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Is the age of the plug-in over?

As Waves continues to offer its plug-ins at bargain-basement prices, should we start to wonder whether plug-ins have had their day?


I have already commented on Waves' recent cut-price plug-in offer. Initially I thought the offer was too good to be true, but on checking I found it actually was true. And it still is true... just thirty minutes ago I received another e-mail from Waves offering me their plug-ins for as little as $18.

There are a number of reasons why a company might make a cut-price offer. One is to shift old stock ready for a new product release, another is to tip the balance for potential purchasers who need a little push to make a decision. A third is when a company is about to fail and they are clutching at one last straw to possibly keep them afloat.

But here I have to wonder about the whole plug-in industry, and not just Waves. Traditionally, people who have bought plug-ins have gotten the value they paid for. Cheap plug-in = cheap sound; expensive plug-in = sumptuous sound. When it is is possible to pay anything up to $3000 for a plug-in (Algorithmix reNOVAtor for instance), you would expect the sound to be absolute genius.

But there are three things about plug-ins that potentially might make these kinds of prices unsustainable in the long term. One is that software has a virtually zero manufacturing cost. Another is that anyone can design software in their bedroom. A third point is that software doesn't require any kind of official testing or approval such as FCC or CE. Just build it, sell it and collect the money.

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In an open marketplace, these three points and others will ultimately bring down the price of plug-ins, and we will all have available to us plug-ins of excellent quality that pay the designer for his or her time but cost us little.

That's great. But it raises a problem...

If everyone has access to good-quality plug-ins at low cost, then everyone will have them. So what's going to differentiate a high-class studio from a low-class studio (for want of a better expression) other than the caliber of the person who operates it?

Those who gravitate towards the left of politics will say this is good - everyone plays on the same field. Those on the right will say that an elite will always emerge from the masses.

I'd say the right might be correct on this one. And while the masses continue to play on their level playing field, an elite will emerge that rejects the use of plug-ins on the grounds that everyone else is using them. And they will turn to what always will be the preserve of the few - high end hardware.

So in summary, Waves' offer of cheap plug-ins could herald the end of the age of the plug-in. We are heading for a new age of high-end hardware.

What do you think?

By David Mellor Thursday April 28, 2011