Plugins Do Make A Difference

The popular trend on the net these days is…

“You can get pro level mixes using only stock plugins”

The problem is I haven’t seen one pro yet that exclusively uses stock plugins.  So that statement is pretty much rubbish.

I’m not saying you can’t get a good mix with stock plugins because I’m a huge believer in knowledge over tools, everyday of the week and it is ultimately your foundation.  But like anything else, you will hit a threshold and at some point you are going to need to upgrade your tools.

You see, knowledge and skill can only take you so far and then at that point the only thing that can help you grow is something outside of your control.  Like anything else, you never stop learning how to mix music but there is only so much that a stock EQ is going to do for you.

The Truth About Stock Plugins

Stock plugins are great and can be used with success a lot of the time. For example, I don’t feel the need to buy a delay plugin because the stock ones work just fine for me.

However, they do have limits especially with compressors and EQ’s, which tend to have very little character or aren’t as pleasing.

I am talking from my experience of course.

In my opinion the DAW manufacturers are not that interested in making stand out plugins that come with their software. The main reason is because the sale of their software depends more on stability and functionality and not so much on the quality of the plugins.

In come the plugin manufacturers who spend a lot of time and resources developing their products.   These companies rely on sales of their plugins to stay in business where as the DAW companies don’t so the quality of those plugins are held to a higher standard.

Now there are definitely some stock gems out there but I think that “average” stock plugins outweigh the gems.

The 80/20 Rule

the-80-20-ruleYou’ve probably heard about this before and it was most likely in regards to business but I will use it to compare mixing and quality with regards to the tools of the trade.

I feel like 80% of your mix quality comes from the knowledge and skill you have acquired while 20% will come from the tools you use. Some may think that the 80% should be higher but I feel that’s accurate.

I’m also not accounting for a VERY competent mastering engineer who will definitely make your record sound better (hopefully, not by much ha!).

Most pro engineers are lucky enough to have every tool at their disposal to find the plugins that they love the most. But imagine, take away their best plugins, their analog summing and their analog consoles and set them up with just a DAW and some stock plugins.

Do you think that their mixes will sound as good?

I don’t think so.

Sure they will sound great and better than an amateur mixer (probably much better) but their mixes will be missing that je ne sais quoi.

You can debate me on that as much as you want but there is a reason why the pros don’t use stock plugins exclusively on their mixes – they are limited. They may still use stock plugins (I love stock plugins) but they will have some type of 3rd party plugin and probably a piece of hardware gear in there as well.

The Best Plan of Attack

If you are at a point where you are just starting out then I would advise you to ONLY use the stock plugins and for a few reasons.

Exercise your creative muscle: As engineers we are often called upon to figure out things that the clients couldn’t do themselves. The more you can solve these problems with limited tools than the easier it will be when you get the more “professional” sounding ones.

Develop your ear: When you are first starting out in the mixing world, everything sounds the same – reverbs, EQ’s, compressors. Over time you start to distinguish between them and hopefully you can tell what a good or bad EQ sounds like.  At this point, buying a new EQ or compressor becomes a lot more efficient because you can try them out and you should instantly know whether they are useless or not.

If you have a little more experience with mixing music but are still looking for that extra something, than the tools might be a good place to look.

Sometimes all you need is an extra 1% of quality in your mixes to make them stand out and that will come from higher quality tools.

At this point you need to demo some new tools and see if they are impacting your mixes in the way you would have hoped or expected.  You really will be surprised at how much better your mixes can sound with one REALLY high quality tool.

Now Go Mix!

I’d love to sit here and tell you that mixing only with stock plugins is going to get your mixes to sound like the pros, but it won’t, and I would be lying. But you can get them to sound close.

Just focus on constantly improving your skills and when you sense a hole in your sound, start demoing some plugins that you feel could fill that void.

You will see your plugin purchases go down which will save you money for the time that you really need to make one.   And when you do make a purchase, it will make a huge improvement to your sound.

Good Luck!

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  • Justin, I have to agree with you on this.

    Only, I think you need to give some stock plugins their due credit. The best example I can think of has got to be the mixer in Reason – it’s an SSL emulation, sure… But it’s stock!

    And it sounds absolutely great.

    That being said, yes – a lot of standard plugins in a DAW like Logic aren’t up to the sound quality a waves channels trip can offer (just to name one).

    Thanks for the article!
    Cheers, Kevin

    • Yes, but on the whole most stock plugins are really considered “character” pieces but they are definitely great for their purpose.

  • Great article.

    If stock plugins could make pro level mixes then companies such as Waves and UAD would be out of business. 3rd party plugins add their own texture and character to a sound that stock plugins will never be able to do because if DAW makers added pro level sounding plugins that will mean extra cost for the DAW makers and that will not be a fair price to the consumer.

    I also advise every audio engineer to not rely on stock plugins.

  • Justin,

    I recently bought your fl studio/ trap tutorial. Will you be making anymore fl studio based tutorials such as just mixing regular hip hop beats in fl studio. I have pro tools and many other DAWS, but I prefer fl studio.

    Thanks,

    Rick

    • Justin Smith

      Hey Rick.
      I’m definitely planning on it. stay posted.

      Cheers.

  • joemal

    There is no substitute for hard work. I agree with you Justin, especially about getting a feel for the color\sound of deffierent plugins. That takes dedication. Appreciate all that you do.

    • Justin Smith

      Great. Cheers Joe.

      • MJ

        Justin, I agree with you on this article. I was curious, though, about something else that seems to really elude the internet, for some reason. I have my little methods and trademark things that I do with background vocals, but many other engineers do, as well. But lately, in pop and RnB records, I’ve been noticing a uniformity in the way they have the BG vox mixed. I can hear that they’re loving the flanger, chorusing, and oftentimes some micro pitch-shift harmonizers to do some extra widening. Sometimes, though, the background vocals in these records do some very interesting things (not “interesting” in terms of conspicuous special FX, but in terms of how the vocals are sitting and sounding). I was wondering if you could shed some more light on the different ways in which background vocals are mixed in mainstream popular music. That’d be very interesting. I’ve seen your videos on mixing background vocals, and they’re great. I was just wondering if you could explore even more types of fashions. That’d be dopeeeee. Thanks!

        • Justin Smith

          Thanks MJ. I’ll see what I can come up with. Cheers.

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