Music & Entertainment

Timbaland’s Top Plugins: Learn About the Software Timbaland Uses to Produce Music

Written by MasterClass

Sep 6, 2019 • 5 min read

Timbaland is not a traditional musician insofar as he does not have proficiency on an instrument like piano, guitar, or drums. He composes music in two main ways: by improvising melodies using his voice as his primary instrument, and by using computer software to produce sounds.

Timbaland’s software is broken into two categories: the first category is comprised of the digital audio workstations (DAW) used by him and his co-producers. The second category is the plugins that he and his team utilize inside their DAWs.



What Software Does Timbaland Use When Producing Music?

During Timbaland’s early career, he produced tracks using electronic keyboard workstations, like the 1990s-era Ensoniq ASR-10. Today, like most producers, he records and mixes via personal computer.

  • In the studio, Timbaland collaborates with two co-producers and an audio engineer.
  • The three producers (including Tim himself) work together on three networked Apple MacBook Pro notebook computers (for music creation) that have been routed to a single Apple Mac Pro desktop computer for overall audio mixing. This Mac Pro is operated by Tim’s audio engineer.
  • The team uses multiple software applications, but the core creative pieces are Ableton Live and Logic Pro, and they use Avid Pro Tools to mix master audio tracks.
  • Ableton, Logic, and Pro Tools are all commonly used in the music industry, but they aren’t the only programs out there. There are many competing brands with very similar functions. Paid programs like Cubase, Digital Performer, Reason, and FL Studio have similar capabilities. So do some free programs, like Garageband, Cakewalk, and Audacity. (There’s also a free, stripped-down version of Ableton called Ableton Lite.)
  • Meanwhile, some producers still swear by analog equipment and continue to record on magnetic tape, which was the industry standard in decades past.

What Hardware Does Timbaland Use When Producing Music?

In addition to his software programs, Timbaland uses an Ableton device called a Push, which controls the software using light-up pads.

  • Tim creates drum racks on his Push—in other words, he assigns drum sounds to each one of the pads.
  • When he presses one pad, you hear the sound of a kick drum, and when he presses the pad next to it, you hear the sound of a hi-hat.
  • He creates custom drum racks by placing the drums in any order he wants—he’s intentionally random about it. The element of surprise pushes him creatively, so that he produces sounds that are fresh and unpredictable.

What Are the Top Plugins Used by Timbaland and His Team?

When you hear a Timbaland-produced track, you may be hearing the work of Tim himself, or you may be hearing the work of his co-producers Angel and Fede.

  • One of the team’s favorite plugins is sidechain compression. Sidechain is a type of compression where the effect level on one instrument is controlled by the volume level of another instrument. A common example would be making the compression level on a bass controlled by the output volume of the kick drum. So when the kick drum sounds, the bass volume gets more compressed, which allows the pulse of the drum to cut through the mix. To hear an example of heavy sidechain compression, listen to “One More Time” by Daft Punk. At 00:45 a kick drum enters the mix. Listen to its interplay with the bass; thanks to the sidechain compression, it’s almost a pulsing effect.
  • If you’re producing house, EDM, or other club music, a sidechain compressor will become your new best friend. There are many sidechain effects out there, but a very popular plug-in is Kickstart by Nicky Romero, which Tim’s collaborator Angel uses on numerous tracks. This plugin provides a classic EDM/house/contemporary R&B compression sound. You may find it’s too intense for other genres like rock, jazz, or old school R&B.
  • “Team Timbo” (as they’re known) uses other plugins to alter the sound of bass guitar—a key instrument in many of their tracks. For instance, Fede uses a Wow filter plugin by Sugar Bytes. He favors a setting on the Wow called a formant filter, which is usually used on vocal tracks (to bring out the clarity of syllables). By experimenting, Fede has found it also sounds refreshing on electric bass. Fede also uses a panning effect (part of Logic’s built-in Guitar Rig) which pushes the sound further into the left and right extremes (and out of the center of the listening mix).
  • When it comes to manipulating vocals, Tim’s collaborator Angel favors two plugins. The first is Lo-Fi by Air. It allows a producer to degrade an audio track, making it sound like it was recorded on low-fidelity equipment. It does this by using various functions, such as bit-crush, down-sample, clip, rectify, and mangle an input signal.
  • Angel also uses Movement by Output, which is an all-in-one plugin that can add sidechains, EQ, delay, reverb, compression, filtering, and more.

What Production Software Is Right for You?

Depending on your budget and the genres that interest you, you may want to invest in the same production software used by Team Timbo. Or, via these same factors, you may opt for other options. Here are some rules of thumb to help guide your search—particularly as it relates to a digital audio workstation (DAW).

  • If you’re interested in mainly producing dance-pop, EDM, house, and other electronic music, consider Ableton, FL Studio (aka Fruity Loops), Reason, and Akai MPC.
  • If you’re interested in creating orchestral sounds (as in film scoring) by using samples of real instruments and you plan to perform most of the music yourself using MIDI keyboards, investigate Logic, Digital Performer, and Cubase.
  • If you’re primarily interested in recording live audio in a studio, Pro Tools is the industry standard. Many producers also use Logic, Digital Performer, and Cubase for live audio and even Ableton can be used for this function.
  • If you’re on a real budget and can’t afford to pay several hundred dollars for a DAW, many of these programs have limited versions that are available for free. Some of the best free programs include Cakewalk and Garageband (which is a stripped-down version of Logic).

Want to Be a Better Musician or Producer?

Whether you’re an aspiring singer-songwriter or have dreams of changing the world with your music production skills, navigating the complex world of record labels and contracts can be daunting. No one knows this better than music producer Timbaland, who has worked with artists like Jay-Z, Missy Elliott, Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, and Aaliyah. In Timbaland’s MasterClass on producing and beat-making, the Grammy-winning producer shares what he has learned about collaborating with vocalists, layering new tracks, and creating hooks that stick.

Want to become a better musician? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from master musicians, pop stars, and DJs including Timbaland, Christina Aguilera, Usher, Armin van Buuren, and Deadmau5.