Long time readers might know that I’m pretty conservative with plugins. More specifically: The number of plugins installed and active on my computer.
Initially it was for session workflow. Gone are the days of installing and trialling every latest plugin that got released. I long ago realised I could work much faster and get better results by sticking with a smaller selection of plugins that I knew intimately.
There were other benefits to reducing my plugin collection. My computer was more stable, and conflicts were more easily resolved. Reinstalling everything from scratch was less torturous. Projects had a longer ‘active’ archive life before missing plugins meant they couldn’t be recalled 100%.
In the back of my mind, I’ve long entertained the fantasy of using only stock DAW plugins and not even installing any extra plugins. With the current version of Cubase (my preferred DAW for well over a decade), it’s now pretty close. There’s some decent EQ and compression options. This is about 80% of every mix right there.
Unfortunately, the stock reverb and saturation tools are still pretty ordinary (although ask me again after I’ve upgraded to Cubase 7.5). They’re not bad, but I much prefer my ValhallaDSP and FabFilter options. And that’s before we start counting instruments (Maschine, Massive and Kontakt get a pretty good workout) and specialty mastering tools.
And then I noticed something interesting.
As part of kitting out my new studio for recording bands, I’d started accumulating hardware. Racks of preamps and compressors and console EQ and reverb. And I’ve been finding that the more processing I do on the way in, the less I have to do in the mix. Dramatically so. My latest mixes have only needed software for a touch of EQ, a little transparent compression and the regular reverb.
In addition to the benefits of not using plugins, there are some serious benefits to using hardware. The hands-on interfaces with a variety of different knobs, buttons and sliders make for a much more satisfying engineering experience. Muscule memory actually means something. By contrast, using a keyboard and trackpad reminds me of everything that was wrong with 90s 1U rack synths – having only a handful of generic physical controls to access an enormous array of parameters and sonic possibilities. And also (as much as I dislike this), having a few racks and a console allows me to charge more because it looks more like the studios featured in the countless documentaries and photos from over the last six decades.
Of course, there are downsides. Hardware is expensive. Cabling suddenly becomes a separate line item to budget for. Physical space is much less available and expandable than hard drive space. It takes longer to install. It resists multiple instances.
But at this stage, the biggest drawbacks (cost and space) are smaller problems than they used to be. And they’ll continue to get even smaller in the future. And the biggest benefits (dedicated hands-on physical interfaces and appearance) are more bugger advantages than they used to be. And they’ll continue to get more advantageous in the future.