Less Is More (or, Stop the Plugin Madness!) by Rob Robichaud
Posted by Rob Robichaud
Monday, 2016-07-18
Less Is More (or, Stop the Plugin Madness!) by Rob Robichaud

Less Is More (or, Stop the Plugin Madness!

So, you've just finished all the tracking for your next big hit.  Now it's time to get down to mixing.  You have your favorite DAW open and what do you do?  Start reaching for all your best plugins, right?  If you're anything like the majority of home producers out there, this is most likely the case.  Maybe you assume that's how to get that 'polished' sound. 


Ask yourself this question.  "Why am I doing this?"  The answer is usually simple...you want your music to be comparable to everything else you hear on the radio.  My question to you is this; 


Why on earth would you want your music to blend in with everything else you hear on the radio?  We seem to think that in order to compete with all those other ‘professionally recorded’ tracks we have to use the same tricks when, in fact, that just makes your track blend in with everything else on the radio. 

Take auto-tune, for example.  When auto-tune was first introduced it was intended to fix the odd misplaced note in an otherwise flawless performance.  Today, you would be hard-pressed to name any song on the radio that isn't processed with auto-tune.  (You can even find parodies of it on YouTube.)  Often, it's the first plugin we reach for when we start mixing a vocal. 

We get caught in the trap of going for all kinds of processing because that’s what we think we have to do to compete.  In reality, almost everything we hear on the radio today is homogenous and, aside from the odd exception, no one artist stands out from any other in the playlist.  To make matters worse, the ratio of musicality to production has become completely inverted.  Today, anyone with a home computer and a DAW can push out the same schlock, even if they don't have a shred of musical talent.  In short, talent has given way to production. 

Fortunately, there are a few exceptions.  Jack White is quite well known for keeping his mixes more on the raw side.  Pearl Jam's "Yield" album is another great example of keeping it simple.  There are a growing number of artists who lean toward this approach.  That is not to say there is no processing involved.  Their approach, however, is more about capturing an honest performance and using the appropriate tools to best capture and relay that performance.  Fortunately, there is also a growing audience who are tired of the same-old, same-old they hear on the radio...regardless of the genre. 

With this in mind, here are a few suggestions on getting your tracks to really stand out.


  1. A great song is a great song


The old saying goes, you can't polish a turd and expect it to smell like a rose.  If your song doesn't engage and take your listener on a journey, they'll get bored with it and move on.  No amount of post-production and fancy plugin tricks will change that.


  1. Practice


If you really want to stand out from all the other crap out there, focus on musicianship and capturing a clean performance.  Practice makes perfect.  Don't hit wrong notes.  Don't let your timing slip in the fills and punches.  Get rid of any extraneous noises bleeding into your tracks before you hit the record button.  Garbage in equals garbage out...less mistakes mean less edits and less need for processing.  In fact, your track will almost mix itself.


  1. Balance, balance, balance


Before you start reaching for those plugins, make sure you've done everything you can to ensure you have good balance with your raw tracks.  Can each element be heard amongst the rest, or are one or more of those elements buried in the mix?  Get on those faders.


  1. EQ/Compression


Like balance, EQ and compression are by far your best tools to achieve a clean, stand-out mix...and these come stock in your DAW!  Make sure your tracks aren't competing for the same frequencies.  Even just a little EQ in the right places will add an amazing amount of clarity to your mixes.  And don't overuse compression...don't just stick it on a track because you think every track should have compression.  Ask yourself whether you need it or not in the first place and, if you do, what specifically does the track need.


  1. Dynamics


Listen to some of your favorite stand-out tracks.  I bet they all have this in common.  Don't throw all your tricks in at once.  Try waiting until the pre-chorus to add that second guitar.  Perhaps wait until the second verse before you blend in that really cool vocal harmony or that synth pad.  Experiment with adding and subtracting elements at various points in the recording.  You'll end up with a much more dynamic and interesting track that will stand out on its own.




Getting a mix to stand out is every engineer/producers ultimate goal.  So, if everyone else is using (and over-using) every plugin in the endless array of plugins available, what makes you think yours will stand out amongst them if you're using the same approach?


Am I saying don't use your delays and reverbs and all the other freaky little toys at your disposal?  Of course not.  Sometimes, the track will demand it.  That said, if you really want to make YOUR track stand out and be heard, LESS IS MORE.  Think of it like a chef…if you put curry in every single dish you make, everything you make will taste like curry.  I love a good curry dish, but I also love pasta, and steak, and chowder and a lot of other dishes.  You'll find that by not reaching into your massive bag of plugin tricks every time you start a mix session, you'll actually differentiate yourself from the rest of the pack.  Again, there is a growing audience for sophisticated, organic, and dynamic recordings that stand out from everything else on the radio. 


Let your mix be the stand-out mix.