4 Types of Plugin to Enhance Your Mix - Beginner's Guide

There are many, many types of plugin and hardware out there, all of which are designed to improve or enhance your music in the mixing stage. This guide will go through some of the types of plugin which you can use when mixing a production. I will try to link to free examples which you can download, so you can use this guide straight up. Because this is a tutorial for beginners, I will try and use appropriate analogies where possible, because I know how hard it was for me to understand points at first. Hopefully by these analogies that I have created, people will find it much easier.


Arguably the most important mixing tool out there, EQ can make a huge difference and transform a track from a muddy mess, into something much cleaner. EQ works by boosting and cutting specific frequencies in a very controlled manner. Different EQs work in different ways but all of them aim to reduce the frequencies which are messing up the track, and boost the frequencies that enhance the sound.

 Unless you have a pro studio, recording live sounds will always have noise - low frequency rumble of air/traffic/electronic fans is particularly bad. EQ can select these frequencies and remove them from the mix, thus ensuring a cleaner mix.

A Hardware EQ 

Another important use of EQ is providing more headroom. Headroom is the maximum amount of sound you have available, if the track is too loud, it can distort. Low frequencies take up more headroom than higher frequencies, and so it is important to take out any low frequencies that are unwanted or not part of the sound. 

Imagine filling a bucket with various sized balls, the larger tennis balls would be like the low frequencies, the smaller marbles would be the higher frequencies. If we can remove as much tennis balls as possible, the bucket has much more room in it, removing the same number of marbles frees up less space. This is the analogy I use for how frequencies take up headroom.

A good tip for using EQs, is to figure out the lowest frequency that instrument can play - for a guitar ~60Hz - and EQ out every frequency below that value. This means that for the low frequency instruments such as the bass guitar, it doesn't have to compete with as many sounds in that frequency range, and can therefore be turned up. This is called High Pass Filtering (all the high frequencies are allowed to pass through).

A VST (Virtual Studio Technology) EQ Plugin

Another top tip when using EQs to mix a track is to see which instruments are in the same frequency range. Lets say we have a singer and a piano, both with notes in the same octaves, we can boost those frequencies for the singer, and cut them on the piano, so the singer (the main focus) doesn't have to compete as much with those frequencies. In this case I'm talking about adding and taking away only a few decibels. The good thing about this is that the piano can then be boosted slightly in the frequencies outside of the singers range so that it still maintains a presence in the track.

Of course, this scales up, with more instruments, you have to make room amongst each other, deciding which parts should be in the foreground and which should be in the background. Remember, the instruments in the background, that aren't the main focus can be much more dramatically EQ'ed. Likewise, synth sounds can be EQ'ed much harder than easy to recognise sounds such as the violin, of which we are used to a certain timbral profile.

Free EQ Plugins

  1. Luftikus
  2. N6
  3. BootEQ mkII (also got great saturation)


A compressor looks at the volume of a sound and if it is louder than a set value, it turns it down by a ratio set by the user. Compression is one of the hardest concepts for new users to grasp, but I recommend persevering with it because it is an essential tool. Without it, your track will never conform to today's standards of mixing loudness. 

The way I explain compression to people, is to imagine a person on a pogo stick, with a net above his head. If the person bounces higher than the net height, the net will stop him. In this case, setting the height of the net is like setting the compressor threshold.

A Harware Compressor

If the net is stretched loosely across the top, the person will push the net up a bit, but it will still prevent him going as high as he would have done without a net. This is like a low ratio on a compressor, the volume still has room to exceed the threshold, but it is reduced slightly.

If the net was stretched tighter, the person won't be able to push the net up as much, and so his bounce height will be reduced much more. This is like having a higher threshold. The highest threshold, aptly named "brickwall limiting" would be the equivalent of having a brick ceiling above the person. No matter how hard he bounced, he will never exceed that height set by the ceiling. The harder he bounces against the ceiling, the harder the damage to his head.

This final point is just the same with audio, the harder you drive a sound into a compressor, the harder the sound is changed, and potentially ruined. Compression is something that you want to do subtly and intentionally, it is always best to do several stages of light compression, instead of one hard stage at the end of the mix.

A VST Compressor Plugin

Compression sounds great on drums as it fattens them up, it is also essential for many vocal recordings to even out the volume. If a vocalist needs to be the centre of attention, we don't want some of the quieter syllables to be lost in the mix. The good thing about compression when it is done right is that it still indicates that the note was sung quietly. This is normally identified by more breath sounds and a softer tone, which isn't affected by a compressor. Likewise, a shouted vocal will still sound shouted, even when reduced in volume to match the softer lyrics.

I like to categorise my compression into five types:

  1. Normal Compression
  2. Parallel Compression
  3. Multiband Compression
  4. Limiting
  5. Side-chain Compression
Normal compression applies the analogy above to the audio. You set a threshold, ratio and some other parameters depending on the compressor. This is the simplest to use and normally is just for getting the peaks tamed on a single track, or gluing a mix bus together (eg all the guitar tracks might get compressed together).

Parallel compression is similar to the above compression, but you set the compressor a little harder and blend it with the uncompressed signal. This brings the quiet parts up, while still keeping the apparent dynamic range like a fatter dry recording. This works astoundingly well on drums and is also known as New York Compression

Multiband compression works like normal compression but it compresses different frequencies differently. Many multiband compressors are simply three compressors, with the signal split into low frequency, mid frequency, and high frequency, each being sent to a different compression setting. Multiband compression works very well for mix busses where certain frequency bands need to be treated differently. It is also a great tool with synth design where you can use it aggressively to bring out certain frequencies.

Limiting is the hardest compression setting, from ratios above 1:10, all the way up to 1:infinity (brickwalling). It is used to even up the peaks of the tracks and to allow the whole track to be louder without the loudest parts clipping. If the loudest peaks can be brought down 2dB, while everything else remains unchanged, then the whole track can now be raised by 2dB in volume, without those peaks clipping. Limiting tends to happen in the final stages of mixing and mastering as it is the most destructive form and needs to be done with care.

Side-chain compression is by far the favourite among electronic music producers. Instead of the compressor being triggered every time the sound exceeds the threshold value, it is set to watch another sound. If that sound exceeds the value, then the compressor kicks in. This is used on basslines in house music especially, where the kick drum is also very bassy. Every time the kick drum hits, it triggers the compressor on the bass, turning the bass down and letting it bounce up to full volume.

Free Compressor Plugins

  1. KT - C
  2. OTT (Highly Recommended Multiband Compressor Tool)
  3. ReaComp


Saturation is the willing destruction of audio. Think about a guitar going into an amp and distorting into those tasty rock sounds, saturation works like this, in that it adds a bit of dirt or grit in the form of harmonicsThis is a really handy tool in certain genres in particular. Trap uses saturation on the sub bass notes so that they can be heard on weaker headphones/speakers which can only reproduce those higher harmonics.

Saturation also works as a tool to brighten up certain sounds, because it adds harmonics which are higher in frequency, it can be great for a dull recording which needs some shimmer added to it. If a particular sound requires some vintage element to it, then distorting at certain frequencies can do a great job at that, for example saturating the upper mids can give a great old-style mic/megaphone vibe.

Saturation also works as a compression technique, where the peaks get rounded off. The difference between them is that saturation distorts the peaks instead of simply turning them down, regardless, it is a great way of reducing the peaks of a sound, especially if you want the added grit. If you are planning on compressing a csound that you were going to saturate anyway, then consider just adding the saturation. If however, you have a sound you want evenly saturated, but it has a very dynamic range, the consider compressing it before saturating it so the saturation is more evenly applied on more than just the peaks.

Free Saturation plugins

  1. Ferric TDS Vintage Saturation
  2. Headcrusher Free


Reverb is possibly the most obvious effect in music, it is the effect that makes things sound like they are in a larger space than they actually are. Reverb is used on almost every instrument to some degree because it gives the element of space that is desired by the listener. When we listen to music, we want a mental picture of the whole band, orchestration, playing together in a particular space. The space that the sounds are recorded in - the heavily treated recording studio - don't reflect this.

Possibly the best era of reverb use, was the era of stadium anthem rock music. Reverb was generously applied to everything to make the listener feel like they were in a massive concert with the band on stage in front of them.

Reverb can be seen as more than just a background venue for the sound, it is also an incredibly powerful tool of blending sounds together in your mix. You no doubt understand that sounds are panned left and right in the stereo recordings to give the instruments a position in the listener's field of aural perception, but when mixing, we also use front and back.

using different reverb amounts on different sounds changes how close or far away they are perceived, more reverb sits that sound towards the back of the "stage" and blurs it. In a similar way to a painter or photographer, who blurs the background of the picture, to draw attention to the subject, we can do the same with sound. Combining the reverb with EQ and panning, will give a two axis position of that sound.

Free Reverb Plugins