Here's a list of plug-ins, software and hardware tools that will simplify the life of the home studio owner.
This list is presented in no particular order:
$199, VST, AU, DX, RTAS, AAX for Mac and Windows, 32 and 64-bit
Blue Cat is unrivaled when it comes to offering tools that simplify our every day life. And what better proof than this pack of three analyzers (available separately as well) that gives you the possibility to see the frequency response, amplitude and stereo image of 16 of your tracks in the same window. Some will argue, and with reason, that we ought to mix with the ears rather than with the eyes, but that doesn’t stop these tools from being really useful to understand what’s happening with our mix. Especially interesting is FreqAnalystMulti that allows us to instantly see where the frequencies of the different instruments overlap to make the appropriate EQ corrections. And, as usual with Blue Cat, we have tons of options and parameters to adapt better the interface to our needs. In short, a must have!
$40, AU, VST, RTAS and AAX for Mac OS X and Windows 32 and 64-bit
Rest assured: one of the simplest and most important things we can do when mixing is to compare the project we are working on with several other reference songs. Without the intention of replicating another mix, it allows us to discover many problems in terms of spectral balance and volume. To do that we can foolishly use a regular player like QuickTime, Winamp, Foobar or Windows Media Player, but we will quickly come to realize that we lose a lot of time because these general-purpose players were not conceived to make comparisons. And that’s where this plug-in shines: without leaving your DAW, it allows you to compare the song you’re working on with any other from your reference library with a simple click, and with the possibility to record and set markers and loop sections. Everything while matching levels of both songs and without losing sight of the respective waveforms. In short, a very simple but fantastic tool that truly changes our daily life.
Also worth checking out: Ghostwave Audio MixRight
$290, VST, RTAS, AAX and AU on Mac and Windows
We can’t say it enough: the most important thing when mixing (and also mastering), much more than the quality of the EQ or compressor, is the reliability of your monitoring system. All the decisions you make regarding spectral balance, placement in the stereo field and volume depend on how you hear things. The quality of your monitors certainly plays a very important role, but it goes without saying that the best speakers in the world won’t be much use if the acoustics of the room where you mix distorts your perception.
The solution? Apply acoustic treatment to your room by placing panels that reflect some frequencies or attenuate some others. The problem is that we don’t always have the possibility of adding such treatment to a room, especially when our home studio sits in the living room and our girlfriend doesn’t share our love for acoustic foams. So, what can we do then? You could turn to a last-resort like IK Multimedia’s ARC. Even if it is far from replacing acoustic treatment, it allows you to improve significantly the reliability of your system. Made up of a measurement mic and a plug-in that you can use with your DAW, it allows you to take the acoustic fingerprint of a room and apply a spectral correction according to the latter. It is certainly limited, but it will easily lessen your room’s biggest acoustic defects (most commonly resonances in the low frequencies) to have a sound reproduction you can trust.
Also worth checking out: JBL Pro MSC1 Monitor System Controller
$125, standalone for Mac and PC
The return of the revenge of mixing with headphones — in hardware this time — with Focusrite’s VRM Box. This small box featuring a USB port, an S/PDIF input and a headphones output can be used as your main audio interface or as a headphones preamp to connect to your main interface. Thanks to a well-conceived software it will allow you to simulate the response of several famous speakers in different rooms. And it is even simpler to use than the RedLine Monitor.
$99, VST, AU and RTAS for Mac and PC
Generally speaking, it is not recommended to mix with headphones instead of speakers (the reproduction of the stereo field with headphones doesn’t have anything to do with the one you get with speakers), but sometimes it’s better to mix with headphones than irritate the neighbors. And to improve this situation, you shouldn’t hesitate to get your hands on one of the many plug-ins that simulate speakers when using headphones, like this Redline Monitor, which is very easy to use and relatively effective. It will certainly not avoid you from having to check you mixes “in the open air”, but you can bet that it will allow you to work until late at night without bothering anybody.
$495, RTAS, Audio Units and VST for Mac OS X and Windows
At a time when the digitization of music is rampant, most of the mixes you spent hours fine tuning will end up in an MP3 player, with an encoding that can vary from the worst to the best. So, in order to anticipate this inevitable fact while you’re mixing, you can simulate different destructive audio encodings (MP3, AAC, etc.) with this plug-in. An excellent idea that will not only be useful to musicians, but also to broadcast producers who want to avoid ugly surprises when watching their projects on YouTube, which we must not forget is the go-to place to listen to music online for many, and it doesn’t provide any audio encoding options nor does it handle well lossless formats.
Pyramix Plug-in, Windows only
Using two mics to record a stereo track will undoubtedly result in phase problems that might prove very hard to solve during mixdown. And that’s where this PanNoir (stemming from the celebrated Merging DAW) works miracles: we only need to specify the polar pattern of each mic (omni, cardioid, figure-eight, etc.), as well as their distance and angle to the source and to each other. The plug-in will then automatically determine the necessary delays to solve the phase problems.
$70, AU and VST for Mac, VST for Windows, 32 and 64-bit
Behind a name that looks more like a license plate than an audio plug-in, we find one of the most versatile plug-ins to manipulate the phase of a track, time-shift it or even widen the stereo field, and all without the fear of messing up our mixes, thanks mainly to the fact that the software uses M/S encoding.
Free, AU and VST for Mac, VST for Windows, 32 and 64-bit
Making notes is far from being a luxury when we are mixing or mastering a song, which doesn’t keep certain sequencers from being devoid of any such feature. But that can be solved with this nifty little plug-in that can be inserted into any track to make sure that none of the important details get lost and are saved together with the project.
$59, AU, VST, RTAS, AAX, DX for Mac OS X and Windows, 32 and 64-bit
What if you could use only one plug-in to control all other plug-ins? That’s the idea behind the Remote Control pack, which allows us to standardize the interface of different plug-ins. There’s some work involved beforehand, true, but once the mapping’s done you can control up to 64 MIDI parameters with one single interface. It will clear your mind to concentrate on what’s important: the sound.
From $0 to $30 per month (annual plan), online service and iOS app
In the Internet age everything tends to be digitized and the studio is no exception. At the same time, the distances between the different actors involved in a project grow as well. So, if you are based in the US and have to mix a project from a Scandinavian band recorded in Japan before sending it to Germany for mastering, you might be interested in Gobbler. What is this Gobbler thing? It’s a sort of Dropbox aimed at the needs of sound engineers. In other words a cloud system where you can upload and download different versions of a project to facilitate online collaboration (and we are talking source files here, not audio bounces for which SoundCloud is more than enough). Available for Mac, Windows and iOS, the software works as a subscription service that gives you access to 5 and up to 250 GB of space, depending on the monthly plan you choose.
Also worth checking out: www.djbackup.com
Free, AU and VST for Mac, VST for Windows, 32 and 64-bit
A simple tool that allows us to encode LR stereo to MS and vice versa. This means that any traditional plug-in can make use of M/S encoding, which is much more respectful of a signal’s mono compatibility.
Free, AU and VST for Mac, VST for Windows 32 and 64-bit
Your ears are your most precious possession and your monitor your most pricey one: two good reasons to protect both of them with this plug-in by placing it on top of the processing chain of your DAW’s Master bus. What for? To stop sound from exceeding a given threshold (that you have preferably set beforehand) with the intention of avoiding tinnitus due to an unfortunate feedback or digital distortion. In short, indispensable from tracking to mastering because we can never be too cautious.
$100, VST, AU, AudioSuite, RTAS, AAX and TDM 32/64-bit for Mac and Windows
As leading developers of mixing and mastering plug-ins, the brains at Brainworx created bx_shredspread to manage guitar doublings. But, it can also be used to double other signals (piano, vocals, etc.). The plug-in consists of a very simple interface that allows us to manage the stereo width of two tracks, as well as their respective color, while always keeping an eye on the phase problems. In short, a tool that is limited in its use, but whose effectiveness will gain us a lot of time.
$150, VST, AU, RTAS, AAX and DirectX 32 and 64-bit for Mac OS X and Windows
Not everybody has the chance to work with Reaper and be able to split the signal at one’s will. But everybody does have the possibility to get Blue Cat’s MB-7 Mixer: a plug-in that allows us to split the signal in seven configurable bands. And which, on top, gives us full control over the latter, from visualization to automation, including panning and processing, each band being susceptible of going through four VST plug-ins after the plug-in itself. In other words, the possibilities are numerous and go well beyond compression and multiband distortion.
$599, standalone for Mac and Windows (v2)
Before mixing there’s editing, which includes several rather cumbersome operations, like voice syncing. A task for which Revoice Pro (sibling of VocAlign) is unrivaled because it allows us to automatically sync several vocal tracks standardizing their pitch, timing and level variations. Plus, it can also generate very realistic-sounding doublings. The software is certainly not cheap, but it remains indispensable for professionals considering the amount of time it will save them. Also note that it is available for rent.
Also worth checking out: Advanced Audio Wave Track Align Pro
Waves Vocal Rider / Bass Rider
$200 to $300, TDM and RTAS, AU, VST and AAX for Mac and Windows, 32 and 64-bit
Compressors are a great tool to work with the dynamics of a signal, but they haven’t stopped many great sound engineers from continuously adjusting the level of a track by hand, always keeping a finger on the volume faders of their consoles. Halfway between this approach and the compressor’s principle, Vocal Rider and Bass Rider (inspired by Wave Rider) allow us to automatically record automation curves for vocal or bass tracks according to previously established settings. Obviously the algorithm will never match the work made by a human, but it will allow us to get an automation curve that will serve as a good editable basis to manage better the level of a track, sparing us the coloration and artifacts that the use of a compressor might imply.
$99, VST, AU, RTAS, AAX and DirectX for Mac and PC, 32 and 64-bit
Very comprehensive and professional visualizer that allows us to monitor different aspects of a signal’s amplitude (peaks, RMS level, etc.). This DP Meter Pro features a very interesting option for mixing: it allows us to manage an automation curve depending on the envelope detected in such a way as to control any parameter of any plug-in: a compressor, obviously, but also the cut-off frequency of a filter, its resonance, the amount of reverb or a distortion’s gain. In short, the possibilities are extremely generous…
$40, standalone for Mac and PC
This is application is an unusual selection in the list considering that it is meant to develop your hearing abilities. Conceived as a training tool for sound engineers, TrainYourEars is based on the principle of note-recognition software but applied to frequency recognition. With a very nice GUI, this software guarantees quick progress concerning the most crucial factor for your mixes: your ears. And if Bob Katz himself says it’s good…
Also worth checking out: Auricula Software
From $10/month to $96 for six months, online service
True, there is a free software to test the system, but it’s only with the Standard or Pro subscriptions that Teaboy gets interesting What does it do? It stores your studio notes to recall any hardware settings during a session (it provides more than a thousand Recall Sheets). If you only use plug-ins, you probably couldn’t care less, but if you use outboard gear and analog effects this studio dropbox ought to catch your attention.
Take a break!
Considering that our job requires a good hearing, a lot of concentration and the ability to assess things, mixing can be as demanding to the brain as it is to the ears. Within this context, it is not only advisable to take breaks from time to time, it is absolutely necessary to give your eardrums and your eyes some rest, as well as to relax yourself and let serendipity play its part. In the wake of the Pomodoro technique, and considering that the relativity of time often makes two hours seem like ten minutes, a small tool that reminds you to take a break in regular intervals won’t hurt. There are lots of solutions on the market, one of the best known being Workrave for Windows and Linux. For Mac, we have Dejal’s Time Out, but there are lots of other apps in Apple’s App Store and Google’s Android Store and Chrome Web Store. There are even extensions for Firefox that you can find searching for “Timer”, “Break Timer” and even “Pomodoro.”
Audyssey is a leading specialist in room correction technology whose products are used by many home cinema systems, as well as by IK Multimedia’s ARC 2. Audyssey Media Player is an audio player for iOS that allows us to correct the frequency response curve of our headphones (many models have been measured by the company’s engineers). In most cases the correction will be most evident in the highs, which is often not a luxury if you have a pair of headphones with an active noise reducer. We certainly won’t mix with an iPhone, but it is well worth $0.99 to be able to check the appropriateness of what we did with our portable player.
$30, VST for Windows and VST and AU for Mac OS X, 32/64-bit
If all DAWs allow us to draw automation curves, we must also admit that none offers such a well-accomplished tool as this MidiShaper, which is capable of drawing the most complex curves, define their periodicity and assign them to any MIDI controller, be it pan, volume or a synth parameter.