Top 11 Best Audio Plugin (VST/AU/AAX) Brands In The World


In the age of recording where so much is done digitally and “in the box,” audio plugins reign supreme. Whether it’s emulating hardware to get that “analog sound,” pushing the boundaries of what was previously ever possible with audio technology, or simply serving an important purpose in recording, mixing and mastering, audio plugins are invaluable tools in the toolbox of those who work with digital audio.

Related article: Top 45 Must-Have Tools For Audio Recording/Mixing Studios

Just as there are many plugins on the market (both free and paid), there are also plenty of companies that develop audio plugins. In this article, I’ll share my opinion of the best overall plugin brands to look out for when choosing your next plugin (or bundle of plugins).

Though obviously subjective and prone to biases, I’ve done my best to list out these brands based on the following metrics:

  • Company reputation
  • Selection of plugins
  • Compatibility (Mac/Windows. AU, AAX, VST, etc.)
  • Sonic accuracy (with emulation plugins)
  • Creativity (with original plugins)
  • Graphical User Interface (GUI) and general ease-of-use
  • Overall sonic quality across all plugins

Note that this article is focused on effect/process plugins rather than on virtual instruments.

For my take on the best virtual/software instruments, check out my article Top Best Virtual/Software Instrument Plugin Brands.

With all that being said, let’s list out the brands.

The top 11 best audio plugin brands, overall, on the market today are:

  1. Universal Audio Digital
  2. Waves Audio
  3. Brainworx Audio
  4. Softube
  5. Soundtoys
  6. FabFilter
  7. iZotope
  8. Slate Digital
  9. PSP Audioware
  10. Arturia
  11. Eventide

Let’s get into each of these brands in greater detail and explain why they belong in the top 11 best audio plugin brands. I’ll share their country of origin, a bit of history, examples of noteworthy plugins to show diversity, and links to their official websites.


Click here to return to My New Microphone’s articles on musical equipment brands/manufacturers.


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Universal Audio Digital

Universal Audio Digital (UAD) offers some of the most authentic analog emulation plugins on the market. Expert DSP programmers and designers work with original hardware manufacturers to ensure that UAD’s plugins are among the best-of-the-best for the discerning professional and hobbyist alike.

These powerful plugins can be run from the dedicated DSP chips inside UAD interfaces and DSP accelerator boxes and cards to free up CPU within the host computer.

Though UAD came about in 1999, the company’s story begins much earlier in 1958 when the legendary Bill Putnam (known as “the father of modern recording”) founded Universal Audio.

Today, Universal Audio (along with UAD) is one of the most well-respected brands in audio hardware and software alike. Their plugins are used in professional studios worldwide and are highly sought-after pieces of software for most people involved in digital audio production.

UAD offers an impressive range of plugins (most of which are emulations of iconic hardware). Each plugin looks amazingly reminiscent of the hardware it emulates and behaves accordingly. Using UAD plugins in any DAW (on Windows or Mac) is truly a joy as they are super user-friendly.

The big downside of some (but not all) UAD plugins is that they will require UA Hardware to work. Many UAD plugins have been re-leased as native plugins that can run on the host computer CPU. Be sure to do your due diligence before purchasing any UAD plugins if you do not have the compatible UA hardware!

That being said, the sonic quality and accuracy of UAD plugins still put the brand at the top of this list!

Notable Universal Audio Digital (UAD) plugins (to show diversity) include:

UAD SSL 4000 G Bus Compressor

In addition to some of the finest plugins in the world, Universal Audio has a rich history of producing hardware, stemming, as was mentioned, all the way back to the late 1950s.

Universal Audio was founded in 1958 by Bill Putnam as the United Recording Corporation’s manufacturing arm in Los Angeles, California. After a few acquisitions/mergers, the UA brand was practically phased out by 1967 after a rebranding as United Recording Electronics Industries. In 1999, Bill Putnam Jr. and Jim Putnam reestablished Universal Audio. The brand has since grown spectacularly to become one of the best-known and most cherished audio interface brands on the world market. The company is headquartered in Scotts Valley, California, USA.

Official website: uaudio.com

Universal Audio is also featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
Top Best Audio Interface Brands In The World
Top Best Microphone Preamplifier Brands In The World


Waves Audio

Waves Audio is a behemoth in the market of audio plugins. From emulations to new and innovative ideas, this brand does it all to provide the world with top-of-the-line audio plugins.

And unlike UAD, all Waves plugins can run natively on the host computer, so there’s no need for the initial investment in external hardware! Of course, this means that the plugins will take up CPU, which can be an issue when running multiple CPU-hungry plugins (depending on the computer specs). We must pick our battles, after all.

Since the introduction of their first plugin (the Q10 paragraphic equalizer) all the way back in 1992, Waves has built its reputation as one of the greatest plugin manufacturers ever with the largest selection of pro-quality audio plugins.

Waves’ plugins can be run in any DAW (on both Windows and Mac) and are beautifully designed to maximize ease of use and functionality.

The emulations (such as the famous SSL G-Master Buss Compressor) are spot-on, while the originals (like the C6 Multiband Compressor) are super-powerful.

Looking at Waves’ plugin bundles, you could truly get everything you’d ever need for editing, mixing, producing and mastering from this single company. That, by itself, would give Waves a top spot on this list. Add in the excellent design, and sonic performance and the company truly solidifies itself as one of the best.

Notable Waves plugins (to show diversity) include:

Waves SSL G-Master Buss Compressor

Waves Audio was founded in 1992 by Gilad Keren and Meir Sha’ashua in Tel Aviv, Israel, where the company headquarters is still located today.

Official website: waves.com


Brainworx Audio

Founded in 1999 by Dirk Ulrich, Brainworx started out making hardware mastering processors. The German company got into software in 2006 and released its first and most well-known plugin, the bx_digital mid-side EQ, in 2008.

Since this time, Brainworx has built upon its reputation as a company creating sonically-advanced audio plugins and its multi-platform development framework (see Plugin Alliance at the end of this article).

The selection of plugins from Brainworx is staggering. From basic utility to mastering plugins to amp simulation and modulation effects, “bx” does it all. Whether the plugin is an emulation of one of the company’s many partners or something unique to the brand, it will surely serve its purpose and sound great as it does so.

When it comes to emulations, which make up most of that brand’s plugins, Brainworx works directly with the source, collaborating closely with the original manufacturers of whatever hardware is being emulated. The result is superb sonic accuracy and, with the expert graphic designers, superb GUI.

In addition to running natively, Brainworx plugins also come with support for the proprietary AAX DSP, VENUE, UAD, and other digital-signal processing systems/platforms.

Notable Brainworx plugins (to show diversity) include:

Brainworx bx_console N

Brainworx was founded in 1999 by Dirk Ulrich. The company headquarters in located in Leverkusen, Germany.

Official website: brainworx.audio


Softube

Softube is a Swedish plugin company known for its superb recreations of vintage, tube and otherwise analog sound in digital audio plugin format. The brand prides itself on its advanced component-level modeling of analog systems: a process involving taking hardware apart and putting it back together in programming code and at the highest resolution possible.

This pursuit of sonic excellence began in 2007 and has since drawn partnerships with the likes of Marshall Amplifiers (an exclusive deal) and Tube-Tech, Solid State Logic and many others. Softube’s approach to creating sonically superior plugins has brought them a great level of success that will continue evolving.

This innovative company has plenty of plugins based on some of the most iconic hardware to ever grace the audio world. These plugins sound incredible and are practically identical to the real devices they emulate. From the sound to the look and functionality, Softube continues to put out fantastic plugins, which gets it a definite spot on this list.

Notable Softube plugins (to show diversity) include:

Softube Audio Grand Channel Strip

In addition to industry-leading plugins, Softube also develops integrated hardware/software systems for computer-based studios.

Softube was founded in 2007 by Oscar Öberg in Linköping, Sweden, where the company is still headquartered today.

Official Website: softube.com

Softube is also featured in My New Microphone’s Top Best DAW Control Surface Brands In The World.


Soundtoys

Soundtoys may be considered “boutique” by some but is surely one of the top audio plugin brands output there. With a sonic taste for analog, Soundtoys has made a name for itself as a developer of highly functional analog-sounding digital plugins.

Though not consciously attempting to emulate any particular or iconic hardware, Soundtoys draws inspiration from the analog world to produce superb effects with modern functionality. When emulations are part of the design, there are often several options within a single plugin (like the EchoBoy, for example).

So rather than having yet another iconic console channel strip for you to A/B, Soundtoys offers unique effects to inspire musicians, producers and engineers to explore new options in mixing.

The range of beautifully designed Soundtoys plugins is deep, with plenty of versatile plugins to choose from. From simple to complex, modulation to compression, pitch-shifting to distortion, EQ to time-based effects, Soundtoys has it all, and it all sounds great!

Soundtoys plugins run natively in Mac and Windows with support for AU, AAX and VST.

Notable Soundtoys plugins (to show diversity) include:

Soundtoys Devil-Loc Deluxe

Soundtoys was founded in 1996 by Ken Bogdanowicz, a former Eventide employee. The company headquarters is located in Burlington, Vermont, USA.

Official website: soundtoys.com


FabFilter

Since the early 2000s, the Netherlands-based FabFilter company has been making a name for itself globally as one of the industry leaders in innovative and powerful audio plugins. With a keen focus on sonic performance, graphical user interface, and functionality, FabFilter produces some of the market’s best plugins.

You won’t find classic emulation with this company. Rather, FabFilter’s claim to fame is developing unique audio processing algorithms for their unique and powerful plugins. This brand may not have the longest list of products (compared to, say, Waves or Universal Audio), but every one of FabFilter’s plugins is an A+ piece of software worthy of any DAW.

FabFIlter plugins are seriously powerful with tons of functionality. Even the “basic plug-ins” the company offers may seem a bit intimidating. However, once learned, they will surely become plugins you turn to time and time again.

All of FabFilter’s plugins run natively and are available in VST, AU and AAX formats. They can be used in Mac and Windows-based computer operating systems.

Notable FabFilter plugins (to show diversity) include:

FabFilter Pro-L 2

FabFilter was founded in 2002 by Floris Klinkert and Frederik Slijkerman in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where the company headquarters is located today.

Official website: fabfilter.com


iZotope

iZotope is another big player in the game of audio plugins. The brand is likely best-known for its superb standalone mastering plugin (Ozone) and standalone mixing plugin (Neutron), but it also boasts many other powerful software plugins, including the world-class Exponential Audio reverbs.

Since its beginning in 2002, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company has made a name for itself as an industry-standard in audio mixing, mastering and editing software. Its impressive line of RX plugins, for example, are second-to-none when it comes to noise reduction.

iZotope designs world-class plugins powered by the highest quality audio processing, machine learning, and strikingly intuitive interfaces. It has a wide range of plugins, and the aforementioned Ozone and Neutron, though both “single plugins,” host several high-end modules within them (EQ, dynamics, saturation, etc.).

These plugins are truly inspiring and get iZotope a definite spot on this list. Their plugins can be used in both Mac and Windows and come in AAX, AU and VST formats.

Notable iZotope plugins (to show diversity) include:

iZotope Neutron 3 Advanced

In addition to industry-leading plugins, iZotope also offers hardware and learning platforms that teach audio mixing, mastering, production and repair.

iZotope was founded in 2001 by Mark Ethier and is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

Official website: izotope.com


Slate Digital

Slate Digital may be the youngest company on this list, but its prolific nature has produced more plugins than most other companies ever will.

With a focus on vintage hardware emulation and guitar amp simulation, Slate Digital plugins are among the best in the business. This spot on the list is a sort of “two-for-one” since Slate Digital owns the kiloHearts brand as well, which specializes in more modernized plugin types and specific effects. That being said, the amps and studio gear emulations would have gotten Slate Digital a spot on this list by themselves.

Every one of these plugins sounds great and looks just as good. They’re all pretty straightforward to use (even the more functional ones), and they’re really a joy to work with.

As would be expected from such a developed company, the Slate Digital plugins can be run in native AAX, AU and VST formats in both Mac and PC.

Notable Slate Digital plugins (to show diversity) include:

Slate Digital FG-116 FET | FG-116 Modern | FG-116 Vintage

On top of a huge range of plugins, Slate Digital also offers Slate Academy, described as the industry’s best online production school. Steven Slate’s Slate Media Technology offers superb hardware, while Steven Slate Drums offers world-class virtual drum instruments and samples.

Slate Digital was co-founded in 2008 by Steven Slate and Fabrice Gabriel and its headquarters is located in Los Angeles, California, USA.

Official website: slatedigital.com

Slate Media Technology is featured in My New Microphone’s Top Best DAW Control Surface Brands In The World.


PSP Audioware

Professional Sound Projects (PSP) Audioware may not have the same reputation as the aforementioned brands in terms of popularity but rest assured the company produces some of the best plugins on the market and deserves more recognition.

Since its humble beginnings as the first-ever Polish audio software company in 2000, PSP has grown and developed an impressive line of excellent audio plugins.

Whether the plugin is designed to emulate an iconic piece of hardware or it’s a new and unique product, PSP’s wide variety of plugins are designed with superior sonic performance and precision processing.

PSP’s excellent work and superior plugins have won the respect of venerable audio hardware companies. For example, EMT endorsed the PSP 2445 EMT, Avedis endorsed the PSP E27, and Lexicon endorsed the Lexicon PSP 42. These plugins can be run in native AAX, AU and VST formats in Mac and PC.

Notable PSP Audioware plugins (to show diversity) include:

PSP Audioware VintageWarmer2

PSP Audioware was founded in 2000 by Antoni Ozynski and Mateusz Wozniakin in Warsaw, Poland. The company is headquartered in Komorów, Poland.

Official website: pspaudioware.net


Arturia

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Arturia is a French company that specializes in both software and hardware for musicians. In addition to world-class virtual/software instrument plugins, the company also produces a variety of superb effects/processing plugins.

With a passion for sound and technology, the Arturia team members (being musicians themselves) are dedicated to producing inspiring and powerful yet user-friendly tools. The brand’s awesome plugins are a direct reflection of this dedication.

The modulation and time-based effects plugins are of particular interest. Arturia really shines as a plugin manufacturer with excellent emulations of iconic effects units in digital plugin form. That being said, the company also offers superb channel strips and compressors based on classic audio devices as well.

Whether you reach for a channel strip, compressor or a more pronounced effect plugin, Arturia’s products will surely deliver impressively sonic performance that precisely mimics the hardware it’s based on.

Arturia plugins run natively on the three main formats and can be used with both Mac and PC.

Notable Arturia plugins (to show diversity) include:

Arturia Comp FET-76

In addition to awesome software instruments and plugins, Arturia also produces impressive surface controllers, synthesizers and MIDI controllers that outperform much of their competition.

Arturia was founded in 1999 by Frédéric Brun and Gilles Pommereuil in Grenoble, France. The company is still headquartered in Grenoble, France.

Official Website: arturia.com

Arturia is also featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
Top Best MIDI Controller Brands In The World
Top Best Synthesizer Brands In The World

Top Best Virtual/Software Instrument Plugin Brands


Eventide

Last but not least on this list, let’s talk about Eventide. This company was founded all the way back in the early 1970s and made a name for itself, producing legendary hardware effects units like the H910 Harmonizer (the world’s first digital effects processor) and Instant Phaser.

Being a highly innovative company, Eventide jumped into the plugin market in 2003 with its Clockworks Legacy plugins (software plug-in versions of classic Eventide effects and DSP). Since then, Eventide has come up with plugins for pretty much every application you would need (save for noise reduction) in the digital audio workstation.

Of course, many of the plugins are based on Eventide’s magnificent line of hardware effects, but this is hardly a downside to a company so rich in product development and “instant” classics.

Eventide’s plugins, as we could expect from the company’s being on this list, are compatible with Mac and Windows and run natively in AAX, AU and VST formats.

Notable Eventide plugins (to show diversity) include:

Eventide Instant Phaser Mk II

Eventide is a big company with a superb line of products. In addition to plugins, Eventide also produces stompbox pedals, studio hardware, broadcast equipment and even Eurorack modules.

Eventide was founded in 1971 by Stephen Katz, Richard Factor and Orville Greene in New York City, New York, USA. Today, the company headquarters is in Little Ferry, New Jersey, USA.

Official website: eventide.com


A Note On Plugin Alliance

In January of 2012, Brainworx Audio founder/CEO Dirk Ulrich formed a plugin distribution company called Plugin Alliance LLC. Though the founder is German (as is Brainworx Audio), Plugin Alliance was incorporated in the united states and is formally headquartered in Santa Cruz, California.

The goal was to establish a user-friendly native plugin “über standard” that supported all major plugin formats (AU, VST, AAX and more) and to unite high-end audio plugin companies from around the world in one e-commerce company.

Official website: plugin-alliance.com

Today, Plugin Alliance partners with the following Brands (I’ve included links to their respective websites):

Ampeg is featured in My New Microphone’s Top Best Bass Guitar Amplifier Brands In The World.

Focusrite is featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
Top Best Audio Interface Brands In The World
Top Best DAW Control Surface Brands In The World
Top Best Microphone Preamplifier Brands In The World

Friedman is featured in My New Microphone’s Top Best Guitar Amplifier Brands In The World.

Gallien-Krueger is featured in My New Microphone’s Top Best Bass Guitar Amplifier Brands In The World.

Schoeps Mikrofone is featured in My New Microphone’s Top Best Microphone Brands You Should Know And Use.

Solid State Logic is featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
Top Best Audio Interface Brands In The World
Top Best DAW Control Surface Brands In The World
Top Best Live Sound Mixing Board/Console Brands
Top Best Microphone Preamplifier Brands In The World
Top Best Studio Recording/Mixing Console Brands

Top Best Audio Compressor Brands In The World
Top Best Audio Equalizer Brands In The World
Top Best Audio Brands For 500 Series Modules/Equipment

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