Hard Truths: Free Plugins are Holding You Back

Welcome to Hard Truths, the series on the LANDR Blog where we cut through the noise and take on a harsh reality from the world of music production. This is the advice you might not want to hear—but will make you a better producer.

Today’s topic: Free Plugins are Holding You Back

Let’s face it. Free VST plugins are addictive.

We’ve covered them often on the LANDR Blog and it’s easy to see the appeal.

Stockpiling cool free tone-shaping apps for your DAW taps into our natural psychology of collecting.

But here’s the hard truth: free plugins are almost never as good as their paid counterparts.

Don’t get me wrong. The fact that so many functional audio tools are available for free is a major perk of the digital recording era.

Enterprising developers can create a plugin for free in their spare time and post it online for anyone to download.

And that’s great. But there’s a reason you won’t find many top-tier engineers with a folder full of freeware EQs…

1. Not all plugins are created equal

Side by side, two plugins might not seem too different on the surface. But under the hood, the engineering that powers your effects can vary widely in quality.

Side by side, two plugins might not seem too different on the surface. But under the hood, the engineering that powers your effects can vary widely in quality.

Developing quality digital mixing tools is extremely difficult. The technological challenges involved in building a great-sounding EQ or compressor are daunting.

It’s not impossible that a single developer working on their own can achieve impressive results.

But it’s more likely that well-funded teams creating commercial products can do better with the extra resources they have.

Plugins have become a massive part of the gear industry in the last decade.

Market demand for better and better performance with each generation has made modern plugins extremely sophisticated.

Fierce competition between manufacturers has only increased the pace of development as brands race to release the next desert-island effect.

Those pressures put paid offerings from respected manufacturers at a higher baseline than independently developed freeware.

2. Quality costs money

The simple reality is that the effort and dedication commercial developers put into their creations doesn’t come cheap.

The simple reality is that the effort and dedication commercial developers put into their creations doesn’t come cheap.

It’s true that the overhead needed to sell a product with digital distribution is much lower than a piece of physical hardware.

But there’s still the hundreds of hours of R&D that go into engineering and designing top-tier plugins.

That may sound like you’ll have to make a huge investment, but the good news is that the cost of owning top-notch processors has gone down significantly since the analog era.

In the past you would have needed hundreds of thousands just to get started mixing music.

Today the most advanced digital EQ on the market is $199 USD. I’d call that downright affordable!



With the constant flow of discounts and and availability of rent-to-own plugins, good quality has never been more in reach for the average producer.

3. You don’t need a million VSTs

It’s easy to download plugin after plugin while browsing free VSTs. But how many of them will you really use?

It’s easy to download plugin after plugin while browsing free VSTs. But how many of them will you really use?

The truth is that you can mix an entire album perfectly well using just one compressor and one EQ plugin.

Having too many different processors to choose from will only make it harder to pick one and get down to the business of mixing.

Not only that, any processing you add to your source signals comes with its own set of pros and cons.

Maybe you gain some control over the dynamics or frequency balance, but you introduce negative effects somewhere else.

Issues related to EQ like phase shift or unnatural pumping from over-compression can sneak up on you in a dense mix.

To create a good mix, you have to keep those unwanted effects to a minimum. Experienced engineers know when they’re doing more harm than good with their processing.

One way to keep the collateral damage to a minimum? Choose a high quality tool.

One way to keep the collateral damage to a minimum? Choose a high quality tool.

It’s worth owning at least one compressor and EQ you can rely on to keep the fidelity of your source material intact for critical mixing tasks.

At least then you’ll know that the quality of your end result is based on the quality of your mix decisions—not the shortcomings of your tools.

Free your mind

So what advice should you take from this hard truth?

Download as many free plugins as you want, but make sure you have at least a few high quality tools you can rely on.

You probably only need one really good EQ, one really good compressor and maybe a nice reverb to create a great mix—and quality is cheaper than it’s ever been.

That’s pretty encouraging!

The post Hard Truths: Free Plugins are Holding You Back appeared first on LANDR Blog.

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