Everybody in the US knows about the "Food Pyramid." It's a diagram that shows the different food groups and how much serving of each group people should eat to maintain a healthy diet. At the top of the pyramid are the sweets and fatty foods that should be low on everybody's consumption list, but unfortunately, that is exactly what most people are stuffing in their face in great quantities, causing obesity and all other sorts of health issues.
The same way an unhealthy diet focuses too much on sugar and fat, a heavy focus on plugins in audio production can also create problems. The plugins nowadays seem to be the sugar and fat in our everyday "audio production diet," and I think we are paying way too much attention to them compared to other "audio food groups."
The internet chatter on forums and websites is full of all those little gadgets that promise to solve/fix everything. Along the way, many of the much more important aspects of an audio production get overlooked or ignored altogether. Especially with inexperienced users, this could create a distorted picture that makes them believe that buying plugins makes their audio production magically sound great.
I tried to come up with a similar diagram as the food pyramid, but instead of food groups, I list various components that are involved in a typical audio signal chain that cannot be overlooked no matter how much you're craving for those sweet little plugins.
This is the component at the beginning of the signal chain, the sound source. At least when you record live instruments, you have to pay attention to the "quality" of the signal that you are about to record. If the drummer doesn't know how to tune his set or never changed the skins on the drums, then your expensive recording equipment, including any plugins will not make it sound good. Have you ever asked a guitar player to change his strings or try a different plectrum to achieve a different sound instead of reaching for the EQ plugin? Learn about the instruments and how to improve or alter the sound at the source.
Although the performer is responsible for the music side, the way that music is "delivered" has a big impact on how easy or difficult your mix will be on the technical side. If you later spend 90% of your time fixing timing and tuning issues, then you are not mixing the sound, you are doing damage control. Maybe the money for the next Melodyne update can be better invested in better session players that can play tight together and in-tune, so after tracking, you can concentrate on the actual mix.
Room - Mic - Placement
The next step of capturing the performance involves the selection of the right microphones and their proper placement in response to what the room acoustics is adding to the signal. Instead of loading up all the EQ and compressor plugins, maybe the time is better spent on being in the room with the performer for a while and first listening to the "original" source before listening in the control room. Experimenting with mics and the mic placements can improve the frequency response and phase issues that might eliminate any requirement to fiddle around with plugins later in the "damage control" department.
This is an important aspect that easily gets overlooked. Every seasoned engineer can tell you that a well-arranged song basically mixes itself. Think about it: you can dial the EQ knobs in the low frequencies until you are blue in the face, but you won't get a proper balance if the bass drum, the bass guitar, the drone notes, and some low synth pads are all playing at the same time and fighting for the same frequency range.
If the artists had some deficiencies in proper arranging skills, then don't be afraid to intervene. For example, a channel strip has a mute button for a reason, and volume automation is always your friend.
Recording / Mixing
Not much to add to that topic. It goes without saying that you have to know your technical stuff. Learn, learn, learn. Keep in mind that knowing the art of recording and mixing is not the same as collecting some "recipes" that you gathered from some questionable YouTube videos that show you which buttons to press or what preset to choose on the "Plugin Du Jour" to get a great mix.
The more you start digging a little deeper and actually learn why to press a button in the first place, the more you accumulate real knowledge. The other ingredient, experience, comes over time by applying all that knowledge, making mistakes, and learning from them.
Just one tip.
Choose the best DAW, which is the one that works the best for YOU, the one you can operate in your sleep. Maybe stop chasing features you want and start using the features you have. It's that simple.
Room - Speaker - Placement
The same principles about mics, room acoustics, and mic placement also apply to the other end of the signal chain, the speakers. Know where to place them in relation to the room and be aware of any compromises and shortcomings that you are facing in your particular situation.
Let me make one exception here and advocate a specific plugin, a Frequency Analyzer. Considering that most listening environments are less than perfect (especially in "budget studios"), the visual feedback of an analyzer might help you spot any issues that your speakers are not telling you about. If you constantly adjust the same frequency ranges in your mix with your plugins, then it might not be your "signature sound," and instead, it might point out a serious problem with your room acoustics or speakers (or all of the above).
With "listening" I mean "knowing" what to listen to, the awareness, the skills, and the experience that comes with it. It doesn't matter how many plugins you have, and even if you know how to use them if you don't spot specific problems or issues in the audio signal that needs some intervention, then your plugins won't do you any good.
This might be the most overlooked component in the entire signal chain, your ears. And with ears I mean their proper anatomical functionality. The reason why you boost the high frequency in your recording or mix might be that you have a 20dB dip in your hearing at 5kHz or a total loss above 10kHz. Your client or your customers with perfect ears might just wonder why your mixes always sound so harsh.
Hearing loss is usually a concern when getting older, but exposure to loud music, noise, or any other traumatic events could have damaged your hearing capability over time to the point that you are compensating that in your recording or mix without knowing it.
Especially troublesome is the constant in-ear bombardment of earbuds from phones that can do quite some damage already to the younger generation. So maybe, instead of buying another plugin, scheduling a hearing test at your doctor's office might give you some assurance that your ears are ok (or not).
And finally, a word about those highly addictive, sweet (high fructose corn syrup) plugins, the least important components, the ones that should be taken with moderation in a well-balanced "audio production diet." It doesn't matter if the popup menu for your effects plugins scrolls down half a mile, if you don't know how to use those gadgets, then what's the point of having them (besides the bragging rights). Maybe, concentrate on just a few and know them inside out.
One more thing ... People Skills
This aspect seems to get totally lost in audio production because it has nothing to do with the technical aspect. However, no matter whether you are dealing with a band, a soloist, or a voice-over session, your end on the talkback mic plays a big role in what comes back from the artist. The better you are in making the artist comfortable and making him or her secure so he or she can be at their best and deliver one knock-out take after another, the easier it is for you to add your technical expertise in making such a performance sound great in the end. This requires people skills to establish such a creative environment and also experience to know how far you can push an artist to bring out the best.
Unfortunately, there is no app or plugin for that (yet).