Behind the Mix: My Favorite Plug-ins

As a recording engineer, we have a lot of tools at our disposal in order to achieve the kind of sound that we ultimately desire.  The room we record in, microphone selection, and audio interfaces all have an affect on how sound is captured.  Once the audio is “digitized” in the computer, probably the biggest factor in how the mix is shaped is through the use of audio plug-ins.  For those who are unfamiliar with the process of mixing, a plug-in is essentially a software version of a piece of audio hardware.  These devices for signal processing serve many roles from adding compression, equalization, artificial reverb, delays, and many other types of effects.

Because computer technology has become so advanced and powerful, it is now possible to create mixes almost solely through the use of software plug-ins.  There is a continuing debate about the advantages and disadvantages of using software plug-ins versus tried and true hardware units, but one of the most beneficial parts of audio plug-ins is that they are generally significantly less expensive than hardware units, meaning that a much greater variety of effects can be utilized for less cost.

Over time, I’ve tried countless audio plug-ins.  Some I loyally turn to on a regular basis, and others I have utilized only once or twice for some specific reason.  There are certain plug-ins, however, that I continually bring into a project and count on to give me great results each and every time.  Many of these plug-ins were used as a part of my creation of the upcoming Stephen Foster album.  Here are some of my absolute favorites:

Logic Compressor

My first choice is also somewhat my most boring, but I use this plug-in to some degree on almost every track of every song I do.  The function of a compressor is difficult to describe, but it is a means of controlling dynamic levels in order to achieve a certain balance in a mix.  This sort of processing is heard constantly on produced recordings, yet most listeners will simply hear a good sounding balanced track without realizing that a lot of that balance is achieved through the use of audio compression.  This particular compresser is extremely transparent and easy to use, giving me good and clean results every time while taking up minimal system resources.

Verbiage

Reverb is also an essential element of any mix, and one limitation of recording in smaller studios is that you must record in a smaller space, meaning that the use of natural room reverb usually isn’t an option.  The best alternative is to capture a clean dry signal, and then add an artificial reverb during the mix.  My personal favorite is “Verbiage” from Stillwell Audio.  This plug-in doesn’t try to model a specific room (which is known as “convolution” reverb), but instead it uses mathematical algorithms in order to create whatever kind of reverb you desire to hear.  Once I have found the sound that I like, I use it in an auxiliary bus, which essentially means that I can route any track through the same reverb effect so that it sounds like all of the instruments are in the same virtual room.

Vibe EQ

Another fantastic plug-in made by Stillwell Audio is the “Vibe EQ”.  Equalization is the process of boosting or cutting various frequencies in order to tonally shape a certain instrument, or the entire mix.  Some EQ plug-ins can get extremely specific in order to pinpoint a frequency or bring out a carefully selected part of the sonic spectrum.  “Vibe EQ” is not one of those types of plug-ins.  This effect is designed to emulate what is called a “parametric” hardware equalizer.  The idea is that instead of being very surgical in your approach to adjusting EQ, this plug-in focuses on broad ranges of frequencies in order to dramatically change the shape of your sound.  I use this plug-in to process many individual tracks, but I also put it on the final master mix in order to either brighten, add warmth, or in some other way enhance the overall balance of the mix.  This one has never failed me.

Logic Tape Delay

This is another plug-in that comes with Logic that I use surprisingly often.  There’s a neat mixing trick that I often utilize called “tempo-synced delay”.  Imagine that you are hypothetically playing music in a room that happened to be the perfect size so that the reflections of your sound bounced back to your ear at the exact same tempo as the song you are playing.  That’s the effect that is possible when you synchronize the delay with the song’s tempo.  Another nice feature of this plug-in is the ability to do a “low-pass” filter on the delays. This means that the delayed sound is darker than the original sound, which gives it a more organic sound. Tape delay was also a trick that was used back in the days of analog tape machines, hence the name of the plug-in.

Kramer Master Tape

The evolution of the recording process is a funny thing.  For a number of decades, most professional recording was done on analog tape machines, often with the ability to record multiple tracks simultaneously.  During the 90’s, the digital revolution swept the recording world, which allowed engineers to do a lot of things much more easily, and save a lot of time in the process.  As great as digital technology was, and still is, there was still something about the distinctive sound of tape that people were missing.  As strange as it sounds, digital sound became almost too “perfect”, and our ears (even if only subconsciously) are drawn to the added warmth and undefinable characteristics that analog tape brings to the sound of a mix.  Because of this, the recording world has come full-circle, and it is now possible to add a tape machine effect to a digital track.  This plug-in, made by Waves, makes your mix sound like it was recorded to an actual vintage tape machine, even though you were simply tracking directly to your computer.  It works surprisingly well, and adds that little bit of “glue” to pull the mixes together.  Maybe it’s just a bit of that nostalgic feeling, but I like adding a little tape to my mixes.

Dynamic Spectrum Mapper

This plugin from Pro Audio DSP is the most difficult of the bunch to describe.  Even when I was reading about it on the website, I wasn’t exactly sure how it worked.  All I knew was that when I tried it out and found the right settings, it added that extra bit of “magic” to the sound of a mix.  To put it as simply as possible: This DSM plug-in works kind of like a multi-band compressor.  This kind of effect allows you to compress a sound, but target only a certain range of frequencies while leaving the others alone, or choosing to process another range of frequencies differently.  The unique part of DSM is that it processes ALL of the frequencies in our hearing spectrum at the same time.  It can actually capture the shape of the equalization of another song and try to shape your track in a similar form.  Even the simple explanation of this plug-in is hard to put into words, but the bottom line is that I have it on the master track of each song on the album and it really brings the overall sound to life.

Event Horizon

Being as I am posting a third plug-in from Stillwell Audio, you can probably tell that they make effects that I really like.  Event Horizon is also a compressor, but it is a “mastering” compressor which is designed to limit the sound from going past a certain threshold.  In digital audio, there is always a maximum level that can be recorded at any given time before sound starts to distort.  A “limiter” ensures that the sound is able to press against that ceiling, but never crosses it, which helps keep distortion from happening.  Using Event Horizon gives me the ability to make my mixes louder and “bigger” sounding, in order to match other commercial mixes, but it still keeps the life and dynamics in the sound, so that it doesn’t come across as sounding “squashed” or over-produced.

Examples of plug-ins from the "UAD" collection by Universal Audio

Plug-ins are all the rage right now in the recording world, and these are just the very tip of the iceberg.  I like to think of them like a set of tools:  even though there are endless amounts of tools that you could use to finish a project, you typically have a select few that you are very familiar with and do the job perfectly.  It takes a lot of time, and trial and error, to determine what those plug-ins are for you personally.  And, of course I still often come across new plug-ins that get my attention and become a part of my arsenal.

If you are new to recording and using plug-ins, most DAW software (Pro Tools, Logic, Reaper, Cubase, even GarageBand) comes with a number of built-in plug-ins for you to utilize.  if you choose to branch out, a great starting point is KVR Audio, which has a huge database of plug-ins and virtual instruments that you can sort by type.  The biggest and most well-known plug-in company is “Waves”, where you can purchase anything from a single plug-in, to huge bundles costing thousands of dollars.  There are many other great plug-in companies that I haven’t described here, such as Slate Digital, Sonnox, UAD, Brainworx, and many others, but sheer number of effects out there is what makes it so fun.  It’s like a virtually endless playground of mixing possibilities!

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