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Best sound tools of the year 2020

What are the best sound tools of 2020? 

Every year, we ask some of our most regular contributing artists to unlock their box of sonic secrets and tell us more about the instruments, synths, effects or plugins they’ve been using most over the last year – as with the previous editions in 2019, 2018 and 2017, there’s a huge range of fascinating sound tools to investigate. These are our sound tools of the year for 2020. 

Andy Billington

BASTL microgranny 2.5 monophonic granular sampler

This little plastic box has assisted with the mangling of WAVS all across lockdown. In shocking orange see-through plastic, there are hours of fun to be had twisting and manipulating the presets or recording your own samples at 8-bit quality via the line in or inbuilt mic. Add some effects or run through echo boxes and it takes on a life of its own. Very noisy, very grimy. Perfection in plastic and you can also hack the software if you want to.

I used it to add texture, movement and grit to a reimagining of a recording of Italian cow bells, stretching the bells and layering really pushed the piece forward and created additional harmonics and melodies.

Hear it in action:


Electric ukulele

A couple of the tracks I’ve contributed to Cities and Memory this year have been written and recorded using an electric ukulele.

I’ve been playing a bass guitar for most of my life and a few years ago I decided to see if that affinity with four-stringed instruments extended to those little Hawaiian guitars.

Pretty soon I was smitten with their portability and the variety of chords that seemed to magically appear under my fingers. It has opened up my compositions to richer phrasing and the pitch leaves space for my basslines and the kick drum.

Hear it in action:

Cities and Memory

Straylight (Native Instruments)

A wonderful tool bringing granular synthesis and sound design together to produce some brilliant, adaptable pads and textures – and you can import your own WAVs as grains or samples, so bringing in field recordings gives it a whole new dimension. This piece from the Covid-19 lockdown in my home city of Oxford was created principally using Straylight.

Hear it in action:

Analog Lab (Arturia)

It’s an oldie, but in terms of value for money and quality of sounds, Analog Lab can’t be touched – where else can you find brilliant versions of the ARP 2600, Jup-8, Prophet V and Matrix-12 all in one box? This year I’ve really rediscovered the wonders of the Buchla Easel, and since I’ll likely never get my hands on a real, honest-to-goodness hardware version, Analog Lab’s take on it will do for now.

Special shout out to the affordable expansion packs themed by sound type that expand this incredibly useful synth even further. Here are the Buchla and the ARP2600 doubling up for our piece “The Drift”.

Hear it in action:

Jeff Dungfelder

Logic Pro (Apple)

Even though I have a large selection of effects by Native Instruments and Arturia, I find myself constantly going back to the extensive suite of software effect plug-ins in Logic Pro by Apple, mostly because of quality and ease of use.

Effects categories include both insert effects and processors that are principally designed for mastering use. Most effects can be used in mono, stereo, dual mono, or surround channels. Logic Pro also provides a number of dedicated surround plug-ins. The effects categories cover essential studio processors, such as compression, gating, limiting, equalization, and metering utilities. Both vintage and modern style compressors are emulated.

And the EQ options are extensive. The Linear Phase EQ is perfect for sculpting your vocal and instrument parts. Match EQ analyzes existing audio and allows you to impose an analyzed sonic “fingerprint” on other audio parts. The vintage EQ collection delivers emulations of three classic analog EQ units known for their distinctive sonic coloration. Also a comprehensive collection of reverb, delay, and modulation effects are available. Among these are the unique ChromaVerb, and the sophisticated and highly configurable Delay Designer and Space Designer plug-ins. Delay Designer lets you create precise, complex, rhythmic delays. Space Designer is a convolution reverb that uses recordings of real-world spaces, such as concert halls and canyons that you can impose on your audio, effectively placing your instrument or vocal in the space.

Modulation processors include phasing, flanging, ring modulation, vintage rotary speaker emulation, and rich chorus effects. And a number of powerful Distortion and Filter effects further expand your options. The filters include vocoder-like utilities and the Spectral Gate plug-in that offer control over the formant and spectral characteristics of your sounds. Rounding out the collection are spatial and frequency enhancement plug-ins, and useful studio utilities such as a test oscillator.

A good example of this would be in my song “A few simple rules” for the “Sounds from Venice” Cities & Memory project. This piece of music is based on a field recording from Italy, of an TrenItalia Covid-19 train announcement. I ended up using the Delay Vocal and Classic Vocal effects on this recording to emphasize that Covid-19 is everywhere, no matter what the language, even in our subconscious. In all of my Cities & Memory recordings I continue to make use of the effect plug-ins in Logic Pro.

Hear it in action:

Marco Furlanetto

The following are among my most used tools in everyday work, and that also have been used for my Cities and Memory Inferno sound piece, which can be considered as an example of the mix between habits (tools I use, process structure…) and experimentation (the ways in which I use the tools, recording, sample processing…).


This is one plugin I always use for managing harmonic content of sounds in order to obtain something really unique, often quite far from the original sound. It even features tempo-based settings, so it’s also very versatile for dynamic modulation over time. It’s also very useful for better matching of different layers composing one sound.

Crystallizer (Soundtoys)

Crystallizer is very cool for creating multi-pitching content with echo progression, so its use can be considered to be very fitting for musical purposes. Imagine having multiple voices of the same sample, with normal or reverse echo, with different timing parameters! By just using two samples, you can create complex patterns with super-rich voicing!

Blackhole (Eventide Audio)

One very powerful reverb, and beautiful sounding! Even one mediocre sound can have something to say if it expands in space, and with Blackhole it can be on a very dramatic level. If you’re a reverb fanatic, you will lose your mind by experimenting with its settings, looking for the most mindblowing soundscape.

Nuendo’s DOP (Direct Offline Processing)

This is one of the most appreciated features in Nuendo: you can create and apply (and store, and recall, and…) single FX or FX chains to single clips, or groups of clips. It’s a game-changer for projects with lot of samples, for editing and sound design.
It’s my personal favourite for quick, basic actions like channel management, resampling, pitch/time shifting, since you can save and load different presets as many times as you like.

Hear them in action:

Alex Hehir

Cycles (Slate + Ash)

This is a looper and granular synth environment in one plugin.You can pull audio apart and reconstruct it with new loops, modulating rhythms and playable textures/pads. I have used it on my latest piece “Murano Bells”, in which the bell sounds have been cut up and rhythmically modulated.

Hear it in action:


Looking back over the projects I have worked on over the last 12 months, Blackhole by Eventide and Erosion (degrades audio), one of the built-in effects in Ableton have featured heavily on all the Karhide tracks. Then after trying Pendulate, a free mono synth from Newfangled Audio, I had to get Generate, the poly version of this amazing chaotic synth. It has been used for pads, basses and leads on everything.

You can hear all three of them on the track “Dark Forest” for the Cities and Memory Inferno project.

Hear them in action:

Andy Lyon

Scaler by PluginBoutique

Scaler is a tool for creating chord progressions and it can also detect the key / chords of a song. I’ve used it for a while and it’s a great tool to create chord progressions from scratch or you can use a number of song types as a starting point. The chords can be exported to midi to use in your DAW. It is useful whether you have a knowledge of music theory or not, The addition of a performance mode was welcomed to produce melodies as well as chords, I’ve just seen a new update has been released that produces basslines and melodies that further increases its potential.

I’ve used it on my Inferno project submission to create a long chord progression and melodies. I’ve varied the length of the chords and arranged and layered these into smaller sections for the different instruments.

Hear it in action:

Pro-L 2 (Fabfilter)

This one is at the very end of the sound design process. Pro-L2 is a true peak limiter and I’ve found it invaluable to improve the loudness of my mixes whilst retaining dynamics and sound quality. It has a transparent sound and there are 8 different algorithms each with their own character and purpose. It’s very easy to use and produces great results.

Hear it in action:

Odette Johnson (Museleon)

Over the years, I have found that I use less gear to create my sound pieces, partly cost and partly experience. As long as you have the means to alter any parameters then you can change your sounds in a myriad of ways. However, there are some old workhorses that I use in everything I create. I have a certain working method that I’ve used from the beginning, starting with DAWs.

I’ve worked my way through most over the years, but for Museleon, I use Presonus. It’s stable, easy to use and a good all rounder. It has a good set of standard basic tools such as Autofilter, Reverbs, Pro EQ and also I just use basic editing methods that everyone else does, such as, looping, stretching, tempo etc. – Nothing fancy.

My other go – to is a good EQ and I use Fab Filter, not only to clean up sound but also to shape it. Again, you can make it as easy or complex as you want and it was a rare but worthy investment.

Finally, for sound recording I have a Zoom H4nPro but often I forget to take it out and resort to my trusty phone and Easy Voice Recorder App.

Everything I’ve created in the last 20 years, including all the tracks for Cities and Memory, has gone through these simple processes. In the end, it’s not the gear, it’s how you use it. So just experiment. But then, I’m a lo-fi girl…

Hear them in action:

Mark Taylor

Bioscape (Luftrum Sound Design)

I’ve owned it for just a couple of months, but Bioscape has been an absolute joy to use so far. After 25+ years of doing this composing / sound design malarkey, it’s one of just two or three pieces of software that have absolutely stunned me with their quality and usefulness!

It’s a 4.5GB Kontakt instrument that creates its content from a wide variety of field recordings. The resulting sound is warm, organic and (if you so choose) full of motion. The GUI is beautifully laid out and very intuitive to use with comprehensive editing facilities and a substantial array of built in effects.

Possibly the best two features are:

1) The ability to drag and drop your own WAV files directly into the software – up to four can be layered together.

2) The ability to record continuous motion into your creations via the ABCD tracker pad. LFOs, filters, effects etc can all be automated independently using this simple system, with the results embedded into the multi-layered patch.

I used the software for the very first time in my Dante’s Inferno piece – the multi-layered forest sounds that first appear just after 1 minute are 100% Bioscape.

Hear it in action:

Emmy Tither


There are other, flashier, tools around – definitely – but Audacity holds a special place in my heart. It was the first sound editing software I learned how to use and, if you come from a similar audio background (oral history and education), you’ve likely used it too.

It’s accessible, free, compatible with just about any operating system, easy to learn and easy to use. And yes, it will most likely still work well on your barely-still-creaking-on old computer – I may be speaking from experience here. Admittedly, it’s got some drawbacks – such as somewhat clunky multitrack mixing – but, look… if you’re just starting out in audio, your computer is way past its prime, and you need software to play around with, I recommend this one. Additionally, if you’re an educator and want to include sound design and editing in your teaching, I also recommend this one. Audacity will get the job done.

Hear it in action:

Simon Woods

Tascam TM-90 microphone

Back in the dim and quite distant past, I, and many others, accidentally purchased a top quality PZM (Pressure Zone Microphone) microphone. How is this possible? You may remember the late, great Tandy electronics shop (Radio Shack in the USA). It was not dissimilar to the late, great Maplin. They sold a PZM microphone under the name of Realistic. It looked interesting – a metal plate with a wire emerging from a bit of plastic was my assessment, at the time. I’d seen these attached to the walls of police interview rooms (not personally, but in police dramas seen on TV). They were used, I presume, for their uniform pickup pattern across the room. A suspect could quietly mutter under his breath that he or she is guilty and the PZM microphone has got it.

So why the excitement? Well, the Holy Grail of PZM microphones was made by a company called Crown and it turns out that the cheap ‘realistic’ microphone that I have, and many others, is a cut down version of the said Holy Grail. A sort of Crown PZM lite. I needed to buy another on such a discovery. Unfortunately the design had now changed.

End of story? Not quite. After years of extensive use and hacking at this microphone, it now has a phantom power and an unfortunate background buzz. Enter the Tascam TM-90 Boundary Mic.

Whilst making ‘Taste of Money’, I hit upon the idea of spinning coins on a desktop. Which microphone should I use – Tascam TM-90 boundary mic captured the spinning perfectly even when the coin spun away and sometimes onto the microphone plate. I also used stereo arrangements but the Tascam was the most fun.

Hear it in action:

Tape Stop (Vengeance)

I’ve always liked the tape stop effect from the days of real using open reel tape machines. To be able to do it with just a few clicks is much easier and versatile. Used it on ‘Tuk Tuk Vietnam’. The temptation, as with many things, is to o-v-e-r-u–s—e i–t!

Hear it in action: