For each category, I've selected two alternative choices. But you don’t have to take my word about the quality of these plug-ins, because all of them offer demo versions, so you can check them out for yourselves!
Lexicon MPX Native ($99) Finding a quality reverb for $100 or less isn’t easy. Inexpensive reverbs usually sound, well…inexpensive. However, Lexicon’s MPX Native is an algorithmic reverb with sound that’s quite impressive for the price . Although its interface is relatively stripped down, the eight edit parameters if offers give you more than enough tweakability. You also get quite a few reverb types to choose from, including plates, chambers, rooms, large spaces and a selection of “Tight Spots.” The highlight here, though, is the sound quality, which rivals that of more expensive reverbs.
Valhalla DSP Valhalla Room ($50). This plug-in reverb offers excellent bang for the buck based on its winning combination of sound quality, sonic variety, and user control. Valhalla Room sports a relatively simple, but effective user interface and offers 11 different reverb algorithms, including rooms, chambers, and several cool-sounding “Dark Spaces.” Numerous presets cover the gamut from small spaces to plates to large halls and cathedrals. Convenient sliders for Mix, Predelay, Decay, Hi-Cut and Depth, make fast tweaking a breeze, and additional control knobs, organized under Early and Late (reflections) categories provide deeper parameters.
Rob Papen RP-Delay ($69). Although he’s best known for his software synths, Rob Papen also makes a number of excellent effects plug-ins, of which RP-Delay is one of the standouts. It offers up to six delay lines simultaneously, split over two delay channels. RP-Delay features a dizzying array of controls, but can show a simplified GUI if you press the Easy button. Turning on the Tape switch kicks in the tape delay modeling. The key to getting what you want is the Model pulldown menu, in the virtual LCD display at the top. That offers you the choice of Mono, Stereo, Dual Stereo, Channel Split, Split Multi, Serial Multi, Parallel Multi, Full Serial, and Reverse delays, and when you choose one, the appropriate controls are made active. Also cool is that you get a huge amount of presets, repeated in both Insert and Send versions, which is quite convenient. RP-Delay lets you create everything from bread-and-butter delay settings to wild effects for EDM and sound design.
D16 Group Sigmund ($89). Sigmund is anything but a simple delay — it’s more like a multi-effects processor. It features four independent delay lines, flexible routing, overdrive, a filter section, a modulation section with two LFOs and even a limiter. You can create complex delays as well as all manner of modulation effects including flanging, phasing, chorus, tremolo, and more. The interface, which includes a mixer for controlling the levels of each delay line individually, is a rather complex affair, and it would be overkill for setting up a simple delay like a slapback. However, if you want to get creative, Sigmund is a powerhouse.
McDSP 4030 Retro Comp ($89). Sold individually, and as part of McDSP’s Retro Pack, this plug-in combines sonic quality and an easy-to-use interface, and is quite versatile. You get large knobs for Threshold, Ratio, Attack, Release, and (make-up) Gain, making dialing in the desired compression setting easy. As they say on late night TV, “But wait, there’s more.” A Mix control is included, making it really easy to setup parallel compression. For instance, on drums you could set a relatively low threshold and high ratio, but then back off the Mix knob until you get the sound you want.
Waves Renaissance Compressor ($100): A straightforward GUI and a warm, but relatively transparent sound have made the Renaissance Compressor a popular plug-in for many years. It offers features like Auto Release control, Electro and Opto compression modes, as well as sliders for the various compression controls, and metering for input gain, output gain and compression amount. You also get a choice of “character” settings including Warm, which adds harmonics in the the low frequencies for added color, and Smooth, for a more transparent sound.
Voxengo GlissEQ ($89.95). Talk about versatile, GlissEQ is a dynamic EQ that can also be used for standard equalization operations. A dynamic EQ lets you set level thresholds for its filters (similar to those on a compressor), and the EQ only kicks in on signals that exceed the threshold. This allows for more subtle EQ effects that you can't get from a standard plug-in. Because Gliss EQ’s dynamic operation can be turned off for each of its five bands individually, you get the best of both worlds. What’s more, the plug-in features fully parametric operation on each band, a choice of 17 different filter types per band; a spectrum analyzer; mid-side, stereo, and surround routings among others; and a host of other features. If you want a flexible plug-in that can do almost any equalization task, consider GlissEQ.
PSP Audioware McQ ($69). If you’re looking for console-equalizer-style operation and sound, McQ is solid choice. Offering excellent sound quality, four semi-parametric bands, and high- and low-pass filters, it’s easy to use and very responsive. For everything but the most surgical EQ tasks (there’s no Q control so the bandwidth of each band is fixed), it’s a great choice.
[Note: I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention Slate Digital's Virtual Mix Rack. Although it exceeds the $100 threshold for this article, it offers both EQ and compression (and an exciter), and costs $199. So if you're considering buying both an EQ and a compressor plug-in, it's a super-high-quality alternative that would still fit in the budget parameters set out here. Check out our review.]
SugarBytes Wow 2 ($99). Wow, indeed. If you’re into EDM especially, you’re going to love this plug-in. You get 21 different filter types, distortion, step sequencer, and a wobble generator. Tons of presets are provided, including celebrity patches from artists like Mouse on Mars and Plaeground. A giant Cutoff knob dominates the center of the control section of the GUI, and a handy pulldown menu lets you select from all the filters. Wow 2 is super powerful, and very deep, You can create all kinds of crazy effects just by clicking presets and turning knobs, but if you’re going for something specific, you’ll have to figure out how to produce it, which could be time consuming at first.
Fabfilter Simplon ($59). Simplon offers a lower price and a much less complicated user experience than Wow 2, but can still produce many striking filter effects. A reduced-feature version of Fabfilter Volcano, Simplon provides two independent multimode filters, which can be set to low pass, high pass or band pass; with 12, 24, or 48 dB/octave slopes. Serial and parallel modes are offered. The GUI is centered around an animated display that lets you alter the frequencies of the filters in real time by dragging them. It’s particularly useful if you want to automate a filter effect (and it’s cool to watch the animated filter points moving around as it plays back). With sample-accurate automation, Simplon is great for live performance, use, too.
Antares AVOX WARM ($69). A sweet-sounding tube saturator, WARM offers two different tube emulations: Velvet and Crunch. As you can infer from the names, Velvet is the smoother of the two, and Crunch the more intense. In addition to the selector buttons for the tube models, you get Input, Output and Drive controls. The latter lets you dial in everything from mild tube warmth to crunchy overdrive. When you press the OmniTube button, WARM goes into a mode where it’s applying the tube emulation to the entire signal, rather than just the transients, which it does in its default mode. The result changes the character slightly, smoothing it out a bit on some sources.
Wave Arts Tube Saturator ($99). Another excellent sounding tube emulator, this plug-in offers a 3-band EQ in addition to its Drive and Output controls, allowing you to tailor the sound before it hits the virtual tubes. Featuring a pair of modeled 12AX7 triode preamp stages, Tube Saturator is designed similarly to a guitar amp’s preamp. You can switch the EQ in and out of the circuit, and you can engage the FAT switch for an extra gain boost.