5 Steps For Getting The Most Out Of Your Plugins

If your Facebook feed is anything like mine, then you are probably constantly bombarded with ads for plug-ins. EQs, Compressors, tools made specifically for vocals, for drums, for the bass, mastering suites and many others — all clogging your news feed and following you wherever you surf on the Internet (thanks Google Remarketing!).

With Black Friday fast approaching, these ads will only increase. Have you ever stopped to think about whether you need most of the plug-ins you buy? I have quite a few I use, but I have far more that I do not.

The exceptional Graham Cochrane at TheRecordingRevolution.com put together a really concise five part checklist to make sure the plug-ins you are using are actually making your mix sound better.

After reading this article a while back, I always go through each of these five steps. You should too! Who knows, maybe you’ll sell off some of those plug-ins you don’t use and focus more on getting to know what you have!

Here is the article:

When you slap a plugin on your mix, do you have a concrete reason? Is it really doing something for your tracks?

An engineer says “The XYZ Compressor is the smoothest sounding compressor I’ve ever heard. I love it!” So we blindly go out and buy XYZ Compressor, insert it into a track and just assume it’s making our mix sound smoother. Whatever that means.

Maybe it really is a great plugin. Maybe it’s not. How do you know?

Is there a way you can definitively discover if a plugin is a good fit for you and your music? Is there a way to make sure you’re using it in the best way possible?

Today I want to share a laughably simple 5 step process I use to get the absolute best out of my plugins. It’ll give you the clarity to say “Yes” or “No” to any plugin at any point, and the confidence to know each plugin you use is there for a reason.

Step #1 – Listen In Default Mode

The first thing you should do is simply listen to the plugin in default mode. I know it sounds obvious, but so often after inserting a plugin on a track we go hog wild and begin twisting knobs.

Resist the urge.

What we want to discover is what the plugin does for our tracks in the default setting, simply passing audio through.

Does it add some sweet harmonics? Does it thicken up the bottom end? Does it mellow out the top end? Does widen the stere image? Or does it do absolutely nothing? (Which isn’t a bad thing by the way).

Simply listen and methodically bypass the plugin (on and off) and take note of what you hear. There is much to learn about a plugin by hearing what it does to your audio all by itself.


Step #2 – Try Some Presets

On almost any plugin, trying a factory preset is an insightful exercise as it reveals what is possible with the plugin and what the manufacturer envisioned for its use.

Many times you will discover a preset that is an instant fit and become one of your go-to sounds. I have some favorite factory presets for example on one of my buss compressors. They simply work.

Most of the time you won’t get a perfectly useable preset, especially if it’s an EQ (almost pointless in my opinion) but you will still discover some cool things about the plugin. And knowledge is power.

Step #3 – Push Buttons

Did you know you can push buttons and tweak knobs on your plugin and nothing bad will happen?

I say this sarcastically because all too often I hear people being afraid to mess with their plugins – thinking they could somehow ruin the mix. News flash, you can undo anything you like in a DAW!

It’s wise to develop the healthy habit of fiddling when it comes to your plugins.

Grab each knob and crank it as far as it will go. What did that do? Take a mental note. Rinse and repeat for each knob.

This takes the concept of trying out presets to the next level. It allows you to know what is truly possible with your plugin.

Much of the extreme settings will not be useable, but knowing how far you can push things and what happens when you do, is critical to getting the most out of your gear.


Step #4 – Balance The Output Volume

Except for perhaps a limiter, the goal of any plugin is never to simply make the track louder.

This is an important point – when fiddling with a plugin (any plugin) if your settings add some gain to the track (which is invariably what happens) you will always think you are enhancing the sound. Humans think louder sounds better.

The key is to locate the output knob or fader and turn the signal back down to the original input volume. (Or if you made the track quieter with the plugin, like with compressors, then turn the output back up.)

This way, when you do Step #5 you can make an accurate assessment of whether the plugin is helping or hurting your track.

All too often we skip this step and love how each plugin adds a bit of “something” to our track, when in reality that “something” is called gain, and you don’t need a plugin to turn up your mix a few dB.

Step #5 – Bypass The Plugin

If you have matched the output volume of the plugin to that of the input, then Step #5 will actually work.

After playing around with the plugin and landing on some settings that sound good to you (and that’s what this is all about, isn’t it?) the final step is to simply playback the song and bypass the plugin. Turn it off and then on, and then off, etc.

All you’re doing at this point is listening to see how (and if) the plugin changes the sound of your track. Is it better? Worse? Or does it not make any real difference?

That last question is huge. I find myself adding plugins, tweaking sounds, matching the output level, and then bypassing the plugin all to find that I can’t tell a difference with the plugin on or off.

If that happens, major clue to simply get rid of the plugin. It’s literally pointless in your mix.

Putting Them All Together

Wow – those were pretty simple steps, right? But they are so important. And in real life all five of those steps flow together pretty quickly and fluidly.

Just this week I was mixing a song for our Dueling Mixes members and tried out a brand new (free) compressor that was recommended to me. I slapped it on my mix, went through all five steps, and in the end felt that it did absolutely nothing for my mix.

I maybe lost 10 to 15 minutes MAX doing this, but now I know for sure that I don’t need that plugin on my mix.

And on the flip side, I went back to my original compressor and I can confidently say  it sounded much better to me. That’s a beautiful thing.

So let me ask you: do you walk through all five of these steps when you’re trying out a plugin on your mix? How do YOU get to know your plugins intimately so you can mix with more confidence?

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