13 of the best VST/AU plugin effects under $30
12th Aug 2014 | 11:03
Awesome affordable plugins
Only a couple of decades ago, getting the gear required to build a professional quality music studio together necessarily required a room dedicated to the purpose, thousands of pounds, a ton of cabling and a certain amount of regular maintenance.
Today, of course, anyone with the time and inclination to discover their inner music producer can do so in the limitless confines of the virtual studio, running on a Mac or PC in a corner of the spare room, and at a fraction of the cost of the equivalent hardware-based setup.
Indeed, times have never been better for the cash-strapped computer musician. While there’s plenty of expensive high-end software out there for those who want it, the quality gap between that and the cheaper alternatives is now so tight as to be almost imperceptible in many cases.
Don’t believe us? Well, you certainly will in 13 ‘Next’ buttons’ time. For this round-up, we’ve chosen 14 of our favourite effects plugins priced less than $30. Despite their ‘budget’ status - you could snap up the whole lot for just $349 (at the time of writing) - each and every one is a processing powerhouse fully deserving of a space in anyone’s virtual rack.
Dada Life Sausage Fattener
Designed by dance production outfit Dada Life in conjunction with developer Tailored Noise, Sausage Fattener is a combination compressor and distortion unit that does its thing via the operation of just three knobs: Input Gain, Fatness (compression) and Colour (distortion).
Built to encapsulate the production character of Dada Life’s own music (in 2011, at least), the specifics of what’s happening under the hood have never been revealed. What is known, however, is that Sausage Fattener just makes stuff sound awesome, particularly drums, bass and full mixes.
Incredibly effective, supremely easy to use and apply, it’s a must-have for any electronic producer.
Full Review: Dada Life Sausage Fattener
Klanghelm DC8C 2
Arguably one of the best compressor plugins (a very small amount of) money can buy, DC8C 2 features Easy and Expert modes, catering both to users looking for quick, fuss-free results and those who like to get their hands dirty with the nitty gritty of dynamics shaping.
In Easy mode, as well as the usual array of knobs you’d expect to find on any compressor (Threshold, Ratio, etc), you get four compression ‘styles’ to choose from (the descriptively named Smooth, Punch, Crush and Snap).
Expert mode, meanwhile, expands the control array to take in such esoteric tweakables as Sidechain Tilt, Gain Reduction Smoothing and RMS Time.
Whether you need transparent levelling or mix-enhancing character compression, DC8C 2 delivers the goods with real style.
Full Review: Klanghelm DC8C 2
Why this incredible EQ plugin from the developer of the equally incredible Photosounder doesn’t cost five times as much, we don’t know - but if it did, we’d still consider it essential.
A super-flexible linear phase EQ that uses Bezier splines to define its response curve, SplineEQ can run up to 60 bands, each one adjusted in terms of frequency, gain and shape by dragging in the main window. Extremely sharp cuts and boosts are possible, with the ability to increase and decrease the processing resolution enabling smoothing and sharpening of the curve.
A set of three Curve Effects let you reshape the curve as a whole, while the colourful frequency analyser is the icing on a spectacularly delicious cake.
Full Review:Photosounder SplineEQ
This prolific Mac Audio Units developer has two entries in our list, the first, Flow, being a sequenced flanger that sounds superb and is immense fun to use.
Each step in the sequence (you can have up to 32 of them) hosts controls for setting the Flanger Gate (bypass), Flanger Time, Modulation Intensity and Modulation Envelope shape for that step, with a range of global adjustables establishing the base flanger and envelope settings within which the per-step parameters operate.
As is the Sinevibes way, although the interface enables a good amount of user control, the calibration of uneditable under-the-hood parameters is also a major factor, and the net result is the most rhythmically agile, creative flanger we’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.
Full Review: Sinevibes Flow
A versatile two-band valve/transformer saturation effect with mid-side functionality and up to 8x oversampling, HotPhuzz excels at the gentler side of distortion, adding texture and bite to anything you care to push through it - although it can certainly pull off more extreme processing, too, when required.
Seven distortion algorithms are onboard (each, cleverly, with its own meter colours), and you can mix up to two them at a time for a wide variety of flavours; while the dual-band design and Timing parameter (controlling an attack/release envelope that delays the onset of saturation) take the plugin into decidedly non-standard sound design territory.
Full Review: LVC-Audio HotPhuzz
A brilliant - yet brilliantly simple - idea, 3Xover is a DJ-style EQ that splits the input signal into three user-definable frequency bands, cuts/boosts them and sends each to one of three outputs into the host DAW’s mixer.
Needless to say, there’s no limit to the possibilities. Feed it a drum loop, for example, and treat the lows (kick drum), mids (snare) and highs (hi-hats) to their own individual effects; or send it a full-frequency pad, again processed three ways, and mix it up by automating the kill switches.
The only downside is that the host has to support multi-output effects, so make sure yours does before you drop that (meagre) outlay.
Full Review: HoRNet 3Xover
With an all-pass filter at its, er, heart and just three controls (Amount, Pinch and corner frequency) onboard, Disperser might look like one of the more innocuous effects in our top 13, but the difference it makes to transient-heavy material can be nothing short of transformative.
It’s a tricky process to describe in few words, but essentially, Disperser enhances the detail and impact of drums, basses and other ‘spiky’ sounds without introducing excessive volume peaks, making them more cohesive, impactful and generally ‘bigger’. The controls can also be automated, elevating it beyond being just a ‘set and forget’ tool. A powerful curio.
Full Review: KiloHearts Disperser
Combining a compressor/limiter with a configurable soft clipper and saturation circuit, KRUCZ is all about dynamics processing with colouration. With its warm, confident sound (it’s especially good on drums), flexible controls and excellent metering, it’s an absolute bargain, and a boon to any software-based producer.
However, while we’re told a brickwall limiting mode is in the development pipeline for a future update, at the moment that particular feature is notable by its absence.
Incidentally, professional users are expected to pay €49 for KRUCZ, for which they get the exact same plugin but with the benefit of better technical support.
Full Review: audioD3CK Krucz
PSP AudioWare 2Meters
You might well wonder what possible reason there could be to splash out on this pair of dedicated level metering plugins when your DAW has perfectly good LED-style meters built in, but to see PSP’s beautifully realised faux-analogue needles in action is to want them.
Delivering European and BBC Peak Program Metering (PPM) and Volume Unit (VU) metering, PPM2 and VU2 also feature overload indicators, stereo and mid-side modes, and a wealth of adjustable parameters to play with, from ballistics and reference levels to backlight intensity and VU Type.
Those who have ever used the real thing will understand the benefits old-school VUs and PPMs can bring; everyone else should take our word for it and consider investing in 2Meters a leap of faith well work taking.
Full Review: PSP Audioware PSP 2Meters
Modelled on Harold Bode’s Frequency Shifter from the ’60s, Shift is another step sequenced masterpiece from the Mac-centric Ukrainian developer.
With this one, each step houses a slider for frequency shift amount (+/- up to 10kHz) and a choice of eight envelope shapes for modulating the shift within that step.
Very different to a regular pitchshifter, the effects that Shift can conjure up range from gentle tonal changes to overt metallic noises, bleeps and more, and as ever with Sinevibes, it’s the sequencing aspect that makes it such a wonderfully creative plugin. PC users of a jealous disposition should probably avoid seeing and hearing this one at all costs.
Full Review: Sinevibes Shift
Sonic Charge Bitspeek
Designed to look and sound like something that's more than vaguely reminiscent of a Speak & Spell, Bitspeek is a voice processing plugin - although there’s nothing preventing it being used on any other material, of course - that employs the same speech encoding technique (Linear Predictive Coding) as the '70s toys that inspired it, amongst other devices.
Quick and easy to use thanks to its intuitive control set, it analyses various components of the input signal (volume, pitch, formants, etc), then resynthesises it for everything from “cheap toy” effects through talkbox-style sounds, to digitally distorted mangling. You can even modulate the pitch control via MIDI note input, giving the whole thing a crazy performance angle.
Full Review: Sonic Charge Bitspeek
Audio Damage Vapor
Choosing just one of Audio Damage’s superlative trio of $29 modulation-based plugins (the other two being Fluid and Liquid) was no easy task, but ultimately we plumped for the most interesting and ‘different’ of the three.
Described as a “diffusion chorus”, Vapor uses a set of LFO-modulated delay-based filters to ‘smear’ the source signal, enabling a range of chorus and reverb-style effects that frequently throw up gloriously unexpected results. It’s a plugin that rewards experimentation, and coming from the makers of DubStation, Kombinat Dva and Discord3, it should come as no surprise that it sounds truly stunning.
We finish up with another beauty from Klanghelm. SDRR is a bewilderingly underpriced saturation plugin that switches between four modes - Tube, Fuzz, Digi and Desk - each of which delivers its own distinct style of distortion.
The first three are self-explanatory (valve, stompbox and digital), while Desk emulates an analogue channel strip, complete with two-band shelving EQ and compression.
Any one of its four modes alone would make SDRR well worth the money (especially Desk), but all four together..? If you really need convincing, download the free IVGI for a taster of Desk mode; but if you’d rather save yourself a few minutes, just hit that PayPal button pronto and remind yourself to thank us later.
Full Review: Klanghelm SDRR