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With literally thousands of plug-ins on the market, costing into the tens of thousands of dollars for some of these packages, it can be quite difficult to know which plug-ins to add to your system. Well, the stock DigiRack plug-ins that ship with Pro Tools are a great starting point. You will eventually want to explore more options. Here are some of the things I like to consider when researching a new plug-in. The first thing that I like to do is download the demo. 95% of the plug-ins out there have a free, time limited, but fully functional demo on their website.
So if you go to the manufacturer's website, you can usually find some sort of system. You generally need to have an iLok key to get the license sent to you, the demo license. But once you get all that setup, you can find 10 and 14 day demos ready to go. Now, before you initialize the demo, you definitely want to use that 10 or 14 days to really think about the plug-in. So some of the things I like to consider when evaluating a new plug-in and deciding whether or not I want to spend my hard earned cash on it, are these.
First off, how does it sound? For most people that's an obvious one. Does it make what I have sound better? So I'm going to listen to it in on a bunch of different tracks. I'm going to sort of evaluate it next to my other plug-ins. So I have an EQ and I'm boosting 8 DB at this frequency, and I listen to sort of the quality of that. How does my other plug-in stack up against that? So if I bring up a different plug-in, and I go for sort of a similar sound, do I feel like the quality is different? Is it better? Is it worse? Specifically with things like EQ, you can kind of reveal either their sonic gravy, or even their flaws by boosting, rather than cutting.
You are definitely going to be able to hear more of an EQ's character when you boost, rather than cut. So evaluate how it sounds, does it sound different than the other plug-ins that you have on your system. Next to that, you are going to sort of decide, how much does it cost, is it really expensive? Is it $500? Is it $1000, or is it a $ 30 kind of shareware thing? You would be surprised how some awesome plug-ins out there are under $100, seriously. And some of the $1,000 ones don't sound as good as some of the $100 ones.
So really evaluate this. Once you figure out the cost, and whether or not that's in your budget, is that cost worth the additional sound that you are getting from it? If it's 5% better than the EQ you have now, is it worth an additional $500 in the scheme of your workflow? So you really need to think about, when you are managing a budget for your studio, the weakest link is what you should probably spend the money on. So if you are mixing on a $100 monitors and you are buying $5,000 plug-in bundles, it's probably not the best decision.
So kind of look at things in the bigger picture, rather than wasting all your money on plug-ins that you don't need. Now, one thing that a lot of people miss when they are evaluating a plug-in is how efficient it is. So if I think about the system usage window here. If I launch a plug-in, how much does that plug-in tax my computer? So if I keep adding more of these plug- ins, I'm just going to copy some of them over to add a bunch, so how is that affecting the overall load? I can see that this plug-in is very efficient, whereas some plug-ins are really going to kill your CPU, specifically the heavy emulation plug-ins, the guitar amp simulators, the reverbs, things like that are really going to kill your CPU.
You would be surprised. Some will give you like 5% hit, while others that sound just as good maybe take 1/2% or 1%. So think the load on your system, and based on cost and sound, is the DSP hit worth it to have that plug-in? Because it's no fun having a really great sounding plug-in and only being able to run two or three of them. Generally, you spend a bunch of money. You want to be able to run them. So kind of think about that. Now, the next thing I like to think about kind of relates back to sound quality, is where and when will I use this, what types of tracks, what types of genre? So if I buy a specialty plug-in, I have got to think about how often am I going to use that and the style that I work in.
Is it really something I'm using 5% of the time, and should I be spending 90% of my budget on this? So really consider, even if it's kind of a cool magic trick plug-in, think about how much you are going to use it in your actual workflow. Another thing is does it have any unique features that you don't already have? So some plug-ins have some really unique features. They are going to emulate something. They are going to add a little something special, or they are going to do something that another plug-in doesn't do or doesn't do the same way, and think about if you need that.
A lot of plug-ins I'll say more than not overlap each other in terms of feature sets. So kind of think about what you have and what is this plug-in doing for you. Now, last one, and this is probably the most important for me, right next to sound quality, what is the user interface like? You don't know how many people ignore this and they just buy the plug-in because it looks cool or sounds cool, but then they go to use it with their mouse, and everything kind of falls apart. For example, the DigiRack EQ, it's the one that comes free with Pro Tools.
I actually find myself using this probably more than any other EQ on my system, just for the fact that I can manipulate these nodes and all the features with my mouse. I don't have to use knobs. I don't have to twist knobs with my mouse. Now, sometimes that's not a big deal if you have a controlled surface. So it's something you have to consider in your workflow, how are you using the plug-in, how are you interfacing with it? Can you see everything? Is it visually laid out and not only in an appealing way, but in a way that's functional, that's going to allow you to get the sounds you want without squinting or trying to find that tiny little button and clicking on it? So in the end, write all of these things down and compare them side by side with your other plug-ins, and do blind listening test.
Don't be swayed by the big marketing budgets and the paid endorsements of the major third parties. Advertising may have you believe that one plug-in is going to make you a mix star overnight, transcending space, time, and instantly turning everything you do into gold. But mixing is an incremental skill, just like learning an instrument. Lots of incremental steps and skills add up over time to give you a confident and complete skill set, and this goes for plug-ins too.
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