Roundtable: Employing Outboard Gear & Plugins In The Modern Mix World

What’s your approach to plugins/outboard? Let’s see what our panel of front of house and monitor engineers has to say on the issue…
Audio Roundtable Plugins Processing

Fletcher McDermott (FOH): Outboard pieces are my problem solvers. They make better the thing that the console just can’t on its own. It’s 2020, and consoles are really, really good. It takes a lot to get to the point where nothing built into a [DiGiCo] SD 10 can provide a solution. I only carry a vocal chain with me, just the right amount to get checked on a plane without issue or common enough to source anywhere in the world: Neve 5045 source enhancer, Emprical Labs Distressor and Lake LM 44 processor.

The 5045 in RMS mode does a better job of cleaning up a vocal input than any console expander solution I’ve found. The Distressor is still the king of fast, transparent compression. When my vocal goes from a whisper to a lungs-worth of air and back, from word to word sometimes, having something that can clamp down 12 dB without sounding like it is invaluable. The LM 44 is my feedback fixer. I often find myself working in less-than-ideal rooms with less-than-ideal PA placement. Having the flexibility of the LM 44’s EQ (let’s face it, four bands on a console just isn’t enough for every situation), along with [Rational Acoustics] Smaart API integration, gives me the tools to get those extra few dB out of a vocal I’m struggling with. Combined with the 5045, I can get the quietest of vocals up to a fighting level in a challenging acoustic space.

Plugins, on the other hand, are my “better makers.” I try not to lean on them (I employ Waves plugins) too heavily to the point that my show falls apart completely if I don’t have them. It gets me that extra snap from a drum (Smack Attack Transient Shaper, SSL Buss Comp), that extra width from a guitar (Vitamin, PS22), and/or that touch of extra “shine” on top of a vocal (CLA-2A, C6).

All my Waves inserts live on groups, not channels. The channels have all the basic console processing they need to stand on their own. This aids my contingency plan for what happens if the plugins go “poof” during a set – the mix is still there and I’m just rebalancing 12 groups, versus needing to start from scratch with 45 input channels. Everything is also gain staged in such a way that if they’re bypassed, nothing jumps in level by 10 dB, nothing suddenly loses all of its subtractive EQ and becomes a feedback risk, no master bus limiter is doing so much reduction that, with it bypassed, I’m suddenly clipping the PA. I’m losing some subtleties and character, but not blowing up a PA or ruining a show mid song. Yes, my approach with plugins (specifically ones living on an outside server) is a defensive one, but the minute we stop having contingency plans is the show a computer crashes or the wrong Cat-5 cable pulls out the back of a rack, and so on.

One other place I do find loads more flexibility with plugins than I do in console channel strips is with sidechain control. Sure, consoles offer more than enough control to let me sidechain a bass comp to the kick or open a snare bottom gate based on the snare top. But when I want all the vocal effects to completely clear themselves from the center of the mix when the lead vocalist sings and just hang out on the sides until I’m ready for their tails to re-grab some of the center image once they’ve stop singing, or I want to make sure 2 kHz on a guitar solo cuts above the rest of the band/tracks no matter what, Waves offers more options for me with F6/C6 sidechaining. Again, these are all subtle group moves; if they disappeared, I might find myself just riding the guitar a little harder during a solo or bringing back the vocal FX overall – nothing I couldn’t live without, but at the same time, tools that I love to have.

Eddie Caipo (Monitors): Do I miss outboard gear? Of course! But would I go back using it? Probably not. In my humble opinion, the power, flexibility, consistency, and sound quality with the tools (plugins) that we have now is by far the most efficient way of doing our job. I can automate the settings of reverbs, delays, comps, gates, EQ’s and basically any and every parameter that I use.

No matter how good, fast or “bad-ass” we thought we were; we were never able to accomplish it before, especially with the present level of detail, and more importantly, consistency. I can save my presets on a thumb drive and use them back and forth in the studio and/or live. Not to mention many plugin companies are very close – if not identical – to the original sound of vintage gear. Onward and upward…

Ken “Pooch” Van Druten (FOH): Plugins and outboard gear are the salt and pepper of the recipe. You still have to have a solid dish before you can season it up. My approach to plugins and outboard: are they really needed? I always ask myself when grabbing for a plugin, “Can I accomplish what I’m looking to do on my console surface?” My go-to is always surface first, then apply outboard and plugs only if I’m unable to get what I need.

There are a few plugins that I use on a regular basis with my usual customers, and I know that I’ll be using them because experience tells me that they’re the ones I like on certain inputs. But those instances are few and I use them for very specific purposes.

So, despite my reputation as a heavy plugin user, I actually use less than most folks think. I almost never have plugin chains that are more than two plugs in a row. In fact, the number one reason I see engineers failing is because of overuse of plugins and/or outboard. They’re the seasoning, and who wants an overly spiced dish?

Becky Pell (Monitors): I’m an old-school minimalist when it comes to plugins and outboard. I believe in getting everything as good as it possibly can be at source – instrument tuned well, experimenting with finding the best microphone or DI for the job with optimal settings on filters and pads, mic placement, gain structure, low- and high-pass channel filters used wisely. (I’m frequently surprised how often people neglect high-passes in particular – they’re so valuable for cleaning up unnecessary information which accumulates and muddies a mix.) Between that and judicious use of onboard EQ (I always use parametrics on both inputs and outputs because I like the greater finesse they allow in comparison to graphics), and some sensitively applied compression where necessary, I rarely hear the need to add anything else.

That said, I do like multi-band compression, especially if I need it on vocals – again, because it allows a greater degree of accuracy. I used to employ tools like the BSS DPR901 before they were onboard. All of that is now supplied by my preferred DiGiCo desks, so I don’t need to introduce plugins. If I want to do something extra special with reverbs, I occasionally use an outboard TC Electronic 6000 reverb, but DiGiCo reverbs have gone from strength to strength in recent years. So, I’m really pretty boring when it comes to external toys!