Working with plug-ins: A beginner’s guide

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If you’re new to home recording, or looking to expand your repertoire, using plug-ins might feel intimidating and complicated. It’s really not that hard to start using plug-ins and expand your sonic palette.

In “Meet the plug-in: Your start-up kit,” we looked at different types of plug-ins — specialized software that can give you new sound-making and track-crafting abilities — and how plug-ins can make a huge difference in professionalizing your home studio recordings and music-making.

If you’re new to it, using plug-ins might feel intimidating; plug-in parameters can be opaque and complicated and the choices may seem endless. Rest assured, it’s not as hard as it might seem to use plug-ins and take your music in new sonic directions.

Here are some tips to help you get started.

Research your choices

Let’s say you want to buy a plug-in that will give your guitar parts some great Marshall stack overdrive. Where do you begin? Search the web to see what options are out there, listen to sound samples, read reviews from reputable sources, and tap your own network of music-makers. If several of your colleagues swear by a certain plug-in to deliver authentic-sounding amplified rage, perhaps that’s one worth checking out.

Take advantage of free trials

Many plug-in developers let you try before you buy, so be sure to investigate free opportunities to test out intriguing plug-ins. Download a demo version of whatever plug-in you have an eye on; take it for a spin and see if it elevates your music-making in a way that makes it worth investing in.

Check compatibility

Different digital audio workstations, computer operating systems, or hardware keyboards may require different plug-in formats to function properly, so make sure your digital tools will all play together nicely before you buy. Also, be sure to find out whether or not the machine that will be hosting your new plug-in will have enough processing power, storage, and speed to handle it. Some instrument plug-ins, for example, can be massive when it comes to file size, so determine your available hard drive capacity before you commit.

Start small

You can easily fill your hard drive with plug-ins of all sizes, shapes, and flavors — but that doesn’t mean you should. A good way to get started using plug-ins is to load up just one or two that you think will help your music-making and spend hours learning them inside and out. The experience you pick up figuring out how to use your first few plug-ins will make it that much easier to get started when you invest in new ones down the road.

Learn from the web

Videos, reviews, tutorials — many plug-ins have tons of content published on the web about them. Tap these resources as much or as little as you see fit to learn about your new software tools. Chances are, if you find a video of a multi-platinum producer talking about how to use a certain reverb, you’ll learn a thing or two — but content posted by lesser-known music-makers can be just as helpful.

Check out pre-sets

Often, plug-ins come with a series of pre-programmed settings, customized for different purposes. A good way to start exploring your new plug-in is to scroll through these pre-sets and see the depth and variety of what your plug-in can do. Does the virtual compressor that you just downloaded have drastically different presets for female lead rock vocals and male backing R&B vox? Keep that in mind for future use. Does it give a nice bit of fuzz when you use the “Hard Rock Vocals” settings and some lush warmth when you dial in the “Pop Ballad” pre-set? Note the specific settings that create each sound so you can customize at will. The more time you spend getting to know your plug-in’s pre-sets, the better sense you’ll have of the ways the tool can be used and the types of sounds it’s capable of creating.

Tweak the presets

When it comes to plug-ins and presets, one size rarely fits all. Let’s say you’re using a digital reverb plug-in to make your kick drum sound big and epic. Even if your plug-in comes loaded with a preset called “Big Epic Kick Drum,” use it as a starting point and not a finish line. Once you have the appropriate pre-set dialed in, start tweaking, change settings, and do whatever you need to get your kick drum sounding even bigger, fuller, and better-suited to what your recording needs.


Let’s say that the vast majority of music makers who own a certain harmonic distortion plug-in use it exclusively on electric rock guitars — or that dozens of famous producers use the same plate reverb plug-in to sweeten their vocals in more or less the same way. These uses may be perfectly functional and productive, but that doesn’t mean you have to follow the trend.

What would happen if you put that uber-popular harmonic distortion on hand percussion rather than guitars, or what if you crank that plate reverb plug-in to its most extreme settings and run a penny flute sound through it? In the end, regardless of how anybody else uses (or doesn’t use) a certain tool, do what sounds good to you.

Trust your ears

Just because a certain plug-in was used on a radio hit or is the flavor of the month, it doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for your recording. Similarly, a freeware, open-source plug-in might give you exactly what you need for a certain sound or song, while the one with the $500 price tag, as professional and polished as it may be may, might simply not be the right tool for your current purpose. Trust your ears and choose the tools that will be best for your project and your music as a whole.

Use judiciously

Plug-ins can do amazing things for your music, but at the same time, just because you can use a plug-in doesn’t mean you should. More plug-ins will not necessarily make your track sound better and can often have the opposite effect by cluttering, muddying, or over-processing. Just use what you need and avoid layering on extra plug-ins simply because they’re there.

Do you have any tips for first learning to use plug-ins? Tell us in the comments below.

Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download through iTunes, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.

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