The Brutally Honest Truth about Audio Plugins

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If you are a wanna-be music producer or recently ventured into music production, you probably already know what a plugin is. For the uninitiated, an audio plugin is a software added to a DAW or something already built-in.

The built-in plugins are called stock while the non-stock ones are called 3rd party plugins. Most DAWs support 3rd party plugins. That support helps democratise the DAW – giving everyone the right to choose what he or she wants. Two Artists working on the same DAW may not have the same set-up, workflow and VST/plugin preferences. This is what makes every artist and music producer unique.

Software Plugins – a brief

Do not confuse plugins with VSTs which are plugins but better called virtual instruments. A plugin is typically a non-virtual instrument. In other words, FX, delays, reverbs, analyses and metering tools are plugins. It also includes any mastering plugins that help you achieve your post-productions goals.

A plugin may come with a VST, VST2 or VST3 format. For better understanding, let’s differentiate the FX and others as plugins. Although the format of a plugin and virtual instrument remains the same, they mainly differ in usage. A plugin enhances or analyses while a virtual instrument creates.

Plugins, Plugins – where art thou?

The taste of plugins comes from YouTube tutorials. We observe the producer showcasing their skills in producing music, and then the plugin catches the eye.

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As novices, we naturally feel inclined to use the same plugins that the person in the video. We feel that using the same plugin will make our workflow faster. Our next stop will be Google – where we check for that piece of software and realise that it is a paid plugin or some instances – a free one.

As time goes by, after watching countless tutorials, we get acquainted with the free and the paid varieties. At this point, we’re still unsure what we should go for.

If you were or are at the same stage as me, then you would take the “free” path, i.e. hunting for free plugins. It is particularly true when you are on a budget. (Mind you, I have and will never use cracked plugins. It’s either the free/paid way or the highway!)

I haven’t yet bought any paid plugins as yet. I am keeping my investments as low as possible as I am concentrating my investments on a to-buy hardware list first. Besides, the free plugins are plenty to get you started. With that said, a paid plugin does offer immense ease towards some functionalities. For instance, Pro Filter Q3 does what some EQs don’t.

Plugins that everyone uses:

What plugin a producer use is subjective. It depends on your workflow and the goals they’re trying to achieve when producing that song.

I can say for sure, that any producer – big or small will use a decent mix of free and paid plugins. That’s what I would do.

At the end of the day results matter. Your mixing and mastering should sound good to the ear. If it sounds good to you, then it will sound good to a thousand others with similar tastes. It is better to make your close friends listen to it for feedback.

I remember when I wanted to grab as much as free plugins, because I did not want to spend money. Affordability was not an issue – my PC was. Despite getting a decent 2nd hand PC to improve my workflow, the random and unpredictable blue screen error prevented me from taking the buying decisions.

Yes, there are a few paid plugins that I have in mind to buy in the coming years. I will do that once my music generates some revenue.

Paid Plugins Vs Free Plugins:

When choosing plugins or VSTs for music production, there are many free alternatives in the market. Trust me. The search isn’t easy. The process is tedious and time-consuming. Most of the time, you may or may not end up downloading plugins you don’t require. If that’s what happens, do not uninstall them. Give it time until you are confident of the plugins you use often the most.

The skill you need to develop first is to understand where to look for them.

You may install around three different plugins haveing similar functionality but yield different results. You won’t get those results unless you try the plugins yourself. In such instances, tread carefully by looking at tutorials and demos on what the software offers.

Ultimately, it boils down to your requirements and the result. The biggest mistake may commit with paid plugins is buying it as per someone’s recommendation without analysing your needs and the results you’re seeking.

Let two things determine your buying decision:
1) How badly do you need the paid versions? Do not let affordability and desperation come in the way. Seek the free version if it offers the same results.

2) What may work for a professional may not necessarily work for you. Just because of what you see on YouTube channels and what other artists tend to use, does not mean you should get it too. It does not work that way.

What works is how you make the best use of the plugins and VSTs you have.

Most of us, including me, underpower and underestimate our DAWs. It was incredibly long until I realised some useful hidden plugins in Cakewalk by Bandlab.

Journey to discovery:

Which place do you first look for plugins? Google? Right? If that’s what you said, you are partially correct.

The best place to check out some quality plugins and virtual instruments should be YouTube. Let me explain: On YouTube, you should look for “free plugin reviews”. You will find ample artists and music producers who review tons of plugins and also use them themselves.

This review will give you an idea of what the plugins do and if the demonstrated results are the ones you are looking for in your song or track.

Periodically, reputed big-name plugin creators like Waves, Izotope, Baby Audio, etc., conduct a free-for-a-limited-time campaign for their paid plugins. Social media is the best place to look for them. Following some well-known artists and music producers helps as well as they are the preferred partners to announce such campaigns.

The truth – a brutally honest one:

Some of you reading this may not agree with me. Let a few years pass and then come back to this part of my blog post, look back at your disagreement.

Brutal Truth 1:

You don’t get to choose your plugins, your genre does. The genres of music you create will decide what plugins you need. For example, the kind of music I initially wanted to create was the progressive house. I didn’t get close. What genre I ended up creating was Chill-Out and Ambient Chill-Out.

Chill-Out and Ambient Chill-Out were the first genres of electronic music I liked. This helped me in building the base for other genres like progressive house, deep house, techno, industrial techno and melodic techno. Yes, I do not plan on sticking with one genre of music.

I am open to expanding my horizons beyond my usual comfort zones.

I have many plugins and VSTs that I hardly use. Then there are other plugins and VSTs that I ended up using more than I thought I would.

So what did I do with the ones I hardly or don’t use? I haven’t yet uninstalled them. But, I do intend to only when I am confident of not needing them in the future.

Brutal Truth 2:

Paid plugins or Free ones may not necessarily deliver the results you seek.
What do I mean by this? Most of you may have accepted the fact that if the plugin is paid – then it is bound to be better than the free ones as it offers more features. This may be true and subjective to the plugins. Let’s consider an example:

TAL Valhalla Reverb is acknowledged as recommended reverb plugin used by professionals and beginner music producers as well. It is free.
When looking for a plugin, are you looking forward to a straightforward result, or do you wish to do more tweaking to your reverb? It is subjective to the genres and how you treat your current project.

Paid plugins do have some very promising features that may or may not be helpful for everyone. So, what do you do? How do you make a choice between a paid and a free plugin?

My suggestion: go for the free plugin first. Test the waters and judge the results that you get. If you are satisfied with what you got, then the free plugin will get the job done.

For paid plugins: Buying a plugin is also subjective based on what your needs are and the kind of results you are seeking. what I have found out over the years is that it is good to spend on metering and on plugins that can help you analyse your mix rather than spending on instruments or seeking specific paid features first.

Always go for demos and plugin reviews to understand how things work. Only then you should buy it.

Bottom line:

Keep your beginner investments to a minimum. When you start as a music producer, you would want to do just that.
If you’re not on a budget, I would prefer that you invest that money in promoting your work and other useful services to build your brand as a music producer. Paid plugins can always come later.

Fortunately, unlike traditional software, audio plugins do not become outdated that fast. Yes, they are updated and new versions make them better. But, no competitor plugins make the others obsolete, even if they have similar functions. For eg. TDR Nova vs. stock equalisers and FabFilter Pro Q3. That’s why free plugins have a market share of their own and have a robust fan following.

I am a blogger, YouTuber and Indie Music Producer navigating my way through a massive sea of words, games and soundwaves!

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Monday, Apr 22, 2024
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