January 3, 2013

With the hundreds (if not thousands) of plugins on the market for us DAW users, it’s tough to sift through them all and decide which we like best.  If you put marketing hype aside and be completely honest with yourself, many plugins sound very similar, even if they are made by completely different companies.  So what separates one plugin from the next?  These days it seems as though most plugin programmers are jumping on the  the “analog modeling” bandwagon and trying to recreate vintage or even modern analog devices, but in the digital realm.  How close they actually get is up for debate, but one thing for sure that is rarely debated is the effect that the UI (user interface) has on the end result.  I’ve seen plugins that are in development and the UI’s look like a grey box with white text entry boxes that control the parameters.  For some reason I can’t get my head wrapped around anything that looks like that no matter how good it sounds.  Which leads me to something I haven’t heard many people acknowledge: plugins that have a good looking interface (or one the recreates a familiar visual experience) will achieve a better result.  Now I’m not saying that they “sound” better, all I’m saying is that if I’m looking at something that is pleasing or represents something in the analog world, there’s something in my sub-conscious that tricks my mind into thinking that it’s awesome or at least puts me in the mindset to do better work.  Take for example the Waves SSL Channel.  When I first started to attempt in-the-box mixing, for reasons only a psychologist could probably explain, I needed something that was familiar to me in order to get half decent results.  So in order to trick myself into believing that I was working on a console, I setup my whole session with SSL Channel’s on every track.  During the entire mix I was listening to (and staring at) something that strongly resembled my usual workflow, working on an SSL 4K.  Within a few days of this new workflow, my results had improved dramatically.  So the question is, did the plugins sound so much better than anything else, or did the combination of the familiar sound and user interface free my mind to simply mix instead of worrying about bits and sample rates?  Now that I’ve been using plugins and mixing in-the-box for several years, I’ve tried going back to boring, ordinary looking plugins and it’s just not as fun as the ones that have cool interfaces, especially the ones that mimic 3-unit vintage EQ’s or 2 track reel-to-reel machines, etc.  This just goes to show you that the user-interface does matter, it’s not just something for a marketing brochure or website.  If the visual aesthetics of your plugins put you in a certain positive mood or tricks you into not thinking about the “digital-ness” of digital, then it most certainly will have a positive impact on the work that you’re doing.  So next time you’re working on a song in ProTools or Logic, etc., pull up the best looking plugin you can find and I guarantee it will sound amazing 😉