Why we should all avoid using cracked plugins
It’s a common story: audio students or beginners in the field have always passed around those dreaded cracks of Waves and other plugins, thinking that it will give them a crucial advantage over others in making their music sound better. I have even seen commercial studios use them, and even worse, some audio instructors distributing them in hopes to gain favour with their students. I openly discuss plugin ethics with my students, and for some it’s the first time they’ve thought about it. Here are a few reasons they offer as to why they steal:
1 – I can’t afford to buy great plugins.
2 – Everyone else is doing it, so why not me?
3 – Using the same plug-ins as the pros will make my music sound more professional.
4 – I’ll go legit later when I’m earning money in my field.
While all of these reasons seem important to them, there’s still some vital information they’re missing. The bottom line is that many young producers are USED to stealing media, whether it’s downloading or streaming songs and movies, or seemingly expensive plugin bundles. It’s all the same right?
Well, here are a few reasons to think about before pulling the trigger on adding cracks to your system:
1. YOU DON’T NEED THEM
Most DAWs come with a great compliment of plugins. Compressors, EQ’s, reverbs, delays and all sorts of standard effects are available in-the-box. Over the years, software developers have expanded the functionality of their product extensively, and most have more plug-ins than you’ll ever need to make your music sound the way you want. Logic for example has made all of their processors and instruments part of the package, which at one point were quite expensive. Space Designer was once $600, and synths like ES-2, Sculpture and even the EXS24 sampler were $300, not to mention Logic itself was once about $900. Currently, the entire bundle is $200! Avid’s D-Verb was once $1000, and is now part of the standard Pro-Tools install, along with many other insert and Audiosuite effects. All of these plugins are functional, and sound great, even when compared with more expensive 3rd party plugins. Novice producers have a long way to go before developing their ears to a point when they feel they need 3rd party plugs.
2. THERE ARE MORE FREE OR INEXPENSIVE PLUGINS THAN YOU’LL EVER NEED
The amount of free high-quality plugins of any type is astounding, and I recommend trying them out. Get used to trying demos on a regular basis. Some companies have free versions of their more expensive plugins, with the only difference being that you can’t save the presets (similar to how you’d work with hardware counterparts). In addition, there are incredible deals offered for very well known plugins throughout the year. Please check these sites below to see what is on offer for your DAW and platform. Better yet, sign up for their mailing lists where special deals are offered weekly. The best deals are found around the holidays – Christmas, Black Friday, Easter and even Valentines day. If there’s a plugin you’re looking for that isn’t on sale, chances are it will be if you check back often. My favourite vendors are listed below:
3. SUPPORT YOUR COTTAGE INDUSTRY
Even though music is very big in your life, it’s important to know that most of these companies are very small, often with only 2-3 employees. There are no rock stars or movie moguls in the plugin world, reaping millions from their work. Instead, you’ll find that software developers are a small group of very talented programmers and artists who are constantly developing their own expertise. It’s not uncommon to contact them directly, and build a rapport with your favourite companies. I’ve met many of them at industry conventions like NAB, AES or NAMM, and they are personable, highly passionate people who are dedicated to their craft. Put it this way, do you know how to make your own processors? Likely the answer is no, so it’s worth appreciating the incredible software these developers create for you.
4. MANY OFFER ACADEMIC PRICING
If you are an audio student, instructor, or college, look into academic pricing for any software you are using. Propellerhead Reason, Avid’s Pro-Tools, Ableton Live and Steinberg’s Cubase can be had for a much cheaper price, often 50% off retail. 3rd party developers such as Voxengo, Slate Digital, Fab Filter, PSP and P&M offer great discounts, to name a few. Check sites like studica.com to see the discounts for yourself for any major DAW..
5. OVER-RELIANCE ON PRESETS
Often producers will install a pirated version of their software, thinking that the presets will give them an edge, especially if they are created by
high-level professionals. Being dependent on presets can actually stunt your growth as a producer rather than enhance it.
Firstly, it takes you away from using your own ears and creative judgements, which are essential to your evolution. Analogue gear has no presets, and any experienced engineer will tell you that you have to develop your ear to make a great mix. Plugins are no different.
Secondly, presets are too vague to be useful. For example, imagine you’re EQing an acoustic guitar, and using an ‘acoustic guitar’ preset on your plugin. The plugin doesn’t know what mics you’ve used, where you placed them, the specific frequency propagation of the instrument or the room, whether the player was using a pick or fingers, if it’s strummed or arpeggiated and whether the acoustic is a featured instrument or just a supporting overdub. There are too many variables to avoid using your ear. If the preset DOES sound great to your ears, be sure to reverse engineer the settings and make sure you know how they have allowed it to sound the way it does.
6. FOCUSING ON THE GUI INSTEAD OF THE SOUND
We all know that many plugins are designed to look very good, and a lot of time is spent making a very attractive GUI (Graphic User Interface). Inversely, most stock plugins on your DAW look very basic, functional, and maybe even dull? Ask yourself, do your listeners care about the look of the plugin, or the sound? This may seem obvious, but your listeners don’t care what your software looks like. If you do a quick comparison, you may find that your stock plugins can sound just as good, or in some cases better than the very pretty ones. I have quite a few plugins that look incredible, but I own them because they sound equally incredible. Unless you’ve developed your ears to know the difference, you may be swayed to pirate a plugin for its good looks. Retailers all know that people judge a book by its cover, and can bring people in based on this. Next time you’re at a coffee shop, look at what they have done aesthetically to motivate your patronage. Colours, dim lights, funky furniture, music and esoteric lingo (tall, grande, venti) are used with amazing results. At any rate, it doesn’t make the coffee taste any better.
7. YOU SUCCEED WHEN OTHERS SUCCEED
Would you like to earn money or develop in the industry with the music you’re making? The answer is most likely ‘Yes’. Then simply ask: ‘Why should I deserve to profit from my music if I’m stealing from a developer?’ This might be the most obvious reason of them all.
8. HACKED PLUGINS OFTEN WREAK HAVOC ON YOUR SYSTEM
When you install a crack, you’re playing Russian Roulette with your system. When a student is having trouble with their machine because of a recent download, I ask if they have any pirated plugins installed. The answer is usually ‘Yes’. Legitimate plugins are nearly guaranteed to work flawlessly on your machine if it meets the system requirements, whereas cracked plugins may very well not. Even if your legit plugin isn’t functioning as intended, you can write to the company and rest assured they will be up day and night fixing the issue. If you don’t like working on an unstable machine, especially for something as important as your music, stay legit.
9. PIRATED PLUGINS CAN’T BE UPDATED
As your system evolves and is updated, your plugins may get left behind as no updates will be available. What if you would like to revisit a mix you did a few years ago, and your plugins no longer work? You may just have to buy the legit versions anyway.
I hope this in some way helps you figure out how you want to develop in your craft. There are always going to be people who download music and movies, steal a lost iPhone, use your missing credit card to buy groceries, cheat on taxes, or steal intellectual property. Black markets are alive and well in the world, and have no signs of shrinking. That being said, you have an opportunity to become part of a greater artistic community where your decisions and your creativity matter. Please choose wisely!