The Best VST Plugins (2021) to Have in Your Toolbox - Careers in Music
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What are the best VST effect plugins?

Here’s our quick list of the best VST effect plugins available in 2021:

  • Eventide Black Hole
  • Output Movement
  • FabFilter Pro-Q 3
  • Abbey Road RS124 Compressor
  • MOK Filtryg
  • Arturia Delay Tape-201
  • Native Instruments Crush Pack
  • IK Multimedia MixBox

There’s a vast range of VST effects plugins out there that can do all sorts of extraordinary things to your audio signals. For this round-up I’ve pulled out plugins from all sorts of different places to highlight some of the most awesome and inspiring plugins in their field.

While many plugins aim to emulate and capture the sound of vintage hardware others make full use of computer technology to reinvent what’s possible in sound processing and music production. In this list you’ve find some classics but you’ll also venture into futuristic possibilities both complex and simplistic and what’s useful is up to you.

Note: “VST plugins” is a term that often covers both software effects and software instruments. We’ve decided that it’s more helpful to separate them out into “VST Effect Plugins” and “VST Instruments” and so if you’re looking for synths and sound machines check out our other article on the year’s best VST instruments.

What are you most afraid of that is holding you back?

Your Questions About VST Plugins Answered

What are the best VST plug-ins for beginners?

Marshall Altman (Matt Nathanson, Amy Grant, Citizen Cope)

I think Waves has great plugins, for beginners and pros. Awesome presets, easy installation, and pricing. Native Instruments has great virtual instruments, as well as some great plugins.

Do you need VST plugins?

Marshall Altman (Matt Nathanson, Amy Grant, Citizen Cope)

I think all plugins are an integral part of the modern recording and production process, but it’s easy to become too reliant on them.

What VST plugins do Producers use?

Marshall Altman (Matt Nathanson, Amy Grant, Citizen Cope)

Speaking for myself, I use whatever I think works the best for any particular recording. I use mostly UAD Plugins, but they’re almost likely more expensive and complex than most beginners would be up for. That said, there are plenty of free or low-cost plugins and virtual instruments out there that I use all the time. It’s what you make of the gear (virtual or otherwise) that you have access to that matters.

Best VST Plugins 2021

Read on for our picks for the year’s best VST plugins.

Eventide Black Hole

The Black Hole reverb has been around a long time now but it still remains a unique and wonderful plugin that refines what reverb is about and takes you on adventures into space.

Reverbs are usually designed to emulate actual spaces, rooms, halls, cathedrals and bathrooms to give a recording that was recorded in a studio the sense that it was recorded elsewhere. It brings a reality and the feeling of space to vocals and other instruments. While Black Hole can do that it would rather be creating space-warping effects into limitless environments of impossibility. Drop it onto anything and you are transported to other-worldly places – this thing is far too much fun.

It’s not difficult to use, comes with a load of helpful presets and once you start to play with the parameters it becomes obvious what they do. It has fascinating controls like Gravity which inverts and reverses, or get hold of the ribbon control to morph numerous settings or the Hot Switch which plunges you into another world.

Plug in a guitar or a synth, piano, flute, whatever you want and lose yourself in a Black Hole.

The Video shows me using it with the Native Instruments NKS system which offers some great hardware control. It’s also been recently released on iOS.

Street Price: $199 or $19.99 on iOS
EventideAudio.com

Output Movement

Movement is a futuristic rhythm machine of cascading delays and modulating mixtures. It can morph smoothly from nominal to insane, it can introduce unexpected voices or completely revolutionise a track. You might call it a delay effect but you’d be wrong.

Movement contains four synchronised rhythm engines that work with and against each other to push your audio into unusual places again and again and again. Each engine can modulate with LFOs, Sequencers and Side Chains, they can hold simple delays but also filters, eq, distortions and reverbs.

Then, with the XY Macro pad in the middle you can take a mouse or a finger and control up to 152 parameters with a single swipe. This thing is crazy in all the best possible ways! It feels a lot like a synth and you’re designing sounds but the you’re the source of all the action.

Street Price: $104
Output.com

FabFilter Pro-Q 3

EQ is one of the most important tools a sound engineer has in her toolbox. It’s in the crafting of those frequencies that brings instruments together and lets them sit right in a mix. Working with EQ is a skill and it takes time to acquire it.

The FabFilter Pro-Q3 is a phenominal EQ and it comes with a brilliantly designed interface that makes it easy to grasp and actually teaches you how to use it while you’re using it.

It has all the features professionals need when working with frequencies. It has up to 24 bands, dynamic modes, brickwall slopes and multiple shapes, mid/side processing and fine editing precision and the highest possible sounds quality. It also has a hugely helpful front end with a built-in spectrum analyser that will visualise what needs to be done, where collisions occur and you can even match it up to another track that you like the sound of.

Pro-Q3 is a gift to both sound engineers and beginners looking to pull the muddiness out of their music and start finding their sparkle.

Street Price: $179
FabFilter.com

Abbey Road RS124

Waves are the producer of hundreds of serious plugins for mixing and sound engineering. Some of their best work can be found the Abbey Road range of effects based on vintage gear found at the legendary London studio that was used on albums from the Beatles onwards. While they all deserve your time the RS124 takes the cake in terms of silky-smooth compression and “that” sound.

The RS124 is based on an ultra-rare tube compressor that was used on every Beatles recording made at Abbey Road. It has two distinct flavors of “Studio” and “Cutter” which reflect the sound of the original unit plus the modifications made over the years. You can hear it on the bass in Come Together and you can hear it on the vocals of Beyoncé and Alicia Keys. This is one special compressor.

If it gets a bit too smooth then the Super Fuse mode brings in some brutal character by matching release to attack time and getting it to fight with itself.

The interface is brilliantly rendered and nicely animated and is a satisfying place to work.

Street Price: $38.99
Waves.com

MOK Filtryg

Filtering shouldn’t be this fun but the MOK Filtryg you just can’t help yourself. Coming at you like something out of a Sci-Fi movie you’ll be controlling your own spaceship with this plugin.

Filtryg comes with 3 different types of filter and lets you put up any two for superb sonic manipulation. There’s a multimode 12dB State Variable Filter, 24dB ladder filter and a Biquad filter. Each give you a quite unique sound and approach. The State Variable filter lets you morph between modes whereas the Ladder and Biquad have drive for a good bit of saturation.

The filters can run in series, parallel or mixed combinations and are capable of generating FM tones and harmonics. There’s lots of modulation with envelope following, sidechains and synced or not rhythms and chaotic motions.

It’s a load of fun and you’ll find yourself using it all over the place.

Street Price: $49
MOK.com

Arturia Delay Tape-201

Arturia are better known for their VST Instruments and synthesizers but when they released a bundle of effects called “3 Delays You’ll Actually use” they really nailed the concept. All 3 delays were totally spellbinding but it’s the Delay Tape-201 that stands out for me.

The Delay Tape-201 is based on famous Tape Delays such as the legendary Roland RE-201 Space Delay. It uses a continuous loop of tape to capture and playback sound across a number of heads. It combines fabulous rhythms and grooves with tape saturation and sound deterioration and grunginess that you won’t find on good clean digital delays. Arturia emulates all this brilliantly with their TAE modelling technology.

You’ve got 3 delay tape heads and a reverb tank that can be combined in 12 different ways, stereo and ping/pong delays, spatial tools, EQ, filters and all sorts of modulation to push the machine in mechanical failure – it’s brilliant!

Street Price: $99
Arturia.com

Native Instruments Crush Pack

They call it Elegant Tonal Destruction and this bundle of 3 plugins have the character to ruin anything you want to drop them on.

Bite has the authentic organic crunch of an 80s digital sampler. Winding down the sample rate and bit depth to squeeze the life out of the sound as it chomps its way to oblivion. It will boom out in artifacts and all apart in wonderfully nasty ways.

Dirt gives a wide range of utter distortion designed to decimate. It folds timbres into complex sounds of tone-shaped blissful noise.

Freak brings the bizarre world of ring modulation and ancient radio effects through deconfiguration and demodulation. It’s nuts!

This pack of 3 are all you need to bring danger to your music.

Street Price: $69
Native-Instruments.com

IK Multimedia MixBox

This is a ridiculous collection of workhorse effects that will turn your DAW into a versatile mixing system.

MixBox comes with over 70 effects from their mastering software T-Racks, guitar amp modeller AmpliTube and synthesizer workstation SampleTank. It packs them into a fantastic Series-500 style interface where everything fits neatly into a module for lightning fast ease-of-use. You can design entire channel strips and signal chains running through emulations of classic gear, new ideas and creative sonic effects.

This thing is immense and yet with over 600 presets for every situation you’re never left scratching your head at the enormity of the task. You can load something up, tweak and start working on your sound and your tracks with some of the best tools around.

Street Price: $299
IKMultimedia.com

Producer Marshall Altman
Marshall Altman

Marshall Altman began his music career in the mid-’90s fronting the West Coast rock band Farmer, which was subsequently signed to Aware Records. After several US tours, Marshall found himself drawn more to developing and recording new artists rather than pursuing his own recording career.

After a series of recordings with Citizen Cope (resulting in Citizen Cope’s signing on to Capitol Records), Marshall transitioned into the world of A&R – first at Capitol Records then Hollywood Records and finally Columbia Records, where his last two projects as an A & R Person were Katy Perry and OneRepublic. Despite his successes inside the label system, the desire for unbridled creativity was too great and in 2005, he left Columbia Records and embarked on a full-time career as a Writer/Producer.

Since shifting into his role as a full time producer and songwriter Marshall has established himself as a Writer/Producer who can work across virtually all genres of music with acclaimed albums made in the mainstream pop, singer/songwriter, country, Christian, metal, and indie worlds.

Marshall founded the label Galt Line Music in 2007, and has released albums in partnership with such critically acclaimed artists as Matt Nathanson, William Fitzsimmons, Rosi Golan, Matt Duke, Nick Sturms, and Tim Montana & The Shrednecks, among others.

In the first quarter of 2010, Altman had a #1 hit in the UK from his co-write “Parachute” (with Ingrid Michaelson) for British pop sensation Cheryl Cole’s debut solo album, 3 Words, which hit the top of the charts in the UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand from the same album.

In mid-2010, Marshall, his wife Lela, and their children Alex & Stella, relocated from Los Angeles, CA to Nashville, TN, where he is now proudly based and working out of his studio, The Galt Line in Berry Hill. 2013 & 2014 were breakout years for Marshall having produced 3 #1 singles collectively for Frankie Ballard (“Helluva Life” and “Sunshine & Whiskey”) and Eric Paslay (“Friday Night”) and producing Will Hoge’s critically acclaimed album Small Town Dreams. In 2015 Marshall returned to the studio with Frankie and Eric to record their follow up albums and also saw a 4th song go #1 at Country Radio with Frankie Ballard’s “Young & Crazy”. These successes come on the heels of producing Amy Grant’s critically acclaimed album, How Mercy Looks From Here, which was her first album in twelve years.

Known for defining the emotional currency of the artists he has worked with, his production credits include Amy Grant, Eric Paslay, Frankie Ballard, Matt Nathanson’s Some Mad Hope (three platinum singles, including “All We Are,” which he co-wrote), Marc Broussard’s definitive album Carencro (on which Marshall co-wrote Marc’s career-defining song, “Home”), Brooke Fraser (Albertine), Audrey Assad, Will Hoge, Gabe Dixon, Kate Voegele (platinum single), William Fitzsimmons (iTunes singer/songwriter album of the year in US and Australia), The Almost, Walker Hayes, Rosi Golan (50+ TV licenses), Adema, Matt Wertz, Trevor Hall, Caitlin Crosby, Kim Caldwell, Tom Morello, and many more.

Recent productions include top 5 albums from Frankie Ballard (“El Rio”) in 2016, #2 Billboard Album “Vaquero” (Aaron Watson) in 2017, #1 Blues Album “Lay It On Down” with Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Amy Grants #1 CCM album “Tennessee Christmas,” and cuts with Raelynn (Warner Nashville), Alex Williams (Big Machine), Josh Dorr (Olé Worlwide), and many others.

As of late 2018, currents projects in production include Fairground Saints (Sony Nashville), Kenny Wayne Shepherd (Concord), The Josh Abbot Band (Pretty Damn Tough), & Colin Elmore (Sony), as well as several projects in development.

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