Here’s a non-ordered list of some of my favorite and most used plugins for mixing orchestral music.
- Cinematic Rooms – This is by far the cleanest and most pleasing hall-style reverb I’ve tried. It’s in a different league from some other popular reverbs such as Valhalla Room. With a solid arrangement, you can get super wet mixes with this without a lot of mudiness or a metallic quality. I have the standard version, which I think is relatively limited, but it works well enough.
- Room Widener – Some of the most popular sample libraries (looking at Cinematic Studio Strings) were recorded in small spaces, which is undesirable if you’re aiming for a large hall sound. RW helps simulate a larger recording space by adding delays to create transparent early reflections. A small amount can make a substantial difference.
- ARVerb - When composing orchestral music, you’ll often have to mix dry and wet recordings, and it can be tricky to blend them. Many reverb plugins have early reflection settings that you can use to try to add depth, but most of them aren’t good at it, including CR. ARVerb specializes in adding depth and diffusion, so it’s much more effective.
- SP2016 – Like ARVerb, this reverb is also effective at adding depth to a dry instrument. Some people prefer the sound of this one, but I think both are useful in different situations.
- Fabfilter Pro-Q 3 – Of all the EQs I have tried, this has the best UI and cleanest sound. I’ve been spending a lot less time on EQing since I got this.
- Warmy EP1A – This free EQ is helpful for removing white noise from some sample libraries (looking at Cinematic Studio Strings, again). Of course, you can do the same thing with any EQ, but I find this one to be convenient because I can just turn the knob and get the result I want.
- Panbox – Of all the plugins I bought, I think this has had the most transformative effect on my mixes. Traditional panning just changes the volume levels of the left and right channels, but the problem in orchestral music is that this method is destructive to the important stereo information – it can narrow the sound of the natural reverb and make the instrument sound close mic’d. Panbox uses EQ filters to make one side brighter/darker than the other, and the result feels more natural and wider.
- Pro-C 2 – Like with Pro-Q 3, I like the UI because it’s easy to see what I’m doing, and the sound is very clean.
- CLA-2A Compressor – I sometimes use this one for the smooth, warm sound.
Resonance Suppressor/Clean up
- Gullfoss – This intelligent dynamic equalizer is highly effective at removing some mud/boxiness and “opening up” the sound. A little goes a long way, and I learned the hard way that overusing this can make a mix sound worse. By default, it tends to boost the 10khz area too much for orchestral music, so you can use the right band to leave that area alone. I have a preset saved with 8% tame and recover and the right band at 9khz, and I throw it onto every instrument group bus. The overall effect of using small amounts of Gullfoss throughout the mix is significant, and I don’t think there’s a practical way to recreate this effect manually.
- Soothe 2 – I got the trial only a few days ago because I needed to fix a bad cello recording, and I’m impressed by how effective it is. I experimented with it on some mixes and found that it makes everything sound smoother and more pleasant. However, overusing it can hurt the dynamics of your track and narrow the sound of the bass too much. I definitely plan to buy this eventually, and it’s going to be painful when my trial expires.
- Waves Center – Sometimes I want the tone of close mics on an instrument, but I don’t want the mono sound, so Center lets me slightly reduce the mid channel to restore some width. And it’s also helpful on libraries that sound a little mono-y even though they were recorded in a hall. Sometimes I increase the side channel a little to make the reverb more noticeable.
- Spectre - This multiband saturator is useful for adding warmth, taming aggressive highs, and giving a nice texture to some percussion like snares, sleigh bells, and shakers.
I'm curious about other people's experiences with these plugins, and you can share any recommendations you have.