Today I want to make the case that plugins are the absolute worst investment you could make in your studio. And honestly, I use the word “investment” with a hint of sarcasm. Now before I jump in, don’t get me wrong: I have and use many great plugins. But on some level I know that plugins have been the worst place to spend my money over the years. Let’s discuss why.
You Already Own An EQ, Compressor, And Reverb
Let’s get this point out on the table right away. You do not need any 3rd party plugins to make a killer mix. In fact, your stock plugins are likely really good. The plugins that are shipping stock with DAWs these days are powerful, useful, and sonically they sound great. Are they dripping with vibe and analog goodness? Maybe not, but they are clean and professional. And at the end of the day, that’s what you need.
If more plugins aren’t needed to make a great mix, then it follows logically to me that my money is better spent on gear that will help me accomplish more and better work in the studio. Some examples? More microphones and preamps so I can track a full band live, or track drums. I could even spend that money on acoustic treatment to get a better sounding space. Or perhaps pickup a faster computer so I can handle more tracks and plugins as needed.
You get the idea. Spend money on things you don’t already have, rather than doubling up on things you already have.
Plugins Don’t Improve Your Front End
I think we all like the idea of plugins because they are easy: slap some software on our tracks to enhance them and call it a day. The truth is, you’d get a better mix if your original raw tracks sounded better in the first place. What your audio goes through (microphone, preamp, compressor, eq, converter, etc) is called your front end. The better (or better matched to the source) this front end is, the better your tracks and effectively the better your mix will be.
Plugins don’t affect the front end, just the back end. Sure they can help improve your sound, but you’re starting from a bad spot. Why not invest money on what’s actually going to affect your recordings? This could be having different microphones for different tonal options. It could be picking up an affordable channel strip for some light EQ and compression on the way in. Even your room acoustics can help your front end sound better. Put your money on the front end.
Two Ways To Better Handle Plugin Purchases
So how SHOULD one approach buying third party plugins? The first thing you can do is good research. And you do this in two ways: watching reviews and demoing them.
I try to review plugins here on The Recording Revolution to help you. I think written plugin reviews are pointless (since you can’t see/hear them in action), so I try and create video reviews of plugins that I’ve used and liked. You get an informed opinion and you can hear them in real time. Couple that with actually demoing the plugin (one of the beauties of plugins) and you can really get to know how it will work in your studio with your material.
The second way to better handle plugin purchases is to buy them with a project (or projects) in mind. Purchase them with a plan to use them all over an album or EP. You’ll get value out of them instantly (as opposed to one day hoping you use them), plus you’ll learn them really well. This is the only way buying a plugin or a bundle is ever worth it. Otherwise it’s speculative money spent that you can never get back.