Study Hall

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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.

Horror Stories

What’s behind my insistence on striking fear into the hearts of mix engineers everywhere with these dire words of warning? Well, I’ve seen scary things – very scary things.

I’ve witnessed many of them personally and hear ever-increasing unsavory stories about plugins becoming the focus of an engineer’s workflow rather than good old-fashioned fundamentals – basic principles such as system tuning and optimization partnered with quality sounding sources mixed with little or no “hoo-ha.” Here are a couple/few examples I’ve personally seen as well as things my respected colleagues have told me.

Festival Fright: My colleague Kyle “Baz” Bazinet does a lot of one-offs and festivals. He recently mentioned that it’s becoming a more frequent occurrence that panic-stricken engineers are showing up at festivals and paying little or no attention to the accuracy of their input lists or whether the audio company has the correct mics and DIs listed on that input list.

They often have little time to line check and sound check yet they spend every minute of it trying to get plugins loaded and configured. If they hit a stumbling block, the cold sweat starts to pour from their forehead and they spiral down the dark tunnel. (Been there, done that!)

Instead of just bypassing those plugin inserts and tweaking the source inputs with some onboard processing, they completely lock up and shout things like, “I’ve gotta have my (INSERT POPULAR PLUGIN NAME HERE) on the lead vocal or we can’t do the show!” We all know that’s simply not true.

When I mentioned that I was going to write this piece, another amazing engineer, Paul Hager, told me that he will often find out what time the audio folks are going to be onsite first thing in the morning and he’ll request access to the console he’ll be mixing on that day so he can load and authorize his plugins long before it’s his turn to line check his band. Very smart! Of course, this isn’t always possible, but it’s a great example of covering your bases and being proactive if given the option.

Another smart move is saving a secondary console file with minimal or no external processing. If you show up and they don’t have what you advanced, or you don’t have the time to install and authorize your plugins, you can bypass a plugin insert or two (or 10) and move ahead with sound check unscathed.

Multiple Plugin Mayhem: A situation I’ve personally witnessed several times is the use of multiple plugins on a single input. Snare drums, lead vocals and bass guitars spring to mind.

An engineer I worked with once asked me if I could give him some advice on his snare sound. It felt lifeless and didn’t jump out of the mix like he wanted. I had a look at the channel strip and noticed four plugins were processing this input. Yup: four!

It was a rehearsal so I asked him if I could jump in and make a quick tweak. With permission I brought the fader down 20 dB, bypassed all of those plugins and channel compression, flattened the EQ and brought the fader back up to +5. He pretty much fell over – that snare was now big and bold, and all that was going on was a preamp and a fader!

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Losing The Latency Battle: Parallel busing is another extremely popular technique gaining favor these days, but it’s also another “Danger Will Robinson” potential pitfall. I’ve played around with this technique through the years and have personally seen how it can be super powerful if set up and tweaked correctly, but it can also be a cause of mayhem if some important rules aren’t respected.

Some consoles and plugin platforms will help with the latency issue that occurs when adding a hardware or software processing device to one input (or bus) but not the other. But other platforms will not. Problems will begin to become apparent if there are different “path lengths” in the journey from channel preamp to master bus output.

If you assign the drums directly to the master bus but also assign them to a group that’s also assigned to the master bus in order to add a nice, fat compressor, you’ll probably hear the “time smear” that latency causes. It sounds like flanging and robs the source sounds of their fullness, clarity and purity.

To Plugin Or Not To Plugin?

That really is the question, isn’t it? Everything mentioned here really is a long-handed way of stressing that before you “plugin,” ask these key questions:

Can the issue you’re trying to fix or improve with a plugin be better remedied by spending some time with the source sound? Tuning a drum, moving a mic on a guitar cabinet, trying out a different vocal mic?

Along these lines, can the overall sound of each input and the entire mix be improved by spending the time you have touching up the tuning of the PA to be sure that it’s the best it can be?

Could the console’s onboard processing (gates, comps or FX) be employed instead of a plugin to achieve the same or an acceptable result?

Is the time needed to install, configure and authorize your plugins of choice going to severely limit the amount of time you’re given to line check and sound check at a one-off or festival show? Would you be better off running the show with onboard processing, bypassing the inserts to your plugin network and spending your time tweaking each of the channels?

Have you tested that each plugin used is an improvement over not using it, and if you’re using parallel busing with plugins, are you certain you’re not falling victim to sound degradation caused by latency due to unmatched signal path lengths?

If plugins are an integral part of your channel’s sonic happiness, and you’re quick to set up the servers, audio interfaces, installs and authorizations, then by all means, use the ones you know to improve the channels that need them. If not, take a breath and think back fondly to the days when we only had a 24-channel analog console, a pair of EQs, comps and gates, and we got it all to sound as good as it could by following a few fundamental practices and working with the tools at hand.

Give it a fresh try – you may even surprise yourself!


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