It is possible to make a professional sounding mix with only stock plugins but how many of the best mixing engineers are doing that?
If you watch interviews and tutorials from Grammy-winning mixing engineers, how many of them do you see demonstrating their mixing skills using only stock plugins and no outboard gear?
Let’s talk about when premium plugins beat stock plugins and why…
Our DAWs come with a set of stock plugins that can help you get the job done, yet premium plugins still exist. The world’s best mixing consoles have fantastic EQs and compressors, yet engineers still use outboard gear.
This should clearly indicate to you that the tools you use are relatively unimportant in comparison to the concepts and techniques you employ based on your experience level and the environment in which you’re monitoring your mix. If you really understand what you’re trying to achieve, then I do think the tools shouldn’t matter too much when it comes to the finished product.
Premium plugins beat stock plugins because they make your life easier
In my opinion, premium plugins beat stock plugins because they exist to make your life easier and get closer to the finished product with less steps taken.
However, both stock and free plugins definitely have their place. The majority of my mixing takes place using premium plugins, but I still use both stock and free plugins on every mix. For me, my habit of using stock and free plugins dates back to when I was in college.
When I was first starting out, I learned on analog gear. Many of my college assignments were group projects that only allowed us to use the features of the Audient 8024 desk and a couple of outboard units we had at our disposal. Our mixes were recorded into an ADAT machine, so any fader or EQ moves we did were recorded “on the fly” and mixing felt more like a performance. If you messed it up, you needed to go back and “drop in” or you could keep going like you would in a real performance – the show must go on!
The limitations placed upon us (even though we were using quality gear) helped us think more about the concepts and techniques rather than trying to manipulate lots of gear into attempting to get the sound we wanted. While the mixes we produced were good for our experience level, if I had to work on that setup today, there would be a night and day difference in what I could produce.
At the same time, I was also writing and mixing music on my laptop in my free time. I didn’t have access to premium plugins and I was using a free DAW. I only used the stock plugins that came with that DAW or free add-on plugins. I didn’t get the results I wanted but it wasn’t because of the gear – I had a knowledge gap.
Over the years, my knowledge has expanded and, while I’ll always be a student, I know that I can still produce good mixes on cheap, stock or free gear. I know that because I have tried and tested that when it was my only option. The one issue with that approach is that it’s experimental and potentially time consuming.
Like I said, premium plugins exist to make our lives easier and get to the finished product with less steps.
Let’s discuss the positives and negatives of the features of some premium plugins
My favourite EQ has the option to use Auto Gain. What that means is that the plugin automatically compensates for the increase or loss of gain after EQ. While the levels aren’t measured and it’s not a dynamic process, the level matching gets pretty close during an A/B test.
Benefit: If you’re moving quickly through a mix and you don’t have time to level match by ear, you can click the ‘A’ and Auto Gain kicks in.
Disadvantage: If you don’t know how to level match quickly by ear, this button promotes laziness and if you are used to this feature and then don’t have access to it for some reason, you’ll struggle and lose a lot of time while mixing.
Automatic microphone alignment and phase correction
Saving time is always a huge positive – especially if you produce music for a living. While I don’t yet use it, Auto-Align by Sound Radix is a plugin that I’ve seen demonstrated by people like Pete Woj of MixBetterNow.com to great effect. While I know that Pete can easily go about phase aligning his drums by ear due to his expert knowledge, he’ll use this plugin to save time and ensure accuracy.
Benefit: You save time and your hourly rate goes up.
Disadvantage: If you only know how to phase correct and align using Auto-Align, you’ll be stuck when you don’t have access to the plugin.
True Peak Limiting
Ever since I started using the Nugen ISL2, I won’t master using any other limiter. I bought it for finishing broadcast mixes but now I use it for all of my mastering needs. It’s an intersample peak limiter that allows us to work much closer to digital headroom, as it figures out what might be going on between two samples and adjusts the gain of the audio going through it.
If you’re working very close to digital headroom and your limiter takes in a series of samples but misses the peak of the audio, then it’s possible that the reconstructed audio can go beyond digital headroom and clip. The peak could be at least 3dB higher than the sample, so distortion is very possible in this instance.
Mike Thornton from Pro Tools Expert explains this really clearly in a couple of videos if you want more information on that.
Benefit: The most transparent and easy to use limiter I’ve come across.
Disadvantage: If you don’t know how a standard stock limiter works, you won’t understand how fantastic and transparent this limiter is.
I love having the option of using Mid/Side processing and I end up using this technique on most of my mixes and masters. Pro Tools does not come with a Mid/Side EQ, but you can get a number of stock plugins that will help you apply this technique to your mix. While I have used a number of these stock plugins, in my opinion, nothing compares to Brainworx amazing bx_digital.
Benefit: I feel this premium plugin has everything I need for Mid/Side EQ – including a De-Esser and it’s extended Dynamic EQ.
Disadvantage: If you don’t understand how basic Mid/Side processing works and you haven’t trialled some free or stock plugins, then this tool might be too powerful and you could risk making a mess of your mix.
This one is a life saver. If you’ve got poorly recorded drums or you want to beef up your toms, kicks or snares with a sample, then there’s only one plugin for me for that job. Trigger by Slate.
Benefit: With a few clicks, you can have your drums sounding exactly as you want them.
Disadvantage: Knowing you can call upon great samples might make you lazy in getting the best out of your recorded drums. Sometimes it’s better to work with what you’ve got.
There are lots of other benefits of using premium plugins, such as the premium support the companies producing the plugins offer. More often than not, free plugins offer very little support if something goes wrong.
But let’s look at the big picture…
When should you use premium plugins over stock plugins?
The very simple answer is when you’re ready.
When you feel like you have a good grasp over the basic audio concepts and how to put a mix together and feel you might be able to do it quicker with premium plugins, then that’s probably a good time.
Of course, that’s dependent on you having the budget to do so. If you’re in some sort of debt or financial difficulty, you have no place buying more gear when it would be much more beneficial to make some money out of what you already have.
That leads me on to my next point. If you make money out of mixing – whether it’s part time or full time, it makes sense to re-invest in new gear or plugins every once in a while. If it’s going to save you time, make you more efficient and improve your mixes, then it’s a good investment.
Personally, I feel that having limitations can really benefit your creativity. While I no longer mix using only stock or free plugins, I’m happy with the current collection of plugins that I own because I feel that having to choose from too many is a problem.
Whatever plugins I buy in future will have to be for a very specific purpose, like the Auto-Align plugin I mentioned earlier. For now, I’m happy using my ears to correct any potential phase issues and avoiding the use of a plugin. Down the line, I might change my mind.
So, before you go ahead with your next plugin purchase, think about whether you really need it.
With so many great deals available on multiple occasions throughout the year, you can easily find yourself becoming a plugin collector. If you want to spend your money that way, I’m not going to stop you, but make sure you know what all of your gear does and that if someone took all of your premium plugins away from you tomorrow, you could still produce a great mix with the bare minimum.
Now, I’d love to know…
What’s your “go to” plugin and why?
Leave a comment below!
professional sounding mix every time…