Hey, guys. Another week in the life of a producer. Another week learning to better do what I do, as I'm sure all of you are doing as well.
I recently switched DAWs from Pro Tools to Studio One for a handful of reasons. This may seem a bit silly, but one of the features I was most excited about when I started using Studio One is that (like many DAWs, I'm sure) it allows me to sort plugins however I want. This is really freeing, but also really handy for organization.
Before I begin, let me preface by saying that I think the variety of DAWs out there is a wonderful thing. And I know people love to start discussions and even arguments over which DAW is the best. But I firmly believe that the best DAW is the DAW you're most comfortable working in. Learning to use the tools you have is far more valuable than searching for the world's best tool. You could give me a $3,000 guitar, but Eric Clapton could still crush my playing abilities on a $100 guitar from the closest Big Box Mart. So stick with what works well for you, and only switch if it's an upgrade for what you do.
The plugins in my DAW were sorted automatically by whatever tags the developers saw fit to use to describe their plugins. This is handier than viewing one large list of plugins. But it starts to show problems as your plugin library grows. I had plugins showing up in many different categories: for example, a distortion-geared compressor like Decapitator showed up in the "Dynamics" category and also the "Harmonics" category. And a multi-effect plugin like Effect Rack was kind enough to show up in almost every category because it contained plugins that met the description of almost every category. Also, some newer plugins from less-established developers often wouldn't appear in the proper folder. It was bad enough to have them show up in "Other", but worse when a compressor might show up under "Modulation" because it was inappropriately tagged.
Maybe you split your time between a few DAWs and haven't yet tapped into the features some provide. Maybe you're looking for a new DAW and haven't considered plugin organization to be very important. Maybe it's built into your DAW already and you never noticed. If so, take notice!
Let me tell you what I did: I took a few hours to sort all of my plugins into customized folders. First, I established my priorities. I had to make a list of all the things I might be looking for as I'm searching for a plugin. Each of these deserves a separate folder. Second, I had to make it possible to quickly find my most-used plugins.
To accomplish the first priority, I made plugin folders according to how I would use them, not technically what they are. That one compressor I only use for mastering? By my rules, it belongs in the Mastering folder, not the Compressor folder. Do I use a multi-effect plugin more for sound design than anything else? Make a plugin folder called Sound Design and put it there. These need to be the terms I think of while searching, not the most technically accurate descriptions. Because this is about improving workflow, not building an encyclopedia, right? That's why I filed the above-mentioned Decapitator as "Distortion", not "Compressor" or "Saturation" or "Dynamics" or "Harmonics". Because I use it when I want distortion, not any of those other words.
And to accomplish the second priority, I had to get a little bit more creative. I sorted my plugins into three tiers: most used, occasionally used, and never used. This isn't necessary for smaller categories. For example, I have maybe only six saturation plugins and don't need further sorting than a "Saturation" folder. But EQ plugins accumulate faster than NYC generates garbage, it seems. I made separate folders: "EQ - Favorite" and "EQ - Other". If I use an EQ in most every project, it goes into the favorite folder. If I don't use it often but I like it for specific uses or I want to better learn how to use it, I put it into the other folder. And for the rest? EQ plugins I'll never use? Badly dated design? Poor sound quality? VST2 version of a plugin I have a VST3 version for? Mono version of a plugin I'm likely to only use in stereo? I hide it. I'm not throwing away my license for it and can always unhide it if I decide I need it later. But for now, when the odds are quite low that it's the plugin I'm ever going to look for, it's best to keep it out of sight.
I've found that having more folders helps me find what I need more quickly than scrolling through long lists of plugins in fewer folders. Here's my complete list of plugin folders:
Compressor - Favorite
Compressor - Other
Delay - Favorite
Delay - Other
Distortion - Favorite
Distortion - Other
EQ - Favorite
EQ - Other
Mastering - Favorite
Mastering - Other
Reverb - Favorite
Reverb - Other
Stereo Enhancement - Favorite
Stereo Enhancement - Other
As long as we're being honest, this list will change over time. I'll be adding new folders, removing others. I may find I'm really thinking Y instead of X when I want to find that plugin, and therefore the plugin belongs in folder Y instead of folder X where it is now.
And though this took me several hours to put together, and though I have to initially spend time with each new plugin to decide where it belongs, I found the benefits two-fold: first, it saves me time again and again, every single day, as I waste less time searching for and more time using my plugins. And second, having the tools right at my fingertips instead of lost and buried means that my creative groove remains uninterrupted from what used to be a very common distraction. And as any creator could tell you, staying in your creative process is critical.
Yeah, organizing plugins isn't fun. Unless you get an organizational high. I don't. But this time spent sorting was well worth it for me, and it may be for you too.