Our in-house Rick Rubin shares the 5 plugins he can’t live without–aka the plugins he would take if he was going to a desert island. Great reference for everyone into production and mixing; from musicians starting home studios on account of COVID to professional producers/engineers looking to compare notes.
The moment I realized I needed to be a music producer was the moment I realized I could throw a vocal fx processor on a guitar and no one would fire me for it.
Now, one reason for that could be because very few people in the world give a shit about vocal fx processors, or how you use them (and reasonably so). But another is that with this work, there tends to be an allowance for (and in many cases, an expectation of) play, experimentation, and the breaking of things just to see what the rubble will sound like; and while that always needs to be balanced against the more methodical parts of the job, it’s the draw that has consistently pulled me back to production as my home base within the world of music.
With that in mind, for the purposes of this desert island list, we’re going to be looking less at utility tools for mixing purposes, and more at some of my favorite means of sound warping/signal destroying/making something new out of the sounds you already have (that means no virtual instruments, and no straight-ahead compressors or EQs). And while I’m as big a hardware nerd as (almost) anyone, we’re sticking with in-the-box/plugin processors this time. So without further ado:
Nate Mondschien’s Desert Island Music Production Plugins
Echo Boy – Soundtoys
My borderline-addictive use of this plugin has become a running bit with many of my writing/production partners. This is an every-arrangement type of tool for me, an incredibly versatile unit that can do everything from model classic delays and reverbs, to create distressingly unnatural soundscapes with ease. But the real secret sauce (shouts to Shawn Everett by way of Andy Casella for the tip) is to dime out the mix setting and put the delay time to zero, giving you a unique harmonic and stereo-field manipulator. Great on guitars, fantastic on drums, wonderful for vocals, and all-around one of the first plugins I reach for on any production.
Reel ADT – Waves
There’s a whole market for Beatles-adjacent modeled plugins that mostly ride off their Fab-Four association, but in this instance, the plugin pulls its own weight. An emulation of the Abbey Road Artificial Double Tracking process, Reel ADT gives you the ability to stereoize any vocal or instrument track while retaining some semblance of analog sound. There’s a grungy, tapey quality to the effect (which can be further augmented by its distortion knobs), distancing it from more utility sound-field-modulation units like Microshift (Soundtoys) or Vocal Doubler (Izotope). And with the flexibility to play with phase, width, and timing of the double, Reel ADT offers a distinct, yet malleable sound that works perfectly on everything from vocals (of course) to guitars, synths, and even drums.
Little Alter Boy – Soundtoys
Or “The One He Hinted At In The Intro”: though designed to be (and remarkably effective as) a vocal processor, LAB is a fantastic tool for taking analog sounds into an alternate dimension. I’ll frequently have sends off guitar tracks to multiple LABs with a variety of pitch and forment shift settings, all bussed together to create a new and unique sound. Not to mention, its in-the-box distortion is fantastic. As a pure vocal fx tool, it works wonders giving a part that extra bit of harmonic edge to cut through a mix, or creating duets, trios, even choirs of electronically unhinged voices. Another plugin that only improves the more you’re willing to experiment with it.
EMT250 – UAD
Modeled after the famous EMT algorithmic fx unit that came to prominence in the late 70’s-early 80’s (with the help of artists like Prince and Elvis Costello), the EMT 250 emulation is less of a versatile tool and more of a targeted sound to be deployed. There’s a clanky, artificial noisiness to the unit that somehow still allows for a lush reverb tone. Perfect as a way to shine a spotlight on a specific part in your arrangement. That’s not to say the unit is particularly limited in its abilities; as an insert it works fantastically for chorus (especially if you’re chasing that 80’s pop guitar tone) and gives you a number of distinctive delay options. While it may not show up in every production, when it’s a fit, it’s usually the perfect one.
Pan Man – Soundtoys
***It’s at this point that I feel the need to explain how I am not a Soundtoys sponsored artist (though I’m by no means above being a corporate shill; feel free to drop the bag).***
So much of making a production pop depends on your ability to surprise and excite the listener. Pan Man is a simple utility tool for doing just that, creating automated motion around the stereo field without needing to literally automate said automation. Whether directly inserted on a track to give it a bit more movement, or as an aux you can ride up and down (allowing the main track to still live in one home-base location of the stereo-field), there’s an ease of use to this plugin that allows you to chase a sonic idea without getting bogged down in the execution of it; and in my experience, that’s always a benefit to the creative process. One favorite trick lately has been busing to a Pan Man set at full-speed, full width, smooth oscillation, which can give just enough stereo excitement to jump a specific vocal to the front, or create a disorienting, off-kilter tremolo on a sustained pad or chord. All in all, a wonderful tool to play around with.
A Few Honorable Mentions:
VocalSynth 2 – Izotope
Harmony Engine – Antares
BlackBox HG-2 – Plugin Alliance
H-Delay – Waves
VintageVerb – Valhalla
SpaceModulator – Valhalla
As with any list like this, there’s a million right answers and very few wrong options, so leave a comment or hit us back on the MMH socials to let us know some of your favorite tools, and happy producing!