Why Changing How You Handle Plugins Can Totally Transform Your Mixes

2015 Dec 07, 2015

One of the biggest mistakes I used to make in mixing was using my plugins like a sledgehammer when I should have been using them like a chisel.

I was heavy handed with each and every EQ, compressor, and saturation plugin – asking too much of them.

Turns out there’s a better way to use plugins that squeezes the absolute best out of them and leads to more musical mix results.



The Lead Foot Approach To Mixing

My Grandfather had what people call a lead foot.

Not literally a foot made out of lead, but rather he was heavy on the gas pedal when he drove.

We’d be stopped at a traffic signal and the instant the light turned green, Grandpa would hit that gas pedal all the way to the floor and we’d take off with a jolt.

The moment he saw a red light (or the car in front of us just tapped the brakes) Grandpa’s lead foot would slam down on the brake with equal force to the gas pedal seconds ago, screeching us to an abrasive halt.

This was driving with my Grandpa – go and stop. On and off. There was no in between.

I used to have a lead foot approach to mixing.

If my lead vocal didn’t have enough air on it, I’d grab my trusty old stock EQ, find a “airy” sounding frequency and then boost the crap out of it!

Instant air!

Same went for the mix buss compression. I always learned it was what my favorite engineers did.

So I’d put a compressor on my master fader, tweak some settings so things were pumping and I’d be rocking 6db or so of gain reduction. Nice and heavy!

You get the idea – whatever I felt a track (or the mix as a whole) needed, I gave it – but in heavy doses.

Plugins Were Never Designed For This

On a related note, one of the many complaints I hear from home studio owners is that their stock plugins “don’t sound that great” and they “need” to upgrade to some 3rd party plugs.

Part of this complaint is because the internet is full of negative Nancy’s who buy in (quite literally) to the “gear is the difference maker” myth and just like to discourage newbies who haven’t plunked down the same amount of cash as them.

But part of it (in my opinion) is born out of an improper view (and handling of) their stock plugins.

Plugins weren’t intended to be a sledgehammer coming in and demolishing a poorly recorded track so it can be rebuilt into something amazing.

Rather plugins were designed to fine tune your (hopefully) well recorded parts like a chisel chipping away at a piece of marble, revealing a masterpiece little by little.

That being said – if you are asking your plugins to become a magic bullet for your mixes, then you’ll be sorely disappointed.

No EQ, no compressor, no tape saturation plugin can be that magic bullet. I wish that weren’t true but it is.

So when you put a compressor on your snare drum, and the snare drum still sounds bad – don’t blame the compressor. That’s the easy way out.

Like I always say: we’d all rather believe we are one purchase away from great recordings and mixes. Myself included.

It’s so tempting to think we can “buy our way out” of this mess.

But we can’t.

Getting Better Mixes Starts With This

There are likely a hundred or more reasons why your tracks don’t quite sound up to par – but today we can start with one: your view of plugins.

Stop viewing them as big power tools ready to tear up your tracks and instead start viewing them as subtle, but critical devices that chip away at your mix little by little.

It’s these small minuscule mix moves that in the end create the “magic” we all long to hear.

I know it’s hard to believe.

We all like big drastic changes.

Whether it’s a house renovation or a body transformation, we all love fast and shocking change.

But when it comes to mixing with plugins – small and subtle is the name of the game.

In the end, if you work this way you’ll get more musical mixes and grow a new found appreciation for all that your current lineup of plugins can actually do!

Try The Stock Plugin Mix Challenge

So just for fun – why not take a song (maybe even an old song) and try this out.

Wipe the session clear of any plugins and then remix it from the ground up – all with stock plugins only.

The key here is not really the stock plugins, but how you use them.

Focus on small, subtle, but strategic moves and let them build up over the course of the mix.

If you want a simple model to follow, start with my One Hour Mix series of videos here.

I don’t care if you really do the mix in an hour, but follow the framework, use your stock plugins, and finish your mix.

Also, if you haven’t already – watch my Smart Start To Mixing Video to learn how to optimize your DAW in the first 30 minutes of your mix. It’s a free download!

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