Artists & Composers reveal their favourite audio plug-ins of 2019

Artists & Composers reveal their favourite audio plug-ins of 2019

You may have seen our roundup of the top-selling plugins of 2019, but we also love hearing what VST plug-ins other people have been using.

We got in touch with some of our artist and composer friends who have kindly shared which audio plug-ins they couldn't have done without this year as well as their own musical highlights and achievements of 2019.

We asked...

    • What have been your go-to plug-ins/sample libraries this year in terms of ones you’ve been using the most and what do you love about them?

    • What have been the musical highlights of your year?

    • What's your favourite Christmas song?!


    And here's what they said...

    Neil Davidge

    As co-writer and key sonic facilitator on the lauded Massive Attack albums Mezzanine, 100th Window and Heligoland, Bristol, England’s Neil Davidge has been integral in birthing some of the most arresting and innovative sounds of the Nineties and Noughties. He has also enjoyed a parallel career composing for Film and Television. His early venture into the world of film scoring included The Storm That Brought You To Me, from Louis Leterrier’s 2010 fantasy film Clash Of the Titans, and his co-write score for Trouble The Water, a moving study of Hurricane Katrina victims that won the ‘Best Documentary’ gong at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

    Neil Davidge

    TOP PLUG-INS 2019

    Kontakt 6

    I do a lot of sampling, In part it’s on of the key ways in which I define myself as a composer / artist / producer. I love jamming with a sound and then sampling or resampling that and seeing how that performance works as an instrument, it feels like playing with other musicians when the sounds themselves are ‘performing’. I also see how far I can push ‘off the shelf’ libraries. For instance dropping arpeggiator scripts into a Spitfire String library, detuning, distorting and adding unusual convolution impulses, adding extreme LFO effects to organic sounds… etc etc. Kontakt is an incredibly powerful creative tool and I’ve barely scratched the surface of what it can do.

    FabFilter

    I’ve only recently started using these plug-ins, I have the Pro-Q 3, Pro - C 2, Pro - L 2, Pro MB and Pro - R. I wish I’d discovered them before, I’d have saved myself a lot of time and money and gotten better mixes in the process. They sound great and visually it’s so easy to see what’s going on and quickly deal with any mix issues. I run them in low latency mode for writing when I’m jamming ideas in, but then pump them up when I’m in mixdown mode. I own a great many other plugins but if I could only choose 1 eq, 1 compressor and 1 limiter it would be these without a doubt.

    Slate and Ash - Auras

    I know these guys, so I’ll get that out of the way first, but this, their first commercially available sample library is inspired. Following on from my love of using sound sources that have a degree of performance ‘baked in’, Slate and Ash have created a library that’s bursting with life and character. ‘AURAS is a sample instrument that explores the realm of musical sounds that are formless or undefinable in nature, encouraging exploration of texture and movement through performance’… says it all really.

    MUSICAL HIGHLIGHT/ACHIEVEMENTS

    Britannia Season 2 - Sky / Now TV.

    I’d worked on Season 1 of the show, the first round was crazy but season 2 stepped it up a notch. No idea seems too outrageous for this show. I scored for strings, played classical guitar, programmed acid house basslines, sampled church bells, whistled, sang, used feedback, distorted everything. I had a fantastic team of people to support me, some great musicians and a client who aways wanted me to go further.

    FAVOURITE CHRISTMAS SONG

    Ha, well, I was driving along today and ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day’ by Wizzard came on the radio… what a laugh that must have been to make. It might not be my favourite xmas song of all time but it certainly made me happy, which is really all I can really ask of a xmas song.

    Miguel d'Oliveira

    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.

    Miguel d'Oliveira

    TOP PLUG-INS 2019

    Most used by everyone I imagine have to be EQ and compressor - I'm now almost exclusively using FabFilter stuff, it's so transparent and easy to use. Basic tweaks will go a long way but there's a lot under the hood for the most adventurous (not my case).

    As far as instruments go, I'm still overusing Omnisphere and his partners; Trilian and Keyscape. They do a brilliant job and, when under live recordings it can be hard to tell what's what.

    For synth stuff, I kid myself into thinking I have time to use the vintage hardware in the studio. In reality, the workhorses end up being Native Instruments Massive and Xfer Serum, with the odd splash of UVI instruments.

    For effects, I tend to gravitate towards Soundtoys stuff. Always fun to use when you have time to play about before committing to a preset. And for reverb I alternate between Valhalla and TC electronics VSS3.

    MUSICAL HIGHLIGHT/ACHIEVEMENTS

    Working on 4 Louis Theroux films was definitely the highlight of my year, particularly "Mothers on The Edge", where I had a chance to record with 3 excellent woodwind players and "Surviving America Most Hated Family", where everything was live but had to be played by me (guitar, cello, viola, harmonica and percussion). Also, finally released a couple of albums I had parked for a year, here they are:

    One Moment in a Lifetime - Six pieces representing different lengths of time emotional moments stay with you. Recorded at Air Lindhurst with a string sextet on the 6/6 of last year. The 6666 was pure coincidence. I think :)

    Talk to Someone - I used an old and battered AKAI tape machine to record ideas on my upright piano. Sometimes I started with a rhythmic pattern, using old wall clocks - hitting the springs, the wood, the metal bits.... - mostly not my possessions, which got me chucked out of a few antique places in Crystal Palace. On many, I used the odd synth to bring it all together before almost deconstructing it all on my laptop.

    As for live recordings, I had a great time and was really impressed with a 10 piece ensemble Universal put together for me at RAK studios for an album recording in November. Nice unusual sound with 5 woodwinds and 3 saxophones.

    FAVOURITE CHRISTMAS SONG

    Fairytale of New York by The Pogues

    Tom Salta

    ASCAP winning and MTV VMA nominated composer Tom Salta is one of the most versatile and prolific music artists/producers working in film, television, advertising and video games. Salta has received widespread industry acclaim for his world-class produced hybrid scores such as Machine Games’ WOLFENSTEIN : Youngblood & Cyberpilot, Microsoft’s iconic HALO series (G.A.N.G. Best Original Soundtrack Award), Ubisoft’s PRINCE OF PERSIA: The Forgotten Sands and RED STEEL (IGN Award for Best Original Score), Tom Clancy’s GHOST RECON and H.A.W.X  series.

    Tom Salta

    TOP PLUG-INS 2019

    It seems I have a revolving door when it comes to my favorite plugins…with very few exceptions. One of those exceptions is a virtual instrument that’s been out for a very long time…Omnisphere. I have always gravitated toward anything Eric Persing creates and Omnisphere is one of those gifts that keeps on giving. It’s one of the few virtual instruments that continues to provide instant inspiration with so many of its patches. And of course, those are endlessly expandable.

    This might be an obvious one to mention but FabFilter Pro-Q EQ is my bread and butter EQ - I can quickly dial anything I need. Even though I would still prefer to call up some of my vintage EQ emulations (just because they make me happy), the Pro-Q can always do the job… and quickly.

    One of the biggest surprises in the past year came from an unexpected place… a new Multi-Effects plugin by Line 6… Helix native. I can now say that I am no longer looking for convincing guitar processing...but it even does more than that. I’ve used it on everything from synths to drums and even vocals, it’s just the right balance of simple to use but deep and endlessly flexible.

    A bonus last minute addition to this list is Spitfire Audio’s Aperture Strings. Despite the seemingly endless choices when it comes to string libraries, this set of ensembles makes it painless to get an incredibly realistic and expressive performance by ingeniously mapping a small ensemble and large ensemble to the mod wheel. This allows you to create expressive performances that, to my ears, sound better than the usual soft and loud key samples that are usually mapped to the mod or expression controllers. Simple and brilliant.

    MUSICAL HIGHLIGHT/ACHIEVEMENTS

    Production wise, I started using a control surface again after a 15 year break… The Behringer X-Touch is a great companion to Logic and it’s made things much easier for me to quickly automate and adjust things.

    Project-Wise, I really enjoyed creating my early ‘80s centric score to Wolfenstein Youngblood and Cyberpilot. Also just landed a trailer for the new Amazon series Hunters with Al Pacino. In addition, I started a fun side-project in May 2019… a new project called “Two Guys & the ‘80s”… it’s the ultimate podcast for ‘80s lovers. My co-host Greg and I talk about growing up in the ‘80s…everything from video games to film to breakfast cereals…. it’s a funny and nostalgic trip down memory lane. I’m also doing some things on Twitch and there’s more to come. So please visit my website www.tomsalta.com, signup for my newsletter and we’ll keep in touch! 

    Nainita Desai

    Nainita is a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit and has written the scores for numerous Bafta, Emmy, Oscar award winning / nominated Films & TV series. The PRS placed Desai at No 2 in their Top 10 female writers whose work was most used in Film & TV through 2018. She won Best Feature Film Score at the Music+Sound Awards 2016 , and is a BIFA Best Film Score nominee and RTS Best TV Title Theme 2019 nominee, amongst nine other 2019 music accolades to date. Find out more at Nainita's website here

    TOP PLUG-INS 2019

    I’ve been using Cinematique Interval Les Femmes – for intimate vocals. It’s been useful on several scores this year and layering with my own voice. The presets are a great starting point for introducing dissonance and unusual broken vocal textures.

    I’ve also been treating vocals and other sounds a lot using GRM Tools Space Grain and the Output Portal plugin. GRM tools were the 1st set of 3rd party plugins I bought and still find it useful today.

    Spitfire Audio libraries are a staple but I’m particularly fond of their chamber strings libraries, LCO Textures Library.

    Native Instruments Noire has a great intimate sound that’s versatile but the particle engine is where it really comes into its own. I can spend hours tweaking the parameters – it alters the way I play a part and introduces harmonic and rhythmic interest. I also love introducing imperfections and random generative elements to sounds.

    I haven’t tired of Omnisphere which is still my go to synth – There are lots of great expansion sets in particular by The Unfinished who keeps the synth so fresh sounding. 

    MUSICAL HIGHLIGHT/ACHIEVEMENTS

    I’ve had my busiest year ever with various film & TV projects, lots of awards and trips abroad. (See links for albums)

    I scored For Sama, a theatrical feature doc which is an intimate and epic journey into the female experience of the Syrian war.

    Telling Lies, is a political thriller and an interactive / video game was released recently. The modern minimalist score was performed by the LCO. A very different type of video music score !

    I’ve had 5 score releases this year too including the Natural History feature film Untamed Romania – the score was performed by the BBC NOW Orchestra – my first large scale symphonic score, Darkness Visible – a more intimate experimental score, and Enemy Within – a WW2 period drama.

    I’ve had some great opportunities to travel for work this year to places such as Ukraine, LA Comic Con, and Brazil giving talks, panels and masterclasses.

    I also got to attend Cannes Film Festival where my recent project FOR SAMA won Best Documentary and has also just made the Oscar Shortlist amongst numerous other wins this year.

    I’m currently working on a slate of projects that includes:

    • Fierce Queens – a 15 part Natural History series for the BBC - the music is quite edgy and contemporary.
    • Bad Boy Billionaires a Netflix original series
    • Enslaved – a US series about the history of slavery presented by Samuel L Jackson and
    • The Reason I Jump – a feature film that has it’s World Premiere at Sundance in January and will do the festival circuit next year. The film is an immersive experience in 360 sound and very experiential.

    FAVOURITE CHRISTMAS SONG

    Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire – the Nat King Cole version.

    I used to sing it in choir as a teenager and I love the slinky jazz, jazzy vibe, chilled feel, plus it really brings out the hygge feel of Christmas.


    Paul Arnold (Bob & Barn)

    Paul Arnold (AKA Bob - obviously!) is a classically trained musician, gifted at the piano, guitar and trumpet, although not usually at the same time. He has an MSc in Music Technology and a BA (Hons) in Music and Computing and his musical influences include 80s glam rock music, film scores and pop music of most sorts past and present. It's important to have a broad appreciation of music in our chosen field!

    Paul Arnold

    TOP PLUG-INS 2019

    iZotope plugins RX7 and Nectar

    I’m always astounded at how good iZotope plugins are at achieving the seemingly impossible. I remember many moons ago making a voice recording on board an old frigate with a DAT recorder and a very poor pair of headphones. I saw a power point on the wall so plugged in to prevent the disruption of lots of battery changes. When I got the recordings back there was mains hum all over the recordings and I was devastated. Decided to give RX a go at cleaning it up and not only was the hum removed without issue it ended up sounding better than the source recording. Probably. 😊 Their tools are very powerful in both creative and restorative ways. I always want them in my line-up.

    LiquidSonics Seventh Heaven Reverb

    I love this plugin because of its simplicity of use and the fact that it sounds great with minimal fuss. There’s a good balance between tweakability and not overloading the interface with bells and whistles that you probably won’t end up adjusting anyway. It has quickly become my primary reverb of choice!

    Spitfire Studio Strings Professional

    There’s not much you can’t say about this VST. The breadth and depth of the articulations along with the clever programming and implementation make it sound incredibly natural without having to do huge amounts of work. Whenever I’ve ended up making live recordings of demos made with this plugin, I’m always astounded at how similar the back to back comparison is. Not the night and day that it used to be.

    MUSICAL HIGHLIGHT/ACHIEVEMENTS

    Working on a project we originally scored twenty years ago was definitely a highlight of the year for me. Unexpectedly Sony decided to remaster an old videogame from 1998 called MediEvil and we were asked to score it. The original game was written using a JV1080 (a real one) and an Akai sampler so we’ve come on a bit since then.

    This time around we knew the score would be recorded with the Prague Philharmonic but it’s still important to get the demos sounding as good as possible to help sell the vision to the developer and the publisher. And of course, where synth sounds were used from the JV1080 we wanted to recreate them as closely as possible so we reached for the Roland Cloud. It’s astounding to think that we now have in a single VST plugin that’s less than 50MB in size! But reusing sounds like Ice Hall brought back huge waves of nostalgia!!

    It’s kind of strange revisiting music you wrote 20 years ago and being told that the tracks have to essentially remain the same though you can tweak it to make improvements. It’s hard to know where to draw the line and of course with 20 years of practice under your belt, you hope you’re slightly better at it than before! On the whole though the combinations of nostalgia, reimagining old work, but this time to the production level you’d always intended was a great honour to be able to do.

    Another great project was to work on the TV show Dead Pixels. This combined our knowledge of scoring for video games with our skills as TV composers and it was great to flex both muscles simultaneously. Trying to make the ‘in-game’ soundtrack sound authentically like a game whilst scoring the real-life footage as a normal sound to picture exercise was great fun. And the rest of the cast and crew brought their A game as well so, combined with the genius writing of Jon Brown, it’s become a big success on E4 and it’s been commissioned for a second series!! Who-hoo!!

    Andrew Barnabas (Bob & Barn)

    Andrew Barnabas (AKA Barn) is also a classically trained musician, he has a BA (Hons) in Music. He was taught piano from age 7, oboe from 12 and recently took up drums & percussion, finally finding an outlet after 20 years of air drumming! His musical loves are funk, jazz & film scores, and his influences include James Horner, Stevie Wonder, Vangelis and Earth Wind & Fire.

    Andrew Barnabas

    TOP PLUG-INS 2019

    Although I’d love to recant a list of unusual sounding instruments and plugins, the majority of what we do is acoustic which tends to involve writing on a conventional sound and then bringing in an exotic player so the list will be a tad more, err conventional!

    IK Multimedia MODO Bass

    It’s not new, but we only discovered it this year, I thought Scarbees Rickenbacker library was the be all and end all of bass guitar sounds but MODO wins hands down, it’s hugely configurable too, strings, play style, amp, electronics, the look on my “real” bass player’s face when I showed him the pitch bend, worth every penny.

    Cinesamples CineWinds & CineStrings Solo

    Again not particularly new, but oh my how this has helped on so many projects. The frustration as a keyboard player writing for acoustic instruments is wanting to hear the real thing there and then, how will it phrase, how will it sit in the mix, in some cases the embarrassment of having to show poor quality lead line demos to a client even with every articulation programmed to the nth degree.

    I first heard the Tina Guo Cello from Cinesamples and once again my “real” cellist raised more than an eyebrow when I showed him the next level of Kontakt programming. So when Cinestrings solo came out, it just made any string based lead line a pure pleasure to write. CineWinds Core & Pro did the same for my woodwind writing.

    Addendum – I’ve just heard Virharmonic’s Bohemian Violin which may make the 2020 list.

    Spectrasonics Omnisphere

    Not being a synth head, far preferring instruments, the notion of racks of synths never appealed, so instead opted to instead spend time with one particular synth VST and Omnisphere ticked that box. Version 1 started to sound a bit samey, I could recognise a distinctive Omni tone, but with v2 and the addition of the wonderful Robert Moog and “Unfinished” soundsets gave me the impetus to learn to program my own. Having up till recently just 2 layers meant less faffing, more concentrating on the elements and there’s that level of satisfaction that the lead sound is uniquely yours.

    Orchestral Tools Berlin Strings

    Whilst there’s a lot of praise to be heaped upon Spitfire and the Cinematic Studio Series, if I want a different sound for my string writing I always turn to Berlin Strings, their expansions have articulations I’ve not seen elsewhere – Sul Pont & Sul Tasto for example. They do sometimes require a little more faff to get them to sit nicely with others, but worth it.

    Fabfilter / SoundToys

    Any VST list wouldn’t be complete without that plugin that solves the ‘how the F do I get this to sound great’ hair pulling out moment without mentioning two plugin developers who reliably solve this issue for me - and they both have great names to boot! Fabfilter’s suite of plugins are great - I love Timeless 2 and Volcano, and SoundToys - Decapitator, EchoBoy & Crystallizer can instantly transform a line into something I’d have never thought of. If it wasn’t for Camel Audio’s shutting up shop, CamelPhat3, CamelSpace and CamelCrusher would’ve featured just as prominently.  

    MUSICAL HIGHLIGHT/ACHIEVEMENTS

    Not to sound like a broken record but to re-iterate what Bob’s (Paul Arnold) said that MediEvil was a definite highlight. The opportunity as a creative to go back to our first orchestral – albeit synthesised with rather limited resources – and have the chance to bring it to life in ways that we’d have never imagined in 1998 was a dream gig, like riding an old bike it came flooding back, the formula, instrumentation, how to circumnavigate poor samples and write to the strength of the good ‘uns, take a non-interactive synth orch score from 1998 and make it live, interactive and all of the bells and whistles that you can now do on a 2019 PS4 title.

    And second to this we also scored our first romantic comedy, a heart-warming coming of age tale called “Me, Myself and Di”, how to weave the score in both geographical terms (it was set in the North of England and Wales) and how to progress the story musically our protagonist Janet goes on. We recorded most of the score live, the highlight for me was recording our first brass band – what could sound more Northern.

    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

    Ty Unwin's best audio plugins 2019

    TOP PLUG-INS 2019

    It’s been a great year for virtual instruments/plug ins so choosing a handful of favourites is tough. Any good sample library should inspire you to write and Best Service Elysion does just that. It’s hybrid nature suits my sound and writing style really well and there’s some fantastic sound design going on in there, especially the pads.

    Another couple of really inspiring libraries are the Orchestral Tools "Time" series (Macro and Micro). It’s impossible for me to sit down with them and not create something. The organic nature of the sound and natural movement is a dream.

    The same is true of everything by Sound Dust… His libraries are mad but unique and incredibly creative... if you want something different these are great...

    Spitfire’s BBC Symphony Orchestra is an incredible library, especially for those wanting an “orchestra in a box”.. or composers who want to write in the proper, traditional way. There's no instant, full sections here... and it's all the better for it.

    My favourite plug-in of the year is definitely Output’s Portal… instant granular mind bending that can take the most boring line and turn it into something special. Outside of that there have been some amazing updates that have kept older instruments up to date and transformed them into something special, such as Omnisphere’s 2.6 update and VSL Syncronisation of their old libraries. Both of these are real biggies and sound awesome.

    MUSICAL HIGHLIGHT/ACHIEVEMENTS

    2019 has been another hectic year balancing the TV/film stuff with working with Midge Ure on the follow up to our orchestral album. All I can say is that this time round there’s not a violin in sight, but LOADS of vintage hardware.. it’s a proper synth fest! 

    FAVOURITE CHRISTMAS SONG

    Christmas hasn’t started for me until I hear the opening violin lines of “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole…that literally kickstarts my favourite time of the year. And it has to be the 1961 recording… (how anal is that?). And once Christmas is in full swing it HAS to be The Cocteau Twins version of “Frosty the Snowman”… a lost classic!

    Jason Graves

    Two-time British Academy Award-winning composer Jason Graves is renowned for his textural concept scores and innovative orchestration in cinematic narrative games such as Tomb Raider, Far Cry Primal, Until Dawn, The Order: 1886 and Dead Space. His repertoire is truly diverse, from aleatoric and sweeping orchestral journeys in space, to haunting soundscapes in historical, gothic and supernatural worlds, to manipulating ancient instruments in a Stone Age natural environment.

    Jason Graves

    TOP PLUG-INS 2019

    U-he Zebra 2 and The Unfinished Hands down my go-to source of sounds, whether it’s pads or pulses, basses or sub hits. I automatically buy every sound set Matt releases for very good reason - he’s the best in the business and he makes my job SO much easier. All of his patches are elegant and original and sit in the mix perfectly. And Zebra 2 (and Diva if I can cheat and mention a second synth here) is such a powerful, analog sounding plug-in. It can pull off any sound or idea you throw at it. There are at least 10-12 instances of Zebra in all of my mixes.

    Output Portal - I'm a big fan of granular synthesis, especially for long, evolving pads and ambient soundscapes. Portal allows me to add some granular chaos to anything, from drums and percussion to synth basses or pads. A great tool to help things keep evolving and moving along in your track.

    NI Komplete 12 Ultimate Collector’s Edition - Show up for the Soft Synths, stay for the Expansions! I usually upgrade my Komplete bundle every 2-3 years. More often than not I have already bought the newest sounds before they are included in the next bundle. It had been 3 years since my last upgrade and I’m flush with sounds to last me another 3. The 50 expansions were worth the upgrade alone.

    Eventide Blackhole - I own the Eventide Space pedal as well as a H9 Max, but it’s hard to beat the convenience (and price!) and a VST version of Blackhole that you can have on as many tracks as you want. An amazing effect that can be used sparingly to taste or turned up to 11 and not overcrowd the mix. 

    MUSICAL HIGHLIGHT/ACHIEVEMENTS

    I spent the summer composing music for the DC series Swamp Thing and scoring the interactive drama The Dark Pictures Anthology by Supermassive Games. I also wrote new music for an expansion for the VR game Moss, "Twilight Garden."  Currently I'm composing music for the 2nd season of "Project Blue Book" on the History Channel, picking up after working on the first season last year. And I have 3-4 other game/TV projects in the pipeline that, of course, I'm not at liberty to talk about yet! :)