In this article, I’ll list third-party plugins that don’t see any alternative in terms of application or quality in Ableton for what is my experience and, I believe, other DAWs as well.
In a saturated market with endless copies of analog hardware and basic plugins making simple tasks even simpler (when not needed, to be honest), it’s important to spend your precious budget judiciously.
Aiming for third-party plugins that complement the tools that come natively with your DAW is one way to get the most out of your budget.
While this plugin is something I’m not using much, it’s a tool that does something really interesting, which is bridging the same instance of one or more plugins across different tracks, making them controllable from every single instance of the KSHMR Chain.
It works like a return track, but instead of routing all the tracks to it, it can be placed at whatever point of whatever track, while return tracks receive the Send signal for what’s coming out of the last processor in the related track’s chain.
This plugin can be extremely useful when treating multiple layers simultaneously, like vocal stacks.
Fabfilter Pro-L2 is the most comprehensive limiter on the market right now. It sounds great, which is indeed important, but it also comes with so many features that make it a tool for several applications, from mixing to mastering, spanning across production and sound design too.
The visual approach, like Fabfilter plugins in general, makes it an excellent tool for making informed decisions.
The feature I like the most is the Attack parameter, which doesn’t let audio pass through like a regular compressor but determines the amount of audio entering the clipping stage, making it easier to retain punch on highly dynamic sources.
Sub Cut does one thing, but it does it exceptionally well. It follows the fundamental frequency of a sound, especially low-end ones, and either applies a low-pass or a high-pass, allowing to solo the fundamental or eliminate it entirely.
This plugin can serve two purposes:
- hi-passing bass sounds with poor-sounding sub-bass content.
- low-passing subs to process separately.
Both applications are going to help you fix suboptimal low ends.
It’s not a tool I often use unless, in rare cases, for mixing some clients’ material, but it’s still a huge option to have whenever it’s needed.
The iZotope Ozone Maximizer made it to this list for the following reasons:
- A wide array of great-sounding algorithms.
- The Transient Emphasis feature for restoring the lost punch.
- The Soft Clip dial introduced in Ozone 10.
- The Learn Threshold.
Being a True Peak limiter is a plus. Great for mastering, but also a powerful mixing tool.
This plugin allows rotating the phase of a sound, and it even does it at a frequency-specific level, meaning that you can rotate only a few selected frequency ranges by the desired degree. Plugins in this category are rare, and this added feature makes it stand out from the competition.
If you need to phase-correct stacked guitars or lock the bass and the kick drum together by controlling the destructive interference between the two, this plugin is what you need.
You can also find a list of handy presets I made for a faster workflow.
One of the most tedious tasks during mixing is polishing a sound and making it as free as possible from nasty resonances. Oeksound Soothe does it diligently. It presents itself as a parametric EQ, but the curve you see across the frequency spectrum is actually a sensibility curve, meaning that the more you “boost” a range, the more Soothe is going to tame resonances in that area. Soothe is great at making sounds less ear-fatiguing and can tame artifacts that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to tame with an EQ, at least to the same level of polish Soothe does in a fraction of the time.
This plugin reimagines dynamic processing if no compressor has ever been invented. Instead of working with a single threshold and a single compressor/expander mode, it comprises a few dynamic ranges you can set to taste and process with all the possible combinations of upward and downward compression and expansion.
My main application of this plugin is to apply upward compression at the lowest levels of a given source to increase the perceived loudness without squashing the transients.
This plugin is an excellent-sounding full-band saturator, but it made it to this list thanks to a time-saving feature: the Console panel. In fact, this plugin allows selecting one among 8 channels per instance, and once you open the Console panel, you can see all the controls of the other instances within the session that are linked to one or another channel.
This makes it a great tool for emulating the behavior of a console and applying saturation on multiple buses (for a thicker harmonic content across the mix) without having to jump here and there within the session.
For a while, I used the Excite Audio KSHMR Chain mainly for this reason, but once I got my hands on this, it’s been a game-changer.
This compressor is equipped with AI to learn from an input source and create an ideal preset for it, but this is not the reason why smart:comp is on this list.
The real game-changing feature of this plugin is spectral compression, which consists of splitting the frequency spectrum into several tiny bands and compressing each one individually based on a few parameters that you can set beside the classic ones you find on every compressor. In fact, you can compress for brightness or darkness, blend between a clean and colored-sounding compression style, and dial in the amount of spectral compression you want, aside from deciding which frequency range you want to spectral compress.
This plugin is truly irreplaceable. It’s a goal-oriented approach to equalization that allows preparing the audio so that your brain can get the most information out of it.
The developers at Soundtheory developed a computational auditory perception model to understand which audible elements are competing for your attention.
This plugin is a beast on harmonic-rich sources, such as supersaws, but it works great on instrument busses and vocals too.
When using it, you can see the EQ curve working continuously to squeeze out the most perceived loudness across the spectrum.
Truly a gem that you want to slap here and there while applying the final touches to a mix to get that extra clarity and smoothness.
We already know about plenty of multiband transient shapers and also of clippers, but Pancz merges the two things together, making it a terrific tool for shaping the drum buss as a whole and individual drum hits too.
My main problem with clipping the kick drum was dealing with the low-mid boxiness generated due to distorting the low end, requiring some EQ work to bring the roundness back again.
With Pancz, it’s possible to target the midrange and the high end separately, so it sounds clean already.
Also, it comes equipped with a parallel compression mixer, a Presence, and an Air knob, plus the option of choosing between limiting and soft clipping, making it a well-rounded tool.
Trackspacer is a plugin dedicated to sidechain compression, but it does it by applying a dynamic EQ curve cutting depending on the input signal’s frequency content.
This approach makes it the right tool to fit multiple complex sounds together.
My main application is for carving space for the vocal out of dense sources, such as the instruments’ group, where many things are going on, and a full band or multiband approach wouldn’t lead to the desired result.
The secret for using this tool at its best is most likely going light with it; otherwise, it results in obvious and weird-sounding filtering. A little touch can attenuate frequency masking and create the perfect pocket you need.
Just like a compressor, it comes with attack and release times, plus a low-pass and a high-pass filter to fine-tune the range it’s affecting. It also has L/R and M/S processing; what else could you ask?
That’s it for my list of the most unique and irreplaceable plugins to date that can complement most DAW setups.
Except for a few plugins where I specified I’m not using them much, they’re all tools I’m using in the majority of my mixes and masters.
All these plugins either explored new audio processing methods or pushed the boundaries excellently. This list will see new entries whenever something’s about to change the game's rules again.