Difference between free and expensive plugins

Sorry, not sure where to post this question, but this seemed the most appropriate forum.

Why do some effects plugins cost up to hundreds of dollars? Is there really such a big difference between those and free plugins? I understand that some plugins have additional knobs and switches that allow you more fine-grained control over the effect you are applying, but what do expensive plugins have that free plugins don’t?

I have heard people who do professional recording swear by commercial plugins, saying you can hear a difference, but I still wonder, if they are all software-based, what it is that makes commercial plugins so much better (if at all).

Hope I formalized my question understandably.

@mydoghasworms: That’s a difficult question to answer in general terms, and I don’t think it would be appropriate to make generalisations since there are bad expensive plugins and excellent free plugins, but equally the reverse is true. As a commercial developer I might be at risk of making this look like an advert for commercial plugins but I can answer the question based on my experience, as a user as well as a developer who has worked on commercial products for pro-audio companies and is therefore aware of the subtlties of making plugins which (i hope) provide a good user experience.

  1. I don’t believe there are ‘gold plated’ floating point numbers, so while claims in the analogue world, claims that the sound is ‘just better / clearer / adds - whatever you want to think you hear…’ are sometimes hard to justify, in the digital world even more so. The output is just data processed through a (complex) calculation so if the numbers are the same, it sounds the same. There is no ‘voodoo’
    However, there are some genuine pieces of analogue hardware which do have a sought-after sound, for good reason, and if that’s so, its normally possible to measure the behaviour with sufficient accuracy to define why it sounds the way it does and to replicate it - these are an entirely different and provable claims - but be careful not to let marketing speak fool you.

  2. In many cases, what differentiates a good / bad / excellent plugin (or any audio software) is not necessarily the algorithms, but understanding the usability issues (does it handle denormals properly, is the developer even aware of that issue, does it have interpolated controls or do they sound ‘steppy’ when moved fast, does it have ‘soft’ switching or are there clicks and pops, are filters stable or will they ‘blow up in your face’, is it oversampled if it needs to be (or does the developer realise how / why to make a decision if that should be so), are there phase alignment issues (e.g. in multi-band compressors). This is a small subset of the potential pitfalls, and its safe to say I found at least one, (if not more) in most of the free plugins I’ve used at one time or another, which as a user was partly what prompted me to write my own software.

  3. Apart from the audio issues, you are buying into (or not) two different support models - for example:

If you pay a (responsible) company for the software, then it should be reasonable to expect that you are compensating them for their professional ‘service’ in building you software that is fit for purpose, and might reasonably be expected to be for some time. This is more difficult to guarantee in linux, as disruptive change is more the norm, but even so, the company is (should be) accepting the risk, in return for the profit. It could be argued that they have more interest in supporting the product because if it doesn’t work they don’t make money… However…

  1. Free software, is just that, free and often in exchange for that you are accepting the risk that it may not function as intended, and that if that is the case, while there are often committed and resposible developers, who will help and actively want to maintain their software, they have no obligation to do so. This means that if you depend on such a project, you should know that there is no guarantee you will get an issue fixed if a problem becomes apparent. There is an argument which says that because it is open source, anyone can step in and maintain a project, but, with a specialist ‘niche’ such as audio, it often may (will) be harder to find developers with the necessary mix of skills.

There are many more issues - and this is just my point of view - in the end its often just ‘what works’ - but it helps to be aware of the issues involved in making that assessment.

Well said LinuxDSP. I want to start learning to develop software but it’s a slow learning process. Thanks for the input.

@dsreyes1014: Just my point of view, based on my experience in the industry - and from the software I use / develop and that’s not to say that there aren’t examples of free software which could surpass commercial alternatives, but its important to understand how to evaluate them. Personally I have a real problem with unsubstantiated claims about (especially) audio software. If a company is going to claim that, for example, their software offers a level of precision or fidelity that is greater than that offered by conventional solutions, they should explain what they mean, with proven measurable data, otherwise, why is there a reason to believe it? (I hope I’ve not been guilty of that…) but I have endeavoured to publish information which goes to some trouble to explain and quantify any technical claims because I think its important to make choices based on relevant information. For example:




@linuxdsp: I’m with you on this.

Funny, my last comment did not seem to get saved.
@linuxdsp: Thanks for your input. In a nutshell what I am hearing from you is that 1) there is more to developing a proper plugin than users might consider and 2) if you have a large financial stake in the outcome of your project, then you will probably not mind paying to ensure the success of your project by purchasing support. But other than that, a free plugin has the potential to be as good as a commercial plugin.

The difference between free and commercial is a bit like the difference between consumer and pro audio gear - the sound quality may in some cases be the same, but the pro gear is likely to be more robust, reliable and foolproof when used and abused under difficult conditions.
Some free plugins, for example, are unstable at some control settings (and worse, default to those settings), whereas I’ve pushed Linuxdsp controls to all sorts of extreme values and it’s just worked.

Yes but there are many “profesional” supliers who claim things and then yeah but not for linux as the state for linux mac and windows.But agree plugins are a difficult child.And Ardour is one of a hell piece of free software :slight_smile:
Problem is these days price has nothing to do with quality.

or… just trust your ears…you can find demos of non free plugins… what is important is what you hear and what you want to hear…
Ive worked with different models of hardware Lexicon PCM , early AKG, different reverb plugs in PT as reverb one, altiverb, tried in last days Ardour with hircam + IK multimedia reverb plugs, and 2 or 3 free plugs…
yes you can find differences, but they are important if you hear what makes the difference and maybe you are happy with a free version…
just listen

sorry for the h
Ardour with ircam