Plugins. When is it time to upgrade?
Plugins. When is it time to upgrade?
For anyone who frequents the many audio websites that exist, its hard to not notice the immense variety of plugins available for purchase, and even harder not to notice when a free plugin is offered.
More often than not if you know what a plugin or VST is then you own at least one DAW, and that DAW likely came with an excellent set of stock plugins. The temptation to want more however is a natural thing, but when is it time to upgrade, and is upgrade the correct word?
Years ago when I started learning FL studio I didn’t want for much. I was happy with the stock plugins but I wanted a nice sax sound so I downloaded a couple of free VSTs. When I upgraded my audio interface it came bundled with guitar rig and kontakt which opened my eyes to the difference in quality from FL studios own offerings.
Time passed and I grew to be more interested in mixing and sound design, and the more I learned the more I felt I wanted a DAW more akin to pro tools with the traditional mixer layout. This led me to move onto Studio One by Presonus.
Whats The Difference
It was apparent to me at that point that not only was there a difference in stock plugins and 3rd party ones, but a big difference in stock plugins offered by different DAW manufacturers.
I must, at this point say, that I still use FL studio every now and again. It has its pros. For instance Gross Beat is a very unique plugin and even though some 3rd party plugins offer a proposed similar plugin, there is a distinct uniqueness to the sound afforded by Gross Beat.
Now lets move on to studio one. Whilst its VSTs are not as preset rich as some other stock VSTs, it does have an instantly more full sound. Its compressors are more Intuitive, and its EQ and side-chain functions are nothing short of top notch.
So why upgrade? Well some things just cannot be achieved using stock plugins alone. Different methods of digital signal processing, and technological advances such as solid state engines means that some high end 3rd party plugins sound almost analogue.
Do you need them? In short, no.
Can you survive long term without them? If you want to compete with the mainstream, then yes you probably do need a select few.
So what to invest in???
The Learning Curve
It’s at this point that most articles will tell you a short list of specific plugins you can’t do without. Rather in this article I’m going to suggest a learning and progression method. So here goes, here’s what the first few years of you learning to mix and master, in my opinion, should include.
1. Perfect Your Static Mix
You should be able to vastly improve the sound of any set of track-out files just be levelling and panning them. This is the foundation of any mix and sets you up for the rest of the mix to morph into your vision. The reason this is number one is because most DAWs don’t come with a stereo imager, meaning you can only pan in one direction. If you had an imager you could leave a stem centrally panned, add the imager and spread the sound across your whole stereo field, then dial back the centre. You now have the sound panned left and right without being centrally dominant. Note that Studio One comes with a plugin called binaural pan, but this doesn’t let you change the amount coming from the centre.
2. Compression Plugins
Compression takes a long time to really get your head around and start to use effectively, or rather to stop using ineffectively. Once you master the use of your DAWs native compressors you may start to feel the need for a compressor with a little more character. We call this character “colour” and when you hear sound engineers talk about why they prefer a particular compressor it almost always comes down to this “colour”. If you are doing much mixing of vocals, you’ll immediately hear the difference when trying out a new compressor. Compressors are very versatile pieces of equipment so take the time to learn what it can do for each element in your production, and get good at using it effectively.
3. Saturation Plugins
Saturation may be the final improvement your mixes need in order to compete with the big boys. What is a fairly standard string sample can be brought to life with some saturation, made to feel warm and full of energy where before it just sat flatly into the background. It can make a perceptively quiet 808 sound boomy and gritty when used correctly. Saturation is key in making the most of your headroom, it will increase perceived loudness whilst allowing you to turn down the level, meaning an overall louder mix at the end of the day.
Some DAWS come with some different types of saturation plugins, and lots of popular plugins are marketed towards treating one particular section of the song, but don’t be fooled, all saturation plugins can be used for anything you like. There are some limitations however, for instance Decapitator is very popular on Sub Bass, and it works well, but I also use it on snares to give a crack sound to them, but I wouldn’t use it on a vocal, it’s too harsh. A very versatile plugin to consider is a tape machine plugin, train your ears to recognise the subtlety of them and they can be very powerful tools. As a side note, I have used DAW Native distortion plugins on vocals with much success, so again, explore fully your DAWs plugin selection, you can do a lot with what you got.
4. Mix Bus Plugins
When it comes to the mix bus, you’ve probably been using either your DAWs compressor or your DAWs multi-band compressor, and maybe you’ve used the stock limiter and maybe you’re real happy with how you’re mastered tracks are turning out. Its excellent that you have learned to use these effectively, but now faced with the decision to upgrade, what should you get? Referring back to my second point, experiment with different compressors in a mix bus capacity, play with “colour” and ratio and find what works for your sound.
Once you have the ability to mixdown a nice loud dynamic song with at least 6bd of headroom, then its time to start perfecting your mastering skills. A mastering suite like Izotopes Ozone is best in this scenario, and as a bonus, all the sections of this plugin can be used separately, within your mix.
Now back to my initial question. Stock plugins, When is it time to upgrade?
Unless you need a particular plugin to replicate a sound for a project you’re working on, I would suggest sticking to this rule. Become an expert in everything you have, then when you upgrade you can both appreciate, and exploit fully, the power of your new plugin.
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