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My 3 Most Used Plugins as a Community Musician by James Stanley (Quench Arts’ Wavelength Music Leader)

My role as a musician for most projects I work on, including Quench Arts’ Wavelength, involves me using Music Production as a tool to help people get creative. I’m always on the lookout for ways to speed this process up or make it more enjoyable. Initially, I try to leave out as much of the technical side of producing music as I can and focus instead on tools that help us make music. Similarly, this blog won’t discuss my favourite compressors, EQs, reverbs or limiters but instead I’ll be sharing three of my favourite plugins that I would share with my participants in the first few sessions to help spark ideas and get them creating music quickly!

1. Spitfire Labs by Spitfire Audio

Spitfire Audio are a company well known for making premium quality sound libraries for professionals but they come with a premium price tag! Spitfire Labs is a series of smaller libraries created with the same attention to detail but given to us for free! You can download ‘labs’ individually and they come with beautiful artwork and wonderfully evocative titles like ‘Frozen Strings’, ‘Siren Songs’ or ‘Granular Whalesong’. Once downloaded, you’ll find a handful of presets in each which can be easily accessed by a simple interface which categorises all of your downloaded presets and gives you just a few dials to manipulate the sound a little further. Nothing overly complicated or overwhelming for someone’s first few sessions inside a DAW. You won’t find yourself spending the whole session clicking through a long list of potential sounds, just a few really well chosen options. Some of the sounds are bizarre and will spark all kinds of conversation and ideas as you very quickly create interesting and unexpected soundscapes. Others are much more recognisable - pianos, guitars, strings. I use them because even these more basic sounds have much more depth and interest. Rather than using the completely uninspiring stock piano built into every DAW, which is flat, lifeless and unimaginative, replace it with a piano from Labs that has more character! Tracks start sounding more unique and interesting faster and that keeps people engaged and inspired to be creative.

2. XO by XLN Audio

XLN Audio describes XO as ‘a beat maker plugin allowing you to organise and seamlessly explore your drum samples in a new and exciting way.’ You’ll notice from the point above that I hate spending lots of time searching for the right sound through a giant list of presets. Never is this more arduous than when you’re watching a participant indecisively scroll through drum sounds. Even if a session is going well, it can completely kill any energy and creativity that you’ve managed to build up. However, it is a very important part of the process! Finding the right drum sounds can completely change the feel of a track. Here comes in XO! It has its own library of drum samples which are fantastic and work across a huge variety of genres. It then gets exciting when it listens to all of the other drum samples you have on your hard drive. Everything is then shown on a beautifully designed screen which displays each sample like a star in the night sky. They are grouped together nearby other sounds that are similar, colour coded depending on type and you can simply move your mouse around the space to hear everything at lightning fast speeds. It looks great, it’s fun and beats never-ending list searching hands down! I find most people are able to dial in the kind of sound they want in under a minute. It’s inspiring! Once sounds are chosen, you have the option of progressing in any way you’d like, playing the samples with a MIDI controller, drawing them into your DAW or using the built in sequencer inside the plugin itself! A caveat here - there is a lot of depth to this sequencer and initially it might feel overwhelming for some! Spend some time with it and you’ll find it’s very powerful. With new participants, you could always peel away the more complicated features and just use the step sequencer. Lots of options!

3. Arcade by Output

Arcade is a wonderful tool. It’s described as an ‘inspiration machine’ and that’s exactly why I use it so much. It works on a subscription basis (with a free trial period to try it out!) and needs to connect to the internet which may be a downside for some. The plugin opens up and allows you to search for sounds in different ways. There’s an option of searching everything in the catalogue by choosing genre, descriptors, instruments and uses. Sound banks are also sorted into what’s called ‘Lines’. These contain similar sounds for specific purposes - ‘Aura’ is a collection of atmospheric and dreamlike sounds; ‘Stitch’ gives you a series of risers and transition effect; ‘Hooked’ allows you to play with vocal samples and there’s many, many more! Every individual sound bank then has a detailed description - not of exactly what the sound is but how they feel, what kind of images they throw up and what kind of world you’re put in when you hear them. This alone is an amazing tool for creativity and songwriting within a DAW. So often these descriptions have led to conversations which have inspired lyrics and songs ideas. All of this is before you’ve even heard anything! Once you do load a sound bank of your choice, you’re greeted by a clean and simple interface. A series of playable loops are assigned to the white keys of your keyboard whilst ‘modifiers’ are accessed from the black notes. This leads to a much more creative session than simply dragging in predefined loops. Here you can combine two or three loops together, hitting a black key halfway through to reverse the loops, stutter them, slow them down, speed them up or all sorts of other interesting effects - you can dig in deeper and customise all of these things but the plugin does a great job at giving you options that sound great with that sound bank. Arcade gives the ‘instant win’ appeal of using loops but with more playability and room for expression. If you want to do more with Arcade you absolutely can by adding effects, importing your own samples, manipulating them, using it in ‘note’ mode to play in your own melodies, bass lines or chords and so much more! Honestly, I use Arcade as a starting point almost all of the time. It quickly creates a ‘bed’ of music for everything else to build from. I’m always looking for things that get rid of silence as quickly as possible and this is one of the best tools I’ve found for it. Plus points for being a subscription service is that every time you log in, there’s something new to explore! 

A word on paying for plugins. Sometimes, prices can seem high for plugins. For example, XO retails at £129. There are some pieces of software I’ve paid full price for and have felt like they’re worth every penny after using them day in day out. Other things I’ve bought have been left gathering digital dust on my computer. Here’s some quick reminders…

Firstly, do your research! Watch videos, download trials and try to figure out if it’s going to work for you and how you help others create music. Having a few great plugins that you know really well and use often is much better than having every plugin available but not really knowing how or when it’s best to use them. 

Secondly, wait for sales. Digital products often have huge sales, particularly once a product has been out for a little while. If you’re working on community music projects, it’s not necessary to have the most up to date and latest things that all the producers on YouTube are talking about. You just want tools that are going to help you inspire other people and make the process easier for them, whether they’re new or old. So, use this to your advantage and wait for times of year when you can expect companies to sell off plugin licenses for cheap. I picked up XO for £29 after spending about a year researching it, deciding I wanted it, and waiting for the right price.

Thirdly, don’t forget you are an educator! I’ve lost count of the amount of musicians who are surprised when I say I got an educational discount on software. As freelancers, it’s often a little more complicated to explain what we do than simply sending a teacher number or using a University/School/College email address. Send an email to the support teams explaining what you do including links to projects you’re a part of or contracts from the organisations you work for. There isn’t one company who I’ve reached out to that hasn’t accepted this, and it often means you get a great saving. 

*Please note, Wavelength is a community based youth mental health creative music making project run by Quench Arts. It was originally funded by Youth Music but for the past 3 years has been funded by BBC Children In Need, Services for Education, Solihull Music Hub and the Clive and Sylvia Richards Charity.