There was a time, not too long ago, when the only way to produce music was to spend tons of money hiring huge recording studios so you could have access to their recording equipment. Those were the hay days of record labels when they controlled everything about music, musicians, and the industry as a whole.
Today, things have vastly changed. From the comfort of your home, you can produce a song that can compete with those produced in the best of studios in the world. Music production gear has become so affordable that anyone and everyone can own a studio. You can read about home studios here.
In today’s article, we will not be looking at the entire studio as a whole but at a tiny component that has added great value to what has become today’s reality. We are referring to the audio plugin.
What are Plugins?
The audio plugin is a program or software that is part of a huge family simply referred to as plugins. These are programs that can be introduced or joined to an existing program to play a specific role. In many cases, these programs may be of little to no use on their own, meaning that they need a host program in which to work.
In some other cases, these programs can be installed as both stand-alone programs or third-party programs to be called up and used within another program which will then act as its host.
Examples of Audio Plugins
In music and general audio production especially as carried on in the digital domain on digital audio workstations, more commonly known as DAW, there is a high reliance on these third party programs. While every popular DAW comes with its native plugins, you can usually install and import as many others as you desire.
Some common examples of these programs that you will find in music production include EQs, compressors, reverbs, delays, limiters, emulators, pitch correctors, guitar amps, virtual instruments, and many more. You can find more examples here: https://www.mathworks.com/help/audio/ug/audio-plugin-example-gallery.html.
Interestingly a lot of the names mentioned above were and are still available as expensive hardware gear that can also be used. However, the software versions offer greater ease of use not to mention cost savings.
These plugins can be described the same way you would the content of an artist’s color palette. With these, the artist, who in this case is the producer, creates the picture (music) that s/he wants to deliver to the listener. Without these, the entire production will be lifeless, lacking in warmth depth and general appeal.
Understanding Plugin Formats
Since audio plugins are designed to work within a digital audio workstation (DAW) and since there are different DAWs, the plugin formats available are largely based on the DAW it is designed to be used within.
With this in mind, we will quickly look at some of the most common formats available and what DAWs they are designed to work in.
For a long time, a lot of folks simply referred to plugins as VST programs. This will not be unrelated to the fact that this was one of the first and most popular formats available. VST, which is an acronym for Virtual Studio Technology, was created by Steinberg for use with its Cubase DAW and others that use this format.
The two common variations of these formats are VST2 and VST3. Of the two, the VST2 is the more common version as the VST3 is newer, and though a lot more powerful, because it is different from the previous format, it has yet to achieve the wide support that the VST2 enjoys.
By the way, this format has versions for Windows and Mac.
This is a format created by Apple for Mac-only use. This format is known as Audio Unit (AU) and does not work on Windows. In fact, it is not as widely supported as VST and it is the only format that Mac-only digital audio workstations like Garage Band and Logic support.
This is an acronym for Avid Audio Extension and it is Pro-Tools’ latest plugin format. While this is supported by both Windows and Mac, it is only for use on Pro-Tools DAW.
Tips for Using them Effectively
The very first to do when looking to understand how to use these third-party programs is to ensure you make the right selection. Whatever format is supported by your DAW of choice, look for the most suitable. If yours supports VST, then find the right VST plugins because that’s the foundation.
The following tips will help you get the most from your plugins:
- Keep them few – Many beginners make the mistake of loading so many plugins that they end up getting confused. Be sure to only keep the ones you know you really need.
- Try them out – It’s not enough to get these programs; you should also spend time learning how to use them. You should practice, try the presets, try your own settings until you know exactly what each controls those and the effect it will have on your track.
- Bypass comparison is your friend – Comparing your processed sound with the unprocessed one is a quick way of hearing the difference whatever you have done is making on your track. This helps you determine if it is the sound you are going for.
- Less is often more – When using effects like reverb, delay, compression, it is easy to let rip and turn the knob all the way up. Remember that these are simple tools that should not be heard in themselves but enhance the performance on the track.
The best way to learn and perfect anything is to practice. Spend time practicing and also watch how more experienced engineers and producers use these tools. As you do, you will keep getting better.