days of using hardware and also digital mixers I always found software EQ lacking somehow but just got used to it. This EQ plug in is extremely transparent and clean but so useful for cutting rouge frequencies but also I find myself using it for boosts too. Its that good that I will use it on Kick and Snare drums where as previously I’d dodged software eq, as I found it screwed up the transients if you were doing anything too drastic.
2) Xfer Serum. Not really a new synth anymore but I guess its become a stable for a dance music producer. I initially used it for only bass and found it so useful for manipulating the sound with the macro’s but now I’ve been drawn to it for pads and effects too. The ability to load your own samples and synthesise them adds up to some really interesting possibilities. Although I am hearing from a few producer friends that the new Vengeance synth could take this one’s crown soon!
3) Soundtoys Microshift. Amazing for live instruments like guitar I find. Any source that you want to add some dimension too gives everything a wicked 80’s vibe. You can go a bit overtop with this sometimes making things too wide but using with the right amount can really spice things up. I guess a lot of people in studios used to use the Eventide H3000 and this is similar to that in a modern context.
4) iZotope Ozone 7. I’ve been using this great plug in since version 4. It’s essential to have this on the 2bus at the end of the mixing to see how the track will be affected during mastering. Also to give some club level when testing new tunes in the club. Version 7 includes the awesome new IRC4 algorithm that doesn’t crush transients while keeping things super loud. The new standard!
5) Akai MPC Renaissance. Technically this is still a plug in but you have to buy the hardware controller to make this work. I used to love MPC’s back in the day but it was always so hard to interrogate them into computer set ups, especially when everything went into the box. This solves that problem by having the same MPC groove but being in the computer making it easy to bounce parts out into your DAW. I will use this for extra bits of percussion needed for a track or possibly start a sketch from scratch with it and then finish it off in Logic! Can’t wait for the MPC 2.0 software as its rumoured to have audio tracks which may make it a almost self contained DAW itself!
Petri Alanko– BAFTA nominated Finnish composer, musician and producer. Petri creates deeply emotional soundscapes for visual media, such as the haunting orchestral/electronic score for Remedy Entertainment’s psycho-thriller video game, Alan Wake. His latest opus is the epic and emotional electronic sci-fi score for Remedy’s 2016 cinematic blockbuster, Quantum Break.
1) Pretty much everything Spitfire Audio creates. The level of usability vs. details is stellar, and the customer support is blazingly fast. Their bold take on orchestral libraries is respectable, and luckily they’ve managed to keep their pricing somewhat down to Earth. I’m a big fan of their Iceland and Tundra libraries!
2) Izotope Ozone 7 – The vintage EQ, comp and limiter are The Tools for a composer or a sound designer. A perfect plugin to add a serious amount of OOMPH into just about anything. Also, their UI is informative and quick to handle.
3) Izotope Neutron. Everybody should have this as their first plugin. It’s a good ear training tool as well as a pro tool for most of us. Albeit they have their automated adjustment feature, they’re also very flexible as “normal” plugins.
4) Celemony Melodyne, especially now that they’ve got the harmonic synthesis built-in. I tend to use it for mangling a lot of signals, and in most cases, the stuff I’m tweaking is practically what they don’t recommend to use it with; very noisy stuff, lots of interference, harmonically rich content, or stuff with heavy transients. The more you misuse or abuse plugins, the more pleasant surprises you’ll get.
5) Zynaptiq Adaptiverb. Holy Grail of reverbs. It’s not easy on your processor load, but goddammit it sounds really nice on surprising material. I tend to build sample libraries out of its wet-only output, putting shorter sounds through it and using only the output. It sounds like nothing else on the market currently, very rich, highly controllable and silky smooth.
(Bonus: Everything Eventide and Soundtoys, all heavily present in every production.)
Solar Fields – aka Magnus Birgersson has released a total of 16 albums which all combine different elements to create evolving, dreamlike music that many describe as ambient downtempo. Along with his artist releases, Magnus also composed the music for ´Mirror´s Edge´, a multi-award winning video game released in 2008 by Electronic Arts/Dice. Follow Solar Fields on Facebook.
1) Native instrument Rounds: I really enjoy the kind of new thinking in the user interface in this instrument, it opens up new possibilities for sound creations that i haven’t seen before. Highly creative and innovative.
2) iZotope Iris 2: Iris 2 always surprises me, it is an unbeatable creative tool to explore new sounds worlds. It lives its own little life in a creative way.
3) Zynaptiq Adaptiverb: Endless and creative effect unit, extremely CPU hungry but i don’t care, a one of a kind effect that goes way beyond a standard reverb plugin.
4) Soundtoys Decapitator: I think i use this on almost everything, I like to ad some crunch in the heights instead of eq and Decapitator does this brilliant for me..
5) Valhalla Room: This is always a part of my effect setup for creating huge sounds. The only reverb that can create enough big spaces for me.
Metrik- Tom Mundell, AKA Metrik, is an English electronic music producer & DJ signed to Hospital Records. His first big break came in 2008, when he debuted “Your World” which became an overnight liquid drum & bass anthem. Since then, he has made a big name for himself with worldwide tours & his BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix.
1) Trackspacer: A game changer for mixing, especially with many mid elements at play. This plugin helps me isolate sounds and get a clean mix.
2) KUSH Clariphonic: A secret weapon in my arsenal. Parallel EQ that makes tops sound sweeter the more you push it.
3) Izotope Ozone 7: My go to limiter. Always the final step in my signal path. The Maximiser in IRC IV is the most transparent and powerful limiter I’ve used to date.
4) Magic AB: Invaluable tool for referencing mixes. Always sitting on my master channel.
5)Xfer LFOTool: One of my most frequently used “workhorse” plugins. I often use this to add groove, duck certain elements rhythmically or add sidechain effects.
Sheridan Tongue (IN-IS)- Belfast-born & BAFTA nominated composer best-known for working on award-winning drama series and documentaries from the BBC, ITV and The Discovery Channel such as Spooks, Stephen Hawking’s Universe & Wonders of the Universe starring Brian Cox.
“Each masterfully crafted song on Seven Days has a title, mood, and flow that suggests a story, but Tongue leaves ample space for the imagination of the listener.” – Stationary Travels
Here are Sheridan’s top 5 plug-ins:
1) U-He Zebra2. Over the last few years this soft synth has become more and more a part of my ‘sound’. It is such a versatile synth and it can do so many things really well: lovely pad sounds, great for arpeggios, good bass and very programmable. I now have a large library of my own patches created specially for Zebra that I use regularly in my soundtracks and IN-IS tracks.
2) Audioease – Altiverb 7. Currently my favourite reverb. The concert hall presets are fantastic. One of my favourites is 63 Scoring Stage Todd-AO. But it is also excellent for smaller harder spaces: 500Brightened Chapel.
3) UAD – UA 1176SE plug in. I used to use the original Urei one of these all the time when mixing in studios all over London – and this UAD emulation is really very good. Great for smoothing out live solo instruments or even synth parts that are all over the place dynamically. It has a very transparent sound and it is good at audio parts very natural sounding.
4) Logic – Tremolo plug in. Sometimes I like to use an auto pan on continuous bright percussion or drums parts like hi-hats or cabasas. Those parts can take up too much ‘space’ in a mix – generally they are just there to add movement to a track – so by running them through an auto pan then they can less be less obtrusive. I use the Logic Tremolo plug for my auto panning: set to %80 depth and usually with a 3 or 5 bar pan rate, sometimes with a faster pan rate depending on the track. I like to set it to odd bars to keep it unpredictable.
An auto pan can also work really well on synth arpeggios or fast programmed synth parts – it will help spread the stereo image of these parts and make them a lot less specific in the overall stereo placement. So when you do need something very specific in the stereo image – like a vocal or top line – then you now have the space in the mix to do this.
5) UAD – Neve 1081 (plug-in).The very first mixing desk that I worked on was made out of these EQs and ever since I have loved their sound. It is fantastic for adding an airy brightness to parts above 10kHz and it has a lovely warm sound at the bottom end.
Reuben Cornell- Composer, sample library developer and music tech journalist, his music has been featured on many entertainment and documentary shows both in the UK and across the pond. Reuben has spent the majority of 2016 creating the hit YouTube show and podcast “The Samplecast”, a refuge for sample library geeks and plugin fans. He says…
1) Kontakt 5: This is really the gateway drug to a whole world of sample libraries. Aside from the obvious libraries from the big-name companies, the full version of Kontakt has enough support from indies and freeware developers to be worth the asking price alone. This year the Komplete Kontrol software has been a real timesaver when paired with my Native Instruments S88 keyboard – it’s so useful to see all the coloured keyswitches right underneath my fingers.
2) iZotope RX 5: To be honest, I could’ve picked any number of iZotope plugins as I use pretty much all of them. However, this year the RX bundle has proved invaluable for cleaning up The Samplecast podcast audio and performing noise reduction on the many interview contributions from various composers. Being able to eliminate hiss, hum and plosives gets my audio up to broadcast standards.
3) Sonokinetic Sotto: I do a huge amount of work for Sonokinetic; testing products, writing manuals and producing video tutorials. Every time I want a soft, subtle orchestral performance I fire up Sotto and let the phrases inspire me. It’s just one of their family of orchestral libraries which I layer in with multi-sampled parts to push realism that little bit further.
4) Dada Life – Sausage Fattener: Producing modern dance tracks for shows like America’s Next Top Model is really fun and I’ll throw this plugin onto drums, bass lines and synth leads. The interface is beyond stupid but the fat and greasy saturation and distortion help my tracks sound aggressive and powerful.
5) Heavyocity – Scoring Guitars. This is a library that I reviewed for The Samplecast and I was blown away by how easily I could write cues with these guitars as the core sounds. It really is a one finger cue machine and is utterly inspirational when I’m stuck in a musical rut.
Nick Harvey- Nick has composed the music for hundreds of TV productions, from BAFTA and Emmy award-winning dramas and documentaries to light entertainment and commercials. Recent credits include Hunted, Eden, Ross Kemp: Extreme World and Class of ’92: Out Of Their League.
1) 2CAudio Aether: I was introduced to Aether a few years ago and it quickly became one of the most creative tools in my arsenal. It’s one of the best algorithmic reverbs I’ve come across and, as it’s less CPU intensive than 2CAudio’s other amazing reverb B2, for sound design purposes mainly, I use it all the time. Truly inspiring.
2) Sonalksis Creative Filter: Like me, it’s a big knob. Unlike me, it looks great, is a lot of fun and has a fantastic sound. For smooth filtering, dramatic mangling or simply for knocking off a bit of top or bottom end, it’s easy to use and the results are immediate.
3) The Unfinished soundsets: I adore the creations of The Unfinished (aka sound designer / composer Matt Bowdler). I’ve got a selection of his Omnisphere 2 and Zebra 2 libraries and, without exception, they’re about as good as it gets. Filmic, dark, and unique; they are key ingredients of the grittier productions I work on.
4) Audiobro: LA Drama Drums was used a lot in Channel 4’s Hunted. Featuring loops and multi-sampled percussion hits plus extensive FX and mix capabilities, it’s got an awesome sound and is infinitely tweakable. Audiobro’s other library LA Scoring Strings has been around for a while but it’s still one of the mainstays of my string writing. I tend to overdub it with other libraries (Spitfire, Cinematic Strings 2, etc) but, especially for legato parts, LASS is the glue that holds it all together.
5) Kontakt 5: It’s an obvious one, I know, but I’d be utterly lost without it. Within a typical Logic project, 75% of my virtual instruments are made up of third party Kontakt libraries, and, as great as they are, they simply wouldn’t be able to function without their host. Damn you Native Instruments. You have made me your slave.
Walter Mair- Ivor Novello nominated and Telly award winning Austrian composer. Walter has created dramatic original scores for feature films, television drama, and narrative-driven interactive entertainment. His work includes the soundtrack for Ronaldo (from the producers of Senna and Amy) which was just released and he recently completed scoring Oliver Hirschbiegel’s (Downfall) 6-part cold war drama, The Same Sky, coming to Netflix in 2017.
1) Spitfire – Albion V Tundra: Spitfire are my go-to libraries to breath life into a Midi-mockup. Their Evo libraries are great as they contain a lot of movement within each patch. Albion V Tundra elevated their great Albion series to a totally new level. There is so much detail in this library. When combined with other libraries Albion V adds what a lot of hi-end recording engineers I worked with describe as ‘life’ and ’air’. (And this is exactly what us composers need to take our music to the next level.)
2) U-HE – Repro 1 (and Bazille, Zebra 2,): U-HE are masters in creating analog and modular synths. I use Zebra 2 a lot which has that ‘bite’ but can also sound soft and mellow. Their newly released synth Pepro 1 has a lot of character and a great analogue sound which I used to recreate the synth sounds of the 80s. Think of ‘Stranger Things’ and you know what I mean…
3) iZotope Ozone 7: Ozone 7 is always on my master channel. The newly added analogue modules are extremely helpful for creating a more old school sound. This makes an already accomplished mastering plug-in even more versatile.
4) Arturia V Collection: I have a good selection of vintage/analog synths in my studio but there isn’t always enough time to program that perfect sound and last minute edit changes make it difficult to reprogram hardware synths. I therefore often use Arturia when I need this authentic analogue sound but still retain all that flexibility to tweak parameters in realtime at a later stage in the scoring process. My upcoming score for the new Netflix series ‘The Same Sky’ is a blend of analog hard and soft synths and I challenge people to spot the difference… 🙂
5) NI Reaktor 6: Reaktor has always had a place in my more sound design driven film scores, like Sony’s video game “Killzone”. I often throw live recorded instruments into Reaktor to see how far I can alter the sound. With the addition of blocks NI added a new layer of fun and usability to the sound mangling process.
Ty Unwin- Established composer, specialising in writing music for media in a variety of idioms for BBC, Channel Four, Channel Five, ITV, TLC and Discovery. Ty is best known for his work on TV series such as Vikings and many historic features such as Rome’s Lost Empire and A History of Ancient Britain
1) Spitfire Albion V – Tundra: For me this is the best library of the year simply because it’s a set of samples that I’ve been longing for for the last 30 years…. there’s something very special about instruments playing on the edge of silence and this library concentrates solely on an orchestra playing between pianissimo and “next to nothing”!!!! It’s beautiful… and has allowed to write in ways that up until now have been either impossible or just made be have to turn to real instruments…
2) Zynaptiq Adaptiverb: This is Zynaptiq’s yearly piece of software that has you screaming “HOW DO THEY DO THAT???”… It’s an amazing piece of software… an “intelligent” reverb…. I think I’ve used this on just about every piece I’ve written since the day it was loaded on my system. For creative ambient work it is an extraordinary plug in that nothing else can replace.
3) Gothic Instruments Dronar Hybrid Module/Guitarscapes: Bit of a cheat here… getting two libraries in there but for me they are extensions of a single concept. Both of these are incredible libraries for creating instant, ever changing, ever moving soundscapes. The beautiful washes that can be created with ease would take SO much time to build from scratch…. yet you can shape and personalise these textures so quickly and easily.
4) Chris Hein Solo Violin + 5) Spectrasonics Keyscape: Both of these libraries have one thing in common… Realism. With a bit of time and effort these two libraries can (for the first time with the violin) REALLY sound scarily realistic…. With the Chris Hein library the amount of control and natural shaping that you can build into a line is fantastic… and NOW they’ve bought out the Solo Cello which looks like it’s even BETTER!!!!! Amazing! As for Keyscape… well every ‘keys’ library up until this point has sounded like “Incredible Samples” (apart from maybe Spitfire HZ Piano which is very special)…. but all of the sounds in Keyscape simply sound like the real thing… simple as that. I have no idea what magic they’ve been playing with over at Spectrasonics but somehow they’ve just make these play, feel and sound like real instruments….
Honourable mentions HAVE to go to Melodyne 4 (simply witchcraft!), iZotope Neutron (The track assistant and unmasking saves HUGE amounts of time) and everything that The Unfinished do (Not exactly plug-ins, but their libraries really DO make your plugins feel like new…. some unbelievable sounds… especially Ferox for Omnisphere which is beyond beautiful in a distorted dirty way!!!!).
Huge thanks to everyone that shared their Top 5s of 2016! What plugins did you rely on the most this year for your productions? Tell us in the Comments below!