Updated: Feb 18, 2021
Let’s get down to brass tacks: you can likely accomplish everything a third-party plugin does using tools within your native DAW.
Your DAW, if you’re using a quality professional program (Abelton, FL, Logic, etc.), already comes packed with tools most people don’t take the time to master.
The common advice given by producers (who don’t have affiliate links) is that you should master your DAW’s native plugins before you purchase something third-party. This saves you cash and develops your skill with a plugin’s features. When you do finally decide to buy third-party, you’ll know how to use the tool effectively.
This advice is to prevent the mistake of buying gear you see the “pros” using and concluding that your music will instantly jump to a similar quality. What actually happens is you drop $50 on a compressor you don’t know how to use.
While a generally sage tip, I would push back a little against this conventional wisdom.
To sit on the fence, it really depends on what you’re buying.
I believe third-party plugin purchases should be measured by efficiency before quality.
What do I mean?
Since most DAWS come equipped with more than enough tools to get you started, the goal of a new plugin should be to make production faster, saving you more time than you would using the native sounds.
For example, you don’t need LFO tool to sidechain in your track. For example, In Logic Pro X you can use the old school method of routing all your instruments to a bus with a compressor. Same results, but this takes time to do: You have to set up a trigger, make a mix bus, dial in your compression settings, and route instruments. It’s not as efficient, speedy, or detailed as LFO Tool. When comparing the amount of control and ease, LFO Tool is a much better option.
So, you must weigh the options: “Hey, is the speed and simplicity of LFO tool worth the $70 bucks?” Classic opportunity cost.
That answer will depend on what you think as the producer. How often are you using sidechain? Is the cost reasonable in relation to the time saved?
Another example: You can make a native Logic synth sound good, but it’s going to take a lot of work. I mean a LOT of work: tons of post-processing and resampling. Alternatively, you get Serum, buy a couple presets off Splice, and instantly match the results that would’ve taken hours to achieve with the ES2 (shudders).
So yeah. I would consider Serum a worthwhile option.
The same rule applies for sample packs too. I could spend 30 minutes making an 808, or drag & drop one into a sampler, ready for recording. Is it worth spending an hour making an electro house pre-clap when Vengeance gives you 10,000 to choose from?
After your simplicity problem is solved, then you can master your tools.
The next phase in the purchase evolution is purchasing better quality plugins, falling in line with the traditional advice.
Even in this stage, you should still think efficiency, especially if you’re a bedroom producer strapped for cash. Buy quality plugins that solve multiple problems.
If you’re a bass music producer, buying a bunch of WAVES Abbey Road EQs is not a worthwhile investment. Maybe getting a plugin like TRASH 2, that applies across multiple genres operates as different effects (filtering, distortion, compression, etc.) is a better investment.
In short, the less niche the plugin, the better that buy.
So, you’ve maximized efficiency, mastered general plugins, and have enough money to splurge. Now you have the skills and knowledge to make informed decisions about hyper-specific plugins, like some obscure analog emulated EQ or a particular vocal doubler.
Treat your purchases like a business expense: What is going to maximize your creative and quality output immediately? What’s a better long-term investment? These questions will help you waste less money and make more worthwhile decisions.