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The Epic Fear Of Plugins

Brandon Drury —  August 5, 2011 — Leave a comment

Today I got an email from a forum member who has the Universal Audio LA610 with built in compressor. He’s been trying out a Focusrite ISA428 which does not have any built-in compression and he wanted to know if it would be “okay” to use his UAD plugins on vocals.

I know what he’s thinking. He’s thinking the same thing my girlfriend thinks when I reach for one of our formerly-fresh garden tomatoes. She’s wondering if me insisting on using the tomato with a weird, white ooze and cutting around it is going to poison her. Our member in question appears to have an epic fear of of plugin poison.

Imagine all the fidelity you’ve worked so hard to get being flushed down the toilet my some miserable, lo-fi plugin. He had a legitimate fear…….

In 1996!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :p

This guy is using UAD plugins (he also has the Waves Mercury bundle) and he’s afraid of “bad” sound. I know hundreds of people that would KILL for a UAD-2 card. For me, the UAD-2 Omni has been a game changer. My mixes got a promotion out of that deal.

I don’t mean to pick on Mr. Anonymous. I’m mentioning him because he’s not alone and I want everyone to hear this.

1. You will NEVER make a great mix if you don’t have confidence in your tools.
2. There is a difference between analog compression / EQ and plugins.
3. This difference is small enough that big dogs sound like big dogs with either method. You can too.
4. If you blame your plugins for deficiencies in your mix, just remember that it’s just as difficult with analog. I have a mixture of fun analog and plugins. Getting a great mix is a challenge every time no matter what. It’s not like switching to a hardware LA3A or Distressor magically parts the water, fills my bank account, and a magic mix pops out. Ha! :D
5. Big dog mixes are done all the time with plugins. Watch Pensado’s Place. Out of 32 episodes, I bet only 5 of their guests were not-so-familiar with in the box mixing. I’m talking A-list mixers and engineers. The other 27 or so had obviously done a zillion ITB mixes.

I’m surprised just how many of these albums are mixed ENTIRELY in the box. The number is way higher than I would have ever expected in 2011. Budgets are down and mixing at home ITB is quite cost effective. What really kicked me in the ass is these guys who get to use analog hardware on a regular basis know more about the plugins I own than I do. :eek: That was a wake-up call and a hell of a lesson in itself.

If you need permission to use plugins, you’ve officially got it. Done. Off hand, I remember the Nikki Minaj album was mixed entirely ITB. The guy that mixed the Black Eyed Peas “I’ve Got A Feeling”, Dylan Dresdow, is like an encylopedia of plugins. He can afford whatever he wants but he’s using plugins obviously A LOT. All of Dave Pensado’s “Into The Lair” segments are done mixing in Pro Tools. It doesn’t seem to inhibit his creativity one bit.

Plugins don’t inhibit creativity, but I know one thing that does: Being disappointed that you are using plugins.

The Fear Mixing Dilemma

The problem with worrying about your gear is it shows you aren’t listening.

On the other hand if you are listening and have gripes, that’s another story. If you say, “I just can’t get my vocals bright enough” with X equalizer I’m going to squint a bit because I’ve never seen an EQ that couldn’t add too much top end. Then again, you you should probably try some other EQ plugin. It’s always tough to tell if you aren’t getting the right sound due to a gear issue or a user-error issue. You can guess where I always point the middle finger first. :)

If you listen to various shootouts and aren’t impressed at first, that’s for a reason. This stuff is subtle. If you don’t know what to listen for, you sometimes miss it. When you start listening to the differences between this plugin, that plugin, or that hardware EQ or this hardware EQ most beginners are going to go into squint mode and ultimately end up pissed off that they just don’t hear it.

If you don’t hear it, it means that this particular tool is not an upgrade for you at this time based on this one isolated and possibly irrelevant setting. It’s a safe stretch to say that the big fancy upgrade isn’t going to do THAT much good.

We live in a world now where in Tape Op the guy reviewing the UAD Manley Massive Passive owned a real Manley Massive Passive, and could only correctly pick the real thing 50% of the time (chance) in blind tests on individual tracks. If that isn’t good enough for you, what is?

In most cases, the fancy plugins or hardware get you there a little faster. I remember Paul999′s EQ Overload with API, Mackie, Nady, etc. The Mackie didn’t sound bad AT ALL. There’s no reason a guy with good taste and a great ear couldn’t do well with it. Is it the first choice? No. That’s not the point.

The same applies to plugins. Is there a nicer, analog version out there? Probably. Is there reason you can’t make a mega mix with what you have now? No.

Quit apologizing for using plugins and try to figure out way to compete with these amazing engineers who are using these plugins better than you…. and me.

Brandon

Saved Comments

smnoben – 08-23-2011, 02:59 AM Edit Reply
I love plugins! I fear cables!

paul999 – 08-23-2011, 07:38 AM Edit Reply
Great article. I am buying a UAD system this week and plan to do some direct comparisons. I will test the UAD-1176 against my real 1176 etc. For me I realized that I was about to spend a ton of money getting more compression and eq just because I need more instances of what I have. I definitely have all the crucial areas covered but I wanted to speed work flow. One thing you’ll notice on pensado’s place, that has definitely made me get more disciplined, is how he uses a very small amount of everything (most of the time) and over the course of several stages makes an impact on a sound. I think ITB needs a little more of this because in the past I’ve found plugin’s more grabby and noticeable. If you back way the heck off and just touch each instance the ITB vs OTB becomes even less apparent. This is why I’ve decided I now have the discipline to use plugs now.

TonyB – 08-23-2011, 07:41 AM Edit Reply
Originally Posted by paul999
Great article. I am buying a UAD system this week and plan to do some direct comparisons. I will test the UAD-1176 against my real 1176 etc.
Paul! I’m real interested in this. I extensively use the 1176 and LA2A UAD plugs. I’ve always wanted to know how they stacked up to the legendary box itself.

TonyB – 08-23-2011, 07:43 AM Edit Reply
Originally Posted by smnoben
I love plugins! I fear cables!
That’s a good way of looking at it! I hate cables too. Of course cables are a necessary evil.

I would give up my “cableless 1176 plug” for a “legendary cabled 1176 box.”

fHumble fHingaz – 08-23-2011, 09:21 AM Edit Reply
Top article Brandon! You have expressed exactly what I’ve been thinking after watching Pensado’s Place. Lately, I’ve been working on “analoguing” my plugin collection – I’ve splashed out on UAD’s Studer, Waves MPX & CLA compressors & Slate’s VCC… a poor man’s stab at some analogue vibe, if you will. As you’ve observed, I’ve definitely found that using these tools moderately all over your mix (along with some nice UAD Pultec Eq) really compounds to a much more pleasing result.

feelinstevie – 08-23-2011, 09:48 AM Edit Reply
Spot on,Brandon! I highly recommend Mike Senior’s book Mixing Secrets For The Small Studio from Focal Press. It is hands down by far the best book I’ve read on the subject. It’s $40 but well worth it. I would also recommend checking out his article in this month’s Sound On Sound on mixing mistakes and how to avoid them. Without the right LISTENING environment, the subtleties of different plug-ins, and sound in general, will be lost on even the most professional engineers.

paul999 – 08-23-2011, 09:58 AM Edit Reply
Originally Posted by fHumble fHingaz
Top article Brandon! You have expressed exactly what I’ve been thinking after watching Pensado’s Place. Lately, I’ve been working on “analoguing” my plugin collection – I’ve splashed out on UAD’s Studer, Waves MPX & CLA compressors & Slate’s VCC… a poor man’s stab at some analogue vibe, if you will. As you’ve observed, I’ve definitely found that using these tools moderately all over your mix (along with some nice UAD Pultec Eq) really compounds to a much more pleasing result.
I am doing the opposite and I think we are meeting in the middle. Because I was wanting to have a ton of less critical compressors that shave a little here and there I felt digital is worth a shot. My analog stuff can be the vibe. I definitely hear the results of your latest experiments as an overall positive in your mixes.

m24p – 08-23-2011, 09:59 AM Edit Reply
I’ve always wondered what’s the point in asking if it’s “okay” to do ANYTHING in mixing. If your ears tell you its good, do it, if they tell you it’s bad, don’t do it.If one EQ is subtly “better” than another EQ, but you can’t hear a difference, guess what? You’ll just as easily screw up the good one as the bad one! There’s no magic way to make sure you’re using only golden ear approved mixing techniques that will make your mixes sound awesome to the snobbiest engineer. If you can’t tell a difference, or it sounds good to you, do it. As your ears get more trained and your tastes evolve, you may start to hate what you did previously, but you can mess up anything, using the real deal gear isn’t going to stop you from that.

moleunion – 08-23-2011, 11:56 AM Edit Reply
I’ve been addicted to Pensado’s Place these last few weeks! It’s helped me realize that we do spend a lot of time feeling insecure about our gear and not enough time learning how to make awesome mixes with what we have. I love it when Dave says, “People don’t pay me for my technical ability, they pay me for my taste.”All of our gear (mics, pres, hardware/software eq/comps, etc.) are tools and only tools. Having great tools doesn’t make you a great carpenter… being a great carpenter with a lot of experience makes you a great carpenter and the tools are secondary.

Lambchop – 08-23-2011, 01:47 PM Edit Reply
Just as I was convincing myself to get a hardware compressor you come up with this gem of an article. Thanks Brandon, you just saved me R2000 (South African Rands). I’ve decided to go with a 5 LCD monitor setup instead, then I can have all my plugins setup on the individual screens and I can learn how to use ‘em properly.I do believe that plugins are 95% just as good as their hardware counterparts. As you say, it’s up to the individual to get the most out of the software.

Lambchop – 08-23-2011, 01:49 PM Edit Reply
Just as I was convincing myself to get a hardware compressor you come up with this gem of an article. Thanks Brandon, you just saved me R2000 (South African Rands). I’ve decided to go with a 5 LCD monitor setup instead, then I can have all my plugins setup on the individual screens and I can learn how to use ‘em properly.I do believe that plugins are 95% just as good as their hardware counterparts. As you say, it’s up to the individual to get the most out of the software.

Eugene G – 08-23-2011, 02:04 PM Edit Reply
Hi, just registered here to post a comment =) But first of all, thank you Brandon! You’re doing great work and i’m frequently reading your articles! On this one though i can not quite agree. The main thought is right for me. One surely can use plug ins and for guys like me that do not have spare 20k $ for distressors, LA’s and other it is obviously the only way to mix. And i must admit that stuff like UAD or focusrites liquid mix do the job very well. It is at least 50% of the engineer’s ears and expirience and of course confidence with their tools. And the use of analog turbo gear makes maybe about 10% But what was not mentioned is the acoustic environment in wich we mix. The say is, your monitors&room have to be organized that fine that you can really hear the difference with turning that attack, ratio or shelve knob just a tiny bit. In other case you may use the geatest geae out there and results still suck, just becase you don’t actually hear what’s going on…

ajs – 08-23-2011, 02:47 PM Edit Reply
Great post. I completely agree. I used to be sifting through the problems that the ‘big boys’ were, and trying to see if I could solve any of those problems or learn anything. I quickly realized that you need to go at your own pace, and now I don’t even think about buying anything based on a problem I didn’t know I originally had. It’s only when I personally discover a limitation with my mixes will I look for solutions, instead of looking for solutions to problems I didn’t know I even had.

John Lance – 08-23-2011, 03:48 PM Edit Reply
I love plugins that work. You “twist” a knob, and an expect musical sound shaping result is what happens. Musical is subject to taste, but you get my drift. You make adjustments and the expected things happen, even if it is that you have to learn your way around the plugin a bit in order to take advantage of that. UAD has been super in this regard for me. Their plugins do the expected, and consistently… At least for the ones I have.

cporro – 08-23-2011, 07:52 PM Edit Reply
amen. if only i could convince like half of the musicians i know of this. the attachment to analog gear is romantic and emotional. and most people would never be able to pick out either for sure. i watched a pensado’s place where the guess mixer named a uad plug as his go to plug for about 80% of sources. go to vox compressor…uad la2a, go to snare…uad la2a and pultec. again, a guy who could use anything. i personally think the days of kick-ass guitars only coming from real amps is over. i will do a post on my fractal vs magix vandal plugin soon. shout out to mike seniors book. very good. takes into account some things that i’ve never seen addressed before. timing corrections for example. also good is mixing audio by roey Roey Izhaki. comes with lots of audio samples.

paul999 – 08-23-2011, 11:45 PM Edit Reply
Originally Posted by cporro
amen. if only i could convince like half of the musicians i know of this. the attachment to analog gear is romantic and emotional. and most people would never be able to pick out either for sure. i watched a pensado’s place where the guess mixer named a uad plug as his go to plug for about 80% of sources. go to vox compressor…uad la2a, go to snare…uad la2a and pultec. again, a guy who could use anything. i personally think the days of kick-ass guitars only coming from real amps is over. i will do a post on my fractal vs magix vandal plugin soon. shout out to mike seniors book. very good. takes into account some things that i’ve never seen addressed before. timing corrections for example. also good is mixing audio by roey Roey Izhaki. comes with lots of audio samples.
Has no one noticed that Pensado’s place although great and informative is specifically aiming their show at ITB users. This is great to help ITB users get feeling great about their gear. I am not saying that great mixes can’t happen ITB at all. But rewind most episodes and when they Dave says “tell us your favorite stuff on sources” The guest usually clarifies “do you mean plug in’s”? Clearly a lot of these mixers are using at least some hardware in their mix’s and could smoke most of us at ITB mixes. There is definitely a slant to that show. For a very noble reason but don’t take it to mean something it doesn’t.

When I hear ITB mixers talk about their plugs I have yet to hear them not talk about waves stuff and UAD and a whole EXPENSIVE list of others.

If you listen to the interview with Eric Valentine you will hear that the attachment is not just romantic and emotional.

widnikprod – 08-24-2011, 01:12 AM Edit Reply
Bravo! I love the UA plugins!!!!!

irawan gani – 08-24-2011, 01:29 AM Edit Reply
Originally Posted by Eugene G
But what was not mentioned is the acoustic environment in wich we mix. The say is, your monitors&room have to be organized that fine that you can really hear the difference with turning that attack, ratio or shelve knob just a tiny bit. In other case you may use the geatest geae out there and results still suck, just becase you don’t actually hear what’s going on…
First off, welcome Eugene.

the whole point of this blog post is about learning how to use whatever gear you have to make the music sound good. we’ve rightly established in this forum that the room and monitoring situation is the most important thing ever.

irawan gani – 08-24-2011, 01:39 AM Edit Reply
Originally Posted by paul999
Has no one noticed that Pensado’s place although great and informative is specifically aiming their show at ITB users. This is great to help ITB users get feeling great about their gear. I am not saying that great mixes can’t happen ITB at all. But rewind most episodes and when they Dave says “tell us your favorite stuff on sources” The guest usually clarifies “do you mean plug in’s”? Clearly a lot of these mixers are using at least some hardware in their mix’s and could smoke most of us at ITB mixes. There is definitely a slant to that show. For a very noble reason but don’t take it to mean something it doesn’t.

When I hear ITB mixers talk about their plugs I have yet to hear them not talk about waves stuff and UAD and a whole EXPENSIVE list of others.

If you listen to the interview with Eric Valentine you will hear that the attachment is not just romantic and emotional.
indeed. most of them know how to do BOTH. and they embrace both technologies. Eric Valentine is a slightly different kind of cat. that man is a genius. he creates his own stuffs. his own console, the umbrella drum booth etc. but if given the opportunity, he will be a million times better with the plug in than all the engineers of the world combined or better still he will create his own plug in.

as far as i am concerned, the only fully ITB engineer that has appeared in Pensado’s place is Alex Da Kidd.

Armageddon – 08-24-2011, 05:38 AM Edit Reply
Brandon, You wrote : “For me, the UAD-2 Omni has been a game changer. My mixes got a promotion out of that deal”. That’s interesting and you should develop. I mean, does it make a BIG difference to mix with top quality plugins so everyone should save to invest on UAD cards and plugs ? Let me ask another question and turn the problem in another way : Take a highly skilled producer, let him make a killer mix with his top quality tools. Now give him my gear and plugs and ask him to make another mix. This will sound different of course ! But will it sound worse ?

cathomas – 08-24-2011, 05:45 AM Edit Reply
Originally Posted by paul999
I am buying a UAD system this week and plan to do some direct comparisons.
Ill be very interested to hear this. You should go a step further (if it isnt too much bother for you) and throw in a free 1176 clone like the Antress ones or similar. I’ve always wondered if they are even close. I really like their distressor clone on my vocals, but it may just be a psychological thing. haha

pedrolima – 08-28-2011, 10:00 AM Edit Reply
Nice topic Brandon. I think that we have to try out to use more our imagination and less gadgets.

irawan gani – 08-28-2011, 11:53 AM Edit Reply
Originally Posted by Armageddon
Brandon, You wrote : “For me, the UAD-2 Omni has been a game changer. My mixes got a promotion out of that deal”. That’s interesting and you should develop. I mean, does it make a BIG difference to mix with top quality plugins so everyone should save to invest on UAD cards and plugs ? Let me ask another question and turn the problem in another way : Take a highly skilled producer, let him make a killer mix with his top quality tools. Now give him my gear and plugs and ask him to make another mix. This will sound different of course ! But will it sound worse ?
there is a chance that it might turn out worse but the short answer is ‘No’.

Three Cee – 09-13-2011, 04:49 PM Edit Reply
Remember that what sounds familiar is what sounds good. We are so far removed from Analog tape and analog gear that it doesn’t have the same appeal to the generation that grew up with digital. You should use what sounds good to you and makes the sound you want. I mix analog and plug ins. The one that works best is the one I use. It varies.

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of RecordingReview.com and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.
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