Any DAW user has pondered the question at some stage: How much room is there still for innovation? The world of effects plug-ins and virtual instruments has become overloaded with choices. So many are emulations of classic hardware, and very few provide features that aren’t covered by your DAW’s native plug-in suite. Are plug-in manufacturers running out of ideas?
In the beginning…
A new broom sweeps clean, as the saying goes. Without a doubt, this applies in the case of software plug-ins. As soon as they became a feasible solution for signal processing and sound generation, there wasn’t a studio that didn’t jump at the idea.
Over the course of the 1990s, we saw personal computers developing at a rapid rate. From clunky auxiliary tools, they became the center of the modern studio. Multimedia workstations with graphics and audio capabilities became more accessible and affordable than ever before.
Meanwhile, alongside the IT boom, established audio manufacturers like Steinberg and Emagic expanded sequencer software into DAW systems capable of processing both MIDI and audio. Plug-in interface standards such as VST paved the way for so many virtual instruments and effects across the various platforms.
Plug-ins in modern music production
If we look at how music is produced today, there isn’t a studio that doesn’t run DAW software in one form or another. Working outside of a DAW has become something of a retro novelty.
Although conversations surrounding sound quality when working in the box were common initially, things have moved on. It’s no longer surprising to encounter productions made completely on software, either in the studio or at home.
As music software evolved, so did its emulation capabilities along with hard disk recording. Plug-ins had new purposes, but also a new market. The technical innovation behind software democratized music production tools for good.
Not only are plug-ins more affordable, but they are more accessible to beginners which means a far wider global user base.
Are plug-in manufacturers running out of ideas?
The plug-in market certainly never stagnates. Manufacturers constantly release new plug-ins and update older ones, so it sure keeps us busy. On top of this, there are new manufacturers coming out all the time with their own takes on design. Trends seem to repeat themselves in an endless cycle, and the market becomes increasingly saturated as a result.
New and groundbreaking ideas are not easy to come by. EQ plug-ins, for example, seem to become more homogenized by the minute. The interfaces show a true balance of function and usability, which is hard to improve on. In addition, effects and synthesizers struggle to display much in terms of innovation because most of the concepts have been exhausted by now.
However, there is still room for growth and new ideas, for a few reasons. As technology advances, the processing power available becomes even greater. Having new CPUs on the market means plug-ins have expanded capabilities. The result is software with more complex algorithms, which for example, can produce more detailed analogue emulation.
At the moment, the incorporation of AI and machine learning functionality is becoming increasingly popular within software interface design. This allows processing functionality, especially in the backend, that could not be fathomed only a few years ago.
Technical advances require updates
One thing that can work against plug-in developers, is the incessant rate at which new processors and operating systems are released on the market. So many formats have become obsolete as a result, and this is likely to continue.
At the moment, we are experiencing the migration from Intel to Apple silicon processors which requires compatibility. This leads to plug-ins becoming redundant legacy software without support in most cases. To add to this inconvenience, the new plug-in versions often require new licenses which adds to the overall cost of upgrading your system.
The only silver lining is some manufacturers like Audio Damage have made their entire legacy plug-in catalogue available for free. This is certainly a bonus for legacy OS users.
Progress is not only evident in processors, but in other areas too. Multi-channel and immersive audio formats are good examples of this. Acoustic calibration tools for speakers and headphones, as well as room emulation plug-ins, are constantly being released. Recently, this has brought multi-channel support to the already saturated effects plug-in market.
Evolution instead of innovation?
Rather than becoming more versatile, we are seeing plug-ins become more specialized. Plug-ins that perform a specific technical function like noise reduction have improved drastically. Here, trends within popular music affect developments. The desire to get “that sound” becomes the driving force behind tools for sidechaining or vocal pitching.
Sometimes innovation happens in the form of an amalgamation of older concepts. This often results in a “one-knob” interface design. Here, you can control a series of processes to varying degrees, with a single knob.
We can also see the expansion of more detailed interfaces, as within a multi-band distortion plug-in where each individual parameter can be precisely controlled. In the future, there is great potential for hybrid plug-in designs.
Repetition is a recurring theme
Never forget that UI design and programming is a very diverse art form. There isn’t a right or wrong way to produce the results you need in your music, only the way that works for you.
Some software is more focused on the sonic potential, while other developers put the visual interface first. Most often it is the unique approach of the user that brings notable results. There is no guarantee that a new plug-in will sound better, so ensure you try before you buy.
We can often put technological developments under a microscope of scrutiny, ignoring the bigger picture. Almost every part of modern art and consumer culture is made up of regurgitated ideas, and everyone still flocks to the next Batman movie. With the lens of subjectivity, you can find what works for your ideal process.
So what are your thoughts on the matter? Is there stagnation in the development of plug-ins, or do you think plenty of new things happening right now? Which plug-ins have surprised you lately?
Survey: Which plug-ins have we seen enough of?
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Originally published on Gearnews.de by Dirk.