I’m a firm believer in using a small set of tools that you know inside & out, and this applies very strongly to my audio workflow. Rather than downloading massive plugin bundles, I’d highly recommend learning to work with just one DAW, one EQ, one compressor, and one reverb until you’re intimately familiar with the principles of each. 90% of my work is done with 4 very powerful pieces of software that I’ve listed below, and I’d highly recommend them to anyone who’s doing audio work at any level.
DAW // REAPER ($60)
Your DAW is your workflow, and workflow is the most important part of the mix process. I’ve been using REAPER for years, and I wholeheartedly recommend it for everything from editing podcasts & recording live shows to mixing & mastering studio albums. REAPER isn’t just cheaper than Pro Tools & Logic; in my opinion, it’s better. There are so many things I love about this DAW; free updates for life, incredible stability, fast & intuitive clip editing tools, flexible audio routing, great hardware integration, and perfect audio quality. I was able to use it competently after a few days of experimentation, but 2 years later I bought a hard copy of the manual and realized how many incredible features I hadn’t even discovered.
EQ // DMG EQuilibrium ($230)
EQuilibrium is the most expensive software on this list, but there are ways around that (see below). Even at sticker price, I’d recommend this EQ to anyone who’s serious about mixing audio. Since its release in 2013, it’s maintained its place as the last EQ you’ll ever need to buy. It’s held its own in listening tests against $6,000 analog EQs, while a vast selection of EQ curves, a wide range of modes (analog, digital, linear-phase), and an extreme attention to audio quality set this EQ apart from the rest.
Compressor // Klanghelm DC8C ($25)
DC8C is deceptively inexpensive for what it is; one of the best-sounding software compressors on the market. It’s absolutely incredible on guitar, bass, and drums, and its character settings allow you to dial in your sound in seconds. While you can use its streamlined GUI for fast results; a deep feature set makes this the perfect tool to learn the ins & outs of dynamics processing.
Compressor // TDR Kotelnikov GE ($50)
Kotelnikov is another plugin that punches above its price point; it’s one of the cleanest compressors I’ve heard. I’m a big fan of transparent compression, and Kotelnikov is one of the only compressors that I can throw on a vocal track, barely tweak the settings, and have it invisibly control the dynamics (it’s equally great on the master bus). As with EQuilibrium, meticulous attention has been paid to audio quality; this is good DSP.
Limiter // TDR Limiter 6 GE ($60)
Another incredible offering from Tokyo Dawn; Limiter 6 is a full master bus in a single plugin, combining a compressor, clipper, and 3 limiting stages with a comprehensive loudness analyzer. Whether you’re mastering full albums or just bringing your demos up to commercial volume, Limiter 6 can be as simple or as complex as you need. I’d say it’s worth it for the clipper and EBU meter alone.
Reverb // Exponential Audio PhoenixVerb ($120)
PhoenixVerb has recently been superseded by NIMBUS, but for half the price you can get 90% of the features and sound of EA’s flagship reverb. PhoenixVerb is known for a smooth, natural sound that’s perfectly suited to acoustic genres of music, and for giving dry/isolated tracks a real sense of space & position. It’s a reverb that doesn’t demand attention, but when you turn it off it feels like the mix loses a whole spatial dimension. I’ve gone through some very high-quality reverbs before settling on PhoenixVerb, and now it’s pretty much all I use.
One thing that really changed the game for me was realizing that you can buy software secondhand. Used software is new software, but you can often find all the plugins I’ve listed above for half their sticker price. I wrote a quick post on where to look for software online, so check that out here.