Finding the right plugin for the job (Part 2)

17 05 2012

Let’s say you have recorded the first track and you are pretty proud of yourself. You listen to your recording and the first impression is kind of OK.

Then you will start to listen to the recording again. And again. You will listen to it over and over and over, because, let’s not kid ourselves here, you’re not a pro. You’re a beginner. And that’s what beginners do. Your brain needs time to adapt and comprehend all the information given in this tutorial series.

After you have listened to your recording in Cubase for some time, you will notice a slight difference between you recording and your favorite commercial recordings. But..wait a minute. WAAAIT A MINUTE!!! What did I say here? Yes, you are correct, you should always compare your recordings to another recording which you choose as a reference. This reference recording should be made by a true recording pro. Do not try to get away with less. In order to drag yourself out of the mud, you have to mess with the best. Or you will die like the rest!

So now that you compare your recording to a pro recording you will probably find, that your recording is lacking a certain something. You might not yet have the words to describe what it is exactly that your track does not have, but you feel that there is something slightly off. A little itching in the back of your mind tells your, that there might be something missing here.

That something are effects!

Effects are necessary for a professional music production today. You will simply not find any commercial production these days that doesn’t use at least SOME effects. Even if you’re not able to hear them. Your ears are not yet accustomed to the subtle details, and don’t blame yourself. These skills take time to develop. So even if you think that a particular song does in fact have no effects on it whatsoever, you are probably wrong.

The different types are plentiful and complicated. It takes a lifetime to really see through the plugin forest and use them to fullest. As a recording pro with years of experience under my belt I use can say that I now have achieved this state. Actually I achieved it a couple of years ago.

But for an ordinary recording engineer to look at the vast amount of compressors, limiters, EQs, delays and all that, for such a person not to get confused takes some time and dedication.

Another thing is that nowadays people start out recording with digital tools. They never had the chance to learn the craft from the ground up. They never worked in a big major studio, where the huge stars would record their legendary albums. Here they would have learned how to use effects. Believe me that. Talking about school of hard knocks.

Finding the right tool for the job is paramount. But it is also hard. In the next section of this hands-on pro-tutorial I will share some secret tips and tricks about how to pick the right plugin. These surprisingly simple rules of thumb will make your life a whole easier. So stay tuned…


Using Plugins (Part 1)

7 12 2011

Cubase already comes with a huge selection of plugins. Most of the plugins will be installed automatically. There are, however, also plugins that do not get installed as a default, but in fact have to be copied off the Cubase-CD. These plugins are mainly older models which are still shipped in case you have old projects that use them. If Steinberg didn’t ship these plugins, you would get an error-message when opening an older project that uses one of those plugins.

Cubase Reverence Plugin

Cubase Reverence Plugin

What happens here is that the old project (it does not have to be that old, actually)¬† would browse through a list of plugins that it needs to open, and when it comes to the legacy¬† plugin, it cannot find it and therefore shows an error message. This is easily avoided, though, by simply copying the plugins from the specific folder on your Cubase-CD into the plugin folder on your hard drive. If you can’t find the folder, refer to the pro tips in part 1 on finding something. If you use that knowledge, it will be easy to find the folder you are looking for. The information in part 1 is based on years of experience, but is, of course, provided as is. This is the valuable lesson I would like you to learn: if a pro recording engineer is prepared to share an information snippet, don’t hesitate. Make it your own and use it to the fullest.

But wait a minute. What is a plugin, actually? Let’s take a look…a plugin is a piece of software that you literally plug-in to your sequencer software, much like other things that are plugged in.
It is then ready to be used from within the host software, in our case Cubase. It becomes part of the software! In order for the plugin to be able to communicate with the host software, and give the impression as if it was actually one single piece of software, it needs what is called a protocol. A protocol is kind of a language that both the host software (Cubase) and the plugin agree to speak.

There are two basic protocols that are employed in the Windows world: one is called VST and the other is Direct X. Most of you probably know Direct X as something that has to do with graphics, but it also provides an interface for audio applications. But it is rarely used these days – Direct X has several disadvantages, that make it less desirable to be used in a professional recording environment. I won’t go into the details right now, because it’s such a wide and complicated topic and, honestly, it would be a little bit too much for a newbie to understand. As a beginner it is good to be eager to learn new things, but at the same time, you also have to know your limits, or you will get burned!

As I already said, most plugins use the VST protocol. This is an old protocol that was first introduced by the Steinberg company in the early 90s. Today it is the de-facto standard of plugin protocols, and every plugin manufacturer is better off using the VST protocol as opposed to other protocols, that are not supported by the big 6 of sequencer software. How could they hope to ever sell their product, if it can’t be used in any host software? The manufacturers know this damn well, and so they abandoned other protocols, that weren’t supported, and went straight to VST and Direct X.

VST standardizes the way the sound travels within the system and what the user interface of the plugin looks like. It is a whole language that only serves one purpose: to allow communication between the host software and the client software. It also does allow for some nifty routing tricks, that are not possible with Direct X. I will go into the details of side-chaining and other super-pro-tricks in a later tutorial.

Setting up the input devices in Cubase (Part 2)

7 12 2011
Recording pro Hank D.

Recording pro Hank D.

In part 1 of this tutorial we have seen how choosing no input device could spell trouble for your pro recording projects, as it results in an empty audio track. The track you recorded does not even deserve the name ‘audio track’, because there is no audio in it whatsoever! That’s not much of an audio track, is it?
So, you think you learned your lesson: if you choose an input device, everything should be fine, right? Wrong! The following example will make that clear as day…

Your aunt Thelma is in town. She is only here for a couple of days and you’re looking forward to seeing her again. She comes over and you spent a nice evening together. You’re both having a great time! At some point during the conversation, you mention your Cubase sequencer software, and what you can do with it. Aunt Thelma is stoked. She sings in a choir at her local church and would love to record herself and delete that recording afterwards. But, of course, not without actually listening to it before.
You both decide to make an audio recording of her voice. She grabs the microphone like a pro and starts singing. ‘Sha-la-la-long she-bong!’ After some time you ask her if she is ready to be recorded, which she confirms. You check if the microphone is turned on and whether it is connected to your DAW. Affirmative! You hit the record-button in Cubase and aunt Thelma starts to sing..
After some time she is done and you hit the stop-button. The recording is finished. You double-click the stop-button so the position marker jumps back to the beginning of the audio file. A quick look confirms that Cubase did in fact create an audio file, which is now ready to be used in all your pro audio recording projects. You decide to listen to the track, and hit the play-button. After some time it becomes clear that something went wrong. No matter how hard you listen, there is simply no sound to be heard. Aunt Thelma can’t hear anything either. She is disappointed, to say the least. Later you find out, that you had chosen the wrong input device, which in turn led to Cubase not being able to record the voice.

These are only two examples of what can go wrong, when you don’t choose an input device in Cubase, or, as we have seen in the last example, choose an input device that is not the right one. As a professional recording engineer with years of practice, I can tell you: there are tons more, Each and every day, somebody wants to record an audio track, but is disappointed with the results, just because he did not select the correct input device.

I have to hammer home this point: you not only have to select an input device, but you have to make doubly sure that you select the right input device. Otherwise it will simply not be possible to make a pro recording, and all the secret pro tips in the world will be of no use to you. It might seem a bit of a hassle at first, but it is well worth the effort in the long run. I know, a newbie wants to start right away recording and mixing the next hit, but you have to do your homework first. By choosing the right input device in Cubase you lay the foundation for everything that comes in the future. Your destiny is in your hands.

This concludes part 1 of the Cubase Pro Recording Tutorial.