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Minimalism & Plugins

One of my mentors attended a lecture/Q&A by a famously successful engineer at a mixing and producing conference in LA. After the lecture, just as the applause was dying down, a man in his mid 30s walked past the hundreds of other engineers in the audience, right up to the mic to ask the first question, “What EQ is the one you’re always reaching for?”

The engineer quietly leaned into the mic and paused for a split second before responding, “I don’t use EQ.”

I wasn’t in the room, but I do enjoy imagining the gasps from the audience.

The engineer then explains that there is always a right mic for the job and always a proper way to capture an audio source in it’s most authentic way so it doesn’t need to be fixed.

Tangential story, I once had a friend tell me about a Motown engineer that was invited to guest critique a class of student's mixes. At one point, the engineer laughed, and mentioned that the students’ one track had more plug-ins than the entire Motown mix board. Even though that student was going for that classic Motown sound, they weren't able to get the sound. Unlike the Motown days, today there is a plug-in for absolutely everything. It’s easy to think that our sound needs to be fixed because it wasn’t “perfect”, or doesn’t have that “classic” sound. But IMO, our gear is so much better than 50 years ago.

Aight so the gear and the tech is much better nowadays, so why do we still use EQ? Is it possible to get a great sounding mix without using an EQ at all?

Idk, probably?

Personally, every single one of my mixes probably has a high pass filter or some sort of gain reduction in the 200hz area on most of my tracks. I don’t have great mics, nor do i have a locker full of them with the luxury of being able to choose the right mic for the job, so i’m doing corrective EQ more than I’d like. So why did the engineer giving the lecture give the answer he gave? Perhaps the engineer was only working on mixes that were recorded in studios with big budgets and plenty of recording time, but also maybe not. If you just choose the right mic or the right sample, you eliminate work you have to do later. Most of the audio that I work with are samples that I purchased, downloaded, or was gifted in some way. If it were up to me, I would've have recorded them differently, done something else differently, etc, etc. In the end, you just have to work with what you’ve got. So yes, I am going to continue cutting below 80hz.

In no way am I trying to convince you to stop using EQ. In fact, the only blanket generalization that I would adhere to is don’t adhere to any blanket generalizations. I am only trying to convince you to be more mindful of plug-in usage.

Again, a plug-in is a tool. Tools are used to build stuff. A beat wouldn’t be much without drums or bass. But if all you’re trying to build is a cabinet, especially if you haven’t build many cabinets before, you don’t need to purchase $4,000 worth of gear from Home Depot. You just need a few tools. There are so many truly incredible plug-ins out there for you to use, and there are always great new plug-ins that are released every season. It is okay to not use them all.

My advice is to try and restrict yourself to 1 EQ per track, and maybe only use compression in groups aux/return tracks. Just try it! I personally try to be as minimal as I can with compressors because I want my tracks to really breathe together. I feel like compression is a great tool to control the breath of my mix.

I also invite you to try just using stock EQ and compression. It will almost always use less CPU, and force you to learn and know your basics.

Regarding modulation or saucy plug-ins, I invite you to try using one per track. I really like this tactic because I feel like it forces me to use FX and modulation more musically, and avoids my tracks becoming jumbled or washed. Also, your CPU will definitely thank you for it.

Although I’ve been talking about plugins only, I believe you can apply this minimal mindset to almost all aspects of music production.

Be minimal towards your arrangements! A habit I am trying to break is over-layering beats, when I could instead be using that time to make a better beat with less components. I also have

a background in guitar, and have a tendency to add too much melody to a track, which then leads the track to feel unfocused.

I think one riser is fine. I also think one kick is fine. as long as the sound is engaging and interesting. Don't overcomplicate it.

Here are some examples that you can try today:

  • Try limiting your project to only 8 tracks

  • Use only 1 drum sample, and have only X number of modifications to it

  • Don’t make the song more than X minutes

  • Try not to use [plugin] so much

  • Don’t open the file more than X times

  • No loops

  • No EQ 😂

Be brave! You don't need to use 3 EQs on the same track, just using one!

Thanks for reading!

Be sure to check out, download and USE ALL OF MY PLUGINS, THEY ARE FREE


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