Music Production: Stop Buying Mixing Plugins. Let’s Talk About The Bigger Issue

This is a trap I see a lot of beginners fall into, including myself. You watch these videos of top-tier producers and engineers using plugins A, B, and C to process sound X, and all of a sudden it sounds good. You think, “Man, I wish I had those plugins so I could make my sounds sound like that!”, so out comes the credit card and down sinks your self-esteem.

That’s right, those plugins are awesome and they definitely make a difference, but it’s not nearly the difference you seemed to hear when artist X used it. So what’s the deal? Why didn’t those plugins make all the difference?

Skrillex quote
Marketing thing for Ohmicide. This is one of my favorites because they misspelled “songwriter”, and it’s been like that for years, lol. Like Skrillex, I too want to be a “songrwriter”.

Well, because those sounds that they’re using already sounded better than yours. For most pros, the producers and artists they’re mixing are the best of the best. Those engineers record on the best gear and use the best samples. It’s something most of them don’t talk about, simply because that’s not usually a problem they have to deal with. The standard they typically work with is ridiculously high, too. I’ve heard many stories of top-tier engineers rejecting tracks because of these tiny issues (at least to me, lol) and telling them to re-track.

A big problem I’ve noticed with a lot of beginning producers, is simply that they’ve never been shown the difference between a good sound and a bad one. They build out their tracks thinking they can fix the sonic differences with mixing and processing. Sorry, my friends, that’s not how it works. A good mix doesn’t change your sounds and magically make them sound better, it highlights the good bits of the sound that were already there. See if you can track down some raw stems for a track that was produced by a higher-tier professional, then compare each individual track to one of your own productions. Big difference, right?

An irrelevant meme
An irrelevant meme template, for your enjoyment

The point I’m trying to make is that you should focus more on your sound and sample-selection than you should on your processing and mixing tools. Spend less time on Plugin Boutique and more time on Splice. Spend less money on new reverbs and compressors and more money on Kontakt libraries. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have nice mixing tools, but they should be second priority next to really high quality sample libraries and/or recording equipment.

I’m not at the studio right now, or else I’d post up some sample clips of this, but I had the opportunity to do a shoot-out between a really nice Martin American acoustic guitar, a Seagull guitar I borrowed from my family, and a really, really high-end RASK custom guitar. I recorded all of them into my Antelope Edge modeled U87 through a SCA N72 (Neve 1272) preamp, into my Antelope Zen Tour. Same settings (had to turn it down a little for the RASK, since it’s naturally a very resonant and loud guitar), mic position, and room. The differences weren’t subtle.

seagull guitar
This is just a random picture of a Seagull guitar I found online, lol, not the one we used.

Keep in mind the price differences between the guitars. The Seagull was easily the worst, but honestly comparable to the Martin. The Seagull was a $500-ish guitar, while the Martin was over $2000. Says something about the quality of Seagull guitars, that’s for sure. But either way, the Seagull definitely sounded like the cheaper sound when compared to the Martin. The Martin’s quality was awesome, and something I wouldn’t hesitate to use in a professional record. But neither of them came close to the RASK. The RASK was resonant, full, and powerful. It seemed to have that “pro” sound right from the get go. Very light compression and EQ and it would’ve been ready to go in just about any record. While the differences in sound didn’t seem all that apparent when played against each other in the room (except the RASK being significantly louder), they became very apparent when recorded. These guitars weren’t even in the same class. That said, the RASK guitar I tested was in the $10k+ range, so the difference in price kind of indicated that from the start.

Martin guitars acoustic
Some Martin Guitars, cause why not?

In case you haven’t figured it out by now, music production is a money game. A lot of these software companies are trying to convince you that if you buy their mixing tools, you can take your Focusrite 2i2 and your free plugins and compete with the industry pros. It’s simply not true. You can make up a lot of this difference with skill, but it only goes so far. Because your Seagull guitar won’t ever sound like their RASK.

Robert Rask with the tested guitars
This is Robert Rask (the luthier). The guitar on the right is the guitar we used in the test. I’ve played a few of his guitars, but that one was probably my favorite.

The point I’m trying to make is that you need good quality sounds from the start. If you’re not spending money on high quality sample libraries (that are recorded on high end gear like the U67s and RASK guitars that you don’t have), you should be spending it on upgrading your hardware so you can record stuff like that on your own. As the saying goes, you can’t polish a turd. I promise the money you “saved” is not worth the effort. If you have to, spend some extra time working a side hustle so you can upgrade your hardware. It’ll end up saving you tons of time in the long run, and bring in more (and better) clients. Sonic quality is becoming more and more critical in today’s industry, so do what you need to to stay competitive.

And secret hint: It makes your job easier, too. High quality sounds are sooo much easier to fit in a mix (and they require less processing!).

This is from EastWest studios. Hint: they also sell a bunch of sample libraries.

Moral of the story, if you want to be cheap, you’re in the wrong industry. See the pictures of mix engineers surrounded by walls full of analog gear? Each of those units are anywhere from $800 to $5000. And they have WALLS of them. It may seem like a luxury for a lot of us, but at their level, it’s really more of a necessity. And that’s what it takes to stay competitive in the big leagues (at least right now). That gap is starting to shrink, but not by much. Keep that in mind.

Anyways, hope you learned something. If you want my recommendations on which plugins and libraries I think you should buy (if you’re not ready to invest in high end hardware and instruments), check out my previous chain of articles on the topic (just click on my profile and browse through my previous stories). A lot of those library recommendations are the best sample libraries on the market right now, so they’re definitely worth looking into.

Good luck, have fun!

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Danny Demosi

Music producer, mix engineer, and songwriter from Salt Lake City, Utah.