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The 8 best vocal plugins in 2021

Vocals can really make or break a song. There’s nothing like having a great singer on your track lending it the final sparkle it needs to become a hit, but it’s all too easy to overdo things and ruin a good take with effects.

It can be hard to know where that line is, but it can be just as hard to know how to get a raw vocal comp sounding like Bruno Mars or Ariana Grande, since many of the tricks that the pros use are so subtle.

If you’re looking for a good place to start, check out this list of some of the best plugins to use for vocals in any genre.

1. Celemony Melodyne

The essential vocal editing software

Celemony Melodyne vocal plugin Image credit: Celemony Check out and download from: Sweetwater Plugin Boutique

Out of all the singers in the world, and there are many, it would surprise you how few of them are able to record a radio-ready vocal track without some sort of pitch correction. Adele, perhaps, and maybe Tori Kelly, but even Beyoncé and Brendan Urie’s vocals get edited in some way on every track.

You may be thinking, “Well I know autotune when I hear it, and none of those singers sound like T-Pain”, and you’d be right; it doesn’t sound like autotune. That’s because Melodyne is scary good.

Melodyne can do just about everything. It can make words longer or shorter, reduce the volume of sibilances without affecting vowels, change timings of notes, eliminate vibrato, increase or decrease the time of pitch bends, adjust formants, individually tweak the volume of each note, and more, all without leaving any artifacts.

There’s so much that Melodyne is capable of, and you’d never even notice because in the right hands, it just sounds like it came straight through the singer’s mic.

It even has pitch, volume, and timing macros, which can automatically quantize notes to a scale or chromatically, apply downwards and upwards compression on a note-by-note basis, and quantize notes to beats in the grid, syncing automatically with your DAW’s tempo, of course.

Those of you familiar with the name Melodyne might remember that it needed to be run as a standalone operation outside of your DAW, and you’d have to record the vocal into Melodyne, edit it, then export it and bring it back into your track.

Well good news! With Melodyne 5, it now works as a normal VST plugin inside your DAW, meaning no more exporting/importing! It uses Audio Random Access technology, or ARA, and this makes the workflow of it a thousand times better.

Basically, Melodyne should be an essential part of the kit for anyone who works with vocals, period. It does take some getting used to, as some of the key commands and shortcuts are less intuitive, and it functions almost like a mini DAW in itself, but it’s a powerful tool that’s worth the effort to learn.

  • Powerful, can do everything you need to edit vocals.
  • Now works in the DAW, no need to run it as a standalone.
  • Designed for a hugely efficient workflow.
  • Eats CPU like the cookie monster eats cookies.
  • The highest plan with the most functionality is expensive, and future updates are not free.
  • Steep learning curve, and practice is required to get great results.

2. Antares Auto-Tune

“Do you believe in life after love?”

Antares Auto-Tune Pro pitch correction vocal plugin Image credit: Antares Check out and download from: Sweetwater Plugin Boutique

Though the first song to feature the now-iconic plugin Auto-Tune was Believe by Cher, the highly-artifacted sound of this pitch correction software has become a staple in pop music, particularly rap, trap, and sometimes hip-hop.

Using rapid pitch correction, it shifts notes around to make them perfectly in tune, and the removal of all the sliding in between notes is what creates the robotic effect that this plugin is known for.

However, Auto-Tune is only noticeable when the producers want it to be. It also excels at quick and easy pitch correction without artifacts, when a singer is just a little off, and reducing the intensity of the settings can help save a mediocre performance.

A big advantage of Auto-Tune over Melodyne is that Auto-Tune is … well, automatic. It doesn’t require much practice to cue up the plugin and get really clean vocals, but the downside is a lack of control.

If you want to preserve the slide on just a handful of notes, you’d have to automate the plugin to turn off and back on again, or automate the settings to let the slide happen the way you want it.

However, it shines as an added effect to an otherwise-good vocal take. This is the best VST for rap vocals largely due to killing two birds with one stone: it fixes the pitch of your vocals while giving them a unique character, which helps your song stand out from the crowd.

There’s no need to use it on every song, but it can be a secret weapon on your next track!

  • Simple controls, and automatic correction saves you tons of manual editing time.
  • Not too expensive..
  • Extreme settings are perfect for an effect, mild settings give you clean correction.
  • Less control over individual notes, and only corrects pitch.
  • If extreme correction is needed, can cause artifacts.

3. FabFilter Pro-Q 3

You can have your cake and eat it, too

FabFilter Pro-Q 3 EQ and filter plugin Image credit: FabFilter Check out and download from: Sweetwater Plugin Boutique

Usually there is a trade-off between form and function. You can either have something that sounds really, really good, or you can have a thing that’s beautiful, intuitive, and easy to use. Pro-Q 3 is an EQ that takes that idea and smashes it to pieces.

This is our favorite plugin to look at, partly because we’ve always loved watching spectrum analyzers and EQs play music, trying to understand what the dancing stalagmites were, and partly because we can look at this EQ and immediately understand what’s going on and how to interact with it. It’s colorful, simple, and beautiful.

The best part is, it sounds even better than it looks. Linear phase EQ is a blessing for maintaining phase relationships between different instruments and preserving their true sounds; Pro-Q 3 has it.

Sometimes we want all of the low end gone, with the steepest high-pass filter we can find; Pro-Q 3 does that. If we have our kick and bass playing at the same time, but a side-chained compressor would take away the top end of our bass, and we need something to just duck the low end? You guessed it; Pro-Q 3’s dynamic EQ with side-chain inputs can do that. Cleanly. Beautifully.

Pro-Q 3 is the best vocal EQ plugin, because it’s so easy to use each and every one of it’s amazing features. You can use the dynamic EQ like a de-esser, linear phase EQ for mixing vocal stacks and layers, and there’ll be no mic rumble in your track with the awesome brick wall high-pass filter.

Not to mention that each of its bands and shelves are ultra-flexible, and you can solo each one to hear exactly what they’re doing. It’s simply an amazing EQ.

  • Features galore! Dynamic EQ, linear phase EQ, soloing/muting bands, etc.
  • Looks amazing and is easy to use and understand.
  • Free updates after purchasing.
  • Many DAWs come with stock EQs for free, that do most of the same jobs.
  • Uses more CPU than a stock EQ.

4. Universal Audio Teletronix LA-2A

Vintage sound for the modern musician

Universal Audio Teletronix LA-2A compressor plugin Image credit: Universal Audio Check out and download from: Universal Audio

We used to be skeptics about vintage gear, particularly compressors. We thought that all compressors worked the same and sounded the same, and that one compressor was all you needed. While it is true that you can get the job done with just about any compressor, some really do just work better for certain applications, like the LA-2A for vocals.

This is the go-to vocal compressor for many analog gear heads, and for good reason. Though the difference may be subtle, it just sounds better on vocals than so many other compressors, whether analog or digital, and our friends at Universal Audio (who own the patent for the original hardware, mind you) have faithfully recreated all the goodness and warmth and put it in a digital download that you can use in your DAW.

The controls are simple, and familiar to anyone who knows compressors: threshold, ratio, attack, release, etc., so it’s not difficult to use. It stays true to the design of its physical counterpart, without adding any extra bells or whistles, making it easy to dial in the right settings on the first try, and bring your vocals to the forefront of every mix.

Pro tip: If you use Logic as your DAW, the stock compressor comes with an emulation of the LA-2A, though it’s not labelled as such. It’s called the Vintage Opto, in the same category as Platinum Digital, which is the default setting.

  • Adds the analog feeling without needing physical gear.
  • Pros have been using it for decades with great success, and all the info is available somewhere.
  • Requires some UAD hardware, like an interface, in order to use.
  • Expensive for such a simple compressor.
  • Other, less expensive emulations are out there, such as the Waves CLA-2A.

5. Waves Sibilance

Smarter de-essing means no stressing

Waves Sibilance vocal de-esser plugin Image credit: Waves Check out and download from: Sweetwater

We’ve only had the pleasure of trying out Sibilance fairly recently, but so far we’re impressed. We were on the market for a de-esser that could handle some more detailed stuff, and be more precise about the frequencies that needed softening, and we’re glad we came across this.

Sibilance has a re-synthesis engine built into it, which makes it wholly unique from other de-essers. We were immediately caught off guard by the control we had over everything, and how easy it was to understand. We were very happy with the results of our de-essing using Sibilance, because it helped us understand what we were doing just a little bit better than we did before.

Traditional de-essers are essentially just single-band compressors, and when used too heavily, have a tendency to make harsh sibilances sound more like lisps. They can be clumsy to use, since every singer creates different sibilant frequencies, and even then, an “F” sounds different than an “S” sound! It’s the heavy-handed approach.

Sibilance is the best de-esser of the bunch, because it uses spectral analysis and synthesis to identify exactly what frequencies are causing the harsh sounds, and then affects those without altering the frequencies of the vocal itself.

That means that you don’t lose any of the high end of the vocal like you would when a normal de-esser triggers. Subsequently, you can bring out the higher frequencies (the Higher Hz, if you will) to an extreme without negating all the efforts of your de-esser.

  • Very inexpensive, and Waves usually has deals going on, like where you spend $50 and get a free plugin.
  • Doesn’t just squash harsh frequencies; spectrally recreates the sound for maximum control.
  • Intuitive interface.
  • Requires much more CPU than a normal de-esser.
  • Doesn’t produce the same drastic results you might get from a de-esser.

6. Waves CLA Vocals

The one-stop vocal shop

Waves CLA Vocals VST plugin Image credit: Waves Check out and download from: Sweetwater

If you’ve been looking at this list wondering which of these plugins you need to get a pop vocal sound and feeling overwhelmed, this one will be a load off your shoulders. CLA Vocals comes with an EQ, compressor, de-esser, reverb, delay, and even a chorus/doubling effect, making it a Swiss-army plugin.

Tons of producers we know personally swear by this plugin and say it’s the best plugin for radio-ready vocals, especially considering that in spite of all the effects, it’s still incredibly easy to use.

CLA Vocals has only a handful of faders as its primary controls, with labels like Bass, Treble, Compress, and Reverb. Seems easy so far, right? Then, each fader has three different modes that it can use, for example the Treble fader has Roof, Top, and Bite modes, to give that fader a different character.

Manipulating vocals is as easy as finding the word you’re looking for as the mode, and pushing the fader. It’s never been this fast or easy to get a pro vocal sound, especially if you have some experience with the plugin already. You could go from edited to fully produced in 30 seconds with a keen ear and nimble fingers, which is basically a real-life cheat code.

The name also comes from Chris Lord-Alge, one of the most prolific mixing engineers in the world. If you’ve been in the audio world for a little bit, odds are you’ve run into a video with him in it, or at least seen his name.

Lucky for us, he teamed up with Waves to make this plugin based on vocal chains he’s made and uses all the time, giving us all the same tools as a literal mixing legend.

  • Very affordable.
  • Easy controls that let you focus on what you hear, gets results fast.
  • The same effects used by Chris Lord-Alge, it has all the tools you need.
  • Limited modes can be restrictive, and gives you less control over the sound if you want to be detailed.
  • Doesn’t tell you the ways that it affects the sound, i.e. “boosts at 120 Hz”.
  • Only two bands of EQ.

7. Slate Digital Fresh Air

Using this is like a breath of… well you get it

Slate Digital Fresh Air plugin Image credit: Slate Digital Check out and download from: Slate Digital

Fresh Air is a relatively new plugin from Slate Digital, but upon its release it was gathering a lot of attention. Using this plugin once will show you exactly why, too, because its results are big, and very, very cool.

If you use Logic, you may have tried out the Exciter plugin under the Specialized tab. And if you’re like us, you were probably a little confused, and maybe more than a little underwhelmed. It was hard to find an application for it that sounded good, but then again, maybe we just didn’t know how to use it right.

Fresh Air is basically just two exciters, which seems like it would be doubly as confusing or underwhelming, but in our experience, it’s the opposite. There’s only two controls: one knob that says Mid Air, and one knob that says High Air.

Cranking the Mid Air knob, you immediately notice the presence and fullness, but not in a heavy way. It’s like the sound just opens up from below, and blooms.

Turning the High Air knob is like lifting a wool blanket that you didn’t realize was there in the first place, and everything comes sharply into focus.

From what we understand, this VST which is amazing at getting vocals to cut through a mix is based off of analog exciters, with a modern twist. The results speak for themselves, and while you could watch a bunch of YouTube videos of other people using it, we recommend you just try it yourself, which you can do really easily because it’s free. That’s right, free! You trade your email address for the download link, but it’s very worthwhile.

The danger of overusing this plugin is that we’ve found it excites some frequencies that get harsh pretty easily, around 4 kHz and 8 kHz, but in small doses, Fresh Air is a powerful medicine for dull vocals.

  • Free!.
  • Only two controls makes it simple as can be to use.
  • Huge change in sound without maxing out the knobs.
  • Can boost harsh frequencies if used in excess.
  • The effect is behind-the-scenes, like CLA Vocals above, meaning you just kind of… guess at what it’s doing?

8. Softube Saturation Knob

One knob to rule them all

Softube Saturation Knob VST plugin Image credit: Softube Check out and download from: Softube

This last entry is a quick one, but important. Saturation is a relic from the analog days where electrical circuits could get overloaded with signal causing added harmonics to appear, until eventually the sound got “fuzzy”.

Well, those added harmonics became a pretty standard part of pop music, and of course people wanted to recreate it. Thus, we have Saturation Knob.

A little extra saturation on vocals can go a long way, by giving the sound more richness, presence, and perceived loudness.

This one-knob VST is just a little sauce to add to a vocal recipe, and like Fresh Air, it’s also free!

  • Versatile, and can be cranked up to extreme settings.
  • Has a switch that lets you preserve the lows, highs or keep it neutral.
  • Free.
  • Easy to get distortion.
  • Not much else, it’s a free plugin; if you don’t like it, don’t use it.

It’s important to remember that every singer is unique, and each vocal you record will face its own challenges of sitting in the mix. There is no one-size-fits-all setting to work like magic, but having access to all these different tools can be a game-changer.

In the end, it’s crucial to use your ears, and be able to know what you need and what you don’t. Happy mixing!

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