Sound design is a pretty broad subject in anyones books, in fact one person's definition of what it involves may differ from another’s. Sound design can range from the creation of single synth presets to entire libraries of custom sound effects.
Whether you are creating bespoke sounds for moving picture, game sound effects or just putting together the perfect atmospheric pad patch for a track, there are a number of tools you’ll need to moulding truly original sounds.
This list should give you an idea of some of the things that’ll be useful to you. Obviously this is not a definitive list but represents the main plug-in and software categories you should be thinking about when starting out.
1 - Spectrasonics Omnisphere
Omnisphere seems to feature in a few of the lists that I produce because it’s just so flexible. It also sounds pretty darn good. When it comes to sound design, synthesis is simply essential so having a good collection of subtractive, additive, FM, granular and sample-based synths is key… or simply buy Omnisphere!
Omnisphere has made the grade for a few of my roundups mainly down to the fact it’s totally awesome.
The real beauty of Omnisphere is that it contains not only a behemoth of a sample library but also a number of different synthesis types, a multi-effects engine and mind-blowing modulation possibilities. Combine the samples, waveforms and powerful synth engine and you have the perfect sound design tool. Just about anything is possible here.
2 - Fabfilter Timeless 2
Expansive spatial effects are an integral part of sculpting new and exciting sounds. Two tools you should have in your sonic toolbox are a solid delay processor and at least one great reverb. This entry is obviously the former!
There are countless delay plug-ins on the market and many DAWs now include this sort of effect. All this said if you are after some truly mind-bending effects, you’ll need something that has some serious modulation options. Fabfilter’s Timeless 2 offers the complex routing you’ll need.
Fabfilter 2 offers not only a great delay sound but endless modulation possibilities.
Even the preset library here is impressive and will give you some great starting points to work with. If you are new to this sort of plug-in you might want to try this route as the mod system can be a little daunting to the newcomer.
3 - Lexicon PCM Reverbs
Arguably the most important part of creating convincing sound scales and effects is putting them in realistic spaces. To get this part of the process right you’ll need a high-quality reverb.
There once was a time when hardware was considered the only option but there are now plenty of software-based processors that are more than capable of getting the job done. I’ve been screaming and shouting about UVI’s Sparkverb ever since I reviewed it and in my eyes this probably remains the best software reverb at a reasonable price.
Lexicon PCM reverbs remain the best ‘in the box’ algorithmic verb around.
However, if you fancy splashing out or simply want the best there is I would suggest opting for the excellent PCM Native bundle from Lexicon. This is a collection of algorithmic effects that are ported directly from the companies legendary hardware units and offer about the richest virtual spaces you can achieve in the box.
4 - UAD Moog Filter
As I pointed out earlier, synthesis is one of the building blocks of sound design. A huge part of this is a set of solid multi-mode filters. Obviously any synth worth its salt will have filters included but if you plan to filter your audio, a separate filter plug-in is well worth the investment.
As with so many of these categories, there are plenty of filters out there and the one you choose is really down to personal preference. If you fancy something complex with almost unlimited routing options you can go for something like Fabfilter’s Volcano, this is very similar in operation to the Timeless 2 delay mentioned earlier.
The UAD Moog filter simply oozes quality and is a lot of fun to use.
For something with a little more analog flavor you might want to opt for the Moog approved filter on the UAD platform from Universal Audio. This is probably the warmest, richest filter I have heard in software. Very nice stuff.
5 - Steinberg Wavelab
OK so this one is actually an app as opposed to a plug-in but a good stand-alone audio editor can be really useful when tweaking sounds. I believe that this sort of app still ultimately gives you more control than editing audio in a DAW and gives you the ability to quickly get an accurate overview of your audio.
Wavelab can be the perfect environment for creative processing.
You may also find you like the workflow of adding effects and edits to your files in a different environment. Give it a whirl… Wavelab is now available on Mac and PC so everyone is invited.
6 - iZotope Trash 2
If you like to add some dirt and grit to your effects then you’ll need a distortion unit. Your DAW probably has one and it might be ok but by investing a little bit of cash you can get your hands on something much more capable.
Trash 2 is extremely flexible and provides just about every type of distortion going.
iZotope’s Trash 2 is an excellent example of a modern digital distortion plug-in. This thing can produce everything from a soft tube-like glow to an over the top bit-crushed mess. Get stuck in!
7 - Native Instruments Kontakt
It’s highly likely that you’ll want to manipulate your own samples to achieve the perfect custom sonic textures. Of course you can use raw audio to achieve this and use insert effects to apply processing but some things are really only possible when using a sampler.
All hail Kontakt… the king of soft samplers.
NI’s Kontakt is the indisputable king of soft samplers and is hugely popular with artists and sound designers the world over. If you want to unleash your samples, found sound or recordings then throw them into Kontakt. You’ll be blown away by the power of its synthesis engine alone.
8 - Native Instruments Reaktor
Another awesome bit of virtual kit from the NI camp is Reaktor. If you have the technical chops or a lot of time on your hands you can actually craft your own synths, effects and processors using this system.
If you can’t get interesting sounds out of Reaktor you’re in the wrong business!
Even if you don’t feel up to getting your hands dirty, you can use some of the many bundled ‘devices’ to process your audio and make some truly crazy sounds. Just a quick test drive of the included Razor synth and you’ll soon realize you are in new territory here.
9 - Propellerhead Reason 7
I was going to stay away from recommending specific DAWs here as they are all really excellent environments for creating your own custom sounds. That said Reason is a slightly different beast.
Add punch, reduce reverb, tame room sound, this plug can do the lot.
The reason I say this (oh dear) is that it can be used as a ReWire slave and essentially act as a cool expander for any DAW. The modulation possibilities are literally endless, the virtual devices top notch and the CPU usage extremely modest. If you are getting into sound design, it’s really something you should consider.
10 - Sugar Bytes Effectrix
If you fancy trying something a bit different or are lacking inspiration then Effectrix maybe your perfect sound design companion. It’s basically a self-contained sequencer and multi effects processor. A cool step based GUI controls when each effect is triggered. This combination is potent to say the least and can produce some great sounds.
For something a little different (or an injection of inspiration) try Effectrix.
I’ve actually found that applying processing using Effectrix and it’s unique sequencer produces effects that you wouldn't usually be able to achieve with more static processing. Be warned you can lose hours of your life playing with this thing!