Every digital audio workstation — even the free ones — comes with a set of plugins for processing audio. Most us forget about them, concluding that to get quality audio processing we need to spend big money for name-brand plugins endorsed by well-known names. Surprise! What you already have might do the job and do it well.
Today, virtually every part of the audio post process has gotten good — very good. Even with free apps, like Apple’s GarageBand, the plugins offer excellent audio quality. To think these tools are somehow inferior is just plain wrong. That’s like believing a high-end camera is necessary to make a great photograph.
Part of this myth comes from clever marketing. Many are convinced that only a $200 compressor plugin endorsed by a major producer is good enough for our work. In most cases — not every one, but most — the free compressor in the DAW we have right now will do an equal job.
Let’s start with a simple question. Have you opened all the plugins in your DAW and experimented with them? Have you really learned to use them? Do you know what they do well and where they might come up short. I didn’t think so!
Most of us have never opened (much less used) the gates, compressors, EQs and many other plugins that we got for free with our DAW software. Spending a little time with each plugin and actually reading the instructions could make a world of difference in improving the sound. I could also save a lot of money.
Since plugins these days have dramatically improved over earlier times, you may find features that you didn’t even know existed. For example, some plugins now have sidechain inputs and band-pass filters. These features can be useful and might be equal to the most expensive plugin you are eyeing as the fix-all for your audio.
Also, since the plugin came with your DAW, it is probably well tested and optimized for the software. It is probably going to work well without issues. That might not be true with a third party plugin, even though it might offer more advanced features and have a better looking user interface. The plugins that come with your DAW are often more stable and better matched to your system.
Also, stock plugins will probably work better when you revisit earlier archival projects. This is a good reason to stick with one DAW over time. If you go back to a project after a few years, it’s a good bet that those stock plugins will work better than the new ones you just bought. That, folks, is the nature of change, especially in the “gotcha" age of personal computing.
Perhaps most important, the basics of good audio always trumps a solution using any plugin. Creative microphone placement is vastly more important than fixing a problem with a plugin. If you do the recording right to begin with, there will be less dependance on using plugins in the first place.
Remember, 30 years ago plugins didn’t exist. Many of the greatest recordings were done without them. They are fine to fix specific problems and to make audio production more convenient. But they should be used sparingly. At the end of the day, use your ears to make decisions and acquire the skills in how to use each plugin. Don’t blow your budget on what you don’t need.
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