As another year is nearly over we thought we’d get in touch with some of our composer and artist friends to find out which virtual instruments and effects plug-ins they have been using the most in 2017 and what they love about them.
To start us off, Andy Barlow reveals his top picks (it was obviously a great year as 9 products made his list!)
Andy is a producer and musician who is best know as one half of the chilled downtempo electronic band Lamb. He is producer with a breathtaking list of credits that has drawn the attention of David Gray, Fink, Ramona Flowers, Willie Nelson and Leann Rimes and most recently U2. It’s been a crazy year for Andy who’s been on the road with the Lamb21 tour, and producing five tracks on U2’s Number 1 album – Songs of experience.
I lean really heavily on my UAD plugins, they all sound great. My favourites that appear on most of my mixes are the silver edition LA-2A, the weird Oto Biscuit crunchy 8-bit effects, and Manley Massive Passive EQ, which usually lives permanently over the mix bus. Fatso is also a magic plugin for warming up vocals.
It works brilliantly with my NI controller which is super handy. Dronar is great, I love how sculpt-able the sounds are I find it’s often a great place to start a track. It’s gritty and not too clean which is welcome and not so usual in plugins these days.
3) Celemony – Melodyne
It just sounds great and it’s quick! Just don’t use it when the singer is in the room ;/)
4) Spitfire Audio
They can do no wrong, all of their Swarm series are a joy to the ear. Olufur Arnolds Piano is my go-to warm piano, it’s just so inspiring, and his evolutions strings are also sublime.
They are perfect for sound design and instant transportation to other realms. I’m sure they are in every producer’s go to plugins and rightly so.
It’s such a great inspirational synth, komplete kontrol is great and it integrates brilliantly with the NI hardware. It feels like the future!
7) Sound toys
Echoboy seems to make its way on to every mix and it’s great for firing drums into to create unusual grooves. Decapitator is just so quick and it has instant gritty appeal.
8) Thermonic – Culture Vulture
It gives me everything from lovely warm harmonics to in your face distortion.
It sounds great and it’s easy to program. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on version 2!
Those of you who have an interest in composing video game music will be no stranger to the name Jason Graves. He’s a BAFTA-winning composer who’s worked on major releases such as; Far Cry Primal, Until Dawn, The Order: 1886, Tomb Raider, and Dead Space.
1) Oeksound – Soothe
The biggest surprise find of 2017 is easily Oeksound Soothe. Specially designed to get rid of pesky resonances (which plague pretty much anything, from sampled to original recordings), Soothe works some kind of dynamic eq magic on anything I add it to. Literally, an instant gratification effect that rewards you even more after tweaking.
No list of mine would be complete without tooting the horn of The Unfinished, aka “Matt ‘The Amazing’ Bowdler.” His soundsets for Massive, Diva, Zebra and Omnisphere 2 (to name but a few) are my literal bread and butter when the time comes to conjure synth magic out of my studio on a moment’s notice. Omnisphere Ferox and Massive Omnicron are vying for first place in my studio at the moment. Walking the tightrope and balancing perfectly between “unique/inspirational” and “not stealing the spotlight *too* much,” Matt’s work does the impossible – taking the best VST synths in the world today and making them sound even better.
Of course, Heavyocity keeps coming out with new, mesmerising instruments and 2017 was no exception. Intimate Textures, Novo Pack 01 is fresh and timeless all at once. The string textures themselves are a wonderful addition to my sonic arsenal, but it’s the Texture Designer that keeps me coming back for more – an infinite playground of combining, tweaking and mutating the string performances in real time.
4) Embertone – Joshua Bell Violin
Embertone has been making some amazing instruments lately and the Joshua Bell Violin may be their crowning achievement. I’m still amazed at how natural and effortless is it to coax a truly breathtaking performance from this VST. The tone and quality of the instrument (and performer, obviously!) is obviously world class and the vibrato will make you weep sparkly rainbow baby unicorn tears of joy. If you ever wondered what a three-hundred-year-old, four million dollar Strativarius sounds like in the hands of a world-class musician, look no further!
I’ve been having a lot of fun with Cinematic Studio Strings. I was a huge fan of Cinematic Strings 2 (I always enjoy the “less is more” approach to orchestral string libraries in terms of patches – I don’t want to have to choose from seven different legatos!) and Cinematic Studio Strings brings a fresh, lovely, dark vibe to the proceedings. The vibrato is outstanding and the legato engine is as smooth as butter.
Award-winning composer Miguel d’Oliveira is self-taught and has a passion for playing and collecting every musical instrument known to man. He has scored for big live ensembles and studio-based electronic productions. He has worked on countless award-winning TV shows, films, and documentaries including; Jimmy Kimmel Live, First Dates, The Toybox, and much more.
Cinematic Studio Strings ended up becoming my go-to string toybox. I generally prefer having fewer choices and these guys packed a streamlined menu on a simple layout. Despite having no choices for ensemble size, I still think it’s a great tool for quickly sketching stuff up and, if time/patience allows, pick a more detailed colour (usually Spitfire) to shape the orchestration later.
As much as I love Keyscape (and for clavinets, bell tones, wurlies, etc, you can do no wrong with it) Pianoteq remains my favourite piano.
There’s a certain elegance and clean-ness that speeds up mix time. Yes, you won’t get that nice realistic hammered transient that comes with sampled instruments but, I rarely find any muddiness or nasty resonances on their main piano.
It also features a low CPU / RAM footprint and has some lovely sound-design parameters. When it’s not for a solo piece, I think this is as hassle-free as it gets.
As eqs go, this one is so perfect that FabFilter will probably ruin it if they try to improve it.
Super simple to use but able to perform complex stuff, should you wish to. Brilliant user interface. Sounds very transparent too.
4) Xfer Records Serum, u-HE Zebra and NI Massive
Serum, Zebra and Massive are still my startup synths. Very rarely do I need to fire up something else.
They’re super versatile “engines”, each packing one hell of a punch, but they’re also capable of soft ethereal quirky sounds. What these guys don’t cover, you probably don’t need. They also keep getting reinvented through the patch banks you can buy from creative 3rd parties. I like wavetable synths, what can I say?
5) Celemony Melodyne
Melodyne is still a life saver. The more I record live the more I’m held to ransom by this amazing plugin. Sound quality can still vary from pure magic to what on earth was that? But, it can save a poor live session, or save time, since some of what it does you could still achieve with classic editing. Still amazed how they got the polyphonic mode to work.
Highlight Of The Year: My highlights this year were a HBO feature documentary about Princess Diana, series 2 of The Met for BBC one, and new songs for First Dates (which got a release by Decca early this year). This last show always has the added bonus of cheering me up – particularly when I’m about to embark on darker stuff, such as 3 Louis Theroux documentaries.
As a media composer, Dan has co-written a raft of TV themes including, Strictly Come Dancing, Take Me Out, Alan Carr, Jonathan Ross and many more. Most recently he has again, created the music sequence for London’s New Years Eve Fireworks display and has just completed theme tunes for ITVs ‘All-Star Musicals’ and ‘A Right Royal Quiz’ plus music for Vic & Bob’s Big Night Out, all to be screened at Christmas. Dan sits on the BASCA Media genre committee and in October took on the role of Creative Director of London based music publishers – NO SHEET MUSIC ( www.nosheetmusic.tv ). Check out our interview with Dan from earlier this year here.
1) U-he – Repro 5
I downloaded the Repro 1 ages ago when the beta came out and A-B’d it against my Sequential Pro One (Which it seems to bear a passing resemblance to…no? Just me, OK) So when U-he offered the ‘1’ and the ‘Pro 5’ emulation as a low price bundle, I bought them. Apart from being the most processor-hungry plug-in I’ve ever encountered, with a major buffer re-jig needed to accommodate (at least on my system), it makes up for it by sounding great, authentic even and with those built-in effects it pushes out some really familiar, yet inspiring sounds. Especially as I am currently enjoying a love-hate relationship with the Stranger Things score… Love: The sonic pallet of sounds takes me back to my mate John Jaques’ cellar and our band’s Dolphin Logic (singer’s idea) need to sound like Vince Clark…Hate: Unlike Survive, we never managed to find fame with all that classic kit…
2) NI – Scarbee Bass (Fender Precision)
When you’re producing music to a tight deadline you’re always trying to find tools to tick a box and allow you to move on, with the minimum amount of faff and tweaks the Scarbee works, always the worry with digital is whether It sits in the mix and this really does. According to a drummer mate of mine. “Bass is just a dull thud in the background”, bit unfair… but if that’s the case, this is a really good software emulation of a dull thud, the sample quality and realism is stunning, even with my ham fists. Honourable mention to NI’s Funk Guitarist. Nile Rogers said. “It ain’t the notes you DO play, it’s the notes you don’t that matter” My rhythm guitar maybe in time, but it’s far from chic and even further from Chic! Again the quality and usability of this are plug-ins is awesome, really chunky and good enough to drive a track.
3) X-Fer records – Serum
I realise this has been around for ages but how does that Preset ‘Ampology’ (a bunch of 1s and 0s on a PCB) make my speakers shake so much!? Love it! Honourable mention… LFO tool: Yes it side-chains all day, but then step through the presets and it mangles enough of the original signal to inspire new ideas/grooves.
4) Logic Pro-X – Compressor
This humble plug-in is never not on my projects, it is such a good workhorse comp/lim – I recently bought the SSL native Bus compressor, which is beautifully simple and will no doubt be making its presence felt, but I still start all Logic templates with the Platinum tape saturation preset across the main mix fader, just to keep everything in check during recording/writing.
5) Waves – Vocal Rider
Although Waves are in danger of becoming the plug-in equivalent of Allied carpets with the number of sales they seem to have going on, they still set the bar, also I’m lazy and this does what it says on the tin! I’ve also been using it on live bass as well to handle those cheeky chunky transients. Honourable mention to Renaissance Axxe: Again, I’m lazy, so pull down on the threshold and instantly add that Waves saturation, attenuation and attitude to your guitar bus, acoustic or electric.
6) iZotope – Ozone 8
Since 2012, I’ve had the pleasure of producing the London New Year’s Eve Fireworks music sequence. One of the challenges we face is getting those older tracks to sit next to the more modern productions. Ozone’s ‘Gentle Tube’ Preset is a really good catchall effect which adds punch, definition and a light HF spread, But Ozone is not for the faint-hearted, I’ve totally knackered a perfectly good mix by arse-ing around in a world of mastering I should keep well away from…Also, I’ll be honest, I’m pretty sure I’m still running version 5 (not in the studio at the mo and can’t remember) but if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right? Or are you going to tell me otherwise?
7) Toontrack – EZDrummer 2: I have to confess to letting Logic’s Drummer take the lead during those initial ‘blank page’ stages, whoever programmed it did a really really good job, but when it falls short or I have a good idea of the drum part, I’ll turn to EZDrummer 2, gotta love the good ‘ol Nashville Kit, it’s a good tight, natural sound if you need a workhorse sound to get a vibe going…honourable mention to Logic’s percussion update, I used the foot stomps on the theme to ITVs new show ‘All Star Musicals’.
Highlight Of The Year: I saw one of my son’s friends called Billy Elliston playing the piano at their end of year concert, I got him into the studio recorded 6 pieces and I’ve already managed to place a couple on a BBC2 show for next year, we’ll be putting out an album through No Sheet Music early 2018 of his stuff, it’s simple and charming…he was almost in tears when he saw the rough cuts with his tracks on…Billy is a great looking, straight A’s student and a brilliant sportsman as well…I hate him! 😉
Chris Haigh is a successful UK-based composer who has created the music for numerous blockbuster movie trailers such as Insurgent, X-Men Days of Future Past, Rise of the Planet of the Apes as well as many major UK TV shows. His music has been recorded in several famous studios, including Abbey Road, and recently he received an ´Unsung Hero´ accolade from HobGoblin Beer.
“There are definitely far too many great libraries and plugins out there to mention so it was hard to break it down to five. I really love pretty much all of Audio Imperia and Heavyocity libraries, very usable for the big trailer sound but if I have to condense it down to 5 here goes…”
My first go to plugin when starting a new orchestral track is Cinematic Studio Strings. Over the years I’ve spent thousands on string libraries and I have way too many. If I’m not working with live string players it’s always good to use a few different string libraries and layer them up using what I feel are the strengths from each to get the most realistic sound I can. But with CSS this is always the first one I go to and a lot of the time don’t actually need to add too much extra to get the results I’m after.
2) EWQL – Pianos
It’s is a Library that I’ve had for a very long time, and I still think it is the best sounding piano library on the market. I mainly use the Steinway piano patches but I absolutely love the lush, rich tone of this library.
3) La Petite – Excite
It’s a great little gem in my toolbox. A free gem at that, which always makes it sweeter. This awesome plugin is from finecutbodies, which brightens up Instruments you want to stand out in a mix very easily.
The DRONAR series from Gothic Instruments is always extremely useful for adding brilliant and complex soundscapes and textures to my music.
Very much a go-to library for adding amazing sounding low-end basses and interesting, rhythmical bass pulses to my tracks is Signal by Output. If I’m ever stuck on how to start a track or needing that finishing sonic touch, I’ll always pull up this library and start customising the sounds. It never seems to take me long to find the sound I need.
Highlight Of The Year: 2017 has been an amazing year in quite a few ways. My YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/c/chrishaighmusicofficial) is growing very nicely hitting well over 2.1 million views in two years. I was picked to be one of six Unsung Heroes of the music industry by Hobgoblin beer which resulted in my picture being printed on 1.8 million bottles of beer being sold in shops up and down the country.
But the true musical highlight of my year was having seven of my cinematic tracks recorded and performed by a 74 piece orchestra and choir at Abbey Road studios in London. Here is a link to a short vlog I documented about the day. https://youtu.be/DtZkXsZn4JA
John B has been a shining beacon in the global Drum and Bass scene for many years now. His first album – ‘Visions’ was released back in 1997 and launched his career as one of the most innovative producers at the cutting edge of the UK dance scene. Subsequent releases on Metalheadz and his own label Beta have cemented his place and position as a true DnB pioneer.
1) iZotope Alloy 2
I feel bad picking a plugin as boring as a compressor for my first pick, but this gets used on absolutely every track I do & I love it! Getting mixes sounding clean & loud is a big part of D&B and I find the visual feedback in alloy so useful when sidechaining the kick and bass, (or anything else). Nice & simple if you need it to be, but very flexible and powerful too if you really want to go deep on the editing. I try not to get bogged down in the minute & super tweaky elements with plugins, and instead just get on with the important part making the music, & making it sound good – anything that gets in the way of that is going in the trash, and plugins that deliver quickly and easily the result I want, like alloy, will get loaded up again and again!
I love the gothic instruments stuff – DRONAR is excellent for the ambient atmospherics & moody menacing sounds for when I’m doing darker. It’s also great for the headzy D&B – and general ambient & soundtrack work I do. Quality & varied risers & impacts are a key part of my sound and SCULPTOR nails that – it’s been a really useful addition to the weapons arsenal this year.
3) Synapse Audio – Dune
A lot of my new D&B stuff is very synthwave/80s influence and I’ve always been a sucker for a good Jarre-esque arpeggio and smooth pads. I love how quick, easy and intuitive Dune is, again its one of those instruments that will always be somewhere in my tracks, either providing a big signature feature sound, or just solid pad or synth bass. It’s definitely one of my go-tos.
I’ve been using Ozone as my go-to mastering & mixdown tool for as long as I can remember – I absolutely love it. It’s super flexible, accurate, and the IV limiting is insanely good, fast and clean. The imager is great to make sure the bass is nice and narrow & open up the highs – and the eqs are silky smooth. Basically, it does everything you could need on your master chain. Legendary.
5) Magic – AB
It’s always at the end of my master chain, and it plays an incredibly important part of getting mixdowns bang on. I have a bunch of folders full of reference tracks for various genres & it’s super easy to load them in & quickly check how you’re matching up. It’s another example of a simple plug-in that does a great job of what it’s supposed to do, and it doesn’t get in the way of creativity (apart from occasionally making me sad when I check how my mixdown stands up against Noisia!).
Highlight Of The Year: Lots of exciting stuff has been happening this year, it’s hard to pick one in particular though. Gig-wise I think the one I enjoyed the most was Sun & Bass, playing the outdoor stage on the closing night (you can download the set on my podcast). The most random fun I’ve had on tour was probably last weekend in LA, I flew in the day before the show and went to Venice beach with Randall and hired a bike and he got an electric scooter and we were riding around the beach, spotting GTA V locations and generally causing trouble hah!
Production-wise it was cool to have my track ‘ENERGY’ nominated for best track at the Drum & Bass Arena Awards, had a release on Viper, done some wicked tracks with Digital that should be coming out next year, and signed a track to Hospital for Sick Music 2018. Looking forward to more studio fun next year!
Nainita Desai is a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit and a Music+Sound Award winner. She has composed scores for hundreds of flagship documentaries, which have garnered OSCAR, BAFTA, EMMY awards.
Recent commissions include the BFI feature films Darkness Visible, landmark BBC series Earth’s Natural Wonders and Rituals, and narrative video game Telling Lies for Annapurna Interactive all releasing in 2018. You can read our interview with Nainita about her BAFTA Breakthrough Brit here.
1) Spitfire Audio:
Everything by Spitfire has been a foundation for much of my orchestral writing over the last few years. I’ve been using the various EVO, Tundra and new Symphonic Evolutions libraries a lot. The extended techniques, randomness and fragility of the playing are great for modern minimalistic writing on some of my recent scores. The sounds bed in so well and work exceptionally well for TV work.
Libraries like Heavyocity NOVO strings also have very interesting textures but Spitfire’s EVO GUI gives it the edge. The sounds can really blend in beautifully as well. I’m scoring a 90min natural history feature and the Symphonic Brass and Woodwinds are great for mockups. Eventually, they will be replaced by the BBC Symphony orchestra but the samples are great for mock approval and even blend in with live musicians.
I’m a big fan of imperfection in sample libraries. My favourite piano at the moment is Una Corda by Native Instruments. It’s based on a custom-made contemporary piano with one string per key built by David Klavins in collaboration with Nils Frahm. It’s central to the score to an Interactive game for Annapurna Interactive at the moment.
The ability to change the fabric of the hammer hitting the keys with elements such as cotton and felt or changing the mechanical nature of the piano really helps add real texture and character that truly informs the composing process. It’s hugely inspiring!
3) UAD Plugins:
The Pultec EQ Emulations and compressor/limiters have regularly been on my mix buss over the last year on two features I scored this year. That being said, I love experimenting with the emulations of legendary EQ’s, Compressors and effects that the UAD platform support.
It’s still my top trump card I use all the time on every project. The fact that it is continually refreshed with excellent new sound sets by The Unfinished and other sound designers means it is a staple part of my musical composing diet.
I’m a big fan of smaller and more obscure sample developers such as Sturm Sounds and Taleweaver.
It’s the little details that make a track come alive to make it evolving organically all the time.
Highlight Of The Year: There are so many hi-lights of the year for me! I’ve actually been working on a few projects being released next year that I’m so excited about as they cover some ‘firsts’ for me – I’m scoring a documentary musical for the BBC, a narrative video game and working with the BBC National Symphony of Wales on a feature film.
Those projects are pushing and challenging me creatively and technically. That’s what I really get a kick out of. I don’t like repeating myself musically. This year I did write a score for a BFI horror feature that’s unconventional and unusual so I’m really looking forward to seeing how that’s received by a wider audience.
A huge thank you to Andy, Miguel, Dan, John, Jason, Nainita and Chris for sharing their favourites.
Enjoyed this post? Why not check out our Top 5 Plug-ins of 2016 post as well?