What Plug-ins Should I Use for Mixing?

Jul 03, 2022
women mixing music on a DAW in DIY home studio

Why I Avoid Using Sound-Shaping Plug-ins When Mixing 


When it comes to mixing, very often you’ll hear me advocating for a minimalistic approach, steering clear of using plug-ins. Let me clarify that certain plug-ins like EQ and Dynamics, can be necessary depending on the situation (mixing in a DAW), what I am talking about is the use of sound-shaping or mixing plug-ins that are used as band-aids so-to-speak.

In this blog post, I’ll explain my reasons for avoiding plug-ins when mixing live sound and how I use them when working within a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).



When I’m working with an analog console, my standard rig comprises a rack of outboard gear consisting of gates, compressors, reverb, and delay. When I am mixing on a digital console, unless plug-ins are required and specified by the artist, I stick to the console's onboard EQ, gates, and compressors.  I’ve always been a 'less is more’ kind of gal, preferring simplicity and I’ll explain why in just a bit.  

Rather than relying on ‘sound-shaping’ plug-ins to create the sounds I want, I purposely select the right tools for the job—from choosing the appropriate microphone to a great sounding console, and minimal processing in the signal path. 

Good gain structure and effective EQ application as well as ensuring the source sounds great before putting a mic on it is the foundation to making the subsequent mixing process significantly smoother.

The rationale behind this approach is rooted in the need for adaptability. Touring globally with diverse artists means unpredictable equipment availability.  When you are working as a professional sound engineer, it’s critical that you can mix a show that sounds great wherever you are and on whatever gear is available.  You’ll find that despite what’s promised, you won’t always get the equipment you requested but you’ll have to make it work anyway.

Depending on layers of plug-ins can lead to show-stopping issues—server malfunctions, licensing problems, or insufficient DSP capabilities.  When your show is built around layers of plug-ins, you will inevitably run into a situation where you will be scrambling to rebuild your show file without them and salvage what you can of the mix.

I've often witnessed fellow sound engineers at festivals frantically on their phones with tech support, desperately troubleshooting a plug-in related crises, never having learned how to properly use EQ or compression, instead relying on the plug-ins to do what they can’t.  Without plug-ins, their mix completely falls apart and they have a terrible show.

Their heavy reliance on plug-ins leaves them unable to create a high-quality mix without them. 

Consistency of the mix is also very important.  If you are the FOH Engineer, what the band hears coming back to them from the PA can affect not only their monitor mix but also their performance. When your mix sounds consistent every night, it helps the band and the monitor engineer.   If the mix changes drastically from show to show because you suddenly don’t have all the plug-ins you normally do, it has the potential to throw everyone off.  Consistency is even more vital for a monitor engineer.  Musicians rely on consistent sound in their monitors, whether stage monitors or in-ear, to give their best performance.  When the musicians perform at their best it makes mixing them easier.

As the sound engineer for a live band, you should be able to walk in and mix your show on whatever equipment you have.  Of course, some shows will sound better than others due to the quality of the sound system and equipment available, but you should never be in a situation where you can’t make the guitar sound good without your Maserati ACG or GTR3 ToolRack or you can’t figure out how to get any warmth or thump from the PA without your OneKnob plug-ins. 



When I advocate for mixing music in the studio without plug-ins, I’m referring specifically to sound-shaping plug-ins like OneKnob, Maserati, Clarity, etc.  These plug-ins simply replicate what can be accomplished with proper EQ and compression techniques.

In the realm of a DAW, plug-ins can be a necessity. Most DAWs provide some basic EQ, dynamic, and effects plug-ins, integral components of any mix. However, beyond the standard issued plug-ins that came with your DAW, there exists a plethora of higher-quality versions. 

Plug-ins such as Neve, API, or SSL EQs, will often sound better than the generic EQ built into your DAW. Likewise, UA audio, Empirical Labs, CLA, and SSL compressor plug-ins will be more versatile and sonically pleasing than something like ReaComp or the typically included Compressor.  Listen to compare and choose the one that sounds best to you. The key lies in discerning the sonic nuances between these options and selecting those that best complement your music.

Nevertheless, when aiming for vocal clarity, drum punch, or enhancing an acoustic guitar, the foundation lies in proper mic selection, good gain structure, EQ, and dynamics.

Dialing in the perfect amp sound for electric guitars or capturing pristine drum recordings eliminates the need for excessive plug-in manipulation.

What often happens is novice engineers waste a lot of time and money searching for plug-ins to fix or compensate for problems that could have been remedied or avoided altogether by following the basic precepts of audio production which include: 

  • Starting with high-quality recordings

 Ensure your instruments sound as good as they can before recording.  Dial in your amp tones, tune guitars, tune the drums, and replace drum heads or guitar strings if need be.  Carefully choose synth patches, tune acoustic pianos, etc.  If you are using virtual instruments or samples, spend some time auditioning them to find what suits the music and arrangements. 

If you are recording vocals, do what you can to achieve isolation from extraneous noise.  Plug-ins that are used to remove unwanted background noise often have some unnatural sounding results.  Find a closet or quiet corner in your home.  Even isolating yourself in your car in a quiet location can work!  Build a temporary iso booth with cardboard boxes and blankets.   

  • Choose the right microphone and placement for your desired result

All microphones are not created equal.  Choose a microphone with a frequency response suited to your needs.  Experiment with moving it around to find the best spot for capturing the sonic character you are looking for.

  • Set up proper gain structure into your DAW

Recording signal levels that are too high will result in distortion or clipping of the signal.  Levels that are too low can introduce unwanted noise from the environment, or as you try and boost them elsewhere in the signal path.  Both are detrimental to a mix. For a short video on setting proper input gain to your DAW click here. 

These simple steps will set you up with good recordings that require less time spent fixing problems and more fun mixing!


In essence, there's nothing inherently wrong with using plug-ins to enhance a mix. However, it's paramount to first build a good solid mix using critical listening, thoughtful mic choices and mic placement, optimal input gain, and sensible EQ and compression before piling on the plug-ins.  These core skills far surpass the reliance on a toolbox filled with one-trick sound-shaping plug-ins.  When we start to rely too heavily on the tools, we lose our skills.  If you want to master your audio skills, make sure you start by learning the fundamentals.

If you’re getting started in Live Sound, CHECK OUT THIS BLOG  and if you're recording and producing from your home studio READ THIS.



By: Michelle Sabolchick