Plug-ins have changed the way we mix in a numbers ways that include the ability to use presets, the ability to use more than one at a time and the ability to automate parameters. These are things that many of us who used the original vintage hardware could have only dreamed of. If you would have told us then what plug-ins could do now then we'd be as likely to have had believe that was possible as a DeLorean car that travelled in time.
However one thing that can often be missed by many of us when using plug-ins is that the devil is in the detail. In other words when we simply open them up and dial in a preset like some giant splodge across an entire track or an entire song then we're missing one of the best things about plug-ins - the powerful control we have.
I want to give a couple of examples where I think when used well plug-ins can be a real asset to a song and when used less well then they are mediocre at best and sound terrible at worst.
Regarded by someone as the the plug-in that satan invented, autotune is a plug-in that certainly divides opinion. For many all they can think of is tier T-Pain step vocals or pop singers who could;t sing if their lives depended on it so they rely on autotune to 'help' them.
I take a different view of autotune and a very sparing approach.
I was working with a singer/songwriter this week who has an amazing voice in terms of tone, performance, timing and tuning, they all matter. However when I'm tracking then and I have to choose two then I'll take tone and performance any day of the week on a take. Of course I want a perfect vocal take but I don't think sending her back into the booth for hours, or indeed trying to drop in note-by-note (some people do it) is in my opinion the best use of her talent or time.
So if I get a good take or takes then first I'll look at comping the vocal, if after that there are still some issues then I'll open up AutoTune. What I won't do is put AutoTune across the whole track but I'll simply find the notes with tuning, timing or vibrato issues and deal with them forensically. In a track I did this week I used AutoTune on two notes in the whole song and then I used it to nudge things closer not tune them to within one inch of their lives. If you do it well then no one can tell, not even the singer. So AutoTune for me is at its best when used in a detailed and considered way, in the same way anti-lock breaking doesn't make a bad driver good but helps a good driver in those rare moments when required.
Another example is the use of filters on tracks. In some ways they have also become like AutoTune in modern production culture with their overuse as an effect on EDM and dance tracks, but filters have so many excellent uses that I find indspensible. I often automate a filter instead of crudely putting a de-esser on a vocal just to catch the odd word or expression, you can of course do the same by automating the EQ. I also like to use filters ahead of reverb and when used along with volume automation help to craft a reverb that is more organically working with the track. I've made a video for Studio One Expert demonstrating a couple of these techniques, although created using Studio One you can use the same techniques in Pro Tools, or any other DAW for that matter. Check it out.
I think in life that it is often the little things that can make the biggest difference, I happen to think the same can be said when mixing. So next time you are tempted to tune something, or use a de-esser or a reverb then if you do't already do it then try taking some time to hone in on the detail - you'll be surprised how big a difference the little things can make.