If you’re wondering how much developing a new audio plugin, effect, or instrument, would cost, this article will answer your questions.
The last decade saw an enormous increase in musicians and editors working with audio production software. That has resulted in people discovering new ideas and understanding the limitations of the plugins and tools currently available. Hence, more and more people are developing new plugins, emulating classic gear, etc. However, the biggest question remains:
How Much Does It Cost To Develop Audio Plugins?
You can expect to invest at least $300 to build a simple effect plugin, whereas instrument plugins cost at least $2,000 or higher. However, considering how most types of minimalistic plugins are already available (possibly for free), a budget of over $1,000 for a plugin will ensure your product stands out.
Of course, it’s not a fixed rule, and there are many factors that affect the cost. Furthermore, the cost and the estimate process may not even be transparent unless you are working with a company providing such service for a long time. However, you’ll likely find cheaper services from individual developers rather than from established companies.
Then again, there are a few possible risks associated with this approach. A lot of work goes into developing a plugin that involves both skill and art. So, an individual developer may not have the skills you need, whether it is with coding, designing the GUI, or preset/sound development. Hence, you might end up spending more than you expected to match your expectations.
Knowing all of the factors involved in your investment will help you estimate your budget beforehand. These include internal factors of the plugin itself, external factors, and personnel factors. In this article, I’ll go through each group of factors and help you understand what goes into plugin development. Let’s get started!
Surely, the most obvious factor that affects the cost is the plugin’s complexity. For example, a primitive gain-control plugin would cost nearly nothing compared to a multi-band effects plugin capable of dynamics and imaging control. The more advanced and complex your plugin is, the more expensive the plugin will become.
Furthermore, I’ve previously explained how many free and inexpensive plugins from DIY developers providing regular features are available on the market. So, you’ll want to present something new and unseen to give your plugin a better chance to succeed.
And that will usually involve some complexity, whether it’s on the coding/engineering side or in the UI design side. In either case, the price is going to increase.
However, your intention with the plugin can help change the cost somewhat. For example, suppose you are looking to build a plugin to distribute it for free. In that case, you can prioritize the plugin’s functionality over its GUI design, which is an effective way to save your budget.
Or, if it’s purely promotional, you could provide what’s readily available on the free market but with an elegant user interface. Even though another plugin with similar functions is already available, your plugin could become a hit for its appearance alone.
Effect vs. Instrument vs. Library
You can divide audio plugins into two categories: effects and instruments. However, I’m going to talk about sample libraries for various sampler plugins as well, because they are also highly sophisticated and famous nowadays. Advanced scripting and integration with the sampler’s system have made them into instrument plugins on their own.
These are plugins that manipulate existing audio from instruments and recordings.
These plugins are standalone instruments that work without any host except for your DAW.
These are libraries for existing instrument plugins, specifically ROMplers or Samplers (Native Instruments Kontakt).
These are the cheapest to produce as they are often the least complicated of the three types of plugins.
These are often the most expensive and have a big variety of factors that affect their cost.
Since sample libraries use existing plugins as their framework, they can be cheaper than building instrument plugins with the same facilities. However, such libraries can increase in cost exponentially when large teams like orchestra performers or rare instruments are involved.
Effect plugins are often fairly straightforward to build, although they can be very intricate and advanced too.
Instrument plugins are the most complicated of the three. They require detailed coding and excellent GUIs, and recording acoustic instruments or hardware can add a whole new layer of complexity. Although, it’s not a rule (See – Krotos Simple Concept).
Many samplers provide intuitive library-building solutions. So, a simple library is the easiest to build and may not require you to hire a developer at all.
So, let’s check out each more in-depth:
- Effect Plugins
Effect plugins are the plugins musicians/editors use on existing audio to modify them. These include primitive filters, EQs, delays, compressors, etc., and cutting-edge tools that perform spectral filtering, automated mixing/mastering, AI processing, etc. So, the development cost is undoubtedly spread over a pretty big range.
However, effect plugins allow the lowest of all the minimal costs when it comes to plugin development as long as you don’t go overboard with its features. So, many brands and artists start their plugin development journey with effect processors. The development cost can start from as low as $±300, with the greatly advanced products reaching $20,000 or higher.
- Instrument Plugins
Synthesizers are the most common instrument plugins, although there are many sample-based instrument plugins as well. In either case, the development cost on instrument plugins typically starts from around $1,000 to $2,000. However, as I mentioned earlier, the complexity affects the cost hugely. And complexity is inevitable if you want to make your product stand out in the current saturated market.
For example, let’s talk about synthesizers. A typical subtractive synth with two oscillators, a couple of filters, and some modulators would cost nowhere near a hybrid or wavetable synth with built-in effects and a sophisticated modulation matrix. However, only the latter stands a chance in beating the competition and gaining traction.
Similarly, if you are building a sample-based instrument, you need to consider the cost of the audio samples. This cost could include purchases and licenses, recording, hiring people, etc.
Building sample libraries is the easiest and cheapest way to create software instruments. Most samplers available nowadays come with a built-in library builder, which is intuitive and straightforward. So, you could do a lot of the process yourself. For example, you could record, edit, and create basic libraries inside a sampler yourself, with the recording and editing process being the only cost. Although, any scripting or GUI-designing will require an experienced person.
Let’s get into that in a little more detail. Currently, the most famous samplers include Kontakt, Falcon, HALion, and MachFive. All four of these provide excellent scripting and sound designing tools. However, you could choose one of them as your library’s platform or multiple. And each sampler has a custom format, which requires a different code to provide similar features. So, clearly, if you want to reach more users, you will have to invest more and develop sample libraries for multiple platforms. I suggest focusing on Kontakt a lot because it’s the most esteemed of the four I’ve mentioned.
Another thing you should consider is licensing. Kontakt offers licensing for your sample library that lets your users download and use the library in Kontakt Player, the free version of the sampler. However, you will have to pay a one-time $1,000 encoding fee and a specific percent of your product’s retail price per serial number/unit for licensing.
The percentage changes based on your product’s price and the quantity of serial number you order. For example, if you priced your product between $250 to $499 and ordered 200 serial numbers, you will have to pay 5% of your product’s price. You can find more information about Kontakt’s licensing system on this page.
An elegant and functional graphical user interface (GUI) is necessary for any audio plugin. Before people buy it, they first see it – there is no second first impression. It’s not only about the looks, either – a good GUI provides an ergonomic design that helps users find and adjust parameters easily.
Similarly, you could include multiple themes (like light and dark mode) to make the plugin compatible with any esthetic or lighting situation.
Building a GUI is no easy process, though. It will involve meticulously detailed 3D modeling, proper planning/coding, and more programming if it involves analyzers and other visual feedback. Again, the more complex your GUI is, the more it will cost.
Furthermore, you might even need a separate expert to handle the visual side of your plugin development.
In general, the cost of building a GUI begins from around $300 for a fairly decent design and increases to up to $800 or so for a detailed look, both for plugins and sample libraries.
Nowadays, the most common plugin formats are VST 3 and AU, of which VST 3 is available on Windows, macOS, and Linux, whereas AU is the only supported format on Apple Logic Pro DAW software.
Furthermore, you might want to consider adding Pro Tool’s AAX format to your list as it’s the only format supported by the DAW. Similarly, other formats include Reason’s Rack Extensions format and Linux’s LV2.
As you might expect, adding formats will add to your cost. Most plugin developers prefer to work with VST 3 and AU. So, if you want to add AAX, Rack Extensions, or LV2 to your list, you will need to find other people. That could add to your total investment cost significantly.
If you are making a hardware emulation plugin, you will need full access to the hardware you are emulating. Usually, that involves taking the gear apart and turning it inside-out. So, renting the hardware will likely not be enough.
And since hardware products are quite expensive, you’ll make quite a dent in your budget just by purchasing one. Of course, renting may be totally enough if you are merely sampling a synth or a specific instrument like a rare guitar or sax.
Sampling an instrument or a section of instruments requires a LOT of equipment. So, you may need to purchase or hire audio equipment like microphones, stands, mixers, etc. Your cost will differ based on the brand and type of equipment you get.
For example, acquiring ten Audio Technica AT2030 microphones wouldn’t nearly be as costly as getting ten Neumann U87s.
Similarly, you might prefer the ambiance of a particular location for acoustic instruments. In that case, the best solution would be to rent a studio/performing hall for a specific amount of time. Fortunately, such performing locations generally offer excellent recording and mixing equipment at your disposal. So, while the cost will undoubtedly be high, it may be worth it.
If you are making instrument plugins, you’ll most certainly need performers. For instance, if you are sampling acoustic instruments, you will want experienced professional players who can provide all the articulations and expressions you are looking to offer in your library.
No amount of high-end gear will save a badly performed instrument library. So, leave no doubt your sample and loop recordings are executed well.
Similarly, many instrument plugins and libraries offer MIDI loops that require good performance. These include keyboard phrases, drum grooves, guitar licks, etc. A good collection of MIDI loops and phrases will draw the attention of inexperienced producers and experienced, time-constrained musicians.
Plenty of miscellaneous expenses occur in any production, including plugin development. Generally, these include travel expenses, catering, licensing, etc. While they may appear fairly mundane, they can add up exponentially.
I suggest being particularly wary when sampling instruments at a stage/hall in another country.
There are two types of developers: companies and individuals. Plugin development companies provide a one-stop solution for almost any kind of plugin development, thanks to their team(s) of programmers, graphic designers, audio engineers, and other necessary personnel.
Contrastingly, individual developers are solo workers who provide a very hands-on experience and flexible terms.
Companies that provide plugin development services are generally higher priced than solo developers. However, they offer reliable services with established terms. Furthermore, they will save you the headache of finding and hiring multiple people should your project require it.
Still, their rigidity regarding pricing and terms may not be appealing to smaller artists or companies. Hence, I recommend such developers to established artists, bigger companies, and individuals with a looser budget. Although, you should make an active effort to work with them if your project is highly complicated as it will save you money in the long run.
Smaller companies and independent artists generally prefer solo developers for two reasons. The first is the price, of course. However, the second crucial reason is flexibility. Individual developers are often more open to adventuring on uncommon ideas and custom terms. For example, if you have a close developer friend, they might agree to lower their fee in exchange for a percent of the sales. Keep in mind that it doesn’t mean you should actively seek to underpay people.
Like companies, though, individual developers charge differently based on their experience and reputation. Looking for a lower price may put your projects in the hands of an inexperienced developer. So, there is a risk involved when you’re hiring people directly. Still, freelancing websites and other professional communities can help you evaluate your candidates’ skills before you extend a proposal.
The investment required for paying developers can change based on where you source your people. For example, you may be able to find slightly cheaper hourly rates in other countries if you happen to live in the USA or similar nations.
Conversely, developers from some countries may demand a higher fee than your locals. So, a comparison between multiple countries can help you find the most reasonable estimate.
However, keep in mind that there are limitations to sourcing developers from foreign countries. First, you may face a language barrier and have difficulty explaining your needs or understanding them. Similarly, working remotely with people is nothing like working with them in real life.
So, if your project is complicated, I suggest sticking to the developers you can meet offline. That way, you can communicate better, keep an eye on their performance, make sure they meet deadlines, etc., which helps keep the cost low in the long run.
Once a plugin is done with development, the next step is creating presets. An excellent preset collection is highly enticing for most users, especially beginners. And the ideal way to get good presets is by hiring sound designers who know what they are doing.
Furthermore, since sound designers charge differently based on their reputation, you should get in touch with the people you want beforehand to find out the prices.
For example, if you are building an effect plugin, you could hire famed mixing engineers to create presets, which many plugin brands do to attract new users. Conversely, you could stick to relatively unknown sound designers to maintain a lower cost.
The latter will result in some missed promotional opportunities, though.
Building a plugin is only half the battle because marketing plays an enormous role in its commercial success. So, you should keep some of your budget separate for the promotion of your product.
Nowadays, the most common marketing strategy is social media promotion on platforms like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Google, and Twitter. Each offers different rates and features, which you should familiarize yourself with to plan your budget. Furthermore, you might require a social media expert to help you promote effectively.
Similarly, creating demo tracks for your plugin is essential for promoting the product. It’s especially true for sampled instruments. So, many brands nowadays commission esteemed composers to write songs or themes for their instrument plugins and sample libraries.
This step helps you promote the product better, although it will significantly increase the cost of the plugin development. And if your budget cannot include famed musicians, consider getting in touch with lesser-known but skilled composers – some may even agree to help you in exchange for a review copy of the plugin.
Best Ways To Find A Developer
The internet has made it easier than ever to find the people for your project. There are generally two ways to find developers online: professional platforms and casual communities. I suggest professional platforms if your plugin idea is relatively typical and you have a limited time to find people.
Conversely, finding and building connections via casual communities will help you create a team of people you can rely on in the future. Let’s go through each in more detail:
You can find many developers from their websites and portfolios by searching for audio plugin developers online. Similarly, you’ll find them on job sites like Fiverr, Upwork, Freelancer, and Indeed. You’ll generally find the cost of basic plugins around the $200 mark on most of these websites.
Furthermore, some websites like Upwork provides project-based hiring, where developers showcase their past works and allow you to select a tier you want based on your budget. That way, you can have a fixed rate for your final product with all the terms established before the work starts.
Similarly, several plugin developer companies stand out among the rest and would be excellent choices for both complicated and straightforward projects. These include Build Audio Plugins, Ziyamet, etc. Of course, you could also contact established brands, which would add to the promotional value, albeit with a steep increase in your cost.
Online communities are some of the best ways to network with like-minded people, helping you establish a team of people who work well together. One of the communities you’re probably familiar with is a Facebook group. You can join groups of programmers/developers, where you can post a requirement and meet many people in less than a day.
Similarly, you can find equally enthusiastic communities on LinkedIn. Other options include Twitter and Reddit. However, Twitter can make it difficult to help you reach many people unless you are already an established user there. Reddit communities are generally not regarded as “professional” enough due to the overly informal milieu of the site.
If you’re not a fan of social media platforms, many other options are still left. YouTube is an excellent starting place where you can find many skilled developers posting videos and tutorials. And these people often provide their contact information on their channel or the video description.
Likewise, another option is to look into forums like Stack Overflow. It’s a forum with over a hundred million monthly visitors for programmers and developers of all kinds. However, note that a small business/individual can no longer post a job on Stack Overflow.
So, you’ll have to do some manual scouring to find people, although the large number of users may make it worth it. Alternatives for Stack Overflow that let you post jobs include WeAreDevelopers, Devex, LinkedIn Jobs, etc.
Best Budget Solution
If you are only getting started with plugin development, creating Kontakt libraries is the cheapest way to begin. You don’t have to make sample libraries with hardware gear only. So, you could use software synths you already own and prepare a useful sample library of custom sounds.
However, do make sure the plugins you are using provide you the license to use what you create in sample libraries. For example, most sample libraries forbid you from using their samples in other sample libraries.
Once you’re done creating the samples, you can use the built-in effect processors in Kontakt to further modify your sound. Furthermore, many online tutorials and books can teach you the basics of creating a Kontakt library GUI and even add some scripts.
Then again, even if you hire a proper developer to help you create a GUI and some basic scripts, you would get a pretty good deal starting from around $150.
Why Are VST Plugins So Expensive?
Plugins are expensive because of the development cost and value they offer. It isn’t commonly known that plugin developers spend many years learning audio science, engineering, and sound designing on top of programming.
Further, software plugins are heavily pirated and need compensation for the fewer sales.
Similarly, I’ve also mentioned other costs like hiring musicians, GUI designers, sound designers, recordists, audio engineers, etc., taking the total cost to an insanely high amount like hundreds of thousands.
Entering the world of audio plugin development can help you appreciate the hard work that goes into the process, justifying the seemingly high price of a product that can have an infinite number of copies.
Developing an audio plugin can seem daunting, especially after thinking about the cost. There are seemingly no bounds to what your investment amount should be. However, knowing the factors that shift the development cost and planning for each stage beforehand will help you avoid shocking deviations from your plan.
These factors include the plugin’s complexity, GUI detail, hardware cost, location (if required), team salary, etc. I have attempted to list the factors in my article in the order that should match the development process, from planning to execution and distribution.
With that, we reached the end of this short guide, and I hope I was able to share some helpful information. Thank you for reading!
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K. M. Joshi is a multi-award-winning composer and sound designer, specializing in film, game, and TV audio. He enjoys making cinematic music, rock, blues, and electronica. Read more..