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Problem Solver Or Troublemaker? A Wide-Ranging Discussion About Plugins

A (friendly) conversation about the use (and often overuse) of plugins as tools to help achieve a better mix, both at front of house and in monitor world.

The use of audio processing plugins in the live sound world is most certainly on the rise. Talking with friends and colleagues, I’m finding that this topic incites more “yay” and “nay” debate that just about any other. I certainly have my own thoughts, and I’ll share some of them here, but I encourage continued (friendly) conversation in our industry about the use (and often overuse) of plugins as tools to help us all achieve a better mix, both at front of house and in monitor world.

I’ll start by saying that I’m a big fan of several top selling plugins and I’ve collected a pretty vast library over the years. Some I’m very familiar with and have found to be extremely useful in combating inconsistent gain and EQ issues with many of the bands I’ve mixed.

With regard to FX plugins, there are many that are indeed stellar and offer variables and presets that just aren’t offered “onboard” many digital consoles. I know engineers who like to use certain plugins simply because they say it adds warmth or color to an input if the console isn’t all that warm or colorful to begin with.

As noted previously, I’m a very straightforward analog-style mixer and I find that after focusing a good bit of my attention on getting the PA tuned and optimized for the room, I don’t usually need much more than the onboard gates, compressors and FX that come “standard” on most of the nicer digital boards that I get to use. I’ll also add that I know engineers who employ a large quantity of plugins and routing schemes in their console workflow to “up their game” and to produce a final product that is better with plugins than without.

But in the end, this approach is not my approach, and I can only comment on techniques that work for me. I prefer a straightforward “inputs to the master bus” style of routing and a “gain knob, HPF (high-pass filter), fader, touch of EQ and compression” workflow to get the results I’m looking for. Just because it’s my way doesn’t mean it’s the right way – it’s just the process that has worked for me for many years.

When I hear an excellent mix and find out later that the engineer used tons of routing schemes with plugins to achieve this fantastic outcome, I tip my hat. There are many ways to achieve sonic nirvana, to be sure. So, when do I choose to use a plugin, and when do I stick with the processing offered on the console?

Plugin test procedure

I try to approach plugins the same way I approach EQ, compression and FX (reverb/delay). They’re tools to help solve a problem or improve an input’s sonic quality.

I first ask myself, “Is there a way to improve the sound of this input by working with the source sound or by trying a different microphone or DI?” If the answer to that is, “No, the source sounds pretty good,” then the next step is to use the tools that are provided on the digital console to add quality to the sound of the instrument or vocal. Maybe a little soft compression or a small tweak to the HPF is all that’s needed to improve things a bunch. Maybe not.

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At this point I might try to employ one of my favorite “problem-solving” plugins to see if the unique algorithms that make up that plugin’s characteristics will help with this specific issue. If I find I’ve landed on the right tool for the job and some settings I like, I’ll give that a go for a while but I always circle back and bypass that insert a time or two to see if it’s really improving things long term (and overall in the mix) – or was it just a good fit when I listened to that input on its own.

Alternatives

If I can improve the sound of a channel without adding outside help, I generally do that, but to assist with a “console tools first” approach I utilize a couple of “input manipulation” processes that help me keep the mix contained and in control. One of these techniques is double assigning an input into two channels on the console, and with a little variation in the EQ I can alter the tone of that input by merely riding one fader up and the other fader down.

I use this approach on a single kick drum input. One channel is EQ’d with a nice low-end bump and little or no high end added, and the other channel has the attack frequencies (2 to 6 kHz) accented with little or no low-end increase. If the drummer is playing very quietly, I bring up the “kick high” fader to add a bit of “snap” to the thick sound of the drum, and if he leans into that drum, I reduce the attack channel and bring up the “thump” channel.

This has proven a great solution and no additional processing is required. The same trick works wonderfully with a lead vocal or bass guitar. (Just please check the phase and delay time between these two channels when you start to manipulate EQ and combine channels!)

This technique can also work as a substitute for the ever-popular multiband compressor and/or dynamic EQ. They’re absolutely fabulous tools when used with precision by experienced hands (and ears), but woe to thee who slaps one of these bad boys on a channel and doesn’t do an A/B comparison or pay attention to how much that plugin is really digging into your source sound. This mistake has stung most of us at one time or another and has been kicking butt and taking names for decades, even dating back to when hardware versions of dynamic EQ were painting us into a corner when not used properly.

I’ll implore one last time then remove myself from my soap box: Please check that the plugin you’ve added is actually helping and not hurting the sound of the input – and be extra cautious when assigning two, three or more plugins to a channel. Just because a well-known live engineer says a particular plugin chain will make your lead vocal “sing,” do yourself a favor and actually listen, and hit that “insert bypass” button a few times to be sure.

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