What are plugins in music production

How many plug-ins does a good mix need: is it better or worse now?

Studio tips - tricks that make the world a better place
by Björn Bojahr,

How many plugins does a good mix need? While a song is slowly building up, I tend to roughly mix the tracks - an EQ here, some compression there, some reverb and delay. After all, it should sound professional. Two hours later my notebook groans - at the same time I find myself distributing the contents of my plug-in folder as evenly as possible over the song ... Does that even help? And how far can I actually get with the on-board resources of my sequencer?

My ophthalmologist always asks me this question when I need new glasses. And the answer is easy for me: If I can read as many of the small letters on the wall as possible, then everything is fine! Actually, things shouldn't be that different in the audio sector: We insert a plug-in, edit the sound and then deactivate it to make sure that this editing is also effective.

Still, unfortunately, I often don't work like that! Instead, I have certain processes in mind. An example: The snare is too loud and still gets lost in the mix. First I take any Lo-Cut, then Native Instruments Solid Bus Comp, and finally I edit the peak with the Sonnox Oxford EQ so that the snare asserts itself well. That usually works very well.

But does the snare sound really better now? Did the snare even need the compressor? Why do I always raise a certain area with the EQ - wouldn't lowering it also be a solution?


The question "is it better or worse now?" can only be answered with a comparison. No matter how extensively our studio has been acoustically optimized: We always need a reference that we can use for orientation. Deactivating a channel's plugins can be a first step. Our ears quickly fall for low volume increases and perceive them as “better”, not revealing them as simply “louder”.

How do I make up for that? If the track has a higher volume due to compression and EQ, I deactivate the two plugins and pull the unprocessed track a little louder. This is often sobering: the track without editing sometimes even sounds better! The dry track is not always sufficient as the sole reference, because depending on the listening situation, you quickly run the risk of correcting or editing all sorts of things that are subsequently completely irrelevant in the mix. The solo switch on each track is a real bane sometimes!

“Mixing” does not mean that we listen to and edit a track solo for minutes, but that we embed it in an overall context! This can only be achieved in the home studio under perhaps less than ideal listening conditions - or with headphones - only with consistent comparison with reference tracks.

But what is a good mix?

Find the CDs in your music collection that come closest to your sound ideal. Organize a folder with the reference tracks on your computer and continuously compare your recording or mix with these tracks. How loud is the kick drum in relation to the rest of the mix? How loud is the bass in relation to the guitars? How high are the overhead mics on the drum set? How does your vocal track compare to the reference track? Always pay attention to the relationships between the sounds. You shouldn't consider volume ratios, placement in the stereo image and rough frequency spaces individually, but you should always relate them to the rest of the sounds on your reference track.

Sometimes less is more!

To use the example given by the ophthalmologist again: It doesn't really matter which frame I choose in the end. It is important that the glasses fit!

It's similar with plugins. What use is a particularly professional, trendy or expensive plugin to you? Much more important is that it works for the particular processing! The basic equipment of a modern DAW software usually includes EQs, compressors, reverb and delay in decent quality. You can even get started with free third-party plugins. One possibility for EQ and compressor would be a combination of TDR VOS Slick EQ and TDR Feedback Compressor II from www.tokyodawn.net. Free of charge, and both are available for Mac and PC. Thrillseeker VBL from varietyofsound.wordpress.com would be a nice free addition as a second compressor.

Why so many words about basic equipment?

Many years ago, analog mixing consoles with 3- and 4-band EQs, mostly even without internal compressors or gates, were completely normal. They were supplemented by a couple of external dynamics processors and effects devices, and this was the technology used to produce at the time. Today the basic equipment of a DAW offers a lot more features. But are there really features that bring us sound-wise?

Before you polish up sounds with extras and start your recordings with other plugins, edit each track with the basics of EQ, volume automation and compressor and, in the case of stereo tracks or multi-miking, the phase position. Use your reference tracks for this style of music as a guide.

Too much information and parameters

I recently tried the Specan 32 plugin from pitonelab.ru/software. It simulates the look of a Klark Teknik DN60 analyzer, which used to be part of almost the basic equipment of every professional studio. Today we have a lot of detailed advertisements, even such tools are available as free freeware ... and yet I was fascinated: In the past, this information was enough for me!

An oversupply of features does not always lead to better sound. Sometimes that tempts us to get bogged down in pointless details. I use an analyzer, for example, because after a while my ears no longer tell me straight away whether I'm getting too loud in the bass range and / or too shrill in the treble range. A quick look at the graphic as a reference helps and I curb my appetite for EQ.

Of course, this example also applies to many areas of a plug-in environment. I purposely named TDR VOS Slick EQ as a basis because you don't get overwhelmed by countless options. During the autumn vacation I only had a Windows tablet with me and of course I still wanted to work on several songs. Because not every plug-in is easy to use via touchscreen, I have often worked with Native Instruments Solid Mix EQ and the Vintage Compressor Bundle. The result sounds great! And when I listen to the mixed ideas on the big computer again, I don't miss anything and I'm happy with the sound.

In the past you had a fixed channel strip on the analog mixer, which in a certain way dictated the direction. First all signals were processed with it. Then you looked to see whether special tools were really needed. Most software sequencers today have EQ and compressor functions per channel. Maybe you already have a favorite EQ and compressor in your collection. For the next song, just use these two plugins or the basic equipment of your DAW.

Comparisons are sometimes sobering

Every few years there is of course that one plug-in that you simply have to have: "Since I've had this plug-in, my mixes sound so spatial - almost like HD television with 3D glasses!" Such statements let us quickly look for a demo version on the web; and in the next mix we pave the miracle cure on every trace. What has a serious effect on a single track can sometimes hardly be heard in the entire mix. Without this supposed miracle cure, the mix is ​​often just a little quieter or different. And sometimes after a limiter in the master bus at the latest there is really nothing left of the supposed miracle cure.


Focus on having a good EQ and compressor that is easy to use and that doesn't distract you with too many options. Always mix with it compared to reference tracks of your music style. This procedure sounds very simple, but it can lead to a far more solid sound than the use of many an elaborate collection of supposedly professional plugins. Have fun rediscovering the basics!

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