Why What A Plugin Looks Like Matters

2013 Dec 16, 2013

Today I want to make the case that what your plugins look like in your DAW is critical to your track’s success. Now, let’s be clear up front. What the graphical user interface (GUI) of a piece of software looks like has no actual affect on the sonics of your music, technically speaking. However, so much of music making is emotional and psychological and that plays a big part in what I want to discuss today.

The “Cool” Factor Is Important

I’m firmly of the mind that inspiration in the studio can come from visual stimuli. If you’ve ever been in a high end studio with a gorgeous console, racks of compressors and preamps, nice lighting, and walls of vintage guitars to play with you get pumped up to make music. It’s part of the intangible nature of gear. Beautiful (i.e. cool looking) gear makes you feel cool. At least it does for me.
So in the virtual world, how cool my plugins look can have the same type of effect on my psyche. When looking at a very utilitarian compressor plugin, I feel very bland, boring, and well, utilitarian. It can kind of feel like I’m in math class. But if looking at a plugin that has a beautiful vintage GUI, I can start to feel like all those engineers who have the cool looking gear in their racks. I feel cool, and so I mix with confidence.

The “Real” Factor Is Important

Not everyone would agree with me, but I much prefer to work on a plugin that looks like something in the real analog world than something completely designed from the ground up for the digital domain. By that I mean, I like plugins with virtual knobs and VU meters. Why? Simply because I mentally respond to them in a more real way.

When I crank up the Input knob on a virtual 1176 compressor and I watch the VU meter’s virtual needle slamming indicating the gain reduction, I push it in a different way than I do with a more digital looking stock compressor. I’m sure I likely end up at a similar compression setting (because I’m watching my meters and using my ears) but I get the feeling that I am a bit more aggressive and musical in the way I determine my settings.

Does This Really Make A Difference?!

When I read back over this post it sounds a little silly. How can the look of a plugin, even with the “cool” factor and the “real” factor truly make a difference in the final product? Well I can’t quantitatively prove it to you. This is art we’re talking about. It’s all subjective and vague. But I can say that great mixes are made up of hundreds of tiny, seemingly insignificant and subtle moves. By themselves they aren’t much, but together they are what make a great work of art.

By using plugins that are visually appealing (whatever that means to you), the gap between you and the song shrinks. There’s less clutter in your way. You and the tools become one. You enjoy using them, so you use them in a more musical and creative way. The effects of this are very intangible, but I promise they make a big difference in the end.

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