Finding the right plugin for the job (Part 1)

11 12 2011

For me, as a seasoned pro with years of experience under my belt, it is pretty easy to find the right plugin for the job. Most of the time I run on auto-pilot.
But for somebody like you, who has just started out, and maybe will never make it to the top, choosing the right plugin can be an overwhelming task.
It is important that you believe in yourself and give it an honest try. Don’t give up too easily. There are lots and lots of examples, where people with even less talent than you, have managed to find themselves a niche in the recording industry and have their little outcome. It’s not the best of lifes, but it is a life.

A case study

I was recording a hard rock band, and things went pretty smoothly, as is most often the case when you put a bunch of pros together. Real professional don’t mess around, they mean business. There is on room for people who want to have small talk for a couple of hours, then go off to have a coffee, and then come back at 9 o’clock in the evening to start working. That’s not how things work in the recording business.You have to be ready. You have to work hard and give your best. That’s what counts in the end, because that’s what brings the professional production to life.

So, I had already recorded the drums and the bass, but, although the tracks sounded good when played by themselves, I wasn’t quite satisfied with the way the sounded when played together. Something just didn’t seem quite right here, and knew immediately what it was. I had recorded the drums on several different tracks. I usually use one for kick drums, one or two for the snare, two for the toms and two for the overheads, also called cymbals. I had recorded the bass on one mono track by directly plugging it into my SSL console.
In order to keep the peaks under control, I used a little bit of compression from the built-in compressor. The SSL compressor sounds pretty nice. I only use a little, because it is easy to overdo. Compression, once applied, can not be taken away. You can not bring back something you have taken away before recording it. The recorded signal does not contain the information about the peak values anymore, and there is no way to bring them back. No matter how good the overall quality of the recording is, these are the universal rules or audio recording.

I had also applied a little bit of EQ. Not much, just a tad of highs added and some cutting below 33Hz in order to control the very low frequency range. That’s all I did. Now I had the tracks on my hard drive and loaded into Cubase. I had given the project a name and set up the input devices correctly. I was ready to go. The tracks did not blend together very well, and I knew that I had to do something about it, because if the tracks don’t fit together, it will be very hard to make a decent song. Everything should blend just fine, and appear to be part of the same song. That’s absolutely key for every single one of my productions.

Cubase Compressor[/caption]

I decided to use the Cubase compressor plugin. I selected the first tracks and fired it up. Bam! Instant gratification. I knew from experience what the right settings would be. There is always room to experiment, but it is good to have a rough idea of what the settings could be, to have a starting point. Otherwise you could try endlessly to get the track to sound better without any success. You would be completely lost. Maybe as a beginner you would even come to the conclusion, that a compressor is in fact not the right tool for the job, and start to look for alternatives. That would be a huge mistake, and it is of vital importance to void it. A beginner has to learn how to use a compressor, as it one of the most important tools in every mixing engineers arsenal. This includes being able to dial in sensible settings right away, and then go on from there.

I will continue this case study in part 2 of this tutorial.

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Using plugins (Part 2)

10 12 2011
Waves SSL EQ Plugin

Waves SSL EQ Plugin

One great things about Cubase is, that it comes with so many plugins right out of the box.  Whether you need an equalizer or a compressor or a limiter, Cubase will have something for you on board! The quality of those plugins is really good as well.
There are, however, a lot of third-party plugins as well, and it can be hard for a newbie to tell the difference between the individual offers.
One special advantage of the Cubase plugins as opposed to third-party plugins is, that they are integrated more seamlessly. This is because almost all of Cubases own plugins already use the VST 3 standard, while most third-party plugins use an older version of the VST standard.

Many plugins try to emulate a hardware device that really exists. They even make the User Interface so that it looks like the actual hardware device. It’s like the original device somehow got digitalized and jumped right into the computer. A fascinating experience for a seasoned pro with many years of experience under his belt, who works with the actual hardware devices on a daily basis. Suddenly you are no longer limited by the number of vintage compressors you can afford. All you have to do is buy the plugin once, and then use it as often as you see fit on any track. Using an LA-2 compressor on every track would not have been possible in the good old days. Nobody had this much money, not even a super-pro like me. Nowadays you can not only use one on every track, but you can actually chain them together and create intricate effects, that only a true recording master can even appreciate.

URS Compressor Plugins

URS Compressor Plugins

Emulating original studio hardware is the big thing for plugin manufacturers and customers alike. The advantages are clear: by emulating a Neve preamp, for example, a plugin manufacturer doesn’t have to come up with his own sounds. He can simply take the sound of the Neve preamp and copy it. That’s a huge advantage. Developing a sound, making it heard, getting it into the heads of people around the world can be a challenging task. How much easier is it to simply take a sound that is well-known, and heard on thousands upon thousands of famous and not-so-famous recordings, and just build your little app around it. Most software developers are not particularly bright, so this approach plays right into their hands. They love it!

There are times however, where using a vintage plugin is not the right thing to do. Sometimes what you want is a clean equalizer, that doesn’t add color or texture to the sound, but simply does it’s job controlling the frequencies. Without much character or vintage mojo. When you want transparency instead of coloration, you turn to the standard plugins that are delivered with Cubase. Equalizers and compressors, as well as delay, chorus and a lot of other effects are right there to be used in any way you like.

As a pro, I can tell you that I use these on a regular basis even on some demanding and pretty high-profile commercial productions. It does not always have to be a Waves vintage mojo effect. In fact, it is better to learn your craft using the ordinary plugins first. Once you get a hang of how to use the standard Cubase compressor, you can then turn to more sophisticated variants of the same theme. Beginners always seem to think, the latest mojo plugin is what will make their projects sound professional. But they are mistaken. A true pro will make a pro recording with a minimal selection of standard plugins, because he knows how to use them to the fullest. He has a true understanding of when and how to employ a specific effect, and it is exactly this knowledge, that seperates the newbies from the seasoned pros, with years of experience under their respective belts.