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Plug-In Paralysis

Problems & Prescriptions By Eli Krantzberg
Published July 2024

We’ve never had so much choice when it comes to the tools we use to make music — but it’s important that you can choose quickly, and with confidence.

Music production was once a simpler affair. Sure, as technology advanced, we started to develop more sophisticated techniques, running ever more mics through increasingly large mixing consoles and out to a tape machine. But even once we’d thrown EQ, compression, reverb and effects into the mix, the production process as a whole remained relatively quick and straightforward. Today, computers, DAW software and, increasingly, plug‑ins lie at the heart of our projects, and these powerful systems give us affordable access to pretty much any ‘gear’ we want. Plug‑ins can be used for so many tasks, and they’re almost instantly available, which makes them convenient. The possibilities are endless — and that’s all good, right?

Overchoice & Shiny Objects

The thing is, it’s precisely because plug‑ins are so quick and easy to acquire that they bring with them a significant risk of temptation. We can then end up acquiring so many of them that we can become paralysed by the sheer number of options. Lots of us burn precious time and energy worrying about which compressor or EQ plug‑in might be the optimum choice to shape a given sound. And that distracts us from focusing on what’s really important: the music, the groove, the feel of a production, and finishing that production!

...plug‑ins are so quick and easy to acquire that they bring with them a significant risk of temptation. We can then become paralysed by the sheer number of options.

Psychologically, this can be a tough circle to break: it’s well documented that too much choice, or ‘overchoice’, can lead to a state of inaction. Overchoice is a term first coined by Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book Future Shock, and it occurs when someone is presented with so many options that they cannot easily choose between them. Importantly, not only is their ability to make a good decision reduced by this overload of choices, but so too is their satisfaction with their final decision.

I’m not suggesting that choice is inherently bad, though, and studies have shown that having zero choice also results in very low satisfaction — increasing the available choices does initially lead to greater satisfaction, but eventually, as the number of choices grows, our satisfaction level will drop off. We feel more pressure, confusion and potential dissatisfaction with our choices (maybe that other vintage Neve EQ emulation might sound better than the one I spent the last 15 minutes tweaking?). The lesson from all this is that larger choice sets might initially seem appealing, whereas smaller choice sets lead to increased satisfaction and reduced regret.

So let’s consider how this applies to DAW‑based music production. If we acquire an assortment of plug‑ins, we have to choose which to use. On the plus side, there’s variety: we know that we almost certainly have tools at our disposal that can help us achieve what we want to achieve. But there’s also complexity, which is likely to cause either delay to or dissatisfaction with our plug‑in choice. Minimising delay is important — when in the creative mindset, whether writing, arranging or mixing, our best work is done in the immediacy of the moment, often quite intuitively. Trying out six different delay plug‑ins in the middle of a live project could well yield worse results in the long run than simply sticking with the first choice and getting the best out of it.

Even if you act on that knowledge, though, and perhaps start weeding your plug‑in folder to reduce the overwhelming number of choices, in time it’s easy to drift back to a state of too much choice because of something popularly known as Shiny Object Syndrome: “a continual state of distraction brought on by an ongoing belief that there is something new worth pursuing.” As with any commercial company marketing products, plug‑in developers turn to a variety of psychological and sales techniques to drive us into making purchases.

I’m not saying that ads and marketing are inherently bad. The claims may well have merit, and if there are plug‑ins out there that might genuinely make your life easier or help you achieve better results, you want to know about them, right? But if we allow ourselves to be seduced by the marketing campaigns, acquiring plug‑ins can become compulsive, and that can create real problems for us. As well as the problem of overchoice, you can end up spending too much time shopping for or playing with new plug‑ins, and not investing the time that’s necessary to develop the deeper skills by learning every detail of your tools — you become a jack of all plug‑ins, master of none. Consequently, your productivity tanks and you never seem to finish things.

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