This Grammy-Winning Mixer Uses Only 5 Plugins. Should You?

Several years ago, I enrolled in a mixing class with Grammy-winning engineer Kevin Killen (Peter Gabriel, U2, Elvis Costello). On the first day of class, Kevin pulled up a Pro Tools session from a recent mix.

I stared at the screen in disbelief.

Almost every insert slot was empty. In fact, the entire mix had only 5 plugins on it.

“This has to be the rough,” I thought. But when Kevin pressed play, my jaw dropped.

The sound that emerged from the speakers was electrifying. It had incredible depth, punch, and impact. The mix was exceptional.

Every week, Kevin would bring in a different session. I never saw more than a handful of plugins on any of his mixes. One day I asked him why.

His reply changed the way I mix forever.

Kevin told me that he once watched legendary engineer Glyn Johns (Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Who) mix a record. He said that Glyn spent almost the entire day with his hands on the faders. In fact, he would often pull them down and start from scratch 3 or 4 times during the course of a mix. For Glyn, mixing was little more than a balancing act. Any processing was icing on the cake. And after witnessing this, Kevin decided to apply Glyn’s approach to his own mixing workflow.

“Bb…bb..bbbut modern records NEED tons of processing!” I argued. “And Dave Pensado uses three trillion plugins on every mix!”

At the time, I couldn’t imagine how using less could improve the sound of my mixes. But over the last few years, I’ve come to realize how right Kevin was.

Today, I use half as much processing as I once used. And my mixes sound better.

But I didn’t consciously set out to use less. Instead, every time I instantiated a new plugin, I started asking myself – why are you doing this? If I didn’t have a clear answer, I ditched the plugin. And when I found myself adding plugins aimlessly, I’d pull down the faders and start again. More often than not, I’d stumble upon a better balance that required much less processing.

When we add something to a track, it’s easy to feel like we’re making it better. But not every track needs the kitchen sink thrown at it. Many sound great bone dry. And quite often, adding unnecessary plugins can make a mix sound worse.

In a nutshell, don’t be afraid to leave a track alone. It’s one of the most important mixing decisions you can make.

Try this: pull up an old session and bypass each plugin, one-by-one. Ask yourself – is this making my mix sound better…or worse? Make sure to level-match for a fair comparison!

How many plugins could you have ditched? Share your results by leaving a comment below!