Are You Using All Those Plugins?

| Mixing, Plugins, Pro Tools, Tips

Let me ask you a question: how many plugins do you have installed on your computer? I’m talking EQs, compressors, reverbs, etc. How many? If you’re like me you start out with a ton of stock plugins in your DAW. I think the current version of Pro Tools ships with over 70 plugins standard. Add to that the handful of third party plugins I’ve collected over the years and we’re looking at over 100 plugins at my disposal.

How Many Do You Actually Use?

So the better question is: how many of those plugins do you actually use in your sessions? I can tell you right now I use one channel strip, up to two additional compressors, a reverb, a delay, and about three different analog emulation plugins. That’s it! OK, so throw in a pitch correction plugin and the occasional odd ball effect and we’re up to 10 plugins.

So for me personally I’m using less than 10% of my installed plugins, easy. And yet my DAW’s plugin menu is littered with these things that I’ll likely never use. Sure I keep them there just in case. But as my good friend Russ Hughes recently mentioned on his site Pro Tools Expert, “just-in-case rarely happens.”

Imagine If Your Plugins Were Outboard Gear

Imagine for just a moment that computers didn’t exist and all of your plugins were not software effects, but rather their actual hardware counterparts. We’re talking racks and racks of 19″ outboard gear cluttering your studio. Sure it might look impressive (and there’s something to be said for the psychological effects of feeling cool in your studio), but when it comes time to mix, won’t they all just slow you down?

I mean, if you had to look through all of your racks and patch in a different EQ or compressor each time, you would never get any work done. In effect that is what’s happening every time we open our plugin menu and look for the effects we need. Our eyes have to gloss over an insanely large list (even just stock plugins) and then decide which one(s) to use.

What if we instead made those decisions ahead of time?

Narrow The List, Speed Up The Mix

You know you’re only going to really use that same EQ and compressor for 99% of your projects. Just be honest. It’s all you really need anyway. Treat your DAW like a console and get on with your life.

So why not take the next logical step and hide all of those plugins. In Pro Tools this is as simple as moving all of your installed plugins to the “Unused” folder. They instantly disappear from your DAW, but are still on your computer in case you ever need them.

The only consequence of narrowing your plugin list down is…a faster mix. Plain and simple, if you have fewer options in the mix you’ll make decisions faster (some will already be made for you of course) and ironically you’ll feel more confident about those decisions. The opposite is true if you have too many plugins to use. It’s the paradox of choice at its best.


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28 Responses to “Are You Using All Those Plugins?”

  1. Tsen

    I can’t agree more. I tend to stick to the same plugins for most of my channels, unless of course I’m after a different texture that the usual plugins don’t give. Well said Graham!

  2. Martin

    I’m in complete agreement with this. In EVERY mix I only use; P&M Analoger, Slate VCC, FabFilter Pro-Q, T-Racks Black 76 and White 2A. Studio One’s stock compressor, reverb and delay, and Melodyne Assistant for pitch correction. Now and then I use Studio Drummer to blend drum samples in with recorded drums and if I want to do something whacky, then a weird effect like a distortion plugin on a vocal or something. That’s 10/11 plugins I use and that’s it!

  3. Jarod

    Totally agree, I did this about 6 months ago with my waves plugins. Having everything is great, but i use about a third of them most of the time.

  4. Rich

    Graham, I do agree that it’s a bit overwhelming when your list of plugins scrolls off-screen when you just are looking for a subtle, standard compressor, etc. That being said, I think it is worth spending a little quality time with the plugins that don’t get used too often. For example, I have dedicated my latest session to ONLY using Waves API bundle for comps and EQs (I have never used any API plugs on a session before now). This keeps workflow quick because I’m still sticking to a couple specific plugs, while simultaneously learning a new piece of software. Combine this with a little note-taking, and in the future I’ll know exactly what API can do for my sound in a specific situation. Next session, move onto a different bundle, keep taking notes, and store your knowledge in the vault! Keep it simple, but always try something unfamiliar — that way you’ll reach for the plugin that you know SOUNDS and WORKS best with a specific type of track. And you’ll learn some new tricks on the way that you may have never known before. Thanks!

  5. CHoffman

    I think this is a great insight and agree! It seems to me it also might depend slightly on the stage in which you are working. If you are tracking synths, or arranging and editing, you might have a much wider range of plug-ins you use to get that sound “just right” (as if that can be defined!). I’ve found lots of interesting sound ideas from playing with very seldom used plug-ins; many that I’d probably never use in a mix context.

  6. Dave

    This is weird. I literally looked at all the plugins I have this very weekend, and was like, this is a bit OTT, so I started getting rid of the ones I rarely/never use.

    But totally agree. I also think that if you limit yourself to fewer plugins, you will want to make sure that each one is performing to the best of its ability.
    It’s like limiting your track count. If you have one or two guitar tracks, you won’t be tempted to try and record a dozen guitar parts in a desperate effort to layer them all together to make it sound better.

  7. Rob S.

    If my plugins were outboard gear I would need a different place to sleep! Having said that I agree with you 100%. I only have about 10-15 plugins that I use on a regular basis. Most of those are stock with Reaper. Most of the rest are, “Hmm. I should try that one out one day…”

    • Graham

      “I would need a different place to sleep…” no kidding! Same here.

  8. Dinosaur David B

    I have a set of really good plug-ins that I do use over and over. La2a, 1176 compressors, SSL, Pultec, Helios EQs for character, and something more modern, and transparent for surgical work. EMT plate reverb, and Lexicon 244 for digital. Plus a few other thigs I like. Could I work with the daw’s built in stuff? Sure. But don’t diss good tools just for the sake of it.

    Different tools for different jobs. If one thing isn’t producing the results you want, it’s good to be able to try something else.


    I agree with your point here.

    Taking on some of your “5 minutes” advice along with various things I’ve picked up along the way, I decided to make a session template in Pro Tools 10. I set it up for 24 tracks, the subgroups and all routing and plug ins are already set to go. I’m using the basics plugs that come with PT along with EZ Drummer (great program by the way). Now all I have to do is open a new session, plug in, arm the appropriate track, and hit record. Takes maybe 1 minute to get going on a new project.

    I don’t have that many choices for plug ins but again, my general thinking is that the “best”, is to use the one you know how to use. We can sit and sift through a thousand presets, and it can be fun, but at the end of the day, I always end up using the same string patch on my keyboard, or the same general settings on my amp. Like guitars, I have several to choose from but I keep coming back to the “go to” guitar. IT is nice to have the options, but it is nicer to have an end result.

    Keep up the great work Graham!

  10. Jim

    I think the next computer wave is choice sculpting. It is obvious that the myriad choices we have now, as you’ve talked about in many ways, are actually limiting our productivity. But we love such options and options can be good when managed. So I think where information technology will find its most fertile future is in strategically narrowing our choices while keeping wider options open. Imagine a DAW that knows what you’re likely to need and keeps it in the center of your focus but has a few twists at the edge based on your prior use, knowledge gleend from experience and a little bit of educated guessing. Like the best, most experienced OR nurse who has the tool a surgeon needs before it’s asked for and a few other close by the surgeon may not even know she needs yet.

    We can hope!

  11. P.O.P.

    I agree in using those “go to plugins” in your mix. I personally produced, mixed and mastered a 18 song compilation and I tell you it was one of the hardest but rewarding things that I’ve ever done. I used the same compressor settings, the same same reverb, and the same FX plugins. It gave my album a uniform feel that I loved. Most of my plugin experimenting will come in making the actual music but when you’re mixing a whole song find out what works and stick with it.

  12. Vincent

    Hopefully, I use the free version of Cubase that came with my interface, and it comes with about 20 plugins.vThat’s it.
    There is one plugin of each (dynamics, virtual instrument, 2 distortion plugins, reverb, delay, etc…). So I always use the same plugins. I don’t have a choice. And I don’t want to have one yet.

    • Graham

      I love the idea of creating new original sounds, and you can do that with unique plugins, totally.

      • JROCK

        Sometimes a weird plugin that you don’t use much can be just what a track that isn’t working in a mix calls for… Ya just never know.

        I have my go-tos, sure, but it’s still nice to pull up some other stuff from time to time when the go-to ain’t cuttin’ it.

        I do agree with working fast = working better for me personally.

  13. Smurf

    Truth be told Audiofanzine, every one of those got tossed off my system early on….

  14. Tim Huh

    So i may be daft, but where exactly do I find the unused plugs folder in pt10?

  15. Effjay

    I know in Sonar you can set up your plug ins with the plug in manager. That way you can put your favorites in certain places, or better yet, create pop up menus so you have your go to plugins in a list for say, Vox, Lead Guit, Bass, Drum Overheads… Makes it quick and easy for finding the plugins you want and/or use the most. I’m sure every DAW does this, it sure makes finding plugins fast and easy, I won’t even get in to custom presets…

  16. kristof herme

    i use different plugs in special needs of layering to destroy a sound,but in main mixing i use the basic stuff indeed 🙂



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