If you’ve just started producing music, then you’ve probably already heard of them: plugins. But what are they, how do you use them and what can you use them for? In this blog, we explain what DAW plugins are what you can do with them.
Plugins: What are They?
In most cases, plugins are software-based versions of hardware, and this hardware can be anything from effect modules to instruments – so effect plugins or instrument plugins. So, while producers used to work with a real, physical LA-2A compressor in the studio (and some still do), these days you’re more likely to find them working with an accurately modelled software version. One of the biggest advantages of using plugins is that they’re often far cheaper than the hardware and can even be more flexible when it comes to setting up.
Effect & Instrument Plugins
Plugins come in two forms: effect plugins and instrument plugins. As well as tools like reverb and delay, compression also falls into the effect plugin category, alongside mixing and mastering plugins. Instrument plugins are virtual emulations of physical musical instruments, including pianos and electric pianos, synthesizers, drums and drum machines, orchestral instruments and so on.
Plugins are just much cheaper than their hardware counterparts, but also offer a level of flexibility that you just can’t get with physical gear and instruments. Plugins can be added at every phase of the music production process, whether you’re recording a guitar part using an amp simulator (so a software-based version of a guitar amplifier), or you’re editing every facet of the guitar part after it’s been recorded. Even at that stage, you can change the amplifier, boost the treble, reduce the bass, replace a 2x 12 inch speaker cabinet with a 4x 12 inch cab and so on.
The main benefit of using plugins here is that the pure and unedited, dry DI signal remains intact. This offers up countless options when it comes reamping, where you feed the dry signal through your favourite physical amplifier during the mix phase. They’re also endlessly useful during the mix phase, especially when it comes to adding effects.
Plugins are available in a few different formats depending on the type of recording software you’re using and the operating system of your computer. Accessible formats include VST, VSTi (instrument plugins), AU (Logic Pro) and RTAS (Pro Tools). If you’re an Apple user and work with Garageband or Logic Pro, then you’ll use AU plugins exclusively. If you’re a Windows user, then VST plugins will be the most common.
How Do You Use Plugins?
To use a plugin, you simply load it up in your sampler (like Kontakt, which is part of Komplete) or in your recording software (DAW) and you can get to work. Instruments can be loaded up in a channel strip while effect plugins are usually added to the effect bus of your DAW, where you can tweak the effect intensity and other parameters, mixing the effect with the original signal.
Have a question or some tips about using plugins? Let us know in the comments!