Reaper’s humble installer size (a minuscule 14 MB) belies the serious punch it packs in functionality. Its small size is primarily because Reaper doesn’t ship with any virtual instruments or sample libraries.
However, in addition to its endlessly customizable and powerful workflow, it contains a venerable suite of stock utility plugins known as ‘ReaPlugs’. These plugins are completely free to download for users of other DAWs as well.
Some plugins use aesthetic GUIs emulating hardware units to cover up for their shortcomings. The frills are a clever way of appearing to look ‘premium’. On the other hand, Reaper’s plugins cut down on the frills and provide high-quality, no-nonsense results.
They may not be the prettiest of the lot, but they are extremely functional with fantastic results, accurate metering, and near negligible CPU load.
If you’re a fan of tools that can be tailored to your precise needs, don’t cost a penny, and give great reliable results, here is a list of my ten favorite ReaPlugs with an overview of their functionality:
#1 ReaEQ – Graphic Equalizer
ReaEQ is a great graphic equalizer because it’s accurate, light, and feature-packed. ReaEQ supports unlimited EQ bands, with no limit on the number of each type of band: low-pass, high-pass, low shelf, high shelf, band, bandpass, and notch.
The real-time frequency analyzer gives an accurate measure of the frequency response of the input signal. Plus, there is an optional phase response button that displays the phase change caused by each EQ band.
The plugin displays the approximate note value and octave for each band frequency, which is helpful to tame resonant notes or room tones. Every point on the graph can be easily adjusted using mouse modifiers to adjust bandwidth, gain, or fine-tune the target frequency.
As with most other ReaPlugs, ReaEQ has a built-in capability to link its parameters to be modulated by external signals. For example, the frequency of a filter can be made to automatically modulate with an LFO. This can be very useful to automate time-based effects.
Lastly, it has a fantastic spectrum analyzer that can stack dozens of instances without your CPU breaking a sweat.
#2 ReaComp – Compression
ReaComp is a highly transparent and super flexible compressor. It supports attack values from 0ms to 500ms, making it suitable for ultra-fast transient control as well as more gentle musical compression.
Release times vary from 0ms to 5000ms, providing a wide range of compression styles. Further, it has an auto-release function similar to bus compressors designed to handle a wide range of complex musical content. This makes it ideal for usage on an instrument or mix bus.
ReComp supports compression ratios from 1:1(no compression) to infinity (limiting) with adjustable knee size. An optional hard limiter is also included. A very useful auto make-up gain option makes it possible to automatically compensate for volume loss due to compression.
One of my favorite things about this compressor is its comprehensive sidechain or detector section. Apart from the normal setting of detecting the main stereo input, ReaComp can be set to detect only the left or right channel of the input signal too.
It can also be set to use an external side-chained signal as the detector input, again with the choice to only use the left or right channel if desired. This enables it to be used in a ‘ducking’ prevalent in dance music.
The sidechain section also contains low-pass and high-pass filters to limit the frequency range that trigger the compression. This is useful in situations like where a bass-heavy track needs to be compressed and the compressor reacts too much to the kick.
ReaComp features independent sliders for wet and dry signal mix, making it easy to achieve NY-style parallel compression. Even with all these features packed in, ReaComp is incredibly lightweight and stable.
#3 ReaGate – Noise Gate
ReaGate could have been just a simple gate open/close plugin, but it is spoiled with features that make it so much more. The envelope section features the usual attack, hold and release parameters. In addition, you get a pre-open or look ahead feature, which can help get tighter gating without accidentally cutting off transients.
A very unique addition to ReaGate is the Hysteresis feature. It makes the gate closing threshold a separate value (usually) below the gate open threshold. This prevents the gate from rapidly opening and closing and causing ‘chattering’ when the signal hovers near the threshold value.
ReaGate also sports the sidechain detector section with options to select between the main input signal, its L and R channels, or an external sidechain and its L and R channels. Plus there are Low and high-pass filters to deal with unwanted frequencies that may trigger the gate.
Interestingly, ReGate provides an ‘invert gate’ option, which as the name suggests, makes the gate work in the opposite direction. With this enabled, the sound is let through when its level is below the threshold and gated when it goes above.
Pro Tip: Try using the ‘invert gate’ with the wet and dry mix sliders for a ducking effect.
To complete the package, ReaGate offers the option to produce white noise whenever the gate is opened, or more usefully, to output MIDI notes at the set channel and value whenever the gate is triggered. This makes it super handy for tasks like drum sample replacement.
#4 ReaDelay – Delay Plugin
Reaper’s in-built delay plugin might look simple, but is surprisingly powerful and beats out several premium competitors in terms of sheer configurability. The plugin supports practically unlimited delay taps limited only by your computer’s power.
Every tap can be independently customized in-depth, which is great for someone who loves to dig in and sculpt detailed, dynamic delays. For each delay tap, ReaDelay presents an array of options.
The duration or length of the delay can be set in terms of absolute time (ms) or rhythmic subdivisions (quarter note, eighth note, etc.). Each delay tap’s volume and pan can be set independently. A feedback setting determines how much of the delayed signal is fed back into the delay circuit. This can be useful to create gradually fading delays and enhance the sense of space.
Each delay tap also can be filtered using the high and low pass settings. A filtered delay sound is very popular as it can cut out harsh or muddy frequencies from repetitions so it doesn’t clash with the main signal. ReaDelay even provides a ‘resolution’ setting, using which we can obtain low-res ‘noisy’ delays for special effects. Finally, a stereo width control affects how narrow or wide the delay tap will be (only for stereo input).
Since each delay tap is completely independent, ReaDelay allows us to get as creative as we want with our delays. In addition to the standard stereo and ping pong delays, we could, for example, create a delay that starts in the center and spreads the longer it goes on. Or, we could create a delay that moves oscillates from left to right in stereo space. The possibilities are endless.
#5 ReaTune – Autotune Plugin
Reaper’s stock tuning plugin, while not quite as powerful as big hitters like Auto-Tune or Melodyne, is a neat little tool that can smoothen out pitch issues in monophonic sources like vocals and solo instruments quickly and easily.
The Tuner window displays the chromatic notes in the incoming signal and the extent (in cents) by which they are off from the correct note. There is also an option to send MIDI events whenever the pitch changes.
The Correction tab lets you turn the automatic correction (similar to Auto-Tune) on or off. You can set the key of the song from a drop-down list containing all the chromatic notes and their modes. In addition, you can create custom scales by selecting the individual notes contained in said scale. A graph to the right displays the incoming note and the correction applied in real-time.
The attack time controls how fast the pitch correction affects the input signal. A very fast time of 0-5ms will give the ‘robotic’ effect popularized by the likes of T-Pain. More moderate values (50-300ms) will produce more natural results. This can be set according to the requirement.
ReaTune lets you define minimum and maximum pitches for detection. This can eliminate incorrect readings caused by harmonics or undertones of a voice or instrument and thus reduce glitches and sudden jumps in pitch.
Finally, the Manual Tuning window enables you to edit individual notes manually. The tracking window displays the contours of notes on playback. To correct a note, simply click and drag across the length of the note at the correct note position in the grid.
Pro Tip: The manual method is especially useful for handling glides or drops since automatic correction can often turn these into chromatic sequences.
#6 ReaXComp – Multiband Compressor
ReaXComp is a highly flexible and sophisticated multiband compressor. Like its single-band cousin ReaComp, it is designed to be a super clean and precise compressor rather than being a ‘mojo’ compressor emulating vintage hardware and deliberately coloring the sound.
Unlike a lot of other multiband compressors which are typically limited to 4 or 6 bands, ReaXComp lets you add an unlimited number of frequency bands, allowing for very precise frequency control. Bands can be easily created and adjusted directly in the graphical display.
Each band has the usual controls to set threshold, attack and release times, ratio, and knee size. In a unique addition, ReaXComp also allows you to set fractional ratios less than 1:1, essentially allowing a band to function as an expander instead of a compressor. Such created expanders can work alongside other compressor bands, making them a powerful tone-shaping tool.
ReaXComp also features an auto make-up gain option per band to maintain constant volume across the spectrum. The ‘program dependent release’ option calls back to vintage compressors like the LA-2A or Fairchild 670, or the auto release settings in SSL Bus Compressors.
Best Reaper Jesusonic (JS) Plugins:
Reaper is a DAW for tinkerers. Along with the collection of the aforementioned ReaPlugs, Reaper ships with hundreds of Jesusonic or JS plugins; tiny scripts that are highly functional and completely configurable. With the requisite scripting knowledge, users can edit or even write entirely new plugins for JS. These plugins cover the entire gamut of functions from simple gain control to plugins emulating Fairchild and 1176 style compression.
Some of the JS plugins are essentially Stillwell Audio premium plugins, with stripped-down UIs designed to consume even less CPU and RAM. Taking the customizability mantra even further, JS plugins are skinnable and a lot of custom GUIs are available on Reaper forums online!
The rest of this list comprises some of my favorite picks from the small wonders that are JS plugins:
#7 Bad Buss Mojo
Based on the Stillwell Audio plugin of the same name, Bad Buss Mojo is a waveshaper that is designed to give character to your audio by introducing desirable harmonic distortion. It can do wonders on the mix bus or an instrument group, ranging from subtle saturation to wild effects.
For all of its parameters like threshold, release, knee, and so on, it provides a “non-linearity” control to change the response of each parameter differently according to its input, like a piece of analog equipment would behave.
Add to this two separate modulation circuits, and you’ve got a powerful tone shaper that can make your records sound less ‘digital’ and give it some analog-style realism and grit.
#8 Event Horizon Clipper
Again based on a Stillwell counterpart, Event Horizon is a fantastic soft clipper plugin. Compared to a hard limiter which slams down any audio signal going above its threshold, a soft clipper rounds off and shaves a part of the peaks going through, in essence providing a gentle distortion or saturation to the plugin.
Soft clipping on sources like a kick or snare drum can often produce very desirable results, with an added layer of ‘warmth’, ‘crunch’, or whatever new adjective sound engineers have decided is acceptable to describe audio.
It also provides a great way to increase loudness without very obvious artifacts or pumping effects. With three simple controls, Event Horizon makes it easy to dial in the perfect amount of soft clipping to liven up a track or a full mix.
#9 Major Tom Compressor
While ReaComp is designed for precise, clean gain reduction, Major Tom is decidedly a compressor with a color of its own. Another Stillwell plugin adaptation, this compressor is inspired by a vintage unit that has been on countless hit records: the dbx 160 compressor.
In keeping with the dbx 160’s controls, Major Tom features no attack and release controls. These values are preset and finely tuned to be musical and colorful. Along with this, additional controls for auto makeup gain, feedback mode, knee type, and sidechain round out this versatile tool.
When cranked up, Major Tom can pump musically and make your drums smack with grit. Used gently, it can smoothen out vocals and provide some ground control (*wink wink*) for bass.
#10 RBJ 1073 EQ
As the name gives away, this JS plugin attempts to emulate the legendary Neve 1073 EQ. Although there are a bunch of expensive plugins with pretty faceplates that do a good job virtualizing the 1073, this free, barebones GUI version is no slouch either.
Similar to the classic hardware, the plugin provides controls for a switchable low shelf and mid-band and a fixed high shelf at 12 kHz. I find this EQ to be especially useful in controlling muddy mid frequencies, and the high shelf is impressively smooth on vocals and strings.
Even with an ever-growing collection of both free and premium third-party plugins, these stock Reaper plugins can square up to the best. They can easily become your ‘go-to’ tools for any project you undertake.
While Reaper’s plugins lack the visual polish seen in expensive plugins or even some stock plugins in other DAWs, the upside is that this forces you to rely on your ears alone to make sonic decisions and not be fooled by a shiny GUI.
Like most things in Reaper, the functionality and customizability of its plugins are paramount. The code is solid and the sound is precise. Plus, there is a dedicated user community constantly coming up with improvements, suggestions, and new plugins. All this, for absolutely free.