Softsynths: You’ll need a way of producing instruments sounds, and for this you can use either a hardware synthesiser/workstation, like my Roland Fantom X6 (see Hardware page 5), or a less expensive softsynth which does the almost the same things but operates inside your computer either in standalone mode but most often as a plugin within your DAW software.
I’ve used softsynths before but now rely on my Fantom X6, with occasional use of the softsynths that come bundled within Sonar. But there are a lot of products out there if you’re shopping for a good sound source program; some offering sounds for many different instruments and some specialising in high quality sounds for single instruments, such as pianos and basses. If you want to check out some worthy multi-instrument softsynths then I’d recommend Sonic Synth 2, MachFive, SampleTank 2, Kontakt4, Halion Sonic, and Goliath. Manufacturers’ sites offer demo sounds (sweetened to sound impressive as possible remember) and sometimes useful videos so you can get an idea of how the product looks and works. YouTube often has more information, from users as well as manufacturers.
FinalPlug 5 (pictured right) is an excellent plugin that I bought a while back and it’s a tool I use on many of my songs, although more recently I’ve switched to a bigger tool, T-Racks3 (see below). It’s a mastering peak limiting and volume maximiser designed for use mainly on final mixes where it can help give you more of a pro sound in terms of ‘punch’ and volume. You need to use it very sparingly though, or the result will be a messy mix with no dynamics (contrast between loud bits and quiet bits) will result. See the Recording Tips page for an important discussion on ‘The Loudness Wars’. To take a look at FinalPlug’s features and download a demo go here. NB: Wave Arts, the manufacturer, also makes some other fine plugins.
T-Racks3 Deluxe: Whereas FinalPlug is a simple mastering tool, IK Multimedia’s iT-Racks3 (see right, top picture) is a suite of tools with greater depth of tweakability but is, not surprisingly, more expensive. It has nine mastering processors including EQs, compressors, limiters and a good loudness maximiser. As you’d expect with a more complex product, you need to invest a lot of time learning its myriad features in order to get the best out if it, although it does come with quite a few presets to provide starting points for you to select your own settings. The product web page is here and a demo download (for the Standard version) can be found here. T-Racks3’s main competitor is Ozone6 which I also use.
Amplitube 3: As a guitarist I like to get the best recorded guitar sounds I can, but like many others with home studios it’s not feasible at home to mic up an amp and crank up the volume until the sweet spot is reached. I either use the excellent guitar processor in my BOSS DR-880 (see Hardware page 3) or Amplitube 3 modelling software which provides an enormous array of amplifiers, cabinets, pedals and microphones that emulate famous real brands of this equipment. A direct competitor of Amplitube 3 is Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig 4 which I also have. If I had to choose I’d pick Guitar Rig 4 but only by a small margin. You should try both to see which one suits your particular tastes.
This type of modelling software has come of age now: previously guitarists found such products lacked the right ‘feel’, i.e. when playing with different degrees of attack the software didn’t respond in the subtle ways a real amp would. A major advantage of this software is that you can record your guitar track clean, and then use the software to audition any number of different amp, effects and mic settings applied to that recording. Don’t forget, you need a pre-amp or DI box (see Hardware page 4) or an input on your computer interface with the correct impedance in order to record your guitar.