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With literally thousands of plug-ins in the market costing well into thousands of dollars for some packages, it can be quite difficult to know which plug-ins to add to your system. Well the stock DigiRack and AIR plug -ins that ship with Pro Tools are a great starting point. You will eventually want to explore more options. Here are some things I like to consider when researching a new plug-in. First of all, I like to download the demo. Many people don't know that 95% of all plug-ins have free, albeit time-limited fully functional demos on their web site.
So someone like Waves I could go to the Downloads section and I'm just looking for a demo link here. Now at that point I need to create Account Login and I could download that demo to my iLok. It's important to know that most demos these days are going to require an iLok, and that used to be a problem because Pro Tools used to be run without an iLok, but now most people running Pro Tools 9 and 10, you're already going to have an iLok, and you can use that same iLok to purchase plug-ins and get demo licenses.
So a lot of people don't understand that, that iLok can hold more licenses than just your Pro Tools license, so beware of that. When you're evaluating a plug-in, instead of just buying into all the hype and all the marketing, because of course, when a company is marketing their plug-in, they are going to say, it's the best thing in the world. It's going to change your life. Yadi yadi yada. But be honest with yourself when you're doing the demo. You want to consider how does it sound, and that means how does it sound compared to the other plug-ins you already have? So if you're pulling up an EQ plug-in, do an honest demo. Compare it to what you already have, bring it into a mix and kind of match up some of the settings as best as possible and do some listening. How does it really sound? And then compare that to how much does it cost versus what you need.
A lot of people will go out and buy specialty plug-ins but they won't have a good core foundation of EQs and compressors, and reverbs and things like that. One thing that I like to consider is how DSP efficient it is, so when I bring up a plug-in, I will go to my Window > System Usage. Plug-ins like EQs and simple compressors might not even tick the CPU Marker 1%, whereas reverbs and really fancy brickwall limiters and things like that, might take up 5%, 10% chunks of that CPU and depending on how fast your computer is, it can be important to understand that the kind of plug-ins you're using and how they are going to affect your overall system overhead, because the last thing you want to do when performing a mix is get to that last section and you want to throw in that fancy new brickwall limiter you just bought, and now your computer is out of juice.
Figure out how much DSP cost that plug -in is going to utilize and consider that in your workflow. I also like to consider where and when will I use this. I have quite a few specialty plug-ins that I will use on occasion, and that's okay because I built my collection up over time. However, if you don't have the basics already taken care of, maybe consider when you're buying that new fancy plug- in, is this something you're going to use a lot or is there something else that you could purchase that you're going to get more use out of? And when evaluating that try to figure out if it has any unique features that aren't covered by your current set of plug-ins.
A lot of the plug-ins that I choose to purchase have a unique feature that I'm not getting. For example, one of the things we talked about in compressors was having a mix knob or a blend knob on your compressor. None of the DigiRack compressors come with this mix knob, so that might be something that I really want and I really like in a compressor, so that's something I'm going to look for when I'm out shopping for compressors.
That's just an example. Another thing is do I like the user interface? Sometimes I'll have a compressor that sounds absolutely fantastic but the user interface is horrible. I can't navigate, I can't type in values, and so it just doesn't fit into my workflow when I'm moving through a mix sort of train of thought and I'm just reaching for sounds, trying to get that sound in my head. If what I'm using is stopping me in my tracks and making me think about how do I get that knob to go there, I don't like that at all, and so I've actually turned down plug-ins that sound fantastic and just opened up the DigiRack EQ because I could grab the actual nodes and I could get the sound that I wanted, quickly and move on.
Because again, mixing is all about taking that sound in your head and making that happen, and so if things are stopping you or holding you back in that process, you kind of want to consider do they belong in your workflow. At the end of the day write all these things down and again compare the plug-ins to the ones you have right now. Maybe do some blind listening tests but try not to be swayed by the big marketing budgets and paid endorsements of the major third-party plug-in companies. What you're going to find is they are always going to tell you that this plug-in is going to change your life, make you a mix star overnight, and just transcend space/time and instantly turn everything you do into solid gold.
Remember, mixing is a very incremental skill just like learning an instrument, so lots of little incremental steps and skills and tricks with plug-ins are going to add up over time to give you a confident and complete skill set.
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