It only seems like yesterday that I went and got myself my first computer system. It was the late 90s, and everything was beige towers with monitors only a bodybuilder could lift and keyboards with keys that were so deep you could park a bicycle between them.
Computer chains were springing up everywhere like Evesham Micros, TINY and Gateway and it seemed they could do little wrong as the home PC revolution took off.
The best deal was to get a bundle of software included; if you were unlucky, you would get some collection of unknown titles that were either useless crap or didn't speak with other software. If you were lucky then you got Microsoft Office and Encarta, a bundle only reserved for the elite computer buyer, but it was enough to make one get into debt to buy, after all why wouldn't you need Office in the average home to write a 2 paragraph letter or keep the home bills listed? Encarta was what we had before the internet, described by Microsoft as an encyclopedia on your computer it was 'packed' (well not entirely) with information about all sorts of stuff. We laugh at the limitations now, but when it came out, many thought it magical.
Another software title many hoped to get was Microsoft Publisher, which was Microsoft's DTP title which came with a huge collection of clipart. Suddenly every school, church and business could produce their graphics for posters and newsletters. Families started to create the annual Christmas boastfest, sorry I mean family newsletter. This letter was a summary of the year that made the kids sound like well-behaved Einsteins that could run a mile in 2 minutes and the parents like Harvard graduated Ken and Barbie.
Irrespective of what people produced with Publisher, a drive full of clip art was far too tempting to ignore, and everything (without exception) would include clipart, lots of it, however tenuous the link between the picture and the subject. After all there must be a link between a cruise liner and a BBQ invite, surely?
Fast forward 20 years and it feels as if the plugin may become the modern equivalent of clipart. There are so many produced now, often discounted to tiny prices, or free, or bundled and suddenly we all have several hundred plugins in a folder begging to be used.
Just like clipart some of us think we have to use them, and in some cases as many as we can on every single mix, irrespective of how musically pleasing the outcome. To be more honest how much difference they are making? I was once sent a mix by someone who said they needed it professionally mixed. When I opened up the session almost every plugin slot had plugins inserted. I deleted all the plugins, levelled the mix and sent it back… they loved it and asked me what I had done, I told them.
I'm not suggesting we should stop designing and making new plugins; some of the best are the newest ones using innovation to solve problems we could only dream of fixing a decade ago. However, like chocolate (for my American cousins I mean candy) just because there are 200 to choose from in the store it doesn't mean I should buy or indeed eat them all at the same time. Or consider the spice rack in my kitchen, at the last count there are about 70 different spices in it, imagine if I threw all of them or even a tenth of them into one dish - it would taste like crap. Most world cuisine consists of three or four essential herbs (for my American cousins erbs) and the odd variant from time to time, not much more. A chef worth their salt (see what I did there?) uses herbs and spices sparingly, and to extend the analogy this is because the core ingredients are high quality... get the hint there? The easiest way to hide inferior quality ingredients in a dish is to use herbs and spices.
I've mixed my metaphors somewhat and jumped from clipart to cooking, but I want to return to what we get bundled, cheap or free for our work using DAWs, plugins. The challenge isn't to see how many plugins you can get into a mix; I don't think it's to see how few you can use either, the challenge is to develop skills in recording and mixing so we know just how many to use and don't use them just because they are there.
My core plugin collection numbers around a dozen at most, although the folder contains several hundred, some I'll use ad-hoc when the need arises.
I'm not suggesting we stop trying and buying new plug-ins, but I wonder if too many of us are making the same mistake we all made with clipart. I recall sitting down with a trained graphic designer years ago who said to me 'if you can't think of a reason for something being on the page then leave it out.' I've never forgotten those words to this day; in fact, I think after that I largely stopped using clipart. Often the white space in design tells you if a professional of amateur has designed it.
For many, it seems plugins are the new clipart, and perhaps it's time we started to understand how essential it is to use them sparingly.