Less (VST) Is Maybe More


I Need Fewer Plugins

Another Black Friday rolls around and I find myself in the usual position of lusting after a few new plugins but not actually needing them. Perhaps this is a familiar feeling. I've been on a bit of a journey with my plugin folder(s)(thanks VST3) over the past decade, one that I suspect is quite common:

  1. Start out with a few plugins
  2. Buy lots of plugins
  3. Get annoyed by so having many plugins
  4. Revert to a few plugins (...and find inner-peace)

Currently I'm somewhere between 3 and 4. My desire to transition into that final state has got me thinking it's time for a proper re-evaluation.

A Healthy Plugin List

There's already plenty of articles and videos discussing having a reduced plugin list and how pro's will still get great results just using native plugins. This is often discussed as a matter of creative or financial limitation, but I think there's also a deeper necessity linked to cognition and an affordance to create a deeper relationship with your tools. There's a few core ways in which I think this happens:

1. There is no decision to be made as to 'which' to use, you're not in a constant state of evaluation of one plugin over another. You have a need the tool, you reach for the tool, it's right there, you use it.

2. A high level of famility with the interface reduces friction. Your visual processing is lower and more consistent, the plugin's UX becomes almost invisible as your spatial navigation becomes second nature.

3. Over time you know the sound and possible outputs from the plugin and this embedding of its creative possibilties in your mind means you can operate precognitively e.g. you hear what you want in your head prior to executing on it. These little sonic language blocks can then be combined in various ways intentionally. For instance you know you can get 'this' particular sound with this plugin and 'that' particular sound with another and you can create new combinations more intuitively. (subversion of these language blocks through intention or ignorance is the heart of experimentation, but that's a whole 'nother article.)

4. You're more likely to build a set of presets or templates to use as starting points or utilities.

The Boringly Important Other Reasons

There are plenty of other reasons why a tighter plugin list is practical as well:

1. Easier recall of projects between computers e.g. if you have a laptop you use to travel with and a fixed studio machine.

2. Archived projects have more long term stability. Obviously you should be rendering to bounced wavs for archiving, but if you're more likely to have the plugins installed in future then unfreezing tracks is still a possibility.

3. You save money. This effect is three-fold: Obviously you save on the price of the plugIns you don't buy. Secondly, you save on your time spent demoing, reading forums, watching videos, doing your due dilligence and research on whether you will buy a plugin (I'm pretty sure I've often spent more than the value of a plugin just in the time spent researching it). Thirdly, you save time not having to learn the new plugin.

4. You spare yourself the annoyance of plugin updates. This might be a pet peeve of mine, but I hate it when I fire-up a plugin and it tells me there's an update. The more plugins you're using, the more emails and notifications you're getting and the more time you're downloading yet another installer.

5. You spare yourself the grief of the sunk cost phallacy where you force yourself to use a plugin just because you own it. I do this a lot.

It's Hard To Give Up

We are absolutely spoiled for plugins these days. They are often very reasonably priced, frequently on sale, excellently marketed, and most of all they are amazing pieces of software. I love pretty much every plugin I own. Plus I paid for them so I should use them! It's hard to overlook the value proposition of 40% off sales and the desire for the shiny new is hard to resist, but I think there is a tipping point where you've already got your needs covered and should stop looking at plugins that duplicate your existing tools.

Cutting Down The List

For now I've just been reworking the favourites lists in my various plugin hosts in attempt to do a first pass at reducing complexity. At some point I'll probably do another pass, shortening it further, ideally to just one instance of every plugin type that I deem important. Perhaps I'll even sell or pass-on licenses on some of the plugins that allow it, we'll see.

In the future I might write more about how I'm starting to think about plugin evaluation during this process but right now I've got black friday sales to check-out!.. 😋

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