New year, new you. Maybe that reverb or distortion has become a bit stale and you’re looking for something that’s going to make a real impact on your sounds, or maybe you’re just looking for a change of scenery to spark a little inspiration to get lost in. Fortunately the world of creative plugins is ripe with sonic exploration, and I’ve picked 5 of the best for you to try out. These are tools I have used in my most successful projects and continue to use on a daily basis.
P.S. One of my absolute favorite little secrets for sound design is included as a bonus at the end, read on to find out…
Before we dive in, here’s a little bit about the criteria I used for deciding on the featured sound design tools. As well for full transparency, this is the same criteria I use when buying new tools and if they stick around in my rotation.
- Price – Regardless of any personal need toward buying a tool, the first thing anyone notices is the price. This can be great in case of free, or send you down a financial rabbit hole of making that 500$ synth or effect possible.
- Uniqueness – What about “x” sound design tool makes it stand out? Sometimes all it takes is a gorgeous UI, or an inspiring sonic characteristic.
- ..but reuseability – It stands out, but is it just a novelty, or will I be reusing it?
- Fun. Simple. – If I’m having fun with it in a production or sound design session, the plugin naturally finds its way into rotation.
With these in mind, below are a few of my absolute favorite sound design plugins, and must haves for 2023. Additionally, these are all great tools for artists, sound designers, producers, and even mix engineers, of any ilk.
Disclaimer: This list is free of any paid testimony. I simply love these plugins and believe you will too.
Sometimes it’s the simpler things that can create powerful sound design results, and Super Massive by Valhalla DSP is no exception to that. This eclectic FREE tiny but mighty plugin is a delay and reverb that has a distinct sound, but isn’t limited to one sound, or type of classic delay/reverb sound. It also boasts a fine collection of conventional and experimental presets to get you started. Sonic qualities aside, the UI is playful and easy to get to grips with, whether or not you’re familiar with the usual Vahalla DSP UI design.
Immediately you’ll notice the usual knobs “mix, width, delay, feedback, density,” and high/low cut EQ parameters, along with “Warp” and modulation rate and depth- these are the parameters that make this plugin special. The simplest of the three are the modulation rate and depth parameters which act as a chorus modulation effect. The “rate” controls the speed of the modulation in hertz while depth controls the depth of the modulation effect. The fancier parameter “Warp” can be seen as a clever wet/dry between delay/reverb by adjust the length of the delays relative to the delay rate. 0% warp will result in even and clear delays, while 100% results in longer delay tails, i.e. a reverb effect.
Wrapping up the plugin at the bottom are an option to select different delay/reverb “Modes” with astrological names and different sound characteristics, the preset selector that holds a huge amount of conventional and experimental delay and reverb presets, and a text area that supplies tips on what each mode sounds like, as well as what each parameter effects in the overall sound. The presets in particular are sorted and named clearly according to what they sound like, and best for. Personally this is my go to tool for sound designing ambiances and automated reverb tails on vocals.
Super Massive is available to download for both PC and Mac.
Ruina by Noise Engineering is by far one of the most fun distortion plugins I’ve used, and is a mainstay in my sound design toolkit. Upon first glance you’ll notice many different slider knobs for a variety of multiband, multi-distortion effects including overdrive, fold, saturation, and buzz, followed by different filtering options- these all make up the “Tone” tab. Next is the “Modulation” tab which features LFO and macro modulation parameters. Finally, the “Config” window gives you the ability to configure the UI size, color with “Hue” and add a superficial glow with “Fire.” Although seemingly complex, just playing in the Tone window of this plugin can yield incredible results.
Now with that basic understanding of the functionality and sheer versatility of this plugin, let’s throw it all out of the window so we can talk about the two most powerful options: “nudge” and “rand (random).” I’ll admit, I have a tendency to be lazy and get bored fine tuning parameters. This is where nudge and random speed up the process of getting weird, unique, and very frequently, useable sounds. Clicking on nudge causes each parameter to move slightly, causing small changes in the overall sound (great for collecting variations of a sound), while random completely randomizes every parameter, resulting in a new sound.
Whether you want to add a little texture, or destroy a sound, Ruina is a fantastic and incredibly underrated sound design tool that is useful in many different scenarios. While it has the flexibility to achieve some complex hurdles, it also has a powerful basic functionality. To top it all off, it’s free, and part of a bundle that includes Sinc Veror and Virt Veror, two great synthesizers from Noise Engineering.
Ruina is available to download for both PC and Mac.
One of my favorite things to do in the studio is design atmospheres and harmonic ear candies, and Portal by Output Audio is one of those tools that will consistently yield great results while keeping me in a state of play. This is a widely popular sound design tool and the hype is absolutely real.
Simply, Portal is a granular FX tool that has a vast amount of possibility due to the simple XY grid on the main window, loads of immediately useful presets, and the intelligence that’s under the hood; suitable for both beginner and expert producers and sound designers. Since the learning curve can shift according to skill level and desired effect, not much time is needed in getting around the tool- time that can be spent having fun! Let’s face it too, that UI is hypnotizing. For the more advanced sound designer, have a look under the hood for grain control parameters.
Portal by Output Audio is available for 149$ on Output Audio’s website, and is regularly on sale during holiday seasons. Available for both PC and Mac.
Not surprisingly on this list is another sound design essential by Output Audio; Thermal. Thermal is an “interactive distortion plugin” that offers saturation, distortion, redux, buzz, and many other audio mangling possibilities. It’s also a multistage and multi-band distortion unit which extends its creative applications. Another versatile tool, Thermal also works a dream as technical saturation use on vocals, guitars, synths, and the like.
Much like Portal, Thermal has loads of great presets, a user friendly XY pad interface, and a workflow that is suitable for beginner and expert sound designers. As well, there is the option to go inside the plugin for specific parameter tweaking and modulation.
Thermal by Output Audio is available for 149$ on Output Audio’s website, and is regularly on sale during holiday seasons. Available for both PC and Mac.
The fifth and final feature on this must have list of sound design tools is the FREE eccentric glitch factory, Fracture, by Glitchmachines.
At first glance this looks like a confusing tool, but in its own way, is incredibly user friendly regardless of skill level. If you’re a beginner glitch sound designer or looking for fast results, simply load this effect on any sound, and try out the excellent collection of presets.
For those who are advanced or want to get to grips with the tool, the layout is simple: the top section is the buffer modulation, the middle is designated for the filter, and the bottom section is the delay, all with associated parameters. At the very top is a menu that has some combination of F, B, and D. This is how the signal is flowing through the plugin, and makes for even more sounds without having to change any parameters. Whatever your process is, you’re guaranteed quirky and glitchy soundbites.
Perfect for all skill levels and styles, Fracture by Glitchmachines is an essential glitch sound design tool, and is available for both PC and Mac.
Before we wrap up, I have to include Convolver by Kilohearts. This is a recent find that has quickly found its way in to my rotation. Convolver is a high quality convolution reverb full-stop that is perfect for conventional application, but has a few features that make it much more and a real stand out. If you need a refresher- convolution reverb is a type of reverb that uses IRs (impulse responses, or recorded audio) to create a space.
First, the UI is incredibly clear and user friendly which makes its functionality easy to learn regardless of skill level. Second, the functionality is deep, meaning a sound designer can dial in everything from the tone, envelope, feedback, and even place in the IR audio sample that’s being fed into the signal. These are all great for basic use, but there’s more…
The functions that stand out for me are: 1. The ability to load in your own audio samples as IRs with a waveform; being able to import your own IRs has become a commonality in many convolution reverbs, but Convolver’s waveform window makes the designing process not feel like a task. 2. The randomization button which is displayed as a pair of rolling dice. As mentioned previously, randomization can be massively powerful in generating unique sounds, and quickly. All together, this is simply a strong sound design tool with a believable quality.
Convolver is available on the Kilohearts website for 39$ and works with both PC and Mac.
There’s no denying the sound design corner of the plugin world is bursting with what can be an overwhelming amount of options, especially when it seems they’re all vying for your attention. Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not a pessimist on the matter, and believe the sheer amount of ideas is actually a necessary component to exploration and finding what you like. It also pushes developers to create incredibly powerful and unique tools. In doing so, us artists, producers, and sound designers get to further expand our reach into our creative minds because of that ingenuity, which I believe exists in the plugins and developers listed above.
Now I ask you a question – What are your essential creative sound design tools? Are any of them on this list? And when will randomization be a function of every tool? I hope soon.
Thanks so much for reading, and I hope this list has provided you some insight into some great sound design tools.
About The Author
Bio: Imaginate is a renowned American recording artist and award-winning sound designer known for his unique, eclectic blend of music. In 2019, he began releasing a series of award-winning collections, including Glitch Kitchen and Kaleidoscope Neuro DNB on Loopmasters and Aqua, Charta, Verre, Terra, Metallum, and Aer as part of the Elements Series with Black Octopus Sound, and released on Splice. He has also released numerous synth presets and sample packs with Slate Digital. Imaginate is also a songwriter, composer, and performer of original music which you can listen to here.