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Kill Your Plug-ins and Up Your Music Production Skills

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?

  1. We use them to make our music sound better
  2. We use them to give us sounds that we wouldn’t otherwise have
  3. 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.

The solution

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.


Steve Hillier teaches Music Business in London and Logic Music Production Online

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Reader Comments (15)

I mean, it's to taste isn't it? Sometimes the Waves Gate is going to work better than the stock Logic one. Sometimes a Tube-Tech CL1B is going to work better than an 1176, sometimes it isn't. Plug-ins, outboard gear, everything has a place. It's your responsibility, if you do choose to have a wide palette of tools, to know what they sound like and what they are best for. I wouldn't say "Disable all third party plug-ins", but rather, "Know what you're doing before you do it."

August 31 | Unregistered CommenterRVLouie

I use perhaps two hundred different plugins, but in Reaper it's very easy for me to sort through them to find what I want. The important thing is that I don't just go looking for new plugins at random; instead, when there is a sound I want to make that I would need a new plugin for, I go looking for a plugin that can make that sound. So, I don't have any plugins that I don't know what to do with.

Most new plugins, especially simple ones don't take very long to learn; half an hour is plenty for almost all of the plugins I use. I prefer to make complex sounds using combinations of simple plugin, rather than a single complex plugin, and that definitely reduces the time spent learning and programming them.

August 31 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Kay

I get your point... Still, I think it comes naturally that you have two or three favorite synths/effects that you come back to all the time because you know what you get and how to control them. But then when you've built up a ground to build upon I think it's nIce to have all those effects and synths to get some new Inspiration and ideas!

August 31 | Unregistered CommenterDubious Quip

Well said. It's always a compromise between breadth and depth. The more tools you use, the less time you will be able to spend with each individually.

Presets are indeed a seductive trap, although one can go far using them as a starting point, and also reverse-engineering them to learn synthesis and sample manipulation techniques.

We live in the age of overproduction: quantity over quality. Take your time, find your voice, and create work that has matured, that has something to express, and knows how it wants to express it.

- Versus

September 1 | Unregistered CommenterVersus

Nowadays plugins are not that hard to learn, because manufacturers provide easy steps the users need to follow. And it's basically printed in manuals.

@ Versus ”We live in the age of overproduction: quantity over quality. Take your time, find your voice, and create work that has matured, that has something to express, and knows how it wants to express it.”

AMEN BROTHER - now that should be taped to the bathroom mirror of every artist and producer to be seen first thing every day!

September 1 | Unregistered CommenterDG

Now days plugins are used to enhance your creative and engineering palette. Creative use of plugins include instrument plugins or plugins that give special effects and sounds such as unique delays, vintage filters, and hard compression widely used.

September 2 | Unregistered Commenternalysale

This is an extremely interesting post. I have struggled with the need to accumulate massive amounts of softsynths and samplers. But one can never win this endless battle. A new software plugin comes out every 3 seconds. I get these emails from Native Instruments and Waves about new plugins at least once a week. This alone is overwhelming, just the quantity of plugins out there to hijack online let alone actually download and learn. I have made 3 EPs on a Motif ES6. Even with two essential keys missing, it manages to be the most important piece in my studio. Plugins come and go. Hell, computers even come and go (already gone through 3 laptops). But me and the Motif are inseparable. It has made me a much better producer. In short, I have to listen. With that small LCD screen on the board, my ears are my greatest ally. Secondly, I know where all my sounds are. This is the way it should be I think. Simplicity is key. ES

September 3 | Unregistered CommenterEbonie Smith

I don't think that people who started off with soft-synths can understand why a limited tool kit can actually help creativity. limited resources = imaginative solutions.

September 3 | Unregistered Commenterfabiano

I work the exact same way. I've got a bunch of soft synths that I always think are cool but never really use them. I stick to my HS60 (Juno 106), Moog Voyager, Dotcom Modular, a "Hammond" xk-1 and a Rhodes. It's all about knowing your tools, and knowing them well. You put it so well, great article.

September 3 | Unregistered CommenterSpencer Gray

Music plugin is almost use to make your music quality better and good .Since while making music that means composing there are various errors are found that may be corrected using plugins

September 3 | Unregistered CommenterDAcey

That's a good strategy if you're a musician and wanting to put most of your energy into songcraft, that's not correct for an audio engineer. As an audio engineer, I always have to be upping my game. Testing - extensively - different plugins, is one small aspect of that. And my sound has improved phenomenally. When I get lazy and stop trying new things, my sound doesn't get any better. That's not to say that new = better, only occasionally.

September 6 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

Seems as though there are some wise old heads in here. I think Versus summarised what the piece is trying to get across extremely well though.

Matt >> I agree, as an engineer you have to keep on top of what the latest developments are. For musicians, it is good to find a sound that you can call your own and have total knowledge of it.

Is there a new plug-in you have come across lately that is one you can see becoming part of your regular set-up when making music?

James - Point Blank

September 7 | Registered CommenterNick Brown

Thank God there are still a few people making music that still get. It is amusing to see people posting here defend their plug-ins and admittedly, my Pro Tools rig is loaded. (though I put the majority in my "Unused Plug-in folder). I write songs, produce AND engineer so there are good points here regarding knowing them all and having choices.

HOWEVER, James has hit on a point I have come to believe in over the years of making good records and good art. Better to be great at one thing than good at many. The greatest records of all time were mostly done by artists and producers who have "a sound" which expresses emotion that move people. With the constant so called "upgrades" in technology, you have to work extra hard to have a sound and keep it. Old plugs don't work on new stuff and new plugs don't work on old. So frustrating.

So hats off James to the key advice you are giving. If you have something in your sound arsenal that works and you love it, use it, don't replace it the new zoomy Pro Tools Vs. 32.012, on Mac OS XXX with update 54.654 and running through Waves Analog Simulator 54.775.... Get it? Thanks James....

September 10 | Unregistered CommenterMikal Reid

Big thanks to Mikal.

Good to hear there is still some good websites to have a proper conversation about this stuff. Most forums always end up in a crazy argument about Ableton being run by the Free Masons or something, but most people seem to speak sensibly on here. Refreshing.

If you like our articles, please head over to the official blog for more -

Also, if you have any questions or any more opinions, let us know on Twitter: @Point_Blank and we will make sure we get back to you!


November 24 | Unregistered CommenterJames Hogg

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