One of the latest trends in the world of audio effects is software and plugin subscription. This relatively new business model (at least for the pro audio market) can offer an insane amount of value at a surprisingly low monthly cost.
Following in the footsteps of Adobe’s CreativeCloud and popular consumer-facing companies like Amazon and Netflix, audio developers including Slate Digital and Softube were quick to jump in and offer plugin bundles that aim to put more tools in the hands of audioworkers than ever before at a low initial price.
With more audio companies swiftly adopting this model, plugin subscriptions may soon morph from new trend to common practice. And although they provide deals that deliver tremendous practical right now, they also have the potential to become hazardous to one’s bank account over time.
Today, we’ll look at five of the most prominent audio plugin subscriptions on the market to find out where they excel, what their limitations are, and what kind of value you can expect from each of them in the years to come.
Let’s start on a positive note: Audio software subscriptions can just make sense for both their users and the companies offering them.
In a world that is often one-sided, this model presents a true win-win situation: Subscriptions allow audio engineers to acquire software that would otherwise be out of their means, immediately opening up a wide world of tools that help them do their jobs more effectively, right now.
Well, duh. The real question is: What’s the catch?
The exciting truth is that there isn’t one, necessarily. The way some of these subscription bundles are priced, you could subscribe for up to a decade before buying would be cheaper than leasing. (And that doesn’t even factor in the cost of eventually upgrading any plugins you might purchase outright over the years.)
A subscription model also opens up a new subset of the market to an audio developer, allowing them to acquire customers that would have otherwise passed on their products. Offering subscriptions allows plugin makers to choose to play the long game rather than asking for a lump sum upfront, which should be pretty exciting news.
This way, developers build stronger relationships with their customers over sustained periods of time, and users are able to easily, legally and ethically gather software that would otherwise cost them thousands of dollars to buy outright.
However, just because a situation is “win-win” doesn’t mean that there are no tradeoffs. One issue is that collecting audio subscriptions can give users—especially beginning users— option paralysis.
If I had access to all the tools that I have now back when I first started, I know I would be a far inferior engineer than the one I am today. These subscriptions can end up selling dreams to beginners, unintentionally inhibiting their progress as they look to trying out new tools, rather than developing new skills, in order to overcome their challenges.
There are downsides for more experienced engineers as well: The dreaded recall could spell disaster for someone who has cancelled their subscription. With more software out there at your disposal, it can very easy to throw up something new only to cancel your subscription later on and lose access to the plugin.
Fortunately, most companies allow you to pick up your subscriptions for one month at a time to help remedy these issues (though sometimes at a marginally higher monthly rate than an annual subscription). Regardless, the annoyance remains, and realistically, many professional users may end up hanging on to annual subscriptions they rarely use just avoid that situation.
Now that we know the pros and cons of plugin subscriptions, let’s run over some of the most popular options on the market today:
Slate Digital was one of the earliest—if not the first—to come out of the gate with plugin subscriptions for audio engineers.
Unsurprisingly, Slate has refined this platform to a point where the subscription offers an amazing (and constantly-growing) set of plugins for only $14.99 a month.
Currently, the Everything Bundle includes five EQs, eight compressors, three saturation plugins, two preamp emulations, a mastering channel, an amp sim, and a world-class delay and reverb. All together, that is 24 plugins for $14.99 a month. That’s pretty crazy.
The value here is probably among the best out there: To purchase all of the plugins currently in the bundle, it would run you $1,771. Stack that against $14.99 a month, and it would take you nearly 10 years to to pay out that much for the plugins—and that’s not including the new plugins that are being added throughout the process.
What’s even better is that Slate Digital’s plugins sound absolutely amazing. If you have ever used one of these trusty tools, that should come at no surprise. Plugins like the Virtual Tape Machines and the newly released Verbsuite Classics are staples on every single mix I do.
However, I find myself gravitating more towards the saturation type plugins than anything else in the bundle. The compressors included seem to be the weakest link here to me. While Slate has done a fantastic job emulating classics like an 1176 or the famous SSL Bus Compressor, I often find myself moving more towards offerings like the CLA-76 or the Waves version of the SSL bus compressor. The upcoming FG-Stress (an emulation of a Distressor) does bring a bit of additional promise to the compressor side of things, however.
On the EQ end, the Slate bundle is a little lackluster for my tastes. The emulations of the Neve and SSL EQs sound good, but are not so characteristic of the classic channels to my ear. Often, I find myself just driving the Neve EQ (the FG-N) for saturation instead of actually using it to EQ. Your preferences may vary.
The exception to this would be the Custom Series EQ which has different shapes depending on whether you are boosting or cutting. Throwing two of these badboys next to each other and cutting then boosting in the same area can deliver results reminiscent of a Pultec.
Ultimately, Slate has managed to provide a great workhorse bundle with their subscription-based Everything Bundle, with typical workhorse tools.
The compressors and EQs included are good, but the rest of the bundle is even better. In particular, if you’re looking to color your mix with some of the best Native saturation processing out there, than the Everything Bundle is a no brainer.
All together, the bundle holds 16 plugins, equaling out to over $2,000 in value. The bundle includes just about everything under the sun, from EQs to compressors, to amp sims.
For me, the Trident A-Range and FET Compressor were the strongest plugins in the bundle, both offering color and vibe that was unmatched by any other bundle I’ve tried.