Thursday, 20 September 2012

Plugin Hoarding: Five reasons it makes you a worse musician

We all know someone who spends a fortune buying expensive equipment like effects pedals and custom guitars, and a good chunk of the time they end up spending more time messing about making funny noises rather than focusing on writing music. I admit, I used to have a lot of hardware synths, and I enjoyed getting weird sounds out of them, but as I became more interested in making music and working with artists to record tracks I began shifting over to a core set of software plugins, and my lovely vintage gear was largely ignored.

Hardware isn't the only thing that musicians hoard though; more and more I meet musicians who just have to have the latest NI synth plugins or Waves bundle -  or they spend hours on KVR downloading every free VSTi or AU they can find. Again, a lot of the time these musicians spend more time flicking between the different plugins trying to decide which one to use rather than developing their skills as a musician.

There are many reasons why both GAS and plugin hoarding are detrimental to your music making, but these five stand out to me the most.

Lack of Depth

First of all, if you have a ton of plugins - particularly synths - chances are you won't be exploring them in detail. Even the simplest of plugins can produce amazingly complex sounds, but unless you spend some time getting to know it you won't progress beyond the ones you already know how to make. Sure, everyone loves a big fat Moogish lead sound, and squelchy acid basslines are great fun, but if that's all you ever come up with you'll never go deep enough into the synth to produce original sounds.

It's the plugin's fault

Another major problem with hoarding plugins is that you become obsessed with certain features of particular plugins. The Waves and McDSP plugins are great, and I use them a lot at uni, but just because a certain plugin can emulate a particular piece of vintage equipment doesn't make it the best solution to your particular problem. You might end up developing the mentality that the stock Pro Tools or Logic plugins aren't good enough because you can't get the sound you want out of them. More than likely it's because you haven't mastered that aspect of mixing yet, and rather than spending some time practising it you'll switch to a "better" plugin. If you give a non-musician a piano and ask them to play Moonlight Sonata it's going to sound bad on a beaten up old upright or a top of the line Steinway. Don't blame your plugins for your own shortcomings.

The piracy temptation

The internet is absolutely full of free plugins, but it is also full of cracked software. At first it seems like nobody is getting hurt - after all, people do buy the software, so it's not like the companies are going to go bankrupt. However, not every software company is as big as Native Instruments or Arturia, and more and more smaller developers' plugins are appearing online. These people rely heavily on software sales to keep their companies alive, and without the support of their customers they can't continue to produce high quality software. Apart from anything else, some cracked software is unstable, and can crash your DAW. Nobody likes to lose their work, so bear that in mind next time you download a cracked copy of a plugin.

Disk space

These days drives are measured in hundreds of GB, even multiple TB, but even with this abundant space it's very easy to fill your drive with plugins that you won't use more than once. Some plugins come with sample libraries that span several GBs, such as the EWQL libraries, and if you aren't using it it's a waste of drive space. A lot of laptops have a stock HDD of about 500GB, give or take a couple of hundred, and if you fill it up with 5 or 6 big sample libraries you're quickly going to run out of space for multitrack audio recordings.

Low musical output

Finally, with all of the other reasons combined, you're going to spend less time turning your musical ideas into a recorded track that you can be proud of. With all of this plugin switching, lack of experience with the fundamentals and focus on the gimmicks you won't be reaching your full potential as a musician or producer. Spend some time getting to know one DAW inside out, and learn how to use the plugins it comes with. Don't have huge numbers of synths, regardless of their capabilities. Get to know one really well, and learn how to coax truly amazing sounds out of it. My DAW of choice is Reason, and I love the way everything is integrated. Granted, I've splashed out on a couple of Rack Extensions, but I still use Thor and Subtractor as my main synths, and I much prefer to construct my own effects chains than rely on the bells and whistles of the multitude of weird and wonderful FX units out there.

Most importantly, develop yourself as a musician, an engineer and a producer, because when you've done that you'll begin making tracks that make you happy - and that's what really matters.
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