Driving Music

What Makes a VST Plug-In High Quality and Should You Even Care?

Over and over I see people advertising their mixing services with terms like “using high quality plugins”. Or customers who insist that they only want mixes made using “high quality plugins”, or “professional plugins”.

Horse dung - Leave it to the Beatles (spelled like The Beatles instead of Dung Beetles)

The other variant is the idea of a Professional Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). Like one or two of them are used by real Pros but the others are for kids who are taking a break from Gears of Gore.

What a total pile of horse dung.

Let us step back for a moment before we get on our emotional high horses (which never poop). What is a Plug-In?

MTV Unplugged

MTV’s “Unplugged” series was an incredibly successful brand for a while there. Even bands like KISS that relied on Amps were eager to get in on the game. It was all a bit of a sham of course but people fell for it hook line & sinker.

Just as people have fallen for the idea that a digital processor has an inherent professionalism (or otherwise) based on manufacturer. Or really, based on “word on the street” – which is invariably from totally inexperienced musicians, trying to sound cool and knowledgeable among other such people.

A Plugin, or VST Plug-In is a collection of code compiled into a .dll file. It is only computer code – or Instructions to tell the computer to “do this” or “do that” with the audio it receives.

This Instruction Set has a formal name: Digital Signal Processing or DSP for short. DSP runs in everything that uses audio in the digital domain. It is the equivalent of processing audio using valves, transistors or diodes only in 11010101101010 format instead of +/-5 volts.

This means that at core, DSP is the same no matter whether we are looking at your iPhone, Tickle Me Elmo, or the “MC McFunky Super Mix Sprongulator Pro” for $299.

It is all marketing. Like when MTV had us all convinced that music was really only any good if it could be strummed on acoustic instruments – that were still using demon electronics to be mixed and sent to us but we chose to ignore that as the high horse felt so good.

Wrong Side of Memphis

I can already feel some wiseacre typing a poorly spelled rant at me how I have no idea what I’m talking about as it is all in the quality of the DSP and some people (like Waves) do it so much better than anyone else. And only amateurs use the “crap” plugins.

Ok cool. I’m truly happy for you if that placebo floats your boat all night long as you gently rock in blissful sleep with hookers with DD bosoms they long for you to jam your face in as a result of your Pro mixes. You could learn from this article but you don’t want to. Your call of course. But be aware that if you talk that talk, around professionals, they will think you are mighty silly.

DSP is DSP. What happens inside Plugings is the same no matter what it says on the marketing blurb. If a plugin adds 6db to your signal, it adds 6db to your signal (assuming they aren’t furphy-ing it that is). There isn’t a good or bad set of maths for adding 6db. It is simple:

Signal = Signal + 6db

(exactly the same signal only louder)

Jeremy Bender

Ok, so my new bestie has somewhat of a point if he could articulate it well enough. Many Plugins do bend the truth of the audio they are processing. There is some very good reason for this.

We like the sound of some analog gear because of the way it failed to deliver what it did accurately. Pop in a fast, loud signal and the components couldn’t react fast enough so they ended up distorting the signal in some way.

If you used a Marshall Stack to play your new “Berlin Philharmonic Does Mozart” record it would be the worst Hi-Fi in the world.

If Slash used a QUAD Electrostatic speaker driven by a McIntosh amplifier to play his guitar parts on “November Rain”, we’d all be mightily disappointed.

What I am hoping you realize from this that is it horses for courses. Marshall Stacks make very poor Hi-Fi gear just as QUADs make very poor guitar combos.

Plugins are a dime-a-dozen just like Hi-Fi & Combos. Each is designed to do something. Most do it well enough. That is all that is needed.

Best Kept Lies

I can tell you with full confidence that the stock M-Class Compressor that comes with Reason compresses just as well as the one Waves gave me to get me on their email treadmill. Neither sounds better.

If you wiggle the knobs with only a loose sense of how the devices work, the two Compressors do seem to sound different but neither of those “sounds” is more or less good or professional than the other. You are just hearing the different maths over time.

Even better, once I understand how the Waves device is doing what it is, I can emulate it with M-Class close enough for knife fighting. Or anyone listening to the music instead of minute mix details.

Some Plugins are increasingly more like analog gear in that the developer is rolling in “hidden” features that emulate the mess that coveted devices of yore made of the signal. Some do this better than others but let me tell you that by 2019 the difference between one and another is like the difference between a Toyota Corolla & a Nissan Pulsar. They are effectively the same. Go to war on your high horse if it amuses you but Corollas & Pulsars are the same car. Same Plugins.

One Step Beyond

Now let us look at this way: what if we got ourselves the bestest Producer ever, tossed him in a studio with average musicians, and rotten gear – something like:

we all used em in the day

And at the same time, we grabbed some random who had the very Pro-est of Plugins on the Pro-est of DAWS, locked them in their bedroom with the same band…

Who is most likely to deliver a record worth hearing?

My money is on the real Record Producer.

You may think that is me trying to shore up my income. Maybe so. But here’s my logic:

The first scenario could be The Beatles. They were ordinary musicians, in a studio with gear that by our standards is about as bad as that Radio Shack mixer; with about as many features – and noise floor. They worked with Sir George Martin who delivered material that is still hot property today.

Equally, we could be talking Hank Williams, Brenda Lee, Muddy Waters, early Elvis…

The gear doesn’t have to be super excellent to make great records. If you start down that path then you are focusing on the gear and not the performance.

I have tried this myself with using plugins on the Masters that in theory should not be used because they aren’t “good enough” quality. The other day I experimented with a freebie MiniMoog (or Korg MS-20 it wasn’t clear) style Filter/Drive Plugin across the whole Mix. It was cool. Would I do it if I was mixing Sir Cliffy Bastard’s next record, maybe not but it wasn’t something I’m going to forget as a bad idea. It sounded nice and really warm, especially for a Retro or even a muscular Rap mix. If Sir Bastard wanted his record to sound like 1954 I’d be all over it with no qualms.

Every Time Two Fools Collide

If you are looking for someone to mix your record, you don’t want to be asking what DAW & Plugins they use as any sort of judgment of their Pro-ness. Same goes if you are being serenaded by a Plugin Dev who claims their VST is more “High Quality” and therefore will make you sound more Pro.

Doing that only makes you look silly. Engineers & Producers with Professional mindsets notice this. Ask about how they feel about your fave records, what they need from you to make a record they are going to be proud of?

I have learned from hard experience that people who go straight to asking about my gear are the equivalent of guys who only ask a girl out on a date if they have already been promised “it”. They make very poor customers and the project rarely even gets off the ground – let alone I ever hear about them on the grapevine after they went off to someone with “High-Quality Plugins” in a “Pro DAW” – or bought them themselves to stop us Engineer types from “ripping them off” :shakes head:

Flow & Resistance

There is one really good reason to look at a Plugin or DAW from the angle of Pro-ness. That is Workflow.

Workflow is definitely in the eye of the beholder. Some people think Ableton is a great place to make music. I can’t do it. It doesn’t work out for me. Happy for people it does work out for, but that ain’t me. Nor should it have to be.

Sadly some people extrapolate (whilst sitting on their poopless high horse) that if they like it then it is Pro. And therefore that everything else is for losers.

That is as silly as Fender guitarists calling Gibson guitarists crap. Silly because that means that we have to choose to only listen to Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page. Not both. Professional musicians don’t act like that. If Clapton & Page met they wouldn’t be beating each other to death with their appropriately branded guitars. Maybe over a girl but not a brand.

The other old saw is that some DAWs or Plugins are Industry Standard so you are always safe with them and anything else is the sign of a loser. Ok fine if you subscribe to the old idea that only white people are good and all the funny colored ones are bad. If this is you, you are struggling with your fear and putting it onto someone else.

Having a real, honest conversation with your Engineer (or yourself) will help heaps.

If it helps you get the job done. Or helps your Engineer get the job done to a good standard, then it is good. Professional even. There is no degree of Pro-ness. There is no governing body that puts Pro-ness Star Ratings on every bit of gear released.

Let that mentality go and allow yourself to use the tools you have to their potential – your potential.

3 thoughts on “What Makes a VST Plug-In High Quality and Should You Even Care?”

  1. OK man, I’m no gearhead, though I do have some, but I gotta know: Where do I get a “MC McFunky Super Mix Sprongulator Pro” and is it $299 US or AU?
    I haven’t recorded anything since 1982 or so, when I sang an improvised song inspired by an X-Men comic book. The depth and breadth of your knowledge of the technology really impresses me. I take it you are a pro.
    I really like that you don’t suffer fools gladly. I think we discussed this recently, but man you really believe in keeping the knives sharp and that’s cool.
    All right, it’s late and I’m setting up my game tomorrow, with lots of pics for you. But before I go I have to say that is one glorious horse turd. Well done, sir, well done.

  2. It is indeed an impressive pic. I had to have it. As for the Sprongulator, send me $299 (either dollar will do as you’re not getting any software) and I’ll fax you one over. 30+ years of study will do that to you but sadly my manner means that others don’t seem to want to play with me which is a shame with all this ability. I have tried being nice but it still got me nowhere so I might as well be honest and maybe that will help the right people find me. Enjoy your game and yay on the pics.

  3. I really don’t see what’s so hard to understand about protecting your reputation. I mean it’s not that hard to figure out. Cute little teeny bopper girl with a tight ass and a four note vocal range sells twenty million copies and embarks on a world tour of football stadiums. Who really did that? Butts are important, no doubt. It would seem they are more important than the sound in many cases. After all, who wants an album of dance pop music, however good, with a picture on the cover of Alan Parsons at the club, twerking in a pink leather mini skirt? Pink leather, really? Some people have no style.
    People are cheap bastards. They want Abbey Road results from that guy Trey from math class. They think technology has leveled the playing field. It makes me want to cheer for every dude with a guitar, a drum machine and a microphone laying down tracks on a TASCAM 4 track porta-studio. This is someone who knows that music is made by people and you can’t polish a turd, even a shiny one like the one in the picture.

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