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Software Tools for Composition & DIY Sound Design

Today’s sophisticated audio sculpting tools have arguably amended the unspoken rules of creating sound for video. Tech-savvy, creative musicians may wield only one instrument in practice—quite often using a keyboard and/or MIDI-enabled stringed instrument—to compose a symphonic score for a documentary, reality show or a simple YouTube video. And with the right tools, artist/engineers can be one-person powerhouses, going from inspiration to completed soundtrack with amazing results.

In my review work for Pro Sound News, I often collaborate with Rich Tozzoli, a Grammy Award-nominated mixer/producer who composes for a wide variety of television programming, ranging from FOX and CBS Sports broadcasts to reality shows including Pawn Stars, Duck Dynasty and Alaskan Bush People. I also regularly collaborate with Rob Tavaglione, a busy engineer and proprietor of Charlotte, N.C.’s indie audio production studio Catalyst Recording. Here, we put our heads together to compile the following list of must-try plug-ins and software-based tools—ones already proven worthy for heavy use in premier sound composition gigs such as Tozzoli’s and with Tavaglione as he produces impressive audio-for-video results on deadline, too. 

Tozzoli’s Magnificent Seven

Audio Ease Altiverb

“I happen to use reverb as a tool, so this is still a go-to weapon for me,” explains Tozzoli. He often applies Audio Ease reverbs when writing melodies that take the viewer to awe-inspiring grand spaces, matching breathtaking visuals with detailed, complex reverb algorithms. “From epic mausoleums in India or the Great Pyramids in Egypt to historic century-old churches, bigger is better sometimes; the sense of depth provided in Altiverb is wonderful, as are some of the oddball things in there, like the sound of ‘tin cans’ and ‘washing machines’ environments.”

The 64-bit Altiverb is currently in Version 7, total recall automatable, and is Mac and Windows OS-ready.

Eventide Blackhole Reverberator

Referring to it as “a reverb monster,” Blackhole is the culmination of Eventide’s years of developing reverb effects for its DSP4000 and H8000 flagship hardware processors. A Native-only, 64-bit compatible plug-in for Mac or Windows OS, Blackhole shares sounds also available in Eventide’s cool Space stomp box, providing new and interesting ways to sculpt even the simplest of melody lines into picture-paired soundtracks.

“It can do huge spaces, small spaces and anything in between,” notes Tozzoli. “It provides 2,000 ms of pre-delay and its inverse Gravity [setting] can do wonders to sounds.”

Sonnox Oxford Reverb

Another reverb specifically noted by Tozzoli, the Sonnox Oxford provides notably comprehensive parameter controls with independent control of early reflections and reverb tails. “It’s really what separates this one from the others I use,” explains Tozzoli. “It’s my favorite for [composing] using acoustic instruments in the guitar realm.”

Another key component of the Oxford Reverb is its integrated 5-band EQ. “You can truly customize the end result” with the EQ, Tozzoli notes. Also included are over 100 well-chosen presets crafted for music and post-production work.

SoundToys Little PrimalTap

Deemed by SoundToys as their “dirty little delay,” Little PrimalTap is an edgy, exciting Native plug-in featuring echo, loop, warp and distortion effects. It is based on Lexicon’s late-‘70s Prime Time delay unit with key updates suited for modern use including a doubled delay time from the original’s 256ms to 512ms. Yet it preserves Prime Time’s quirky Multiply feature—halving sample rate each time delay rate is doubled.

It’s Tozzoli’s “newest creative favorite,” he explains. “It has a truly unique set of filters that can warp, distort, mangle, echo and flange like few others out there. While I’m at it, I’d have to include SoundToys’ Crystallizer in this list, too—a reverse echo effects plug-in—because it’s just so wonderfully odd.”

Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2 Synthesizer

Now in its second version, Spectrasonics’ flagship synth plug-in boasts more than 12,000 sounds, 400 new DSP waveforms for its oscillator, 25 new effects units, granular synthesis, evolved FM/Ring Mod, eight new filters, polyphonic LFO and modulation envelope options, and much more, plus an improved sound browser and audio file import capability.

Calling it his go-to plug-in synth, Tozzoli sums up Omnisphere quite succinctly: “With all these sounds, if you can’t find something to create with in there, it’s time to switch jobs.”  

Synthogy Ivory II Grand Pianos

Mac and Windows OS-ready, Ivory II is heavy on natural piano sounds with proprietary technology allowing for shocking levels of sympathetic string response and other characteristics that help users create realistic-sounding performances. Ivory II Grand Pianos includes a DSP engine and custom GUI built around 77GB of well-captured premium samples from the likes of the Bosendorfer 290 Imperial Grand, Steinway D Concert Grand, Yamaha C7 Grand, among others.

With Ivory II, hearing is believing, illustrates Tozzoli. “It’s the piano software, without question. I use Omnisphere 2 for warped pianos and Ivory II for the real deal. Put one of these pianos in any of the reverbs I’ve already mentioned and good things will just happen.”

Propellerhead Reason 8

Why include Propellerhead Reason 8 in a survey of primarily plug-ins, you may ask? Tozzoli and many of his peers use this sequencing-borne DAW as such, that’s why.

“I consider this a plug-in, really, even though it’s a stand-alone platform,” he explains. “I call it up inside my Pro Tools sessions to unleash a palette of sounds that is virtually unlimited.”

Reason 8 instruments include superb synths, beats and loops via classic drum machine-inspired GUIs for improved creative workflow and impressive collections of instrument samples. It’s user-friendly, a MIDI-centric DAW that runs well alongside traditional DAWs for pro-grade environments such as Tozzoli’s personal studio.

Three Tools From Tavaglione

BetaMonkey Drum Loops

For the past decade, BetaMonkey has produced thousands of drum samples and drum loops at great prices without the heavy processing and compression found in the products of many competing online loop stores. These are Tavaglione’s favorite drum sound sources when composing without a drummer or in a deadline pinch.

“Just give me some nice, punchy stereo loops and a pro DAW and I’ll make you some cues right quick,” he said, referencing the use of BetaMonkey’s loops in composition. “Who needs multitracks when all you have to do is isolate a couple of sounds, add a couple of layered triggers and you’re 100 percent there?”

BetaMonkey’s online store makes it quick and easy to grab the drum tracks you need. For example, its Rocking Nashville Sessions featuring over 2.5GB of stereo drum loops is currently $69.99; other collections are comparable in price.

iZotope RX 4

The scenario is this, offers Tavaglione: “So the response from a client is, ‘We’re under deadline and you send me these noisy tracks?’ Well, it’s a good thing that, with RX, 60-cycle hum, amp buzz, pops, clicks and sometimes even totally unrelated sonic events are neatly removable.”

RX 4 is a complete plug-in suite, Mac and Windows OS-compatible, and is available as low as $349. It’s worth springing for the full version, at $1,199, for more specialized post-production tools if commercial work is your goal.

Universal Audio EMT 140 Classic Plate Reverberator Plug-in

An emulation of the vintage German EMT plate reverb, UA’s Reverberator plug-in sounds like the real thing, which Tavaglione insists is a great portal to creative juice flow in composition. “Whether I need sustained decay for a cue’s long fade-out, or drama in a typical song, or simply the inspiration that a sense of ‘space’ does for my creative brain, this one gets my electrons firing,” he explains.

You Might Try These Two, Too

Cakewalk Rapture Pro Virtual Instrument

Announced earlier this year at Musikmesse, Rapture Pro is reportedly the first performance synth combining algorithmic and sample-based synthesis for novices and savvy users alike. At $149, Rapture Pro could be a good place to start for those new to synth-based composition; it is even available in a bundle with Cakewalk’s DAW, SONAR, for $348 direct.

Toontrack EZkeys Virtual Pianist Software

Aspiring songwriters and amateur composers lacking piano skills may try Toontrack’s EZkeys, a library of pro-performed MIDI loops and phrases sculpted via an intuitive GUI. Using EZkeys can be as simple as choosing a piano loop from a comprehensive list of musical or performance styles, selecting the correct key, and dragging/dropping it into your DAW. It’s especially useful in “key-less” situations, especially for low-mixed piano tracks to add desirable piano texture to take a DIY composition to the next level.

A variety of EZKeys packages are available, grouped by piano type and musical style, most of which start at $149. 

Strother Bullins is the Reviews Editor for NewBay Media’s AV/Pro Audio Group.