I love Spectrasonic’s Omnisphere. It’s the best sounding softsynth I’ve ever heard; powerful, deep, detailed and, yes, sexy. I love the fact that its sample library is enormous, the presets are wide, varied and bountiful, like Harrods at Christmas time. I can press just one key and a whole world of beautiful sound comes pouring out of my monitors, and every time I use it I always think; ‘wow, I could do something really interesting with this’.
And then I don’t. I might spend a few hours mucking around with Omnisphere, but when it comes to working and finishing my projects, I don’t use it. And that’s nothing to do with Omnisphere itself, there’s nothing wrong with it, I genuinely think it’s the best software synth yet devised. But it’s vast; I haven’t had the time to get to know it well at all. And with the pressure of deadlines, singers and pub opening times on me, I always turn to the instruments I know well to get the job done. I use my Roland Juno 106 for bass sounds, ARP Odyssey for leads and effects, Kontakt with the Nostalgia sample library for pads and BFD2 for drums. I also use Audio Ease’s Speakerphone for effects. And that’s it. Nothing else. Ever.
You might think that’s profoundly limiting: there’s no digital sound source, only one effects suite and no softsynths. There’s also nothing there that has been released in the last couple of years, all antiquated technology in these fast moving times. But in reality, it’s creatively liberating and inspiring to work in this way. The main reason I return to these two old analogue synths and a couple of sample libraries is because I’ve lived and worked with them for years: in the case of the Juno, twenty six years! I know exactly how to get the sounds I want from each of them and, when I do get them, they sound terrific. And, most importantly, when I use these instruments, they sound like me, not an engineer in California.
The plugin effect
Many people’s attitude to plugins is like that of a host of an out of control teenage house-party: “Come on in, the more the merrier!”
Who could possibly object to having an extra plugin sitting on their laptop hard drive? It’s only small, tiny compared to the size of a movie file, it cost you nothing (go on, admit it!) and what harm is it doing anyway? Actually, just like being cornered by a drunk on the way to the bathroom, it might be causing your state of mind a lot of harm. So let’s take a step back: why exactly do we use plugins, what’s their function?
- We use them to make our music sound better
- We use them to give us sounds that we wouldn’t otherwise have
- We use them to make it easier for us to make music
Each of these are a noble reason, and the moderate use of plugins will allow you to achieve all these objectives. But accumulating dozens and dozens of plugins with thousands and thousands of preset settings will profoundly hinder your creativity and by extension, therefore, your career.
I find it handy to imagine the virtual world inside my computer using a real world metaphor. Imagine your DAW is a musical instrument store: Down one aisle are all the samplers and sample libraries, another has all the synths, another has the effects pedals and so on. I imagine that with a modern DAW, like Logic, you’d have a very well stocked shop. All the synths and effects would be coming from one supplier, but the shop couldn’t be criticised for a lack of variety! Now let’s find some space for the hardware equivalent of your third-party plugins, softsynths…and very quickly the shop has become so full you’d need an army of assistants to find anything at all.
And that’s our issue right there. With so much choice, it’s effectively impossible to know any of these instruments well. Even if you dedicated days of your time to learning how each plugin works you might still barely scratch the surface of what they can do. Every time you load in one of the synths for a fiddle, you are essentially a novice walking up to a pub piano attempting to bash out a tune. That’s really not good enough.
So here’s the proposal. Throw away, delete or otherwise permanently disable every third party plugin that you use except for two softsynths and two effects. Now, go about your musical day, but where you previously were scrolling through endless lists of presets, now you have to make the sound you want in the synths you’ve chosen. You’re no longer relying on presets, you have to learn the instrument and program it properly. Over time you’ll get to know your chosen instruments and plugins very well, eventually becoming an expert. And guess what? You might not find exactly what you wanted, but you probably will find something far more interesting. Such as your own sound.
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