Why Mixing With Only Stock Plugins Can Give You A Better Mix

| Mixing, Plugins, Tips

If you truly want a great sounding mix, then the best thing you could do is stop dropping in all your “favorite” 3rd party plugins.

Instead if you would (even for one song) exclusively use the stock EQs, compressors, and other included tools you more than likely will get better results in the end.

Is it because stock plugins sound better? No. Rather it’s because of a very simple but powerful mental shift that happens when you “limit” yourself to them.
Stock Plugins

The Problem With Awesome 3rd Party Plugins

I’m a fan of plugins as much as anyone.

From all the pressure I felt in college to jump on the cracked plugins bandwagon to actually doing the honest thing and shelling out tons of money for the latest and greatest plug – I’ve been bit by the plugin bug.

And for good reason – there are so many awesome sounding plugins out there.

From the Waves SSL bundle to all the voodoo drenched analog sounding plugins from my buddy Steven Slate I love and use many of the great tools available to us today.

But there’s a very real problem and danger that comes with using 3rd party plugins: they shift your attention away from the real reason why your mix sucks.

Your Mix Sounds Bad And No Plugin Can Fix That

You see – the only reason why you and I reach for 3rd party plugins is because our mixes don’t sound as good as we’d like and so we’re hoping another plugin will help.

The truth is, if your mix sounds bad – it’s because you just haven’t mixed it well. No plugin can help you there.

And deep down inside we both know that’s true.

That’s why I spend so much time teaching and training people to improve themselves and work on their craft, rather than simply buy more stuff.

So back to the problem with 3rd party plugins – they divert your energy attention away from the real issue (doing a better job mixing) and instead keep you searching for the quick fix.

The Secret Hack Of Using Stock Plugins

What if one day you said to yourself “Today I’m only going to use stock plugins on this mix,” and you said “no” to any of your favorite 3rd party plugins?

A very subtle but powerful shift would happen.

Without the lure of reaching for another plugin to “fix” your subpar mix, you’d be forced to really focus on what the real issues are with the tracks in front of you and identify what is needed to take them to the next level.

Since 80% or more of your mix comes from your EQ and compression decisions, you’d be forced to simply grab your available stock EQ and stock compressor (or channel strip) and get to work.

Instead of thinking about which plugin will sound better on a lead vocal, you’ll be thinking about frequencies and attack and release times – things that make a much bigger difference.

It’s a hack you see. When you remove the possibility of grabbing a different plugin, you free up brain power and attention to apply to the actual plugin settings you will use to enhance your tracks.

And that’s really where the mix comes together. The subtle, intentional chipping away of the marble to reveal a beautiful piece of art.

Try It On At Least One Mix

If this sounds like lunacy to you, I want to challenge you: try to use stock plugins exclusively for at least one mix.

Pick one song, maybe even a song you’ve already mixed before, wipe the session clean and mix it from the ground up with only what’s included in your DAW. No exceptions.

Not even other free plugins. Just what comes standard with your software.

I just did this last week actually – and the results are fascinating. I’m getting a more musical and balanced mix this time around.

Is it because my stock plugins sound better than all my fancy 3rd party ones? No. It’s because I’m more focused on the tracks themselves than I am the tools.

So try it yourself and see what happens. If you don’t like the results, you can always go back to your beloved plugins. I won’t judge you.

Remember – I’m FOR you getting better sounding mixes.

That’s the goal of this website. I love seeing my readers and viewers get results. It creates a force that is more powerful and more motivational than anything else I could give them.

So do me (and everyone else here) a favor, will you? Go try a stock-plugin-only mix and then come back here and report your results in a comment below!

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39 Responses to “Why Mixing With Only Stock Plugins Can Give You A Better Mix”

  1. Grayson Peddie

    If you have Harrison Mixbus (I’m a Linux advocate), EQ and compressor is built-in! Use it!

    Reply
    • Tuomas Helin

      Very true. These quotes are from Harrison Mixbus site: “The DAW+Plugin paradigm was invented when computers were far too slow to process an EQ on every track. Plugins were a compromise that solved the problem: users were allowed to add EQ to the tracks where they were deemed most important. – Engineers have been mixing on hardware consoles for more than 80 years because that’s what works. Need to make a change? Grab a knob and change it. We believe that mixing inside a DAW should be no different and as easy to use as a hardware console. So we make the mixer portion of Mixbus work just like a hardware console, applying precision & proprietary algorithms to provide Harrison’s great sounding EQ, HP Filter, and Dynamics on every channel… without the need for additional plug-ins.”

      BTW, which other DAW supports three operating systems (OSX, Windows, Linux)?

      Reply
    • Jamie

      I don’t have any 3rd party plugins and never have ! I ever had a problem ever ! I am always able to fix/make it happen with what I have !

      Reply
  2. Serapion

    I’ve been Doing 90% of my mixes with stock plugins only and can totally confirm this. I’m only using 3rd party plugins every now and then to see if they can boost the final mix in any way (let’s be honest, it’s mostly lazyness why I do this). You should only be using “extraordinary” plugins when you’re already satisfied with your mix.

    Reply
  3. Nick

    It’s funny this should come out today. Only yesterday I had a small ‘mix’ to do (namely, mix my drums along with a stereo drum less track for a band I am auditioning for) and I only used stock plug ins. I have very recently bought a new laptop and I want to keep it clean of cracked software as much as possible this time. I sent it to a producer friend of mine who regularly gives me feedback on my mixes and he said it was the best thing he’d heard from me by far. And that was achieved by ONLY eq, compression (both as an insert, a little bit of parallel and multi band too) and a reverb send. Literally nothing else. This has confirmed to me I am not going to bother reaching for that waves mercury bundle download link.

    Reply
  4. Sam Sharples

    Gotta admit I’m a free plugin connoisseur… I search for new ones everyday, with the latest being iZotope’s free ones and Ignite Amps’ new Pultec EQ. I know they won’t fix my mixes, but they’re my toys and they’re fun.

    I accept your stock plugin challenge. I’ll put my free plug collection on the shelf for a mix and see what happens.

    Reply
  5. Jonny

    I’ve been on a 3rd party plug fast for over a decade now. Best thing I ever did, and it was only meant to last for a year! LOL Saved me a TON of money, and made my mixing skills SO much better!

    Reply
  6. Estevão Rui Calheirana BRASIL!!!

    Graham I just did a challange to a friend of mine I mixed a song with only pro tools stock plugins and he would do it on cubase, for me I sounded amazing and way better than I did with Waves, Izotope, Native instruments and Psp audioware plugins. I mean seriously you can get really focus on the sound you want and the best part is that you dont need a ready sound from fancy nice looking plugins you need to hear and edit everythin. I USED TO FORGET THE ATTACK AND RELEASE from my CLA waves plugins becouse they dont have it, now I feel i am really mixing.

    Reply
  7. Christian Simpson

    I do this with every mix. I don’t think I’m using any 3rd party plugins at all because I can’t condone spending a lot of money on plugins. This is a good trick though because I mostly focus on the EQ and compression and what I can change instead of just slapping on more plugins

    Reply
  8. Roger McGuire

    Hey Graham. Love what you’re about and all of the free advice. I did this recently for a college project and the results were so good that now, I reach for stock plug-ins BEFORE some of my third party ones. It was a great exercise and I’d totally recommend it to everyone. I use Reaper by the way.

    Reply
  9. Jonathan Evans

    We can spend so long searching for the right plug-in to use that we lose sight of what we wanted the plug to do. The reality is that whilst there are some great 3rd party plug-ins out there most DAW versions are pretty good these days and buried in a mix the difference may not be heard. If I run a 40-50 track mix my computer won’t take kindly to processor intensive plugs on every track anyway. I had loads of 3rd party stuff but just haven’t updated them as system requirements have changed and I really don’t miss them. Yes, there are one or two “special” plugs that nothing else replicates but the leaner your keep your plug folder the quicker it is to find something and most importantly as you use and re-use the same plug you get to know it’s ins and outs and sweet spots.

    Reply
  10. Awaclus

    This doesn’t make any sense. The only reason why I reach for stock plugins is also because my mix doesn’t sound as good as I’d like and so I’m hoping another plugin will help. That’s what the purpose of plugins is. They do stuff that the DAW can’t do without a plugin, and when you need one of those things done, the plugin helps because it does that. When I need a tape distortion simulator in my mix, then I’m SOL if I don’t have 3rd party plugins because my DAW doesn’t have a tape distortion simulator stock plugin. When I need a reverb that sounds like Valhalla Shimmer, I’m also SOL if I don’t have Valhalla Shimmer because it’s a very unique sounding reverb that can’t be achieved with the stock plugins. When I need an EQ or a compressor though, I’m most certainly reaching for the stock plugins every time because the FL stock plugins for those purposes give me more control over different variables than any 3rd party plugins that I’m aware of, and as such, they are more likely to allow me to do whatever it is that I want that plugin to do for my mix.

    Reply
  11. Milton Messenger

    There is really no need to use this hack of stock plugins only, if you understand the focus of what you are trying to accomplish. If you understand “how” eq’s and compressors work, then in my opinion, there is no need to use this stock plugin hack at all. More important than ‘which’ plugins to use, i.e. stock or 3rd party, is to be able to hear in your mind ‘what’ you want to change and to know how to use the tools to ‘change’ it correctly. Sometimes I will use a plugin, either stock or 3rd party, and find the settings I need. Then I might simply transfer those settings to either another stock or 3rd party plugin that does definitely sound better and then fine tune my settings. So the plugin doesn’t matter to me. It’s the accuracy and precision of how I use them that counts. But Graham is right that it is easy to fall into the trap that a “different” plugin will fix a problem when really the settings are not correct or the settings only work when a track is soloed but not in the full mix. Sure am grateful for Graham’s work and motivation though.

    Reply
  12. Jerry

    Thanks for the good reminder article, Graham. It’s easy to get distracted with all the 3rd party options out there. I have to admit I have and use my fair share of 3rd party plug-ins (mostly freebies). However, I don’t solely rely on them as most of the stock plugins in Logic Studio allow me to get my mixes at least 90% to where they need to me. You can get good with any DAW. Remember: mixing is a skill and it takes time to become proficient.

    Reply
  13. Andreas Lorentsen

    Hello,

    Sounds like a plan. My problem as a songwriter and producer, is that I always end up focusing on the sound and audiotechical stuff when I should be focusing on the lyrics and the sound structure. I can never free myself the way I could when all I had was a 4 track cassette recorder and a guitar.

    Best,

    Andreas

    Reply
  14. Thomas Ferraro

    Except for Multiband Compression and some Emulation software all my plugins are stock plugins.

    The only other non stock plugins I use are for Metering, Spectrum Analysis and Mastering.

    I had a bunch of name brand plugins for everything when I first started but then realized two things… not only were they a distraction with all the bells and whistles but having so many plugins in my library actually causes the DAW to use more resources to load them. That causes problems in projects with a large number of tracks as the load increases.

    So figuratively speaking I was carrying an extra 100 lbs of gear I hardly ever use when all I really needed was the 35lbs of essential tools.

    Much easier this way!

    Reply
  15. Brady

    Well…sometime ago I purchased a sonnox oxford plugins bundle and since them I’ve challenged myself to use them and only them and nothing else….like they were the stock plugins that came with my DAW. I think it’s the same thing. So I suppose it doesnt matter if it’s third party or not. Just pick one EQ, one compressor, one reverb, etc… and stick to those for the rest of project.

    Reply
  16. Joshua Hall

    Graham,

    There is a learning curve with everything. I recently updated my DAW and certain aspects changed and when I open songs made with the previous version the virtual instruments sound “different” to me. Instead of saving on the Updated DAW, and tweeking everything again so it sounds like what I had to begin with, I decided I would finish any projects using the Old Version and begin learning the Updated Version with new material. This put a fire under me, so I finalized an album of songs and put them up on Nimbit. Sometimes newer isn’t better, it is just different. The goal is making music. Keep the goal in mind.

    Thanks,
    Josh

    Reply
  17. KD

    Hi Graham,

    I recently got waves plug-ins I’m so excited to have them n use them on my mix, what I’ve noticed they’re many so you end up looking and searching all the way and wasting time so I will go and use the stock plug-ins on my next mix and see the result

    Thanks

    Reply
  18. Cy

    I normally use only stock plugins (Reaper) on my mix (except EZ Drummer and some free VSTi). It works well for me. The only things that I have purchased are the Reaper DAW and EZ Drummer.
    I do love the free (not cracked) plugins from the internet. However, they rarely get used and it is mainly for special distortion FX.

    Thanks for your lessons,
    Cy

    Reply
  19. Richard Shepherd

    Graham,

    The stock plug-in philosophy you have developed/reminded your community about has drastically revolutionized my entire thinking about mixing.

    As a songwriter, engineering and producing were skill sets that blossomed out of a basic need to want to create and record high quality recordings without having to book time at an expensive studio with an apathetic engineer.

    I went down a rabbit hole that I continue to explore. I went down many roads (hacked plug-ins, volumes of reading, an insane amount of hours of youtube tutorials, my own trials & errors) to varying degrees of success.

    However, when my old laptop was destroyed accidentally (maybe), I was forced to start from scratch without the cracked plugins and fortuitously enough, I came across The Record Revolution.

    The emphasis on balance, listening, ‘lots of small moves=big results’ with EQ and utilizing what’s on hand has giving me a, dare i say, holistic approach to my mixing technique now.

    Thank you so much for ALL the work you do for all of us who continue to journey down the rabbit hole!

    Reply
  20. Nathan Kaye

    Another great article Graham.
    I had been doing something similar, yet slightly different angle that others may find useful.
    Check it:
    So I would carve the EQ and compression from the stock plugins in Cubase. Then I would attempt to recreate the same sound & tone from one of my favourite 3rd party plugins. Sometimes I would just match the settings and see if and how they sounded different & whether I could tell the difference or not.
    Why did the 3rd party plugin sometimes sound better & could I recreate it with stock plugins? So I would also try this vice-versa. Use the 3rd party plugin first, then recreate it on the stock plugins.

    Wow! The results were fascinating.

    Sometimes I found that the visual element of the stock plugin EQ would actually distract me from actually listening to the frequency because I could see it! Whereas the 3rd party plugin forced me to just listen and just use knobs.

    Yet with the 3rd party plugin compressors I found my ears got lazy (especially Waves CLA-2A or Slate’s 1176), whereas on the STANDARD stock plugin compressors (Cubase actually has some great sounding vintage stock plugins, but that creates the same trick/problem as 3rd party plugins) I was forced to listen to what the attack and release were doing.

    I’d like to know what results others get using this method.

    Do famous engineers and producers have better ears than us?
    My feeling as to why many of us reach first for 3rd party plugins has a heck of a lot more to do with thinking, “other better, or more professional ears will hear the subtle magic of the analogue emulation etc, even though I can sometimes hardly or not hear the difference myself.” As if they have some magical ability to hear more than we can.

    So the question is, do they actually hear better than us?
    Or do they only have a subtle ‘better’ at hearing ability than most of us, due to many hours in frequency land?
    And is there also some kind of guru voodoo mystique that has been sold to us to make us think they are just better than us?

    The real truth that I’ve found is that my ears are better at tuning in to tones and frequencies based upon doing mixing daily for years. Not just in the box production mixing, but also live mixing, because in a live setting, when a rogue frequency goes nuts, you really need to find that sucker or the audience will wince at you in pain and loathing. Lol!

    Nothing replaces putting in the hours and listening intently…

    Reply
  21. Sasha

    Good strategy…and you didn’t even mention the other advantages to such an approach:

    – save money from buying endless third-party plugs
    – save time researching third-party plugs (one can get lost in forum discussions for days on the most trivial points of difference, “shoot-outs”, demos, etc)
    – save time installing, updating, authorizing, troubleshooting so many plug-ins
    – save time during production and mixing by limiting choices, instead of trying endless plugin combinations

    Reply
  22. Dubawan

    When I entered sound engineering school 2 years ago, I didn’t know anything about Sound in general (never opened PT or never heard of rvb and EQ’s…). I met people more advanced than me, and I followed their “advices”. All I was doing was searching the best plug ins, synths, etc etc… Because I thought that it was what sound is all about!

    Since I’m reading your blog I really feel myself improving in mixing! And I have deleted at least 80% of my plug ins… What is the point of having 15 compressors if you don’t know how to compress a signal? Today, I’m only using stock plugs ins, and a few free others… And I think the Dyn3 compressor and the AIR / D-Verb of Pro Tools sounds amazing! 🙂

    What I am focusing on now is:

    – Having different pairs of speakers and headphones.
    – Mixing in mono.
    – Mono / Stereo compatibility.
    – Avoid moves that don’t really help the mix. If my move does not improve the energy and the balance of the mix, I forget it.

    All of it permit to be more objective, and have a clearer point of view on the mix.

    Thanks Graham !

    Reply
  23. M Huss

    I routinely use the better stock plugins that come with REAPER, but sometimes I want the ‘sound’ of an 1176 or LA-2A or old console with funky EQ and tranformer weirdness. I find these latter things difficult or impossible to recreate using vanilla EQ/comp/etc.

    I took the challenge, and redid a mix using only stock plugins. After an evening of work and tweaking, I got it close to the original mix, but (to my ears) it was still not quite as good.

    I have a medium-small collection of 3rd party plugs that I know well and reach for often. I have (sort of ;-)) outgrown the “plugin of the month” club, and rarely get new plugs any more, but ones I have I know well and serve me well. Why should I abandon them? Some are free, most are low cost, and I’m quite happy with them (Valhalla reverbs are an excellent example).

    Now someone new just getting into all of this, I’d say yes — use the stock plugs for as long as you can, so you can learn what attack and release do and how to identify EQ frequencies, etc. It’s something one really should know and understand before you tackle what weird old hardware emulations sound like

    However, I’m not planning to be a professional mixer (that ship has long sailed) – I just want to get the best sounding mixes I can in a reasonable amount of time for my personal projects. 🙂 Although I enjoy mixing, I don’t want to spend more time doing it then I have to. So I am firmly in the “pick a preset that’s in the ballpark, then tweak it until it sounds good” camp. I really don’t want to start the mix with every plugin knob set to zero and go from there. I’m pretty sure CLA/JJP/EK etc. don’t start mixes that way (not that I’m in the the same ballpark or even the same city or state as those guys!! ;-))

    Reply
  24. Vicious Bliss

    This is good advice for someone just starting out. People really need to understand the fundamentals before buying up every plug-in under the sun. There are a lot of plugs that do not have stock equivalents though. At least in Pro Tools. One could argue that newbies should just stick to basic stock stuff, but I guess it depends on the person. Having stuff like Revoice Pro, Autotune 8, and Waverider didn’t really derail me starting out. Fabfilter Pro Q2 can be a great learning tool because of the ability to easily listen to the different frequencies in your mix. The spectrum grab is extremely helpful too. Sonnox Inflator and U-he Satin tape are both extremely unique and easy to implement without much tweaking.

    It also depends on the source material. The tracks that come with Ken Lewis’s Audio School videos already sound pretty good as a rough mix. It’s a lot different than working with tracks someone recorded in a bedroom that are full of noise, frequency, and performance problems. Fixing up bad recordings is where I think a lot of more specialty plug-ins are needed. Bad rough mixes are often like a sonic minefield that benefit from more precise tools.

    It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of the latest plug-in advertising campaign, especially when manufacturers are offering an intro price and limited demo time. And there’s always something new. The way I look at it is this: a new plug-in should be bought to add a new flavor to a sound mix or to save time on a task one already understands. One should not be buying the latest plug because they think it will magically transform their unbalanced mix. Nor should one keep buying plugs before they have mastered the basics of what they already have.

    It takes time to learn stuff with real use. I believe what Graham is stressing here is to have a group of plugs you’re committed to and to stick with them. In this case, he’s choosing stock ones. It’s the same principle as if someone watched youtube videos all day and picked 3rd party equivalents along with a few things stock plugs don’t do. In the end, it’s all about a mixer’s commitment to learning audio fundamentals along with how their plug-ins work.

    Reply
  25. Paul

    Hi Graham. Im making beats since I was 15 y.o. and I never paid a cent for any software. Even more, I think I will never pay until become a “profesional”. What you say about “theft”, I completely understand. There is some brands copying pretty old digital parameters, making a “cool” interface and selling it for 20$, 50$ or 500$. Come on… and its me the one suppossed to be a theft?

    Reply
  26. Michael

    I think another thing is, why the stock devices of the used DAW are also better, is, that they’re especially designed for the DAW and they so can interact better with the DAW than 3rd party stuff. And another thing is, 3rd party stuff often cause crashes. I never had any crash with a stock device.

    I’m working on a new mix at the moment and there i use just stock devices for mixing the first time ever in a mix, where i used 3rd party stuff before. And it really sounds better than all other mixes i made before. I can’t say why, but it seems that’s true, what you wrote in your article with no more thinking about which 3rd party compressor or eq is the best for this or that… Just pick up the only stock one and make it…

    Reply
  27. Armin

    Hey Graham, this is a great challenge, and I hope everyone gives it a try. Personally, I use what came with the DAW almost exclusively. There has to be a real reason for me to use a 3rd party plug, and it is usually only because the stock plugs – or chain of stock plugs – simply cannot do what is needed. For me, that brings my list of 3rd party plugs (that I actually use regularly) down to 3 or 4.

    Reply

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