There is a particular breed of plug-in I favour when I’m in a mix, I refer to these as “focused tools”. They are typically quite simple in design, achieve exactly what they say on the tin and provide only a handful of straightforward controls. Extreme examples of these “focused plug-ins” include Waves’ One Knob series and Accusonus’ ERA range of audio restoration tools. There are of course plenty more plug-ins of this type, we chose to highlight these two as they are by far the most popular plug-ins of this breed.
This type of plug-ins enable me to get the job done quickly for whatever the “does what it says on the tin” application is in front of me in my DAW. I find I never need to overstretch my thought processes or imagination beyond simply twisting a single dial “amount” control, but, do you feel that I am cheating by choosing to use this style of plug-in in my mixing workflow?
Personally, I really don’t think that I am. By comparison, sophisticated plug-ins with more controls than I can shake a stick at often slow me down and confuse my creative mind. There are some plug-ins I have in my collection that are so technical and advanced that I often sit back in my chair and wish I worked harder in my maths and physics lessons at school! I honestly find that focused plug-ins are a far easier way of getting done what I feel needs to be done in a mix without the faff.. Simply put, simplicity rules in plug-in design as sophisticated plug-ins often give me a migraine.
Example Of Simple And Focused Plug-in In Action
Plug-ins that offer a few extra controls rather than just a single dial also fall into this category of tools that I refer to as focused plug-ins. Such plug-ins include the likes of Softube’s S73, AIR Spring Reverb, SPL’s Transient Designer, LiquidSonic’s Seventh Heaven... the list goes on. These types of plug-ins typically feature no more than five or six main controls.
I can tell straight away when plug-in developers have put some smart thinking into their focused plug-ins as the controls they chose to leave in encompass the theme, main purpose of the plug-in and its processing potential. I can tell when plug-in developers have chosen to leave out controls, usually these are the controls that most users won’t ever touch. It’s a brave move but I for one am grateful that lots of developers prune their plug-ins but some of you may not feel the same way?
Let’s take Softube’s S73 as an example. This is a stripped down multiband compressor based on the sonics and behaviour of the Drawmer 1973. Multiband compression, if set tastefully, works wonders on a mix-bus but it can at times be tricky to get sounding right. One wrong move of a crossover or a threshold and the vibe of a mix can fall apart in seconds. The S73 was specifically designed by Softube to be easy, taking away the guesswork of dialling in the perfect amount of multiband processing, what’s really clever is that as I adjust a control, the plug-in is actually adjusting a number of different parameters under the hood. It works perfectly for me each and every time I throw it across a mix. The plug-in only provides a handful of compressor modes along with an amount control… that’s about it. The rest is up to the engineer’s ears and tastes in order to set the desired flavour and amount. I’ll ask again, does this mean I’m cheating when I mix? After all, I am of course choosing to use the simplest tools to mix with…
The Path Of Least Resistance Is Smart Not Cheating
Let’s change the context for a moment and compare this topic to a couple of real world scenarios. Do you consider someone is cheating if they choose to drive a car with an automatic gearbox instead of driving a manual? (Stick shift for our American friends). Is it cheating if somebody works out an equation on a calculator instead of writing their sums on in longhand? No, on both counts. The driver who prefers the automatic car has chosen to make their journey more comfortable. The person who reached for the calculator instead of a pen saved time and brain power working out their maths equation. Both these examples, including the point I’m making here about focused plug-ins not being a form of mix cheating, boil down to a simple question of how you need to get from point A to point B. Often the path of least resistance is what most people will opt for, but choosing a simple path is often interpreted by others looking in as the easy option, cheating or cutting corners. I think, in the context of using simple plug-ins, the path of least resistance is a smart choice to make, but why?
Creative flows are easily interrupted or scuppered when technical challenges pop up such as a DAW crashing for an unknown reason or a computer glitching. More times than not though a sophisticated plug-in or virtual instrument will be the cause of my creative juices stopping dead in the water. I can’t just turn on my creativity, there isn’t a magic switch for that. When I begin a mix my creative ideas always start small and develop throughout the course of a mix. Over the years I’ve learned to protect this energy as I know it is my creative ideas that help me to produce the best results. The times I find myself trying to get a very particular sound from a complex plug-in with my focus being buried in page 2, sub menu E of a plug-ins UI are the times I know I’m breaking my creativity.
Using focused plug-ins to mix with isn’t cheating in my books, instead it’s a way of me protecting the integrity of my work and my creativity that I know helps me to give my absolute best to whatever track I’m mixing.
Getting From Point A To Point B Is All That Matters
All too often focused plug-ins get a bad reputation. They can be seen as too simple to sound any good in a professional sense or that the price to buy a focused plug-in doesn’t in some way reflect the limited number of controls on offer? I really don’t understand how people come to this conclusion. Lot’s of plug-ins these day, especially the focused ones, work very hard at crunching the numbers under the hood. We don’t see what is happening, instead we hear. Take Accusonus’ ERA range. One dial, one purpose per plug-in. The power of these tools are in the AI algorithms. The ERA range all perform brilliantly. I don’t care for the technical stuff, all I want to know is how much can I use of whatever processor I have in front of me? A twist of a dial and I’m there. I don’t give a second thought to what I’ve done, my focus moves on quickly through to my next mixing task.
Please join the debate. Do you feel it is cheating if we use simple and focused “one knob” style plug-ins or plug-ins with limited controls in our mixes or are these necessary for making our mixing workflows lean and mean creative machines?